The population at McMurdo drops from 1100 people in the summer to 125 in the winter. This is already the harshest environment in the world, the coldest, windiest, driest, iciest place on the planet, and living here in the winter requires you to know what you’re capable of giving.
After four winter-overs, this is what he’s learned. You have to be able to be alone without being lonely.
“The drop in population: that’s like all of you," Patrice waves his arm out from the slightly dilapidated wooden lectern at the front of the gymnasium-cafeteria, at the eighty-odd primary school students gathered to hear his talk, “down to the eight of you.” He points to a row of kids who look like they're in grade 4 or 5.
“If you think of your whole school here, as McMurdo, now there’s no one else. Just you. Are you friends?” he asks and some of the teachers snicker as the kids cross their arms and give each other wary looks. “Do you like each other, not like each other? Do you even know each other at all? Because this is what you're stuck with now for the next six months. Get ready to eat together, bunk together, play sports together, watch movies together.”
One girl in the faux McMurdo group of eight raises her hand. “But do we have to?” She doesn’t whine. But she sounds disbelieving that any scenario like this could possibly exist.
Patrice smiles. “No, of course not,” he says. “But otherwise you'll be alone.”
His family's copy of the National Geographic atlas of the world was the biggest book he had ever seen. It took real effort to pull it down from the bookshelf, to drag it out of its thick case and flip its heavy textured cover open to finally explore the maps. On the braided multi-colored rug in his parents’ basement he and Guillaume would sit for hours, pouring over the glossy pages, planning out their adventures and trips to take some day.
Their small fingers traced out the lines from L’Ancienne-Lorette to Quebec City and up the curved coast to the northernmost point of the entire province. He used to feel that if he reached that, he would be standing at the edge of the world, looking out into the unknown. Were there people? Did they live in towns or villages? What kinds of jobs did they have? Did they speak the same language? Did they like hockey? He and Guillaume made up stories about what they would find. He felt comforted in the idea that people there would be like him and that if even everything else was different, they could play hockey and it would be the same.
The sheer expanse of the map of Antarctica scared him. It took up two full pages when spread out, and he always got confused when trying to figure out how to look at it. The tip of Argentina was close by. And so was Africa and New Zealand. That seemed impossible. It was white, all white, which he would find out was startlingly accurate. It had none of the colors of the other maps, the pretty pastel shaded borders between countries and the familiar black lines that signified roads and the small dots that showed capitals and cities and towns where people lived. That must mean there weren’t any people and there was no way to get there. How could there be?
Twenty years later, his brother cackled when Patrice said he was going there for work as a finance clerk. “What are you running from that you have to go all the way down there?” Guillaume questioned, while agreeing to take care of his dog and help him pack.
“Nothing,” Patrice had insisted.
Guillaume shrugged. “It just seems like someone going all that way to write out bills and balance a checkbook must be running from something or looking for something.”
“Those are two different things.”
“Oh, so you are looking for something?”
Patrice laughed and shook his head. “I’ll let you know if I find it,” he said.
He’s done the goodbye thing enough times.
There are two reasons this day is hard. The first is saying goodbye and everyone knows how that goes. As far as he can tell, there is nothing unexpected about that. The second reason isn’t as simple as merely saying hello. No one thinks of hello as hard.
It’s not a welcoming. It’s a groaning sort of acceptance, an acknowledgement of life as it was and life as it’s going to be. It reminds him a little bit of playing hockey growing up. How summer seemed to be a magical, timeless thing that stretched out when the days were long and the sun was highest, when he could do what he wanted and go where he wanted and hang out with the people he wanted. Part of him ached for hockey and the start of the season, even when he was just a boy, because he loved playing. When the season did finally start there was a period of unexpected confused emotions. It wasn't exactly sadness, because he was so happy. But after feeling free, his days were taken up by practice and school and more practice and games and locker rooms and buses and travel and eating and his team, always his team.
People fight against it here. They try to make friends right away, they spend their first week in each other’s pockets, learning backgrounds and interacting with a cheeriness that will soon disappear. As a veteran, Patrice knows the crushing reality: you’re stuck now and as much as you longed for the intensity, you don’t go running to it, full-force, with arms flung open anymore. He knows that saying hello is hard.
A soccer ball slams against the glass of his office window. He opted out of two-touch with a disinterested wave of his hand, even though Dan looked disappointed that he wasn’t joining in right away. “I’m busy, it’s the first week,” he protested. “You go, have fun, and we’ll watch a movie later.”
“Sorry!” Marchy pokes his head through the doorway of his office while collecting the ball. “Smitty, you need to play better if we’re going to hang out now!” he yells to a nervous-looking young guy.
“It’s okay,” Patrice replies, trying to smile so that Marchy knows he isn’t going to be an asshole all the time. He doesn't know Marchy yet, but he seems cool enough and sort of funny. “Sure,” Dan had said with a certain amount of sarcasm, when he had brought it up the night before, “if by funny you mean annoying.”
Marchy turns and throws the ball to the others, and then leans coolly against the doorframe. “So, you’re like a pro at this,” he remarks. “Dan told me this is your fourth time.” His look is nonchalant, but his body language looks like he's bracing for confrontation. It’s understandable. It’s the first week with the people who, if you choose, will make up your waking moments. So naturally defenses are up and trust has vanished with the rest of the population.
“That’s true,” he answers, half-listening and sifting off-handedly through some papers on his desk.
