By MJ McGinn
Katie visits me for the first time ever and it’s not quite spring. Maybe still the heart of winter depending on who you ask. Her nose is Rudolph-red from the cold and her scarf is too long, so she keeps stepping on it, and it’s night. Stars and street lights night. So dark her hair blends in with the sky. So dark you can’t see the bluebird tattooed on her neck.
She says, “Is it always winter in Philadelphia?”
“No,” I say, “We get all the seasons, same as everywhere else.”
It’s hard to tell in the dark, but she’s smiling when she says, “Well, you talk about this place like it’s magic. Thought that might be why.”
We’re walking on East River Drive or Kelly Drive, depending on who you ask, along the frozen river that never really freezes and the wind rips across our faces like sandpaper. I didn’t want to come, but Katie did; she said it would be an adventure. She’s always been braver than me, or maybe not braver, but more reckless, which might be worse and might be why I’m in love with her, but who’s to say.
She takes a step off the path, toward the river, her UGGboots squishing in the mud, points at three statues near the water and says, “What’s that?”
I say, “The Playing Angels.”
She walks toward them and I follow like a dog or a child. The last time I visited her in Boston, she wanted to dance and I just wanted to talk, so she went to the dance floor and some guy in a v-neck had his hands all over her stomach and breasts and ears and neck, and I sat at the bar and watched, and afterward she walked home and I followed her, like this, just like this and when we got to her apartment, she kissed me on the mouth so hard that our teeth knocked together, then she said, “You should probably sleep on the sofa.”
Now, the two of us are standing beneath The Playing Angels: three cherubs atop marble columns. She takes out her phone and takes a picture. The city in the background is bathed in fog or smog or both.
She says, “How do they fly if they’re made of stone? Hollow bones?” She looks at me, like I just arrived. She touches the zipper of my ski jacket and says, “Do you think we can stand on the river? Or will the ice break?”
“I don’t know, Katie. I’ve never known anyone who tried to walk on the Schuylkill.”
She leans in real close, like she’s about to kiss me, then whispers in my ear, “Now you do.”
She runs away from me, sprints, really, so fast she could be flying toward the river and the ice. It’s too dark to tell where the land ends and the ice starts. She’s yards from me when the ice breaks, when she falls hip deep quick as an electric eel.
She pulls herself out like she was only wading in the shallow end of a neighbor’s pool. Muck and river drip from her jeans, her shoes are missing, and she says, “Help me get my pants off.”
Even though it’s freezing, even though we’re a strong thirty minute walk from my apartment, even though we’re in Fairmount Park and it’s dark and dangerous, and did I mention freezing, she’s still utterly alluring, lying in the river mud, unzipping her pants.
I kneel down at her feet, my knees sinking into the mud. I pull at the wet fabric of her jeans, my fingers red and swollen from the cold. Her thighs are moonlight white and covered in goosebumps. Her jeans get rolled up and stuck around her calves, and she has to kick at them as I tug to get them all the way off. She pushes herself up while I’m still on the ground and her butt and the back of her thighs are covered in the slick mud and it’s only then, her muddy butt inches from my face when I realize she’s only wearing a thong, when I realize I’ve never seen her this close to naked before.
She yells desperate, almost begging, “Shit, shit,” rubbing the front of her thighs as fast and hard as she can, “I can’t walk back like this, I can’t.”
I hesitate for a heartbeat, staring at her moonlight white legs, at the mud dripping down her thighs, at her butt in just a thong. I stand up. “Take mine,” I say, unzipping my fly and kicking off my NorthFace boots. “It’s easier for a boy to walk around the city in boxers than a girl to do it in a thong.”
She smiles and says, “Gender roles.”
I hand her my pants and she slips them on, then zips up the fly. She holds out the waistline like a before and after photo from a diet commercial and says, laughing, “Do you have any in a smaller size?”
We walk back like that, me carrying her wet jeans, her holding up my pants with both hands, shoeless. Cars ripping past on Kelly Drive honk or throw their high beams our way. She puts her hand on my shoulder, letting the pants sag down far enough that I can see her hip bone and her thong. She says, “I could’ve died, you know. Hypothermia or whatever. When I get home that’s what I’ll tell everyone. That you saved me. Dan, the boy I’m seeing, must’ve said a million times not to come, that he didn’t trust you, that you just want to fuck me, blah, blah, blah. He doesn’t get it, you know, like our friendship is so much more than fucking.”
I don’t say anything, just stare at the river and the ice and I hate myself for thinking it, but it would’ve been so much easier if I left her there to freeze.