by Megan Doney
4-4 by Ana Prundaru
You and Tom have been together for three months when, meeting him for dinner, you’re taken aback to see that he has the remnants of a shiner, a fading plum-colored crescent on his cheekbone and a scarlet patch in the white of his eye. A bar fight, he tells you—one of his good friends mouthed off to someone at a pub in your college town, and a scuffle ensued. You have never known a man who gets in physical fights before. You laugh it off, thinking of Tom and his friend throwing punches in a bar. But there’s a tiny part of you that shivers with pleasure, and excitement, and a long-suppressed yearning for danger and rebellion. You, the best of good girls, have a boyfriend who gets into bar fights. A scientist boyfriend who gets into bar fights! Instead of being unsettled by this, you find it sexy and edgy: hot. Maybe, in fact, it means you are sexy and edgy and hot.
The two of you sit opposite each other in class. He has strong hands with blunt fingertips, and he often sports a green wool sweater that lights his elven hazel eyes. You spend quiet Sunday mornings at the breakfast table; he makes scrambled eggs with Cholula, toast and honey, coffee. Tom is like you, and enough not like you, to be endlessly intriguing. You believe that he loves the things about you that you also love: your independence, ambition, creativity. He is a compelling combination of extroverted science nerd-bookworm-outdoorsman. He’s the wittiest man you have ever dated, quick and clever. He might, you think, be the first man you have ever dated, full of confidence about himself, about sex, you, the future. Your equal.
Bending: The first behavior stage of ice under pressure. Considerable bending is observed only with salt-water ice and only if it is thin (young) enough to be pliable.
During that second year of graduate school, in addition to writing your thesis, you are accepted to the Peace Corps, a dream you’ve nurtured since high school. In April a huge package arrives from Washington, DC: your assignment to Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan! You’ve never even heard of it! But you’re quickly besotted with the idea of luminous glacial lakes in frigid mountains, nomadic falcon-flying people. You are only twenty-four and the boundaries of your life are expanding like ripples in a pond, flowing outward without end.
Tom has been offered a postdoctoral fellowship at a prestigious university. He’ll be part of a team that studies climate change in polar regions (this is the blunt, unscientific version that you manage to comprehend). He promises that if you can put off the Peace Corps assignment for two years—the length of time he plans to spend at the post-doc—that he will come with you anywhere in the world, wherever you want to go. It doesn’t seem like a sacrifice; you each get an opportunity, and you get to be together. Life is long. Win-win.
I think we should get married, he says.
Okay, you reply.
Just like that, in the space of two syllables, the borders shrink.
You marry on a bright, balmy Saturday the following spring, in the church where you were baptized. The familiar sanctuary holds your families and closest friends; the wedding is simple and true. You both vow: I promise to support your dreams and hold them up with my own. You frame one of the wedding photos and hang it in your apartment, calling it your “smug married” picture: gazing at each other with knowing smiles on your faces. So young.
Tom accepts the postdoc, and you find a teaching position at a tiny college forty-five minutes away. It’s an adjustment; your students present challenges you never dreamed of, but you settle. You come to love the place, and them. Tom’s field work takes him away for months at a time. When the bandwidth permits, he e-mails photos of glaciers and barren, rocky expanses. He writes breathless messages about the landscape and the light. He tells you that glaciers, impressive and immovable as they might appear, are in constant motion. Wind, calving, melt: all the forces of nature scrub the surface. Meanwhile, you become accustomed to nights longer than any dream could fill and nor’easters that leave you hip-deep in snow. It is always colder where you are than where he is.
This becomes the normal: you, alone; him, gone. Sometimes when he comes home, your reunion is joyful and passionate. There is so much to catch up on. Sometimes you tamp down your resentment, waiting for your turn. You tell yourself that life is long, and that indeed there will be time.
