Friday, February 11, 2011

The Forgotten

by Zinta Aistars

“Don’t you ever get cold?” my daughter asked me as we sat together over a lunch of tacos and tortilla soup at El Barrio in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

She was leaving soon to drive back to Chicago, home, but had stopped by my office for one last mama-hug. The Mexican restaurant was nearby, and we enjoyed a late shared meal, talking over the adventures of the last few days. She had come to visit me and her “lil bro” before starting a new job, and both lil bro and me had enjoyed her visit exceedingly much. I was already feeling the pangs of letting go. Never gets any easier.

“Sure, I do. I’m actually human.”

“Not in the winter, you’re not,” she said, biting crisply into her taco.

“I get cold. I just don’t mind getting cold. Now, in the summer … “

“I knooooow,” she made her blue eyes big. “You melt into a sad little puddle. You suffer greatly. You get irritable, lethargic, headachy, and not very nice.”

I grinned. “Truth.”

She let a little shiver pass over her and handed me a piece of taco to taste, and I pushed my bowl of spicy soup over to her with a spoon.

Parent and child, but we were opposites. She adored the heat of the summer season, I went into hibernation until fall. She suffered in winter, every chill breeze passing through her. I thrived. I had been telling her about my upcoming weekend adventure—going winter camping in the snowy woods with a dog mushing friend—and she was sure, at least in this, that I’d gone mad.

“You know, lil bro and I came across a woman near frozen when we went dumpster diving last night.”

She had my interest. I beckoned for the story, sipped soup, leaned in closer to hear. Whenever she and her brother hung out together, a good story always resulted. I thought of a long night walk I’d taken years ago with my son as her story began, speaking of dark alleyways behind closed businesses in the forgotten hours, when others slept. My son sometimes lived in a world few of us knew. He liked the night, its quiet, and when he was a teen—thankfully now a good decade ago—he would sometimes disappear for several nights at a time.

“Where do you go?” I once asked him when he was back home again. After my anger and fear had faded and warmed back into curiosity and concern. Rather than reply, he took me along to show me one of his routes. It was our neighborhood, yet it wasn’t. These were the streets between our houses, businesses, yet it was the underbelly, the other side, the dark alley behind, the shadows most of us never saw and conveniently forgot existed. It was easy to do. Shamefully easy.

He was a young kid with long legs, walking fast, and it was all I could do to keep up with him, but I was fascinated … and felt oddly safe with him beside me. Since he’d been very little, he’d been fearless. It was something that I admired, even respected, although at times it terrified me. What leverage does a parent have with a child who fears nothing?

We walked for hours, and he would show me where he would hang out, where he would find shelter, where he sometimes even slept. I saw into his world for a moment and was amazed. How could I have lived here for years and have not known these places existed? Every day passing by, oblivious.

Now my daughter talked to me of a place just like this. Her brother had been, like so many, laid off from his job as an electrician when jobs were scarce, and now had worked out deals with area businesses to gather their scrap metal, clean it up and turn it in to recycling. It got him just enough cash to get by. Just.

She’d gone dumpster diving with him this week. She, too, was interested in her brother’s world.

“So there she was, on her knees on the pavement, behind the dumpster, bloodied gash across her forehead.”

I drew in my breath sharply.

“I suppose she might have died there had we not come across her,” my daughter said. “Quite intoxicated, but utterly dazed. She just slurred replies when we asked her who she was, where did she live … “

Her name was Jennifer. They sat with her until the police and paramedics arrived, gathered her up into an ambulance and took her away. She had been beaten, and those beatings had become a regular part of her life. She wasn’t going to run. She wasn’t going anywhere. She would sit by the dumpster, just another piece of human trash, waiting to be recycled, or to disappear entirely into the night.

This time the shiver passed through me. For a moment, I imagined her cold. The winter night, the arctic chill, seeping through her skin, turning it taut, seeping into her bones until they clicked, her fingers curled inside her sleeves, folded into hard fists, unable to open them again. On her knees, on the asphalt, the stench of the dumpster crisp in her nostrils, its steel bulk beside her an odd comfort. The gash on her forehead pulsing to remind her—she was still alive. Did that bring comfort? Or distress?

I wondered if my children were shadowy angels coming out of the night for her, or if they were her last hope dashed. The cold in her bones, was that an embrace, an icy seduction, in which she longed to find release?

Inside our houses, all around her, up and down the snowy street, we all slept.

In the morning, I would rise from my warm bed of flannel sheets, pack my duffel bag, put on layers of clothing, several pairs of woolen socks, my warmest coat with a hood, my knit mittens. I would pack my tent and my winter sleeping bag. I would fill my cooler with sausages to roast on sticks, with a loaf of dark bread and a stick of creamery butter. I would pack freshly ground coffee and a carton of milk. I would bring along a bottle of champagne to share, and frozen strawberries that would thaw in our tin cups among the fizz and bubbles. The cooler would keep the food from freezing.

In the morning, a friend and I would meet in the snowy woods, pitch our tents, set up our campsites, and we would spend the day dog sledding and snowshoeing. At night, we would sit by the fire, the flames dancing orange over our faces, and watch the snow fall soft to the ground, melting when it would touch on our skin, melt before it ever hit the fire.

I do get cold, I told my daughter. I just don’t mind it. It exhilirates me. Winter is my season.

Another window had opened into my world. Winter pleasures, yes, but for others, it was a season of suffering. A season to endure. A season to survive, breathing shallow breaths behind the dumpster so as not to draw in too much of the cold, so that it wouldn’t spread its blue fingers inside lungs and choke the life from a still beating heart. Ever slower, ever slower.

While the rest of us slept in our warm beds, unseeing, pretending not to know. In the morning, taking our trash to the curb to be picked up and taken away where we no longer had to look at it.


  1. Heat ... cold ... and every hue of air in between ... How wide, too, is the range of how we experience and understand them!

    Zinta, your story and how you relate it -- exquisite. Thank you so much.