Page 13 Cartoons

The Elegance of Winter

January 24, 2008

It’s amazing how the winter can pick me apart, piece by piece. First the actual dream, then the hope, then the reason for hope, then the possibility for hope. It all gets better in the spring; the sunshine makes me grow again, makes me real again, out of the hollow shadow the cold turns me into. Every year I seem to think that I’ve grown out of summer, that it only exists in childhood and will remain forever in the past like days spent with my brother, deep in the woods behind our house. Spring always seems like a little much to ask for after I’ve acquainted myself with the depths of winter.

The winter before was an exception, not necessarily in a good way, looking back on it, but it seemed like it at the time. I gave up some stuff. That’s how I kept winter from shutting me down. I closed myself up, instead of letting winter do it for me, and so to a certain degree I got to choose how far back I pulled myself, a root that lets its flower die so that the frost won’t kill the whole plant. It was like closing up some of the rooms you don’t use to save on heating.

On the East Coast, winter has an elegance, a starkness that makes everything dream-like but more real at the same time. I have to respect it. Its power possesses a dimension beyond anything within the rain that hits the Northern California coast between the end of November and March. But, in truth, winter is elegant everywhere. Our fancy clothes are warm, suited for the cold. Our coats are better kept, free of wear, because we only use them a third of the year, at most. So, when winter comes and the sun hides itself and we wear our finest clothes, we look radiant in a way that is impossible during August. Winter is black tie events, or at least semi-formals, and we run under umbrellas to break our overdone courteousness into deeper affections.

I had been telling everybody that I was going to go on a bender once classes were over and dead week started. I had kicked my ass all semester so that my grades didn’t drop because of some hard classes, so when I ended up with only two finals in my easiest classes I decided I was going to make up for it.

On Thursday night, I false started, drank a pitcher of margaritas and passed out before midnight. Friday, my buddy cooked a big dinner and we drank a lot of wine and got stoned and then we got up on Saturday to go to the basketball game and drank two liters of Jagermeister. We made it downtown in a taxi and napped through the game, sitting down while some random girls in the row ahead of us yelled at us to get up and cheer. I saw Allie at the game for an instant, before she invited me and my friends to go sit with her boyfriend. “He’s wearing a yellow hat,” she had said. I should have napped once we got back to campus but instead I went with my friend Graham to drop his brother’s car off at his brother’s apartment. Then we went downtown and saw a movie at the independent theater on E Street. We bought some alcohol on the way back but never made it to drinking it. I drank a few but we didn’t really party. I stayed up and thought about Allie. And I called her, many times, and she didn’t pick up. On Sunday I got some Percoset from a girl I knew from my French class the semester before and tripped the night away writing paragraphs about Allie. My roommates went to bed, leaving me alone, as I wished to be, the light from my desk lamp sneaking under the door into the hall. I was drinking, too, that night. I was drinking red wine.

Winter’s relentless, too. It doesn’t let up. It pushes you to the ground and then into it, till you’re six feet deep. I wanted to fight back, kick winter in the stomach even if it would mean a bigger beating in the end. My face is always bruised in March, anyway. Get that girl to keep giving me Percoset and everything would be all right, no matter how many times Allie told me that now wasn’t our time. I had worked my ass off and it was getting cold and I didn’t want to close up like I had the last winter. I wanted all my rooms open, the windows, too. I would stand there in five sweaters if I had to, or I would just freeze. I would act normal in the tailored suit winter makes me wear.

I’m guessing that’s what I was thinking—kicking winter in the stomach—when I booked a flight to New York at 5 a.m. Monday morning, an adventure, cold be damned. I don’t remember it. I woke up and found the receipt in my e-mail. It wasn’t completely out of the blue. There was a girl that I had been talking to who went to school a few hours outside New York. I had been telling her that New York in December was the perfect place to fall in love. She agreed. We both wondered if we were joking.

Over 400 out of my bank account wasn’t a joke, though. I couldn’t just write that off like breaking a phone while I was drunk. I got up around 1 and the flight was at 5. I called my friend Tom who’s from New York to ask him what to do and where to go. He just laughed at me for a while when I told him what I’d done, so I had to hang up. He called me back and apologized but really wasn’t that helpful as to what I should do while in the city.

