Boundin’ by Katharine Coldiron

Editor Acacia Blackwell, Editor's Choice, October 15th, 2018

"The sting of lack on skin. Needling want."

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A personal essay by Katharine Coldiron.

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If you’ve ever taken a cold shower, I mean a really cold shower, not the end of a shower when the hot water has run out, in winter, not a cool rinse on a hot day, then you know it is a whole other thing. The sting of lack on skin. Needling want.

In 2005 it was like this. I rented a room in a three-story house in Holyoke, Massachusetts. The first story had its own integrity as a living space—kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms—and was rented to two young couples. The second story also had a kitchen and bathrooms and bedrooms. Terry, the woman who owned the house, lived on that story, with her paramour and her four-year-old son. Her older son, around my age, lived on the third story, sometimes with his girlfriend. I never went to the third story. I don’t think it had a kitchen. One of the bedrooms on the second story had a deadbolt on the door, and I rented this room for $400 per month. I had access to the kitchen and living room, but I stayed away from the family as much as possible. Terry was a screamer and her sons were poorly behaved.

I did borrow their copy of The Incredibles from time to time, and took solace in the short film on that DVD, Boundin. In that short, a vain lamb is shorn of his wool and becomes self-conscious. A jackalope offers him advice both physical and meta-, and eventually, through “bounding,” he comes to accept his shorn state. I watched it over and over in the hope that I, too, could develop the resilience of a tiny shaved sheep.

In October of the year I lived in the room with the deadbolt on the door, the oil furnace connected to the second story of Terry’s house gave out. I believe it was at least 40 years old, that furnace, but it may have been older. Terry did not have any savings to replace it, so none of us had heat or hot water.

It got colder, as it will in Massachusetts. I was so broke I could not afford a space heater. Terry took to leaving the oven on, its door open, to radiate some heat in the house. She apologized nearly every time she saw me. I hated the basset-hound look on her face. Why didn’t you replace the furnace before now. Why don’t you charge me less rent.

This went on. It got colder.

I slept in a Kelty sleeping bag on an air mattress. At my job, I stood next to the pizza oven, so hot it was untouchable, and still felt cold. It sank into my marrow, the cold, and in my memory I was always hungry.

You could get frozen Banquet dinners 10/$10 then. I liked the Swedish meatballs best, because the Salisbury steak didn’t even try to be anything but garbage and nothing else had much protein in it. One night I got back from work after midnight, and I hadn’t brought any pizza home for dinner. Shivering, leaving the lights off so as not to wake anyone, I microwaved a black plastic dish of Swedish meatballs, watching it go around through the window. When I took it out of the microwave, I scalded a finger and dropped the dish. It fell upside down on the floor. Nothing salvageable. I had no more Banquet dinners in the freezer, and no money to buy anything else. I sat down on the filthy kitchen floor, stared at my dinner, and cried.

Bound and rebound, the jackalope sang, in my mind. I couldn’t. I could only sit there.

It took until Thanksgiving to realize I had to leave New England, that I couldn’t sit, shorn, in a puddle of my own tears, waiting for the weather to change. Late November in Massachusetts is very cold. Mid-December is even colder, and the steep driveway of Terry’s house bore patches of ice on the December morning I packed up my car to leave. I hadn’t had a warm shower in weeks. I wore my long black wool coat, kicking the flaps as I walked. My father bought the coat for me in Budapest in the year 2000. The idea of a coat that reaches your ankles is to have it hemmed to your preferred length by a tailor, but I liked it that long.

Everything in my rented room had to go in my car. I didn’t want to disturb the household by coming and going numerous times during the night, so I planned to make one large early-morning trip to my storage space before I got on the road to Virginia, to my father’s house, to a room with central heating and no deadbolt on the door. I only slept for a couple of hours that night on my air mattress, and I woke up again at about 3:30 to pack my final things and leave. I was hoping to slip out in the early morning without having to say goodbye to Terry.

To my shock, she got up at about 4:30, just as I was carrying the last few bags down to my already-running car. I had no idea she usually got up so early. Still half-asleep, she failed to notice the bareness of my room. She also didn’t notice that I wore my coat, scarf, and snow boots until the second-to-last trip I made up the stairs, and then she asked me if I was leaving for Christmas. I said yes. She asked if I was coming back, and I mumbled something vague.

I had planned to deflate my air mattress and put it in the car, but the deflater’s motor was so goddamn loud that I couldn’t possibly use it indoors. Also, I had to physically get out before Terry fully processed what I had said. During my last trip down the stairs, I carried the partially inflated air mattress. Terry, now slightly more than half-awake, asked me, as I carried it out the door, “So…if it turns out you’re not coming back…what about rent?” I told her I would send it to her and I ran out the door.

The half-deflated air mattress would not fit in my car. I tried using the deflater, but it was insanely loud. I sat on it and scrunched it up and tried everything I could to get the air out of it. I must have been out there with my car running, manipulating this air mattress in ridiculous ways, trying not to slip on the icy driveway, for about 20 minutes. I was terrified every second that Terry would come charging out the door demanding to know more about my departure. I remember thinking, this is comedy, right here, this is the stuff of amusement. A live studio audience would be rolling and spluttering with mirth.

Finally I fit the damn thing in my passenger seat, pressed against the window, the windshield, and me, and I drove off.

Bound and rebound, I thought. You still got a body, good legs and fine feet. The wheels hummed under me. My stomach growled. Hot air gushed out of the vents. My rearview mirror was unusable, jammed as my backseat was with my possessions; I could not look back. South I drove, out of the frozen hell that had starved me and broken my heart.

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Header image courtesy of Jean-Francois Lepage. To see his Photography Feature, go here.

Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., the Guardian, VIDA, BUST, the Rumpus, and elsewhere. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com.

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Acacia Blackwell

Acacia is a writer from Portland, OR, which suits her because sunshine gives her anxiety. She is currently completing an MFA, despite being recently told by Tom Spanbauer that to become a better writer, she needs to "unlearn all that grad school stuff." She listened, and it seems to be working. Acacia is working on a collection of personal essays that she really doesn't want to admit might be a memoir, and a memoir that she really doesn't want to admit might be a novel.