Cold Air

This piece contains strong language and references to substance abuse, self harm, and suicidal thoughts.

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Cold Air by Sophie Soloway - Photo by Liora Meyer

The air was cold against my cheek, striking through my skin and into my bones so that I could taste the cool on my tongue. My eyes were closed, as if to block out the freeze, but it did no good. I could have sworn it was spreading through me, like a wave over my sandy body. I was grotesquely unhappy, stretching across the limb of this tree, resisting the urge to zip up the coat my mom shoved onto me, grasping the bark for dear life.

Snowflakes hit me with a force I’d never expect, and I imagined myself buried, waiting for the thaw until I was found. The thought of my mom calling out for me just ten minutes from then, worried sick that I was leaving her, dug me out from my imaginary hole, created such heat that I felt the snow sliding off my cheeks like tears. Every time I shivered, the tree below me shook, and I reached out, grasping for my makeshift cradle. With my eyes closed, I inched upward, farther and farther from the ground, like I was crawling towards stability. But the limb got thinner under me each time I shifted my weight, until I couldn’t promise I wasn’t floating, until I was sure I was flying. I held my breath, like oxygen was keeping me tied to the tree.

My mom’s words came tumbling down the hill and landed on my lap, shaking the ground far below me, calling my name until my eyes had to open. I wanted to stay there, with my eyes closed and my mind so frostbitten that I couldn’t think. I grabbed onto the numb with the same force as my hands on the tree under me, but it was less effective. I heard a crack in my mother’s voice, begging me to come inside so she could breathe, and I had to snap awake, to feel the cold that was biting into me from all angles. I knew it was selfish to stay out there and torment my mom, so afraid that I would be gone soon too. As I trudged through the piles of snow on my short walk toward my home, I considered how gruesome this activity was—exploiting the New England winter to numb me down to nothing. By the time I thawed out, by the time I lost all feelings of cold, I would find another chance to slip out unnoticed and grab hold of that startling pain again.

I’d tried to explain the hobby several times—to my mom and my therapist and myself—but I couldn’t muster a rationale far beyond the need to get numb. It started out in the fall, when I’d grown accustomed to smoking in the trees and tolerating my mom’s pretending that I didn’t smell like weed for the rest of the day. On the day of the first sprinkling of snow, I’d been in such a rush to get away that I forgot the coat that poorly concealed the weed I would need. By the time I perched myself on my favorite spot, I didn’t have the energy to walk back. The numbness had taken my feet when I settled my head on the branch for a nap, had touched my hips when I felt the snow make my eyelashes too heavy to hold, had grasped my shoulders when I realized I didn’t need to spend money on more overpriced weed when a winter like this one was on its way. I was lucky. It turned out to be the coldest season I would ever live through.

It was so cold the roads became permanently slippery and everyone in school walked the halls slowly as if they were in the snow that surrounded them constantly. My mom started leaving blankets in every room, and she checked on the heater in my room every day, making sure I wasn’t freezing myself or allowing the house to do it for me. The clouds started looking like the frozen ponds that were splattered across our geography, flat gray sheets that always covered the sun and stars and moon. When I lay on my branches and closed my eyes, there was no sun to dampen the effect. All I could sense were the clouds wrapping themselves around me, reminding me of my mother’s knit sheet and the creeping sadness that would just be fading, but this wasn’t as hot against my skin. When I walked through the front door that my mom always held open for me, we stared into the dismal sky together. She’d stand just too far from me, not wanting to scare me away, and whisper that she had never seen such cold in her life, and I laughed because she would be so covered in layers that she wasn’t a distinguishable form. Our whole winter could be forced into that single description, like it was just a day and a dream instead of months. I knew I had to wake up when she started packing away the blankets she’d splashed across our life.

I didn’t want to take it as a sign that she was giving up, but of course I did. The earth’s thaw was like a slow knife twist for me, like a dreadfully lukewarm shovel digging out of me the cold I’d enforced since autumn. It became so hot so suddenly that in a day and a night my peers had shed their scarves in exchange for sun dresses and shorts, while I held onto my turtlenecks and wool socks for far too long.

I took it so far, my search for cold, that it took hold of my body. I noticed that my cheeks were naturally frosty, my spine seemed to function as its own AC. When my mother reached for my hand from across the dinner table and over the greasy Chinese food we’d ordered, her palm felt like fire against my suddenly chilled wrist.

She contained herself, bit her lip to keep from expressing a new form of her concerns—what if I’d come down with something, what if my body had stopped, what if I was not the warm little boy she’d known before? But she kept her hand over mine for the remainder of the meal and looked into my eyes with such heat that I thought I would burn right there.

She started spreading her warmth every time she had the chance—leaning into me during Friday movie nights, putting her arm on my neck as I drove us into town, hugging me too tight before I went to school—as if her proclivity to optimism would spread into my bloodstream or take over my anatomy.

The first time I realized it might be working was in midsummer, when a heat wave was in full swing in our little town and I took off my sweater without thinking. When I looked down, I could almost see my mother’s handprints across my body, every place her lovingly heated fingers grabbed for mine or stroked my back or pinched my cheeks. I felt far from numb, angry even.

