I think of my childhood in layers mostly: sweaters, socks, mismatched flannel sheets, Swedish rainbow wool blankets, rosebud pinwheel quilts. Some houses are never warm enough, no matter what you do. Chapped knuckles, a kettle’s anxious whistle. Heat from peeling antique radiators or skimpy sideboard vents gets hoarded by one greedy corner, one room.
The coldest room was the smallest, the spare, where two narrow Victorian windows were still paned with old-fashioned rippled glass, warping the view of the neighbor’s backyard. Before my mother moved away for the last time, the four of us shifted around in various shapes of division and togetherness, each claiming the room as our own at least once over the twenty years we lived there. When it was my turn, I kept the door open at bedtime to let in the warmth from the hall light. I feared the room would disappear, that it might tear off and fall away into oblivion with me inside it. I feared the patch of brick in the wood-paneled closet, hidden behind a few soft plaid shirts, so clearly a portal to somewhere I did not want to go alone.
Down in the basement, among hammers and wrenches, beneath dust from the power saw and snakes of orange extension cord and cardboard egg crates nesting bolts and screws, sat a blue tin hutch—a mysteriously abandoned olio from the turn of the century—with a dozen deep, square drawers of scrawled letters and envelopes stamped with the Knights of Pythias insignia, documenting the lives of two sisters who once owned the house, back when the Hudson River got so cold they could drive across the ice to Manhattan. It was easy to sink into a Hardy Boys kind of afternoon, sifting among the cobwebs and sticky fly wings to read a stained postcard: Wish You Were Here. With Love, G.
From those archival depths the meager heat rose. I’d listen to the house coming to life in winter, creaking and sighing, hissing and clanging, like a chorus of dull, dinged up bells, until it settled in a huff at the end of a long morning.
But the spare room felt separate and hushed with chill, a noisy sort of quiet; heavy, as if it were holding its breath. As if it was never meant to be there at all.
Your mother’s cottage with the big upstairs bedroom windows was always cold. That one February we walked around the bend on the frozen creek through the snow, past shuttered cabins and silent black train tracks, and came back to the house as the sun was setting, with soaked jean hems and soggy boots and scarves damp from humid breathing. We hung up our clothes in the shower and over kitchen chairs, but nothing dried. Not really. So we wrapped ourselves in your parents’ bathrobes, got drunk on dill pickle martinis and stayed in bed for two days, eating leftover linguine and some kind of pie, watching dry snow blow across the pillowy white pasture beyond the creek.
I wonder if I would have loved you so much, for so long, if it hadn’t been for the cold.
A recent graduate of the University of Arizona’s MFA program, Nina Boutsikaris writes nonfictionish stories about things that really happened. Her work appears in Fourth Genre, Redivider, The Los Angeles Review, The Offing, Hobart, Brevity, and elsewhere. She was awarded the 2015 Beacon Street Prize for her essay “I’m Trying to Tell You I’m Sorry,” which also earned a Notable Mention in Jonathan Franzen’s forthcoming Best American Essays 2016. She lives in Brooklyn where she is at work on her first book.
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