There are ten of us. The color that will tell you all you need to know about where we are is gray. Gray like the clouds — gray like the winds pushing us. The grass we stand on is wet and dull. Dead brown pine needles all around. The air is dead and the trees are nearly there.
We are standing in a rough circle in a place called Chincoteague Island, and we are cold. It’s around 4:00 in the afternoon two years ago, on our college’s fall break. There’s no one here at Tom’s Cove Park but us. We’re here on a camping trip, the first one for me that wasn’t in my backyard.
Early October always feels portentous. All the leaves lying on the ground like futures that we never found our way into.
We are talking about whether we should go back for the night. It is cold and will be colder. Some of us think we should head home.
“We’ve already stayed this long,” I say.
(We’ve already passed one night here in our tents. It was cold but not unbearable. I woke up shivering once but shook it off.)
“We might as well stick it out,” I say.
This is how I came to understand cold.
I didn’t think anything of it then. Cold was just a temporary happenstance that I could endure; it was the opposite side of the equation from jackets, scarves, hats, and mittens. Just balance the two out and nothing hurts.
I didn’t want to go home, either. But this was two years ago, when I was trying to hold onto a lesson someone had taught me. She taught me that my family was wrong sometimes. She taught me that I was wrong sometimes.
There’s a sense that you develop as you grow up that isn’t exactly a moral one, or even a sense of impending danger. It’s sort of a sense of what constitutes a good plan of action for yourself. It’s what tells you not to go clubbing the night before an exam and reminds you that you haven’t brushed your teeth tonight.
They teach you in school that it’s always best to follow what your tiny best-course-of-action feelings tell you. People who stop listening end up in bad situations — arrested, raped, killed.
And it feels so good to listen to your do-safe-things feelings. I come from a family where it’s always a relief when things get canceled. We are heavy with inertia. It’s so pleasingly comfortable and plump to not do things, to spend the afternoon lying on your bed reading a book you’ve read three times before and then eat a dinner that you’ve had so many times before that you can’t remember how it’s made anymore.
The summer before she went across the ocean, she once called me at 4:00 in the afternoon and asked me to come down to D.C. to meet her and some friends for dinner. It was two hours’ drive through Friday rush hour traffic, and I only had been to the city alone once before.
As she described on the phone what the plan was, those tiny sensible feelings that had always been in my belly tingled. I did it anyway. We ate dinner in a T.G.I. Friday’s staffed entirely by Jamaicans and watched the end of “Con Air” in a Russian exchange student’s apartment. It didn’t make any sense but when she hugged me goodbye in the subway car, it did.
This person is somehow important to this story of cold, even though she wasn’t one of the ten of us on Chincoteague. I won’t tell you her name. I won’t tell you any of our names in this story. Cold takes your name away. It takes all your words away.
It’s also important to this story that she was across the Atlantic from me then. I don’t know why it matters yet, but I want you to know. We visited the beaches of Chincoteague the day before and I pretended that when I stared at the horizon, I was looking toward her. I knew that I would have had to face nearly completely south to even begin to get close to her. But I looked straight over the green marble waves anyway, because that’s what pretending’s for.
She doesn’t know any of this. Also an important detail.
We spend the rest of the afternoon doing different little tricks to keep ourselves warm. A brisk game of Ultimate Frisbee (we were college students, after all) across a meadow of empty RV spaces. One of the girls with us feels too cold and retreats into a wood-paneled station wagon that some of had driven down in. Eventually a colony of us join her, shifting and compressing ourselves as more of us want in and some of us decide to go out and stick it out.
We talk a lot but I don’t remember what we say.
Halfway through, I go back into my tent and put on all the clothes I could. I have two T-shirts: mint green and navy blue. Two long-sleeved shirts: black and brown. Two pairs of socks. Three pairs of boxers under a pair of sweat pants beneath my jeans. (I consider for a little whether I could put on two pairs of jeans at once, but it seems like a rule that shouldn’t be broken.)
It doesn’t really feel any different to be so clothed.
