After I moved to Oregon, away from California for the first time, Granny came up for a visit. This was a few years ago and I was still living under the swell of hope a move can bring. We took a shuttle to Timberline Lodge, a mountain lodge, tall brick, stone fireplaces. We stayed for three days but it felt like a week in the best way. We lounged. We rode a horse-drawn sleigh though the dim and calm town, each home gingerbread, each turn of the sleigh, a dream. We read on overstuffed couches. Skiers went in and out leaving paths of cold, sipping cocoa, taking rest. We did nothing that exerted us. We ate rich and heavy foods and sat stationary. Hot clam chowder burned my mouth raw until I knew only temperature, no taste. It was wonderful. One evening while we read, we noticed a wedding taking place outside the window. A wedding in the snow and no one shivered. The bride had strong shoulders and a concave chest, but she was regal like a horse and her mane shone in the glare of white. I had never seen anything like it. We stared openly. A young man sprawled on the couch opposite ours. He pretended to read and read and then at the exact right moment, he looked up. Made a comment about the snow ceremony. It was probably something stupid. Probably something about how cold they must be on the other side of the glass. I don’t remember.
Instead I was thinking of how I was almost married once, to a sandy haired freckled boy named Lukas who smelled like salted cardamom in the summer heat on a bicycle standing in front of a church. We weren’t going to church, but there was a small white chapel near our apartment and we happened to be in front of it when he dropped to one knee. He presented me a promise ring, fake silver with a burgundy stone he bought from Ross. When we ended he burned the ring down with a lighter, the plastic middle melting out. He left it on the kitchen table for me to find on a small dish he had crafted from clay. He was creative. The melted ring meant, I hate you. It meant, I loved you very much.
But now it’s me visiting them and we go to lunch often, but not for special occasion. Granny tells me they lunch every day with or without me. It is their outing. She stuffs Grandpa with as much as he will eat, and calls it the big meal of the day. Then they have cottage cheese at home, and desserts, cold and dense squares of Texas sheet cake, and he is content. We go to a Chinese place that has a sign warning of chemicals known to cause cancer in the state of California.
“Remember, Sheridan,” Grampa says. “When we took you to the snow?”
“No,” I say.
“We nearly killed you,” he says, and takes a long slurp of coffee.
“What is he talking about?” I say to Granny.
“What is it, Bob?”
“We laced your boots so tight, there were deep marks.”
“That wasn’t me,” I say. “I have no recollection of that.”
“It wasn’t her, Bob.”
“It was her. I can still see her cheeks,” he says. “So round.”
“No one took me to the snow,” I say. “I would have remembered that.”
“You blocked a lot out,” Granny says.
“I would have remembered snow.”
When Grampa was in college, his roommate drowned in the ocean. He speaks of it long off, wistful. I think of how many years have passed, and if truly you just move on from these things. To him it is just something that happened, something in a life that was bound to happen to someone, so why not the roommate. Why not him?
I don’t know how long I am here. It doesn’t matter. I have some things but they are not real. My job isn’t real and I walked away without a word. All I did was enter data into a system. I made many mistakes everyday, but no one caught me and no one cared. I collected upward of eighty rolls of toilet paper from the supply closet. Filled plastic bags with break room salt. Once, my boss saw me take a footlong sandwich from the fridge that was marked JIM. I froze and we locked eyes. She said, “I wouldn’t care if you killed a man in front of me.” After that my concerns revolved strictly around paying my parking on time. I have four unpaid tickets, which is too many even for me. My friends are fine without me, and I will not return their calls. They are overly consumed by extreme self-care and I cannot discuss acupuncture and cold-pressed juices anymore without wanting to kill myself.
I took the melted ring in my palm. It was charred, and black smeared my skin. I sucked on it, the sting of metal moving over my tongue. I stepped into my room where my almost husband had filled the pages of all my books, the drawers of my dresser, jewelry box compartments, everywhere, with tiny white slips of paper. On each one, a fragmented phrase. Examples: You are a liar and a whore. And: You will never find love. Basic insults. Generic in their simplicity, cliché. They bounced off me. When I read them, a little suited man with a pointer showed me the clip of my mother leaving me, ten years old in a slant walled apartment. Getting into a long Chrysler Fifth Avenue with a tall man in an aquamarine studded belt. Her eyes in her lap, leaving me. The little suited man said, “This is nothing compared to that!” and he was right. But then a strip that said, No one has ever wanted you. That one stung. That one stayed with me. I would see it sometimes in the bathtub when I rested from reading. I would close my eyes and it was there, burned on my lids. That lasted until one day it hit me. It was an untrue statement: he had wanted me.
