I’m in the passenger seat and he’s got his hand on my leg. The ride is bumpy and harsh and I’m wishing he’d just hold the wheel and forget all about me. The blacktop curves hard and narrow up against the icy mountain on the right and off to the left, just a wide clear airless chasm. I’ve been trying not to look since we started up the mountain an hour ago. Now I can’t help myself and I peek, straight down into the sun-blinded ice packed space at the craggy bottom of which I am certain are scattered the hideous remains of vehicles driven by hapless young men whose habit it had been to cruise up mountains with one hand flopped casually over the steering wheel and the other carelessly draped across a female passenger’s thigh. When I imagine the doomed couples’ last moments, I think not of the crash, but of the descent; thousands of cubic feet of free space rushing past, giant swaths of nothing beneath and above and around them as they plummet toward certain death.
That whole thing, the space, it’s why I don’t fly. Or take elevators. Or ski.
I didn’t want to come, but we haven’t been together long enough for me to tell him I’m not really into this sort of thing. If you tell a guy you’ve just started dating all about the things you don’t like to do, they’re not likely to keep asking you around are they? So, when he suggested this, I told him it sounded just fine. It sounded great. I lied like crazy.
Hey, he says, and glances over at me and I’m wishing he’d just look at the road. You ok? You look a little nervous there. He’s wearing sunglasses but I know there’s genuine concern in his eyes. He’s like that.
I tell him I’m completely fine and try to arrange my expression into one that portrays the opposite of fear of death. What would that be? Boredom? No that’s probably not very appealing. I look down, fumble around in my purse. I can feel he’s still looking at me so I say, Seriously, I’m ok. Don’t worry.
Nah you’re not, he says. You’re not fine. I can hear the friendly grin in his voice. Look here, he says. Don’t worry about this road, it’s a safe road. I’ve been up here a hundred times. A thousand. Used to come up here with my Dad all the time when I was a kid. He removes his hand from my leg and turns up the radio. Maybe he thinks this will help.
I want to ask him whether he’s actually driven the road or just ridden along in the passenger seat like I’m doing now but I decide I won’t ask. It’ll make him feel bad to tell me the truth. That’s the thing about guys. They can be fragile like that. It’s funny how they’re all the same. Take this guy, I’ve known him less than three weeks and I already know he’s got a lot invested in impressing his dad. It’s why I like him. Not the dad thing. The vulnerability. It’s one of the checkboxes on my list.
He asked me on a bike date the first time we went out. I didn’t even own a bike. I had to borrow one from my friend Mindy who is like three inches taller than me. We met at this coffee place in town-apparently that’s what people do now, I’ve been out of the game for a while so I had no idea-and he comes riding up in this crazy professional-looking outfit. I mean you could tell the guy knew how to ride a fucking bike. Not those shiny, European, ball-huggers. I mean mountain biking. Big shorts, tight shirt, funky helmet, and ridiculous orange striped socks. Sexy as hell. It didn’t hurt that he looked like an REI ad and had this adorable carefully cultivated I haven’t been near civilization in three days beard going and this stupid backpack with a tube attached delivering water or some nutrient-rich liquid food directly into his mouth. But all that wasn’t why I stuck around. I’m not gonna lie. I’d have fucked him for that, for sure, but stick around? No way.
The first thing he does when he sees me with my yellow cruiser bike and cargo shorts and white sandals and sunhat? He blushes. Actually blushes. And I see he’s a bit of a ginger. Freckles across the bridge of his nose and a red sheen to his hair I see clearly in the sun as he removes his helmet. And he apologizes and offers to buy me coffee. The bike trip doesn’t come off but the coffee date does.
So right away I know he wants to be this big survival mountain guy but I also know that he’s self-conscious about it. That he knows it’s something he isn’t. I find out he graduated with a degree in economics and works a finance job in the city sixty hours a week. He doesn’t say but I can tell he hates it. The way his mouth gets smaller when he says the words, the way he looks off to the side and lets the sentences drift. His dad’s in finance. To be honest I don’t know what ‘in finance’ means except everyone in it either has money or wants money really badly, or, and I think this is him, comes from the first kind of people. I might not know that except it’s so much a part of him he can’t even see it. Oh, and there’s Google. I googled him of course.
