First Person

Beach in January. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Licensed Under CC0 4.0.

Every December day that I’m in Maine I swim in the ocean and my husband tells me I’m insane. The temperature keeps dropping. I get two respiratory infections, a twenty-four-hour stomach thing. Why? he says to me. Mom, the children say. They have only recently transitioned me to Mom from Mommy, and every time they say it my breath catches. Their dad’s Cuban and I’ve tried to convince them to transition me to Mami. It’s Spanish! I say. You’re white, Mom, they say. You know, Mom, our younger kid says, beating yourself up isn’t a hobby. I’m preparing, I tell them. For what? they say. For January.

The first January we live in Maine, the twenty-second month of the pandemic: we’re all so tired and almost everyone I know in New York is sick. My job has gone remote and I get up each morning to work when it’s still dark. I turn on the small space heater in my office and wrap a big blanket around myself, sit with my computer on my lap. Evening comes, and I text my friend five minutes before I teach at seven. I’ve been at my desk for fourteen hours but can’t think of a single thing I’ve done. What if I hate teaching now? I say. Babe, my friend texts back, it’s January. You hate everything.

The Januarys in high school are all track—all the early Januarys are in Florida and the monotony of those sunny, plastic, clear and cloudless days comes to feel like it’s assaulting me. I run four events at least. The two-mile is the longest, and the last race of the day. Late nights on the bus, the too-big jacket and sweatpants, crumbled rubber on bare thighs while I sit and stretch with my Discman, bile in my throat at the start; everybody cheers when I win, no one after talks to me.

The first January in New York, alone, on Tenth Street between C and D, I’m twenty-one. I call in sick to work. I tell them I got food poisoning because I’ve worked nonstop for months and I can’t fathom smiling another minute, another day, at some klatch of too-thin women who order just one order of our extra-special-everybody-loves-it chocolate-bag dessert with extra spoons, whipped cream on the side; at some guy, with his hand on the low curve of my back, who keeps sending back his steak. I count the cash stuffed in the dark wood box I keep by my bed and then I call again and tell them I threw up so much I ruptured my esophagus and now I have to go to the hospital. I think about how easy lying is. I read books all day, watch TV all night, hardly eat because I can’t afford to eat. The restaurant is uptown and I live downtown and I walk around the whole time assuming that I won’t get caught and I don’t. Oh God, they all say when I come back to work, their eyes scanning my face, you must have been so sick.

The January we’re in Florida, the town where both of us grew up, our first time as grown-ups—also the first time we’re a we—I’ve replaced the only teacher that I ever liked in high school midyear because he killed himself. A cold snap comes, sixty-five degrees and the students all wear puffy coats and there’s a cockroach infestation in the English classroom hallway. I’m the only English teacher not afraid of cockroaches, so often, while I’m teaching, another of the English teachers will come get me, squirming. We found another one! She’ll stand up by the board in my room with my students. I’ll get a paper towel from the teachers’ lounge and go into her classroom, where the students are all talking, unconcerned about the cockroach, relieved to have this break, and I’ll pick it up if I can find it, hold it in my hand, and bring it outside by the street so it can run away.

The January we live in New Orleans is the coldest January anybody in New Orleans can remember. The door to our backyard in our little Irish Channel shotgun has a crack, the big windows that I loved so much when we moved in are, my now-husband tells me, only single-paned, and I sleep in a wool cap and long underwear with two sweaters on top and we have sex with as many clothes on as we can. The Saints are bounding toward the Super Bowl and the whole town’s alight. Tulane girls in ponytails and old women talk strategy out on the street. At our favorite restaurant, which has the best red beans and rice—the bread pudding’s even better—the door doesn’t close all the way unless you press it perfectly and every time someone leaves someone screams the door! Because when it’s left open, the cold gets in, and sometimes the people leaving stop and try again and sometimes someone gets up to help, and often the whole time we’re there, someone is screaming the door!

