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Cold Like Being Afraid

by



I WOKE UP AFTER ELEVEN TODAY with a mouth full of sleep. I turned the TV on loud so I could hear it in the bathroom while I brushed my teeth and my tongue. I can't get local channels on our satellite, so the news comes from New York City. Today police have motor and pedestrian traffic blocked on 34th Street west of Madison Avenue because icicles fell from the radio tower at the top of the Empire State Building. One of them pierced the skull of a beggar. He died instantly. The dry way the newsgirl described the incident frightened me.

Everything frightens me.

My left ear started ringing while I brushed my teeth (in circles: clockwise twelve times; counterclockwise twelve times), and it harmonized with the clanging of the wind chimes on the back porch. I smacked the butt of the palm of my hand against the side of my head a couple times. It kind of quit.

I rinsed my toothbrush in steaming hot water, turned off the TV and turned on my internet radio. I like internet radio because it's not likely to play music that makes me nervous. I feel like it's my friend. It knows me. It plays things it thinks I will like. It's usually spot on.

The last time I listened to FM radio, the station was playing that Carrie Underwood song in which she carves her name into the leather seats of her boyfriend's truck and then beats the hell out of it with a baseball bat before slashing his tires. She does all of this under the pretense of saving the next girl the trouble. I have a nice old piece of shit car with four bald tires, and I don't cheat on my girlfriend, but that song makes me nervous anyway.

It makes me nervous because my girlfriend likes it. She was humming along with it while she did her dishes last Tuesday evening. I was drying. My towel was soaked, and I snapped it, folded it over the oven handle. I got a clean, dry towel out of the drawer and I asked her, "You like this song?"

She said, "Yeah. Why?"

"Well, have you actually listened to the lyrics? It's kind of." I searched for the right words. "Violent. If you pay attention."

I saw the skin tighten at the nape of her neck, her shoulder blades stiffen. She moved with such grace that I wanted to kiss her, but I could tell she was aggravated with me. I knew she was about to twist my words into a careful knot. "Are you insinuating that I don't pay attention?"

"No, I just wondered why you would." I swallowed my words, rethought my question. "I wondered what it was about it. It's a little dark." I didn't finish my thought. I stared down at my towel, at the damp spots. All we had left to do were the coffee cups.

"It's a fun song. And it's a song." She said song like she was talking to somebody who didn't understand English. "That's all it is."

She pushed flyaway hairs out of her face with her wet hands, leaving suds on her right ear. I heard the little sizzles of the bubbles bursting, dying into invisibility.

She bent her head down and smashed the suds away with her shoulder. She looked at me, waited for me to say something.

I waited for her to forget about it, change the subject, but she just stood there. She let the greasy water out of the sink, and we both watched the suds go down the drain in a swirl; we listened to the gurgle of her plumbing as the sink emptied. It was kind of like the sound I make with my straw at the bottom of a milkshake, but louder.

She picked up the dish soap, squirted way more than enough all over the sink basin. I've told her using too much soap can leave the dishes sticky, but she still does it. She does it with laundry detergent, too.

She started the clean water, and then she stood there, shoulders squared, waiting. She was still waiting for me to say something.

"What exactly do you think is fun about vandalizing her boyfriend's vehicle? If he's cheating on her, wouldn't it make more sense to just break up with him?"

Edie frowned. "What's fun about it, exactly," she mocked me, "is that it's an exercise in fantasy, in venting. It's verbal, cerebral. Everyone knows Carrie Underwood isn't really out there keying her goddamned boyfriend's truck, Jeromy." She always uses words like cerebral when she's mad at me. I think she does it to make me think she's more intelligent than I am. "You're reading way too much into it."

I doubt it. "Come on, Edie! If some guy wrote a song about beating the hell out of his girlfriend's Mazda or whatever girls drive, you know everybody'd be mad about it."

"And by everybody, you mean women. Get away from me, Jeromy."

I tried to apologize.

"I mean it, Jeromy, just get out of here. I don't want to be around you right now."

She didn't talk to me for almost a week. I knew I shouldn't have said that, but it's the truth and it makes me angry that she won't admit that some double standards benefit women.

The last time Edie was that mad at me was the semester she graduated. She was in some philosophy class, and she had to write a paper on Marxism. She asked me what I knew about it, but she said to explain it so she'd understand it.

"It's simple," I told her. It's just like feminism, but without the vagina."

We were at my house. She couldn't leave because she needed my computer to type her paper, but she didn't talk to me the rest of the night and she slept on the couch. I got up early to make her an I'm Sorry Breakfast, but she was already gone.

