When we got back
to the motel we all sat around in Al's room while he played a few tunes on the
glockenspiel. Then Helene and I went for a jog outside on the balcony that ran
along the second floor of the motel. It was 15° and she ran barefoot in a black
bathing suit that was covered with emblems and patches from past winter
carnivals. For a second I thought she was going to jog in her black high-heeled
boots, but she left them by the door. I wore my bathing suit, too, but it was
buried deep under several layers of clothing and long underwear.
We jogged back
and forth a few times and Helene said, "You know, when I come back I want
to come back as a water bug. Some people might like to come back as a princess.
Not me. I want to come back as a water bug. I have a friend who put a glass
upside down over a water bug. Three days later she picked up the glass and the
water bug walked out. When the city dies, the water bugs will live on. That's
what I want to be." She put a hand up and smoothed back her hair.
We went into her
room, which she shared with Ala, the candidate for Polar Bear membership, who
hadn't yet decided if she was going in tHe water or not. "I never went
swimming in February," she told me apprehensively. "November was the
latest. But the nerves! It's so good for the nerves!"
En route to the
lake, to showtime, the orange Polar Bear van was bursting with energy.
Everybody was whooping and hollering and singing, "Vo-la-re, Oh, oh!
Vo-la-re, Oh oh oh oh!" and stamping their feet, getting charged up for the
swim. Al pounded the beat out on the dashboard, and Helene, after putting her
jewelry in an envelope ("I find it sticks to my chest"), clapped her
hands and bounced up and down on her seat. The Polar Bears were feeling good,
in spite of the wind and the scarcity of snow.
said Pablo when we arrived at the lake. "They build me my dream igloo!"
He was pointing to the completed ice staircase, which to him must have looked
like a stairway to paradise.
I knew that the
moment Al, his whistle dangling on his chest, extended his hand to me from the
water, I'd go in. I'd been cheering too loudly and singing with too much
pleasure not to stick with him all the way. If he'd been reaching to me from a
patch of nettles or from a burning car wreck, I probably would've joined him,
as long as he had that same expression. that same smile. "Look." he
said, "they all think we're crazy, but let's just shake up their perception
of the world a little bit. And have a great time doing it!" There was a big
crowd, at least a thousand astonished people. I didn't see Angel, the waitress,
dropped off in seconds—wool hat, scarf, mittens, sweaters, heavy coat, boots,
thick thermal socks, everything I'd worn to combat the cold was gone—and I was
sprinting toward the water in my trusty bathing suit. Fear of hypothermia was
gone, left behind in that world where people get cold and complain about
There was the
Polar Bear flag planted by the lake. There was a large, round thermometer on a
pole stuck in the water; it said 15°. There was Pablo, standing on his head on
the ice and saying, "Give me ice cream!" Destin was filling his mouth
with snow. Helene was promenading on the ice, swaying her hips and shaking
hands with spectators, who gazed at her with awe. "They look at you like
you're in a goldfish bowl or something. It's a mental thing," said Helene.
To escape the wind, Eli lay submerged up to his chin in a shallow stretch of
water. He was smiling.
I took Al's
extended hand, and he pulled me in, gesturing with his other hand toward the
water as if he were introducing me to my dancing partner. Who knows what the
water felt like. We were in it, that's all. It seemed like the good old water
I'd used that morning to brush my teeth, but I knew that each drop housed a
monster capable of sucking the warmth out of my bones if I yielded to it for
less time than it takes to eat a quick lunch. The second I was in, I was
moving. As Pablo had said, "When you're in a cold place your body asks you
to move." It wasn't deep enough to swim, but Al and I crouched down, jumped
up, thrashed and splashed and whipped our arms around like windmills. He poured
water on my back; I poured water on his. He screamed all kinds of funny whoops
and hollers, and so did I. A TV cameraman was shooting us from the banks, and I
wanted to belt out, "Look, Angel, I'm here! I made it!" Al blew on his
whistle, and the onlookers cheered through all their flannel and down. I was so
carried away that I probably would've stayed in longer than I should've, but Al
was keeping an eye on me. After a couple of minutes. I guess, he took my hand
and escorted me up onto the bank where Destin was kissing somebody's baby. I
was still moving.
Pablo came over
and grabbed my hands, pulling first one and then the other very hard, very
fast. "Hi! Hi! Hi!" he yelled. "This is the bicycle exercise. It
keeps your blood going."