Tayla Jankovits

Spotlight: I Am Cold

[creative nonfiction]

My mother moved in with me once icicles began to form like claws on my fingertips. She held my hand in her gloved palms and wept, the tears falling softly, moisture; wet, formless, lovely, freezing into tight ice with contact. Does it hurt? She had asked me, her eyes so full of motherly love that it should have been enough to warm me, but it wasn’t, nothing was. No, I told her. And I wasn’t lying, either. The cold killed most of my nerve sensors. Oh David, she said softly, still holding my icicle fingertips, like they were beautiful iridescent crystals, still crying her wet tears, rainwater into my icy hemisphere, oh David, David, David.

When the cold began, I hardly noticed it.

I am cold, I thought.

That’s how it started—a slight chill, a brief rising of arm hair, a tiny sensation running little feet up my back. I showed up to a summer night’s party in a grey cardigan, a spring cardigan, one might say. Light knit, low V-neck, breathable material that a decent breeze might even crawl through, but it was a very pleasant May night, no breeze. A comfortable seventy-five degrees, might even be considered cool for May in the desert of California. But when I left my apartment that day, I felt cold. It crept up my spine like a quick shock of electricity and settled right atop my shoulders, and I carried it there for the rest of the night.

I was cold, and then I met Abi. She was beautiful, standing there, alone, an exquisite wallflower in the corner of a very drone party, a very monotonous, warm-champagne-in-your-flute-glass type of party. I was walking towards the center of the room, where it was warmer, where the body heat inevitably finds itself in the eye of the human heat storm. I walked past her, intent on being warm, not even meaning to strike up a conversation. She looked so young, so fresh, a moist layer of sweat making her shine in her summer dress; fanning herself with a printed party plate, her bangs sticking slightly to  her forehead.

I like your sweater, she said. Her grandfather had one just like it, she used to wrap herself in it when she was a little girl, visiting him in his small house, reading books on his lap while he looked past her, watching reruns of Bonanza. The soft fabric of his sweater tickling her cheek, smelling vaguely of Vaseline, always draped over the arm of the couch before she went home that evening.

Bonanza, now that’s fun to say isn’t it? Kind of tickles your tongue, warms the tip of it if you say it fast enough.

We left the party together, me in my sweater, her in her bare arms, the moonlight reflecting off of her. On the way home, I put the heat on, just a little bit. But the windows were a little foggy, others driving home were probably doing the same thing and Abi only smiled.

By July, I was still chilly and still with Abi. Her hair used to wrap around me in bed like a scarf and I would dig my face into her neck, feel my hot breath trap beneath all that long dark hair, making my cheeks pink with perspiration. It was a lovely feeling, especially as that chill had stuck. My spine stung with a cold that kept going to my shoulders and began to reach down to my arms with icy tendrils, taking hold of me. Abi thought maybe it was a summer cold. She would wrap her long legs around me and her arms, smooth and soft and always smelling faintly of vanilla, would hold me tight into her chest, soft and beating beneath me with the heat rising from us.

As the summer continued, hot, hotter than it’s been in years, so hot the news anchors talked of records, I went around in a thermal shirt and thick white socks, long jeans. Abi hardly noticed anymore, but at any social gathering I felt eyes following me around the room, looks of surprise as I would zip up my sweater, or pull on the ends of my sleeves. I didn’t care, I was cold. I found myself ordering a hot tea instead of an iced one, or a soup at dinner instead of a summer salad. It was just a chill, hardly anything to talk about.

See a doctor, my mother said when she came to visit me in August. A doctor? What’s he going to prescribe? An insulated coat? I’m just a bit cold, I don’t feel ill Ma, I feel fine. In fact, with Abi, I feel great. She had come to meet her, it coincided with her annual trip from Omaha. One trip home there and I probably wouldn’t need a sweater ever again, Abi would joke. Over dinner that night, my mom and Abi eating sushi and ice cold beers, me sticking to sweet and sour soup and wontons. My mother told Abi that as an infant, I would scream and thrash my arms if she tried to swaddle me. Hated it, hated blankets, hated footsie pajamas, that boy’s feet sweat so bad he’d leave marks like a giant slug. It seemed my chill was fascinating, especially to Abi. But only because she kept trying to warm me up.

Ma, it’s not Cancer, I told her, trying to put her hundred dollar bill back in her white plastic purse.