“Yeah, so let’s hear it. Do you have advice for a rookie like me? A winter-over virgin?”
Patrice pauses. People usually want the inside scoop, like where to score the best weed (South Pole station) and who is down to fuck (a lot of people, he supposes). No one has ever asked him for advice about how to make it here, how to get by. You just do.
“It’s a lot harder than you even think it’s going to be. That’s not to scare you. It’s just the truth. So my advice is, don’t let it get to you.”
Marchy grunts and crosses his arms. “Easier said than done, eh?”
“If you’re here because you’re running from something, this isn’t going to be an escape,” he repeats, from his conversation with his brother. “And if you’re looking for something and think you’re going to find it here, you’re not. It’s best to have something to focus on, something good and positive and productive.”
“Okay. I can do that, I think.”
Patrice nods. “Yeah. And so when times get tough, think about that. When you miss your family, think about that. When you haven’t seen the sun in a month and you can’t remember whether you put your contacts in, think about that.”
“Yeah,” Marchy agrees. “That’s good, actually. Thanks.” He gives a big smile and waves loosely, easily, as he passes the window, and jogs to rejoin the others in the game.
The last sunrise is on April 24. The sun stays out for approximately ninety minutes. At 1:35 he won't see it again until August 19. That’s 117 days.
“But is it scary when it’s dark all the time?” one younger girl with a lopsided ponytail asks him. She keeps her finger in her mouth while she talks.
“You get used to the darkness,” he tells the kids gently.
The sound of it must be frightening to kids who are used to playing outside, no matter what the season, and seeing their parents and walking home from school in daylight.
“It isn’t scary. Inside, everything goes on exactly as normal. It’s only outside that’s dark all the time.” Patrice looks out at their faces and smiles encouragingly. “It’s kind of nice, in a way. You know what to expect. No surprises.”
Skipping lunch sucks, and not being able to play hallway two-touch sucks too. And even though he has work to do, he especially doesn’t want to miss the last glimpse of the sun for the next four months. He quickly laces up his boots and pulls on his fleece and his heavy coat and grabs his gloves and wool watch cap, all to go outside for about five minutes. Even double-timing it out of the building, he knows he’s not going to make it all the way to Ob Hill.
Marchy’s standing at the base, though, his gigantic puffy orange coat surrounding him so that his tiny face is the only thing peeking out. Patrice thinks he looks kind of cute like that, a bubble of down and warmth surrounding a freezing Marchy.
“Hey!” Marchy lights up in greeting him. “I was just thinking about you.”
“Is that right?” Patrice asks, turning around to see the sky, and its long length of red-yellow light slip closer to the all white horizon in the distance. “What were you thinking?”
“Just about what you said to me, about running from things. How this isn’t the place to escape all that.” Marchy shrugs. “That’s not what I’m doing. I wanted to come here and winter-over for a long time.”
“Okay. Then you’ll be fine.”
Marchy bobs his hooded head emphatically. “Yeah, I will be, I think. Shit got real back at home. I had to get my head on straight. Coming down here seemed…convenient, I guess? But I’m not looking at this as an excuse. It’s an opportunity.”
The sun is almost entirely down and the brightest thing in Patrice’s line of vision now is Marchy’s orange coat, like a ball of fire of its own. “Have you found something to focus on? So things don't get too hard for you here?” Patrice asks. He momentarily feels concern for Marchy and all that he was possibly going through back at home. Marchy’s face is unreadable in the shadows and even if Patrice could see him, he doesn't know Marchy very well. Not yet.
But he swears he can almost feel Marchy smile, can hear it in his voice as he says, a little soft and dreamy, “Yeah. Yeah, I think I have.”
When it’s someone’s birthday, there aren’t a lot of choices as far as gifts, and there are even fewer activities to make it special or fun. Sometimes one of the cooks can prepare an individualized meal, but that’s less likely at McMurdo than one of the other smaller bases, where cooks can cater to the particular tastes of the winter-over inhabitants. On Marchy’s birthday in May they have buffalo chicken casserole for lunch. He pumps his fist and says brightly, “I would’ve chosen this, it’s my favorite!” when they see the menu for the day.
“We’re playing hockey for Marchy’s birthday. You in?” Dan asks him in the afternoon, standing in the doorway of their dorm room.
Patrice looks up from his laptop and nods. “Sure. In the gym?”
“Yeah, in about an hour.” Dan smiles. “You’ll be on his team of course.”
"Why?" he questions while shutting down his computer.
“Marchy wants your attention and he’s going to be a little shit til he gets it.” Dan searches his dresser and pulls out a pair of sweats and an Under Armour shirt and a mouthguard.
“I don’t know about that,” Patrice ducks his head and retrieves his own workout clothing from the dresser as well as his stick and tape from the tiny closet.
Dan shakes his head and touches Patrice’s arm. “You’re just the nicest guy in the whole world,” he says.
When Patrice glances up, Dan has a smirk playing around his mouth. There’s something else too, though. He looks pensive, like he's figured out a puzzle that Patrice didn't realize needed to be solved.
When they arrive, the gym is set up for floor hockey, with soccer goals at either end. “Did you guys even measure? This isn’t exactly two hundred feet,” Marchy is saying in a dissatisfied tone.
