The Magic Color of Snow

The 12-year-old faced a choice: Sleep over at a girl’s house who liked him and piss his pants, or, turn her down and make her mad.

She had plenty of anger that she was more than happy to share, he knew. She’d take it as a rejection if he didn’t spend the night. They’d slept in the same bed and kissed and hugged and talked into the morning so many times that they knew each other too well.

The 12-year-old boy was cold and alone with his worries in the back of his grandma’s car and he tried to imagine that the cold was actually heat. He read a lot of swords & sorcery fantasy and he liked to think that the bite of winter’s cold was really the bite of a dragon’s fiery breath.

The black night air held no moisture and the streets were empty of cars. No pedestrians either. You’d have to be a fool to walk around on a night like this in a bad part Cleveland’s Eastside.

He was hypnotized by the shadows that happen as a car passes underneath the islands of light cast by overhead street lamps. He thought of the invitation Michelle gave him a few hours earlier. She wanted him to spend the night at her grandma’s and had mentioned it in passing in front of everyone. He knew that she just was just planting the idea in the minds of the adults around them.

Southern drawl, olive skin, a year or two older than him and seemingly so much wiser; her nickname was Mickey. She was sitting in the front seat, chattering to their grandmother.

He knew that they’d all show up to the big house and she’d mention it again. She’d say something about how big the house was, how it scared her, and how she wished more kids lived in the neighborhood.

He wanted to say yes, badly. For some reason this made him feel sad for her, and himself. The relentless snow outside didn’t help. Huge piles of it, sparkling but cold. Every year he wished it gone. It eventually melted, but it always came back.

There was no question — there’s no way he could sleep over at her house. But she’d be mad, and hurt, and the voluptuous summers they shared for the last three years might come to an end. The smell of freshly cut grass, the fireflies blinking in the humid night, her brown hair.

How could he share his secret with the first girl he ever kissed, the one he put his arm around as they drifted to sleep at dawn?

“No,” he’d have to tell her if he was telling the truth, “I can’t stay over because I’ll wet the bed.”

Wetting the bed sounds like such a dumb little kid thing, but every year you grow older and every year it doesn’t stop. It complicates an already complicated life. No sleepovers, no falling asleep in public places like on long bus trips or the back of a car. At home, the rare but dreaded change of underwear in the morning and some quiet changing of the sheets. Or, at least airing them out.

He’d slyly taken the “Does your child have a problem?” fliers from the bulletin boards of the local supermarket, sent away for packets of information, and then closely watched the mail. Nothing ever came. He later wondered how many little postcards those bed-wedding places received every day filled out in a child’s scrawl.

Addicted to Phil Donahue and other self-help talk shows, he wanted to help himself. The issues were bigger than he was old enough to understand, but he tried.

It didn’t happen as often when he was in a place that he was used to. And, it happened a lot more in the winter than in the summer. Maybe it had to with sweating so much and being less waterlogged at day’s end in the humid summer months.

He never had to bring it up with her before because they’d always slept at his grandma’s — one of the spots he was comfortable at. She was his cousin, but because he only saw her once a year and they didn’t meet until he was nine or ten or he didn’t feel any shame. To other people it might have seemed like a big deal, but to them, it was always a nice, secret thing. The secrecy made their puppy love that much sweeter.

They got to have a lot more fun than most puppy lovers — amusement parks, movies, dinners at Pizza Hut, sleepovers. Best of all, in their minds, their dates were subsidized and arranged by the family.

The only problem is that unlike with his very few other “girlfriends,” there was never any playing house, no teasing from her about getting married someday, no talk of the future. As cousins they had no future, and both knew it in their blood and bones.

Since their time together was always during the summer he felt a special, carnal stir at the beginning of every school kid’s favorite season. Summer was mixed up in his mind with waiting in line for the Mighty Mouse roller coaster at Shady Lakes amusement park and the taste of Bubbalicious in her mouth.

The first time she came on to him he was shirtless, back from a long day of tearing it up on the dirt bike he nicknamed “Spitfire.” He had spent the day jumping over small irrigation ditches, cutting through lawns, and hitting his brakes extra hard so he’d skid in the gravel.

He walked into the trailer where his grandma and Jim, his step-grandfather, lived. He was sweaty and the Dukes of Hazzard were on the television. She looked at him, her head cocked, and he could see something click in her mind.