Before my mother left she slipped a hundred dollar bill in my hand. In case it’s the money keeping you from seeing someone. What if its pneumonia, or cancer? It would have sounded ridiculous from anyone, but with my mother’s heavy southern accent and her pink cowboy boots with her orange sun dress and her wide-brimmed black visor hat, it sounded absurd. Cancer? Ma, it’s not Cancer, I told her, trying to put her hundred dollar bill back in her white plastic purse. But how do you know? That crazy disease does things to people’s bodies, crazy awful things, and cancer is always your last idea, but it’s always cancer. Always. I nodded. When a mother gets in her head that you have cancer, you go see an oncologist and get it written down on paper that you’re healthy as spinach.

Abi called her uncle down in LA. Lucky for me, he was an oncologist and was willing to do a physical and write me up a doctor’s note. He asked me, while I sat in the paper thin medical robe, why I thought I had cancer. I told him I am cold. Later, as I stood by the fax machine, listening to its bells and whistles as it prepared its delivery of my cancer-free note to my mother in Omaha, I listened to the oncologist as he marveled to Abi at seeing someone in thermal sweatpants and a sweatshirt during a heat wave in September. I don’t know what the hell is wrong with him, but it’s not cancer. Might I suggest a psychiatrist?

Abi booked an appointment with a psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist office kept the thermostat at an inhumanely low setting. I asked the receptionist if she didn’t mind raising the temperature. She looked at me like I was out of my mind and with raised eyebrows said, Sir, you do know that we are experiencing an unusual heat wave. People have died in their homes from the heat. I asked Abi to go down to my car and get me a thick scarf I kept in the trunk. When the doctor ushered me in, I felt her eyes rush to my neck. My thick grey wool scarf making her pull at her already loose blouse.

Any trouble sleeping?

Only sometimes, only if my toes are feeling really cold. I have to have warm feet when I sleep. I have specific socks I use, they’re made for skiing.

Skiing? You wear skiing socks to bed?

There was no denying that she was getting a whole load of strange information but upon conclusion to our session, she recommended a full physical. I told her I saw an oncologist, that my mother made me. After that, she recommended a second session to discuss my mother.

It was still hot in October, at least that was what people were saying, I was still cold. I had started to wear a jacket over my usual thermal and sweatshirt. At work, they told me I was making others uncomfortable, asking if this was some kind of joke. I shook my head, I told them I was just cold. They told me I was violating their policy on professional attire. I assured them that beneath my coat and sweater, I had a button-down shirt. They told me to get a plug-in heater at my desk and hang the coat and sweatshirt in the break room. I inquired about more formal sweater wear and they just nodded and waved me out.

I quit in November. The heater was not strong enough to keep me warm and I was still cold. My teeth chattered while I worked at my desk. I found it difficult to concentrate. Upper-management left copies of their policies on work attire on my desk each morning. My co-workers stopped sitting with me at lunch. And what was worse, my desk was situated by a window, one which didn’t properly seal and constantly allowed an irritating draft to sneak in. I decided it best to find a job where I could work at home. This way I could wear what I want and keep the heater up.

Abi took to wearing layered clothing. That way when she came over, she could take off her light jacket and sweater and wear a tank top. She shed her layers like animal skin, leaving traces of her self around my apartment, each article of clothing that I would pick up and rub to my cheek, still feeling a bit of her warm skin against it. She would always ask me how I was feeling as she would crawl into my lap, her arms draping around me, already beginning to chase away the cold, and always I would answer her, I am cold.

We had already seen two more doctors since her uncle and they all shook their heads and like the oncologist, pointed me towards psychiatric evaluation. By the end of November, I had already seen two additional psychiatrists and one psychologist, they each in turn directed me back to physical medicine. I gave up, resigned myself over to this cold and allowed it to come and settle.

By December, I could no longer travel outside my home. Abi brought me groceries and my mail when she came to visit. She cooked me soup and made me hot teas and helped me keep my down comforter around my shoulders as I moved from room to room but by January, we had our first episode.

Abi climbed into bed, a T-shirt and loose cotton pants. She slept in light pajamas as the heater made her sweat as she slept. I rolled towards her as always, craving the warmth of her touch, when she jumped back. David! I looked up at her. What? Her face looked surprised, her eyebrows slanted as she studied me. You’re freezing cold. I stared at her. I know Abi, I’ve been cold since May. She shook her head. No, I mean to the touch. You feel like you just stepped out of a deep freezer. I sat up in bed. What do I usually feel like? She shrugged her shoulders. Normal, I guess. I tried to move closer to her, but she scooted away. Don’t be upset, David. But you’re really really cold. Like touching an ice cube for too long. I nodded my head. I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say. She leaned over to kiss me. I knew it was affectionate, I knew her lips would be warm and taste of summer. I wanted that kiss, but her mouth tensed and when she pulled her lips off mine, they were blue. She touched them softly, her fingers to her mouth, and then she looked at me, a bit of fear printed on her cheeks. David, what’s happening to you?