She didn't take my calls for two weeks that time. But at least she never asked me to help her with her homework again.

Edie is a feminist. Or she thinks she is, anyway. It doesn't usually bother me when she talks about how her gender is being oppressed by the ignorant dead white men who set the standards. Sometimes it's just too much, though. I don't go around thinking about how I can dominate conversations with women or drive better than women, and I've tried to tell Edie this. She says I don't think about those things because the world is made for men. And because the world is made for men, I don't notice all the hardships women endure trying to adapt to a world that doesn't sympathize with the plight of the female. She says I don't think about the stigma, the real double standards.

Last week, we went to the mall to see a movie. We bought our tickets early, and then went window shopping. One of the car dealerships had a twenty-eleven Subaru on display. I have to remind myself to say twenty-whatever because Edie hates it when people say “two-thousand-and-eleven.” She says it sounds totally unnatural and it interrupts the flow of conversation.

I signed up for the drawing. Edie got mad at me. She said car manufacturers design cars with men in mind. She opened the driver side door and started pointing out all the man things about the car. Everybody looked at us.

It made me nervous.

We went in the furniture store. I was looking at the dining room sets. I want to live in a house with a dining room someday. Right now I only have an eat-in kitchen. I pointed out the set I liked. It had black leather seats, dark wood. Edie said that was the most ridiculous dining room set in the whole store. I asked her what was wrong with it and she said the chairs were symbolic of the double standards women have to deal with every day. When I asked her how, she blew up at me. She screamed. She screamed at me at the top of her lungs, screamed at me because the chair at the head of the table had arms. She said it was the man's chair, and of course I would like it because I'm power hungry. Just the fact that I wanted a dining room set infuriated her because dining room sets are matchy-matchy, made for a man who couldn’t possibly choose a table and then find some chairs to go with it that weren’t sold in a set.

We went into Nordstrom. She wanted to go in. I didn't. It was getting close to time for the movie. She got mad at Nordstrom. The men's cosmetics counter was is in a more prominent place than the women's. It pissed her off even more that the women's counter was right by the purses. She thinks purses are a form of gender bias. She says purses were invented by men so that they could turn their women into pack mules. She thinks everything is a gender war.

I told her that wasn't true, that women just like to carry more stuff around. She got pissed off, said that women wouldn't have to carry so much shit around if they weren't trying to be perfect for men. If they didn't have to worry about a man trying to stare at them everywhere they go, women wouldn't have to carry perfume and makeup and little trial size bottles of deodorant and Kleenex. She said maybe I'd like her to start picking her nose and smelling bad.

I didn't ask for extra butter on the popcorn. I figured she'd just find some way to blame men for making women fat or something.

Watching movies with Edie makes me nervous enough without worrying about whether or not she's going to throw a temper tantrum over extra butter. And it's even worse if we watch at home, on DVD. The thing is, she knows all the words to her favorite movies, and she has a terrible habit of saying the lines out loud along with the actors. When she gets to her favorite-favorite parts of her favorite-favorite movies, she skips back and watches those parts over and over again in grotesque repetition.

She did this on our first date. I ran into her at the video store. I couldn't decide what I wanted to rent. I had already wandered through the entire store, and at random, I stopped in the comedy section. I was thinking about getting Rushmore again, but I rented it so many times I could have bought it already. She walked past me, picked up Spaceballs, and smiled. "Ever see this?" she asked me.

"Me?"

"Yeah, you. Look around. We're the only two people here."

"Yeah, I've seen it," I answered. "Back when it first came out."

"You wanna see it again?"

"With you?" It was a little hard to believe it, but I thought she was hitting on me. She was.

"Yes, with me." Her voice was strong. She sounded impatient. "I hate to watch movies by myself. Come on, I only live right down the street."

I just stood there, my mouth hanging open. She was pretty. She's one of those people you see on the news – when they die unexpectedly, their friends say things like "She was so full of life" or "She just radiated confidence." We probably had nothing in common. I was afraid of her.

"You don't remember me, do you," she said.

"I know you? I mean, we know each other?" I didn't think I had ever seen her before.

"You sat right behind me in homeroom for three years in high school. Of course we know each other, Jeromy. Edie Dickinson." She said it like I was a foolish child. She said it with the voice my mother used when she still wanted me to believe in Santa Claus.

I remembered her then. She never talked to me in high school. She had short hair then. I remember how she always wore this necklace, how the clasp of the necklace used to get tangled in the wispy hairs at the nape of her neck. She used to play with her hair, twirl it with her fingers while I stared at the back of her neck for eighteen minutes.

