Hot, Cold and Warm
It can take a lifetime to find the temperature of happiness
Toes sizzling, she dipped into her teens. Blue eyes, brown eyes, flame eyes. Under the bleachers during lunch hour, hotdog bits caught in his braces, he lunged. A comma of chewed hair plastered her cheek. Beneath her sweater, fingers fumbled. Hook, eye. Soft padding, hard nipples. She pushed him away, swiped the back of her hand across her mouth. Cherry lip-gloss stained her cuff.
She glared. He panted. Biting fire, dragon breath, chili sauce, jalapeno, insanity, Tabasco. His fingers burned her skin. Arms tangled. He staggered, she grabbed his back he fell heavily on already scraped knees. Lying under him, the gym floor smelled of grit and socks. Poublano, horseradish, crimson, zest and wrestling. He strained, his zipper jammed. Nose snuffling, a line of sweat rivuleted past a pimple. Her cheeks burned, her palm against his denim crotch.
The bell rang.
* * *
Years after she saw the last of fourteen, she went into downtown bars sometimes on winter evenings. She no longer chewed her hair but spooned ice chips from her glass and gnawed them slowly, the tiny mouse squeak of the ice against her teeth a sound only she could hear. The gin spun in slow circles. Longing, the word filled with the coldest ‘o’ in the world, revolved in the glass, melting with the passing of time and temperature into something quite silent. She remembered the flame that couldn’t survive in the liquid of the everyday.
Her work in the cold city was as director of counselors of a treatment center. Substance abuse, family counseling, children at risk, intervention, crisis management, group sessions, private therapy, depression support groups. Today she was four hours on the phone, fingering a deli sandwich wrapped in clinging cellophane. At the end of the day she reapplied mascara, straighten navy skirt, tugged hose, and stepped out into the light when the light was gone.
After the first abortion, her door closed at bedtime and her mother and father shouted, the TV blaring. They flung the everyday china, heavy stoneware, white with a grey stripe, cacophonous as hungry gulls. Every morning they served bacon and eggs and tight-lipped smiles. She remembered the meandering lines of glue appearing from under her food as she ate, the way the ridge in the bowls caught at her spoon. When she was sixteen and pregnant again it was her turn. “I’m getting out of here,” she yelled, as, against the wall near her head, a dish crashed. “It’s about time,” her father yelled back.
There was a month in a saggy bed after the second abortion. The tiny apartment, the strangeness of no shouting, the slow dragging. The parents who rejected her and the parent she rejected being. After that the throwaway jobs, the years of night school. She waited tables, finished school, slogged up the government ladder, and never went back.
She was not remembering her high school days and their end, which would be idiotic. They don’t register anymore as part of her conscious experience; they are a background, a blur, a splat of girl smear on the windshield.
She walked home, blowing into her hands. The fingertips are reddened and rough against her lips; she rubbed them together as if in the infinite repeating action they, like two sticks, will start a fire. For the first time she really noticed the cold. A drawn-out absolution of long vowel, a state of extremity and of absence, a word lush with the time which comes from emptiness.
* * *
“Warm. You’re getting warm…warmer…”
Hide and seek is supposed to be a game of childhood, she thinks, strolling with him past a playground. But I’ve spent sixty-three years at it. Children giggle on the swings, chase each other around the Merry-Go-Round. One sits at the top of the slide, hands over eyes, giving directions to the seekers through temperature. The seesaw is vacant.
“Let’s sit there,” he says, his hand under her elbow gently because of her bursitis. They sit on either end, hands on the handles, toes poised against the earth. He smiles. Not a question--although he asked her one weeks ago--but a real smile connecting long hollow cheeks. His beard is grey, but soft, not the sprouting harsh barbed wire of most men. She’s touched a lot of cheeks and withdrawn her hand. He has two grown children, his wife died six years ago of cancer. A photo of them, shoulder to shoulder at their cabin in the Ozarks sits on his desk. She doubts they ever threw plates.
She pushes off against the playground pea gravel. The seesaw rocks.
“You’re getting waaarmer… “ The game finishes, and the boy begins a countdown for a new one.
“I do need an answer soon,” he says, as he pushes off with his feet.
Her end of the seesaw thunks against the ground. Squatting, an old wickedness pours down her varicose legs. She thrusts against the ground and is lifted into the air.
“I know it’s a big step. And I don’t want to pressure you.” He is nothing if not even-handed, “But I’ll be seventy next month.”
And a few other women, he doesn’t say, with life still possible in them waiting in line.
The boy finds someone under the slide, children’s voices lift and float in the air like balloons. “Warmer, waaarmer,” cry all the children she will never have. She has long ago cleaned out the bathroom drawer that held the sanitary pads and filled it with gauze bandages to wrap her bad elbow. Yet she still wakes in the night with hot flashes, nightgown sweaty, and in the morning is frozen, uncovered, nipples erect, sheets flung to the floor.
She is the director of the state health department council on mental health. If she marries there will be a man’s face across from hers at the dinner table; she will have to find another spot to pile newspapers. He could have the extra bedroom for his office. They could travel at double occupancy rates. She will buy new china dishes.
When they sleep together the blankets are not the source of warmth but merely the skin; they hold in the warmth that is already there, the warmth of rest.
She puts her hands on the plastic-covered aluminum of the seesaw and scoots forward, over the handles and towards the middle. Her wool skirt rides up like a girl’s. She slides forward until she is perched in the middle, over the metal pole on which the toy balances. Her feet touching the ground, she reaches out and takes his warm hand in hers.