That was the last night Abi slept with me. She still came by, did everything as usual, but when she wanted to hold my hand, she would take out a pair of gloves she kept in her pocketbook. And when I wanted to hold her, cuddle and feel her heat, she would put on one of my sweatshirts and sweatpants, wrap her neck in a scarf and remind me gently, not to touch her face.

February brought heart-shaped candy and singing teddy bears, but it also brought our first icicle. Abi was sitting next to me on the couch, reading a magazine. The sun was setting low and I was looking through a medical book on bizarre diagnoses, when a bit of shining light was thrown across the room. What is that? Abi looked around. What is what? I asked. She pointed her finger to the wall where a small flashing light was playing beneath a picture frame. Right, that over there, it looks like something is catching the sunlight. I looked around, moved my hand down and there it went, the light was gone. I moved my hand back up and there it was again. I turned my hand over and there it was, small, spectacular and on the tip of my index finger. A tiny little icicle. Ice, I said, completely dumbfounded. Abi looked at me, looked down at my icicle and then back at me and it felt clear I was beginning to lose her.

Less then a week later, my right hand was covered. Tiny bits of ice forming like measles or chicken pox. Abi called three doctors to come meet me at home. Each of them called another three and soon there was a steady stream of doctors wanting to get a glimpse of the man with the hand of ice. They brought me gifts. Heaters, insulated coats, exotic tea bags, thermoses, homemade chicken soup, a ski mask. They even created a discussion board, a website they named David and Goliath of Cold.

By the end of March, I asked them to stop coming. I didn’t want them to see my left hand, now beginning to sprout its first bud of ice. Abi kept coming though, she sat next to me and put aloe on the cuts incurred by my fingertips. She dressed them in bandages, careful to always wear her gloves. She’d gaze at me, as if she was missing me despite the alarming and physical fact that I was sitting there right in front of her. David, she said. Look. She pointed to the space in front of me and I saw it, the air of my breath hovering, cold and visible in front of my mouth. And then she cried, holding my freezing legs against her, a blanket between her cheek and my lap, the only thing preventing her from getting frostbite, from me feeling the heat off her skin.

In April, my mother came. Ma, I said, before opening the door. I need you to be ready for this. Okay? I heard her on the other side. I could hear the impatience in her shifting feet. Is it cancer, David? Is it? Tell me. I can take it. I sighed. I almost wished it was. No Ma, I told you already, its not cancer. It’s, well, it’s something else. Something entirely else. I looked at my apartment, at the frost on the windows, on the broken thermostat. Did you come as I instructed? I waited for her answer. She was quiet. She must be dressed for spring. Mother, what are you wearing? She knocked again on the door, pounded actually. David, I’m your mother. You open this door you hear me? No nonsense about what I’m wearing. Let me in there. I breathed deeply, my breath still and foggy in the air. I opened the door and it rushed at her and hit her hard on the face, the cold.

I wanted to help her into her coat, but I only made her colder. She changed right there in the hallway. Opening her suitcase, pulling on her pants under her dress, sweater, then sweatshirt, then coat. At least she had brought it all. Abi had called her, had told her to. She wouldn’t have listened to me. She kept shivering in my hall as the cold of my apartment rushed to escape. She kept saying, My lord. My lord, My lord, My lord! There was nothing to do but watch her layer on and layer on.

She sat near my bed those nights, staring at me, wondering at me. You know I love you no matter what? I nodded. My limbs were getting harder to move, but I didn’t want to tell her this yet. I was starting to suspect that my blood circulation was poor, that my bones were sprouting icicles of their own. She stayed with me as the frost took over, singing lullabies to me each evening. Covering me in electric blankets and ushering Abi’s hot soup into my shivering mouth. She kept me as warm as a mother could, but May came and the ice hardened. I felt myself burning cold all over. I pointed to the mirror on my closet door as best I could. No, no David, you don’t want to see this. You just let it come. Let the cold come. And it did.

Talya JankovitsTalya Jankovits earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University. Her work has appeared in The Citron ReviewRecovering the Self: A Journal of Hope and Healing, and her short story “Undone” in Lunch Ticket was nominated for the 2013 Pushcart Prize. She lives in Chicago with her husband and two daughters and is working on her second novel while seeking representation for her first.