The young man at the lodge had murky eyes, like blue candle wax. He got my phone number before we walked up the steps for our dinner as the wedding concluded and someone put a white fur stole around the bride. He had sent me several messages by the time I looked at the screen before bed.
Message one: “Great meeting you tonight. And your gramma.”
Message two: “Want to go in the Jacuzzi later?”
Message three: “Guess not. What religion are you?”
Message four: “Shery dan, you are pretty like a ray of sun.”
Each message aside from the first seemed incredibly dumb and too forward and too fast and they confused me. Sent in succession I didn’t know where to begin. So I said nothing except: “Thank you.”
We would see each other soon, I assumed, as we were all shipmates in the lodge. We were all friends by association. Everyone was in great spirits there, even me. Even after such a rough month. I was eating buttery cookies and reading without hearing voices, so why shouldn’t a normal boy like me? Why shouldn’t he get my phone number and text me late into the night? My meds were good, my mind clear. It’s embarrassing to me now, but in bed I felt giddy. Like I hadn’t in a long time.
And I needed him. There had been no one since Lukas. So I needed him. Sometimes it’s not complicated.
When we woke up Granny and I went to the dining hall and ate big thick pancakes doused in hot syrup. The sugar was heavenly and made my stomach bloat. Pineapple hunks with heavy cream. Coffee, bitter with an aftertaste of rubbing alcohol.
He was there. Of course he was. Everyone who slept there was now in the same place, a family compound. I didn’t know the protocol. Should I act as if we had never met? Should I act like old friends? I wondered if I should have been more forward the night before, texted back something more telling. He sat with his back to me, and I thought of third grade crushes when ignoring meant love. He turned around and smiled and waved. It was easy for him, as if he didn’t know these things were messy and held weight. It was easy like a child sledding down a small hill, cold wind whipping cheeks, breath caught icy in the throat, gulped back.
Grampa was a raisin farmer, and when I ask him about living in a tiny isolated house with a wife and five small children and nothing but the fields and the endless rows of vines growing plump with sugary bulbs, he says it was nice and pleasant and not strange. But it had to have been strange, I said. It had to have been weird. Small town, nothing to do but watch vines entwine and the seasons change, and pray for no spring frost.
“It was so nice,” he said. “It was quiet, sure, but we were all a family.”
“My mother?” I asked. “Was she good?”
“Your mother,” he said. “Was the best little girl. The sweetest. What are you asking for?”
“I’m writing about the town. About Kerman.”
“It was nice. No strange behavior at all.”
But I know it isn’t true. He looks beyond me into some other place in the wall. He is imagining his life before everything. He knows this region before it became swamped in identical stucco homes and sprawling ganglands. He knows it the way it was intended, the richest dirt to plant life. The dirt that could grow gold, feed the state, feed the world. But in my head it’s perverted. Something had to have gone wrong out there in the fields with the little family in the vines. It could not have been right.
I read somewhere that as children our DNA is littered with parental traumas and past experiences. So for instance, if your mother had anorexia, you as her child will struggle with food. If your father was in Vietnam, you will hold his pain deep in your marrow, his paranoia in your ears, and his addictions in your mouth, under your tongue. You will be his hot temper and his jealousy and his meanness, but you will also be the tears he cries alone in his apartment stirring canned chili at eleven p.m. in a rusted cast iron skillet. You will be those things under each rib, and it will consume you.
I think of what made me, and it’s no wonder. None of this is any wonder.
Snow is foreign and impossible. It’s hard and to me it means poor road conditions and probable death. I have never skied. I have never snow-shoed, and I am certain if you miss these things as a child, there is no regaining it. The young man from the lodge took me not on dates, but on adventures. On trips. On middle of the night drives over snowy passes going ten miles per hour with the white flecks zooming toward the windshield like an outer space voyage. It was beautiful. I kept saying that in the car. This is so beautiful! Because I had never seen anything like it, and I felt distinctly that I might never again. I had my feet on the dash and I realized we did not know each other at all. I had said yes to this trip to a small mountain cabin in the middle of nowhere with no electricity. I’m a city girl, I had told him outside my work building. He had just shown up. He had brought me snowshoes and boots a cap some gloves and what looked to be a wearable sleeping bag. That’s no fun, he said. Get in the car, he said.
