This was back in 2011, when I was living in Kansas. I was in Wichita for graduate school and as a result, was also incredibly poor. In spite of my whopping 8,900-dollar salary, I was able to find a one-bedroom apartment for 300 dollars a month. If you are shocked by both figures—and you should be—all I can say is go to Wichita, and you will understand both. It is the kind of city where people will tout two things: the lack of traffic and the cost of living. These two “positives,” when looked at from a slightly more pessimistic perspective, could, and most likely should, lead someone to believe that Wichita is a city that lacks people—thus the lack of traffic—and lacks any desire to be lived in, thus the lack of high living costs. It’s the city that housed both the first White Castle and the first Pizza Hut. You get the idea.
I moved to Wichita in August, when it happened be around 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and as a result I wasn’t thinking very much about the winter. It was hard to imagine anything remotely cold at the time. Being outside on a summer day in Wichita is kind of like standing behind the jet engine of a 747.
My apartment was on the ground floor and was both cooled and heated by a two-way window unit. I’d never seen a device that could both cool and heat, but there it was, claiming to do the impossible. It turned out that I was correct in my doubts, however, because when winter came, the unit simply blew out mildly warm air, which quickly disappeared into whatever cracks and spaces my windows and doors had. The window unit turned out to be so inefficient that if it wasn’t turned on full-blast, my bedroom would be instantly cold. Being the cheap graduate student I was, I naturally tried to keep the thing off as much as possible. I insulated my windows with that plastic wrap you blow dry to the edges of the window frame; I stuffed towels under my front door; I even started heating my apartment with my kitchen oven (having since moved on and up from my toaster-oven-days). I eventually broke down and bought a space heater from Walmart—a place I’d promised myself I’d never go. The space heater moderately reduced the problem. Now instead of waking up with a headache from the cold, I had only a dull ache in my toes and fingers, which was uncomfortable, but bearable.
The less than optimal situation in my apartment led me to spend a majority of my time at my office on the sixth floor of the humanities building on campus, where I reveled in the warmth of the English department. I imagine I was the happiest graduate student up there, simply because I could feel my toes and ears. Due to my constant presence on the sixth floor, my colleagues must have thought I was the most dedicated graduate student, and in part I was, though out of sheer necessity. It was either freeze in my hovel, or be warm in my office.
But I still had to get to my office, and on mornings when I taught at nine a.m. there was nothing more terrifying than getting into my bathroom and taking a shower. Because while the space heater kept my bedroom warm-ish, my bathroom might as well have been outside. It was so cold that steam would rise from the toilet bowl when I urinated. Before I sat down on the seat, I would rub it with my hand, so my ass wouldn’t freeze to it. I would have heated the bathroom by running hot water, but it was a big apartment complex, and the hot water only lasted about ten minutes. My bathroom was so cold that friends refused to come over, citing their girlfriends’ unwillingness to sit down on the toilet.
There was already evidence in the drop ceiling of my bathroom that previous tenants had attempted to warm the bathroom by way of leaving the shower on for extended periods of time. The tiled ceiling showed signs of water damage: brown splotches spreading out like tie-dye. Naturally, the bathroom wasn’t properly ventilated, and the steam had nowhere to go, except for into the tiles, where it was absorbed indefinitely. Years of this had caused obvious water damage. I had of course pointed the issue out to my landlord, but nothing had been done. The ceiling was so warped and discolored that it looked as if it would collapse at any moment, but my landlord assured me that it had been like that for years. Why this assured me, I have no idea.
On a Monday at the end of January, it seemed the hot water was going to stay on for longer than usual. It was early, maybe six or seven, and I delighted in the warmth and the steam. I put my face up to the shower nozzle and let the water pound my forehead and eyelids. I sat cross-legged in the bath laughing for pure joy. My bathroom was actually hot. I couldn’t believe it.
And after a good thirty minutes or so I decided to shampoo my hair. So caught up in my steamy-bliss, I failed to hear the ceiling of my bathroom crumbling and beginning to give way. Only until the first large, soggy panel of the ceiling fell into the shower, did I realize what was happening. The panels were most likely full of asbestos and other harmful chemicals we use to build things. Predictably, the other panels followed suit and soon I was looking up at a hardwood ceiling with lots of wires and cables running back and forth.
With something I can only describe as disgust and humor, I threw the fallen tiles onto the bathroom floor, rinsed the crumbled particles out of my hair, finished my shower and went to class. I took great satisfaction in calling my landlord, exclaiming that, yes, the ceiling had in fact fallen in on me while showering, and no, I didn’t feel like waiting a day or two for the repairman.
Of course I now see the triviality of my predicament, but the compounding effects of the bathroom, the two-way heater, the way my windows banged in their sills when the wind blew, the way the land in Kansas can seem to stretch out in front of you like an endless brown and gray streak of paint can make one feel colder than any winter.
I have since moved to a nicer apartment—a house, actually—with a roommate. And every time I drive or bike past my old apartment I remember the utter bliss of that hot shower and then the sound of my falling ceiling. My friends still joke about how cold my bathroom was, and how no one could sit down on my toilet. My new house has central heat; it appears I’ve learned my lesson. And when it’s cold and winter clouds blow out across the sky, spraying snow and ice over the land, my roommate and I crank up the heat and are warm. I have come to understand that there are things that are important in this world, and being warm is one of them. But sometimes, when I’m alone in the house and the weather report calls for freezing rain and wind chills in the negatives, I’ll shut off the heat, undress, and crawl under the covers of my bed, just to remember what it’s like to be cold, paralyzed into a numb, mindless bliss.
Soon Wiley is a native of Nyack, New York. He received his BA in English and Philosophy from Connecticut College. He currently attends the MFA program at Wichita State University, where he is the assistant editor of MOJO. His work has appeared in or is forth coming from TINGE Magazine, the Hawaii Review, Columbia College Literary Review, and others.