But he’s nice. He’s nice enough, meaning he doesn’t seem to be a dick. And I’m thirty. Or I’ll be thirty, in seventeen months. And there’s a part of me, a big part that’s privately panicking at the thought. My last relationship broke up over a year ago and before that I was married almost five years. Too young of course, right out of high school. Nobody expected it to last. Except me. It seemed pre-packaged, like getting your Christmas dinner ordered ahead of time and knowing it will arrive, pre-cooked with all the trimmings including pie. All you have to is unbox and heat up. That was my life at nineteen. I had this guy, he had this job, we had this life together. We got married and I was planning to unbox and heat up and then just eat it up one goddamn course at a time. But he decided to blow it when we were both just twenty-four. I knew he had a problem but I never thought it was that bad. There are days now when I forget what happened. How blue his lips and the way the bubbles of vomit formed and dried at the corners of his mouth. I wake up and I’ve forgotten and I think our life is still going. I’m still waiting for the next course to arrive.
Other days, I know exactly where I am. Like today. I’m on this mountain with this guy who I know in only the most generic sense, headed up to ski or sled or whatever snowbound, freezing as fuck thing I do NOT want to do because what I really want is a baby. Or whatever the next thing is supposed to be.
Besides, he adds, we’re almost there, ok?
Suddenly I realize I haven’t been thinking about all the space off to my left over the ledge. Instead, I’ve been thinking about…what have I been thinking about? Ok, I say. My hand is still inside my bag and suddenly I can feel my fingers wrap around my cigarette pack, half crushed at the bottom. I look at him from the corner of my eye. Should I ask if I can smoke in his truck? Of course, he doesn’t smoke. Look at him. His skin has that well-broccolied look. In the three weeks we’ve known each other he’s never even mentioned it. Not even weed or some sort of cool millennial contraption. My smokes aren’t even Camels or Luckys. Just plain old white trash menthols. I loose my fingers and let the pack drop, withdraw my hand and zip my bag.
How long do think?
Maybe ‘bout ten more minutes. The radio goes staticky and he switches it off. You feeling any better? He reaches out and rubs my shoulder.
We’ve had a lot of sex in the last few weeks. By that I mean we’ve had a lot of sex in the last few weeks, but there is something too familiar, too close, about being touched while driving. It feels like something that should be reserved for married people or at least couples. Is that what we are? A couple? No, definitely not. I feel a sudden surge between us as if we are two similarly charged magnets being slammed against opposite sides of the inside of a box. I can’t breathe. I adjust my seatbelt in order to shift away from his touch. It’s totally obvious. He says nothing.
As we climb the foliage disappears, smooth white hillocks, the surfaces crystalline in the sun, appear beside the blacktop where the road has been cleared. The snow piles grow larger some of them completely blocking the view into the canyon. I relax a little. It is a beautiful day. The sky a cloudless sort of fat blue that makes me think of those paints you got to use in grade school-when they spill and make thick pools all over your manila paper. Tempura paints. I used to spill the turquoise bottle on purpose.
It’s hot in the car. The heater has been on since we cleared three thousand feet and now, in spite of peeling away layers of clothing until I’m left in a T-shirt and snow bunny pants-yes, purchased new for this adventure-I’m sweating sauna bullets which are threatening to ruin the incredibly cute beach girl thing I’ve done with my hair. I crack the window letting in a shelf of air so ice-cold it makes me gasp and then press my mouth to the glass.
What are you doing?
I pull back. Sorry, I say. Old habit. Where I grew up we didn’t have snow, or ice, or really cold weather.
Ok, he says but he sounds unconvinced and I wonder if he thinks I’m a little crazy. What was I doing? Trying to see if my lips would stick of course. Like to the outside of an ice cream container. Or an ice cube. Or a margarita glass.
So, he says and looks over at me his eyebrows arched. Where did you grow up? I thought it was here.