When we got there we did things in this order:
- Built a small fire in the cabin.
- Ate an entire bag of chips in near silence.
- Drank water.
- Made a bed in the main room from the two twin mattresses in the two separate rooms and laid them on the floor. (This was unexpected.)
- Drank a bottle of wine and didn’t kiss.
- Walked out to the snowy dock before the still lake and everything was so silent I knew certainly he could kill me and get away with it.
- But he pushed me down into the snow. I tensed and closed my eyes. This is it, I thought.
- And he fell on top.
- And then we kissed.
“You need a game plan,” Granny says while I eat my cereal.
I have lost the will to drive to Whole Foods and buy what I normally eat, which is some whole grain raisin thing and almond milk. I could run into any number of my high school acquaintances there and the thought of the questions and the smiling and the realization that I haven’t washed my hair in days. Well, it’s too much.
“I do need a game plan.”
“I’m serious,” she says. “You are better than this. What is it? What is going on? Is the medicine not working?”
“I’m depressed, Granny. I just need this rest. People go on retreats all the time.”
“When are you going to start a real life? Depression is just a code for giving up. It’s a code for not wanting to address the larger issues.”
“It’s not, actually,” I say. “I’ve addressed them plenty. Nothing works.”
“Something’s got to work. But without a game plan I just don’t see how anything can change.”
“I’m going to Whole Foods,” I say. “Step one on the game plan.”
“I look at you and you look more like your mother every day.”
“We are related.”
“It’s not a compliment.”
I eat five Xanax from her cabinet from a small orange bottle. The tab says for airplane anxiety and it is three years old. At Whole Foods I see a guy from my graduating class who I never cared much for, but never really knew, and thankfully we agree with our minds not to speak. I have only a vague memory of him crumbling a taco in anger in the quad at lunchtime. Just the image has stayed with me. I collect my items slowly and with purpose. I realize suddenly the culprit behind everything is my lack of proper vitamins. I look in the small sample mirror attached to the Vitamin B12 kiosk and see that I am wrinkling prematurely. My eyes look like someone is mashing them down at the corners. I used to have freckles and I don’t know where they went.
“It’s all that smoking we used to do.”
In the mirror behind me I see two crystal eyes and they are eyes I have not seen for maybe five years, the almost young husband from so long ago. This is certainly the worst-case scenario. It is unnatural to run into someone you lived with and loved and got sober with, now just a boy standing behind, a person in the world, who still smokes by the smell of him.
“I work here,” he says, and sure enough he is wearing a Whole Foods apron and his nametag is right on his chest. “Since when are you in town? No one warned me. Usually they send out the S.O.S.”
“Do you have a cigarette?”
“I quit,” I say.
“And now you are deciding to smoke again, with my help?”
“I don’t think so.”
“How are you?”
“I’m fine,” he says, and his tone wavers as if he just remembered every bad thing I ever did to him. I see him choose to push past it. “Let’s go outside.”
I open a bottle of fish oil and swallow three tabs and put it back. I pocket some coconut lotion I know will give me a headache. We go around the building. I abandon my groceries and I don’t care. Things are fuzzy like music from a far away party.
“Should we hug?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say. The relief of it causes something under my sternum to break lose and float away. The sun on the top of my head, burning. The smell of his neck. I could be anyone, I think. I could be myself five years ago.
“You don’t look okay,” he says, looking at my feet. I’m wearing Granny’s slippers. “Whenever I’ve imagined running into you, you are always wearing those knee high boots.”
“I can’t believe it’s you,” I say, lifting a foot. “I look like shit.”
“This was bound to happen at some point. I feel like I’ve been waiting for it. It’s been a horrible feeling.”
“I dreamed of you last night,” I say. It was a lie. My sleep had been black.
