Our first apartment in Champaign-Urbana was only two blocks from where I worked, but our first winter living there was the year of the polar vortex. Brutal wind, temperatures in the minus twenties, and more ice and snow than I’d seen in a single season. Ever. “Winters here aren’t usually like this,” my neighbor said one morning, bundled so tightly I had to search the silvery blob of quilted polyester and down for the two sparkling brown orbs trying to make eye contact.
“I’ve had warmer welcomes, that’s for sure!” I replied. We each made our way downstairs, each step creaking out a protest so loud it echoed off the plastered walls. I gripped the railing as I descended. I didn’t believe in haunted buildings, but I couldn’t not imagine the creaky stairs coming to life, shifting and twisting treads and risers until they formed a slide and spat me out the back door into the tiny parking lot. Or, I don’t know, maybe I was just dizzy.
Dan and I spent a year and a half in that apartment building, a ten-unit, two-story building constructed in the 1930s. The landlord and his wife were artists. His studio was in the basement and his brightly colored, larger-than-life pop culture paintings adorned the hallways of the building. Combined with her mixed-media works, the art provided a nice distraction from the dust piling up on the radiators.
Our front yard was a 27-acre city park, and just beyond the property’s fence to the back was a County Market grocery store. What the place lacked in amenities, it made up for in sheer convenience. The one-bedroom apartment didn’t have central air, the blinds were coated in sticky dirt and dust, and the ceiling fan in the kitchen had to be turned off and the blades rotated just so in order to open the cabinet doors on either side of the kitchen sink. The view out the living room window was idyllic Hessel Park, and the view out the bathroom window was the roof of the dentist’s office next door and the flashing neon “OPEN” sign on the pizza place across the street from it.
It was cramped living for sure, but we couldn’t afford anything else. (I had checked. Trust me.) Hell, we honestly couldn’t even afford what we had, at least not until the condo in Indianapolis sold. The place Rodney’s picked out just after we were married in 2004 had—surprise!—turned out to be a really bad investment.
First of all, it was a condominium, and condos that weren’t fashioned out of glass, metal, and old brick in downtown Indianapolis really weren’t cool, but also in the decade I’d lived there the homeowners’ association had put exterior building repairs on the back burner in favor of more pressing matters. Like harassing residents who planted flowers in their front yards without obtaining board approval. Or mailing passive-aggressive notes reminding residents that association by-laws clearly prohibited setting garbage out earlier than 9 p.m. the night before pick up.
The condo refused to be sold for well over a year. It was almost as if when Rodney had said that one time, “There’s no such thing as closure,” he’d summoned Satan and placed a curse on the dwelling.
I focused the best I could on loving my new job and my new life in Champaign-Urbana. Around Valentine’s Day in 2014, I got in my car, which had already been de-iced by Dan while I was hurriedly getting ready for work, and drove to my new job as a technical writer for a software company. It was energizing work. Super-intelligent coworkers and free bottled Frappuccinos helped a lot. But the company culture was significantly more progressive than you’d find at most employers in the Midwest, and lightyears ahead of Balkamp. They even offered health insurance to employees in domestic partnerships. Dan and I didn’t need a marriage certificate from the State for my employer to recognize him as family.
As much as I loved my new co-workers and not stepping back into 1950 every time I went to work, I couldn’t deny a certain level of stress that came with the job too. Not everyone was an enthusiast of diplomacy, for instance, and expectations were high and unpredictable. It wasn’t unusual for a web page I’d written to require approval from three or four different people all with wildly different opinions on what the page should say. Incorporating everyone’s feedback wasn’t the hard part. But refraining from telling my boss’s boss’s boss that he was being a jerk? That required restraint, and life had severely depleted my bullshit tolerance levels. I kept my cool and my job by always leaving the building for lunch and always taking the full hour. I returned for the second half of my day refreshed. Sometimes Dan would pick me up and we’d go to Taco Bell or Steak ‘n Shake, but the rest of the time I met him at the apartment. If the weather was nice, we’d pack up lunches and walk across the street to the park, dining on his famous pork chop sandwiches while squirrels burgled half-eaten cheeseburgers from trash cans.
Like I said, though. The weather that first winter wasn’t nice. The day of the great Snow Fall was Valentine’s Day, 2014 and Dan and I would be having lunch at the apartment where the radiators had been cranked for four months.
Dan IMed me around 12:30 to see what plans were. “Know when you’re leaving? Wondering when to warm up lunch.” I told him I’d be home in about twenty minutes, I was in the middle of updating a sales brochure that still listed system requirements from an older software version.
