It’s evening and we are putting on layer upon layer against the cold. Hooded sweatshirts, hats, wool socks, boots, heavy coats.
"Are you ready?" he asks me.
"Just one more pair of gloves."
"Don't laugh. My hands get cold."
We go out the back door, escaping the piles of shoes, stacks of books, dog food bowls, under the roof that always leaks. Past the book bags, the remains of a science fair project, a basket full of ribbon, scissors and construction paper. A little stuffed octopus. The night is silent except for the sound of our breathing; small dragon puffs in the moonlight escape our lips. Our feet alternate crunching through the snow or sinking softly into it, a rhythm that is reliable in its unreliability.
Miles we go, through the thick blanket of snow that covers our neighborhood. Almost immediately we stray from the path. The sandstone walk has a deceptive veneer of snow over a treacherous layer of ice, so we amble instead over tree lawns and driveways, across front yards. We converge back together at each intersection under the glow of the streetlights.
"Remember last year? When we walked in the sideways ice storm?"
"That walk was a mistake. We should have stayed home."
"I can still feel those ice shards on my cheeks. It took days to warm up."
"We'll always compare other walks to that one," he said. "Everything else is easy after that. We can walk through anything now."
I slip, something hard under my boot knocks me off balance and I fall heavily in the snow. Before I even hit, his strong hand grasps my upper arm creating a softer landing.
"Are you OK?"
He hauls me to my feet and leans me against the stone wall to catch my breath.
"My leg hurts. But I'm OK."
"We can go back. Let's go back. Come on, I'll help you."
"No. Let's go on. I'll be fine. I just have to walk it out."
His hands steady me until I walk without limping. I am determined to go on, stubborn for reasons I can never explain, and he knows this.
The crosswalk lights flash alternating instructions to go, to stop, urging caution. We breeze right through them, our footfalls a harmony in the still air.
Sometimes I walk ahead of him, if the way through the deep snow is narrow, if I feel an inexplicable burst of energy, my wild thoughts urging me faster, faster. I don't like to walk ahead of him, but he encourages me to. He says he likes the view.
Other times, he takes the lead, when everything ahead is ice, dark black asphalt peeking through, each step carrying the danger of falling again. He finds a safe path for us. And I happily fall in place behind him, knowing he would never lead me anywhere we didn't need to go.
"Do you want to go down the hill?" he asks.
"Oh yes. Let' s go listen to the lake."
We separate as we make our way down the gravel hill, each of us picking our own path down. The hill is broad but deeply rutted and uneven, one side falling off to rocks below, and there is no sane way to walk down this time of year side by side. By unspoken agreement, we meet up halfway down the sloping hill, stopping to gaze from this vantage point out into the night at the ice field that stretches north into the darkness across the lake. The cracked ice at the shore, black ice beyond, and everywhere soupy trails of dove-colored slush. Farther out are the silhouettes of snow drifts, a frozen tide, a season suspended mid-stride.
At night in winter, the lake is a lunar landscape, all whites and greys pockmarked with mirrors of ice and deep trenches of darkness, a mythic land that exists only a short time. As we stand there, he and I, I feel quiet certainty that we could go together across this barren landscape of ice and water, jumping from iceberg to ice shelf, soaring over the black water between, all the way across into the darkness that rises up behind it. To whatever lies there. That I could just grab his hand and we'd bound off into the unknown.
But enough of dreaming. We continue on to the bottom of the slope and listen to the lake. At first nothing, just wind. And then gradually, the ice shifts against itself, a slow, agonizing crack. Then a soft cry, nearly lost in the scale of the moon-drenched lake, of a lone seagull.
"Do you hear that?"
"Yes, I do."
We turn and walk to the far side of the lakefront where the snowy path disappears into the lake. A little harbor draws in the snow and ice, piling up all winter, higher and higher until jagged peaks form a mountain range in miniature. Beyond that the city, lighting up the dense cloud cover that circles its spires. The scale of the icy harbor, the city against the snowy night sky, makes me feel cloistered, hidden in a frozen moment. I lean back against his chest and sigh.
"You're just using me as a windbreak. Don't think I don't know that."
"That's true. That's why I love you. I can hide behind you when I have to."
I feel rather than hear his laughter.
At times like this, alone in the dark and cold, wrapped in his arms, I can see him in time, the shy dark haired boy I fell in love with, the young man I married, the confident man and father he's become, his beard silvery with age. And they are all right there in that moment, every man inside him that I married.
The view of the city always feels like a destination, like the end of the journey. But I know it is not. My nose is cold, and I'm shivering as we climb back up the hill to a field of ice and snow touched only by feet, not shovels or plows. The paths worn by others are slick with melt and by silent agreement we make our own path, striking out across the snow.
I look back across the snowy fields and see spider webs of paths. Some ours, some the artifacts of others. Stretched out in the moonlight, they form a hasty sketch, calligraphy in the snow written by the lives and the paths of others in languages I cannot translate.
Later, he holds the door open for me at home, the house warm and bright after the dark and cold. We toss our hats, our gloves, our coats on the couch, kick our boots off, our things mingling once again with the dog bowl, the ice skates, a little stuffed octopus. He bends down and brushes his whiskers against my cheek, a kiss on my neck. And I know that no matter the path, no matter the dark, no matter the season, together we have found our stride.