When you’re used to life in sunshine, you’ll believe it when someone says the cold will kill you. Especially if you’re five years old and you’re being boxed up, shipped, and delivered cross country from a shore to a frozen swamp. It can become a sort of creed:
Cold will get into your lungs, freeze your organs.
That’s why they wear scarves.
Cold will Jell-o your blood. It’ll grow thick and viscous,
too slow to fill your fingertips.
Fingers will get frostbite. Worst case, they can amputate.
That’s why they wear gloves.
You’ll believe it because you’re five but you’ll believe it mostly because you have never felt what people say cold can be. You’ve caught them talking about it sometimes. Like drops from that leaky faucet, or dust you spy in beams of sunlight, swipe at, and try to catch. Dead Cold is what your mom said to your aunt one time. She was on the phone with her and you heard her say the words: Ashtray. Kumquat. Dead Cold. Mom was lasso’d up in the curly phone cord leaning up against the wall, phone stuck between shoulder and cheek. She saw you, frozen in a slit of space. You were wedged in the middle of the swinging kitchen gate, and when she noticed you she stopped talking in English. She switched to that jingly language she knew and whispered. She never taught you to jangle like that and you were sore about it. You promised yourself that when you grew up, you’d marry a man who could speak in a cling-clang language too, so that you and he could ring secrets around anyone who didn’t understand, all day long. (You hadn’t learned that truth yet, that husbands and wives don’t need another language to do that.) For a brief second when you heard your mom say Dead Cold, you worried that your aunt was really dead. But your mom kept ringing into that phone. You could see your aunt, alive and well, her cigarette smoke catching the reverberation on the other end.
Cold can move like a bell sound. You learned that in “The No Name Storm” of ‘93. That was a Real-True blizzard. Everybody said so at least, in the days before it made landfall. This is what you understood: It was going to start in the Gulf of Mexico. A strong wind was going to swirl around the top of the Gulf and suck up all the water, like it had jaws. It would grow like a monster, devour all the marshes and wetlands on the Mid-Atlantic, and by the time it sucked up all the swamps in Maryland it would be full and fat. And that would make it Piss-Drunk. Or so said your new, old man neighbor.
“Day uh two, that storm’s gonna stop suckin’ up all that moisture. Gonna be so Piss-Drunk it’s not gonna know what to do but sit around in the sky like so, tryin’ not to piss.” He was right. “The No Name Storm” would hover over the town you lived in, belly full, trying not to piss. The whole city would prepare and wait. You spent days timing yourself, seeing how long it would take to crawl in cabinets and get in and out from under tables. You were frightened but also excited because your new, old man neighbor said that when it came, it would come like a dragon. A crazy, mixed-up dragon. The dragon would be so full, he said, that it wouldn’t notice that all the marshes and wetlands it ate have put out the fires in its stomach. It would grow bothered and uncomfortable when, being so cold, the water would freeze into a gigantic, frigid block. When the dragon tried to spit, instead of fire, ice would break from its belly and in one furious breath, the ice would ram and splinter through a thousand dragon teeth. It would fall out in pounds of snow. It would burn and bury your town in a billion frozen flakes.
You had to wait for days before your mom said it was safe enough for you to go outside. When it came time, she readied your face with Vaseline and double layered your socks, but since she was a person who came from sunshine too, she didn’t really ever know how to ready you for this kind of cold. It was so cold, it screamed. It pierced your eardrums, blitzed your brain. It took minutes for you to come around, to remember what you came outside to do. You lifted your knee to your chest, took a step, but your foot sunk inches and disappeared in the mound that seemed to keep growing before you. You did the same with your other foot and then were completely incarcerated. Wind was the only movement. It blew refrains of white and iciness, and you yielded against it, striking the space behind you, your small body barely making a sound. Later, when you’d been inside drinking hot chocolate made with water, the cold still rang in your ears. You would hear it for years to follow, every time it snowed.
