I met Mark Tarly on a snowy December afternoon in the ski patroller’s hut at Stowe Mountain. I don’t remember getting there, but I remember lying on the thin cot with the shattered remains of my ski helmet next to me. There was a long crack running from the forehead all the way down to the apex of the curved form, and the foam insulation had crumpled into 3 distinct pieces.
I was staring up at a hole in the ceiling that looked as if it had been punched through it and when my head finally started to come back to earth, I realized that I’d been staring at that same spot for a long time, uncomprehending. Worse, it was a familiar hole, a familiar faded ceiling, with large rectangular light fixtures set slightly crookedly. All of the sudden, like I’d known where I was and what was happening the whole time, everything clicked into place. That was familiar too, the sudden return to my senses, and I knew I had a fairly decent concussion. It was not my first one.
“I’m back again,” I call out, and one of the ski patrollers, Tom Monathan, comes over and frowns at me like he’s hiding a smile.
“We got to stop meeting like this, Susan,” he says, running his fingers through his salt and pepper hair. He’d gotten a haircut since the last time I’d been in.
“What did I do this time, Tom?” I asked.
“Same as usual. Cliff off the bottom of the Kitchen Wall. I keep telling you it’s not skiable, hon. You gotta let this one go.”
“Not just yet,” I replied, settling deeper into the thin medical pillows I was propped up on. Tom rolled his eyes, then launched into the standard series of questions he’s asked me a million times before – what was my name – Susan Pritchard – how old was I – 25 – where did I live – 340 Mulberry Road. No, I didn’t smell anything weird. Yes, my vision was fine. No, I was skiing alone.
Finally satisfied that I was okay for the time being, Tom went off to fill out some paperwork so I could leave. As soon as he turned the corner, I sat up and picked up my shattered ski helmet. All hopes of repair were thwarted as soon as I got a better look at the crumpled styrofoam lining and the spider vein cracks in the plastic, but I juggled with it for a few minutes trying to fit the pieces back together. My efforts quickly attracted the attention of the guy directly across from me, who watched as I examined the clean fractures.
“Hello there,” he said when I gave up on the helmet, “I see you’re finally back in the land of the living. You were in La La land half an hour ago when I came in. Tom told me you’re a regular around these parts.”
“You must be the peanut gallery,” I replied. He grinned a movie poster kind of white teeth smile and shrugged.
“I’m Mark,” he said, reaching out with a heavily bandaged right hand across the aisle, which was clearly too wide for a handshake, “I took a ski edge across the hand. Went down on the Clip underneath one of my buddies. You?”
“I’m Susan,” I said, extending mine towards his, “I don’t quite know what happened to me, which is fairly typical.” He laughed at that and we shook hands without touching over the aisle.
“You look like trouble, Susan.” Mark said.
“Looks can be deceiving.”
“But are they?” he asked.
I smiled and reached out my hand for the form Tom wanted me to sign. Mark watched as I scrawled my name lazily over the page.
Whether it was because I was still kind of woozy or because he had eyes like a glacier melt in March, I’ll never know, but I let him wrestle my phone number out of me all the same.
* * *
I remember the first time I ever skied through the trees as a little girl. I was seven, maybe eight, with my Dad and my grandpa. My Papa, as I called my Grandfather, had been the one to get me into skiing. We used to get up early on the weekend to make the first chair. Mom hated the cold and preferred to sit in the lodge by the fire with a gaggle of gal pals and a glass of wine. Dad hadn’t usually around long enough to come with us, but he was a marathon runner and a football player who kept protein powder in the kitchen and said things to me like Susan, being runner-up just means you’re the first loser or Susan, champions don’t make excuses.
The wind had been bitter cold on the way up the lift that day and it cut right through the layers and layers of clothing I had on, burrowing under the tightly wrapped scarf around my nose and mouth and freezing the fabric into a stiff, snot covered wall. I had pulled it down to expose my numb cheeks to the air and let my hot breath escape in a geyser of white smoke, my eyes on the ground below. Above my head, my Papa and my Dad had talked in loud voices over the wind, something about Mom and Dad and someone my Mom knew called Steve.
“You got yourself in a bad situation with that woman, son,” Papa had said.