“Of course it isn’t. Did you expect it to be? We're playing in a gym, two on two,” Torey answers, in an even voice that suggests he is accustomed to dealing with Marchy. “You’re lucky we’re getting to do this at all.”
“No, I just wanted it to be perfect,” Marchy complains, mostly to himself, as he takes off his Bruins warm up fleece and stick handles a little bit with the special pucks that Loui brought for them.
Patrice taps Marchy on the back of the leg with his stick to get his attention. “Hey,” he says, for some reason, trying to be reassuring. “Don’t listen to him. It’s gonna be great no matter what.”
When they split into teams, Dan’s right: Marchy insists that Patrice play with him, with Smitty in goal. Loui reluctantly plays goaltender for Dan and Torey.
Marchy has skill, that’s obvious, as he and Patrice give and go and score several times in a few minutes on an increasingly frustrated Loui. Marchy’s passes are crisp and sharp. He moves with confidence and seems to learn Patrice right away.
“You’re too slow! What, are you in the minors?” Marchy chirps Dan, racing by him with the puck.
“We’re not even playing for real, douchebag,” Dan grumbles as Loui throws up his arm and yells out, “Anybody playing defense?”
Marchy scores again as he beats Torey, who actually has come back to play defense, and points across to Patrice. “It’s just you and me!” he crows, giving a high five. “Just you and me!”
Patrice shakes his head and laughs, embarrassed and sort of delighted because Smitty looks left out and Loui looks like he’s going to quietly murder them in their sleep later, and Dan’s going to be pissed for days, but it’s kind of fun to be the focus of someone’s attention like this. And it’s Marchy’s day, so he should get to score goals and chirp the others and win in a place where it never feels like you’re winning.
They win 11-6.
“Little ball of hate,” Torey says as they put the goals back and gather up their sticks. “I hope you appreciate that we let you win for your birthday.”
Torey groans. “We are the same height. The exact same. So just shut up.”
Later, Patrice takes out the card he plans to give to Marchy along with the offer to buy him a beer at Gallagher’s one night. He also asks Loui for one of the pucks and writes on a piece of masking tape with a sharpie that it’s Marchy’s first McMurdo goal. It’s pretty stupid, just a joke, because they don’t even know which puck was Marchy’s first. But it seems like something Marchy might enjoy and laugh about. And Patrice suddenly finds he wants that.
“Oh hey.” Patrice feels awkward as he shows up to drop off the puck and card later, and sees that Torey is there too. Marchy does laugh at the puck though, and he asks Torey to take a picture of him holding it up, the way NHL players do. He cocks his eyebrow and grins as Torey indulges him, snapping a bunch of pictures with his phone.
“You’re incorrigible you know.” But Torey sounds both begrudging and fond.
Patrice fidgets while Marchy looks at the card, and then Marchy gets up and strides over to hug him. It’s not just a bro hug. Marchy puts his whole self into it, which shouldn’t shock Patrice at all, as he throws his arms around Patrice and presses close. He smells like his body wash or shampoo, and the scent is familiar, like being overnight in the woods, with a campfire and a lake and rustling trees, like when Patrice was a boy on a fishing trip with his family.
Torey pretends to look very uninterested, biting his lip as his character dies on his PSP.
“Best birthday ever,” says Marchy as he squeezes tight again, for way longer than any usual friend would.
They’re on a very quick walk, to drop off paperwork to some guys in another building and Marchy’s been telling a story about how Smitty was annoyed that his ex-girlfriend started dating some guy that Marchy knows too. It makes Patrice feel kind of bad for Smitty, honestly, because the kid is a nice guy, but something about Marchy and the way he tells a story makes it funny instead of sad.
“God, that’s so mean.” Patrice laughs though, instead of sounding appropriately chastising. He swings the large LED flashlight over so he can see Marchy’s face, and Marchy’s eyes are sparkling even in the darkness of forever night, and his mouth is curled up in his predictable smile that could go to a snarl or a smirk in seconds, with the right encouragement.
As he’s about to say something nice about Smitty just to make himself feel better, Marchy’s gloved hand reaches out to grab onto Patrice’s coat.
And then he sees the bird. A casual observer would possibly think it was just laying down, but Patrice knows Marchy knows better. Penguins look awkward, on their bellies, when they are resting. It’s a strange juxtaposition when something looks like they’re struggling even when they are not. This penguin looks different: awkward in a way that’s not purposeful, like a favorite toy that has been broken and used and tossed aside with carelessness.
“This happens,” Patrice says. “There are going to be more. It’s a hard part of life here. But right now, this is part of it.”
Marchy looks away from Patrice, away from the ground, and tilts his head back, to stare at the black, as if there’s going to be an answer from the opaque sky. “I know,” Marchy says, without disbelief. “It’s still hard to see.”
Patrice knows how he feels. The penguin is the thing that’s the most living, the most alive, when the sun is up, when everything can be seen. And now, with the darkness, that fact changes too. What you know the most, or the best, or what you think you know the best, gets taken away from you in this place.
“A little while ago, this guy was just playing with his buddies. He was hanging out, and looking for some food. There was life. And now it doesn’t exist. At least this guy doesn’t. I know that it’s living and dying and circle of life and all that shit. But to see it this way…it’s just harder than I thought.” Marchy’s voice is rough. “Does that make sense at all?”
Patrice nods. “Sure, absolutely.”
