By Cathy Eaton
The doorbell chimed. Five quick jabs. Another five. Then a long ringing blare that jarred my concentration. Paint slopped over the coffee can I clutched. Despite three coats, the giant tic-tac-toe game Ashley had drawn in purple marker on her bedroom wall still bled through. Shoving the window open, I peered down my unshoveled walk.
Maria, my ex-husband’s girlfriend, was poised, ready to pounce on the buzzer again. She was wearing tight black pants and knee-high leather boots that matched her jacket. Who was she kidding? She had to be freezing.
“I’ll be right down,” I shouted. Let her wait, I meant.
I skittered down the hallway to the bathroom, stripping off my paint-spattered clothes. Out of soap, I dumped shampoo on a face cloth. Mouthing all the things I wanted to say was a mistake. Soap coated my tongue as if my mother were washing my mouth out for all my nasty thoughts. I scoured the lavender paint smudges off my face and hoped I wouldn’t burp bubbles.
From my closet, I grabbed the cocktail dress purchased for the library fundraising auction my parents were hosting. Midnight blue with a daring neckline. I slipped the silky fabric over my naked body and stuffed my feet into two-inch heels. Before opening the front door, I remembered the price tag and tucked it inside my dress.
Maria smiled, her large white teeth looking more wolfish than seductive. “You look most lovely.”
“Why thank you.” I could be charming, too.
“I thought to bring Sean’s library book. I know you like to return it.”
I held out my hand for the biography of Amelia Earhart. Last fall he’d written a report on the disappearance of the pilot. I flipped open the back cover. “This was due three months ago.”
“Mi scusi,” was her pathetic apology.
Again I thanked her and started to pull shut the door. She didn’t move.
“Is there something else?”
“Si, one thing more.”
I bit my lip.
“Richard and I, we have fantastico opportunity for plane tickets. Such a good deal. Four days in Acapulco,” she trilled in the melodious Italian accent that had seduced my ex. “Please, you watch the kids this weekend.” We both knew it was Richard’s turn to keep Ashley and Sean.
“Wow, what an opportunity,” I said, “but I’ve already booked a ski weekend.” Not exactly true. When my brother’s friends had invited me for a ski reunion at Killington, I declined. After losing my brother, I shut his friends out of my life. Like I didn’t deserve them. I smiled at Maria and said, “But the kids would adore Acapulco. Perfect timing, too. It’s February vacation. I’ll drop them off tomorrow. That’ll give you and Richard an extra day to round up shorts and bathing suits.”
Her lips closed over her big white teeth.
“Thanks again for the book.” I closed the door against her sputtering.
My claws retracted. She had no clue how likely it was that before our divorce was final in six months that she’d be left by the wayside like so much disposable trash. The Swedish waitress had lasted less than a year and his accountant barely more than a single tax season.
I called Sam whom I hadn’t seen since my brother’s funeral. “I’m coming. Better sharpen your skis.” Luckily, he hadn’t canceled my room.
An hour later, my ex phoned. “Could we chat, Sal? Why don’t you take the kids with you? Think how they’d love learning to ski.” Like I was depriving them if I didn’t take them. Then he proposed to pay for the lift tickets and their motel room.” I didn’t bite. “I’ll pick up all your expenses” was his next offer.
“Don’t try bribing me and don’t send Maria over to do your dirty work.”
“Let’s be reasonable,” he said. “Why don’t you stop by later? Isn’t this the weeknight the kids eat over at your parents’ house?”
I agreed to come over.
“Hey Sal,” he greeted me as he opened the door to the duplex he was renting. I was immune to his muscular torso. But the bastard could have put on a shirt before he answered the door. His brown eyes, long lashes and square cut jaw no longer sucked me in.
“What, no cocktail dress this evening?” His eyes twinkled. I refused to be sidetracked. His humor used to make me laugh. Not anymore.
“Come on in. You look cold. Why don’t I make you a cappuccino? I’ve got chocolate peanut butter. Your favorite.” He was laying it on thick.
