It was the winter of 1991. Several colleagues and I flew to Virginia for a week so that we might complete an important project our employer saw as critical. We saw it as nothing more than a chance to get out of the office and enjoy a bit of travel.
As fellow employees are wont to do under such circumstances, our comrades in the Richmond office had treated us to a late night of wining and dining that lasted into the wee hours of Friday morning.
Our flight back to Texas meant we needed to be at the airport around noon. That meant we needed to be up early so we could finish the project in time to go home.
Barely capable of standing and only slightly aware of the world around me, I packed my things before checking to ensure my teammates were ready.
They weren’t. In fact, they seemed in worse shape than I was, the few I spoke with looking less alive than I felt.
It was going to be a long day.
In lieu of waiting, I headed downstairs to get checked out of the hotel.
That business tended to and still alone, I decided to step outside for a cigarette.
Blustery cold winds greeted me as I pulled up the collar on my jacket and braced myself against the chill. An ashen sky full of clouds threatening snow stretched in all directions, and the occasional flake drifted by as though reiterating the promise of what was to come.
The company van idled nearby, so I put my luggage inside before pulling a cigarette from the pack. I stepped up against the cold brick of the building, fetched the lighter from my pocket, then cupped my hands as I feebly struggled to produce a bit of flame under the wind’s constant onslaught.
After what seemed like an eternity with flame blowing in every direction except toward the end of the cigarette, my gyrations and manipulations paid off when at last the cancer stick sparked to life.
I puffed readily on it while I watched people rush through the cold morning, each one hunched over in an attempt to hold in body heat, each one hugging their arms tightly to their chest as they dashed from the hotel doors to waiting vans, taxis and rental cars.
Only a few times did I notice the somewhat perplexed looks some gave me as they passed, the curious eyebrows raised or the smirks that hid deep desires to point and laugh.
I paid it no mind but instead finished my cigarette before heading back inside.
Making my way through the lobby felt like a clown walking down the aisle during a State of the Union address at the Capitol. Eyes glanced, whispers echoed quietly, and I felt increasingly uncomfortable.
Was my zipper open?
Had I suddenly grown some grotesque wart on my cheek?
Did I have a booger hanging out of my nose?
The elevator couldn’t arrive fast enough. Thankfully I seemed to be the only person going upstairs at that moment.
Following a quick walk down the hall once I reached the floor where our rooms were, I desperately knocked on the door of one of my fellow employees. I felt like I needed a place to hide.
The door opened and I was happy to see most of them had gathered together so they could head downstairs, but Aaron, the one who opened the door, sent a chill down my spine when he burst into uproarious laughter.
From behind him Brad asked, “What the hell is that?”
“What?” I responded.
“Dude, what happened to your mustache?”
My hand reflexively landed on my face as I tried to determine what they were so entertained by. Alas, something did feel wrong with my mustache, so I turned immediately and walked into the bathroom.
To my horror, the mirror revealed why I would never return to this hotel: half of my mustache had been burned off. One full side stood in ghoulish contrast to the other, a half bit of singed and mutilated facial hair that looked like some disease remnant.
The cold wind had cloaked the flame’s attack and kept me from feeling it as it lashed my face and reduced one side of my mustache to a smoldering cinder.
I’ve never been back to Virginia since then.