Jim asked if everyone wanted to pile into his big white convertible for some soft-serve ice cream, and everyone left the trailer except for Mickey and the boy.

After everyone left, she came up to him and touched his chest with one finger without saying anything. Then she told him, without hesitation, that he was handsome.

A few years later he started wondering why independent of each other they both turned down the invite to get ice cream. He wondered why he decided to strut around the house shirtless, and what exactly clicked in her mind as she was looking at him.

They weren’t old enough to be hormonal, but, sharing the same blood maybe they inherited an appetite for transgression. If they hadn’t been related, he doubted things would have clicked in the same way. And that’s what it was, a clicking, like the tines of a tumbler aligning like they should and allowing a door to open.

Mickey liked the wild in him. She was told not to eat at restaurants where a lot of black people ate. Her parents told her that the restaurant workers might not have washed the spoons enough and she’d get black-people germs. It shocked her when he laughed one day after hearing this. He told her she was being dumb, and that black people have the same germs as all of us.

He was too young to know much about race or realize how differently white people from different parts of the country talked with their friends about these things, but he thought at first she was kidding. She was from Texas, and her parents had big bank accounts and small minds.

There were a lot of misunderstandings in their relationship. She didn’t understand why some people didn’t have the money to buy the latest brands, see the latest movies, or go on vacation. To him she seemed like a celebrity, visiting far-off places and living life the way people did in movies and commercials.

If people really are split into two before they’re born and then spend the rest of their lives searching for their missing half, then she was his half. He told her that once when they were older and asked her if she believed it. She got upset, and changed the subject.

They left notes to each other under a rock down the street from their grandmother’s trailer. They were in a gated community for seniors, and they could walk down to Lake Erie or if they walked on a concrete path through sparse woods would wander through the ruins of Euclid Beach Amusement Park.

They would argue about stupid things, like if it was better to have a motorcycle or a horse to travel a long distance. He’d just reread “The Outsiders” for a third time and would tell her stories lifted almost directly from the book to make her believe that his life was like Ponyboy’s or Soda Pop’s.

**

Their grandma’s car was moving toward the city she was in. He didn’t even know the name of the place her other grandmother lived. He didn’t know the names of the streets but knew what lay along them better than any driver. He knew the location of every mail box, every McDonald’s, every Lawson’s convenience store.

Sometimes he had imaginary conversations with her, but now, it was too hard to imagine her in the backseat of the car while she was telling jokes that he wasn’t listening to in the front seat. She would never just sit silently, like he did. She’d turn on the radio, chew gum, tell stories.

Mickey’s favorite joke had to do with a girl with a speech impediment who went into the woods with a boy. The boy starts to take advantage of the girl, and she calls for her father. But, because of the speech impediment, she calls out “farther, farther!” instead of “father, father!” and the boy goes to town.

There’s another joke she liked, about a girl named Seven. He could only remember the punchline, which she sang to the same tune as the television commercial for the soft drink: “Feelin’ Seven up I’m feeling Seven up.”

They drove up the long driveway to the other grandmother’s house. He thought of her as the rich grandmother and never learned her name. Under the snow you could see a touch of gray from the driveway and pathway to the door. He could also see holiday lights twinkling in the warm home and heard muffled yapping from the grandmother’s little dog.

This was the rich grandmother’s world. Their grandmother would compare car prices with her and make sly comments that she thought helped her bring her social position up a few notches.

“Why some people have to work their fingers to the bone and others are born with a silver spoon…” their grandma would often mutter to herself.

Bundled up like spacemen, they waddled to the front door and his grandmother touched the finger of the leather driving gloves she purchased at Higbee’s to the doorbell button. The pleasant sounding bell tones inside the house sounded like what a church must use.

The rich grandma opened the door and welcomed them in, reminding them to take off their boots and hang up their coats in the foyer. TV had led him to believe that people like this invite you in to serve you the freshest baked cookies and some special holiday blend of hot chocolate, but she told them that she was too tired to make anything and to help themselves in the kitchen.

“But please, don’t make a mess,” she said, and waved them away.

Mickey punched him in the arm and dragged him to the kitchen.

