The first time they touched, Darius was taken aback by the the frigid cold of Krystal’s skin. Touching her felt like making contact with a dry, fleshy ice cube. She had no warmth to her at all, which surprised Darius.
From a distance, Krystal gave no hint at the cold within her: she was always ready with a warm smile, or a teasing wink, or a quick, excited wave when she saw someone she knew from across the room. She knew how to comfort someone just from her tone of voice and the expression set upon her face.
So when Darius took her hand in his for the first time, and the shock of the icy chill of her hand met his flesh, he gasped audibly.
“What?” she asked, instantly concerned. He could tell he had made her self-conscious.
“Nothing,” Darius said. “You’re hand’s just colder than I expected.”
“Oh,” she said. She laughed; everything was fine. “I have poor circulation, just like my grandmother.”
Darius laughed along with her, and tried to accept her explanation. Soon, though, his hand began to ache from the cold. It seemed to crawl up toward his heart; soon, even his wrist was cool, and his forearm felt a faint chill. His hand had long since gone numb.
He kissed her goodbye that night. With his face close to hers he could smell the chill of the air, like the wind as it blows in the winter. He felt as though his lips pressed against two soft, supple ice cubes.
After they parted the chill lingered. Darius shivered. When he touched his hands together, that which was still warm recoiled from the other. He still had no feeling in the hand which had held hers, though it still moved with all the flexibility to which he was accustomed.
At home, Darius took a hot shower, soaking his hand beneath the falling water until some sensation began to return. He felt the heat first as it enveloped and entered his hand, seeping in toward his bones. It burned, though he knew it wasn’t quite that hot. It took much longer than it should have to banish the cold, almost as if it clung to him, refusing to depart.
On their next date, Darius found himself reluctant to touch her. The numbing cold had been unpleasant, though otherwise, Krystal was anything but. He loved the way her loose curls fell down around her shoulders and the way her eyes reminded him of chocolate milk. He loved the way she laughed and the way she made him laugh in turn.
He… loved? He wondered if it was too soon to be using that word. He cast aside his question and took her hand once more. If he found so much joy from her mere presence, he could bear the numbing cold.
This time, when he returned to his home, he found the cold of their contact even harder to banish. The hot water streamed over him. With his face upturned, it seemed almost as though it was avoiding his numb, frozen lips. His arms and chest, where he had embraced her, still had feeling enough to feel the water rolling over them, yet they seemed to repel the warmth like oil resists water.
When he crawled into bed that night, he drew his sheets and his comforter and two extra blankets over his body in a great pile. He stuffed his hands beneath his legs, where they began to leech the warmth from his thigh and hopefully, hopefully take some of it into themselves. The shower’s warmth had run out before he could bring any heat to his hands.
Still, Darius returned to her. He came to accept the cold, after a time. When he let it enter him far enough, it ceased to be unpleasant. As his hand had become numb that first night, so too did his lips and chest and the other parts of his body that spent a great deal of time in contact with Krystal. The cold never hurt, and the numbness certainly did not: it was not a presence, but an absence.
The first night they made love, Darius found that the cold extended far beyond just the surface of Krystal’s flesh. He found a part of himself numb that he never would have asked for, and yet he accepted it — for Krystal. Because, yes, he did love her, as he had known he would even soon soon after meeting her.
It became so that he could never find warmth, no matter how long he stood beneath the shower; no matter how many blankets he piled over his body; no matter how long he sat next to the fire or relaxed in the jacuzzi.
“Are you cold?” Krystal would ask, in the middle of summer, when she found Darius wearing a sweater over two other layers.
“A bit, yeah,” Darius would answer, not wanting to reveal that yes, yes, he was cold and he couldn’t seem to do anything to warm up. “It’s just a chill though. It will pass.”
“Alright,” she would say, but with her eyebrows tilted in such a way as to say she knew he wasn’t being truthful.
Krystal always felt too warm. Darius, in his mind — never aloud; no, he couldn’t imagine Krystal hearing him saying something that might sound negative about her — in his mind, he compared her to an ice cube melting in the sun on a cool fall day. Of course that ice cube would complain of the heat, though the people around it went about it sweaters and warm jeans.