Two years later, as promised, you both apply for Fulbrights to Kyrgyzstan (Fulbright, not the Peace Corps, as Tom feels Fulbright is more appropriate to academia). He is excited about the research prospects at Lake Issy-Kul, the second largest alpine lake in the world. You plan to teach American literature and academic writing at Bishkek Humanities University. In September 2001, the world falls, and all the programs to Central Asia are paused. The program officer phones to ask if you’re still interested when the assignments restart. Yes, you both assure him. In the summer of 2002, you get an email from the university in Bishkek congratulating you on your Fulbright award, they are preparing your office, when will you be arriving?
But Tom hasn’t gotten the Fulbright. And he refuses to go with you as a trailing spouse. What will I do there? he asks.
He has never mentioned that you receiving an award, but not him, would be a deal-breaker. Indeed, neither of you never even considered this outcome because Fulbright is clear that doctorates are preferred; if anything, you assumed that he’d get the award and you would go as his trailing spouse.
You can think of approximately seven thousand things to do in Kyrgyzstan, but he argues that it would be academic-career suicide for him to go abroad without a formal university affiliation. Because you care about going, not the title, you call your contact at the State Department and offer to give your award to Tom. The program will still get both of you, but they’ll just need to swap the grant. They say they’ll get back to you. You never hear from them again.
You don’t go to Kyrgyzstan. Tom continues his field expeditions every year, building his scholarly reputation, a network of colleagues around the world. You tell yourself that life is long. Indeed, there will be time.
A massive iceberg cleaves from the ice shelf near his field site. It is so large that it blocks the flow of sea ice from the region and spurs a major loss of phytoplankton: the most basic source of nutrients to marine life. Tom and his colleagues discuss how this will affect their research, but you imagine tiny phosphorescent creatures starving in the dark.
Three years later, Tom gets a job offer. He’s earned it, this tenure-track job at a big university with a huge startup. The department pays for you both to fly to the town and look at homes. It’s springtime and the forsythia blooms gold, redbud rosy purple.
By this time, you are an associate professor at your tiny college with friends, a writing group, a steady yoga practice, doctors you trust, and a church you love. You matter to people. On your drive home from school, you sometimes pause at the crest of a country road so that you can gaze westward out over the rolling sea of mountains, and you think, with wonder, I can’t believe I get to live here.
What will I do there?
Three days after you arrive in your new town, he departs for his field site, leaving you alone in the new state, the new house. The woods huddle around you. They are not lovely or dark or deep. Snow drifts pile up the length of your driveway and you don’t know who to call to help you plow out.
Eventually you cobble together three jobs: adjuncting, tutoring, and grant-writing. From the outside, you and Tom are a strong united front: stable, steady, an academic couple with their whole lives ahead of them.
Your house borders national forest. The woods become familiar; rather than an indistinguishable mass of brush and foliage, you come to discern the paths and landmarks. Tom is the more enthusiastic hiker, but you love being with him in the woods. He’s calm there, and his wit glows. In the woods you talk about your childhoods, the voyages you hope to make, the books you read, and laugh over memories of what brought you together.
Because every year there are reports of rabid wildlife (people in a neighboring county have to beat a rabid bobcat to death with a brick), Tom teaches you to shoot on an old .22 rifle. He wants you to be able to kill a sick raccoon if you’re home alone. You practice on hay bales stacked at the forest edge. You don’t love it, and you’re not very adept, either; you suspect it’s because you’ve got poor depth perception from a lifetime of myopia. The very fact that you can handle a gun, though— taught by your own husband—makes you feel like such a badass. There is nothing twee or delicate about you. How many English professors can do this? you gloat.
In the late fall, Tom goes hunting. For days he doesn’t bring home anything, but that’s okay. He’s happy just being alone in the woods in the chilly dawn, listening to squirrels skitter and leaves settle in the lees of fallen hemlocks. One morning, though, he emerges from the misty woods smiling, shy but gleeful at the same time. He’s shot a deer, which he guts in the woods and carries home across his shoulders. After processing, it feeds the both of you for more than a year.