The young man from the lodge would not have sex with me. I was sure that at the cabin we would. What else were two adults supposed to do for three nights? I didn’t know his age. He had a baby face but an older man’s voice and you could have told me he was 20 or 40 and I would have believed. I didn’t know his middle name or his daddy issues yet. It was the perfect time to have sex with all the fantasy of the unknown in tact. All the things I would come to find unattractive, the ways he would come to dislike me—they hadn’t emerged. We were still just bodies and I couldn’t believe he didn’t want to take advantage of that.
We kissed on the snow and on the twin beds, and what I thought had been an invitation for sex by putting the mattresses together was in fact an act of convenience to be nearer to the fireplace for actual survival. I tried all I could to provoke him. At one point he restrained me forcefully, pinning my arms behind my back. It turned me on, but it wasn’t meant to. By the end I wondered if I had embarrassed myself a great deal. We drove back and he made fun of my reading too much, asking how that was any way to live life, by reading about it.
“I like to read,” I said. “You like to jump off rocks and hike cold mountains. To me that’s idiotic.”
“What’s wrong?” he asked. “It’s like you’re ten different people. Have I met them all yet?”
“Why won’t you fuck me?”
“Is this what you do?” he asked. “You just meet random guys at lodges and sleep with them? You haven’t asked me anything about myself. You just took your top off. I mean how could we recover from that?”
“Then why take me there at all?” I said.
“I didn’t want the trip to be about that,” he said. “I was trying to get to know you.”
“The kissing was fine,” I said.
“It was,” he said. “It was fine.”
“Is this it?” I asked.
“Is this what?”
“We won’t talk again after you drop me off.”
“You really need to learn to relax.”
“I need a piss when you can.”
He turned off the road a few minutes later and I went inside a shop. They sold beer. I looked at him from inside. He played with his cell phone. I felt my spirit falling. I bought a tall can and took it into the bathroom. The wine at the cabin was the first drink I’d had in six years. I didn’t know why I drank it with him. It’s just that time didn’t feel real there. Or, it was nice he didn’t know me. He offered me the wine like I was just another person. A person who could drink wine and flirt casually. I chugged the can and ate gum and knew I was back at it again and the dread felt like a weight but also like air.
I don’t want to go home. I wait in the car for Lukas to finish his shift smoking his pack of cigarettes. I smoke four like nothing. The lungs remember. There is a sticker on his dash that says, “Ex-smoker.” I peel it off and eat it. When he walks out we will drive to the 7-11 and I will buy him a carton and overdraw my bank account. I rub the coconut lotion into my armpits and feel the beginning wisps of a headache wrap themselves around the base of my neck.
Way back when we were together we would get in horrible fights. We would hit each other. I remember grabbing his hair, long then, and slamming his head into the corner of the bedroom doorframe. He pushed me once so hard I landed on my tailbone in the bathtub and lay in bed for a week while he fed me tart frozen yogurt. But the best thing about the fighting was that we were only ourselves. We would be violent and then we would be together in this weird way, and then go out on our little porch and smoke. Out there, we would process. We knew what we were doing because we talked it out. We’d apologize for the noise to other porched neighbors, and we would count our sobriety tokens and take each other’s twelve-step inventory. Blame it on co-dependency, our misplacement of God or higher power or God-Box. I held fast to the sense that truly none of what we were doing mattered. We were so young and time was unraveling slowly from a thick and endless spool.
He walks out and he walks the same as ever, back straight, chin alert, toes tipped in. I wonder if he has a girlfriend. I will not ask but I know if he does he won’t be able to keep it to himself.
“What are we doing?”
“I just want to go somewhere,” I say. “Where do you live now?”
“He moved to a house.”
“Can we lay in your bed?”
“Can we smoke inside?”
“That’s all I want.”
We are under his covers in a twin bed. His room is nice. The walls are green and there are wooden things carved everywhere. I notice a book I bought him for a birthday on a shelf. It looks new. He never really read. He just liked to be in the midst of books. There’s nothing wrong with that, but back then it repulsed me. I touch his nose and the small bump on the bridge. I want to cry. It’s just a beautiful nose.
“So when did you start up again?” he asks me like I knew he would.
“I’m not drinking,” I say.
“Okay, so how much time do you have?”
“I don’t count anymore,” I say. “Hey, let’s talk about you.”
“I have nine years.”