It shouldn’t be stunning to him that Marchy is crying. Winter-overs heighten people’s emotions. What sticks with him is how Marchy feels so much, that he’s so affected by life, that the end of it, or more so, the disappearance of it so suddenly, is what’s painful. That makes Patrice feel too, and he’s not sure what exactly, but he knows he has to make it better. He puts his arm around Marchy’s shoulders as they walk back to the main McMurdo building.
“Thanks,” Marchy sniffles.
“Here.” Patrice notices that Marchy’s nose is running a little and his eyes are still wet. He takes the sleeve of his hoodie, which he pulls under the elasticized cuff of his down coat and around his hand to wipe at Marchy’s pink cheeks, the way he’s seen parents do for their children. “Let’s get breakfast together,” he suggests.
Marchy checks his watch. “Gettin breakfast with my big man Patrice. At roughly noon.” He laughs as the warmth of being indoors and the artificial light pull them in. They walk to the galley together, in step and easy and he's relieved because Marchy seems sufficiently cheered up.
“So, Torrence, I can count on you, right?” Patrice asks Torey at lunch, pulling out his checklist of the 125 people at McMurdo that he needs to agree to shave their heads for charity.
Torey wrinkles his nose and stabs at his enchilada and black bean casserole. “I’m not 100% decided yet. But I’ll definitely make a donation.”
Over the years there are fun things that the bases have done to keep busy and keep morale up. One year the guys from Scott base had a film festival and Patrice and Dan helped with the submission for McMurdo. They got to watch all the entries from Japan and the UK and the other year-round bases and the results had been charming and hilarious. One year there was a virtual round robin chess tournament and there have been multiple attempts at a book club. And there has always been, for as long as Patrice can remember, Cuts for a Cause.
“Danny, you’re in, of course, no arguing.” Dan makes a noise in agreement and Patrice crosses off his name on the sheet.
“Loui!” Patrice turns on Loui next, who is reading a book while eating his dessert and attempting to look completely indifferent about the conversation. “You’re shaving your head for charity, right? It’s gonna look so good, man!”
When Loui doesn’t answer immediately, Marchy cuts in, “You both are losers.” He points to Torey. “You. Have a wife.”
“So it’s not like she’s going somewhere if you turn out to look hideous,” Marchy reasons. “And you,” he says, focusing his attention on Loui. "You’re really attached to your hair for some reason, but it’s not even that good! If that’s what you’re banking on, to get someone to be into the rest of you…I don’t know, man, good luck.”
Loui just shakes his head like he can’t believe the words that come out of Marchy’s mouth sometimes and Torey mutters, “God, so fucking rude,” under his breath. For a second Patrice does wonder if there is someone out there somewhere, whom Loui hopes to impress with his hair. There could be. Loui seems like a generous guy, like the kind of guy who would be a good match for someone. And Torey’s married. He didn’t know that. Marchy? Marchy hasn’t said if there’s anyone, not that that means anything.
“Just look at me,” Marchy goes on. “I’m like a 12. And if I shave my head I’m going to go down to an 8 or something.”
Patrice laughs because Marchy is always so funny, and says, “Well, I’m not sure that’s true,” to be nice. Loui gives him a meaningful look.
Marchy’s satisfaction is apparent. “See?” he beams.
“Hey, thanks for sicking Marchy on me,” Loui gripes when he comes by Patrice’s office later. “You can sign me up, I’ll do it.”
“Really?” Patrice crosses off Loui’s name from his sheet of participants. “Well, he is very persuasive.”
Sitting down in the chair across from Patrice’s desk, Loui stretches out his long legs and folds his hands. “No, he’s not,” Loui disagrees. “I didn’t do it because of him anyway.”
Although he’s not sure where this conversation is going now, Patrice smiles. “Oh, so there is someone?”
It takes Loui a couple of seconds to respond; he catches Patrice’s eyes with his and his gaze is hard and knowing, like it was in the galley. “I’m not sure that’s a conversation you want to have,” Loui says mildly, cracking his knuckles, his tone not matching the humorless look on his face.
Patrice is instantly apologetic. “I’m not - I didn’t mean to pry. I’m sorry. You’re right it’s not any of my business.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I guess I don’t understand what you mean,” Patrice confesses, now feeling awkward and uncomfortable.
Loui sighs. “That's because you're so nice.”
“Yeah everyone seems to think that and I don't know why. I haven't done anything particularly nice. I just try to be friendly and do a good job and not actively be an asshole to people.” Patrice still feels clueless as Loui appraises him before he stands up to go.
“Well, I’ll just tell you this then. Marchy talks to everyone about you.”
“What has he been saying? Chirping me for being lame? Because I'm nice?” Patrice laughs. He’s always felt at ease with Loui. Loui’s such a steady, good-hearted person, but right now all Patrice feels is apprehension, like he’s getting something wrong or letting someone down. It feels like the time when he was a teenager and Guillaume tried to tell him about fucking some girl in his physics class. Patrice had laughed too loudly and at all the wrong moments and the more Guillaume talked, the less he wanted to hear.
“No,” says Loui, quiet, shaking his head. “He thinks you’re perfect.”
“Well that's not true,” Patrice responds, and he knows it's a deflection. But his face is warm like it was back then. “I’m pretty average.”
The hard scrutiny is gone from Loui's eyes and now he just looks kind. “Even I know that's not true so you don't need to cover up for me. And it's not my point.” Loui's mouth twists in a wry smile. “But I think you know that.”