Once when you were still in grad school, Tom joked, “You’ve never been with a real man before, have you? I’m your first.” He meant it as a teasing jab at your emo ex, but he is right. He is an Eagle Scout/hunter/scientist/outdoorsman/cat lover/Tolkien fan /Catholic schoolboy who quotes Vonnegut and cooks a mean green chili with deer he killed himself. He can’t be pigeonholed. He is like no other man you have known.
“A glacier can give away more than it takes in. Is this compassion or self-loathing? What makes it act this way? For a glacier, the first law of impermanence is: Something has to give.”
You’re violently pitched awake out of a dead sleep. The edges of the scene are blurred, and the crack echoes in your skull. Images discolored and stained. Tom sits on the couch. The coffee table has a blackened hole in its center. (Could wisps of smoke still have been steaming from it?) The pistol, on top of the table. Your dog, lying against the wall not four feet away, looking innocently surprised.
You are so out of it, and so confused, that you don’t even really understand when Tom tells you that the gun had gone off. (Not I shot the gun. The gun went off.)
You say some things, scold him as though he’s merely left a faucet dripping. You lurch back to bed. The gravity of his blunder doesn’t hit you until the next morning, when you walk, fully conscious, into the family room again and the coffee table is gone. Were it not for that strange disappearance, you might have thought that you imagined the whole thing. Surely Tom would not have shot a gun, in your house, in the middle of the night—so close to your beloved dog?
He sends you an email that day, apologizing. He was lucky and stupid at the same time, he says, and you don’t deserve that kind of behavior in your own house.
When you come home from work, he is already there. His face is ashy and stunned.
“I didn’t think you would come home today,” he confesses. You talk about how stupid he had been to not check whether there was a bullet left in the gun, why he had decided to clean it inside in the middle of the night (had he also been drinking? you wonder, now) with the animals so close by. You tell him that no reproach you could make is as harsh as what he’d impose on himself, and insist only that he get rid of the 9 mm; he can keep the 30. 06 and the .22 for hunting, but the handgun needs to go. He nods. He seems to get it.
You feel you have responded maturely and sensibly.
You are collecting your chips, though, just like you have been from the beginning, miserly and frigid. You hoard sacrifices as though they were diamonds and dole out forgiveness like a martyr.
When you and Tom first started sleeping together, you felt like you finally understood why people raved about sex. Even now there are periods where you come together fluidly and effortlessly. But more and more you refuse him. You can feel his anger and disappointment. He always said If no isn’t an option, yes doesn’t mean much, which struck you as so wise and so obvious. You can’t name the urge that makes you turn your back and pretend to be sleeping, unrousable. You still haven’t learned to name fear.
Wind, or sea currents, or plunges in temperature cause ice to crack. The fissure might be slender or broad, a splinter or a gorge. There is a thin blue seam that appears at the edge of a crevasse. If snow has blown over it, though, a person, or sledge, or vehicle won’t heed the warning of that line.
Crevasses are invisible until you plunge into the dark.
“What is the final straw that makes ice break?”
It’s summer when you feel the first hint of something amiss. In the shower, washing between your legs, you feel a slight catch, a momentary roughness. A few days later, in the bath, you check again, and it’s definitely there. After emerging, dripping, and leaving wet footprints on the icy white tile, you squat over a mirror to see better. For a moment, you rue the setup of female anatomy; it is really so much to ask to get a good look at your own vagina, for God’s sake? On the surface of your flesh, you see some discoloration, a pale smudge, and when you touch it you recognize the strange texture under your fingers. You wonder at it, then decide to see if it doesn’t go away on its own.
It doesn’t go away on its own. You look the symptoms up online again, and soon you’ve narrowed it down to either genital warts or vulvar cancer. Both seem highly suspect.
