The first thing to go is my forehead. I can’t feel it. I knock on it with frozen knuckles but I can’t feel face or fingers. I’m aware that my body temperature is dropping rapidly but I’m also too stubborn to admit defeat and turn around. I’ve been walking for only six minutes. The hotel is behind me and within sight. I decide to continue. My destination is the main entrance of the World Trade Center, where a few weeks ago I took pictures of a lovely old woman selling arts and crafts on the curb. My mission is to deliver her framed photographs, a token of appreciation for allowing me to photograph her. I’m walking into a frigid wind that is picking up with each passing minute. It percolates the fur of my $29.99 Walmart boots and my $60 Burlington winter jacket. I’m paying the price for being cheap. The blizzard whistles between my headscarf and my ears and blows my hoodie off my head. I’m in trouble. The hairs up my nostrils have turned into stalactites; I’m having a hard time breathing. I wrap the ends of my headscarf around my face; the scarf freezes in minutes. Every time a patch of the cotton freezes, I move it away from my mouth and replace it with a dry bit. Soon, the whole scarf will be frozen. It’s 3F (-16C), the roads are covered in a medley of fresh now and patches of frozen water. I start to skid. I can’t wave down a car because I’m walking down the wrong side of the highway: the cars are moving away from the world trade center. Crossing the highway is out of the question. I keep walking.
I knew it was freezing before I left the hotel. I saw the one little tree outside our window swaying back and forth, its squalid branches being slapped about with snow and wind. From our living room I saw the people at the bus stop, all bundled up, thick Cossack hats, long furry coats, gloves, the whole nine yards. Drama Queens, I thought. I lived four years in Alaska, FOUR, please. I know cold. And because I know cold and because I haven’t been able to sneak a picture of the presidential complex thanks to the gazillion ex-KGB, KGB wanna be’s and KGB look-alikes guarding every one of its corners, I decide not to wear gloves. I need free hands to execute my master plan to photograph the presidential compound of palaces and golden domes: an iPad discreetly peeping out of my $12 BigLots case with the camera turned on and ready to snap the coveted pic and my super slick pocket-size digital camera. I’m a person of extraordinary intelligence and infinite foresight.
By the time I reach the first underpass, I can’t move my mouth. I try to whistle, not out of merriment but out of need to assess the damage, and quickly find out that I can do nothing with my face: whistling, smiling, winking, yawning. Nothing works. Is that how Joan Rivers feels? My facial muscles are shut down. I let out a string of colorful expletives that come out of my rigid mouth all garbled; I hear myself swearing in a language I’ve never spoken before. Maybe the cold has made me fluent in Turkmen. I blow hot air into my fists until they thaw out so that I can snap a picture of the underpass. Then the camera flashes a little message that I can’t read because I don’t have my reading glasses on me.
I make out the word battery, snap another one, then I hear a whirring noise and the camera dies. I want to call my husband. I want to tell him that I don’t want to die alone in an underpass in Ashgabat, that I want to attend our children’s weddings and be around when my books come out. But I don’t. I’m a grown up woman. I can’t ask my husband to drop everything and come to my rescue because I made a bad judgment call. I take my telephone out of my pocket just in case he is the one in distress and in need of rescueing. I don’t have a signal. I let out a few more expletives in clear English and since I can already move my mouth, I throw in a few profanities in Spanish for good measure. I rearrange my scarf, my hoodie, tuck my hands into the pockets of my jacket and come out of the underpass. I’m unstoppable.
The presidential compound is paved with marble. The sort of polished marble without tough edges or little ridges or the occasional pebble to step on and offers no traction whatsoever. Sleek marble that gets perilously slippery when wet. The fountains surrounding the main plaza have spewed water onto the marble which is now covered with a thin sheet of black, gliding ice. I spot the first guard and he spots me immediately. We lock gazes for a few seconds but I’m afraid of falling, so I bow my head and focus on the ice. I think Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, jumps, spins, jump-spins, then I hear the whistle. The guard is commanding me to walk faster. Crawling in the vicinity of the presidential palace is a grave offense. Under different circumstances I would find his behavior endearing. There he is, looking tough, willing to die to defend the two yards of marble assigned to him, wrapped up in his green fatigues and military poncho, big Cossack furry hat and no weapons. Not even a radio. Why am I so afraid of them? All he has to do is blow his mean whistle and I’m shaking like a leaf. I do my best to quicken my pace, but it’s impossible to walk fast on ice. I move close to the wall looking for support but the moment my hand touches the granite, he blows his whistle again, this time louder and with a call-to-war clarion that confuses me. He marches in my direction, waving his arms in the air, signaling me to get away from the wall, blowing his whistle. He skates for a few seconds, confidently, gracefully, like skidding on ice and walking, are the same thing to him. I’m dazed and confused. I resume my cautious crawling. What is he going to do? Sentence me to death by whistle?
I’m almost in tears when I arrive at the world trade center. I decide that even if she doesn’t understand me, I’m going to tell the old artisan everything about my heroic ordeal, all that I risked to bring her this little present, how her beautiful wide face covered in wrinkles that look like stab marks was the only thing that kept me going. Only, she is not there. She is a clever woman. She stayed home today, the coldest day of the year.
I walk into the World Trade Center and do what any other grown up, independent, mature woman would do in my place: I call my husband.