By Becky Mendelbaum
When I tell my mother I’m going skiing, she laughs. “That’s strange,” she says. “You’ve always hated skiing.”
As far as I know, I’ve only been skiing once, when I was a freshman in college and my friend Erin got a job as a lift operator in Winter Park, Colorado, a place that seemed as much about smoking pot in outdoor hot tubs as it did about skiing. In all, I spent one abbreviated afternoon on the slopes, and then only because Erin could get lift tickets at half-cost. After a few frustrating trips down the bunny hill, Erin had me follow her onto a blue run where I quickly launched over a lump of snow and crash-landed next to the base of a large pine tree. The experience was far from positive, but it certainly wasn’t grounds to say I’ve always hated skiing. I want to tell my mother that she’s always had diarrhea in that Starbucks off I-35 on the way to Kansas City.
“I remember the first time you tried it you just cried and cried,” my mother continues.
“When was this?”
“I don’t know. You were probably too young to remember. Your father made us go. I wanted to go somewhere warm—as if my opinion ever mattered.”
“So I’ve been skiing twice,” I say. “Maybe the third time’s the charm?”
“Well, I’m not sure the time I’m thinking of really counts. You quit after twenty minutes and we spent the rest of the day drinking hot cocoa by a fireplace, just me and you.” She pauses, reminiscing. “That’s my kind of vacation.”
Tahoe is less than a two-hour drive from Davis, California, where I live and go to school, and the lift tickets are half-priced on Tuesdays, which I happen to have off. My friend Ryan—a fellow writer in my Masters program—came up with the idea. He’s been snowboarding a couple times in Indiana, where he’s from, and where the hills are modest and supplemented with fake snow. He’s eager to try his skills on the real California slopes, and I can understand his interest. Back in Kansas, where I spent the majority of my adult life, the closest ski resort is in Missouri, where a couple of young dreamers must have squinted their eyes and decided a hill could be a mountain if you just kept your heart open.
On the drive to Tahoe I tell Ryan about my last time skiing in Winter Park. What stands out most is not the skiing itself but everything around it: Erin’s boyfriend Mike and his roommate who expounded on the benefits of matte and quinoa before smoking a bowl and filling a flask of rum to take to the slopes; the X-treme sports channel that played on the T.V. and which was never turned off, only muted, so that bros in neon-colored gear could pull off half-pikes and back-flips in an infinitely-looping stream of existential silence. Halfway through my stay, one of Mike’s friends died while backcountry skiing. The friend fell into a tree well—whatever that was—and froze to death. “It aint fuckin’ right,” Mike and his roommate kept repeating to one another. “It just ain’t fuckin’ right.” The next day, they were up before sunrise, ready to ski. “Gonna be a bluebird day,” Mike said, and then took a bong rip that he dedicated to his friend.
The same rules of memory apply to every other outdoor activity: the subject stands out more than the verb. While I only vaguely remember the details of my first outdoor lead-climb—a glorious but terrifying daddy-long-legs-covered route in Horseshoe Canyon, Arkansas—I clearly remember the color of Erin’s turquoise leggings as I followed her up the trails to the crags, as well as the smell of the mutt named Chili who had big rubbery nipples and liked to follow rock-climbers around the valley, sometimes even into their cars.
In the end, there is nothing intrinsically interesting about rock-climbing or skiing. Hand up, foot up, hand up, foot up. Bend your knees, turn your feet, bend your knees, turn your feet. A string of repetitive motions, stored not in memory but muscle. What I will never forget is how, standing in Mike’s kitchen, Erin got a piece of lettuce in her eye and, perhaps because of some chemical pesticide, the eye turned bright red and stayed red for the rest of the night and when Mike laughed at her she whispered, “It’s not funny, babe, it really hurts.” I will also never forget the look on Mike’s face when he explained to me what it meant to get stuck in a tree well. How soft snow can accumulate near the base of trees and how, if you happen to land in one of these wells, you can essentially be buried alive.