“I’ve quit.” Succinct responses kept my tongue from tripping me up. I stepped into the foyer, but not a step more. The familiar scent of his Ralph Lauren aftershave teased my nostrils. I resisted.
Photos of him and the kids hung on the stark white wall: squirting each other with water cannons at Sea World; learning to ride unicycles; scarfing down banana splits at Six Flags. Laughter leaped out of the frames. Visits with Dad were a blast. It’s just that he neglected the little things. Like remembering Ashley’s allergy medicine or reminding Sean to do his homework or attending a single teacher conference.
When he opened the front hall closet to grab his Bates sweatshirt, I saw Maria’s leather jacket parked next to a fur coat. Probably mink. Dear Richard, always extravagant. It was easier to buy a computer game than read Good Night Moon to the kids.
I handed him a Ziploc bag with the kids’ passports. “Sean and Ashley are so excited,” I said. “It’s great that you found cheap tickets.”
He started to argue.
I turned my back on him.
“I’ll be careful not to get bitten by any sharks,” he said. Then he nudged my arm and leaned down to say, “We had some good times, Baby Doll.”
My script didn’t cover this scenario. “I’ll bring the kids tomorrow.”
“Aren’t you going to remind me to use plenty of sunscreen?”
I was done playing games. “At 10.” I exited, but not as gracefully as intended. I slipped on the steps and sprawled on the sidewalk. He rushed out to assist me. The bastard.
Dropping the kids off the next morning made me feel hollow, like I wasn’t a good mom. The whole way over, Sean had chattered about snorkeling with his dad. He knew better than to mention Maria. Just hearing her name made my throat clog. Ashley, three weeks past her eighth birthday, looked at me with those huge brown eyes when I kissed her goodbye. Before I had driven two blocks, I almost turned back. Why couldn’t I stop feeling guilty? Richard had done the deserting. I was just going away for one weekend. I deserved that.
After calling in sick at my college admissions job, I rummaged through the attic. Buried beneath boxes of Christmas ornaments, I resurrected ski pants, long underwear, and my lucky red scarf. The foam cushion around the frames of my goggles had melted, and the lenses were scratched.
It didn’t feel right telling my parents I was meeting Jimmy’s friends for the weekend, so I didn’t. I shrank from hearing Mom’s “I’m so glad.” Her intake of breath would be a gut punch.
She wouldn’t be able to conceal her horror that I was meeting up with Randy, our joke-a-minute ex-neighbor, and the red-haired twins, Sam and Runt. She would be thinking that the guys were Jimmy’s best friends, not mine. And I had pretended since his accident, when he had tumbled down the rocky cliff, that she was right.
The phone call came five years ago.
Mom’s voice lurched out in agonized spurts.
“Sally, oh God, Sally.”
I tried to unravel what she was saying, to locate the words between the sobs.
“An accident. Horrible. His body’s crushed. The climbing rope. It broke. All the way to the ground. I warned him not to climb that mountain.”
Jimmy. She was talking about my brother.
For the seven months he survived, I visited Jimmy in the disinfected room where each breath was a labored rasp. His vacant eyes never recognized me. I rotated his arms, bent and straightened his legs, massaged his neck and back, but his muscles gradually turned into jelly.
The drive to Killington took me four hours. I had intended to listen to The Weight of Water for next month’s book club meeting. Instead, I relived my trips to the hospital where I hadn’t been able to resurrect my brother.
After each visit, I slunk home. No energy for my kids. No time for my husband. But I didn’t get to shut down. I couldn’t disappoint my brother. He wouldn’t have wanted me to neglect my family. At the hospital, I dredged up funny stories. How Sean had snuck a trio of bullfrogs into the fountain at his father’s law firm. The chorus of throaty frog bellows scared a secretary. She called security. I narrated how Ashley had dropped birdseed into the cavity of the Thanksgiving turkey so it wouldn’t starve. On the walls, I taped cards that my daughter had drawn with a menagerie of rabbits and cats. Her J was backwards and her M looked like a picket fence. He didn’t notice. When I spoke, he didn’t turn his head. Not even a blink to give me hope. Once I brought the children to visit him, but his misshapen skull, missing teeth, and slack jaw frightened them. One visit was all they could take.