I had watched as a group of skiers in brightly colored jackets stopped near the edge of the trail by the tree line. They had seemed to be discussing something, gesturing with their spindly poles and stomping their skis along the edge of the trail.
“She’s a cheating woman and she’s gonna do it again if you let her. You’d be best to take Susie and get out now.”
“You know I can’t take Susan, Pops,” my Dad had said, “not with my career. I travel too much.”
“Well, you can’t leave her with Carol. You aren’t actually thinking about staying with her, are you?”
“No, I’m not.”
“So what about your daughter, Kyle?”
The skiers on the trailside had started to ski, one by one, into the trees. Intrigued, I had turned in my seat as the chair past by to watch them disappear, their bright jackets flickering briefly against the dark trunks until they were too far down the hill to see. I had turned around just in time to move my skis away from the foot rest as Dad raised the bar in one fluid motion and the ground rose up to meet us.
We had exited the lift to the right and skied slowly around it. I had dug my ski poles into the soft snow and had pushed as hard as I could to keep up with my father, who was already at the top of the headwall and disappeared over the drop before I had reached him. My papa had given me a gentle push behind the shoulder blades.
“Come on Susie,” he’d said, “show me what you got.”
I’d let the weight of my skis pull me forward over the lip and skied down to where the other skiers had left tracks in the soft snow built up by the side of the trail. I could see the marks they’d made in the otherwise untouched snow, curving around the trees. I had looked behind me for Papa, but I didn’t see him. I’d known my father was far down the trail.
I had faced the glades, set my skis on the tip of the ledge, and dove in.
* * *
“It’s going to be a tough ride today,” Mark said, leaning against the beat-up blue Landrover that had somehow gotten us there in one piece. I looked up at the tall mass of whirling snow.
“She’s not in a good mood, that’s for sure, but the cover on the top right below Goat looks a lot better then it did last week,” he continued, tracing a line in the air down the side of the peak with his finger.
I tilted my head and followed his tracing finger with my eyes, nodded, and gestured toward the opposite side of the mountain. It was frigid cold in the parking lot that morning, but the sun was making good headway and by mid afternoon the cliffs facing towards the sunny side would be mush.
“We’ll probably have deeper runs in the crevice by the river on the far right side. The tree cover there isn’t quite so thick.”
“That’s a good thought. We can try both.”
I turned towards the car to put my gear on. Our ski boots were lined up neatly side-by-side next to the air vents, our bags both organized by layer. This was the only situation when I was ever organized, and Mark was, thankfully, the same way.
He had fallen into my life like I’d fallen off the ledge of the frozen waterfall at the bottom of Kitchen Wall three months before. The day we met in the ski patroller’s hut, he’d offered to drive me home. I had refused. He had asked me if I could call someone to pick me up, since I couldn’t drive home with a concussion. I had told him there was no one to call. He offered to walk me to my car. That offer, at least, I had accepted, although I had refused to let him carry any of my gear. It wasn’t till I got outside and realized I couldn’t remember where I’d parked that I grudgingly allowed him to drive me home.
Our relationship started before either of us had our feet solidly under us. We were two weeks in when he started leaving his toothbrush at my place, a detail that would normally drive me into a panic attack, but for some reason I couldn’t help but let it slide. At four weeks he had essentially moved in. I rationalized this in my head as a side effect of my house being much closer to the mountain than his was, but I knew it was more then that when five in, I casually mentioned that I hadn’t spoken with my mother in seven years, a detail I’d never told anyone else about.
My faithful pup Elvis, a five year old SPCA mutt, would come out of the house like a bat out of hell whenever Mark pulled up in his deathtrap old car, barking an accusation that quickly turned into surrender when Mark shouted out his familiar “Atta boy!”. The dog took to flopping over on the ground at Mark’s feet, his tail flicking the snow from side to side like he was making a snow angel, long legs peddling the air. Nine times out of ten Mark came inside with wet patches on his knees from kneeling down to rub Elvis’s downy stomach, and my dog would bound in behind him with a high step, somehow able to walk with all four feet off the ground at once, and burrow between my legs to make sure that I was covered in snow, too.