The refrigerator was full of Capri Sun and fruit roll-ups and Swiss Miss Tapioca pudding and lots of pop and fruit juice — if they advertised it on TV, it was here. Mickey kept changing her mind with the fridge door open — something mildly dangerous because he always got yelled at to close the door and was in the habit of quickly deciding what he wanted.

“What do you think is better for my figure, a whole cup of low-fat milk or little cup of chocolate milk?” she asked him, which was funny to him because unlike many girls her age that he knew, she wasn’t the type of person to hem and haw.

His little brother and her little sister — they’d already been driven here by the rich grandmother hours ago — found their way to the refrigerator, grubby-handed moths attracted to the light. Mickey took a piece of Texas sheet cake and stuffed it in her little sister’s mouth. “Here,” she said, putting the syrupy cake into her sister’s open mouth like a mama bird, “try this.”

Her little sister didn’t mind at all and was ready for another piece in a few seconds. She was soon bought off with some more chocolate cake and the little brother was had for a Coca-Cola, trying to up the deal for a beer in the fridge but Mickey told him that this was alcoholic behavior. She used those words “alcoholic behavior” because it was something she heard her mom tell her father once.

Soon the two of them were alone in front of the fridge and the door was still open so they were framed in the light spilling out. He had completely forgotten about his bed-wetting problem. Not only was he allowed in the house, but the most important person in the universe wanted him to spend the night.

“I’m glad you’re,” she said in her southern accent, but he was more worried that the refrigerator door was still open. “Being in this big house scares me,” she said, finally grabbing the Swiss Miss Tapioca pudding for both of them.

He knew she was going to say that, but it didn’t make it any easier because now the stakes were raised and there was no backing out. He knew what she was really saying: She needed him. Whether by circumstance or convenience he was the most important in her world for the next 12 hours.

She had the courage to admit it. He didn’t. Cruelly, but only for a second, he thought of telling her that no, he had to go. He’d give her some romantic, dashing reason that men who are needed by women always give. As they stood eating their pudding by the smooth granite kitchen counter, he was on the verge of saying yes.

Then he imagined himself waking up in a big puddle of piss. Warm piss on cold sheets in Ohio gives off steam in the early morning. There was no way he could let her see that. The thought scared him enough that he feared pissing his pants in front of the refrigerator just so that his body could get it over with. If he slept and let his guard down, there was no doubt.

“I don’t know,” he said, “I gotta’ sleep in the living room and you’re gonna’ sleep in your room…”

“I’ll come sit with you,” she drawled, “until you fall asleep.”

“I don’t know. I should probably go home. I’m tired.”

“You think I’m molesting you?”

“No.”

“Maybe I did take advantage of you, but you took advantage too. I’m older but that just means I’m more mature. Physically,” she said.

“No, I know. It’s not that. It’s just — “

“What?”

“Where’s grandma? Let’s go back to the living room,” he told her and started moving away.

“What?” She grabbed his arm and for half-a-second he tried to get away but then she grabbed both arms and was almost hugging him. She was bigger than him and he knew he could get away if he really wanted to, but it wouldn’t be quiet.

“Somebody’s gonna’ come in,” he hissed, and could feel someone staring at him even though he knew nobody was there.

“If you think I’m ugly just tell me now,” she said, and even to his young ears it rang false. He rolled his eyes and imagined one of the grandmothers walking in and a major interrogation and them never being alone again.

“I’ll tell you, just let me go” he whispered at her. He wiggled away from her. “I’ll tell you. Just shut the door on the fridge. I just can’t stay the night, okay?”

“Okay,” she said, and shut the refrigerator door. Relieved, he tried to go back to the living room but she blocked his way. “Why?” she asked.

“Let’s go say hi to everyone and then I’ll tell you.”

“No, now.”

“Stop being crazy, come on.”

He walked to the living room and she soon followed. The rich grandmother was in a Lazy Boy chair and started asking him about his school work. He tried to listen to her but couldn’t help but notice the Christmas tree. The lights on the tree would blink in different colors, and he was starting to understand the pattern when Mickey grabbed his hand and announced that she wanted to show off a new horse poster in her room.

The grandmothers laughed.

“I don’t think he’s interested in your sticker book either,” one of them said, but she dragged him off anyway.

