I awake in a web seat inside a C-17 somewhere between Christchurch and McMurdo Station, Antarctica. I’m next to Wendy, who I’ve been following since orientation in Denver because she’d been to the ice before, and because she resembles my recent ex who’s already pregnant.
The flight cancelled the previous five days. I’d been spending evenings and my daily per diem at a tavern on the outskirts of Christchurch’s downtown drinking sweet beer that’s poured into tiny pitchers, then into tiny glasses. 3:30 this morning a call came to my hotel room, a nicer place than I’d pay for myself, the only one I’ve been to with no alarm clock. We had thirty minutes to get ready for the shuttle.
Seats line both sides of the plane. Extra leg room makes up for lack of cushioning. I recognize faces across the plane from orientation, but haven’t met many besides the rest of the janitorial crew. The other faces will be Station’s mechanics, cooks, fuel operators, glaciologists, warehouse men, recreation support, carpenters, biologists, a mail-room clerk, a hair stylist, environmental specialists, and so on.
We were given ear plugs and a bagged lunch prior to boarding. The constant drone of the engines is loud enough to discourage conversation, but steady enough not to interrupt my ability to doze in and out. Wendy reads Harry Potter. I have Twain with me, but haven’t opened it. I scan my brain for questions I’ve yet to ask in case she looks my way. I come up with: How often are French fries served?, and, is there a recreational basketball league?
I drank my water early, now examine the contents of the bagged lunch: a cookie with pink icing and turkey on wheat. There’s a mayo packet, but I avoid mayo because of how many calories I drink. My mouth is dry, and I eat the sandwich dry, and I believe I’ll start living better soon.
The cookie is moist, yet dense. Sweet and familiar in an unfamiliar way. I read the ingredients. It contains beef fat. Wendy looks up from her book. She’s already dressed in her extreme-cold-weather gear, a requirement for everyone before landing: big red down jackets, black windpants, vanilla-white bunny boots. I point to the cookie, lean toward her. Warmth radiates from her, and an odor like stale popcorn.
“Beef fat,” I say.
She digs in her brown bag, hands me her cookie. It’s not the pink kind, but I check the label. Indeed beef fat is an ingredient.
People line up to look out a small window near where our bags and other freight are palletized, tied down with canvas cargo straps. I line up, too, take my turn. Shades of white and gray ripple the world below.
A couple of slender women do complicated-looking stretches near the cargo.
Later, when we should land, we circle. The pilot comes on the speaker, says, “Wind speeds have increased.” Soon, my life will change, but first, five hours back to Christchurch.
Eleven am, the sun just now breaking over this village’s diesel tanks, I pick Bud cans off the floor, scrub Reese’s from thick carpet fibers, and find Carl’s dentures poking from underneath the sofa. I set them on the coffee table, two upper incisors and one canine. When he came over last night, I was in my bleach-stained bathrobe, my hair put up in a towel. He’d seen me in less the night before, so I went to the fridge, said, “I’m headed south tomorrow. We can’t be up late.” I kicked off my slippers, slid against his chilled grip on my sofa.
The bathroom, like everything not in the dryer, smells like stale beer. Two cans are face down in the sink, but otherwise it’s in good shape. I can feel that’s better than can be said for me. In the mirror, my cheek’s a stunning collage of purples. It’ll look worse before it starts looking better. Today’s the first day of winter break. In a couple hours I need to be on a plane to pick up my daughter, Ella. She’s still young enough to believe what I tell her. Ray, my ex-husband, I fear will ask me to pray with him.
As I walk down Third on the hard packed snow towards the airport, I think, how soon is too soon to start setting ground rules? Rule number 1, no hitting. Rule number 2, if you can’t follow rule number 1, don’t leave bruises my child will see. A digital sign in front of the school says it’s fifteen below. I cover my mouth and nose with the collar of my coat, exhale often, warming what I can, tenderness returning with each breath.
Weeks ago on the phone I asked Ray what I should get Ella for Christmas. “You’re her mother,” he said in that effeminate, reassuring voice I’ve always hated, “what you give her, she’ll adore.” In one coat pocket I have a pair of earrings hand carved from mastodon tusk. They’re shaped like ulus. In the other pocket, Carl’s dentures. I take quick, short steps, trying to keep my balance, having fallen in these conditions before.