So I went to her house that night. There I was, in the living room of a girl I never talked to in high school watching Spaceballs. "This is my favorite movie!" she told me as she skipped through the previews. I was annoyed. I like to watch the previews. I felt helpless, like somebody else was in control.

She dug into the microwave popcorn bag, shoved a handful of it into her mouth, and then pressed the play button repeatedly. The remote looked like it was used to greasy fingers. The buttons were shiny and the labels were all worn off and she just kept pressing play as if it would help make it work faster.

It reminded me of how my mom drinks iced tea. She doesn't understand there's a saturation point. She pours too much sugar, and then she stirs it around with this one long dessert spoon with stars on the handle, and the sugar swirls around and around in the tea like a dirty snow globe. Then it settles at the bottom of the glass until she stirs it again and it never dissolves.

We sat on the couch. It was the only piece of furniture in her living room besides the TV, which sat on top of the coffee table beside a pile of old phonebooks. The DVD player was on top of the phonebooks and on top of it was a sleeping cat that went by the name of Buddha.

Edie says she has no idea what his real name is, or if cats even have names. People give cats names, she says, so that we can refer to them and talk about them to other people. The cat made me nervous. It was one of those ones with the punched-in face, and it looked like a little Chinese baby, but one that had something wrong with it. The cat wheezed when it breathed, and every once in a while its left ear twitched and it swizzled its tail a little. Otherwise, I don't think it moved the entire time I was there.

Edie's favorite character in Spaceballs is Dark Helmet. Halfway through the movie, there is a scene where he wants his spaceship to go faster, and somebody tells him to buckle his seat belt. Dark Helmet says, "Aah, buckle this!"

At that point in the film, Edie stood up, and put the remote control near her mouth, as if it were a microphone. Then, in unison, Edie and Dark Helmet both yelled into their microphones, "Ludicrous speed, Go!"

I laughed. It was funny. Edie gave me a dirty look. Then she told me to buckle my seat belt. I started to feel a little bit uncomfortable.

The ship took off.

Then Edie and Helmet both screamed, "Whoooooooaaaaah! What have I done? My brains are going into my feet!"

Then she just stood there for a minute. I hoped she was finished, but I had a feeling she wasn't. She stood there as if she were waiting.

Then they both yelled, "We've passed them! Stop this thing!"

She glanced at me, said "OK. You be Captain Colonel Sandurz." Even though I didn't want to participate, I tried to, for her, but I didn't know the words. I ended up just moving my lips and grunting a little.

After my line, Dark Helmet sailed across the ship and smashed his helmet into the wall and Edie took a nose dive into a bunch of pillows and beanbags over in the corner by the closet door. I remember wondering how I missed that big heap of weird on my way in.

Edie rewound it.

The encore was definitely not as fun, at least not for me. But Edie seemed to enjoy it.

The fifth time through, the sound got a little bit funny. Dark Helmet wasn't keeping up with Edie. She just thought her timing was off.

The sixth time, I heard a definite clicking sound coming from under the cat. Edie dove into the pillows again. Dark Helmet flew into the wall. Edie got up. Dark Helmet did not.

Edie said, "What happened?"

I said, "I think your DVD player broke."

The picture was frozen. Dark Helmet's helmet was stuck in the wall. Edie grabbed the remote, frantic, and started pushing all the buttons. She threw the remote on the floor, kneeled down and started pushing the buttons on the DVD player. Nothing happened. The DVD wouldn't come out. Nothing budged.

Buddha opened his eyes, his ear twitched, his tail swizzled. He looked at Edie for a moment, almost like he was considering whether or not it was worthwhile for him to move. Apparently, it wasn't. He closed his eyes and started wheezing again.

Edie started crying. She only had one DVD player. She kept apologizing to me. She thought I was going to be angry because we couldn't finish the movie. I had my doubts we would have ever finished the movie anyway what with all the rewinding and role playing and rewinding again.

I wasn't angry, I told her. I really didn't want to finish the movie, but I tried to fix the DVD player for her. I tried to turn it off. The power button didn't work. It was jammed. When I pressed the button, the picture jiggled a little bit, but it was just stuck.

I turned off the TV and unplugged the DVD player. I waited a minute and plugged it back in. Then I turned the TV back on. Sometimes that works. It used to work when my ATARI froze up. It didn't work, though. The DVD still wouldn't come out. It wouldn't play, either.