I have one other ski memory—a near-ski experience. If the mind is a mansion, then this memory lives in the basement, along with all of the other forbidden memories, each of them sealed away in a glass jar like a shrunken head or three-eyed frog: the time I pooped in my friend Rachel’s sump-pump, the time I was arrested for shoplifting at the age of sixteen, the time the boy I loved admitted he wasn’t attracted to me. The secret, of course, is that we all love to root around in the basement—open the jars and sniff what’s inside.
This particular memory takes place somewhere in Colorado—Vail, Aspen, Copper Mountain—what’s the difference? Think late-nineties ski regalia: hot pink Patagonia jackets, reflective goggles, highlighter yellow snow pants. Think A-frame condos and aspen trees. Picture white men with white teeth and white women with blonde hair. Now picture my father: a bookish Jewish man with narrow-set eyes and big glasses and a fat leather wallet that he keeps in the back pocket of his jeans. His secret is that he has always wanted a James Bond life: Italian suits and naked women and a sleek golden gun he can stow in the glove box of his Ferrari. But here he is, with only my two older brothers and little chubby me. If I am six years old, then we have travelled from Sugarland, Texas to be here. Any older, and we’ve come from Wichita, Kansas where he will eventually leave us for good.
This vacation is unusual because Mom is not with us. She appears in every other childhood memory—tucking me in, serving me lunch, wiping my butt until an ungodly age I don’t care to disclose. It was my dad who was never there, a quivering outline that followed us from new city to new city, where we’d unpack the circus tent of our house only to inevitably repack it a few months later, when my father took a new job in a new state. When he was home, he was there only long enough to eat, watch a football game, take a nap. Otherwise, he was either at the hospital or “on call.” If there is one state I cannot stand, it is the state of being “on call.” Why not just call it what it is: being a jerk. Sorry I can’t pick the kids up, Honey, I’m being a jerk for the next twelve hours.
And yet, in this memory, it is only him and us kids. Perhaps he already knows he is going to leave us and so this is his final goodbye—a ski trip. A trip in which he will put his three children on six planks of wood so that he may watch them glide blissfully down a mountainside so cold and white that it could very well be a product of his own imagination.
At some point, I find myself sitting beside a wall of enormous boots, all of them big enough to fit an adolescent rhinoceros. Behind me is a row of cubbies and a tall glass window through which you can watch tiny figures gracefully zigzag down the snowy mountainside. From here, it looks easy. In front of me, a ski bro offers me my very own pair of moon boots.
Are we ready for the moon? Are we ready to have fun?
I tell him I don’t feel well. “My stomach hurts,” I say.
“Everything’ll be good once we get out in the fresh air,” says the bro. Perhaps this is something he tells himself every morning as he wakes up in a fog of existential doom, a pyramid of Natural Light cans obscuring his Bachelors Degree, which his mother insisted he frame.
“I want to go home,” I tell him.
“You’ve got a lesson in fifteen minutes,” he says, but by now the oatmeal in my stomach has already started its quiet journey north, back to the sacred place from which it came.
I am less concerned with the impending vomit than I am with the fact that someone has already gone to search for my father. Perhaps he is already out on the slopes, or perhaps he is still in the rental area, getting my brothers situated for their lessons. He has paid a lot of money for this and of course, like always, I’m ruining the day. From the moment of my conception, my existence has posed a direct and continual assault on his finances. Most likely, the ski rentals, the lift ticket, the lesson, are all non-refundable.
When he arrives, he does so red-faced. My body, always the comedian, responds to the situation appropriately. Before my father can finish saying, “What’s the problem here?” my breakfast is already splattered across the floor of the rental area. The next thing I know we’re back at the condo, where he gives me a Tylenol and a glass of water. Soon I am in my bed in the second story loft. Then the front door is closing and the condo goes quiet. I am alone, my fever raging.
When I wake up, the condo is silent. I’m covered in cold sweat and the walls seem to be moving, palpitating. As I watch them, a mean face appears in the spackling, its eyebrows moving up and down, up and down. My stomach lurches. I see more faces in the walls, more creatures moving behind the paint. A decade later I will read The Yellow Wallpaper in a high school English class and feel an uncanny pang of sympathy, but for now I am only a fevered child, turning in fear from the walls of a condo that I will never, in my own adulthood, be able to afford.