In the huge public moments, Patrice can see how Marchy’s heart is as big as the continent. It makes him impossible not to acknowledge and embrace in some way. It’s so easy to be swept up in his ecstatic whirl of enthusiasm and frenzied intensity for living life.
Marchy laughs with his whole body, bent over and shaking. He dances ridiculously, no, horribly, when there’s an audience, with his hands out and fingers snapping and his torso shimmying to Wiz Khalifa. He talks with his mouth full and makes jokes constantly and spares no one from his chirpy wrath. He makes Patrice smile when they’re together and when Patrice is alone, locked away with his own thoughts and Dan’s low snores in the bunk across the room from his at night.
The huge moments are like freedom. But it’s in the small intimate moments that Patrice knows he loves him.
Marchy hates being chirped back.
He makes out to be tough, with a lot of boasting, but after someone says anything mean to him, there’s a moment when he drops his head and doesn’t make eye contact before coming back with another shit talking comment. Ordinarily Patrice would say he admired the person who can dish it out and take it, who shoves it right back at everyone without ever giving a fuck. But it makes his heart ache that Marchy is so unbelievably human that he can’t. That this self-made world of pomp and grandeur crumbles for one second before Marchy can make another jab, and like every person on the planet, he has the inability to shrug things off with a universal fuck you.
Marchy is an exhibitionist too, with no qualms like Patrice about taking off his shirt in front of everyone and parading around to show off his chest and his tattoos. He’s not a guy that anyone would ever call traditionally good looking, and Torey has said “it’s a nose only his mother could love” multiple times, and they trash talk non-stop about who is shorter, but that kind of thing just fuels Marchy.
But once, after they finished a workout in the weight room, Patrice caught Marchy as they walked past a window and saw him mess with his hair a little bit. It was too short to really do anything with, but Marchy still frowned slightly and touched it, for just a second or two. It was incongruous and strange and charming that in his moment of being most physically exposed, Marchy cared about his hair of all things. It was like a secret unintentional glimpse into Marchy’s insecurities. When he sees Marchy touch his hair now, Patrice wants to reach out, to comfort him, to protect him.
Sometimes Marchy still looks like he has some unnamed, unidentified weight on him, like things back at home or whatever was going on haven’t gotten any better. Every so often his chirps fall flat, like he doesn’t have the heart to keep it up, and he gets too competitive playing any kind of game or sport, and sometimes he looks so sad, even when he’s laughing.
But he’s happy when he tells stories about his dog, an English bulldog named Harvey, who is his self-proclaimed best friend. And when Patrice tells him about his own dog, back in Quebec with Guillaume, Marchy delightedly sighs, “Our dogs should meet, that would be so awesome,” and Patrice shivers even though all at once it feels too warm.
Coming back from his office late and on the way to his dorm room, Patrice is surprised to see the light of the shared computer monitor in the main room. Someone is skyping in the semi-darkness, and he smiles as he gets closer because it’s Marchy, describing how he won $500 off of Torey in cards recently.
“You know me,” he laughs with an unholy amount of swagger. “I’ve got every trick in the book.”
“That sounds fun,” an older man, probably Marchy’s father, says back. There’s a pause as he asks quietly, “So how’s it really going?”
“Okay.” Marchy runs his hand through his hair, and Patrice tries to swallow around the lump in his throat, seeing that action while Marchy has a private conversation with his dad. “Better than okay, actually. The people here, they’re good. Especially…yeah. They’ve been great to me, pops. I like them a lot.”
“Yeah? That’s terrific. I’m glad,” replies Marchy’s dad. He sounds warm and supportive, the way a parent does after hearing about his kid’s first few weeks of school, or after inquiring about a test, or a job interview, or something he knows is important.
“It’s late. I’m gonna go, so I’ll talk to you in a few, okay pops?”
“Yeah, you should get some sleep, kiddo.” Marchy’s dad waves a hand at the camera and Marchy reaches out and places his fingers on the screen to touch it briefly.
“Love you, Brad,” his dad says.
Before Marchy can sign off, Patrice walks quickly down the hallway and unlocks the door to his room. Dan looks up and puts the post-it note he’s using as a bookmark into his copy of Gone Girl. “Everything cool?”
“Yes, why?” Patrice peels off his jacket and hangs it up on the hook behind the door. He busies himself with his nightly routine, switching his phone to silent and plugging it in by his bed and setting out his nalgene bottle.
Dan is thoughtful for a while before answering and Patrice almost forgets that he’s supposed to be waiting for a response. “Nothing really. You just look a little like that saying. You know, the cat that ate the canary.”
Patrice chuckles. “I do?”
“Like the way my sister looked when she snooped on Christmas Eve, after our parents put the presents under the tree and she was supposed to be in bed. Like you know something you’re not supposed to know, but you don’t feel sorry about it. Like you learned good news.”
He doesn’t answer and continues to putter around, getting ready for bed. It’s only after, when Dan has turned off the low bedside lamp and fallen asleep to hopefully much happier dreams than the marriage of Nick and Amy, that Patrice lets his brain unwind and consider how all of his knowledge about this person he’s known as one thing shifts easily to something else.
The guy who touches his hair, the guy who can’t keep up a facade of smugness in front of his father, how he calls him pops with so much trust and affection, that’s Brad.
The guy he never expected. That’s Brad. And he’s good news.
