In the house where I spent my first ten years, there was a big stove and oven contraption set into the wall of the kitchen. The behemoth was surrounded by terracotta tiles, Tuscan floral reliefs that only the seventies could produce. It was a suburban fantasy that any housewife would cry before. The stove, in its cave of orange sunflowers, had little red lights near the knobs of each of the burners to tell when they were hot, as most stoves do. My first experience of being burned came as a result of this.
See, when my parents got married, they received a perfectly-curated set of kitchen supplies including several shiny Calphalon pots and pans. We ate a lot of pasta. Every time my mom would boil water for dinner, I would sit in front of the stove as she cooked, entranced by the red light that reflected up onto each pot’s perfect silver surface. This went on for months when I was around four years old until I finally worked up the courage to see what those lights truly were. I waited until she moved to the other side of the kitchen to grab the butter and went for the prize. My hand reached out slowly as I stared at the red swirl of the light in an almost hypnotic trance. I smelled barbecue and suddenly felt a jolt of pain run up my arm.
“Clara!” My mother exclaimed. I felt tears running down my face as I realized what had happened. Of course it wasn’t a ghost orb or some fancy jewel, I said to my four-year-old self, and now I have to wear a Band-Aid.
In that hundred-year-old house with the bay window, I grew up happily, for the most part. There is a tendency to romanticize what you can’t completely remember, but the snippets of summer in that home are something I have always treasured.
The only problem was that we were in Michigan, a state whose reputation is relegated to few things other than Detroit, lakes, cherries and brutal winters. Every year, like clockwork, the snow would blanket that house like a low-hanging fog, draping the stucco in a dreamlike curtain of cold. My parents would climb out onto the flat roof of our mudroom to cut ice off of the asphalt surface, pushing it past the ornate windowpanes and into the frost. I watched in awe as they managed not to fall off and die, as they warned we would if my siblings and I even thought about mimicking them. But even when the ice melted, when the birds came back out and we started to have a groundhog breeding problem again, my hands stayed cold.
They say in the laws of thermodynamics that cold is not a concept on its own ― instead, it is the absence of heat. If that is true, my whole life has been devoted to chasing what I don’t have. Although my mother did not believe me until high school, we share the same genetic syndrome called Raynaud’s, a minor yet annoying affliction that prevents blood from circulating completely through our hands and feet. Because of this, I will most definitely have cold feet on the night before my wedding and every other night of my life, too. Maybe that’s part of why I have been burned so many times, from that moment in the kitchen at age four to a curling-iron mishap only two weeks ago. I don’t feel a fire until I smell smoke, and I don’t realize I’ve been burned until it’s too late to go back.
There has been a fireplace in every home my family’s lived in, and I have always sat too close, waiting in front of the flames until I couldn’t stand it anymore. When the temperature drops each year, I prepare myself for the inevitable white fingertips I’ll end up with after five minutes outside, the numbness, the apologies I’ll make for my vampirish touch. My friends have taken to calling me “skeleton woman” every time I grab them, my pale hands like ice on their skin. They recoil, and my stomach flips over inside my core as I wonder if I’ll ever hold someone in comfort.
I’ve always remained at a cool 97 degrees, even when I wanted to be anything else. My fevers only reach 100, and I was always sent to school as a sick child because of this. My mother texts me “are you staying warm?” on an almost-daily basis. It’s laughable the way that heat, or the lack of it, has colored my life. The first time I dated a boy I really, truly liked, I avoided public affection in fear of his response to my temperature. He wanted to hold hands on the street, and I feigned an arm cramp. I almost burned myself again trying to warm up my freezing fingers with a hairdryer before dinner one night. We kissed, we laid next to each other, I strategically hung my feet off the edge of the bed.
It’s stupid, childish, for me to do these things, but I always fear what my aura of cold will tell someone what my own words don’t: that I’m nervous, uninterested, that my heart isn’t beating a million miles a minute when that should be clear. Those who know me would describe me as warm, but my body doesn’t hear it. Instead, I sit by the radiator, by the space heater, by the fire. But at least there are glimpses into the heat that my blood is supposed to run at, a signal that I’m still alive.
And I think that’s the thing that really scares me: If being human is wrapped up in our heat, our passion, anger, love, what does it mean to be cold? Am I any less alive because my touch doesn’t say so? I have fought for my life as it is, through illness and unhappiness, but it seems that my body hasn’t caught up yet. When that day comes, there will be a celebration within me. But for now, I will wait and live, even if my hands feel like those of a corpse.