The story you should probably read before this is compulsion, and all the ones before that. Maybe it will make more sense then. But it might not.
â€śWhen youâ€™re talking habitat you realize how little of the solar system is inhabitable by the human species. Antarctica barely qualifies.â€ť
-- Thomas Dexter, Glaciologist, Los Angeles Times Interview, 2002
â€śMitch loved Annie the way kids love horror movies. She scared him to death, but he couldnâ€™t stop seeing her.â€ť
-- Nolan Holland, Author, Larry King Interview, 2002
The first time you see her itâ€™s like this.
You go outside to play in the new fallen snow and there she is. Just like that. Little kid where before there was nobody. Must have just moved into the neighborhood.
Sheâ€™s bundled like overstuffed luggage better prepared for lunar travel than child's play. The sky is gray and underneath the world is marshmallow quiet. Her breath makes clouds as if sheâ€™s smoking great big cigarettes and she pretends for a moment she's a steam train, but you arenâ€™t interested in small talk. Too many big ideas confuse a young mind.
The snow is deep and with each step the white embeds your legs to the mid thigh. She sinks up to the waist and she resorts to paddling around on her belly for a while. When she realizes that youâ€™re moving faster than she can, she screams to get your attention.
Frustrated, you mutter, â€śCome on,â€ť and grab her under the armpits and drag her onto the street where the snowplows have cleared the way. Thereâ€™s only hard packed snow on the road and she can walk impeded only by the tension in her legs caused by the multiple layers of clothing her mother put on her.
You watch her discover the colors in the snow that taste the bitter your mother told you was bad. So slap the wad of snow from her hand and say something about the yellow snow coming from dogs. She wasnâ€™t going to eat anymore anyway, she tells you, her eyes full of you.
When you reach the pond she says she remembers something and says it, but you donâ€™t listen and run and slide on the rippled ice in your snow boots. You run and slide back. Think to invite her to join you, but why bother? Let her figure it out for herself.
She squats on her haunches and pokes at the ice with a stick, intense, never looking up at you so that you stop your sliding to see whatâ€™s so interesting.
And so now crouch in front of her the baby her and ask the child, â€śWhatcha doing?â€ť
â€śLooking for the house, stupidâ€ť she says. You should know that.
â€śA house? Thatâ€™s silly. Thereâ€™s no house in the snow.â€ť
â€śDonâ€™t you remember? It's in the snow-a-lanche.â€ť
â€śSnow lunch?â€ť you reply, summoning up as much falsetto as you can to mock her voice.
â€śWhen the snow fell off from the mountain. It got on the house.â€ť
You look around and see only trees, a field, and the road. But in the back of your mind you remember being somewhere the land rose toward the sky and ended so high the clouds fell onto the top like snow. â€śWhat mountain?â€ť you say. Wasnâ€™t it here just a little while ago? How could it have gone?
â€śThe mountain near the town,â€ť she insists. â€śDo you have your shovel at least, stupid face?â€ť
You think for a minute and stand. Yeah. Find a shovel. Someone has to dig all of them out. Theyâ€™re all down there.
And your heart races. What shovel could you get that would be big enough? You need one of those big yellow tractors they have where theyâ€™re building the houses, and they all went away when the snows came.
â€śRocco. Go to the cemetery and get the gravediggerâ€™s shovel. Whatâ€™s wrong with you?â€ť she says.
Now wait. Now wait. That wasnâ€™t now, was it?
Is this a dream?
â€śThatâ€™s the stupidest thing I ever heard,â€ť you say. Tell her, â€śThey donâ€™t have shovels to dig up houses.â€ť
You squat next to her in the snow to simplify things. Lots of ideas swimming around your mind. Memories. Other peopleâ€™s memories. Youâ€™re thirsty so you grab a lump of snow and suck on it.
â€śDonâ€™t eat snow, Rocco. Youâ€™ll freeze.â€ť
Why is she doing this? You were okay with it for a while, but now itâ€™s starting to make you mad. â€śStop calling me Rocco. My name is Mitchell.â€ť
She reaches out and touches you on the shoulder. â€śOkay, Rocco. Now your name is Mitchell.â€ť Then she pushes you backward and you fall backward, sitting in the snow.