Suddenly I realize I’ve not really told him much about myself. He knows I went to college. I work in graphic design. My office is less than three blocks from his. Amazing! Except I stalked him before agreeing to meet him. We have a bunch of friends in common. Again, amazing! We like the same food and the same music-I was honest about that. I can’t tolerate sitting through, for example Tai food (all that peanut oil, blech) or a Luke Bryan concert (no explanation necessary) just for the sake of good sex or even a potential relationship. Especially a relationship.
I tell him where I’m from, trying not to make it sound like I’m admitting a crime.
Wow, he says.
Yeah, I’ve never met anyone from there. Or from the south at all actually. Wait that’s not true. Maryland is the south right? And Virginia technically. So yeah, I have.
No, I say. No that’s not the south. Not really. So no, you haven’t, I say and I’m annoyed. Rationally I know it’s fear that’s annoying me, not him. Although technically he brought me up here inducing the fear. On the other hand, I think, I allowed myself to be brought. Isn’t that what my therapist would say? My side of the street. Own it.
He shrugs. Ok, he says. I’m more annoyed. I look out the window tilting my face up to the wind whistling through the crack. It smells of pine and smoke. I slide the window open another few inches. The gentle breath becomes an enormous frozen tongue that laps across the front seat, disrupting our Styrofoam cups-near empty of the gas station coffee we’d purchased- and blowing them around the space like giant snowflakes.
Hey! He says ducking in time to avoid a Styrofoam sock in the eye but not the dribble of cold coffee on his sweater. Can you roll that up? It’s freezing!
I’m impressed he does not run us off the road. He barely flinches. I decide he has actually driven this road before. One point for him.
Sorry, I say and roll the window up and tuck my hands beneath my thighs. We drive for several minutes in silence.
Look, he says, pointing out a road sign on the left. Just another mile to the lodge. There’s a place to rent skis if we want or we can just hike and take in the view. Whatever you want. It’s really beautiful.
I nod but say nothing. He’s nice. Really nice. Generous, polite, intelligent, employed, unmarried, not a felon. So many of the qualities on my list. But I’m feeling increasingly like this was a bad idea. I check my watch and hope he doesn’t see. I silently count the hours until I’ll be home and try to figure how many items from my ‘real life’ I’ll be able to accomplish with the remainder of my Sunday. Not many, I think which gives me a bit of a sick feeling. This whole day is starting to feel weirdly like treading water. Getting me nowhere.
I’ve been thinking a lot in terms of my end goal lately. Even though I don’t have one, unless you count death. These days it seems like I measure everything in terms of how far forward it pushes me. I ask myself, is this worthy of my goal? How much closer does this step bring me to my end result? Am I moving forward? And this thing, today? Feels like wasting time. I can’t explain why.
Jesus, he says, and my eyes fly open. What the fuck? he says but his voice is soft and really I only see his lips move. He’s pulling over onto a narrow shoulder off the road.
What? What are you doing?
I’m looking but there’s nothing. Just the dazzling sun-blinded curve of mountain ahead of us on the right and the freshly plowed blacktop cutting cleanly with the drop off still yawning mightily at the left. The way the road disappears up ahead it’s impossible to tell if a car might be coming around that curve at any moment. Suddenly I’m wide awake and focused.
You didn’t see it?
The car? The SUV. It was like barely hanging on the side of the road and I think there was a kid maybe. A kid in there.
What the fuck? No. I didn’t see anything.
Right. We have to go back.
Now I’m scared. I’m thinking I don’t know this guy. It’s not that I know him and he’s all wrong for my plan, it’s that I don’t know him at all and he’s just wrong.
What are you talking about? I ask. We can’t go back. You can’t turn around here. It’s too…I stop talking. He’s not listening.
He’s leaning forward against the steering wheel trying to see past the blind curve. He tosses his sunglasses into the center console, then strains to look back over his left shoulder. Then back around the curve. Before I can say anything else we are moving. The truck rolling out into the road, turning left until I am looking directly over the edge and down into the abyss. I’m not breathing.