Your doctor is kind. He’s got a daughter your age who is also into yoga, and a world traveler, so he doesn’t blink when you come by needing malaria preventives or a broad-spectrum antibiotic because you’re going to be in rural west Africa for a month. Today, you describe the rough patches. He listens carefully and directs you to disrobe when he leaves the room. Scooching down to the end of the table, you open your legs and fit your feet into the stirrups. The ceiling is decorated with a poster of a kitten clinging to a tree branch (Hang in there!) and you wonder what posters are on the ceiling in exam rooms where men get their prostates checked.
Genital warts, he says. You hear the words and start to cry. Warts. Warts. The image and thought of it is so hideous you choke back bile at the same time that you try and choke back tears, but the bile is more obedient. You imagine these things, growing out of your most private place, the most secret skin. You can bring it down to the cellular level, the tiny spores taking root and pushing through the fragile tissue, like a poisonous mushroom springing from rot and decay. Your doctor and the nurse try to comfort you, you see the looks they exchange, but all you can imagine is this poison, this fungus, this contamination. If you could, you would slice those vile bits off yourself and toss them away, heedless of the blood and pain, because nothing could be worse than having this taint on you.
They give you a prescription for Aldara cream. You find out later that it’s used to treat skin cancer.
The words repeat in your head over and over like a CD stuck on the same song. Genital warts. Genital warts. The words are both so ugly, ugly words for this thing that is growing in you, growing on you.
When you get home, you are nearly hysterical. You have sobbed in the car and your cheeks are streaked with wet mascara, your eyes almost swollen shut. Tom hugs you and tells you he is so sorry. I was promiscuous in college, he says. It’s my fault.
The treatment hurts.
You think of a dead animal you once found in the woods, so old you couldn’t even tell what it once was, papery hides strung tight over white bones. You want to peel your own skin off to find the pure, whole skeleton beneath. What is holding you together?
Ice yowling: An unearthly, doleful, long-drawn-out screech heard in winter on large northern lakes when a crack, tens of miles long, forms through ice contraction caused by a drop in temperature. The sound from the nearest part of the crack arrives first, and from more remote parts later and later, producing the effect of a banshee scream.
You’ve gone through three months of treatment for the warts. It is so embarrassing. It burns. Later in the summer, when you were tearfully venting your shame, Tom scolded you and said you weren’t handling your diagnosis very well.
In October, you share the state of your marriage with some friends. One leans across the table and tells you that she thinks Tom is having an affair. Really? you ask. Yes, she tells you. You have to ask him.
For the next three days, as you frame out ideas for a novel, you write in your journal about your friend’s suspicions. This has never occurred to you before, though now that your friend has articulated the possibility, it makes perfect sense. It’s weird, isn’t it, that all of a sudden you have an STD? Tom is only the third man you have had sex with and you have been married twelve years. That’s some crazy bad luck. When you get home, you say to him:
I need to ask you something. I’ll only ask once, and I will believe whatever you tell me. Have you ever strayed?
He inhales sharply. All the air rushes from the room.
Fragments of the last two years snap together with flinty, cold edges. When you received an email from an unfamiliar account, telling you there’s something you need to know about Tom but he can’t know I told you. When he told you he was at a conference, he was really with her, getting “closure.” When he told you that you’d gotten genital warts because he was promiscuous in college twenty years ago, he hadn’t mentioned he’d been fucking someone else.
Immediately upon learning her name, you find her on Google. You stare at her face, curtains of hair framing an insouciant smile. She is more than ten years younger than you. You would love to shred the flesh from her grinning face.
You throw an iron at him. You smash the smug married wedding photo with a hammer. The dogs scurry away in terror. Later he says you are the violent one.
You go to the doctor again the day after, whispering furtively to the appointment counselor behind the front desk. I need a full sexually transmitted disease workup. You wonder now how many times they’ve heard that same story, seen a broken-eyed woman at the appointment desk muttering under her breath because she can hardly bring herself to name what’s truly happening.