For Jimmy’s benefit, I conjured up romantic evenings Richard and I spent dining and dancing. But no dancing actually occurred. A stupid fantasy. Richard complained that eating at restaurants was a waste since all I did was push expensive food around the plate. After a while, the kids and I tended to eat at home, by ourselves. Like a fool, I was grateful Richard’s work kept him so busy. Of course, I didn’t realize what he was working at.
My brother had been my best buddy. As a kid, I followed him like a puppy dog. In third grade, Jimmy punched our cousin who called me a crybaby when my hamster died. In middle school, he taught me to intimidate the other team by executing a flip before throw-ins during soccer games. In high school, he gave me the guts to ski down “Outer Limits” at Killington.
But when I wanted to get married in the middle of my sophomore year at college – deliriously happy and pregnant – Jimmy counseled me not to rush into marriage. I was in love, I didn’t listen, and my wedded life of bliss didn’t stay blissful.
It was getting dark when I reached Mendon Mountain View Lodge. Jimmy’s friends wouldn’t arrive for several hours, so I rented parabolic skis, designed so that even a novice skier could carve graceful turns. They might be the miracle it would take for me to survive expert trails. The only reason the guys had let me tag along in high school was because I followed them without hesitation down any steep mountain, on any corkscrew trail.
The temperature hovered below freezing. No snow fell from the overcast sky, so I didn’t need goggles. My skis cooperated on the intermediate slopes. Feeling smug, I decided to raise the ante on my first night of skiing. I chose a black diamond. A mistake.
The moguls bubbled out at me like froth from a witch’s cauldron. After five wobbly turns, one ski zipped right while the other split left.
Face plant number one.
Getting up required all the coordination I could muster. My chest felt bruised. My knee ached as if someone was wringing it like a towel. I worried my ski pants had split. Fitting into them had been a challenge.
My rug of confidence was whipped away. A young snowboarder, barely older than I had been when I started skiing with Jimmy and his friends, snaked his way past me and skimmed under the rope of a closed-off hill. Skiers hadn’t scraped off its deep powder. No more skidding on ice. I was saved. I clicked into my skis, sidestepped down twenty feet, not forgetting to look around for the “evil” patrol guys, and slipped under the rope, rattling the CLOSED sign with my ski pole. For an instant I was once again invincible, thumbing my nose at rules, trying to catch up with the guys.
The deep snow slowed my skis, helping me reach the base of the mountain as I remembered to lean into turns. Still in one piece, I called it quits for the evening and headed to the resort.
An hour later, eyes closed, submerged up to my neck in a steaming bath, I let the phone ring a dozen times before I picked up. “Hey, Sal!” Runt’s cheerful voice asked, “You’re not going to be a wet blanket, are you? Not on our first night.”
“Of course not. Just taking a quick shower after hitting the slopes tonight. Must have made twenty runs,” I lied.
“Great. Tomorrow, you can lead the way. Meet you at the bar in ten minutes. We ordered three pitchers. You’ve got some catching up to do. Just like old times.”
Just like old times? Was it that easy for the four musketeers minus one to forget that Jimmy wouldn’t be here? Images skittered through my mind of that artificially lit hospital room where the caricature of my brother had lain on a bed with pictures of the four of them plastered on the wall: cannonballing off ledges, whitewater rafting, and hiking Mount Washington.
I shouldn’t have come. This trip into my past was wrong. I raked my fingers through my wavy brown hair. It used to come to the middle of my back. Now it was short and practical. I slipped into jeans, hiking boots, and a white Irish hand-knitted sweater. Would Sam notice that I wore the same outfit I’d worn on the first ski reunion, ten months before the accident? I’d always suspected that he was more than a little curious about what was under my sweater. But being Jimmy’s little sister, I was out of bounds.
