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2021 Spring Short Story Contest Winner: “Winter”

A scatter of red and gold maple leaves on slick, wet pavement.

East Coast people claim that there is no winter in California. That is because they have not considered the endlessness of December rain. No storms, no blizzards, just gentle showers that drag on day after monotonous day. The rhythmic tap of raindrops lulls you to sleep at night and wakes you in the morning. It gradually soaks you as you wait for the bus so that for the first two hours of your day, you shiver in wet clothes at your desk.

Here’s my advice for surviving the winter in Northern California: The moment that the rain stops for long enough to put on your shoes, go for a walk. Even if you have a broken foot, and you have to scoot downstairs on your butt with your leg stretched out in front of you. It is always a mistake to turn away when the sun calls like that, like a restless child tugging at your sleeve and begging for your attention. Regardless of how frustrating it may be to crutch for five minutes just to go one block, it’s better than staying inside.

You mustn’t mind the stares of people walking on the street or the way that they feel entirely comfortable walking up to you and asking, “What happened?” You ought to know by now that the signs of injury entitle perfect strangers to come into your life, trying to be helpful. You should appreciate their concern, even if it feels nosy, because they are trying to show you that they are good people. Probably they are.

To avoid the sympathetic glances, turn your focus instead to the autumn leaves that still coat the damp sidewalks. Maybe the right leaf will call to you. Perhaps it is the maple, there, painted in a perfectly symmetric gradient of scarlet to gold. Maybe it is the tiny orange one hovering on the edge of the curb. Holding your crutches in one hand for balance, pick up the maple leaf and tuck it into your hair tie. It will serve as a token, when it starts to rain again, that it never rains forever.

Don’t be surprised to find yourself slipping into self-pity, but don’t allow yourself to fall all the way in. Tell your brain firmly that having a broken foot will teach you restraint, moderation. Dismiss the fact that last year’s tibial stress fracture, patellar tendonitis, and plantar fasciitis left you as intense as ever. Instead, consider the way the puddles have formed on the sidewalk, this one like a Mickey Mouse head, that one like an hourglass. Try not to think about how good it would feel to run right now, with the wind flipping your ponytail behind you. Look up at the way the sun, half-hidden, gilds the clouds with a silver rim. Tell yourself that things are as they are, that resting is good, that if-only-I-hadn’t is a useless thought. Try to internalize these things, but don’t beat yourself up when you fail. Remember to tell them to yourself again tomorrow, in case they feel closer to true the next time.

If somebody informs you that you have a leaf in your hair, smile politely and say, “Oh. Thanks.” When you turn to find it is the cute guy from Algebraic Topology who asks smart questions, try to look as normal as possible. Brush the leaf out of your hair as though its presence was accidental, as though you’re not upset by the loss of such symmetric perfection. Remind yourself that you will likely find another among the thousands on the ground. If he continues to walk beside you and talk to you, then you have a dilemma. You must decide if the attention is pity or interest. You must decide which kind of attention you’d rather have. You must decide if you want any attention at all.

When he says, “It must be hard, walking on crutches,” tell him, yeah, sure, but it’s only a few months and you’ll manage. Answer his questions cheerfully and enjoy his company as best you can. Whatever you do, stick to the present, as though this was an isolated unlucky mishap. It’s a good enough masquerade. After all, for most people, broken bones really are pure bad luck.

Maybe he will not go away as quickly as you expected. Perhaps you will find yourself nearing a bench with him in the park at the corner. Do not tap on the bench before sitting down. Do not think about how good it would feel to be racing through the park right now, with the mud squelching happily under your sneakers. Pretend to be how you imagine a typical girl would be; nod and laugh and exclaim in the correct places.

Maybe he will talk about movies or books. Maybe about his school or his work. He might tell you that he is one of identical triplets or that he’s lived in 20 states at the whim of a military father. Joke with him and ask him questions. Everybody loves to talk about himself.

If he seems exceptionally open and accepting, you may be tempted to say more about the disorders that rule your life. Remember then that people like to put problems in categories. They want to put the square problem in the square hole and the circular problem in the circular hole, and they don’t know what to make of your problem, which is like a square and a circle and a triangle and a pentagon and maybe an abstract amoeba shape all connected together. They will stand there pushing and pushing to get it to fit in a simple hole with a simple solution. Little will they realize how hard you have already pushed.

So if he asks about you, you must tread very carefully. “I play the piano,” you might say. Your favorite composer? Rachmaninoff, of course. “I like to run” is starting to get a bit risky, but you could try it if you’re brave. “Too bad,” he may say. “You won’t be running for a while.” “I know” is a good, simple response. Change the subject.

