The winter in New England runs from November to April, and during the bleakest months, no one leaves home unless they must. People trudge through their kitchens and bedrooms donning blankets as capes. Outside, they wear coats that resemble sleeping bags. The heaters in the old houses clang and sputter, but they don’t emit enough warmth to toast a room. The hot water only works for half a shower before it surrenders. Field mice wander in from the chill, congregate under beds, and gnaw at cardboard boxes. Human hibernation involves very little sleep, though the sky turns black before supper.
The air is dry and cold. It makes noses leak mucus as thin as water. Skin puckers and wrinkles like dead poultry’s. Lips desiccate and crack. The wind is so thin, it can permeate skin, crawl in between muscle fibers, and blow into bone marrow.
In the morning, school buses, sleek hybrid cars, and old junkers with no heat will clog the intersections in Cambridge. The air, too, will be congested with the sounds of playground shrieking and car horns. Hammers might tap at the renovation project on Somerville Ave., where the carpenters have been joining and pouring and roofing and smoking for two months. Troops of children will bustle two-by-two down the sidewalk, clinging to a rope so as not to lose the urgency of their formation. A door will open, and two grade schoolers will run to a bus stop, the mittens clipped to their coat sleeves bouncing with their gait, their sneakers slapping the sidewalk. Just before the door slams shut behind them, you might catch a whiff of drip coffee and cinnamon oatmeal.
At night, the block was a different world. The triple-deckers with sinking, crooked floors and old colonials haunted by the specters of Revolution Era doctors, were lit up. The windows glowed orange like brick jack-o-lanterns. Muffled arguments and laughter drifted down from the dinner tables to the street, and weathermen and news anchors blared on about negative temperatures and wind chill factors. In the houses, they cooked comfort meals. Each address gave off a different smell—soups with cream broth, broiled meat, butter with thyme and rosemary, warm bread. The meals stick to the ribs and their grease curls up between the moldings and behind the useless radiators. On Oxford Street, someone was practicing at a drum kit, and the snare kept the beat with your footsteps.
But now it is no longer evening, not yet morning. The neighborhood is foreign to itself. If you leave the house now, you are alone—the only living thing exhaling fog in long puffs. You are waiting for a phone call from a girl in California, where it is warm and dry, and only midnight.
This is the coldest and quietest place you have ever been. You can hear space. The coils in your ears can smell the difference between an alley and a house and the yawning, deserted expanse of Massachusetts Avenue, where the power just came back on, and the traffic signals blink. It is too late—or early—to go somewhere, so you think of places you have been. In the west, there is a valley, the hottest place in the country. John Wayne shot all his movies there, and the red rocks are shaped like mittens. In the south, there is a city that is sinking into the Gulf of Mexico. You can get fresh seafood in the winter there, and you can buy liquor in drugstores. In California, there is a city where palm trees stud the highways, and someone dials your number.
The neighborhood is not itself. The construction site is silent, the abandoned project is skeletal. The swings in the playground creak only from an occasional whistling gust that chaps your lips. All the windows on the street are dark, except for the occasional blue flicker from a television set left on. You can almost hear the snow float down and collect on the asphalt, coating the ground in a crystalline fleece. It lands softly. It dulls the sound of the gutters dripping and the rats scurrying and your boots imprinting tread marks in the white as you pace.
When the phone jingles in your pocket, you answer, “Hello?” and the question sounds absurd. Your voice is so strange in the dull, numb chill, so foreign, like it is coming from another country, another planet, and not a place inside you.
Cara Bayles lives, writes, and works in the Greater Boston area.