“Hey lady,” Mark always greeted me, wrapping his arms around me, and we’d stand there until the chill from outside had drained out of his skin, my warm hands cupping his cold cheeks and our lips pressed fiercely together.
He was a natural storyteller with a voice like maple syrup over snow and at 28 he had already done most of the things on my bucket list. Mark told me once he’d watched the sunrise from the top of the Great Wall of China, that he’d sat on the steep steps and waited as the sun lit up the surrounding mountains. He told me that he’d eaten the best sandwich he’d ever had in the rainforest in Puerto Rico while hiking to some famous waterfalls, that he’d skied the French Alps in college with his friends and snuck wine back over with him because he had been under the age limit. When his words ran dry, he’d pull me into bed and we’d make love until poor Elvis was scratching at the door, howling right along with us.
When we lay together in bed, I’d inspect the various scars on his body and listen to his stories of how they’d gotten there, and I’d think to myself that I’d finally found someone who wouldn’t hold me back, who understood what it was to throw yourself into the air without any guarantee you were going to land. He surprised me, then, when I asked him to come scout the cliff under the Kitchen Wall with me and he declined.
“Isn’t that the ledge that’s put you in the hospital three times the past two years? Broken helmet cliff? The tree cover on the bottom is too thick and even if you could get all the way down to the head wall without breaking something, there’s never going to be enough snow to stick the landing. There’s no way.”
“There’s got to be a way.”
“Why can’t you let it go, Susan?”
“It’s not a question of letting it go,” I’d replied, defensively.
“Tell me,” he said quietly.
“It’s just something I have to do,” I said, and for the first time I realized it was true.
“I can’t really explain why.”
He was quiet for a long moment.
“You never talk about your past,” Mark said, and I blinked.
“What?” I asked.
“No, really. At Christmas when I went home you stayed here. You didn’t get any phone calls from any of them on your birthday or anything.”
“It’s not important.”
“Tell me,” he said, and I don’t know if it was because of how he’d asked me or because his eyes were like warm hot chocolate, but I started talking and couldn’t stop. I told him about how my parents got divorced and my mother married three more times after, how I went to live with my grandfather because my father travelled for work and ended up moving to California with his new family. How I wasn’t there the day my Papa died, and how badly that ate me up inside. How there were so many things that I wanted to do with my life that some days I felt I was running and some days I was stuck standing still.
“Susan,” he said when my words ran dry, “you don’t have to try so damn hard all the time. You don’t need to ski that cliff. You don’t need to prove anything to anyone anymore. I’m right here.”
I started to cry, and Elvis bounded in from the next room, jumped on to the bed and let out one long, mournful wail, and my sobs turned into laughter and he held me tighter then anyone ever had before.
* * *
I remember the last time I saw my father. It had been on a snowy day in February a month after my Papa had passed away, three years ago. I took him skiing, partly because the snow was good and partly because skiing is one of those pleasurable things that doesn’t require a lot of talking. At that time he was living in California with his new wife Kate and they’d already had a son together and were expecting again. I had not been invited to the ceremony.
I had filled the car with talk on the way there, with school and how I was the top of my class and how I was stuck between joining the ski race team or the freestyle team. He had mostly just listened.
“How’s Kate and the kid?” I had finally asked, pulling my car into the driveway at Stowe.
“They’re great,” he’d answered, “Dylan’s already shaping up to be a son after my own heart. His first word was winner.”
“That’s great!” I had replied, biting down the urge to ask what mine had been.
We’d gotten ready in silence in the shadow of the mountain. He had stared up at the craggy, sullen mass, half cloaked in sheets of fog, leaning on the back of my car, and I had joined him there.
“What’s the hardest track out here?” my dad had asked.
I’d pointed at the woods to the east of Bypass, running haphazardly down into the ravine. He’d pointed to the gaping dent in the tree cover under the Kitchen wall, a white crack in the green foliage that broke through the tree line like a fissure in a cement wall.
“What’s that?” he’d asked.
“A cliff. About 40, maybe 50 feet. Part waterfall. It’s not skiable,” I’d replied, locking the car doors and picking up my gear.
“Not unless you’re a winner,” Dad had said.