You stand on the scale while they weigh you, holding your head in your hands as if it were the waterlogged head of a flower, about to drop completely off the stem. In the exam room, you splutter out what has happened, and the nurse doesn’t react to your news, but tells you what she can test and examine you for. Again, you lie on your back on the table staring up at the strange pockmarked industrial ceiling, your legs spread wide as they flick on a light to examine you. You feel the icy steel speculum slide into your vagina as they peer deep into your cervix.
The good news is that the Aldara worked, and the warts are gone.
She takes you to the phlebotomy corridor, where you bare your arm to the elbow. Another nurse in lollipop scrubs ties a piece of lime-green sticky tape around your joint to make the vein pop, and you watch it pulsing just under the surface of your skin. The needle slides in. The kind-eyed nurse takes two vials. Your blood, off to be tested for HIV and syphilis, because your husband has been cheating on you. You cannot stop crying. If someone commanded you, at gunpoint, to stop crying, you would tell them just to kill you because you cannot control the onslaught of tears. There is a bottomless abyss of grief, and it is exploding to the surface.
Break-up. The time at which, and conditions under which, laymen consider that winter has definitely turned the corner into summer. The ice on rivers breaks and starts moving with the current; lakes are no longer crossable afoot; the frozen mud has become soft; and most of the snow is gone.
You move into a new house a month after leaving Tom. The elderly woman who lives across the street lived in this house, too, before it had indoor plumbing. It is tiny—about as tiny as a house can be without actually being a tiny house. Four rooms: a front room; kitchen; two bedrooms; a tiny bath with a window in the shower, looking out on the back yard.
The house is painted green, with white trim and reddish shingles. It matches the green hills and what you come to call “the paddock” just beyond, an overgrown pasture. There is a little stream in the front yard (if you must be prosaic, it’s a culvert), and after heavy rain or snowmelt, water rushes through it, another instrument in the house’s song. The kitchen window looks out onto a small outcropping, where the owners have planted flowers, but native vines are snaking through the crevices. Sometimes, when you wash the dishes, you watch a groundhog family scamper around, and brazen deer come nearly to the window nibbling on the overgrown grass. You stake solar lights in the cracks between the stones, and in winter, they gleam faintly through the snow like fireflies.
Every day when you come home, the house is just as you left it. Your enormous dog ambles to the door, her feathered tail swishing, and she leans on you as you set your bookbag down. At night, she keeps you company in the front room before coming to bed for the night. With her, and your fluffy topaz cat, the night seems so friendly, a place you can rest. Most people think that nights in the country are quiet, but in summer, crickets and peepers launch a clamorous symphony. As long as your dog is sleeping, you know nothing is wrong. It is so simple and so right to put your trust in her. Sometimes you even forget to close the kitchen door, which leads onto the screened porch, and you don’t see your mistake until morning. Nothing happens.
Once Tom gave you a journal for Christmas. On the front page, he wrote that he hoped you would think of him when you wrote in it, and that he would always be somewhere listening. As you write this essay, you wonder what will happen when, if, he reads it: whether he will think you are right, or just, or justified. You know now that it’s possible to love someone and be afraid of him at the same time. To be frozen with fear, and then set free.
* Brannen Peter. “The Dark Secrets of the Earth’s Deep Past.” The Atlantic. March 2021.
 Name and other identifying details have been changed.
 Ehrlich, Gretel. “Chronicles of Ice.”
Megan Doney is an English professor at a community college in Virginia. Her essay “The Wolf and the Dog” was a memoir finalist in Creative Nonfiction and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Other essays appear in Earth & Altar, the anthology If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors on the Aftermath of School Shootings, and in the forthcoming anthology Allegheny. She is represented by Jennifer Chen Tran at Folio Literary.
Ana Prundaru was born in Romania and presently lives in Switzerland. Alongside her legal career, she writes and illustrates for publications like Nashville Review, The Journal, New England Review and Kyoto Journal.