Too bad, I thought. Maybe if I hadn’t been Jimmy’s sister, one of the “guys,” I wouldn’t have married Richard, the blond-haired Adonis every girl on my dorm floor at Skidmore lusted after. I wondered how many of their lusty dreams he had fulfilled. Obviously “until death do us part” didn’t take into account the Swedish waitress, a perky accountant, or his latest, the Italian cyclist. I was surprised her pendulous breasts hadn’t tipped her over the handlebars. No such luck. Richard didn’t even speak a word of Italian. I shook my head, determined to erase my ex and not let him trespass my weekend.
The elevator zoomed down, bumped to a stop, and spit me out. Having deposited my glasses on the bureau upstairs, I was squinting, searching the bar when a bear hug enveloped me.
“I would’ve known you anywhere,” Sam said. I guess he recognized the clothes. He released me to the quick hug of Randy and a sloppy kiss from Runt, who ushered me into a booth on the opposite side of the candlelit lounge away from the band, playing tunes of the 70’s and 80’s. “I’ve Seen Fire and I’ve Seen Rain” filtered through the din of the crowded bar. Six years ago, we would have been near the band with everyone but Runt smoking.
Sam poured me a mug of beer, the froth spilling over the frosted rim. I smiled but signaled to the waitress and ordered scotch on the rocks and a bowl of clam chowder, the hotter, the better. I still had some major thawing to do.
Runt said, “Great idea. Build up our strength. Nachos and fried clams all around.”
“Take it easy, Bro,” Sam said. “It’s too cold to open the windows tonight.”
Randy, never subtle, jumped in, “Little chief, big boom.” All the guys laughed.
I stifled a giggle, knowing how laughter could bubble into hysteria if I wasn’t careful. My tight neck muscles relaxed a few notches as I leaned back into the green leather cushion and took a hefty sip of Johnnie Walker.
As the night unfolded and the scotches slipped down, I watched these three men and searched for the boys I had idolized. It was no surprise that Sam’s ski slumming clothes consisted of a maroon v-neck sweater over a striped shirt and that his khaki pants looked starched. I listened to him brag about his latest malpractice suit and the big bucks he raked in. Randy, who had a receding hairline and was lean and muscular, narrated amusing stories about the escapades of his twin daughters. We traded stories, featuring the drug addicts he counseled and the high school seniors I interviewed during their application process.
Randy told us how he’d been training six months for the Boston Marathon. Not to be outdone, Sam described in excruciating detail his daily 55-mile bike rides and the races he entered in southern California. I knew I was doomed. These men were athletic machines!
Runt, shorter and rounder than his twin, told comical stories about his middle school students that he obviously adored. His hair had lost its fire engine red and now was more of a sedate rust. His questions about Ashley’s gymnastics and Sean’s chess competitions surprised me. He shrugged and said, “Your mother sends newsy Christmas letters. You, however, don’t write so much.”
I nodded. “I’ll do better. It’s just that I’ve been so busy what with the kids and everything.”
“I’m sorry that things didn’t work out with you and Richard,” Runt said.
“I guess it wasn’t meant to be,” I replied. I’d have to talk to Mom about spilling out my life. Randy and Sam waited for me to continue, but I wasn’t ready to elaborate. Instead, I excused myself to go the ladies room and splashed cold water on my face.
Just after midnight, Sam toasted Jimmy. I meant to be prepared. His boisterous words poked at my eardrums as he began with their standard toast, “To the Four Musketeers.” I felt left out as if I was trespassing. “One for all and all for one.”
Runt added the new part. “To the one who left us too soon, we miss you.”
Randy finished, “To Jimmy.” They raised their mugs. I raised my glass in a sloppy salute. Runt used his napkin to mop up the spilled scotch.
“Come on, Small Fry,” Sam spoke. “Let’s get you to bed. Big day tomorrow.” He pulled me up to my wobbly feet and guided me to the elevator, where he left me alone and not as drunk as I wanted to be. He headed back to the bar, and I pictured the four musketeers minus one downing tequila shots. I couldn’t keep up anymore.
The next morning after we took the shuttle to the ski chalet, I said, “You guys go ahead. I’ll catch up. Gotta buy some goggles.” Thick clouds darkened the sky, and an icy wind seeped inside my jacket. My toes felt numb. What I really needed was another cup of coffee, maybe three.