The only difference was that the picture was gone. On the TV screen were a zillion tiny dancing dots, black and white. I stared at them, imagined them as digital houndstooth. Just static and fuzz, making white noise.

I clicked through the stations on the radio website, but I ended up listening to the same thing I always listen to – 1990s Alternative Radio. I like what I like.

I searched Google for a news clip about the homeless man and the icicle. There were plenty of articles about the traffic jams caused by the 34th Street detour, but no mention of the man who died.

I printed one of the articles, and wrote in my own note of the recently deceased. I got out my shoebox of newspaper clippings.

The paper was starting to smell old.

There was one right on top from last year about three tourists who went to Kiev for New Years Eve. They were walking down the street when a car spun out of control, smashing into a nearby building. The vibrations from the accident loosened all of the icicles from the overhang above their heads, and as they turned to see what happened, they were stabbed from above. They were already dead by the time the paramedics arrived.

Right under that one was one I found just last week – clipped from the Boston paper – about 2-foot-long icicle formations on the ceilings of the Big Dig tunnels. One of the guys working for the Mass Pike was impaled when he knocked some down by accident. He was hired to chip the icicles off the ceilings and mouth of the tunnels, and he was moving his ladder when it happened. His co-workers rushed him to the hospital, the icicle sticking out of his head. They saved his life, but he has been comatose ever since the accident.

My favorite was in the very bottom of the box. I fished around in the bottom until I felt it. I had it laminated because it was falling apart.

I cut it out of The Lantern when I was at Ohio State. It's about this girl from my Folklore class. She came in late one day with a limp, a jagged rip in her jeans, and a 10 inch gash going catawampus from right under her knee up and across the lower part of her thigh. She looked like she was in a knife fight on her way across the oval. She said she'd been attacked not by hoodlum, but by icicle. She said it fell from the ceiling of the parking garage over by the Numbers.

Lidia Simon, a journalism major, interviewed the victim and wrote a very dramatic article for The Lantern. It was front page the next morning, with a photograph of icicles hanging off the roof of Baker Systems with the Numbers in the foreground. I couldn't figure out why they didn't take a photograph of the parking garage. The caption said "Dangerous icicles near the Garden of Constants."

The Garden of Constants isn't really a garden at all. It's just a bunch of big, turquoise numbers made out of concrete and ceramic bathroom tiles, and it looks like somebody just threw them willy-nilly all over the grass in front of the Central Classrooms building. And it's ugly. People love to take pictures of it. People love when it gets to be spring, too, so they can go pretend to study there. It looks like a cheesy movie set with a bunch of people sitting in the grass or on the 1. They take all the books out of their bags and arrange them around in the grass so it looks all fake. It is fake.

I clipped that article about the girl in Folklore class, and I stuck it to my refrigerator with alphabet magnets I found at the thrift store and bought for thirty-five cents. When I moved at the end of the semester I put it in a Jack Spade shoebox and when I noticed other unusual accident stories in the newspaper, I clipped those too, stuck them in there with Bethany. That was her name. The girl with the bloody leg in Folklore class.

Outside, there are about fifteen icicles hanging like big teeth from the roof of our back porch, right over the top step. I cringe every time Edie comes over because she flies up the steps like nothing. The wind chimes clang and the whirligig squeaks and it's all slippery everywhere, and she ignores the ice under the light snow cover, ignores the loose banister and barrels up the steps like she barrels through life. Joyful and careless.

I'm scared to death one of the icicles is going to fall on her and stab her in the head.

She laughs at me when I tell her this. She thinks I'm afraid of everything, and that makes me feel bad but she's right. I'm afraid all of the time. Of crossing the street, of driving, of making a fool of myself, of frostbite. I'm afraid she's going to leave me because I'm afraid of everything, but that's just something else to be afraid of. I'm afraid of losing things. I'm afraid of breaking things. I'm afraid of running out, of using things up. I get in my way. I try to organize everything. I buy extras of everything, just in case. But I don't have a backup for Edie. I can't organize her. I wish she'd understand that. I wish I could understand her. I wish I could be like her. I wish I could be her.

She wants to go sled riding really bad, but I'm afraid. I haven't been sled riding since I was in seventh grade. That was a bad winter, and over Christmas vacation, I went sledding in Brush Creek with a bunch of guys, and we crashed into a tree. I couldn't walk. I was scared. I was in freezing cold pain, and it's hell to be cold and afraid at the same time. My friends had to carry me back across the frozen creek, up the hill and through the woods.

My mom took me to the emergency room, and the doctor said my leg was shattered. They couldn't cast it until they treated the frostbite.

