The thing about Antarctica that surprises me most? The condoms. They’re absolutely everywhere.
I’ve been in Antarctica a total of eighty-three minutes, so I’m positive more exciting surprises will probably (hopefully) reveal themselves, but for now, the most intriguing thing about McMurdo, the American science station, is all the condoms.
They’re on all the tables, shelves, and bathroom sinks. Their abundance, combined with McMurdo’s abandoned mining-town/ski-lodge ambience, is giving the place a real frat-house-during-spring-break kind of feel instead of the for-the-betterment-of-the-world vibe the scientists might be aiming for.
I have come here to understand how I got here. Retrace my steps. Sort of metaphorically but, then again, no--actual steps. Every step I’ve taken since I was three years old and first walked onto a dance floor. Since the day I tied my first pair of pointe shoes on my soon-to-be-thrashed feet.
Apparently I’ve been walking all my life on shifting ice, falling snow covering any trace of thepath I’ve made, so now I look back and I’m panicked because I’ve left no trail. I’m frozen, paralyzed, no clue behind me to find the way back. How did I get so horribly lost? How, when I was never alone? All this time, people have beenbeside me, helping me walk straight into this blizzard.
How did I get here?
I told a lie and got on a plane. Four planes. Ninety minutes from San Francisco to LAX. Fifteen hoursfrom Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia. The National Science Foundation sprang for Virgin Atlantic, so I had Seinfeld episodes on the tiny seat-back screen the whole way. Then three more hours to Christchurch, New Zealand. No . . . sleep . . . till Christchurch. Overnight in a nice hotel, and the next morning, they handed out sack lunches of cheese sticks and granola bars for the five-hour cargo plane flight to The Ice.
We landed inland, far from the water, on the solid polar ice cap. (Less solid every day. Thanks, Global Warming.) Five hours of roaring engines whined to a stop, and our ears rang. We breathed a future-familiar jet-fuel smell and stepped out onto The Ice. And it was quiet.
Deep, heavy, loud silence in a world of white and blue and black and red. White-blue sky, white snow and ice, black mountains, and our huge shocking-red National Science Foundation parkas.
We slipped and slid all over the ice. Treacherous grooves carved into the ice as texture for the landing strip were so wide I tripped in one and nearly broke my ankle. Weeks ago that would have been a tragedy, but now it wouldn’t matter at all. Now I can sprain all the joints and break all the bones I want. Bring it, Ice.
An hour-long ride in a giant red Terra Bus to McMurdo and we stepped onto The Ice once more, and aprecise spot of pain, otherworldly cold, flared in my forehead. Oh my God, it’s like being stabbed with an icicle. Yes, I know--Antarctica, so what did I expect?--but I’m telling you, this is not regular cold. This is . . . it is unreal.
McMurdo is a town. Buildings, muddy roads, tractors, snowplows, trucks, and metal sheds. A winter population of two hundred. The scientists (Beakers, they’re called here) go their way, and I am ushered into bright royal-blue Building 155 with the other support staff. We are janitors, line cooks, research assistants, and flightschedulers. We support the important people. We are mostly Americans and New Zealanders. Kiwis? All this slang I’m picking up already from eavesdropping, and I am the lowest of us all. I am a fingy. (Fucking New Guy. Charming.)
We’re here together for six months. Soon we will watch the sun disappear into the gray cold of the Ross Sea. No planes in or out. No way on or off The Ice until winter ends in September. Which is why we have all undergone stringent medical and dental exams before arriving, and explains all the condoms; conditions like this surely encourage certain warmth-inducing indoor activities, and getting knocked up here in winter would be a dicey, life-threatening thing to do.
Two hundred people at the frozen, dark bottom of Earth: scientists, researchers, support staff.
I am one of three pioneers: high school students, seventeen and barely allowed on The Ice but for a coveted National Science Foundation grant for high school seniors looking to enrich our scientific education. (The aforementioned airplane lie.) We are Wintering Over. We are the Winter Overers. On purpose. We have willingly given our two hundred lives to The Ice and the dark for two hundred reasons. Ninety-nine problems, what?!
See, I’m already delirious.
The huge mittens encasing my hands make it a chore to pull out my earbuds blasting hits from the London Symphony Orchestra, the music of My People, but I do when a McMurdo staff member walks forward to shake our hands. Everyone but me seems to know eachother, and no one else looks seventeen. They’re hugging and laughing and talking, and I suddenly really want to lie down.
