Maggie was always cold. She told me so on our first date.
“Cold blooded,” I said, “Like a lizard?” I imagined Maggie sprawled on a rock, sunning her back.
Maggie shook her head.
She held out her hands to me, revealing bluish skin delicately etched with a layer of ice crystals. I was shocked—I certainly didn’t know what to say—but I didn’t want her to feel embarrassed, so I pressed her hands between mine and started rubbing the ice away. I smiled at her across the table, emboldened by our sudden intimacy, but Maggie didn’t smile back.
“Do you want to leave?”
“No. Why would I?”
I looked again at her hands, unfolding them from mine and letting the small pool of water that had melted from her palms dribble out onto the tablecloth. It wasn’t scary, Maggie’s frozen skin. It wasn’t ugly. In fact, it was quite beautiful: patterned like lace, blooming out from under her sleeves, which she pulled down to cover her hands again when she saw me looking.
“Is it contagious?”
“No,” Maggie said, “But it does seem to drive people away.”
“Not me,” I said. “I love it.”
We’d been set up by my coworker, Josh. He told me that Maggie was his friend from high school, and that she’d dated both men and women for as long as he could remember. He said that I was probably her perfect type: sturdy and hard-bodied like a man, but with the sensitive heart of a woman. I nodded silently, feeling awkward that he’d made this assessment of me, but also satisfied by its simplicity.
Josh took my phone and entered her number. He even sent the first message:
Josh dropped the phone in front of me with a wink.
“Hey? Who is this?”
“Frances, huh? Josh calls you Frankie.”
I was relieved to find out that she had been expecting my message. Josh had done all of the hard work—I just had to set up a date.
“This is me,” she wrote after a few minutes, and included a picture of herself against a sunlit white wall. Her hair was almost black, wavy, and long, and her face was bright. She looked peaceful in a way that, to me, felt remarkable. It was as if she’d been sculpted from marble, the hard edges of stone carefully buffed, giving the illusion of softness. I couldn’t discern a particular feature that was pleasing to me, but I had the urge to pull up the picture many times a day.
Maggie agreed to meet the following evening for dinner at my favorite restaurant, an underground pub that served unfussy plates of meat and potatoes. It was, without a doubt, a place for the sturdy but sensitive, balancing the heaping portions with ambient flourishes: candlelit nooks, antique china dishes, and lush carpets woven in saturated royal hues that made you want to slip your shoes off under the table.
The real Maggie was no less desperately alluring than the one in the photo. When she arrived, we ordered plates of warm starches, the heartiest we could find. Before they came, I noticed the way she covered her hands with her sleeves. I asked if she was cold.
“I’m always cold,” she said.
Maggie spoke in clipped sentences, leaving silence where most people would add padding, and in that silence, she watched me, as if daring me to back out. I met her challenge by refusing to ask any more questions about her condition, asking instead if she’d ever visited a psychic (“Yes. She said I would die when I’m 72.”) and when was the last time she cried (“This morning. And this afternoon.”). I held her gaze like a mirror, hoping that might help her see herself the way I did: enchanted, not damaged. Maggie leaned in and the candlelight reflected on her icy skin. I asked her if she might want to come home with me.
When I unlocked the door, Maggie followed quickly behind, pinning me to the wall with the length of her body pressed against mine in an electrifying reversal of how I’m used to women acting around me. She took the lead, heading for the bedroom in the far corner of my apartment.
The sensations of Maggie were complex and unfamiliar. Her lips had an eerie coolness. Her breath seemed to rattle in her chest. But her hands, as they thawed from the heat we’d built up, were confident.
Maggie came to my house every night from that point forward, seeking out her dose of friction—rubbing, clinging, pulling, her frigid fingers stealing warmth from under my clothes.
At first, it was good fun: those gluttonous early months of a relationship when every look triggers a crash landing of bodies feeding an incessant need to be introduced and reintroduced. It was flattering, then. She’d even visit my office on her lunch break, and we’d disappear together into my building’s basement gym, where the steam rooms were always empty. I’d return to my desk forty-five minutes later, rumpled and flushed, but what I lacked in composure, I made up for in confidence, delightedly raking in high-fives and wolf whistles from my coworkers as I passed their cubicles.