It is dark when my father returns with my brothers. They are tired from a big day on the slopes. Knowing I was too sick to join them, they went out for burgers and French fries. When I tell my dad I’m hungry, he looks at me with suspicion. He does not want me vomiting in the condo.
“Have this,” he says, and offers me a can of pizza-flavored Pringles.
I yearn for my mother, who, if she were there, would have wrapped me in a coat and carried me to the lodge where she would order me chicken noodle soup and a Sprite. After dinner, I would lay with my head in her lap and she would stroke my hair until I fell asleep. Then she would carry me to my bed and tuck me in. The walls would not move with her around. The ceiling fans would not dare to turn in her presence.
To this day, just thinking about pizza-flavored Pringles, or pizza-flavored anything, makes me nauseous.
Ryan and I arrive at Boreal Mountain Resorts just as it’s opening. The sky is blue and cloudless, which I think means it’s a bluebird day.
Inside, I pay for a lesson, thinking of all the food and books I could buy with $60. A new hardcover. A sushi dinner with beer and money leftover for dessert. Even though I feel fine, I wonder if my body will remember old habits once it sees the wall of ski boots, the instructors zipped up in their orange jumpsuits. Are we ready for the moon?
Because nothing is free when it comes to skiing, we pay for a locker and, piece by piece, prepare to hurl ourselves down a snow-covered mountainside. Snow pants, goggles, gloves (all borrowed from my roommate). Ski socks, ski boots, jacket, hat. Thirty pounds heavier, we trudge into the morning light, blinking against the sun.
I go to the area where you wait for lessons and a guy who is maybe 6’5’’ asks me what level I am, as if we’re actually here to play World of Warcraft.
“I’m not sure,” I say. “This is only my second time skiing.”
“Can you stop?” he asks.
“I think so?”
“Can you make a pizza?”
Only if the dough’s pre-made, I want to say. Instead, I repeat, “I think so?”
“We’ll put you in Level Two. Wait here.”
I wait where he tells me, thinking maybe I should have told him I’ve never really skied before. When the instructor appears, he is all reflective goggles and beard. He speaks with an accent and I read on his nametag that he is from Chile. Despite the fact that I can’t properly see his face, I understand immediately that he is attractive, that he has come here from Chile to shred fresh powder, drink American beer, and sleep with as many American women as possible.
“Hello, follow me,” he says, and off he goes, to the bunny lift.
The only other person taking the lesson is a blonde girl, thin and sleek as a breadstick. She smells like expensive shampoo and her smile tells of good dentistry and teeth whitening and rich parents who have bankrolled all of it. She is beautiful. Already, I can see how the lesson will go.
On the lift, the Chilean sits in the middle.
“Where you come from?” he asks us.
Pretty Girl says Sacramento, I say Kansas and then Davis. None of this means much to him—he has not left the Tahoe/Truckee area since coming to the states two months before. He has heard of Yosemite and San Francisco, beer pong and Bieber. He is here not for the culture, but for the powder.
The lesson is not so much a lesson as it is a game of follow-the-Chilean. At the top of the hill, he says, “Okay, follow me, please,” and then proceeds to ski backward, perhaps so he can more closely watch us suffer. To my surprise and delight, Pretty Girl is even more scared than I am. She follows hesitantly, slowly, her new skis pointed inward. I would also love to follow slowly but, being unable to control my speed, end up zooming past the both of them, skiing what feels like a thousand miles per hour off into oblivion. I stop the only way I know how, which is to fall onto my side and hope that I don’t hit anything hard as I slide to a stop.
“You go pretty fast,” the Chilean says, once he and Pretty Girl make it down the hill to where I’ve stopped.
“How do you go slow?” I ask.
“You make pizza,” he says, and then skis off with Pretty Girl, toward the lift.