“Scott!” the guy in charge calls through a humongous beard. “Harper Scott. Scott.” The party is quiet as I raise my huge down-encased arm.
“Scott Scott?” someone calls from the assembled mass. All dudes. Bunch of dudes and me. The three women we flew in with must be scientists, already off to their science dormbuilding. Beard nods, and I think he smiles, but I can’t tell, because giant beard.
Now everyone turns and looks at me.
So much for not being known.
“All righty then, Scott. Let’s find your room. . . .” He flips through the stack of papers on his clipboard and hands me a key stamped 1123. “Right here, main building, second floor. All yours. Bathrooms near the stairs in each hallway. They’ll bring your stuff up later. Welcome Dinner’s at six, so you’ve got a couple of hours. You’ll meet your supervisor then. You’re with . . .” He searches the pages again.
“Charlotte,” I say. She is a marine biology grad student who was once Mom’s research assistant, a favor called in to get me here. Bunch of lying liars who lie. For me.
“Charlotte, right. So I’m Ben, Building One Fifty-Five gatekeeper, personal point person, security. Check in with me when you’re in or out. Here if you need anything whenever. Whatever. Want me to take you up?”
All the dudes are just standing here, listening.
I shake my head. “Thank you.”
I walk to the door marked stairs, and some of the guys take no care to whisper, “Amundsen’s straight-up grandkids were here last year” and “Never heard of her.”
Yes, being a Scott helped the lie along; I applied late. Not the strongest science résumé. Okay, noscience résumé. But I’m here now, so screw off!
Delirious and cranky.
I follow Beard’s directions to the concrete stairwell lit with fluorescent bulbs to another long, dingy hall to the door marked 1123. Home. For six months. Tiny dorm room with a three-drawer dresser and a small desk with a CD player on it that someone probably left behind, because who even has CDs? There is a rack to hang my giant, wet parka on and two single beds, one against each long wall of the rectangular room. During Winter Over there are so few people that we each get our own room. I drop my small backpack and the rest of the cargo plane bagged lunch on one bed and peel off four layers of clothes: hiking pants, yoga pants, leg warmers, wool long underwear. I pull two ski beanies off my head, unwind my long braid of brown hair. I’m numb. That can’t be good.
There is a mirror above the dresser. My clavicles are sharp. No boobs at all and a shadow beneath every single rib. My fingernails are blue. But then again, they often are. Which is its own special issue. Jesus. Me and all my issues.
I kneel on the other bed, beneath the only window in the cinder block walls. The view is mostly of the sides of other buildings, but those black mountains are closer. I can see the tops in the blue-gray-white sky.
I pull my T-shirt and yoga pants back on, and two of the four pairs of socks I’d worked into my giant NSF-issued boots, and crawl beneath the bed’s wool blankets. My teeth chatter. My pajamas are somewhere in my two big duffel bags still being unloaded from the cargo plane. When I get my hands on those pajamas, I’m never taking them off.
There’s a letter somewhere in those bags, too. Unopened. From a person--a guy--I’ve only just met, but who I might miss more than anyone else. Maybe it will stay unread.
There’s a hum in the walls from the central heat. In the phone book–sized employee handbook the NSF gave us, I learned that waste heat from the generators in McMurdo’s power plant heats glycol, which is pumped into the various buildings, and all that means to me is that Beard was wearing a T-shirt and no coat. So once I warm up, I bet it’ll feel pretty nice in here.
Out of the blue, the noise of the warmth running through the pipes makes my heart hurt, because it sounds like the dishwasher at home. One of us always starts it as we’re all heading to bed. At last, days of noise and cold and travel done, alone and quiet, I feel how far away home is. Mom and Dad are thousands of miles--oceans and continents and a hundred degrees of warmth--away. I roll over and face the empty bed across the room.
I may have made a terrible mistake.
140 Days Earlier
Snow is in my eyes. I blink it from my false lashes, but still it falls, first scattered, floating and then insistent, swirling: a blizzard. Our toes drag paths through the drifts, making patterns and circles. Our feet disappear beneath the white, but we keep on, sweating, absolutely boiling under ice-blue lights. Music, urgent as the snowfall’s impetus, swells and races. I can’t see past the dizzy cyclone, nothing but white, and still I point, prepare, whip my head around, and pirouette, turn, turn, turn—
My name called from the darkness beyond the storm trips my concentration. I slip and fall. Hard.
