Essay

Finding My Way Home in the Cold

I realized early how thin the line was between us and those less fortunate

Mindi Boston
Contemplate

--

A dark figure stands in a tunnel covered in ice.
Photo by Chris Henry on Unsplash

The dogs stood in the white drifts and glared at me. Glittering ridges of fluffy snow covered the grass while I blocked the courtyard exit.

“Potty! Potty! Potty!” I raved like a lunatic. The wind blew as sixteen furry feet tap danced in response, but no one went. With a sigh of defeat, I followed them into the warmth of the house.

“No one went…again,” I complained. “We might as well give up trying.”

“News says the wind chill is negative eleven,” my husband offered by way of explanation. The youngest and smallest of our four dogs shivered in agreement.

“It’s cold,” I agreed. “Too cold, I guess.”

“Some things are going to die tonight.”

I nodded but did not say anything more. I knew he’d meant the plentiful deer and squirrels that called our woods home. However, my thoughts turned to an earlier conversation with a friend. She had mentioned there weren’t enough kennels in our tiny animal shelter for the strays picked up when temps dipped below freezing. Though a few churches and warming centers had opened their doors, our modest town was ill-prepared to protect its homeless citizens against a polar vortex. It was those poor souls, human and animal alike, I thought of when he spoke.

“Have you ever been cold?” I asked.

“Of course, I’ve traveled all over the world. I’ve spent lots of cold mornings on the hunting stand, and…”

“No. I mean, cold. Like, against-your-will cold. No recourse to warm yourself cold. Unrelenting cold that is painful and dangerous.”

He said nothing, already sensing the shift in my mood. He knew me well enough to know my thoughts had turned to other times and people.

“Our power bill was $32 today,” I continued quietly. “If every day was like today, our bill would be $900 plus. Back in my single mother days, I had some months with single digits left in my checking account. That would have been the end of our electricity. How long could I have lived in the rental house with no power before the landlord kicked me out, and then where could I go with bad credit? Where could I have gone with two kids that would have been safe?”

I turned to look at him, the emotion swelling in my chest. “How long could I live in my car with two small children before someone got concerned and called CPS, even if I showered at friends’ houses or couch-surfed? The line between those people freezing under a bridge tonight and our privileged existence is so damn thin.”

He didn’t answer, knowing better than to clarify that he meant the wildlife or justify that we’d earned the nice house and two cars, the swimming pool in the backyard that no one used nine months out of the year. We’d had many impassioned talks about the panhandlers, the stray dogs I’d wanted to take in, the dark past I rarely thought about on sunny days.

With the sun shining, it is easy to be blinded. I don’t have to think about the alternative life my four pampered dogs might have lived, even as I am annoyed at how much money, time, and effort they require. I get aggravated about repairs on the house or the high electric bill, still knowing I can afford to pay them. But on a cold night, I can clearly see the thin line between us and those less fortunate.

I imagine them huddled under an overpass or hunkered against the wind in a makeshift tent. I’ve seen their “cities” on my way downtown or along the highway bluffs. I have donated old coats, blankets, and canned goods, doing anything to make myself feel better about the tragic imbalance between us. Yet, in the back of my mind, I am always aware of how different things might have turned out if I’d ended up on the other side of that invisible line.

Tonight, when the glacial weather is a matter of life or death, I am reminded of the first time I was cold. It was the winter of ’93, and I’d been married for a couple of months to an unkind man. We’d fought that night, maybe because he’d come home smelling like booze or maybe because ours was a relationship doomed from day one for a thousand different reasons. This time, when the fight grew dangerously heated, I’d had enough. I packed my stuff and hopped in my car, speeding away into the darkness.

I was a few miles away when I realized I had nowhere to go. I’d worn out my welcome with friends because my decisions didn’t align with their values. My pride was too strong to ask my family for help again. I wasn’t old enough to rent a hotel room, something I had learned the hard way months before. I literally had nowhere to go, except back to him.

I called the house several times but no one answered. I sought the closest thing to safety I could manage, a park near my high school, a place that at least felt familiar. I had left home in a hot haze of anger, failing to notice the brisk wind and falling temps. The old Ford’s heater stunk but cranked out warmth, at least as long as the car was running, which wouldn’t be long with six dollars in my pocket. Six months pregnant, I fell asleep in the chilly backseat of my small sedan. Without a coat, without cash, without a clue–I discovered cold as I had never felt it before.

That long night in the park taught me how much I had taken for granted all my life. A comfortable bed. A safe space. Food to eat, water to drink. A working bathroom. Come morning, I had spent a cramped lifetime freezing in my short-sleeve t-shirt, shivering from fear and a chill that never seemed to dissipate.

Eventually, the sun rose, taking the sting out of the winter air. I called and begged to come home where it was anything but safe, but it was warm and I’d have all I needed to survive. As I crawled into the sagging bed and pressed my back against his for comfort, I swore I’d never be cold like that again. But the feeling remained with me for many years, throughout the lean times and the prosperous ones.

Standing in the snow tonight, I can still remember the painful stabbing sensation in the tips of my fingers and the burning nasal passages and raw throat, the shivering convulsions that shook my body, and the frigid ache that reached talons deep into the marrow of my bones.

“They say it is like going to sleep, that the cold feeling fades and you get this kind of dysphoria. I hope to God it’s true,” I mumble, shaking the memories away, back to the past where they belong.

“That’s what they say,” he agrees, reaching his arms out for me to join him on the couch.

He wraps me in his embrace and I scoot back until my spine is cozy against him. Only then, when the memory of cold and all it means fades, can I exhale and allow myself to be present again. Outside, part of me remains in the dark night, hoping others find their way home in the cold.

Brand art by Gael Maclean

--

--

Mindi Boston
Contemplate

Mindi Boston is a novelist and freelance writer out of the Midwest. For more information, visit www.mindiboston.com