I arrived in New York in rain and the city didn’t look at all like a place to fall in love as a taxi took me over the Hudson into Manhattan. That changed a bit when I met Tara at the hotel we had agreed upon, overnight bag in hand.

She was a petite brown-haired girl with round almost angel-like cheeks; her body was well proportioned but, for some reason, not in an immediately noticeable way. She was shy, which made the fact that she was actually there at the hotel surprising, and she had a boyfriend, which made it more surprising. Half of me wanted her to not be there, so I could just go to a movie by myself or call one of my semi-friends from high school who went to NYU and hang out with them, get wasted and be an outsider for a night. I had no idea what we were going to do; I was insecure.

After putting our bags down in our room, we walked for blocks looking for a nice place for an early dinner. We walked so we’d have something to do, with the sun setting and the wind picking up and neither of us wanting to make a decision that the other didn’t like. When a strong gust blew down the avenue, she leaned into me and I felt warm. My arm came to rest on across her shoulders and she seemed fragile but pulsing with life. As her far arm reached to hold the front of my coat, I wondered if she was grasping at something, and wondered if I could give it to her.

We walked like that for a few more blocks, awkwardly but comfortably in spite of it, comfortable because we enjoyed it and knew each other did too, knew that we had both come to New York to fall in love, whether or not we would admit it next December. For some reason, we were able to accept that two people who hadn’t talked for more than five hours during all the time they had known each other could go to New York on a whim and walk arm in arm.

The clouds had been sinking since we had left an hour earlier and they hung like a blanket around the top of the skyscrapers. We had been walking in silent circles. A small Italian restaurant presented itself around seven-thirty and the people inside looked warm and happy. The walls were painted a soft Tuscan yellow that reflected onto the street, seeming to spill their luminous paint the sidewalk.

“How about this one?” I said, bending my head towards hers.

“Well, I kind of like walking with you, but it does look good,” she said, looking through the window.

I felt almost like Scrooge in The Christmas Carol, except I still had my youth and was about to live the scenes that he could only pass through as a ghost unseen.

The hostess showed us to a table in a corner near the street, away from the gust of wind that blew us in. The dining room was warm and as Tara sat down across from me I looked into her eyes for the first time. They were wide open, awestruck almost, showing a familiar eagerness, though the origin of this familiarity I could not find within my memory. The memory was without a doubt a spring or summer memory. Her small mouth, normally held in a slight, mesmerizing pout, was pulled wide into a smile that outshone the bright yellow walls behind her.

“I’m so happy to be here,” I said. “It’s really—really, just like I imagined it would be.”

Her mouth closed and puckered and she turned away, shielding one side of her face, but her eyes remained locked on my mine, searching, it seemed, for the slightest hint of insincerity. It wasn’t there for her to find. After some moments, she faced me directly once more and the smile raced across her face again.

“So am I,” she half-whispered, as if the words were only for me but her excitement did not allow her to say them as such.

We spoke little throughout the rest of the dinner, the words we wanted to say being too private even for our secluded table, but our eyes often met, causing both of us to laugh in simple amazement that we were actually here. As we shared a small chocolate torte for desert, snow began to fall outside. The snowflakes slipped back and forth towards the ground, showing that the wind that had blown us into the restaurant would not keep us there against our will.

I paid the check and we walked back outside, into the snow, resuming our awkward walk. We passed a liquor store and I asked if she wanted to get anything.

“If you want to,” she said.

“Why not?” I said, smiling.

I walked in and the man at the counter first ogled Tara then seemed to gain some type of respect and asked me if I needed help. I told him I could find something and eventually decided on a double bottle of pinot noir from Napa.

Walking out the door, the city seemed to stand still for us. Walking in and out of the light cast onto the street from store windows, I watched the shadows that played across her face out of the corner of my eye. A flash of light blue peeked out from her dark jacket. The edges of her pout were pricked by a smile and the glitter sprinkled on her cheeks sent echoes of light towards my eyes and into the city. When we stopped at a stoplight, I turned so I could really see her. She laughed, awkwardly but as if she were expecting me to do something more. When I stood still, she asked what I was doing.

“Just looking at you,” I replied. “You look elegant.”

I paused and we looked at each other. We both breathed.

“I don’t really know what I’m saying,” I said, breaking the silence.

She smiled.