“Are you sure?” Randy asked. His skis gliding rapidly back and forth broadcast his impatience to tackle the slopes. “We’ll keep riding the triple chair ‘til you catch up.”
“Great. See you in a few.” Inside the lodge, rubbing my hands by a crackling fire, I sipped scalding coffee.
Thirty minutes later, I snapped into my skis. At the top when I skied off the chairlift, I decided to try another black diamond before rejoining the guys. Another mistake. The steep pitch of the hill sent my skis racing out of control, my body an unwilling passenger. Gusts of wind blasted my face, and the hill blurred before me as I skidded down the vertical drop. The spectacular fall I’d seen a few weeks earlier on television looped inside my head. An Olympic favorite had somersaulted through the air, slamming into the unforgiving ice before smashing through two snow fences.
The last five years of my life had not prepared me for this run, for this trip back to the ski terrain of my adolescence.
I couldn’t distinguish the icy patches from the ungreased ones. Under way, like a locomotive without brakes, my skis refused to turn, so I pressed the tips together and made the biggest, most undignified wedge I could. I plowed to a dead stop where the snow was ungroomed and sloppy. Craning my neck, I squinted to watch a snowboarder hit a jump before somersaulting into a huge snow bank.
He hollered up the hill to his companions, “Go bigger.” One of his buddies landed without falling after doing two complete rotations.
Watching him made me dizzy. The wind blew puffs of snow in my face. I was in over my head. No toboggan-towing patrolman was going to rescue me. Why had I come on this stupid trip? Failure loomed like an avalanche ready to pounce.
I couldn’t stay here, so I sucked in my courage, lifted my uphill ski and reversed it over my downhill ski until it was turned 180 degrees in the other direction. The ski, pointing to the woods and trapped in deep snow, refused to follow its lead.
Face plant number two.
Much worse than last night. Freezing snow pierced my neck. Helpless, I felt like a flipped turtle, flailing its legs. My arms and face smushed in the snow. When I tried to push myself up, my arms plunged deeper. I was facing downhill. My legs stuck out behind me in an undignified straddle.
I could hear Runt roaring with laughter at my predicament. In reality, the laughter didn’t come from Runt but from the three snowboarders. Shameless, I raised my head, planning to shout for assistance.
But before I could appeal to their mercy, the leader taunted, “Can’t you read, lady? This hill is for experts.”
“What a wuss,” the one with the moose antler hat called to his friend. “Why don’t you stick to the bunny slopes?”
The third boy hooted with laughter and said, “Look for the green circles for babies and beginners if you can seeeee that far.” Sniggering, they strapped on their snowboards and disappeared around a bend. I was on my own.
Thankful that my bindings had released, I gathered my scattered skis and poles and edged over to the side of the vertical drop. Alone, parked on a fallen tree, I considered three options: hike up and try another route; head downwards and risk spending the day in an emergency ward while jaded doctors encased my arms and legs in plaster cast; or stay where I was, sheltered between a snowdrift and the log. I favored the third choice, freezing to death so my mourners could eulogize me.
I imagined myself lying in a satiny casket while Randy, Sam, and Runt gazed down at me. I could almost hear them discussing me, just as they used to when debating whether I would be permitted to climb up to their tree house.
I remembered Runt saying, “If she can’t pull herself up to the first branch, then she’s too little to be in our club.”
Randy, always practical, asked, “Got any food? Maybe some of your mom’s blueberry pie?”
Sam, the one who worried about reputation, the one who votes Republican now, asked, “What’ll the other guys think?”
It had been Jimmy who settled the argument as he climbed down to give me a boast. “You can do it, Sal.” He talked me up the tree, telling me where to put my hands and feet.
His voice faded. He wasn’t here to talk me down. I began my slow descent: traversing back and forth across the hill and making large snowplow turns. A couple of times, I took off my skis and sidestepped down the steepest sections. It took me forty-five minutes to reach the bottom.
The ski chalet beckoned me, but I decided to try one more run.