I tired of it, though, after a while. I adored Maggie, but for six weeks, I hadn’t watched any TV or read the newspaper—she’d taken over all of my free time, and as much as I wanted to be okay with that, it was starting to feel like a chore.
I asked Maggie, out and out, if she’d be amenable to lightening the load. “You must have work to do,” I said while lying next to her in bed one night. Maggie spent her days as an attendant for a posh uptown art gallery, but she always talked about wanting to spend more time on her own paintings.
“My grouch,” Maggie cooed. “My diligent laborer, bringing home the bacon.” She flung a leg over top of me.
“Maggie, no. I’m exhausted.” When she inched her icy hands up over my ribs, I got out of bed and headed for the couch, closing the door behind me.
When I woke up, Maggie was sitting at the counter, sniveling over a steaming mug of black tea. Her nose and eyes dripped.
“Come here,” I rumbled. Maggie hoisted herself and her cape of blankets from the barstool and perched on the armrest of the couch.
“I’m sick,” she said with a shudder.
“You’re not. Come here.” I went to take her hands in mine, but they were fused to the sides of her mug, frozen solid.
On my way to work, I called my doctor and set up an appointment for her, even though she’d told me doctors hadn’t been able to help her in the past. They’d only told her she was overreacting, suggested that she eat more hot soup and make sure she was getting enough vitamins. But I said it was an emergency. I had looked up the symptoms of hypothermia that morning. Shivering, drowsiness, blue tinged lips—I said she had all of these. They asked if she’d been swimming in cold water recently, or if she had any slurred speech or trouble breathing, and I said I wasn’t sure. They agreed to fit her in that morning.
Maggie called me after her appointment to say that the doctor was sure it was a rash, not ice, but that Maggie should take hot baths every day.
“Great,” I said. “So you’ll do that?”
“It won’t help,” said Maggie. After a long pause, she followed with, “Can you come home?”
It struck me then that Maggie would always need me more than I needed her. Without me, she suffered. I was the variable. I was the antidote.
I didn’t go home that night. I stayed late at work, sneaking into the employee lounge after the janitors had left, curling up on the sofa to sleep. “Sorry,” I wrote in a text the next morning, “I figured I’d just have to be back here in a few hours.”
When I did go home, I found Maggie burrowed in our bed, nearly motionless except for the distraught scanning of her wide eyes. I climbed in with her, combed the icicles from her hair with my fingers, blew hot air on her frozen lips, cracking open her mouth so that her teeth could resume their chattering.
I’d brought Maggie her favorite lemongrass soup, which we ate together, taking turns sipping it out of the plastic container it came in. Afterward, I ran her a steaming bath with salt to melt the ice that had collected along her spine.
“You could do this for yourself, you know, when I’m not here,” I said, trying to be more encouraging than critical.
“I need you,” said Maggie.
“You’ll feel better in a while.”
Hiding from Maggie was maybe even harder than caring for her. I took up hiking so I’d have an excuse for staying out late and not answering my phone. On the mountain, I never had service. I’d drive up after work, hike a few miles in, find a spot for dinner, which was usually a pouch of bean chili that I’d eat cold, and then I’d hike back down after sunset by the light of my headlamp. It would take me an hour or so to drive home. I never got in before eleven, and Maggie was always asleep by ten—her frozen skin seemed to suck energy from her like a parasite.
I could see that she was trying to take care of herself. The canvas I’d bought for her was set up on her easel and she’d tested some swatches of color in a corner: Steel Grey, Powder Blue, Deep Cobalt, Mars Black. It was only the first step, but to me it looked like a declaration, a reclamation. It would be a painting of coolness and darkness, but not necessarily bleakness.