Your Dead Cold aunt was the best person to go to for things like ear aches and tummy problems. She, like all your other aunts, was a nurse. She, like all your other aunts, traveled the world and was a nurse to all sorts of people. You had uncles through these aunts, but they were often not the same year after year, so you technically had a thousand of them. Your mom was the only rebel. She married your dad and became an accountant.
“Whatsa-ya-matter?” your aunt would say when you hopped onto her bed with your ailment, ready with your own box of band-aids.
She’d been a nurse in Italy and you figured that’s why she sometimes added a “-sa” to any of her words, but especially to her whats and wheres and whos. Like she’d missed Italy so much and could transport herself, if only momentarily, to be in Italy. Talking to people she knew, in Italy. That’s where she learned to make spaghetti sauce with chopped up onions, carrots, and celery. Sometimes, she’d let you help when your mom wasn’t looking so you could be the one to chop-sa into bits. Your mom had laughed at her when she saw her cooking it that way once, and your aunt shot back that your mom wouldn’t know anything about Italy and that she should close her mouth.
You thought you never saw any spaghetti like that, even at Shakey’s, but unlike your mom, you just kept your mouth closed when she asked you what you thought. Later that night, your aunt could tell what you and your mom thought, when you ate it. You remember her, leaned back in her chair, one arm crossed upon her chest and blowing a long, slow, smoke ring. She smirked while she watched you and your mom wolf down the odd spaghetti. It was one of the only nights your mom let her smoke inside the house. Other nights, your aunt would be forced out to the lanai when she needed a smoke. You joined her sometimes, only after you found something suitable to pop in your mouth so you could pretend to look just like her. You thought she looked just like the lady in I Dream of Jeannie, but your aunt’s hair was jet black. Her eyes smoldered instead of shined.
Your aunt was the one who told you to drink warm things when you were hot to feel cooler, and to drink cool things when you felt cold to feel warm. Of all the things you knew about her, it was this claim that made you think she was either the smartest woman on the planet, or the craziest. Frostbite–what it is and how to treat it–made you think the former. She was the one who taught you about it, right before you moved to the land of the frozen swamps.
“Prolonged exposure to extreme cold,” she read to you out of a first aid book once, “may give the affected area a sensation of burning. Treat by warming the affected area slowly in tepid, not warm, water.”
Blood, you guessed, when frozen was just like ice. You knew because you held an ice cube under hot water once. It cracked like glass and came apart in crystals in your hand. You held another ice cube under tepid water and it just leaked. Drop by drop, it melted until you were holding an empty hand under running water. You thought that it was maybe why cold-blooded animals like frogs don’t try to escape their death if they are caught in slow boiling pots of water. Drop by drop, their cold blood boils until all of a sudden, all they’re doing is sitting there, cooked. It was something a man you called Uncle Charlie liked to say a lot.
“If you find a frog in a pot of water, heat it up slowly. Won’t dare jump out until it’s too late.”
Uncle Charlie never talked about why one would casually find a frog just sitting, waiting in a pot of water. You just remember him saying it, laughing every time like it was the first time he’d ever said it.
“Makes a good soup!” He was the type to always spit a little when he laughed.
Uncle Charlie also always smelled like some kind of boiled soup, and everything he wore seemed to be stained with it. The fact that your aunt hung around a man like Uncle Charlie for years made you think that she was more crazy, after all, than smart. Uncle Charlie was the man your aunt was dating when she and your mom had that phone call. You never saw Uncle Charlie much after that conversation, and when you were older it was fun to try to piece together what happened between him and her using the only words you knew:
She threw an ashtray at his head. That was dead cold. Or,
He caught her, dead cold, with another uncle, smoking. Not,
the kind you need an ashtray for.
She went to look for her ashtray and she saw him and her.
She left. She didn’t cry. She walked away. Dead Cold.