I went back to school with a cast halfway up my right thigh, and in those twelve healing weeks, I had a growth spurt. When the cast came off, my left leg was half an inch longer than my right leg, and I had to wear special shoes ever since. I can't climb ladders or do anything that requires good balance. I can't clean the icicles off the gutters.

I told Edie this. I told her I don't do any kind of sliding – no Slip and Slides, no water slides, no snowboarding, no roller skating even. So no. No sliding down hills on sleds. She's mad at me every time it snows. Even though she says she's not, I know it because it shows in little lines around her eyes. It shows in little lines in her forehead, near her widow's peak. It shows in little lines around her mouth.

Her friends think I'm a loser – a weird quiet man with a limp. I don't care. I do care, but I don't like them any more than they like me so it doesn't make any difference.

I wish I could go out and not worry about what everyone else is doing, what the weather is doing. I wish I could just have fun without thinking about what might happen to me if I'm not extra careful.

Instead of working, I sleep. I watch TV. I re-read all my beat-up Tom Robbins novels. I go to the thrift store, look for Poison tee-shirts and old metal lunchboxes for my collection.

I got my first metal lunchbox as a gift from my best friend in college. It was my birthday. She always knew what to do and what to say, and I didn't have to watch myself around her because she didn't get offended about anything. I could say whatever I wanted. And that was OK with her. I don't even know where she is right now, but I imagine if she was here she'd tell me to send Edie some flowers.

Yeah, I should probably send Edie some flowers to make up for the sled riding thing. I'll have to go down there though. I hate calling for flowers. I never know if they're actually going to send what I tell them I want. Last Mother's Day I sent my mom a basket of flowers I saw on TV from 1-800-FLOWERS and they sent the wrong one. When I called about it they said they didn't have the one I saw on TV in my area, so the store made a substitution. So I don't trust calling anymore. Plus I want the card to be in my own handwriting. I'll have to go and pick something out. What kind of flowers mean I'm not going to be afraid anymore, you're more important to me than being afraid and not sled riding. What kind of flowers mean I'll stop on the way home and buy a snowsuit.

I got her an elegant crystal vase with a graceful arrangement of Stargazer lilies and pink roses aswirl with purple larkspur and pink alstroemeria. I spent half a week's pay on it. She's worth it.

I went to Cabela's in Wheeling and got red snow pants and waterproof snow boots with really tall treads and big thick socks. I got some extra insoles for my short leg. That should be good enough just to play in the snow.

I pulled in the driveway, excited to see her car. I took a deep breath like my life was going to change. I thought, she's here. I smiled at the heavy clomping sound of my big gimpy shoes crunching the snow on the steps that come up around the house. It felt good, being unafraid of looking forward to something. The vase was big and it was heavy. I shoved the handle of the Cabela's bag down around my wrist. I shifted the flowers to my right arm when I got to the porch steps so I could grab on to the banister. She was inside. I could smell her coffee. I felt like I just won the world.

"Edie!" I called. I wanted her to see me, out in the snow, smiling, unafraid.

"Edie, I'm home!" I yelled and I stomped up the steps.

It was a lazy crash, like glass shattering in slow motion. I smelled iron, blood. I reached for my handkerchief, but I couldn't feel my hand. It was under me. I couldn't move. I kept thinking about my bones.

My forehead felt cold and snow was melting against my ear. My hat was gone. My eyes were cold and everything looked like those scenes on television where it gets all dreamy and blurry and it all seems all right, like there just couldn’t ever be a moment better than this one. But this wasn’t The Wonder Years. This was my life.

My eyes watered in the wind and I looked up smiling. I was alive, looking up at the banister, up at the porch roof, up at the gutters, up at Edie running down the steps. The whirligig caught some wind; it started squeaking again. The wind chimes on the porch clanged. There were no icicles hanging. They were lying beside me on the sidewalk, beside the broken crystal, beside the ruined stargazer lilies, the purple larkspur, the pink roses, beside the pink alstroemeria.


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About Cindy Kelly Benabderrahman


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Cindy Kelly Benabderrahman lives and writes in an Appalachian foothills valley, just at the place where Yellow and Licking Creeks meet in Amsterdam, Ohio. There is no cell phone coverage there, but the sky is dark and clear at night, and she sometimes sees owls. She holds an undergraduate degree in English from Kent State University and a Master of...read more Science in Reading from Franciscan University of Steubenville. She was recently married in the old Arab Medina of Tunis, Tunisia. She and her husband spent their three-week honeymoon exploring the ruins of Carthage and counting stray cats in the Medina.

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