Perhaps you will enter into a heated debate about nihilism. He will try to convince you that belief does not exist, that actions are not governed by choice or will but by the nondeterministic events between subatomic particles. You will argue that even so, the atomic events that govern the experience of belief are real, that thinking about the world in terms of your perception of choice is entirely valid. Grinning at one another, you will shoot intellectual challenges back and forth, narrowing the gap between your heads until they are inches from one another. This is a good moment to not think about how good it would feel to go running through the imminent rain, chasing the droplets and leaping over puddles.

Maybe you will miraculously succeed at keeping your mind on the warm body beside you. Maybe the space between your lips will be whittled to emptiness by the conviction of your words, and his hand on your knee will warm your lap, and you will forget the throbbing of your foot in the scent of his baby powder shampoo and the richness of his eyes. Perhaps you will lose yourself in the moment that is simultaneously infinite and measured.

But even if you do, you will have to head home eventually. The light will begin to fade or the clouds will threaten another downpour. Let him make the first move toward parting.

“I’d love to get together again,” he’ll say, “how about dinner this weekend?”

“Sure, that’d be great,” you’ll lie, because it would be great to be the kind of person who could go eat a whole meal without ritual, with someone else, just like that. Because, what are you supposed to say? “I’m bad at eating?” “I only eat alone?”

When he gives you a slip of paper with his phone number, try not to let your heart rise like a hot air balloon. You should know by now that balloons always pop when they get too high. You should have known it before your afternoon in the park. Review the facts of the case as his limber figure strolls away. They are these:

You cannot leave the house without checking the stove seven times, the heater five, the lock three. You cannot eat red things with white things or orange things with green things. You eat only one meal a day, at midnight, alone, exactly the same each day. Eating even one bite of food at an incorrect time may give you a panic attack.

You must exercise every day longer or faster than the day before. If you do not, you will feel like a healthy person assigned to bed rest for days on end, suffocating with the desire to move. It will be like an elephant is sitting on your esophagus and your ankles are chained together and you want to scream but have no voice. And if you change anything at all about your daily food, you must exercise yet another half an hour, lest you begin to feel impure.

You have been shuttled from one psychologist to another, each putting different percentages of your behaviors into different buckets. OCD. Exercise addiction. Eating disorder. Each bucket comes with a different set of curing tactics, and none seem to work. Eventually, they always get fed up and send you to a different specialist.

You are on your seventh broken bone in two years, a product of a lifetime’s insufficient nutrition and five years of extreme physical exertion. You wish on every eyelash and every falling star that you will be normal and healthy one day. It has not escaped you that such obsessive wishing may be a part of the problem more than a solution.

He, on the other hand, has no idea who you are behind your smile. He is jovial and calm. He seems to have enjoyed a pleasant afternoon of flirtation and chatter. He could not begin to imagine the depth of your quirks.

As you crutch along home, try not to sink with your deflating heart. Try to hold your head high and promise yourself for what may be the ten-thousandth time that someday you will be different. Pause and put your hand to your ponytail. Now is the ideal time for a perfectly symmetric leaf to remind you that rain never lasts forever. Try not to cry when you remember it is no longer there.

By now, you will regret the afternoon’s pretense of normalcy. You should never have let yourself pick the leaf out of your hair and discard it on the ground like a piece of litter. You should have known that it would feel like a tragedy to you, now, to realize that the leaf will be crushed or torn by the elements, to know that you will never again hold its whole original self in your hand.

As you near your street, great droplets will begin to fall, building up and streaming like a river down your nose. Try to imagine what it would be like to sit at a restaurant, you and him, talking and smiling, maybe even laughing. Try not to dismiss outright the absurdity of the image. Instead, reach into your pocket for the 10 digits he wrote and tear the paper into pieces, watching them melt to the wet asphalt like snowflakes. Because East Coast people are wrong. California is full of winter. 

 

 

 

 

Interview with Shelly Manber

What inspired you to write “Winter?”

When I write, it’s often because I’m interested in a feeling that I don’t have a word for, and I try to evoke that feeling through story. I tried to do that with this story.

What was your writing process like for this story? 

It was a rainy day about 10 years ago, and I sat down and wrote the story all at once, without much of a plan for where it would go when I started. Over the years, I’ve periodically pulled it back up again and changed a few sentences here and there, submitted it to a few places, and then forgot about it again.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about writing over the years?

I’m often scared to sit down and write because I’m afraid it won’t be good enough. I guess I’ve learned that the perfect is the enemy of the good.

 

—Shelly Manber holds a doctorate in mathematics. She currently works as a math teacher and writes stories when inspiration strikes.