â€śWhatâ€™s your name, kid?â€ť you ask because in that moment you forgot her name.
â€śAnna,â€ť she replies, and you think that was it but maybe not. But she tells you, â€śI'm always the same,â€ť as if she knows what youâ€™re thinking.
Of course she knows what youâ€™re thinking.
You lean forward to touch her snow suit. Make sure sheâ€™s real, not a dream where your hand passes through her as if sheâ€™s made of smoke.
She's cool on the outside but warm underneath. Thereâ€™s a heart beating in there, just like yours.
â€śThey just named me Mitchell a little while ago,â€ť you say, because it could change again.
The setting sun pokes gold rays through the slit below the ceiling of gray clouds and the land staining the horizon orange and red. A car passes on the plowed road behind you and the snow crunching under its tires sounds like your father eating corn flakes in the morning.
You think sheâ€™s going to say something about the dream, but she doesnâ€™t. Maybe itâ€™s against the rules.
â€śWhereâ€™s our house?â€ť you ask on the vestige of a fading memory. Itâ€™s fading so fast the answer isnâ€™t going to matter.
"Do you have your ring?" she asks you, and you fish around in your pockets for something that's so clear in your mind you know must exist even though you've never seen it with your eyes.
She says, "Here it is," and pulls it out of the hole she poked in the snow. "You're not supposed to lose it."
You say, "I know, I'm sorry," and you have no idea why.
She tells you itâ€™s getting dark and itâ€™s time to go home, so you tell her goodbye and you go.
Itâ€™s what kids do.
â€śRescuers should familiarize themselves with the three major causes of death in crevasse accidents. 1) The Fall: If the crevasse is deep enough the impact of the fall can break bones and cause internal injuries. 2) The Cold: A crevasse fall victim is out of the wind but is subject to sub-zero temperatures and long periods of restricted motion. 3) Suffocation: Crevasses narrow toward the bottom. The victim may attain enough speed during his fall to wedge his body into the narrowing channel to the point where the rib cage is compressed and breathing is inhibited.â€ť
- US Antarctic Program Field Guide, 1999
Life breaks everything at some point.
Let me introduce Cathy, my girlfriend of three years. I love Cathy. She always wears blue. When we're making love I call her my little parrot fish. She calls me Joe. Don't ask. Long story.
Cathy loves me. Cathy left her husband so she could be with me. It didnâ€™t bother either of us she did that. He was baggage.
She didnâ€™t love him anyway. They married too young. He was fooling around with other women and she was fooling around with me. Physical separation was simply the culmination of the status that had become their marriage. They were just two people who lived together and occasionally had sex.
We are people who love each other and frequently have sex. Thatâ€™s the difference.
She loves me so much sheâ€™s calling my hand. Show me the cards, is what sheâ€™s saying.
Say the words, boy. Say it. Itâ€™s now or never. Get rid of the ring I found in your night table.
Why are you looking around in the night table when Iâ€™m in the shower? -- Don't ask it. You know it's what they do.
Why do you keep your old wedding band around, anyway? Tell her the truth. They all get to this question eventually. Now is as good as any time. What's it gonna be?
Now. Or never?
So I say, because I never shrink from a challenge: never.
Houston, we have a problem.
I say, "It's not what you think. Sweetness, there's something about that ring you should know."
Cathy is in the doorway. How'd she get dressed so fast? Sheâ€™s more in the hallway, buttoning her blouse with shaking hands, fishing in her purse, sobbing, alternately swiping at her nose and fussing. She stamps her feet.
I tell her: "Take it. I'm not kidding. Take it and do whatever you want with it." I pick it up off the night table and hand it to her.
I ask for her to come inside and reach for her arm. Iâ€™ve touched all of Cathy at one time or another. Now she wonâ€™t let my fingers near the cloth of her sleeve. It's going to be a rough night when we come home from work. Like sliding across sand paper.
And then the next day she confronts me again, ring in hand, holding it up to my face while I'm still dripping, fresh from the shower as I rub a towel through my hair.
"How many of these do you have?"
"Just the one."
She reads the inscription. "Anna y Rocco, 1944. They're even inscribed the same."
"Chuck it," I tell her.