The day goes on like this. Pretty Girl and I follow the Chilean down one slope, then another. I make pizzas of every shape and size. Sometimes the pizza turns into French fries and I gather speed until I’m racing uncontrollably toward a cluster of trees or children. This is when I throw myself to the ground and hope I don’t slam into anything solid. While I don’t learn much about skiing, I do learn that the Chilean is twenty-two and in school for engineering. I learn that Pretty Girl is a professional photographer who hates working weddings. She has a fiancé (A what?—A fiancé—What is this, fancey?—He will be my husband soon.—Ohhhh, I see. I want to say: It means she won’t sleep with you, but I hold my tongue.). Her fiancé works for Red Bull. In the summer, they will get married and have a tour of Europe.
“Will you ski?” the Chilean asks.
“Probably not,” Pretty Girl says. “It’ll be summer.”
“Ah, yes,” he says, as if he’s forgotten such a season existed.
In the courtyard of my elementary school stood a statue of a girl jumping rope. The statue was carved from wood and painted in bright colors—a happy statue, meant to make people smile. The courtyard also had a bench and a ceramic birdbath and a row of scratchy bushes that produced tiny pastel flowers in the springtime. The ground was made of bricks, each one engraved with the name of a donor. It was a decorative space, meant to be appreciated briefly while walking between buildings.
I was in the 5th grade when I learned that the statue was actually a memorial, built to remember the older sister of a girl in my grade—a girl named Paige Park. Everybody loved Paige. She was more beautiful than any 10-year old had a right to be, with a head of platinum blonde hair and a raspy voice that made her sound like a chain-smoking celebrity sexpot.
Every time I read Lolita, I imagine Humbert Humbert would have had something to say about Paige.
I don’t remember who told me the statue was Paige’s sister’s, but I do remember what they told me next: she had died when she was our age, by hitting a tree while skiing. I imagined the girl as Paige, her raspy voice calling out for help as blood ran down her face.
At this age, I thought of death as something caused exclusively by illness, car crashes, or murder. One did not simply ski into trees—the idea of it was preposterous. There wasn’t even anywhere to ski in Kansas. I knew from personal experience that in order to even see a mountain you had to go all the way to Colorado, which seemed, at the time, like a distant land. A Kansan dying from skiing was like a snake drowning in the ocean. And yet there it was, the statue. In loving memory.
I wondered, then, why my father had subjected my brothers and me to something so dangerous. Had he wanted us to die? Had he wanted to watch three more statues lose their luster in a courtyard that nobody ever visited? Or perhaps, knowing that my brothers were athletic enough to survive such a perilous sport, he had only wanted to get rid of me.
After exactly two hours of “lesson,” the Chilean releases Pretty Girl and me from his charge. “Remember,” he says to me as we glide back to the lift area. “Make pizza.”
The Chilean and I both watch as Pretty Girl joins her fiancé, who is tall and chiseled and has been skiing black diamonds on the other side of the mountain. I watch the Chilean watch her, dejected and exhausted, like a lion whose antelope has just leapt into the mouth of a passing crocodile.
Even though we planned on it, I’m astonished to find Ryan waiting for me by the bunny lift. This whole time, I’ve subconsciously assumed he would bail on me, leave me to tumble down the slopes alone so he could blast through the more difficult runs at his own pace. But here he is, all smiles, his cheeks flushed with windburn.
“How’d it go?” he asks.
I tell him about the lesson, about Pretty Girl and the few good runs I had. “It’s even harder than I remember,” I say.
“It’ll get easier,” he says, and then asks if I want to go down a run together.
“I can’t do anything hard yet,” I tell him. Aside from embarrassing myself, I’m also worried about boring him—we’ve paid a grad student’s fortune to be here and I don’t want him wasting precious minutes watching me flail down the baby hills. As is my nature, I’m worried I’ll be a burden on him.
“I don’t care,” he says. “I just want to go together.”
I’m still surprised when we get on the lift and head up the mountain, the other skiers and boarders turning to dolls beneath our feet.
“I forgot to ask the most important question,” he says. “Are you having fun?”