I saluted the triple but headed over to the double, the chairlift that carried skiers to “wuss” green circle beginner hills and blue square intermediate runs. I skied toward the single’s line. My future.
Just before I reached the lift attendant, a voice called, “Hey, Lady, want a partner?” Runt, dressed in a red jacket and clashing orange ski pants, glided up beside me, grinning. His skis, scratched and dented, eased next to mine. We didn’t say anything as the chairlift scooped us up. Runt pulled down the safety bar, a precaution he had ridiculed when we were teens. He responded to my astonishment. “I’m not as dumb as I used to be.”
Leaning back and dangling my skis below the footrest, I studied the misshapen pines and craggy oaks lining the sides of the lift. The recent January ice storm had decimated the supple birches. Their trunks were cracked in half, ragged points bleeding to the sky, the upper halves corpses in the snow. Other birches doubled over with weighty burdens, their branches trapped in crusted ice.
Runt followed my gaze and broke the silence. “You seem a little edgy.”
“You mean doing the ski scene without Jimmy?”
“Yeah. I know it’s tough. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t come. When I think of him, I don’t have a problem thumbing my nose at my brother, who bulldozes through life and brags about every dollar he earns. And just maybe it was Jimmy’s spirit that gave you the courage to give your wandering husband the heave ho.”
“It’s funny, but I don’t really miss Richard. I guess I miss the feeling of being a couple, of being wanted by someone. But I never stop missing having Jimmy in my life.”
“You and me both. Everyday I miss him. Hell, Sally, I hate not being able to call him and crab about my brother. Jimmy always knew what to say. He made my problems shrink.” After a pause, he admitted, “I never told you, but I really envied you having Jimmy as a big brother.”
At the top of the lift, Runt lifted the bar, and we skied down a small incline. My heart lurched as I saw a black diamond sign hauling me into the previous run’s fiasco. Runt looked at me apologetically and muttered, “If you don’t mind, let’s take a few runs on the intermediate hills. I don’t have my ski legs yet.”
I stared at him. Could he have seen my disastrous descent?
“Truth is,” he continued, “it’s been months since I hit a tennis ball or rode my bike. Walking my overweight Golden Retriever is the most exercise I get.”
“I barely remember how to ski,” I confessed. “My body doesn’t do what I tell it to.”
“Sal, none of us are the kids we once were. No matter how many marathons Randy trains for or how many bike races Sam endures, we’ll never feel invincible again.”
“I just want it to be easier. First I lose Jimmy. Then Richard walks out. And I can’t even get down a hill without falling.”
“We can’t bring Jimmy back. And from what I hear, you’re better off without that jerk you married. It’s his loss.”
“Maybe, but it still hurts like a canker sore.”
My teeth dug into my lip and my brand new goggles fogged up. I ripped them off my stupid knitted cap and threw them on the snow. Why the hell couldn’t Jimmy be with us? Why did my brother have to be right about Richard? Why was the man I chose to marry such a scumbag? The slender cluster of birches next to me shivered in the wind.
Runt scooped up my goggles, but before he could return them to me, I planted my poles and pushed off down the hill, zigging one way, then zagging the other. Runt roared past me.
Halfway down, I passed Runt and crossed over in front of his skis, forcing him to veer right, a trick we had mastered as teens. Looking back at Runt and laughing, I didn’t notice the ice patch.
Face plant number three.
Runt skidded to a stop below me.
“Nothing’s broken,” I said as I rubbed numb fingers over my scraped nose and chin. While I waited for my tingling face to thaw, I inhaled clean draughts of air. In the distance, snow capped peaks, fresh and untouched, beckoned me.
Why hadn’t I brought the kids on ski vacations? Sean would eat up these slopes, and Ashley, well she might not be able to follow him down every trail, but she could try. My parents could pitch in for ski lessons and equipment, maybe even join us for a weekend.
Snowy slopes sparkled in front of me. I was definitely coming back.
Wearing my goggles on top of his goggles, Runt dropped his poles and reached out. I took his hand and pulled myself to my feet until I was balanced and ready to shove off.