After that day, I’d only talked to him once more, when he called me to tell me that his son Dylan had skied a tree line his first day out.
“What did I tell you?” Dad had said over our crackling connection, “He’s a winner, just like his pops.”
* * *
The mountain is one hell of a fickle bitch. One minute, she’s cold, violent, icy, spitting mad and throwing obstacles into your path for out of spite. The next day she’s gentle, almost nurturing, catches you when you fall, cradles you in snow, lets the run flow like water. The white cracks that run down her face cut long swaths through huge jagged cliffs and white topped patches of trees, sliding down into rolls of varying incline and running wily-nilly down to the base lodges that invite the weak-hearted inside. If there was ever a chance I would fall in love, this it what it would be with – the cold air on my cheeks, the silence of the backcountry, the long, steep drops with tired legs and watering eyes, the sweet companionship of someone who shares my intensity.
I stood next to Mark, ski tips jutting over the ledge, watching little crumbles of snow tumbling down the slope before us, bouncing off miniature projectiles in a mockery of our own eventual path down. This was the hardest part, convincing myself that hurtling through thin air to land on an uneven surface in the middle of trees wasn’t that deadly. This was the best part, when the fear was bubbling deep in my chest, radiating up through my throat, and I breathed deeply and let the percolation dissipate like I was stirring a pot that was boiling over on my finicky stove.
I glanced at Mark. He looked like he always looked before we hit our first run of the day – goggles perched haphazardly on the rim of his white helmet, leaning forward like a horse at the race gate, expression concentrated. He noticed me looking at him and met my eyes with his movie poster smile, unruly brown hair curling against his pink cheeks, breath one long gust of white. I couldn’t stop myself from smiling back before I pulled my own goggles down over my eyes.
“Remember the creek bed falls down on the left side fast here, so if you’re searching for powder, get in and get out,” I said.
“Yes ma’am,” he replied, leaning in and kissing me on the top of my new helmet. I pulled my kerchief up over my mouth before he could see me smile like a high school student that just got asked to prom.
I scanned the path that was haphazardly carved into the snow, defined more by rocks and trees than by logic, and wordlessly pointed my pole to what seems to be the safest way down, bypassing a huge ice chunk and cutting in front of a sizable pine tree before curving out of sight. Mark hurled himself into the abyss with a yell that was more animal than human. I leaned into the air, watching the ground rush towards me and landing with a screech on my skis that I knew meant I’d be patching up rock holes in my base tonight. Spring skiing was coming up quick this year.
I followed him down in a tight line for a good twenty feet before the trees opened slightly and our paths started to diverge, cutting in and out and behind and in front of each other’s line of vision. We only ever stopped or slowed long enough to avoid disaster, never quite long enough to lose our nerve. We yelled to each other through the trees, our words getting caught in the wind and thrown back into our faces, breaking up the swish and click of turns, the thud of snow falling from bumped trees as the ground remade itself under our feet, so that the snow carried us, the rocks pushed themselves up from their burial grounds and the trees slithered closer together on their twisted roots to bar our way through.
On the slope, I felt predatory, adjusting my skis as minutely as if they were an extension of my own body, like a bird adjusting a single feather to change the outcome of a freefalling dive. It is not a sport you can develop in stages. You do not know if you have the courage to drop five feet off of a rocky promenade until you are standing on its ledge, secure in the knowledge that no one will come looking for you if you fall, unless your mangled body is chanced upon by someone equally moronic. The desire to survive the experience grants us the skills to come out of the backwoods unharmed.
All too soon we reached the section where the trail split into two directions. I was ahead of Mark and I knew he knew as well I did that the left fork would take us down to my supposedly unskiable cliff face, the forty-foot drop that looks bad on a powder day. I also knew that he was expecting me to take the right fork, to ignore the cliff, but I hesitated a fraction too long and my skis turned right just a little too late. I hit the sapling almost head on and had just enough sense to bend my knees on impact as I fell and something sharp grazed my side and the snow rained down on my head.