The question requires some serious analysis. Throughout everything, fun has been a distant notion—the tip of Maslow’s hierarchy of skiing needs, positioned high above FEAR OF DYING and EMOTIONAL PARALLELS TO CHILDHOOD. “I think so?” I eventually say. I then tell him about my father, about how skiing has always reminded me of him. How failing at anything athletic makes me feel small and stupid in the way made my father often made me feel small and stupid—a burden. I trust that Ryan will understand. On the drive up, he shared a story about installing insulation with his father, whom he no longer talks to. He said every time he thinks of insulation his skin itches, sends a river of chills up his spine—that this itchiness is, in the way these things work, part and parcel with his father. For the rest of his life, his father will be insulation in the same way my father will be skiing. It is exactly the same or perhaps exactly the opposite of the way my mother will always be Judge Judy and Scrabble and eating cereal straight from the box.
“I get it,” Ryan says, “but I think today could just be about skiing.”
My stomach flutters as we hop off the lift and glide to the top of the green run—whether it’s altitude or adrenaline or something else, I can’t be sure. For a moment, I wonder if skiing could ever really just be skiing.
The first couple runs go okay—mostly because I’m slinging pizzas left and right. Soon I get cocky and try to straighten out the pizza, bend my knees, turn my hips, flatten my feet. Things feel like they’re finally coming together—I’m making turns, gaining speed, slowing down on my own volition. But then we go down a run that suddenly steepens and turns and narrows, so that one must turn quickly to avoid a wall of trees on either side. Ryan is already down the run, on flatter ground, as I find myself gaining speed, hurtling toward a pocket of pines. As I learned to do in the lesson, I throw my body down to the ground and brace myself for impact. When I come to a stop I’m half-buried in soft snow, my ski embedded so that I can’t move my right foot. Fuck, I think, but don’t call out. I try to get my foot loose from my ski but I’m too far stuck. I try to pull myself up but the ski is in too deep and I can’t get leverage. For a moment I just lay back and watch the sky—a film of baby blue moving past the trees. I understand I’m not in any real trouble—I can breathe, and any skiers coming down the run will see me—but a familiar feeling is building in my chest, moving up my throat. It is not vomit but the invisible bile of frustration. My throat burns and tears build in my eyes. Why did I think I could do this? I’m still the same uncoordinated fat kid I was fifteen years ago. I’m still bad at anything that involves going fast. I have no courage. I’m lazy. I’m stupid. I’m weak. I’m nothing. I’m afraid of a thing that most people love and pay hundreds of dollars to experience.
And then, before the tears can really come, I see Ryan, one moon boot unclipped from his board so he can side-step uphill to where I lay in the snow. “You all right?” he asks.
“I’m good,” I say, trying to make my voice jovial. “Just a little stuck.” I force a smile as he comes closer and gives me his hand. After a few awkward maneuvers I’m free of the snow and back on my skis. “Actually, you know what? I don’t think I like this,” I say. “I don’t think I’m having fun.”
He looks at me, concern in his eyes. “You want to leave?” he asks. In another life, he says these same words in an entirely different way. You want to leave? As in: “You want to leave already?” or “You expect me to leave with you?” But this is not my father and this is not a malicious question. This is a person asking me if I would like to leave a place I do not like and go someplace else I might like better. I tell him I’m done for the day, but that I’m happy to wait while he skis a few more runs. We agree on a time—he will ski for another hour and I will go get a beer.
Inside, I find that it is $12 for a plastic cup of Bud Light, so I settle instead for water from the drinking fountain and a Clif bar from my purse. I go outside to the big wooden patio and, in a little pocket of sunshine, read Baldwin’s Going to Meet the Man, which I’ve brought with me. Less than an hour passes before Ryan appears on the patio. Once again, I’m surprised to see him, to discover that he hasn’t left me behind.
