The Absence of Heat
drifting in the Driftless
She didn’t think she would survive the first winter.
She hadn’t thought the trees would survive, either.
They had moved into the yellow house in April, as soon as it was warm enough to pretend the space heaters scattered around the first floor would hold them until they got the wood stove sorted. They told themselves they had at least six months to figure the heat out.
They had nine months for the other thing. Well, eight now.
She had told him the night before, when they were laying on the mattress on the floor under about a hundred pounds of blankets. She had waited until it was late, and they were both tired, and she could claim to want to talk about it more tomorrow.
“Can we not call it an ‘it’?,” he’d asked teasingly, the next morning as she made coffee. She knew he was more serious than he wanted to let on. “He’s a peanut by now. Or maybe it's a ‘she’, and she’s a rose hip,” he said, slipping his arms around her, his hands finding the place they liked high on her hips. “Or a pear,” he said, turning their bodies just a bit towards the window, to look out at the small trees they’d planted in the old orchard. “My little snow pear,” he said more softly, his hands moving faintly towards the front of her body, and the moment became too full for her to bear.
She slipped out of his arms and picked up the roll of drawer paper, batting at him playfully. She should have known he would be like this. Then again, she hadn’t expected any of this – him, Wisconsin, the yellow house.
Wisconsin. She had winced when she said it, at first, but that was before she’d been. His family was from the southwest part of the state, what they called the Driftless region, because it had evaded the long, snaking deltas of glaciers that smoothed over the surrouding landscape. The rest of the Midwest was achingly flat, and quartered into woodlots and square meadows and corn fields, but the Driftless was dramatic. It had waterfalls, and caves, and ridges and hills that could almost look like mountains, if you were laying on a blanket with the sun behind them.
She hadn’t known that you could fall in love with a place the same way you could fall in love with a person. But it felt the similar to her, and full of the same fraught feelings. Her first visit, the meet-the-family visit, was in the summer. It was hot, but it felt clearer and brighter, almost like you could see further through the air up here. It felt like the summers from her childhood, before August became unbearable in the south. When the sun went down, the earth responded appropriately, and you could even sit outside by a fire.
Then there was her first winter visit, when he took her cross country skiing. She had felt, for a few hours, as if she was floating through the forest. The only sound was the small “whoosh” of the skis, and her own breathing. Every part of her body was engaged, to keep her moving forward, and it was unfolding in a more graceful manner than she had known she was capable of. She couldn’t imagine how anyone could ever grow tired of this white magic that fell from the sky, and how it turned every view from the long dirt driveway into a postcard.
They had their first fight, too, that trip. She had been looking for a way out, listing all the reasons that had piled up like laundry in her mind.
“We’ll make it work, because I love you,” he said, the words catching in his throat for a moment. She had always known that he would be the first one to say it, she just hadn’t expected it right then.
“I love you too,” she managed to get out, between the hiccups that always accompanied her tears.
“So, why are we crying, then?” he asked, laughing softly as he wiped his eyes. They were filled with too much hope to see anything else, and she couldn’t bring herself to take it away, then.
The next spring, they moved into the old yellow house by the road. They worked in the orchard, planting the pear trees that she insisted couldn’t survive this far north. As much as she loved the postcard views, she felt the same sort of fear for herself, way deep down. She loved the cold and the quiet, but she didn’t know if she was built for it, in the long run of a life.
He’d insisted on planting them, and had gone to great lengths to convince her that the snow pear was a real species, from Asia. That it could handle the winters. Pretty soon, it would be warmer, too, “if climate change was even real” he quipped, just to provoke her. She shot back that pears had always tasted like chalk to her, that even if they did survive, she didn’t even like them.
“Just wait,” he’d replied, “You’ll see.. you’ll like them. You’ll love it. ” He was so breathlessly earnest, that again, she didn’t know what to say.
During the summer, in that sweet weekend heat that she was still wary of, didn’t quite trust, they planted the garden in front of the orchard. The little old lady who lived down the road walked by with her dog, and called out brightly, “God’s work.. you’re doing God’s work, right there.”
She pressed her hands on the sides of her back, smiled, and ignored the urge to declare, “You know, maybe God could do his own fucking work once in a while.” He had come outside then with a glass of cold water, waved at the neighbor lady, and knelt down and wiped her forehead with his sleeve. Then he took her hand and rubbed the back of it until the dirt came off onto his.
“I wouldn’t trade a tree for the way I feel about you… Anyhow, I love you,” he said softly. It was an old Guy Clark song, something he had sang to her around one of those summer fires, long before they had said those exact words to one another.
It wasn’t that she didn’t love him. She knew that she did, as much as it was possible to love another human being, flawed and beautiful as all people are. She just wasn’t sure how much was left over after that dispensation. For someone else. When she thought about the little snow pear, there was something missing… something she suspected should be there, but that she could only fumblingly note by its absence. It was like the afternoons that looked like summer, but felt like fall, up here. It was an absence of heat, that came on quick after the tilting days of an Indian summer, until it broke like a fever and then there was simply.. nothing.
But still, they floated on the lazy daydreams of the summer for too long. She didn’t realize that the easy part had already came and went until she felt the pain start one night, low in her abdomen. It was too early, and too late, by then. There was no heat left in the days, and no soft evening light, and the snows hadn’t come with their magic yet, either. The sun set early that time of year, and it was late in the evening until the moon appeared. That in between time had its own certain kind of fear. The summer had broken, and everything else, too, including her own body, it seemed.
They drove back to the yellow house in the morning as the first snow came down. He had one hand on the wheel, and the other on hers, carving out the space above her thumb with his own. She had thought she had known what nothing felt like - what the absence of something felt like - but she knew then that that had been another illusion. There are some places that you only know right when you arrive at them. She held on tight to his hand in the car, but her grip eased as they made turn after turn towards the little yellow house. The snow coming down felt like it was bundling them up in something like an embrace, that promised silence and stillness, and instructed them to cling to one another again under those big blankets.
So, that’s what they did. Somehow they survived, and so did the little pear trees. Then, it was spring, and it all began, again.