The things you miss sneak up. Not like the overwhelming sensation of walking into the house where he grew up and smelling a meal cooked by his mom, or feeling the softness of her hand as she grasps his, wrapping him up for a hug. Not like the occasional passing of whimsy over a girl he used to know, when he would see her unexpectedly at the grocery store or the mall and she would smile and push a strand of hair behind her ear when she said hello.
Sometimes Patrice thinks about a day with eternal sunshine, but not accompanied by cold and snow so bright that everything feels harsh and unnatural. A warm day, enveloped with the heavy scent of a real summer and things that are growing and alive: grass and overripe fruit, hot dogs and lemonade and a red and white checkered tablecloth at a picnic table. He remembers racing around with his brother as the dusk settled over the day, tiring themselves out until they fell down by the wooden stairs and stared up at the sky, unable to differentiate between the brilliance of stars and the twinkling of deck lights and the glow of fireflies.
“You miss so many things, it’s hard to even pin down,” he says to the kids. “I miss the big things, of course. A car. My house with my comfy bed. My dog. And the little things too. The simplest things that you wouldn’t even think to miss, until you do.”
Antarctica is a desert. He misses the rain. He misses being absolutely drenched in one of those unexpected passing thunderstorms, where the sky turns black and the clouds move in quickly, and he’s caught in an all-out downpour.
He has a fleeting thought about being on the beach in the summer and running to the shore from the restless surf, collapsing onto the sand and kissing Marchy as the sky opens up. About how Marchy’s skin would be cold, but his lips would somehow be warm, about how the contours of his legs, his chest, would be muscled and powerful under Patrice, about how he would taste of the salt and the sea.
On a cold night, when it’s clear, on the right kind of night, when molecules and atoms have been excited by electrons and the solar wind collides with gases in the upper atmosphere, the aurora can be seen for almost an hour, and then in cycles for the next few hours. There are several people out tonight, already watching, as the pale green lights dance across the sky, and fall like faint curtains across the heavens. Dan and Torey wave at them, but Patrice pulls Marchy around the back of Building 77. He’s not questioning why, when Marchy sees the aurora for the first time, he wants to be the only one there.
Marchy’s been fiddling with his gloves since they came outside, so Patrice takes them and holds them out so that Marchy can wriggle his hands into them. “Look up,” he says, tilting his head to the side so that Marchy can enjoy this and stop worrying about whether his hands will be cold.
For a minute they stand side by side, silent, Marchy watching the hypnotic journey of the lights, Patrice watching Marchy’s face, because lately, Marchy is all he wants to see.
“I don’t even know what to say,” Marchy reveals after an intake of breath, and if Torey and Dan were here they would probably make some wise crack like thank fucking god or can I get that on the record?
“I know,” says Patrice.
“Like anything I say isn’t going to be enough.” Marchy turns to him with a small smile. “But one time when I was a kid, I saw these fireworks on the esplanade on the Charles River in Boston. They were incredible, and there was this music playing while they shot the fireworks off.”
“Oh, for the 4th of July?”
“Yeah.” Marchy nods. “It’s not even my fucking holiday, you know? I mean, I didn’t gain my independence, or found a nation, or win a war. I’ve never won a fucking thing in my life. And I know it sounds dumb, because I was just a kid, like ten years old. But I felt like I won something. And I feel kind of like that right now.”
Patrice blinks. Sometimes, when seeing the aurora, people talk about it being an experience so moving, so affecting, that they lose sense of their faculties and can’t govern their physical reactions. He has complete command over his movements as he reaches his own gloved hand out to take Marchy’s. It’s his heart that he can’t control.
In the alien gleam of the southern lights, at the edge of the world, he touches Marchy’s pale cheek and presses his lips to Marchy’s mouth. Patrice has never kissed anyone in Antarctica and he wishes that he could shed these stupid gloves and touch Marchy’s face, to know if his skin is cold like he’s dreamt it. Marchy’s breath is slightly minty, as if he ate a few spearmint tic-tacs before, because maybe he anticipated something like this happening. Maybe he dreamt it too. The thought makes Patrice smile and he feels Marchy grinning back at him under the kiss.
“I thought I had everything figured out, about being here, about how to get by,” Patrice says, because it’s all he can think to say about this. “I thought I knew what to expect. I didn’t think I’d find this.”
“‘Here by the sea and sand, nothing ever goes as planned,’” Marchy whispers, as he leans in to kiss Patrice again, and all Patrice can think is more, more, more.
Privacy is suddenly hard to come by. All of those people who are down to fuck? Patrice has no idea how they did it. Now, when he actually wants to be alone, or more accurately, alone with just one person, there’s never a few minutes to spare. For all his big dramatic talk of loneliness and alienation, it’s currently just the opposite. Dan’s always there in their room, reading his stupid bestseller thriller novels, and chewing on the end of his pen while he writes out journal entries in a thick brown leather book. Torey constantly seems to be hanging around underfoot too, or in the room he shares with Marchy doing similarly inane things.
He could probably be more communicative and actually just talk to Dan and work something out, since Dan’s been giving him increasingly skeptical looks over the past few weeks, as he and Marchy bump pleasantly against each other at lunch, or get distracted just grinning at each other while playing cards. He’s known Dan for years now. They know each other’s quirks and habits from living side by side in a sparse, unimpressive room and are quietly accustomed to each other when there’s nothing to do but talk about hockey and watch season after season of Modern Family and The Walking Dead. He wants to feel like he could share anything with Dan, and he knows that if he did, it would be fine and everything would just be the same.
