It was a record-high 94 in San Juan when I left that January morning. Three hours later, I arrived in Atlanta and I heard the temperature was 26 degrees. Less than two hours later, we landed in Memphis. I didn’t know the temperature. Less than four hours later, the bus left me and my baggage at the Oxford station. The driver told me that the temperature was 0 degrees, with a wind-chill of minus 10. But that was at 5:00 PM, when the sun was still a feeble light in the gray sky. Now it was 7:30 PM and very dark.
I was wearing my usual: jeans, T-shirt, light jacket, sneakers and a cap. As the bus pulled away, I realized just how quiet everything else was, how shuttered and closed it all felt, with scattered layers of snow like trimming along streets and rooftops. I knew calling a cab would be useless. The dorm wasn’t far. I could walk.
Practically my whole life has been spent in warm weather. Winter to me is any drop into the 60s. I had encountered true winter the year before, a day or two in the low 20s, but rode those out by staying in, where the thermostat and some judicious tinkering would keep my room in the high 70s.
I felt pain in my hands and face, an alarming tightness exacerbated by the knifing gashes of breath in my nose and throat. I walked slowly, fighting the urge to hunch over as the wind slashed around me. My bags were light, but began feeling immense and my pace slowed. I looked at the houses with the warm glow of lights behind frosted windows. Maybe I should knock on one of those doors, I thought. But arrogance can be an unjust master and I walked on.
A sudden gust doubled me over and I dropped my bags. I looked at the back of my hands, where the veins rise prominently and was aghast. There were jagged crystals pushing up from inside the veins. My hands were literally freezing. As if in a trance, I touched the largest of the jagged mounds. I felt it move and scrape deep within. I had been walking less than 15 minutes.
I was in front of a dentist’s office. A low hedge ran along the right-hand side of the building, covered in ice and snow. I threw my bags between the hedge and the wall and tried to pick up the pace. The wind slammed from all sides and as I flexed my hands, I could feel more jagged scrapes in places I refused to notice. I didn’t think of taking clothes out of my bag to layer for warmth. I thought only of getting to my room.
The Law Center. If I could get there, I could rest and warm up. Between the town and the campus lay a tree-ringed bowl, an almost elven cubbyhole with a raised sidewalk through the middle. As I crossed it, this space I found so endearing, I felt myself unzip my jacket. The wind howled through the treetops and I almost fell off the sidewalk. I could no longer feel my hands.
I trudged up the low hill to the Law Center, passing several houses. I ignored them. I didn’t care for them. I could barely breathe and my throat was raw. The Law Center was lit. I stumbled to the door and pushed against it with my shoulder, keeping my hands from something bad I couldn’t quite remember.
The door was locked. I had wanted to return early to campus to beat the crowds. I had.
I cowered near the door, trying to draw a less-painful breath. The Student Union. It would be open. It had to be. I swung myself off the door and fell. I didn’t break my fall at all, slamming my head onto the concrete. Rolling over, I pushed myself upright. I had the vague sense that the time was 8:10 and that I should have been in my room five minutes ago.
My steps were painful and clumsy. I could sense it, but not put it into words. I also sensed I should close my jacket, flapping in the sharp wind. I took off my cap and tucked it inside my jacket, against my ribs. It was my favorite cap and I didn’t want it to be damaged.
I stopped walking, turned to my right and took a few steps towards some bushes. I fell forward.
How long I was there, I’ll never know. I spasmed awake to enormous pain. Ice broke off my face and the bush’s branches as I pushed myself to stand. Slowly, without thought, I made my way to the Union. As I approached the door, I could see a gap. It's open, I thought, without concern. I pushed the door open with my shoulder and out of habit, went to my mailbox. I slumped to the floor in front of it and fought the pain as I recovered. I was probably there for half an hour.
From the Union to the dorm was a slow trek without incident. I got to my room and simply collapsed on the bed, too weak to wrap myself in a blanket or change clothes. I had trouble breathing. I didn’t want to move so I could ease the pain.
The phone rang. The phone rang. It rang again. I barely made it there to pick it up. I knew I had never felt so drained in my life.
“Hello?” Four musical syllables. Carol.
I croaked a reply.
Another croak. Carol and Don had returned early too and were at the office. Would I join them?
I said yes. Changed clothes slowly, gritting my teeth to shallow breaths. Got a stocking cap, heavy jacket and gloves. Layered an extra sweatshirt and longjohns. Made it to the office because they were there and that’s where I wanted to be, more than anywhere else in the world. They noticed I wasn’t feeling well. I never told them what happened, except for my bags. We went and picked them up.
Later that night, Don and I went out and peed our names in the snow. Luckily, my name isn’t “Alexander.”