For dinner, we build a fire from a triangle of logs, Boy Scout style, and roast hot dogs we bought from a local supermarket called Meat Land. It seems entirely logical at the time that a supermarket would have such a fabulous name here on the island. It’s only a little disappointing that it was perfectly ordinary inside.
(I guess a lot of things are like that.)
Darkness in the wilderness takes away your sense of time. After you’ve spent a decade or two on this earth, you can feel how long 15 or 30 minutes takes. Sometimes even an hour. But you just can’t know after a certain point in the dark what time it is. And maybe that’s a good thing sometimes. But it’s not when you’re cold. You don’t know how long it’ll last.
We sit close to the fire and keep talking, even as the wind gusts and blows the smoke into our eyes. We duck our heads and close our eyes as the invisible painful chemicals wash over our faces. There are too many of us to all sit upwind of the fire, no matter how close we clump together.
It doesn’t feel desperate, or even dangerous. I still believed that cold was something I could endure — silently, as I believed then how all things should be endured. So as we talk more and play little social games in the dark and laugh, I am not afraid.
(If you were trapped in a bank vault with the president of your college and the janitor of your dormitory, who would you have sex with? You are not allowed to say neither. Sex is the only thing people trapped in a vault are allowed to think of.)
I feel cold underneath my clothes. Especially my feet. Somehow toes were made better than any of the parts of our bodies to feel the chill of late autumn. They don’t hurt; they don’t ache. All you feel is an absence larger than the space between them. A cold death growing somehow inside you.
Eventually, we feel close enough to sleepy to head back to our tents, to our sleeping bags. I don’t remember what the words are that we say to each other as we unzip the entrances to our tents and dive in as quickly as we can. (Somehow I think the air inside the tent is warmer than the outside, even though these tents were probably designed to be as breathable as possible.)
Put your shoes by the door. Take your keys and your wallet out of your pants pockets and put them in your backpack so you don’t lose them. Slip into your cold sleeping bag.
I should tell you about my sleeping bag.
It isn’t really mine. It’s my mom’s — or it was hers, when she was into camping trips. Now it mostly sits in our basement beside my father’s old ten-speed. Dark blue on the inside, light blue on the outside, and extremely easy to pack because it’s so light. There’s another sleeping bag that I left at home. It was gray, designed to mummify you in hyper-engineered fiber warmth, and rated for -20°F. But I didn’t know how to roll it up, so I left at home.
My mother’s sleeping bag isn’t rated at all. It is about as useful as nothing when it comes to keeping human beings warm. That’s what makes it so easy to pack.
I didn’t know this then. In my mind, I wonder a little why it feels so cold, like I’m wearing nothing at all, but in the end I just close my eyes, wrap my arms around my body, and hope that the time would go quickly. The way I would take a nap when I broke my bones once, a long time ago, and hope that when I opened my eyes everything would be as it was before everything terrible happened.
I fall asleep somehow.
About 45 minutes later, I wake up shivering. I try to rub my hands over my body but there’s no more warmth to be drawn out of the October air or even my own skin and bones and my teeth start chattering and my legs start twitching minutely and I wondered if this was it, if this was what it felt like to freeze to death. To have your body pulled in three directions by spasms and not even be able to think in words.
Through all of this, my friends stay asleep.
And then I stop shivering. Don’t feel warmer. Just don’t feel like I’m going to die anymore. Not sure what to do next.
Thing is that I remember that when you go to sleep, your body closes up shop a little. You have to fool your body into thinking it’s not there to dream. You breathe less. Your heart pumps slower.
Your body temperature drops.
So I invent a microfiction in the dark: that instead of two random people in the tent beside me, there is my strange someone (never mind that she’s across an ocean, never mind that she would never come on a trip like this with the people I’ve come with), and now I pretend I say this:
“How long have we known each other?”
“Two years,” she replies.
She can’t sleep either.
“I hope you understand why I’m doing this,” I say and wrap my arms no longer around myself but her; and as we draw near a warmth that isn’t from either of us but somewhere else billows out and colors my face warm blushing red. I can’t see her face but her breath tastes like a place I haven’t been since I was a kid, and I wish I could be closer, closer, closest — and we say nothing at all —
The story replays itself over and over until I realize I’m dreaming now and a sentence escapes from me again:
“I hope you understand why I’m doing this.”