I lay still for a long moment before I opened my eyes. The snow was in my mouth and under my goggles, pressing down on my head and chest. My legs were immobile, locked into the still thick sheltered powder by both the weight of the snow and my skis. I made an experimental movement with my head, tilting it from side to side, and the snow fell inside of my jacket. Instinctively, my shoulders tensed and my arms twitched from the cold. Slowly I began to move, digging my way out with careful motions, aware that I sank several inches for every one that I gained.
“Shit,” Mark said, as he made his way gingerly towards me, packing down the snow beneath his skis as he went. I could tell by the way the tuh sound came out a little too sharp that he was angry.
“You are both extremely reckless and extremely accident prone. Not a good combination.”
“Shut up,” I grunted, trying to untangle my poles from my wrists without falling backwards into the powder. I let him take them from me and I braced my hands against the tree I’d hit, backing out slowly from the treacherous sinkhole I’d created as Mark kept tamping the area down with the base of his skis.
Awkwardly, I gained ground and eventually pulled myself onto safe terrain, and he gave me back my poles and slapped the snow off my back I strapped them back on.
“Are you okay?” he asked, looking down at my goggles from the only angle where he could see my eyes from behind my mirrored lens.
“I’m fine,” I replied, shifting my head, and he sighed.
“Okay,” Mark replied, “after you.”
He was standing deliberately between me and the drop. I breathed out the inhale I was holding onto, stamped my feet and pushed off into the right trail, jumping nimbly between the trees and disappearing. I could hear the scrape of his edges against the occasional patch of ice or rock behind me and I push myself to go a little faster, letting the smaller branches glance off my helmet as I pass by.
Triumphantly, we burst from the glades onto the main trail, startling the civilian skiers who seem to crawl down the corduroy incline like snails, hands thrust in front of them awkwardly, feet turned inward, teeth gritted. We flitted between the traffic, a high-speed chase on a cluttered freeway, edging close to enough to make them panic, like sharks drifting through schools of fish. The unrealistic sense of security in stupidity remained and my speed picked up in the open to dangerous, bone shattering probability, ski tips lifting off the snow, wind chattering in my ears. Like a falcon I pulled in my arms and head and skied straight for a while, feet flat to the ground, until a skier entered my field of vision and I had to pull up slightly and shift my weight and bank a smooth right turn behind her traverse, leaving her standing frozen in comparison to my momentum, Mark crossing in front of her, curving his path as if she were a rock in his stream. In formation we tumbled towards the bottom of the hill, not checking our speed until we had sorted our way through the chaos of people at the base of the lift and stopped inches from those ahead of us in line.
We freed ourselves from our equipment and stood docilely in line, tamed momentarily by the press of people. Mark leaned his forehead on his skis and closes his eyes, his breath calming slowly. I leaned down and loosen my boots. We stood out in a sea of muted colors and grays, a vibrant and obvious pop of color.
I shook the remaining snow out of my jacket and felt a developing bruise on my side under my fingers. I must have hit the tree harder then I thought I did.
Mark noticed my gesture and frowned.
“Are you okay?” he asked for a second time.
I rolled my eyes.
“Let me see,” he insisted.
“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not seven years old.”
“Oh for god’s sake, Susan, let’s just pop in to the lodge for 5 minutes. The mountain will still be here when we come back out.”
“I’m not going in,” I replied icily. People were starting to stare at us from behind their equipment, holding it in front of their faces and peeking over the sides. Mark gave me a long look, then started to gently make his way out of crowd.
“Where are you going?” I called after him.
“My feet are cold,” he yelled over his shoulder.
I looked up at the mountain, waiting patiently for me, and to the gondola in front of me, and back to Mark, who was walking slowly backwards. For one second I was so steaming mad that I considered planting my feet where I was and taking a solo run, and I was about to do it, too, until I caught his eyes and I knew that this was one of those make or break moments in a relationships that could change everything.
* * *
The cut was long and jagged and ran from the bottom of my ribcage to the top of my snow pants. It was already starting to bruise around the edges. I refused to go the ski patrol so Mark bought a tee shirt from the gift shop, stuffed it with clean snow, and handed it to me. Annoyed, I sat down on an outside bench with a huff and pressed it to my side. Mark sat next to me and tried to lift my shirt up a little so he could see the wound better, but I smacked his hand away.