“That’s nice of you to say,” she said. “I actually kind of picked this dress out for tonight.”

We walked straight back to hotel and took the elevator up to our floor.

Once in our room, our coats melted onto a beige Victorian armchair that sat in a corner and I found a corkscrew for the wine. Tara looked outside and her breath fogged the window.

“Do you like the snow?” she asked.

“Well, depends,” I said. “Usually I don’t like it, but this isn’t that bad.”

“Why don’t you like it?” she said. “It makes me think of Christmas. I like it.”

“I don’t know. I guess I don’t really like winter in general.”

“Well, it’s not the summer but it has good parts, too.”

“You’re right,” I said. “Here, do you want some wine?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Come on, let’s see if there’s anything on TV.”

We sat with our backs against the headboard and as if by habit her head fell against my chest and my arm enveloped her shoulders. The TV was on. I didn’t think about it then but looking back on it now it was all very surreal. This wasn’t the winter I was used to.

In fact, that night, in our small hotel room, snow falling heavily outside, was my best winter, the first ever that I didn’t have to fight, the first I didn’t have to cope with. Even all the snowless winters that California graced me with did not have the warmth that I felt as her head touched my shoulder, hair falling gently down my blue shirt. During summers, I’ve felt similarly, but warmth comes easily when school’s not in session.

As the wine sunk in and the movie that we weren’t paying attention to progressed, we held each other imperceptibly closer as moments passed and the night deepened until we turned to face each other and closer still until our lips were pressed against each other’s and our eyes were closed. That moment has remained the warmest that I have ever experienced between late November and late February, despite what would happen as the night sunk deeper and the surreality began to ripple. Snow fell outside and it would fall until just before dawn.

I told my friend Andrew the whole episode when I was home over winter break, a couple weeks after. We drove around under the holiday sky of Northern California, talking and smoking cigarettes, like we did in high school. I was in the driver’s seat so he worked the stereo. We listened to soft but unsentimental songs, mix CDs on repeat, as the streets emptied and the mild cold set in.

Once I got to the kiss, he was almost awed.

“Tara Morgan, man? I can’t believe that. You should have called me the next day. This is great,” he said. “So what’d you do then? Did you do it?”

“Yeah,” I breathed.

“Man, that is great. I can’t believe you actually just went to New York on a day’s notice.”

“It wasn’t great. I don’t know.”

“What do you mean? What happened?”

“Well,” I started, “It didn’t feel right the next day. I thought too much.”

“What does that mean?” he said, incredulous.

“It means that, when we were lying on the bed naked, and about to do it, I thoughtshy;—I fucking thought about Allie, and I thought about Tara’s boyfriend. So I asked her about him.”


“She told me she had broken up with him.”

“This keeps getting better. How is this going to end bad? How could you say this ended bad? So then you guys had sex?”

“Yeah. Yeah, we did.”

The moment after she told me about her boyfriend, she said she thought she was in love with me. I looked out the window, saw the snow falling, felt the warmth inside of me, unbelievable and almost foreign, but cold as well, wondered if the cold was at the center or around the edge, and I told her I loved her, too.

“Where’s the bad ending man?” Andrew said. “I have no idea what you’re getting at.”

“Come on, man,” I said. “I didn’t love her. It was just—I don’t know—it was just the snow talking. I fucking shouldn’t have, I know, but Allie called me after she had fallen asleep next to me. I just knew she would.”

She called and asked me why I had gone to New York. Often in those days, she called me drunk late at night, especially when I didn’t talk to her for a few days. When I told her I was in New York with another girl, she started crying so I walked outside into the hallway with the bottle of wine, still mostly full, so I could talk to her and not wake up Tara. I slid down the wall next to our door till my haunches rested on the ground and then let my legs stretch out. She asked how I could go to New York with another girl and whenever I reminded her that she had a boyfriend she told me to just tell her that I didn’t love her.

“Just tell me you don’t love me,” she said, “so that I can be content with my boyfriend, and just, just forget about you.”

I couldn’t tell her. In that hallway, which could have been in any hotel, in any season, in any city, I loved Allie, loved her the way you love someone that you hate whenever when you don’t love them. The bottle emptied and the wine thinned my blood. The conversation felt its way over a few hundred miles as the night grew heavy. When Allie said she would stay awake for however long it took me to get to Georgetown, I told her I loved her and would be back by sunrise.