All through September I kept myself from basking in the sun in my woods. I refused my eyes the right to linger in rays coming in through the windows of my classroom. But I thought it was no use. I saw my mother’s eyes widen when I walked through the door one dusk with my sweater in my arms and when I heard her words tumble out of her mouth before she could stop them from commenting when I rushed out of the house with shorts on one morning. Every raised degree on a thermometer seemed to my mom like a personal success, while I saw it as a curse to which I was slowly succumbing. Just as quickly as it had chilled itself, my blood was becoming lukewarm again. It was the warmest fall I could remember, the type of fall that kept the birds around for a while. That kept me around a while, cranking up the AC and ignoring the fact that my mother always turned it down again.

And then it was over. The leaves crunched under my feet on a walk next door. My mom jittered next to me and started slipping under covers. I walked around my old tree until I thought my feet might bleed. And the next day I climbed it. Just like that, the heat was gone. I thought my blood would turn to ice in that second and shatter through my skin. Instead I stayed perfectly still until my mom came out to call for me. All the way up the hill, I could feel her ever-so-warm sadness spreading across the house and lawn because we both knew our little happy lapse had been taken away with a gust of wind, swept up with the last warm front and carried away. I had to take a cool shower to get rid of the feeling of her misery. It didn’t work.

It surprised me how quickly I could lose all feeling again, how little time it took to return to my state of frigidity. Before long I was back on my tree, calling it my tree. I had skipped the intermittent stoner phase altogether, recognizing my true goal and the easiest way to get there with much more ease than I had last fall.

My life became a countdown to winter. The redundancy of waiting had its own numbing effect on me, leaving each day with little meaning except an X on a calendar with an unknown end date. I rushed through everything—school and conversations—to reach the moments I spent wrapped up in New England’s bitter chill. While fall had enough bite to warrant a few shivers and some blankets thrown on the couch, it wasn’t enough to give me what I needed.

I needed Arctic-level cold. The type that freezes your eyelashes shut so you have no choice but to stay in the dark. Have you ever felt nothing from your body except the boring thud of your heart against your inner chest, the only sign that you weren’t imagining life, the only thing making sure you knew you were still somehow alive?

Finally, the countdown ended. One morning, I woke with such a jolt I knew something big was coming. Something was at my doorstep, on my lap, in my grasp. My day was a dream and the minute I let my back ease onto the branch that afternoon, I woke up for real. It had been snowing for two days before and was just beginning to stick enough that the hike to my tree was tough. It reached my bones so suddenly that my mind simply couldn’t function. I couldn’t do anything, think anything. Until it was necessary.

When I heard the first pop, I felt time slow around me, the way everything tends to do in such cold. For days I’d watched my teachers move as if they were icebergs. Cars began to drive so slow I thought it better to walk to my few destinations. And in that moment, everything in the world but my racing mind became so slowed that I wasn’t sure it was moving at all. By the second pop I felt the branch bend beneath my back, felt my spine arching to match its shape.

My mind, frozen just how I had wanted for so long, brought up the question that had plagued me for even longer.

Did I want to die?

My mother had asked one day. Pouring coffee into a thermos and keeping her eyes on my boots, she offered answers she didn’t have without saying much more than five words.

Did I want to die?

I’d weighed the pros and cons so many times, the list should have been etched into my palms. Of my own accord, maybe. Leaving my mother alone with all she had and didn’t have seemed grotesque, even for me, but I knew it would have practically the same effect as the past ten absent months we’d spent together. I tried to imagine what I’d do, and every scenario involved some kind of pain that would disrupt the perfect numbness I’d achieved. I’d come to the conclusion that it might not be so different from the life I was already living, but as death itself seemed to approach me so suddenly I wasn’t so sure.

Seconds lasted for eternities as the branch finally gave way to the open ground beneath me. The dirt had seemed so far away when I was perched up but now it was gravely close. Even still, I could have relived my whole life in the time it took for the two of us to meet. I wondered if there were mistakes I’d redo that brought me to this exact moment, of my head exploding against the stiff ground and my mind shattering with the noise of some kind of snapping (the source unclear; bone or tree branch or human life). But it seemed that I’d been helpless all along. Despite any warming efforts my mother had made, despite the discomfort her concern’s fiery edges had given me, almost forcing me to resist, I was gone. There was no warming up after a feeling this cold. And it seemed reassuring that this was how I would go, with the snow all around me, giving me the numbness I’d chased for so long.

I wanted to worry for her near solitude in my absence, but the cold is harsh that way. It takes its mission to heart, freezing up your every thought until you have no choice but to give in completely. I felt the frost of every time I had laid down to force a stop to the worries and thoughts, and realized I could not be surprised that I was too weak to even consider withdrawing from it. Every trace of my warmth was drawn from my system like blood until I was dry. I gave in quicker than I would want to admit, letting its chill wrap its arms around me until there was nothing left of me. Nothing at all.

If you or someone you know has contemplated suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741741. For more information, visit our Mental Health Resources section.
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