CW: mentions of alcoholism, Naziism / antisemitism
Working in Antarctica is for serious scientists, they say. For people who know what they’re getting into. For people not like you, they don’t say but don’t have to. They also do not say you are already so lonely, we think the black cold of the tundra will kill you. They do not say these things because a. It is implied and b., They do not think themselves cruel. They are Midwestern and their cruelty lay in what is not said. You’re already partially made of ice, frozen so long ago if they drilled, they’d find the fossils of wooly mammoths. Furry, warm, but someone would have to brave the tusks first and who’d be stupid enough to try that? The first known depiction of Orion – the constellation, was found on mammoth ivory. You love that those two things go together in that far off way. When they do acknowledge your plan, they say you’ll get eaten by polar bears. You aren’t leaving until May. You have five months and you’re not sure you can make it, here staying in the town you grew up in, with your parents, in your childhood bedroom. It’s the last holidays you’ll spend in this cold midwestern town. It starts to snow before they arrive. First the aunt and then the grandparents and then the aunt and uncle and the many children. They doff their heavy coats and shuffle into the tight foyer. They drink Old Fashioneds and ask for extra cherries. The children go off to the plaid carpeted and wood-paneled basement. Outside the window you watch the snow circle itself, a waltz. Your degrees are pretty pieces of paper with their curlicue barely-legible scrawl, your full name in a serif font– so odd looking all together like that; you often think that can’t be you. You are not all those names, all those connections to the past, to your family. You are not married. Your fourteen years of experience in a lab are nothing because you have no children. Fellowships, papers, commendations: feh, they do not say, but also do not respond when you sent your news via the family group text. But oh, how they respond to your nieces’ and nephews’ photographs! In their Halloween costumes and first day of school photos with cutesy signs saying they want to be a doctor or scientist when they grow up. How cute! everyone replies-all with many exclamation points and emojis. As you’re staring out the window, someone asks if you’re seeing anyone. They’re entirely too close and you can smell whiskey on their tongue – a magic carpet of alcoholism. They have only just arrived and their glass is still full. Someone says their daughter is an asshole, then covers their mouth as if embarrassed, but they know what they said and are proud of it. You know everyone’s names, but don’t recognize anyone. The snow collects the way it does in the Midwest, at first on the hedges and then on the grass and then on the driveways and then on the street. They will all get snowed in, you think. They will all have to stay the night. You open the screen door and step into the burgeoning snowstorm. You’re wearing house slippers, but you don’t care. You always pack your slippers. They will come with you to Antarctica too. You slide the door closed behind you into a silence only snowfall can elicit. Overhead, outside of the city, you can finally make out some constellations. It is a small joy. You look over at the shed where you had your first kiss: Mike McNeil. You wander over to the playset where you fell and broke your leg at eight. Halfway across the yard, you step wrong into a divot, and your ankle turns out. Fuck! You chastise yourself because it’s been there forever and how long has it been since you’ve been home that you could have forgotten? Your ankle radiates and feels tender, but it’s okay. Out here there are no fences to divide lots. Just expanses of grass between homes. In the day, you’d see playsets and statues of saints and dormant water features. In the dark, you see none of that, but you can feel their ghosts. A rev of a truck out on the main drag. A second. Races, probably. It was big when you were a high schooler, though you never participated. Two kids died your senior year from such an event, but you can’t remember their names. Warm light emanates from windows. A person walks across the field of vision in one window. A Christmas tree blinks in another. In the house across the way, you see Ms. Horowitz sitting at her kitchen table. One of her hands holds up her head as if it is so heavy it can’t possibly stay up on its own. The other drums the table. She stares out the window and you wonder if she sees you. She was always so kind, volunteering in your elementary school library, offering one book after another to you, recognizing a kindred spirit, perhaps. One of the first books she gave you was a National Geographic book on cold climate animals. Behind her is a small light from above the stove, otherwise her house is dark. You recall when Mike – the one you first kissed – left a note with a swastika on it in her mail box. He told you about it and giggled like he had left her a Valentine. He never talked to you past sophomore year and you hate that your first kiss was with a Nazi and that you can’t erase that. You keep walking. The snow whips around, beautiful, wild. Your feet are starting to get wet through your shearling slippers. Your thighs burn with cold. Your ears ring. A laugh pierces the air – one of those animal guffaws that comes from a man who probably drinks a lot, was football captain, has two daughters with long hair, and bitches about socialism. You hate it here. You always did. So you keep walking, past the backs of houses. This is the parts of the house people don’t want on display. Rusted lawnmowers, shipping boxes discarded in heaps, old cat beds, tangled pipes from who knows what. For someone supposedly made of ice, you’re getting quite cold. The houses grow farther apart. You leave the festive lights behind and look up. There she is, Ursa Major roaring up in the purple-black sky. She guides you. After what feels like hours, but might’ve been ten minutes, wisps of clouds stream in. You always loved when you could see clouds at night. It feels like something no one else gets to witness. With them, however, you lose sight of the bear. The snow is accumulating. Large swaths of white lay all around you. You think about falling backwards and making a snow angel, but your toes feel like blocks of ice. A dagger of cold at your temples dares you to keep going. You don’t want to lose your way, and you’re a scientist and know that hypothermia is real, even outside of the tundra. Even in the wilds of suburban Wisconsin, you’re at risk. Especially, perhaps. You turn around and go back. You wish you had told them all that there were no polar bears in Antarctica. Just short of slipping back into the side door, you observe what’s happening in the house. The bodies collected inside look like a multi-headed monster. A medusa of sorts. You imagine yourself a modern-day Perseus and instead go knock on Ms. Horowitz’s door.
Jennifer Fliss (she/her) is a Seattle-based writer whose writing has appeared in F(r)iction, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, and elsewhere, including the 2019 Best Short Fiction anthology. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website, jenniferflisscreative.com.