The cold worked its way in to Darius’s core, all the way to his heart. He felt there wasn’t a speck of warmth left in his body. Even the faintest breeze made him shiver. He told himself that he didn’t mind. In fact, as his body became completely numb, he tried to look at it as an advantage. He couldn’t feel when he stubbed his toe or got a paper cut, or when he hit his head reaching for something under a desk.
At the same time, he had reached the point where he couldn’t even feel Krystal’s embrace. When she took his hand in hers, his fingers clasped automatically around hers. He marvelled at their reaction, for he couldn’t feel her fingers lacing through his own, squeezing his hand for reassurance as she looked into his eyes, wanting more.
“Is everything alright?” she asked one day.
“Yeah,” he said, but it was a lie. His mouth was too numb to feel for other, truer words. Even his mind felt numb, at times, and too slow to think of anything better to say, or even to feel what warmth Krystal did have: that of her smile and her kindness and the way she took care of him, subtly, without him even knowing.
Still, he did see her warmth, and he revelled in it. It was the only hint at something other than cold that he ever felt anymore. When she met his eyes, or hugged him close, or he came home to find she had baked his favorite dessert: those were the times when he almost, almost felt something, as though the snow that had come to blanket him completely fell away for just a moment, giving the sun brief access to his skin.
“Are you sure?” she asked again. “You seem distant.”
“No, I’m just preoccupied,” he said. “Don’t worry about it.”
She did worry about it, though. He could see that, even though his eyes had gone numb and he felt sometimes like he didn’t see half of what he once had. He wondered if he should be worried about it. He had moved to a place beyond worry into a sort of half-existence where he couldn’t feel much of anything except the omnipresent cold.
So it was that when he came from another day of just sliding through work, he was surprised — faintly, and distantly — to see her sitting at the table, waiting for him, back straight and hands folded in front of her, ready to say something important.
“I’m leaving,” she said.
“What?” he asked. The glacier that had formed around his skull made it hard to take in the words.
“I’m leaving you,” she clarified. “I can’t do this anymore.”
Darius shook his head. The glacier creaked and crackled. “What? Why? I thought we were happy.”
“I’ve tried to be,” she said. “I thought we were, too, for a while. I just can’t feel it anymore.”
“Feel what?” he said. The concept of feeling much of anything seemed foreign to him now that he had gone so long without it.
“Anything, sometimes,” Krystal answered. “It feels like I can’t feel anything from you anymore. Like you’ve withdrawn behind this wall or stepped away from me or something. Like you’re numb.”
I am, he whispered within himself, but the glacier stopped the words from coming out. I am numb. You made me numb. “I love you, though.”
“I love you, too.” Krystal wiped at her eye with the edge of her hand. Was she crying? Darius couldn’t see the tears. “We can say it all we want, but if I’m not feeling it from you it doesn’t matter.”
“I don’t know what to do,” Darius said. There was a spark of something in his mind, like a chip of light frozen into the glacier. It vibrated and struggled but it could not work its way free.
Krystal shrugged. She stood. “There’s nothing you can do. Say goodbye, I guess. I’m all packed and ready. I’ve got a place to stay. You don’t have to worry about me.”
“I’m not worried about you,” he said. Later he would reflect on those words and hear just how pathetic he sounded; he would hear himself as Krystal had clearly hear him, given her response.
“That’s great, Darius,” she said, her tone rough and biting. “Worry about yourself. Unless you figure some things out, you’re going to have a rough time without me.”
“I love you,” he said, stuck, frozen, and at a loss for other words.
“Goodbye, Darius,” Krystal said with a sigh. She pushed past him, stopped, turned, and enveloped him in a quick, hesitant embrace. He reacted too slowly. His arms were just leaving his sides to embrace her in return when she pulled away.
“Goodbye,” he said, but she did not seem to hear him. He couldn’t even be sure he said it out loud.
He moved to the window to watch her leave. When her car pulled out of the driveway, he fell to his knees. She had taken that last bit of warmth with her, the warmth of her smile, and now all Darius had left was the insidious cold that filled his body and slowed his blood. He cried, but he did not feel the tears.
Or… no, no, he did feel them. Those tiny drops splashed down onto his hands, folded into his lap. He marvelled at the sensation as each tear dropped upon his flesh brought with it a tiny pool of warmth. He brought his hands to his face and cried with all his might. He cried all the harder as, for the first time in years, the feeling returned to his hands.