In her room was a poster of a horse in a field of flowers she got at one of the summer fairs they went to. Their step-grandfather Jim had won it. The room was decorated in bright blue and yellow — the colors of summer even though the snow outside muffled all sound and made the house unnaturally quiet.

When they stepped inside her room she looked at him and he could still follow the conversation downstairs. The grandmothers were swapping gossip, then he heard the rich grandmother insist to the other one she spend the night because it was too dangerous to drive home.

Now he felt trapped, and he could tell she wouldn’t be satisfied with a made-up story.

“I think I have a UTI,” he told her, seriously.

“A UT-what?” she drawled, making a face and cupping her ear like she misheard.

“A UTI, it means I’m having problems with my urinary tract,” he said, grateful for daytime TV.

He explained that he had a problem with incontinence and this sometimes made it difficult to get to the bathroom on time, especially at night.

“Incompetence?”

“No, incontinence.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s where you… wet the bed.”

“Oh. Well,” she took both his hands in hers and looked him in the eye, “we’ll have to cure you.”

She didn’t ask why it didn’t happen their in grandma’s trailer and he hoped she wouldn’t. It was better if she thought it was a new condition, but still, he was upset at himself.

He had been so obsessed with finding the reason, a physical reason, that he neglected finding a cure. Small bladder, UTI, abnormally deep sleep, genetic predisposition, drinking too much pop before bed, not enough warmth in the nether regions, insecurity, acting out.

Truly thinking he had a long-term UTI, he once took antibiotics that his mom bought for the fish. He heard someone say that poor people took fish antibiotics when they were sick, so he tried it. The single dose of antibiotics did not work.

“Okay,” he told her, “we’ll do that.”

“We start tonight” she said.

Some girls would have turned away in disgust. He almost hoped she would.

“No. I’ll pee the bed,” he told her, “it’s like waking up in the pool.”

As much as he loved her, as much as someone that age can love anyone besides their parents, at that point all he wanted was to be left alone. It was enough dealing with the problem itself, but he was in no way ready to deal with the causes. Where to start? He was a typical latchkey kid, a product of divorce, a walking case of what was wrong with the American family of 1980s America.

She told him she’d think about how to cure him and then visit him with her solution after everyone fell asleep.

Before they all went to bed, he noticed she pulled her rich grandmother aside. There was a moment of terror where he thought she’d confess everything. Instead, the grandmother patted Mickey’s head and took her into the kitchen. They were there a few minutes and she came out with a big smile.

**

That night, he slept on the floor next to the couch. The grandmothers told him to sleep on the couch but after everyone left and the lights were turned out, he moved to the floor. He thought that if things went wrong his accident would be easier to hide. He imagined, worst-case scenario, he’d move the couch over the wet spot. Failing that, he’d blame the dog.

He imagined a drill sergeant barking orders — ”That’s not going to happen, soldier. You’re going to stay awake, soldier. You’re not going anywhere.”

On the floor he was wrapped up like a burrito thinking that if he could stay not just warm, but hot, there’s no way he’d get too cold and pee himself by accident. In the dark, he listened to the house quiet down. He was grateful that his little brother had decided to sleep in the bed with his grandmother. Otherwise he would have had to sneak up to Mickey’s room and risk falling asleep, wetting her bed, and discovery by the grandmothers in the morning.

He heard the grandmothers doing whatever grandmothers do — he heard the sink turning on and off at irregular intervals, long silences where he thought someone was finally finished but wasn’t. And then, after some mysterious clanking of what sounded like coffee cups, all the lights went out.

Then he could hear the faint sounds of the television from somewhere in house, first loud, then quieter, but he could tell that it was Johnny Carson. Then he could hear the sink dripping and making sounds that to him sounded like whispering in a foreign language. He started to get a little spooked.

Waiting for a long time, uncomfortably hot, he started wondering if Mickey would fall asleep before sneaking down to see him.

He looked out the window, past the Christmas tree. Someone had asked him if he wanted it unplugged, but he didn’t.

It was so warm in the house, especially inside his cocoon, that he made himself try to imagine how cold it must be outside, but even the snow seemed like a blanket on the ground, a gauzy fog — pulled-apart cotton made to look like spider webs at haunted houses, except the snow hung on itself, draped between pillars of single-stacked snowflakes invisible to everyone but him. He lazily thought that at least the wet sheets wouldn’t steam in the morning cold, not in this house.