“Oh, honestly,” the voice sighs. Madame Simone. Pissed.
The music stops and the snow lets up.
I remain, stunned, on the floor.
“Ladies, if you were under the impression a pirouette would be any easier in a snowstorm beneath a hundred and twelve degrees of Fresnel light, I have no sympathy for you. I will nottolerate this laziness! Spot. Spot!”
From the audience she pounds the floor, her scare-the-crap-out-of-the-students stick probably bending, about to snap. So is she. Were the lights up, we would see the vein above her left eyebrow pulse. I glance at the backstage clock. Ten-fifteen. We’ve been at this for nearly three hours. I close my eyes.
“You’re killing me! Killing your beloved professeur. I am physically dying! It is very simple: single, double, arabesque, plié! Clean, finish it, use the floor! Direct your energy down and up, from inside. Harper, stop turning those feet out! Use your hips. How many times must I say this? My God, it’s like you’ve never seen a dance floor in your lives! Why must you torment me this way?”
The stage lights buzz and click in the snowy silence. Simone rents one of the smaller San Francisco State University theaters for our yearly Nutcracker (performed in November to get a jump on the season, and also it’s way cheaper). Though compared with her studio, it feels huge to us. Especially now.
“Let us attempt to achieve competence this time, shall we? From Kate’s entrance. And, ladies? I will not stop you again. If you bring shame upon yourselves and your families, I wash my hands of it. Music!”
Kate grabs my hand, pulls me up, brushes the snow from my rehearsal tutu.
“Oh my God,” she whispers. “What the hell?”
We hobble offstage and regroup, rotate our ankles, stretch our feet. The music starts, Tchaikovsky’s couldn’t-be-less-subtle Nutcracker.
I rub my poor hip. “Be careful,” I whisper to Kate. The stage is now three inches deep in coconut flakes. White and floaty, it doesn’t melt. Smells like Hawaii. Looks like the South Pole.
Kate exhales, pulls up from her core, lifts her head, prepares, and runs lightly to center stage to start us again. I lean into the light and watch her from the wings.
Any yelling Simone does is definitely not directed at Kate. Endless extension, every turn precise, perfectly executed. Her pointe shoes make no sound, even landing jetes--I could happily watch her forever, even in this tropical snow, which Simone has always said we could never afford, but a bunch of parents donated the money for itthis year. We’ve been jonesing for this night. What ballerina in her right mind wouldn’t want to dance the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” with snow really falling, just like the San Francisco Ballet? It takes your breath away, synchronizedghosts moving through the blurry storm, stunning to watch--but clearly a giant pain in the ass to actually dance.
Kate is nearly ankle-deep in the coconut, the snowfall revs back up, and from the shadows, four of uswade through the slippery drifts to join her, our Snow Queen. I concentrate; muscle memory takes over. We watch each other and let Kate lead us in this most painful beauty. The burning in our legs and arms; the raw, open blisters on our feet; the blackened, missing toenails--they all go away. Our breath comes hard and fast, but we smile, sweat and snow in our eyes. We make it look like floating, flying. Effortless.
I turn out from my hips--shoulders back, arms strong--and let the melty joy wash over me. I land my turns. I don’t fall. My heart races.
In all the world there is nothing better, no brighter joy, than this.
The music ends. We are still. Arms crossed, feet pointed, panting chests heaving with restraint, our smiles bright. Snow falls. Silence.
“Well,” comes Simone’s disembodied disappointment. “We’ll try again tomorrow.”
Kate and I sneak down the dark corridors of the science building, where I dump the contents of my dance bag--shoes, hairpins, makeup, medical tape, scissors, hair spray, Bengay, tights--to find the keys to my mom’s office. She is a marine biology professor here at SF State and keeper of a mini fridge full of water and iced tea, and all kinds of delightful snacks.
“Oh, hurry, hurry,” Kate moans. “I’m dying!”
“You are not, you big baby. Just hold on. . . .” I find the key and scoop my junk back into my bag, and we fall inside onto Mom’s futon sofa.