She looks at me, squinting. "The one from yesterday I threw off the Vallejo ferry. And you put this one in the same place so I'd find it. You're sick."
I take the towel from around my waist, pull on some underwear.
"Make a mark on it. Something only you know. Toss it in a dumpster. Toss it into the bay. Whatever you want to do."
"What are you telling me?"
"I'm telling you I'm not getting rid of that ring."
Now she's in the hallway again, nearly dressed. I go to her and touch her arm. She pulls away, dropping her shoulder, hiding her face in her hands and then going back to searching for something in her purse. Swears at me, crying: â€śYouâ€¦youâ€¦ I sacrificed my marriage for you. You, you asshole!â€ť
It takes her ten seconds to think of the adjective. In the pause I calculate how to get out of this.
This is the way it feels: When I was young I climbed on the peak of the roof of our detached garage. Then I slipped. The friction kept me from sliding down the pitched side immediately, but every time I moved I slid a little bit. Nothing I could do would stop me from slipping. My choices were to stay still and stay there forever, or to try to save myself and fall off.
There was no way back up without deus ex-machina. Please God, save me.
The prayer of the terminally stupid: God save me from myself.
Now I feel the same way. Iâ€™m watching three years slip away and every move I make makes it slide further.
I donâ€™t know why. I donâ€™t know what I did, and that makes it worse. Itâ€™s just a ring. It doesnâ€™t have to mean anything. I havenâ€™t seen my ex-wife in years. I donâ€™t answer her phone calls anymore. Havenâ€™t spoken to her in months. Damn, sheâ€™s in the Congo or something shooting mating rhinos with a film crew from National Geographic. What the hell did I say to deserve this?
Why does she always get so weird after sex?
â€śWhat did I say?â€ť I turn my palms up and lower my head.
â€śYou're scum,â€ť she says. â€śStop acting like you donâ€™t know.â€ť Now sheâ€™s got the car keys from her purse. She was supposed to stay with me tonight, but sheâ€™s going home at least. Somewhere else at worst.
Why is it sometimes everything I do is a mistake? Every move I make pushes me further toward the impending fall.
Maybe Iâ€™m just supposed to fall. Stop fighting it.
â€śIâ€™m sorry,â€ť I say. I say it a few more times before I realize it dilutes with repetition. "You can throw that ring out as many times as you want."
â€śWhat the fuck do you take me for, Mitchell? Now you're just being cruel,â€ť she says. She says I canâ€™t sorry myself out of it.
I wonder what â€śitâ€ť is.
â€śAnna never comes here,â€ť I say.
The words are like bullets. Cathy flinches when I say Annaâ€™s name. A little voice in my head tells me to say I love her, but I canâ€™t. The words get stuck in my throat like dry peanut butter.
â€śBut you still have her picture and your wedding band in the top drawer of your night table? Donâ€™t try to tell me you didnâ€™t just put them there to hide them because you knew I was coming. I know better.â€ť
Go ahead. Tell her I donâ€™t do that. Lie.
Tell the truth. Tell her I love her but Iâ€™m confused because thereâ€™s this goddamned pain in my chest about Anna. I do love you Cathy. Very much. Anna is more like a disease I canâ€™t shake. Sheâ€™s like a genetic birth defect Iâ€™ll never overcome.
Okay, so I canâ€™t forget her. It doesnâ€™t mean weâ€™re still married. It doesnâ€™t mean Iâ€™d drop everything and run away with her if I saw her again.
â€śWell how do you feel now, bastard?â€ť she says to me. I hear the same thing from the voice in my head.
Bad. Very bad is how I feel. Donâ€™t go.
I say, â€śDonâ€™t go.â€ť
â€śNo wonder she left you. Youâ€™re such an asshole.â€ť She turns and nearly runs down the hall.
â€śPlease. Iâ€™m sorry,â€ť I say.
â€śToo late.â€ť She doesnâ€™t even turn around when she says it.
I slam the door because Iâ€™m mad. I pound my fist into the door because Iâ€™m mad. I squeeze my fists so hard my fingernails make my palms bleed.
So, how do you get off the garage roof? You push. You fly. You pray for Pegasus to pluck you out of the air during the fall. If he misses, it hurts when you hit but unless you fall the wrong way you live.