He backs up and the abyss slides away. I drop back in my seat and suck at the air uselessly. Everything inside the truck seems to have expanded. He whips the wheel right and continues in reverse then lurches forward again and we are suddenly headed back the way we came. Down the mountain, the edge inches away, an occasional bare pine tree flashing past.
Suddenly there it is. An old grey Volvo SUV. Out of state license plate and one of those family stickers in the back window, mommy and daddy and child, only they are depicted as dinosaurs, the girls wearing little red bows so you can tell they are girls. The side doors are open on the right, both the front and the back and as we pull up behind it I can see something hanging out of the backseat. My stomach clenches I taste a trace of bitterness in my mouth.
What is that? I ask.
I don’t know, he says and pulls to a stop just behind the Volvo. Pulls the break and shuts down the engine.
You think it’s a? Oh God, maybe?
Hang on. Let me check this out ok?
The snow crust has turned choppy and ragged around the tires of the vehicle: it’s brown and caked but still easy to see the boot prints tracking from the driver’s side around the back and then over to the edge of the canyon.
He pushes open his door and steps down. The crunch of ice beneath the heel of his boot and the wind whistle through the trees in the far distance. There is no other sound.
I pull on my jacket and watch him through the windshield. He steps carefully around the side of the Volvo peaking in first through the closed doors on the street side. I wonder to myself why he does that when the other doors are wide open. Then he leans over the hood, cups his hands around his face and peers through the glass. He snaps back. Looks up at me and motions for me to come. I don’t want to. Whatever this is, it isn’t good. I’m cursing my cellphone. Zero bars. No way to call for help. Yet another reason I don’t do outdoor stuff. Why would anyone volunteer to get this far away from a cell tower? I look up. He’s motioning more frantically and now coming toward me. I can see his breath coming in small puffs of steam. The temperature is dropping. I slide over to the driver side and push open the door. He holds my elbow as I get out.
Careful, he says. Icy.
He leads me over to the car and now I see why he didn’t go around to the passenger side. The Volvo is parked too close to the edge. Less than a foot of the shoulder on that side. The danger of slipping extraordinary.
She is huddled on the floorboard behind the front passenger seat, her hair wet and stuck up against her cheeks like thick streaks of black paint. Her face round and pink and her eyes, shut now in sleep, swollen from crying. She wears a white ski jacket and matching white booties- both filthy, she clings to a ragged, soaking blanket and she cannot be more than four years old. The blanket, a muddy ice-crusted rag trails out the open door.
I pull at the door handle without thinking, slapping my gloveless palms against the glass. Try the other door, the other window. Start around the truck. He grabs my elbow. I jerk it away.
Stop, he says. Stop it. The back is locked too. It’s all locked on this side.
She’ll fall. She’ll fall out, I’m almost screaming.
I know. But you’ll fall if you just go over there. And if you surprise her or scare her right? We have to think about this. Ok?
Overhead a cloud mass shifts in front of the sun turning the day brittle cold and a deep silvery grey. I crouch down in the snow, suddenly boneless. Sick.
Ok ok, I say. What are going to do. We can’t leave her in there. Where the hell are her parents? Where…
We find the mother quickly and it’s easy to see what happened. She slipped. Down the nearly vertical mountain side, probably she’d have gone to the bottom except her descent was stopped short by an enormous tree trunk part of the way down. We can discern the bright red jacket she wears standing out against the blackened bark of the tree, her small figure huddled inside its lightning struck hollow. She looks ok we decide but she’s too far away for us to make out details and she cannot hear us.
We manage to get around to the other side of the Volvo. Or rather, he does. He finds a rope in the back of his truck and secures it round his waist then does something complicated to hook the other end to the underside of the truck and then manages to get around to the open doors and crawl over to the safe side of the Volvo. My entire job is to stay calm and keep my eyes on the child. Once he’s got the door opened we pull the girl out and, amazingly, she remains asleep. It takes us a moment to realize this is probably because she’s freezing. The sky overhead is still darkening. Gone now an ominous grey.
We wrap her in literally everything we can find and she and I sit together in the Volvo with the doors closed. Just before noon, he leaves, making another terrifying U-turn and promising to return asap, with help.