I walked into the room and grabbed my jacket, leaving the small overnight bag I had brought. I walked through the hotel lobby and out the door into the falling snow. On a building across the street, a clock changed from 4:11 to 4:12. I took out my phone and called Tara, knowing that I should but hoping that she wouldn’t pick up. Her phone went to answering machine and I breathed and left a message. I lied to her and told her that one of my friends at school had gotten hurt and called and I just needed to go home as soon as possible. I asked a waiter in an all-night diner where Penn Station was and headed towards it, assuming a train was my only chance of getting back to D.C. It turned out to be not that far away and with the wine keeping me warm it wasn’t that bad of a walk.

But a train wouldn’t bring me home that night. After I fumbled with an automatic ticketing machine for a few minutes, a man at the ticketing counter told me that trains were cancelled until at least 9. The snow was too much. I pulled the collar of my jacket tighter around my neck and looked through the large glass doors. The snow was still falling heavily, malicious or prescient depending on how you looked at it. I pushed through the doors and trudged slowly towards the hotel, each step slower than the last. That was the only place in the world I didn’t want to be, a purgatory covered in snow. After dragging myself through the lobby, I sunk to my knees in the elevator. I could barely get up when the door opened on my floor. I fell into the bed, taking off only my coat and shoes, and Tara awoke.

“Where’d you go?” she said. “You feel cold.”

“I’ve just been out in the hall,” I said, sleep falling quicker than the slowing. “A friend called and needed to talk.”

She said something else but it blurred together and I couldn’t answer.

In the morning, I woke up and saw Tara on her phone, sitting on the edge of the bed with her back to me. She looked fresh and young, wearing a green shirt and white sweats. The red wine fog thinned slightly and I remembered the message I had left her.

“Tara—“ I began to say.

She didn’t move.

“Tara, I’m sorry,” I said louder.

When she turned around, her face was puzzled. She looked at her phone and then closed it.

“I just got this long message where I couldn’t understand a thing. Some guy was whispering. He sounded drunk,” she said. “Weird… anyway, I’m going to call Lauren and tell her about, well, this. Forgive me if I’m, you know, excited about last night.”

Lauren was Andrew’s younger sister. She had introduced me to Tara originally.

Tara laughed and smiled at me, paused a moment, than rolled on to the bed and kissed me. She had just showered and she smelled like a beautiful girl should when inches of snow are piled outside on a New York morning.

“What were you sorry about?” she asked.

“Oh, just for waking you up last night,” I said.

She kissed me again then got up and reached for her phone, leaving me lying in a mass of white covers. I looked up at the ceiling and waited for the guilt to rise out of my stomach into my mouth but the bitterness was weaker than I expected, easily covered by the leady next morning aftertaste of red wine. It was only after I realized that a stronger bitterness wouldn’t come that a horrid sweetness —the worst bitterness, its absence—coated the inside of my cheeks. I tried to describe this to Andrew, unsuccessfully.

“You’re making such a big deal out of it, man. Allie had a fucking boyfriend. She had been playing you for months. You went to New York for the weekend and Tara made you happy while you were there. I don’t know why you wouldn’t let things go on if you were happier there. Forget about how you tried to leave to see Allie—forget about her altogether —and then just let things go on with Tara. You really haven’t talked to her since that morning?”

“A few times. She calls pretty often but I usually don’t pick up and when I do I tell her that I’m busy.”

I breathed deeply, part cigarette but mostly air. I could turn left towards home but I turned right, onto Woodside Road, needing another lap around the circuit. I dragged again, fully this time, and the cigarette was done. I rolled down the window quickly to throw out the butt then rolled it up again.

“I guess there’s other girls that could make me happy,” I said.

I wasn’t done smoking so I grabbed the pack out of the cup holder, fiddled with it for a moment, then put it down without taking a cigarette out. I breathed again.

“I don’t know. The thing is she’s really the only one who can make me sad,” I said.

Andrew looked at me, sternly, and shook his head. I knew he thought I should be over her. My eyes stayed forward until I turned onto San Carlos and glanced at him. His gaze returned to the road ahead of us, white lines, on and off to the left, steady on the right.

“Maybe that’s what matters in the end,” Andrew said as he turned on the defrost again.

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