“Stop poking at me,” I said, and it must have came out a little harsher then I meant it because Mark made a face like I’d spit at him and turned away. I bit my lip. We sat there for a few minutes in silence. The day had turned out to be unusually warm for March and some of the other skiers were walking past us in t-shirts. I was overdressed, having gotten ready in the still frigid morning, and the snowpack felt good against my skin until it started to melt into icy little rivulets that ran down into my base layers and held on. Despite the melt, I held it to my side until the snow inside was all gone, then shook it out and laid it over my knees.
“Ready to go?” I finally asked.
“Why won’t you ever let me help you, Susan?” Mark asked me quietly.
“What?” I blurted out, surprised.
He looked at me for a long moment, and I waited a while before realizing that his patience with my stubbornness was finally wearing out, and that this wasn’t one of those conversations where he was going to let me wiggle my way out. I looked out at the mountains, at the long jagged crest line of the horizon, and thought maybe one of the reasons I loved those peaks so much is that there were plenty of valleys to hide in.
“I know you were heading for the cliff,” Mark said.
I said nothing because it was true and because I didn’t want to make him madder.
“I thought you were going to give it up,” he continued.
“Is this conversation really necessary?” I asked. He stared at me for a long moment.
“Susan, I’m not going to watch you go on a suicide mission so you can prove something to a man who doesn’t even call you on your birthday.”
“But is it untrue?” Mark asked. I recoiled from him and he shut his eyes tightly for a moment.
“I’m sorry,” he said in a gentler voice.
“Let’s go get in the line,” I said softly, putting my hand on his shoulder. He didn’t look up.
“Susan, I can’t let you do this. You need to stop pushing yourself so hard.”
“Since when do you make decisions for me?” I spat.
“You can take another run, but it won’t be with me,” Mark said, standing.
“What?” I blurted out, “Just like that?”
“Just like that. You’re being too reckless over something that doesn’t even matter.”
I looked down at my side, at my soaked through shirt, and back up at the mountain. She was glorious today, the sun soaking right into the cracks in the trees and letting little shivers of light track down through the unmarked trails. Far above us now hung the cliff face, the long headwall shimmering white, almost blue. I thought about my father standing on the edge of that cliff as I’d pleaded with him not to drop off it. That day had ended at the hospital with his leg in a cast and his arm in a sling. They said he’d been lucky, and stupid, and dangerously reckless.
“Winners never back down,” he’d said, swallowing the painkillers they’d given him.
The clouds shifted slightly and the cliff was cast in shadow and just like that my bravado faded away. I looked at Mark.
“Let’s go home,” I said softly, and he nodded and stood and swung both pairs of our skis onto his shoulder. For a moment I almost protested, but I let him carry them just this once.
That night we lay on the floor next to the space heater using Elvis as a pillow, a task he submitted to only after a long, hard day of chasing his own tail when he was too tired to complain.
* * *
The last few weeks of the season after that passed without incident. We only got in two more days in the backcountry until the cover was too thin to risk it. On those days, we ranged out far from the cliff and explored the deep gully that ran between the two peaks. Little by little, the snow receded from the bare earth until the final day came.
On the last day of the season we rode the ski lift in t-shirts and our thinnest pairs of snow pants, goggles down to block the brilliant reflection of the sun on the remaining snow. To our right on the other peak, the cliff face seemed like a gaping maw, a dark patch surrounded by budding trees. I watched the cliff until the trees obscured it from view.
“I can’t believe this is it,” Mark said, putting his arm around me. I snuggled towards him.
“It’s not it it, it’s just the end of another season,” I replied.
“Even still. That means summer jobs, which means travelling.”
I was silent, watching the water drip off the shiny metallic edges of my skis down into the trail below us. Mark pulled me in tighter.
“Hey,” he said quietly, “if you asked me to stay, I would stay for you.”
I looked up at him. He pulled his goggles up and smiled.
“I couldn’t ask you to do that for me,” I replied.
“Maybe you should,” he said.
I pulled off my goggles.
“Would you stay?” I asked softly, biting my lip. He nodded yes and leant down to kiss me, his lips soft and slightly cold, and he pulled me in tighter then anyone ever had before.