But for whatever reason, he’s not ready to share this. Not yet.
“If only we could get Torey and Dan together…” Marchy muses one lazy weekend afternoon, after several attempts at finding a stolen hour together lead them to just hang out in the common lounge and watch The Hangover.
“Torey’s married,” Patrice supplies automatically, as Marchy settles in against his side, stretched out on an uncomfortable couch with a faded blue slipcover.
Marchy snorts. “Well maybe he has one of those deals. You know, like what happens in Antarctica stays in Antarctica?”
“Do we have one of those deals?” Patrice asks, accosted by a nagging worry that maybe he’s read this all wrong. That maybe he’s more invested now than he should have been and he’s hanging his hat on something that isn’t the same.
“No!” Marchy looks concerned and turns to him, his face tilted up, his eyes bright. “Not from my end anyway.”
“Okay. Not from my end either.”
Marchy brushes his lips against Patrice’s, fleeting and ghost-like. They’re chapped and rough, like everyone else’s here, Patrice assumes, but they’re also warmer and wetter and nicer because they belong to this crazy, wonderful person that Patrice can’t get enough of. “I’m so into you,” Marchy breathes out, and he kisses Patrice again, harder and more demanding now. It’s not sloppy, not exactly, but Marchy’s tongue is twining against his, and Patrice feels himself getting lost in it, getting so caught up in it, that he grabs Marchy’s hips and rolls him so he’s more on top now.
Marchy slots himself in the space where Patrice has let his legs fall open and Patrice groans when Marchy thrusts against him a little bit. Marchy is hard, and huge, and hard, just from kissing, and he keeps whispering “yeah, yeah” with his face buried in Patrice’s neck. Fuck, Patrice wants him so much, wants to see him completely lose it, wants to see him rendered speechless. Marchy is all he wants to see.
He ignores the thought that this is a semi-public spot the way his parents’ basement was, when he was young and felt graceless and self-conscious during a sleepover with his best friend Gabriel, and their hands would touch accidentally, momentarily, under the gigantic comforter as they reached for popcorn, and when he was older and handsome, but sometimes still felt like that ten year old, even when he had a beautiful girl on her knees, sucking him off, even when he had his hands twisted in her long hair and no one ever discovered them either.
He awkwardly tries to push Marchy’s black sweatpants down so he can get his hand on Marchy’s dick. Marchy gets with the program and helps, just grabbing the waistband and shoving, and finally, finally Patrice is touching him.
The rough, throaty whine that Marchy lets out is enough to spur him on through his practical side of good judgment, and Patrice licks his palm and then Marchy’s fucking up into his fist and making these eager, breathy grunts and finally, finally, Patrice can see his face. Marchy's eyes are closed and his mouth is slightly open, and his brain is shut off, and he’s not trying to build himself up or burn something down. He’s just Marchy.
He feels the hot, thick wet of Marchy when he comes in Patrice’s hand and on his stomach, with a quiet oh, fuck on his lips. Patrice strokes him through it and surreptitiously tries to wipe off the jizz on the inside of Marchy’s t-shirt.
Marchy just laughs and says, “Here, man,” and strips so he can clean Patrice’s hand and wipe off his own crotch. On the big television, Mike Tyson is in a suite at Caesar’s Palace singing Phil Collins.
Marchy curls against Patrice, shirtless, and Patrice runs his fingers purposefully over the place where Marchy’s neck meets his shoulder. “This is my favorite part,” he says absently.
“Oh me too, it’s so fucking funny, when they go to Tyson’s mansion.”
Patrice shakes his head. “No. This part.” He touches Marchy’s skin there and feels Marchy flex. “It’s my favorite part of you.” He drops his head down, slightly embarrassed now, and kisses the long, taut muscle, traces the smooth flesh with his tongue.
Marchy has a look, serious and full of intent. “Okay, I’m going to kick Torey out if he’s there, because I didn’t even get to do you, and I swear to god I’m not that selfish and I really have to suck your dick now because that’s the most awesome thing - " He suddenly stops and his face changes, Patrice can see it, it's tender and profound and all for him, and he's Brad. There's some kind of realization, something significant, flashing in Marchy's eyes as he continues, voice quiet in the empty lounge, "That's the most awesome thing anyone has ever said about me." He holds out his hand for Patrice and attempts to adjust his sweats and put his t-shirt back on with the other.
“No, no, just stay here,” Patrice says, firmly taking Marchy’s hand and pulling him back down. “I know you’re not selfish and I’m fine, I promise. Let’s just stay here and finish the movie, okay?”
“Yes. I’m really sure.” Patrice smiles as Marchy lodges himself back between the rounded arm of the couch. “This means a lot to me,” he says, touching his nose to that favorite spot on Marchy’s neck again, and breathing in.
Later, after dinner and a workout, he goes to grab his forgotten water bottle and hears Torey say, “It’s the trapezius, I think,” as he racks the weights. “Why?”
“No reason,” Marchy responds. “Just wanted to know, that’s all.”
Forgetting is a different feeling than missing.
Most people think that missing would be what is harder. But it’s not. Missing something is tinged with the unattainable past, but forgetting is a loss in the present. What was there is now, or at least for the moment, gone. Actions that you can’t remember. Existence and non-existence. Here and not here. It reminds him of Marchy’s comment when they found the penguin. A sudden disappearance.