The January we live in Brooklyn on Ocean Parkway, I drive our tiny white Honda Fit up from Florida, where we’ve been the past six weeks. My husband has to stay for work, and I have classes to teach, so I drive twenty miles an hour on the New Jersey Turnpike with the dog curled up next to the gas pedal because he is afraid of everything on earth but me. I try to get a hotel in Virginia but all the hotels are full and the one that isn’t full doesn’t take dogs, so I take naps on the side of the road with the car running. Then I drive again, the hazards still on, so slowly that it feels like we won’t get there before spring.

The January we live in Brooklyn on Underhill and Sterling, I am newly pregnant and our friends who have two kids have their heat turned off by their landlord, so they come stay in our one-bedroom apartment for the week. We set them up on the couch, the two parts of it pushed together to make one big bed with lots of blankets and pillows. They have no money left, and I lend them my MetroCard when the husband goes to look for work. Trapped inside for the hundredth day, a polar vortex making every minute outside a biting, aching cold, they have no childcare or preschool, and I give my friend my credit card and she takes the kids to the children’s museum, and I get five hours to myself. I get five hours by myself with the knowledge that now there is a person just like these two people staying with us—crying, eating, wetting their pants, throwing tantrums, hot-skinned, wiggly, crawling over both their mother and their father as if their bodies were their bodies—that something like that is growing inside of me.

The January we live in Brooklyn on Twelfth Street, I’m pregnant again, and I need more work. I call the babysitter we can’t afford. I put on a blazer and nice slacks that are too tight and go into a brown-bag lunch session about ghostwriting. Everybody takes notes, and there’s a lot of leaning forward in one’s chair, a lot of nodding earnestly. No work comes from it.

The January we live upstate in Cold Spring, they don’t clear the roads enough. I take the 4:30 A.M. Metro-North into Grand Central, then the subway to my sister’s Murray Hill apartment, where I drop my stuff, even though my sister and I hardly ever talk, so I can go running in Central Park before I teach.

The January we live in Brooklyn on Fifteenth Street, it’s too close to the BQE, I think. I google how close is too close but it’s the only apartment we could find and afford in this neighborhood. There’s a glass-and-metal processing plant across the street. I get up at four thirty to work but our younger kid is up by five. I have a chair set up next to the sliding glass door that leads out to the small balcony with a view of the highway. We have a folding table in front of the door where we’ve piled up my overflow of books and all of the kids’ art. I lean my head against the sliding glass, my computer in my lap, and watch the old men and women with their can-filled shopping carts. The street is the street that a lot of people turn down to get to the highway’s onramp, so there’s almost always noise, whooshing too-fast cars and honking horns, the beeping backing-up of trucks. When our kid wakes up, hot skin and sour breath replace the computer on my lap. We live on the top floor and there are pigeons that live on the apartment roof. There’s a hard plastic awning over the small balcony and their claws scratch against it, and when they land on it, there’s a popping sound. Our kid fits nested in my lap and we watch the traffic pick up, the sky lighten with sun. We watch the snow fall when it comes. We listen to the birds scratch-pop.

The January we live in Florida again, in the pandemic’s miasmic middle stretch, I don’t mind all the sun and warmth as much. We share a house with my husband’s parents and a room with both the kids. I stay up late and listen to them breathe. I tell my family that I have to work and sit outside with my coffee in a short-sleeved shirt and linen pants, and I watch the three large palm trees rustling in the wind in the backyard, my computer closed and quiet next to me.

That first January we live in Maine, every deeper drop in temperature, every greater fall of snow or rain or both, is an opportunity to prove that I can run in that too, that I can put small spikes attached to rubber straps on my shoes, put on another layer of pants, a tube of fleece around my neck that I can pull up over my face. I like the six-degree days more than the twenty-degree days. I can hardly stand the days that go up past thirty-five. On colder days the oxygen is thinner, the internet says, so my lungs have to work harder when the air is that cold. My breath catches halfway down. But I like the way the cold braces. Bracing cold feels like someone else’s phrase, but that’s the word I think of, every time I run, and the wind whips—I speed up—I feel my lungs work hard.


Lynn Steger Strong is the author of the novels Hold Still, Want, and Flight.