Thursday, February 7, 2013

Iced, Baby

We weren't getting along. Mostly, we were just staying away from each other. I love to go for walks at night in the winter, and I was happy to go alone.

Winter sky is so clear it's black. Stars pierce. I clearly see patterns in the stars, but I don't see a dog or bear or lion. Really, Cassiopeia, you're not a queen clinging to your upturned throne. You're just a "W." But you're pretty, still.

Even as a child I always noticed Orion. Orion followed me as I walked to visit my friend Harold. I'd speed up, slow down, break into a dead run, and Orion would always move apace. I didn't feel threatened as much as watched over.

I put on my sweat pants and coat, then strolled the half-mile or so to Miller Park, with Orion looking over my left shoulder. The park wasn't considered a safe place to go at night, but it was winter and I didn't feel threatened. Without the people, it was a magical place filled with giant maple trees, a large lagoon in the middle.

I shuffled out onto the silent ice, pushing tracks in the light dusting of snow. I stood in the middle of the ice, admiring its black reflection of the sky, the absolute quiet. The world seemed to expand.

After a few minutes, I grew cold and headed for home.

Halfway back to shore I heard a muffled chunk. I played on the ice a lot as a kid and was used to the noises it makes. But after the second chunk, and then a third, I quickened my pace.

Crack! This one was sharper, more near the surface. I bolted. My feet spun on the ice.

The structure began to collapse. I was running on separate pieces of ice that toddled underfoot, water splashing past the edges. It seemed I might yet stay up, like running on snowshoes, if I were fast enough.

I wasn't.

I went in, swallowed hole.

The air rushed out of my lungs. With every effort to climb out, the ice broke beneath me. It was so cold I couldn't feel it. The dead quiet was replaced with a hissing noise, the fear, blood and adrenaline racing through my ears. The shore was still fifty feet away.

My flailing leg bumped mud. I gathered my footing and discovered the water was only four feet deep. I felt stupid and thrilled at the same time. The bottom was sticky as taffy, its gloopy suction pulling at my shoes. Slog by slog, I worked my way out.

As a high-schooler atop a mountain in Colorado, I had gotten hypothermic once before and knew not to let it happen again. With a warm dry home only six blocks away, I decided to run for it, hoping to get there before everything froze up.

My legs had already gone numb, and I could feel my muscles thickening. My feet grew heavier. I was slowing. I looked ahead: still four blocks to go. My run turned into a trudge, turning into ponderous baby steps. I wasn't going to make it. Not even close.

Resigned, I looked down at my feet, which were completely surrounded by my water-soaked sweat pants. My legs had become so numb that I didn't feel the drawstring give way, freeing the wet, heavy sweat pants to work their way down around my ankles.

Huh.

I pulled my pants back up over my pink legs. A couple of quick steps to prove I could run after all, and  I was home in minutes.

With drooping lids she looked up from her jug of Gallo Hearty Burgundy as I burst through the front door, bug-eyed and dripping. I told her a brief version of what happened (minus the sweat pants part) as I sloshed by to draw a hot bath. The lazy look in her eyes was as distinct as if she had come out and said it: "It would have been really convenient if you hadn't made it out."

It was the marriage that drowned, slow and cold.

This year the ice is perfect, a rare development. Sleek and smooth, clear and black, free of snow. Laura and I went ice skating, with the whole lake to ourselves but for a few children and a couple of cranky ice-fishermen. Still, I stayed close to the shore.

Weeks later we walked the beach of Lake Manawa, coming upon three ice sailboats parked invitingly on the sand. I admired the sleek runners and the long stretch of glistening ice calling them out. My imagination raced.

Someday, I will. Someday.