He forgets where he put his book three days in a row. Torey leaves his hat and gloves in the galley and then goes back to get them and comes back with no hat or gloves. He forgot what he forgot. When people forget things everyone shouts out “T3!” and it’s accompanied by nods and laughter. It has to be a joke, because otherwise it would be too hard.
He tells the kids about writing things down. You need to write things down. Write things down so you don't forget. Write things down so you remember what you did. So you remember what’s important in this time period. Write things down.
When he skypes with Guillaume for the first time in a month he has several salmon-colored post-it notes in his hand. “Will you send my skates? We may play some hockey here, in the spring,” he says. “And my Nordiques jersey.”
Guillaume jokes, “Would you like your Joe Sakic trading cards too?”
Patrice ducks his head with a smile and continues, “Find out what dad wants for his birthday and email me.” He sticks the post-its that he’s read face down by the mousepad, so he doesn’t forget when he goes on to the next post-it in his hand.
“Yeah, okay. These are easy ones.”
He squints at the final post-it. He left all the lights off in his office and in the half-light of the fluorescent of the hallway, the screen emits a weird, disjointed glow in the dark. His eyes continue to adjust. “Tell G. about Marchy,” he reads.
Who’s Marchy? He hasn’t thought this out properly, fucking T3.
Marchy is the guy who makes him laugh even though no one else is laughing, like they have a private lame joke between them and they just don’t care. The guy who throws himself on the ground to block a shot in floor hockey like it’s game 7 of the Cup final. The guy who makes sarcasm and jokes his outer skin, like it’s gear and pads, but then somehow knows to say the right thing to Patrice every time.
How do you explain that Marchy is who he ends up thinking about, in a hard uncomfortable bunk in a room with Dan right before he falls asleep, the one he wants at his side when they leave this gigantic island of isolation and ice, a person who shines so brightly that Patrice feels he no longer needs the sun?
Marchy, who has made everything here not just less lonely, but more, more, more.
Patrice looks at his brother’s face, grainy and expectant, through the screen and takes a breath. “I told you a long time ago, that I’d tell you when I find it.”
Guillaume looks confused, so Patrice adds, “Marchy is the most amazing person I’ve ever met. And I can’t wait for you to meet him.”
“You don’t have to sit out here all alone like some antisocial weirdo.”
He looks up and sees Marchy, who holds out an apple. The sun is setting now and Patrice thinks back to the day they watched it set together before the darkness and winter overcame them. He takes the apple and leans against Marchy. Marchy kisses the side of his winter hat quickly and doesn’t say anything.
What a simple thing, really, apples. Fresh apples always signal that everything is about to change. On the other side of the earth, where Patrice’s family is, the long days of summer give way to crisp, sharp air and bold, deep colors of autumn. Here, the winter is about to give way to the spring, and while the cold remains, and the ice remains, Antarctica will gain the sun. And the supply flight brings the apples of fall to them.
It’s overwhelming - the bevy of activity that accompanies the re-supply, and the newness of everything that is about to enter his world. Letters and care packages and apples are all just one part of it. Patrice has never felt this way about it before, but now it’s acute. There’s an infestation of everything outside, everything that isn’t here: the winter, the solitude, his own little world that he can deal with.
“You didn’t need to worry about me or come find me. I’m okay,” Patrice assures. “It’s still freezing and I’m coming inside soon. I just wanted to see it.” The sun will only be up for about an hour, but he wants to be part of it, to see the very thing that he’s both been missing for the last four months and that he’s been dreading as the portent of change. New people will eventually follow the apples.
“Are you kidding?” Marchy asks, and he sounds a little amazed. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve wanted to be by your side since the moment I got here. It’s the only place I’ve wanted to be. So don’t go anywhere without me, eh?”
Patrice already knows he doesn’t plan on it.
So many things about Antarctica are hard to explain to those who have never experienced it. It’s probably hardest to explain whether he likes it there.
For everyone he’s ever talked to about life in Antarctica, from these kids to his own family, everything comes down to the value: whether it’s good, whether he can say yes, yes, this is something I recommend.
What does it mean to like something? Because he’s just spent the last thirty minutes describing being alone with people you aren’t even friends with in the cold and darkness without apples for six months.
Dogs and playing hockey and fishing and Eminem. Those are things he likes. Those are things he chose. Those things are easy. Despite the fact that he did choose it, doing the winter-over is not the same feeling. Maybe he doesn’t like it. You’d have to be crazy to like it.
So he knows the final question will be, “But do you like it?”
One of the older kids stands up to ask it, in an exasperated tone that reminds him of the huffiness of Marchy.
"I don’t just like it." He flicks through his remaining pictures on his power point, projected on the screen rolled down behind him. There are images of hallway two-touch and eating breakfast and his brother’s pixilated face on the computer screen during skype and Loui’s buzzed haircut and Dan with an armful of apples. And Marchy, after the sun came up and they’d hiked as far away from McMurdo as they could. Marchy, cheating while playing cards in the galley with Torey, head thrown back in a laugh. Marchy on the plane, huddled next to him, eyes closed and face soft and sweet.
He gets lost in the images before his eyes. There’s no more darkness. Just Marchy. Marchy is all he can see.
“I love it,” he tells them. “Winter is the best.”