Thursday, April 12, 2012

My Date with the Snow Queen

(Imagine an image of the Snow Queen here: a beautiful, serious woman with blonde hair, ivory skin, a white robe, and eyes that glint like diamonds. I couldn't upload the drawing.)
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We were in The Club, the only gay bar in town. The sexual tension between us was still hotter than a firecracker, but our incompatibility was becoming obvious.

Outdoors, the wind howled and the ground was covered with three feet of packed snow on the footpaths where sidewalks would emerge during the spring melt. It was the 1980s, when Canada still lived up to its image as the home of winter.

She looked Mediterranean. The love of her life had been a girl of Italian descent who had taken her to Italy on a marvelous family visit. “Connie” loved to reminisce about the wine, the sunshine, the family she wanted to join. She had thrown her relationship away by picking someone up at The Club, telling her girlfriend, and not forgiving herself. The girlfriend had married a male co-worker, but Connie still spent as much time as possible in their house, changing lightbulbs and fixing whatever didn’t work, usually when the husband wasn’t home. Connie also continued passing for Italian, playing the accordion (“Santa Lucia,” “O Sole Mio”) whenever she was asked.

Connie had been adopted as a baby. She didn’t want to admit that she was – as she herself put it – a “fuckin Indian.” She tried to make up for her imagined defects and real secrets by being as butch as possible. She had been banned from The Club for six months for fighting.

She usually lost at pool, but this didn’t stop her from accepting every challenge. She leaned across the green felt as though she could control all the balls with her mind.

I drifted out of the pool room, knowing where I didn’t belong. Connie had said she wanted to help me raise my little girl, who was currently spending the night with her grandparents. My little brown angel, the one good thing that came out of my marriage to a Nigerian.

Connie told other people that she wasn’t comfortable around children, not being the motherly type.

Even in the dim light of the bar, I could see Laurel, a red-haired warrior queen of the local Left. She was past president of the organization that lobbied relentlessly against uranium mining, despite its appeal to the government as a cash cow. Luckily, Laurel was alone, and she was always willing to talk. I asked her what was new, and settled in for a sermon.

Connie came looking for me as soon as she lost at pool. Her eyes were red, and barely-visible sparks seemed to shoot out of her aura. She hovered outside my conversation with Laurel like a visible threat. The more I tried to draw Connie in, the more sarcastically she pointed out that some people are full of shit. Laurel looked uncomfortable.

I drew Connie away. I was shocked to see tears spilling out of her eyes and down her face. She told me I might as well be with Laurel, since we were both Fancy Educated Women who were full of shit. “You have to stop putting me down!” she told me. She didn’t care who heard. She was drunk, pickled in beer and grief. Lightning bolts from her eyes showed me how much she hated everything she thought I stood for.
“I’m going home,” I told her. The Club felt too small to contain both of us.

“You can’t go out there!” she called after me. “It’s after midnight and it’s forty below.”

“Watch me,” I answered. I had no driver’s license or cash for a taxi. There were no bank machines in our town at that time. My apartment in the single-parent co-op was about two miles away.

What I was doing was suicidal, but I felt as if I had no choice.

Just as I had hoped when I barged out the door, my rage kept me warm enough for the first block, even while I wondered why no one had seriously tried to stop me from stepping out into air that felt brittle enough to shatter.

By the third block, I had to slow down. Breathing air into my lungs was painful, yet I had to take deep breaths to get enough oxygen to keep going. I settled into a rhythm of shallow-breath, shallow-breath and inhale-two-three-four. It was like the rhythm I used to breathe and push down when I was giving birth.

I was walking down a street near the centre of town, yet I might as well have been on the deserted prairie. The night was dark as hell and as cold as outer space. No one drove by. (Would I have begged for space in a stranger’s car?) All decent people seemed to be asleep in their warm beds.

Inside fur-lined mittens, my hands turned numb, then thawed, making me aware that I still had nerve-endings. Damn, it was cold. The sound of my boots on snow was hypnotic.

I was passing the large park that took up much of the south end of town. Sleep and warmth were trying to seduce me, and the snow banks looked like rumpled sheets in a big, welcoming bed. The wind had died down, or so it seemed. I could just curl up in the snow and take a nap.

I remembered the Snow Queen of Hans Christian Anderson. I could feel her all around me.

I gradually understood what was happening: hypothermia, the first phase of freezing to death. Part of me thought that was an excellent goal. My parents would raise my child. It wasn’t as if I played a necessary role in the universe.

And then my common sense kicked in. My child would be an orphan, and she would probably blame herself. In any case, my sudden absence was almost guaranteed to mess up her life. And I knew so many people with messed-up lives, usually because of something that happened to them in childhood.

It was past 2:00 a.m., but I would have to pound on the door of the nearest house and ask (with frozen lips!) for medical help. It was the only thing to do. If I could keep walking to the nearest house.

A car pulled up beside me, and a young man with a concerned face asked if I needed a ride. I remembered all the warnings I had been given, starting at puberty. Don’t accept rides from strange men!

Or what? I asked the parental voices in my head. Or I might suffer a Fate Worse Than Death? Really? I was tempted to laugh, but my face-muscles were locked in place.
I accepted the rescue. The warmth in the car felt like love, and it entranced me as we rolled quietly over the snow-covered street. Somehow, I managed to let the Good Samaritan know where I lived. And all he wanted was a chance to save someone who needed it.

I stumbled into my apartment, knowing the thawing-out would be worse than the freezing-up. I knew I would see my daughter the next day, and for many days to come. I would see Connie again, and we would both have to make some decisions. For better or worse, it wasn’t my time to go.
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4 comments:

  1. Great story, Jean. Sometimes death is dramatic like a landslide or a guy with a gun. Sometimes it's stealthy and sly, just inviting you to lie down and give up.

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  2. Jean - I'm shudderng just reading about it. (I'm no fan of snow). Thank goodness for that guy driving by.

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  3. Lisabet, so true.
    Kathleen, I sometimes think I could adopt the motto of Blanche Dubois from A Streetcar Named Desire: "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." Here in Saskatchewan, there is a tradition of Good Samaritanism, prob. because the climate used to be life-threatening, and the culture is essentially rural: many people here come from farm villages where everyone knows everyone else. I've offered help to strangers myself - as a teenager, I once let 2 scruffy-looking young men into the family home when I was there alone because I didn't want them to freeze. They said they had car trouble, just like the thugs in A Clockwork Orange. In my case, the guys turned out to be grateful & polite.

    Note the difference between prairie helpfulness and the Southern Gothic atmosphere in Garce's piece. What motivates human behaviour could be another topic.

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  4. hi Jean!

    I'm trying to imagine a place like Canada where a person can die walking a couple of miles. Since 1995 I've either lived in the tropics or the deep south. I grew up in minnesota but I've forgotten what its like to be seriously cold.

    I especially liked the argument and the character of connie. She comes across very genuinely. I can just see her.

    Garce

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