Around the apartment, Maggie would light an assortment of candles. When I’d get home, I’d find them still burning: small ones around the perimeter of the bed, big pillar candles on the dresser, floating tea lights in the lingering bathwater that her body had made icy cold. The ceiling took on a greyish tint from all of the smoke that collected there when I blew out the candles and snuck silently into the bed next to Maggie every night.
I had gotten quite thin from all the hiking and the lack of proper meals, and probably, too, from the stress of knowing Maggie was getting worse without me there. When I wrapped my arms and legs around her while she shivered and slept, the angles of my bones scraped grotesquely against layers of frost. In the early hours of the morning, I’d wake, chafed and raw, and head out to work before Maggie got up, taking a long, hot shower in the office locker room when I arrived.
Until one night when I came home to find Maggie still awake, sitting in a chair, dressed in knit mittens, a hat, and a soft wool coat, looking like she was ready to go out, except that her legs and feet were bundled in blankets and I knew she hadn’t gone anywhere in weeks. I put my bags down in silence, waiting for her to speak first. Hot tears leaked out of her eyes, sending wisps of steam curling off of her cheeks into the air above her head. I was supposed to ask her what was wrong, of course, but I knew, I already knew, and I needed Maggie to fight me on it, to get up and ransack my bag, pick out a clue, anything that looked like evidence that I was cheating on her.
Maggie wasn’t going to fight me. She couldn’t. In a rage, I ripped open my own bag, and holding each twisted sock and sweater, I screamed, “Look, is this what you wanted to see? Is this what you’re upset about?” not knowing whether I was defending myself or admitting guilt. Maggie cried until the bag was turned inside out, contents strewn across the floor, every item undeniably mine. I was sweating, breathless from the effort, still standing near the door where I had come in just minutes before, expecting to collapse into bed with lifeless Maggie. A chill rose in my shoulders. I think she must have seen my body shiver, because she got up, wrapped me in the blankets from her lap, and laid me down to sleep right there on the carpet. Before I closed my eyes, Maggie whispered in my ear, “I believe you.”
“I believe you, too,” I said.
Maggie burnt down our apartment complex in December, seven months after we first met. It was a new eco-friendly building, and every bamboo fiber wall and recycled plastic bathroom tile was ablaze in a matter of minutes. I heard sirens from my office, but thought nothing of it until 20 minutes later when I rounded the last corner leading home and saw the trucks.
I watched for a while as the fire licked at the bones of my home, unrelenting against the heavy torrent of water that tore off chunks of charred siding three stories up. From the ground, the fire looked soft, slow-moving, non-violent. It seemed, in some ways, like the building might be better shrouded in glowing orange light. I wanted to surround myself with the heat, and Maggie, too, and we could live in the eye of the fiery storm, and Maggie would be normal, and I wouldn’t have to feel sorry for her anymore.
With a swell of urgency, I started to search through the strangers: heads that, from the back, could all be Maggie, but none of them had her remarkable face. I searched until a police officer interrupted me, bending his head down to catch my eye.
“Unit B?” he said. I registered him as a stranger who was not Maggie and tried to move on. He held out his hand to stop me. “You’ll have to come with me.”
He brought me to Maggie, who was unscathed, sitting on the curb. He told me they were taking her into police custody that night. She was likely to be charged with arson, he said, given that she had deliberately piled every scrap of paper, newsprint, and cardboard we had in the house in the middle of the living room and set it burning with kitchen matches. What the police had yet to figure out was whether Maggie had intended to cause the damage.
“Is she okay?” the officer asked. I didn’t have an answer.
My alibi was sound: I was at work, with plenty of witnesses to corroborate. The officer warned me that they’d have further questions about Maggie, but offered that those could wait until the morning.
I visited her in jail the following afternoon.
“You’re here,” she said when she saw me. It was hard for me to look at her. I couldn’t tell whether anyone else could see that Maggie was glistening like cut crystal. She was extraordinary and lovely.
“It’s okay, Maggie.” I pressed my hand against the glass, where, on the other side, a frosty layer had started to form.
Hallie Garrison is a queer writer working out of Somerville, MA. She chases toddlers for a living, and also chases tequila shots with lime.