No matter how many times you played those words from that phone call, you never quite knew what to do with the kumquats. When it came to the kumquats, this is the only thing you knew: when you were five and living in sunshine, they were sweet. Sticky and soft, you liked to peel them. You liked the feel of them when you plucked them off the little tree that grew in a pot between shadows in the parlor of grandma’s San Diego rancher. When you moved to the frozen swamp, you were told that they don’t have kumquats on this side of the country because it was too cold to grow them. Imagine then, what your squeal sounded like when you found them, hiding at the bottom of a bin at a Magruders, a tiny bunch of gold, trussed to a dried-up branch. They were flanked by loose pinecones and ornamental pumpkins, like the people who worked there didn’t know they were treasures to be eaten. You grabbed them. You shielded them with your coat, threw them on the counter just as your mom was paying for tea. Outside and free, you plunged the branch into a snowbank you walked by to wash it, and before your mom could buckle your seatbelt you ripped off the skin, shoved it in your mouth. You cried. It burned your tongue, it was so sour. You gagged and got in trouble for spewing kumquat and snow all over the backseat. You learned then, a truth that still stings to this day: there’s not much that’s more bitter than kumquats and snow.
Bitterness moves like a glacier. A solid that flows like a liquid, glaciers can move without melting. Deformed and stressed by pressure, glaciers move just before melting point, like a fired piece of metal right before it promises to be malleable. And if there was anything you were coming to know about snow, it’s that melting points are always found right before a promise.
You remember the very first time you heard it was coming for you, snow. Real snow, not like the kind they spray from a machine when you live in a land of sunshine. Your mom was listening to WTOP and heard about it “every 10 minutes on the 8’s.” You and she had been in the house you were to rent for a year, and she pushed through boxes and papers to yell it at you, and before you could react, she was on it. Layers upon layers of shirts were shoved on you, both short and long sleeves. She hadn’t had a chance yet to go shopping for winter clothes, so swim shorts were squeezed over your head and covered with a scarf to make a hat. Socks were made into easy mittens. A vinyl tablecloth was twisted and tucked into a coat. It smothered the final arrangement of clothing molded on you and any hopes you had of moving your arms. Around 5pm, the light from the sunset grew dim as it usually does in December in Maryland, and the snow was predicted to start. She pushed you right out on the deck because she had never lived anywhere to know that snow doesn’t come when weathermen say it will. You waited, hot underneath your vinyl tablecloth.
You searched the sky above, looked deep between dusk and dark, and then, only when the sun was completely unlit, you saw it. You thought it was a star at first but when it was falling towards you, you knew. Wide and disc-shaped, snow fell, like fish food flakes in an aquarium. Fast and whirling, they filled the space around you. You splashed about, jumping, opening up your mouth to catch it with your tongue. Big and quick they spun, and it was only when one got stuck in your eyelashes that you noticed your mom snapping pictures, cackling, and cursing the broken flash. She promised to help you make a snowman, a first friend to help you meet other kids who would come out and play in your front yard. But as soon as you bent down to pick up snow for a snowball, it stopped. You looked up to the sky for reassurance, but nothing came. You panicked. Quickly, you scraped up what you could to make a snowball, hoping it could be big enough to be the belly of the snowman you were going to make with your mom. But the snow stopped falling. It picked up and left you as quickly as it came.
Later on the 8s, you heard that what happened on your deck was called a snowsquall. You thought though, that a better term for it was a joke. Years later, when you were cleaning out your mom’s house and went through her albums, you found one marked “Maryland.” On the binding was a piece of tape marked with the year that you and she first moved there. You flipped through, trying to recall the squall, wondering what your first snow looked like, glad that your mom took pictures. Finally, you find it. You are on the deck in your swim trunk hat, holding what looks like a pale, white kumquat in your hand. You scanned the photo for the big, flat flakes you remember, squinting hard, wondering if the spots you see in the picture are real indeed real snowflakes, perspective, or old age.
From a distance, it’s all so hard to tell.