“That’s insane,” I say. “That blows my mind. Wow, nine years. I remember that so well, when you went to treatment and I was so mad.”
“You should have nine too,” he says. “You don’t.”
“I had a few sips here and there, nothing like I used to.”
He looks at the ceiling. He looks like a little boy and I care for him so much. I don’t know if I ever loved him correctly, but I cared. At the end of life, is there a difference between the two? I can look at Lukas and know exactly what he’s thinking. The young man from the lodge, I could never look at him and know. I could never know anything about him.
“You seeing anyone?” I ask.
“Casually,” he says.
“How are her tits?” I ask.
“Not as nice as yours.”
“It’s been awhile,” I say. “Maybe you’re glamorizing me.”
“Why are you talking so slow?” he asks.
“Let’s do it like we used to.”
“I’m not like that anymore,” he says.
“Like the first time ever. Remember that?”
“It was terrible,” he said. “I couldn’t finish I was so drunk.”
“How did I look to you then?”
“Perfect,” he said. “I couldn’t handle it.”
“How do I look now?”
“You’ll always be beautiful,” he says. “Is that what you want me to say? You’ll always be too beautiful for me.”
“You’re aging nicely,” I say. “You’re one of those people who gets better with time.”
He closes his eyes. “Remember the Grand Canyon?”
I laugh. We took pictures standing on the ledges of rocks looking down into eternity. Ate peanut butter from a jar for lunch. We drank sodas and threw the cans out the window on the highway with the music so loud it hurt. We swam naked in a green pool enclosed by a rusty gate that said do not enter behind the motel and scratched our itchy skin all night. It fades. I think instead of the latent fear I felt lying in bed after he had fallen asleep, imagining being pushed off one of those beautiful sharp orange cliffs.
“Have you ever seen a wedding in the snow?” I ask.
“I did once,” I say. “It seemed impractical.”
“Not to the people getting married,” he says. “I bet they had always wanted that kind of wedding. I bet they dreamed of it for so many years.”
“You’re right,” I say. “I bet they barely felt the cold. Here I was imagining someone’s asshole mother forcing it because she was the one paying, and she wanted to see the mountain at that time of year.”
I straddle his thin hips and take my shirt off. The Xanax is fading and I need to act. He pulls my bra down so the cups are inside-out on my stomach. He smashes my boobs with both hands. I feel him under me, the same. We move so slow. It’s like the last bit of honey dripping to the opening of the squeeze top and falling on toast. It’s like a snowshoe sinking down too far into a drift. It’s a ten-mile per hour drive head-on into a dark sky with flecks of white ice against the windshield. We rock back and forth, nothing between us, and I see myself from above and I assume a body as hollow as mine cannot possibly. A body so sad, and dead, and cold, cannot possibly carry life.
The news is blaring in Grampa’s earphones so loud I can hear it when I walk in. It is late, after midnight and the pills have really left me and I know I have done a bad thing with Lukas. I have dug out a new and treacherous groove in our story. I sit in the leather recliner next to Grampa and I watch his mouth agape with snore. I shake his arm lightly. “Hey,” I say. “Hey.”
He startles awake. “You snuck up on me.”
I say, “Sorry.”
I reach forward and take his earphones off.
“Oh, that’s better.”
“I’m going to go home soon,” I say.
“Well, I wish you could just stay here,” he says.
“I was remembering the time we took you to the snow,” he says.
“I was, too.”
“We laced your boots so tight,” he says. “I’ll never forget it. Nearly killed you.”
“It was a fun day,” I say. I close my eyes and try to go back. Maybe he’s right. Maybe we did go to the snow when I was small and he laced my boots so tight. He could be right. Maybe he was remembering my mother instead. Perhaps we had run together in his mind. The thought is a blanket over my face, comforting and sheltered, but smothering all the same.
“Kerman was a great place,” he says. “We loved it there.”
“That little house on all that land.”
“It was wonderful,” he says. A few minutes go by in silence. I flip through a National Geographic. I pretend I’m ten again, happy. But I wasn’t. I was scared. I had just come to live with them. I thought my mother would walk through the door any minute to pick me up. That’s a rotten way to spend a life. Waiting.
“Why do you think my mom left me?” I ask.
“Who?” he says.