But I don’t understand why I’m standing here with my arms around her, just as the party’s about to end. She put in one last request as the deejay was packing up his CDs and now we’re shuffling across the bare empty wood floor, trying to find the beat of this song that seems to be always starting but never finding its melody. Guitars or something else are trying to work out their problems but I am looking in her eyes and wondering what I’m seeing, and before I can form the question that should have been asked months ago, the deejay loses his patience and the music stops.
We’re just people who can barely dance, one drunker than the other, one more confused than the other, standing together and saying nothing at all.
“I hope you understand why I’m doing this.”
And now she’s not here, no matter where I look. Something’s wrong so I walk out of the building into the night (so cold here all of a sudden, colder than I remember it being) and walk to her room and knock on the door.
(What am I doing here? I don’t understand)
The door opens and maybe I say something or maybe she asks who it is before she answers the door and inside her darkened room it doesn’t feel any warmer and I can’t see her but I can hear her crying. It seems so awfully natural to hug her and smooth her hair and tell her the things people say when other people are upset. The kind of things you never remember afterwards and I wonder if either of us will remember this tomorrow morning, and there’s something more I could do for her but I don’t know what it is.
It’s always like this.
She says good night and closes the door again and it’s still dark and colder in the dormitory hallway, even though it shouldn’t be.
“I hope you understand why I’m doing this.”
Talking in the middle of a great lawn in a summer night. It’s my idea to be here, a year after the camping trip in the cold, and there’s just one word that escapes her lips as we don’t look at each other and mosquitos gnaw on my legs:
There’s nothing to be said here but I talk anyway, like a sick man who can’t remember whether he’s awake or dreaming. There are no good answers, nothing to be said that will be remembered when I’m lying in my bed three, six, nine days later and we won’t speak for another week and the onset of summer is keeping me so cold.
A word can weigh so heavily on me.
(“Do you understand why I’m doing these things?”)
I wish it were cold here but it isn’t. I wish this was the ending of our story but it wasn’t.
“I hope you understand why I’m doing this.”
I’m walking through an art exhibit of her work — dioramas, the kind you see in museums when they want to show you what an ordinary person’s life was like in the 1800s, except they’re life-size — and I pick up a glossy paper guide that keeps slipping from my fingers to the floor. Finally I see that these are scenes I ought to recognize, that she has built up sculptures of all the moments that have happened to us — here’s the bed we lay on together with my eyes closed and hers I’m-not-sure after she showed me the pictures she took of her hometown; I was so happy to be with her again after she had been over the Atlantic so long that the question of why she had led me there never rose in my mind (never mind the answer, never mind, probably not, no, no, Mr. S) — and there are art critics milling around me, whispering among themselves.
They’re talking about me, how her growth as an artist has hinged on what we’ve said to each other, and half of me is proud and two-thirds of me is sad that it’s been a year since I’ve left college and I’m still having these dreams, my brain’s still broken and the hidden parts of my heart won’t let me out of this cold, out of this dream I wish I never had —
It’s a dream.
It’s a dream.
I wake up in a tent with two other people sleeping beside me and it’s morning and it’s October.
My body feels frozen, but I force myself out of my sleeping bag because it’s got to be warmer outside than it is in here. There’s a sun there.
It takes a good ten minutes of brisk walking across the empty meadows of the campground to feel like a human being again. As we eat breakfast, I’ll feel sort of normal; and when we stop at a friend’s house to eat lunch and watch “Wayne’s World” (a movie I must have seen three times before), my five layers of clothing will suddenly feel heavy and hot. It’ll feel so naked to put on my shorts again. And when I put months between this trip and myself, it’ll be something to joke about. Something to tell the grandkids about. Something just like everything else I’ve ever done.
I am not cold anymore. But sometimes my dreams still twist themselves round thoughts I wish I had buried. Sometimes I dream of art exhibits. Sometimes I dream of faces. Sometimes I dream of being invited to a wedding that will never happen.