The next day, when my mother asks how the ski trip went, I will answer her honestly: It was fun. Of course I will not mean the skiing itself, but the moments before, between, and after: burgers and beer in Truckee and the long, dark-night conversation on the drive back to town, weaving through the mountains. The moment when, before dropping me off at my house, Ryan looks at me and said, “You did it. You skied.” The knowledge that we are not always eight years old. That not every man is like our father. That courage is still courage even if you don’t succeed.
Only a couple months before skiing with Ryan, I had dinner with my father and the rest of my family in Wichita. The fact of the dinner was, in itself, a miracle. My family hadn’t come together in years, due to a series of conflicts both minor and major. Now, my father was living and working in Kansas City and wanted to take everyone out to Thai food while my oldest brother and I were in town for winter break.
“It’s so weird,” I told my mother beforehand. “Why’s he all of a sudden trying to be nice?”
“He’s getting old,” my mother said. “He’s probably afraid of dying alone.”
At the dinner table, my father sat a few chairs down from me. Like always, we were awkward around each other. Over the last five years, I’d seem him only twice. The first time, he was driving from Kansas City to Wichita and stopped in Lawrence to take me out to dinner. At this point, I hadn’t seen or spoken to him in more than seven years and was so nervous that two of my best friends offered to sit incognito at the restaurant’s bar in case I needed support. It was during this dinner that I asked my father some of the questions I’d been wanting to ask him during our near-decade of silence: Why did he leave our family? Why did he never like me? We’d both ordered IPAs—I ended up drinking three that night—and it was the taste of the beer that brought me back to my body as he answered, “How could you think I didn’t like you? I adored you.”
I thought then of my mother, a woman who spent years of her life holding me while I cried because someone called me fat, because someone called me stupid, because I didn’t want to go to P.E. or go shopping for clothes or do the potato-sack race on field day. A woman who took me to drink hot cocoa when she knew I wasn’t having fun. A woman who made me banana smoothies when I felt sick and who, throughout my childhood, was as reliable and predictable and true to the physical world as the sun and moon themselves—there to tuck me in at night and wake me up in the morning, the first and last person I wanted to see each day.
Who would have guessed that after all these years, it was my father who had adored me?
And yet on this night, at the Thai restaurant, I found myself unafraid of him. Unlike my middle school and high school years, when even the idea of talking to him would send me to tears, I now felt unfazed. It seemed impossible that this was the man who made me feel terrible about myself for so much of my life, this short person with yellow eyes and a salmon colored polo shirt. He could have been anyone. He was anyone. His hair was going gray. His teeth were turning brown. He was getting old, and not in the silver-fox way that James Bond gets old. The screen had come up: the Wizard of Oz was a humbug. For a moment, I felt sorry for him. My father. An old man with three children he hardly knew.
“So, how’s California?” he asked, leaning across my brother so I could hear him.
“It’s fine,” I said. “Warm.”
“You know, I went to Davis once, for a medical conference.” This, as if we had a mutual friend and could therefore ourselves be friends. “Cute town. And close to Tahoe.”
“It is,” I said. “I try to get out and go hiking when I can.”
“Not yet,” I said. What I really wanted to say was: How do you expect me to afford skiing?
“It’s a great sport. I try to go at least once a year. It’s really a lifetime thing. A lifetime sport.” He smiled to himself, pleased to have stumbled upon such poignant terminology: lifetime sport.
“Good for you,” I said. “Maybe one day I’ll learn to like it, too.”
At this point, there was still part of me that wanted him to love me, to be impressed by me. For him to see me flying down a black diamond, no altitude sickness, no pizzas or pizza flavored Pringles. Just snow and air and speed. His daughter. A skier, just like him.
And yet, another part of me knew it would never be true—that no matter how much I loved being outdoors, it would always nicer to sit by a fire, a cup of hot cocoa in hand.
From across the table, I caught my mother’s eye. She gave me a knowing look and winked, blew me a kiss. Before turning back to my father, I blew her one back.
Becky Mandelbaum is the author of Bad Kansas, which received the 2016 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Missouri Review, The Georgia Review, The Rumpus, Necessary Fiction, Salt Hill, Great Jones Street, Hobart, Midwestern Gothic, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Washington and works in North Cascades National Park.