“Why are you on the floor?”

He didn’t hear her coming but when he looked up he saw that she was nearly on top of his head. Backlit by the Christmas tree and devoid of any detail in her face, she would have been ominous but her form was too small, and the voice coming from that black hole of a face was too sweet.

“You awake?” she asked, because apparently he hadn’t responded yet even though he thought he did.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Can I lay down next to you? I’m cold.”

“Yeah.”

Mickey set a big glass full of dark liquid on the floor near the couch, then fussed with his blankets for a while until she was able to unwrap him and snuggle beside him.

She started whispering a story about a girl at her school whose dad abused her and a counselor came and talked to all the kids about abuse, and told them to go talk to the nurse if anything happened that they weren’t sure about. The dad went away to jail — everyone thinks — but nobody had the heart to ask the girl or really even knew what he did, even though there was wild speculation about what he did and where he went.

Someone said he would get the electric chair and someone else said he would be crucified like Jesus, probably because some adult used the world “crucified” metaphorically. Right now the dad was anywhere from death row to Mount Golgotha to a deserted island to a company where they do experiments on crazy people and leave them locked up all day.

She stopped talking and asked him what he thought. He didn’t have an opinion because the whole story was second-hand and she kept digressing with subplots — the girl and her were on the cheer team, the whole class went on a field trip together and the dad was there but she and some friends almost got kicked out of a theme park because they spit out their sunflower seeds while on the monorail without thinking of the crowd below.

She seemed to expect a really a good answer, so he told her that he just felt bad for the girl and that dads like that should get beat up. This made her happy, and they kissed for a while. At first he was worried about a grandmother coming out, but then he realized it would be easy enough to hide Mickey under the huge mass of covers.

She broke off one kiss, a French kiss, and he thought he did something wrong.

“So, how do you feel?”

He knew what she was talking about but didn’t feel like discussing it any more.

“Fine.”

“Do you think it will happen tonight?

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I think my infection went away.”

“Yay!” she said, and laughed a little. Then, she handed him the beverage near the couch.

“It’s cranberry juice. I told my grandma I had a UTI and she said this is a cure.”

“Okay,” he said, knowing that drinking a big glass of juice was the worst idea in the world, and that his problems were bigger than a glass of juice. “I’ll drink it right before I go to sleep to make sure the infection is still gone.”

She finally, after what felt like three or four hours, kissed him goodnight and snuck back to her room. He tried to keep her in his mind as long as he could before he finally gave up and tip-toed into the kitchen to pour most of the juice down the sink.

He got back into his cocoon and thought of her kisses again. He noticed the black of night wasn’t pure black anymore, and over the course of an hour morning happened. He felt his crotch and it was still dry. He imagined his own urine was frozen, like the snow outside. It wasn’t going anywhere, he told himself, and he felt something he didn’t feel often: Pride.

He knew he’d piss his bed again soon enough, maybe even tonight, but he didn’t wet himself in front of Mickey and that’s all that mattered.

Then he concentrated on the lights of the Christmas tree, and finally, after watching the clock to better time the pattern, the house woke up. He understood the pattern though: Half the lights would blink, then the other half, then the all the lights, over and over.

Later, after the rich grandmother made pancakes for them, Mickey stepped into the kitchen to make an early phone call to Texas. His brother was sleeping in and he heard his own grandmother in the shower.

“Well?” Mickey whispered at him.

“No,” he said, “I’m cured.”

“See, I knew you could do it,” she said, and kissed him on the cheek without looking around to see if anyone was watching.

When the rich grandmother came back into the room, she gave him an odd look. The boy wasn’t just smiling, he had a look on his face that the grandmother had never seen. Mickey told her that she wanted to talk to her parents more but they were in a rush and didn’t have time for all her stories. Mickey looked disappointed, and without seeming to think about it touched his leg for a moment under the table.

Outside a light snow was falling but the sky was gray and it looked like it would snow harder as the day wore on. The boy thought to himself that if he was lucky his own grandmother would be too scared to drive him home and he could have another night. Then he realized he definitely couldn’t do two nights in a row in a strange house without wetting the bed, and started hoping that the snow would stop, even for a few hours.