My freshman year, when winter came, I did my best to fight it. The cold came out of nowhere, unannounced and uninvited, and it sent the kids all scrambling for their mittens, hats, and scarves. But I would not back down so easy—I hated nothing more than being forced inside by weather, and I had always been a mind-over-matter man deep down. So I didn’t let it in, the cold.
It’s an Australian thing, I told whoever proudly. It’s a habit that you learn from chilly beach days when you feel the wind grow chiller, and you can see the days grow shorter, and when you know, you just know, this means that Summer’s ending so you’ll all be back at school soon, and all those Summer Dreams you dreamed all year are never coming true, or not this time around at least. The revelation spreads like goosebumps across your body, and the salt from the sea starts caking dry—but you can feel the sun warming you up and as long as you’re still on the beach, it’s still summertime.
What you do is you think before you feel. The sense you don’t want, you pick it out and then you just refuse to let it in. You turn your mind to something else. This is a familiar feeling. It’s like holding your breath, except with the whole of your body.
So I fought against the winter and, inevitably, I lost. The first round was a stalemate. It was early in October, and I giggled at the smoke that I made with my breath. We went down to the river, that night, and we sang me happy birthday. It was my first American birthday. I sang, as well, even though it hurt to open my mouth, and I never knew the etiquette on happy birthday to me. We were friends, new friends, freshman friends. My PAF said it’s nice to have warm bodies around you, even though they won’t all end up being your soulmates, maybe just a few of them if any. We ate cake and our teeth chattered. Then we packed everything up and dragged our tired, frosted bodies to the dorms.
I had never felt as cold as this before. But I called it a draw. I was at college, it was a whole new world. That night, I decided that I would be somebody who didn’t mind the cold, really.My first big loss took place through November that year. I had this freshman seminar that met over at Littauer, a big squat gray building that backs out towards a courtyard at the Law School. One week I got to class early and went to do my reading on the park bench there. It was a perfect spot. None of the other freshmen came to read here, I thought. Maybe this place would be my place.
My seminar was in the Ec department, but I wasn’t an Ec major: I was undeclared and proud of it. I didn’t declare much freshman year, despite pages and pages of pros and cons. In my courtyard, I thought about how people choose a life, anyway, and what comprises one.
The next week, I read on my park bench again, and I thought the same thoughts while I did. I turned pages with gloves on, pinkfaced but brave in the wind. And I felt the need all at once to write down everything that was me now, me in college—me in America. The inventory went something like this: golf pencils/café algiers/pan african dance & music ensemble?/science center yogurt parfait/french stuff—baudelaire??/this bench in the law school!!!
The next week I went to the courtyard again. It was freezing, freezing cold. I told my friend: I can’t imagine it ever being colder than this. He laughed and said: It’s only November, it’s not nearly the worst of it yet. I did not appreciate his honesty. That week, the last week, I lasted all of fifteen minutes and I ran back inside, teeth still chattering.
It was an absolute, total thrashing at the hands of the weather. From that day on, there was no doubt that winter had won. I never tried to read in the courtyard again, and besides, the battle had taken on a different dimension. Before I knew it, I was running between stores, shivering, skipping meals and missing class because it’d be so damn cold out there—and when I’d get home, I’d rub my arms in the shower with a sigh like a martyr thinking where is the cold, how do I get it out. And I’d laugh with my friends, with my roommates, who thought it was the stupidest thing ever, my outrageous self-pity in the face of the cold. By the time we had our first family Christmas together, I had absolutely no interest in studying outside, by the Law School or anywhere.
By the time it got warm again, I was done with economics and distracted by other commitments, so I never went back to that courtyard. When I think of the bench, I feel a surge of embarrassment, though I don’t know what exactly for.
Then one night, junior fall, we were all going out to the Co-op—it was the same we as before, plus a few and minus a few—and we went to take a shortcut through the Law School. It made us feel like locals, the shortcut, like it meant we belonged here more. Plus we were all on the list, that night, all of us, and we shot off laughing through the night tipsydrunk on red wine and togetherness in the cold. I turned from the group, downed the last of my beer, and chucked the can over my shoulder, relishing the buzz of not giving a crap when you usually would give a crap. Turning, I saw my old park bench in the dim light. I threw it a salute, and blushed, and smiled—and then I spun back off through the evening, slipping my arm into the arm that was waiting and joining in the procession of friends, singing out just for ourselves while a part of me thought how funny it is that time moves so slowly when you pay attention, but then it gets right away from you when you take your eyes off it, even if it’s just for a moment.