When I reached a good stopping point, I put on my wool pea coat, insulated gloves, scarf, and hat before stepping on the elevator. Opening the lobby door, I braced myself for the needling cold and thought of the meme everyone had been sharing on Facebook that morning. The little cartoon dude in a pom pom hat saying “The air hurts my face. Why am I living where the air hurts my face?”
Overnight fresh snow had fallen, covering a days-old layer of ice so thick you could skate on it. I was wearing sensible shoes and grounds crews had done their best to clear the sidewalks, but looking at the ground in front of me, things were still pretty dicey. I situated my purse cross-body so I could use my arms for balance as I made my way to my car in the parking lot across the street.
According to my Corolla’s thermometer, the air temperature was just two degrees shy of the day’s predicted high: 14 °F. I lengthened my torso to check my face in the rearview mirror before backing out of my parking space and chuckled at the miniature icicles that had formed over the hairs in my very cold, very pink nose. They were jagged and irregular, like a five year old had drawn monster teeth in my nostrils. The stoplight was red, so it took me a whole two minutes and forty-five seconds to get home. I parked, grabbed my purse, and walked up to the building dreaming of the hot lunch that was waiting for me and the cozy living room chair.
When I opened my eyes, I saw a gray so bright I had to squint. I blinked a few times and realized I was shivering and lying flat on my back with both of my arms resting slightly away from my body. In drone footage, I would’ve looked like a human arrow. The back of my head felt cold and wet and so did the backs of my legs. It finally occurred to me the stuff stinging my eyes was snow. I was lying face up on the sidewalk about fifteen feet from the apartment building entrance.
I tried to sit up but my brain willing it to happen wasn’t enough to make it so. The unexplained paralysis caused me to panic. Time stopped while I struggled to choose between crying and screaming. Screaming won, but when I moved my lips to cry out for help, no words came out–no breath, no sound. I tried again, but sucking in air was next to impossible, like I’d taken a punch to the solar plexus. I panicked again, harder this time and it was like I could feel the adrenaline racing through my body toward my lungs. I gasped and sucked in a huge breath of frigid air. “Help!” There was sound this time, but it was pitiful. No one was ever going to hear me.
I tried to wiggle my fingers and toes. They moved, thank god. Then I flapped my arms and legs as if I were making a snow angel in the parking lot. Well, I guess I literally was. It was a huge relief regaining the ability to move my limgs, but my core was too weak to sit up. I looked around me, the parking lot was empty and there was nothing close enough to try and hoist myself up.
I turned my head to the right, snow filling my ear, and saw my eyeglasses—which I last remembered being on my face—lying a good three feet beyond my reach. My purse was a little closer. I stretched my arm and closed my eyes again to protect them from the glare, feeling around inside for my purse for my phone. Dialing was difficult, requiring me to focus so intently the world around me disappeared. I couldn’t sense anything but the cold glass phone screen under my fingertips. I had to remind myself three times what I was doing before I actually placed the call to Dan, who was just inside, in our cozy apartment, heating up lunch.
“Babby!” he answered.
In a breathy voice I managed to say, “Help me. I fell. I’m out back. Bye.”
I told Dan I didn’t want to go to the doctor. Probably not the wisest decision I’d ever made, but then I had been knocked unconscious from a head injury a mere minutes ago. “Will you call work?” I asked, too shaken to do it myself. I was coming back to my senses, but it was taking too long. Like rebooting a computer after an update, I just didn’t have the patience. I took off my winter garb and laid my gloves, scarf, and hat on the nearby radiator.
“I wonder how long I was out,” I said, feeling the back of my head then checking my fingers for blood. There were none, obviously. If Dan had seen blood, I’d have been on my way to the hospital for sure, not sitting in my favorite chair.
“Couldn’t have been more than two or three minutes. I saw you come down Hessel and turn into the lot. I was washing dishes,” Dan said. He’d seen me from the kitchen window and had been expecting me to walk in the door any moment when his phone rang. Some time had passed, he explained, but not enough that he’d begun to worry.
I didn’t go back to work, so my weekend started early. It wasn’t fun-filled or even relaxing. I spent most of it noticing how sore and weak I felt. On Monday, I called my primary doctor. On Tuesday, she examined me. Dan drove me to the clinic because I wasn’t sure I should be operating heavy machinery. No one debated whether I had a concussion. That much was evident.
“I don’t see any physical evidence that we need to be too concerned,” Dr. Oh said, clicking off her flashlight pen and putting it back in her lab coat pocket, “but I’m ordering a CT scan.” She told me to have Dan drive me straight to the hospital; the Radiology Department could squeeze me in. No need to go through all the drama of the ER.
The radiologist called Dr. Oh to give her the results, and then Dr. Oh called me. “Nothing to note on the scan,” she said. “Continue taking Tylenol for the pain, and call me if anything changes.”