It seems like a long time that I wait although I know because the clock on my phone works perfectly, that time is ticking by in seconds and minutes rather than hours and days. I hold the girl in my lap, wrapped with my body and the layers of blankets we found. After a while, she stirs slightly and opens her dark eyes and looks at me. She smells of baby shampoo and apples and mud. My face is only inches from hers but she does not appear afraid. Maybe a little curious but then after a few seconds, she closes her eyes again. I keep one hand up under all the wraps, my palm flat against the baby soft T-shirt she wears closest to her skin. I can feel the regular beat of her heart, the warmth of her body and the rise and fall of her tiny chest, the spot where her ribcage meets her breastbone, and I am reassured moment-by-moment she is living. I count to ten. Then twenty. Then a hundred. Then five hundred. Then I start again. Please, I say. Please don’t die.
I look around. Behind me, in the way back a cooler, no doubt stuffed with cut up grapes and those little bags of cheerios and toddler juice boxes, all the things I’ve seen good moms provide their kids for days out. A pink plastic snow saucer with yellow cord, clean, no ice or snow, it’s not been used. Wherever they were going they hadn’t yet arrived; a tote bag stuffed with extra kid clothes, T-shirts, mittens. And a big canvas bag, unzipped and out of it protruding several camera lenses, a folded tripod and some other equipment I don’t recognize
It turns out I am alone with the little girl for less than an hour but it seems forever and then, afterward, when he comes back with rescue, everything goes on for a long time but feels fast and crunched together like the view flashing past your window when you drive along the highway at a very high speed. There’s this female police officer and she wants me to get out of the car so I do and she takes the girl and when I leave she’s talking to her and I guess it’s ok because the child is awake and she isn’t crying and they’ve got a paramedic with her.
We see them bring the man up from the bottom and we see the way they’ve covered him and they only do that when a person has become a body and isn’t a person anymore. It all happens as we’re walking back to the truck so it’s impossible not to see. You don’t miss a dead body, especially not when you’re expecting to see one.
That’s the dad, I think, he says.
He was taking pictures, I say.
How do you know that?
I just think, I say. I decide I don’t want to talk about it anymore.
Wow, he says. You think he fell? And she went down for him?
I don’t know, I say. I don’t know.
He stops walking, turns back toward the stretcher. How much she must love him right?
He shrugs a little. I don’t know. Just, if she went down there I guess.
Yeah, maybe, I say.
The mom, she’s still down in that burned out hollow as we leave. They’ve somehow managed to get foil blankets down to her. We see several of them crushed silver around the trunk of the tree. The sun has reemerged and they reflect brightly in the late afternoon light. There are bands and ropes and cranes and so many rescue people and police and paramedics we know someone will get to her. Pull her up and she’ll be with her girl soon.
As we head down the mountain it’s getting dark. It becomes difficult to see the way the snow melts and the trees come back as we descend. Near the bottom, we come into a little mountain town where we’ll stop for coffee before getting on the highway. Spruce trees are planted at carefully spaced intervals and their smell is sharp and clear in the dark.
I have sex with him that night. We stay together wrapped up like nothing bad can happen if we don’t let go, but when we wake up it turns out the bad thing has happened anyway.
She didn’t make it, he says as we look at the news in bed. He’s sitting cross-legged, laptop open. He’s searched for the story. I can’t believe it, he continues. His voice has this squeezy, airless quality. I mean how can that be? We saw her. She was moving, right? He’s not really talking to me so I don’t answer. We just sit there, looking at the computer screen for a while.
Finally, he says, The girl though, she’s ok. That’s something right?
He’s looking right at me so I say, Yeah, the girl’s ok.
Still, it’s so messed up. He goes back to staring at the screen.
I’m looking over his shoulder at all that snow in the photograph and I wonder if it was silent when they fell. Each member of the little dinosaur family into its own forever space a million trillion miles from the other.
It is, I say. It’s really messed up.
And I light a cigarette and we smoke it and then we get up and we make coffee and eggs and sit together on the couch with our thighs touching and eat breakfast like that without talking at all.