And I look at him a long while. I realize it would take a lot of explaining for him to remember, that perhaps he would only be pretending to remember, anyhow.
“No one,” I say. “Aren’t we lucky to have each other?”
“Sure are,” he says. I help him with his earphones and his eyes close before I’ve made it to the hallway.
When we returned from the cabin adventure, the young man from the lodge didn’t call me for three days. I went back to my life, reading, imagining his eyes on me when they weren’t. Then, on day four, he asked me to come over. His brother, a chef, was in town, and was cooking a meal, and I should come.
I didn’t even pretend to be busy. I put on a sheer red tank top with a black sweater over it and red lipstick. Before I walked out the door I wiped the color off. His brother made food I felt was greasy. I didn’t like it, but I ate with vigor. I ate it to the point of wanting to vomit, all so I would be accepted. The brother exhibited signs of being judgmental, or at least hard, and I wanted him to like me. “People from California suck,” he said. He said it after finding out I was from California. After the meal we played some game, Uno maybe. I hate games. I’ve never been one for organized fun.
After I threw up the food in the bathroom out of necessity and used someone’s toothbrush, we lay on top of his covers and I thought we were certainly going to make something of it all. The dinner had been fine. He had smiled at me from across the table. Why have me meet his brother if things weren’t on good track?
But we didn’t.
I offered to read to him. Pages from a book I had in my purse. I always carry a book in my purse, for long waits, I explained.
But we just lay there in the quiet.
“Is there something wrong with me?” I asked.
“I don’t get what’s going on.”
“Can’t you just be in the moment?”
“I can, I just wish I knew what was happening. Sometimes it seems like you like me, then it doesn’t.”
He turned his broad back to me. “I feel bad for you.”
“Seems like you’re lonely,” he said. “I just wanted to be friends.”
“I guess I read this wrong,” I said.
I let myself out and he didn’t follow me to my car. I imagined him running after me. Scooping me up, slipping his hands under my coat. “I’m just kidding,” he would say. “I could never let you go.”
Eventually people are finished. People leave you, and you will survive it. “People are made for this kind of thing,” my mother said once to me on the phone when I was a child, I guess to encourage me. We talked once a week for ten minutes a time, court mandated. I would tell her I was wonderful so she would come back. Sometimes I would beg like a puppy at the foot of a bed. Once I turned 18 we could talk as much as we wanted. I would call her high on cocaine, low on booze, hungover and sad. She liked me those ways. She liked that I was the same as her. And we would talk and cry for hours. Until we didn’t. And then we never talked at all. I stopped calling, and she never questioned it. When I find out I’m pregnant, though, she’s the first person I call.
“When you have that baby, you’re going to hate me even more,” she says. I hear the television in the background. I picture her in bed, a flimsy blanket up over her shoulders. Her hair flat on one side. I wonder if she still wore the fuschia lipstick she used to. Morning, night. She always wore it.
“Why?” I say.
“You’ll wonder how I could have done the things I’ve done.”
I can’t speak when she says that. It makes all the years worse somehow. It makes it all the more unbearable. How could someone leave their child? But it happens everyday, doesn’t it? So why not to me? Why not to this life? And each explanation is unsatisfying. Either it was I who was not good enough, or it was she.
I research pregnancy superfoods. I dump my meds in the toilet. “A body like mine can,” I say out loud to my reflection. It can do more things than I think.
I buy kale at the grocer, and plan on eating it. I will not think of the young man from the snow and run away with him years from now. He is a poem I kept reading over and over for meaning, but there is none. I can unburn the ring and wear it on my marriage finger and never think of him again. I will just try to grow outward from the middle. A book I read says the secret to the universe is taking place in my body, presently. That’s got to be worth something. This is the most useful I’ve ever been. I pick up the phone to tell Lukas. I know he’ll find the good in it. He’ll suggest I come back to California, because the sun puts the mind right. I’ll pack my bags. One day, years from now, we will take the baby to the snow and lace its boots. We will tromp around the cold like animals made to live.
Chelsea Bieker‘s fiction has appeared in The Cincinnati Review, The Normal School, No Tokens, The Collagist, and others. She is the recipient of a MacDowell Colony fellowship and is at work on a novel based in California’s Central Valley. She lives with her husband and daughter in Portland, OR where she teaches and works as a professional online dating profile writer.