It’s a ski weekend, not the Bloody Marys-at-the-bar-before-waiting-in-line-for-the-chairlift kind of ski trip, but more of a wilderness experience. Clayton and I are back-country skiers. We drove up Friday evening, skied Saturday, and now it’s Sunday. We’re at the pass, more than 8,000 feet above sea level. It snowed a few inches last night, and this morning is sunny with hardly any wind. Crisp and cold, a perfect day. Probably we’re both feeling warm on the inside from last night—I know I am.
We head south from the pass on a trail we’re both familiar with, though Clayton knows it better than I do. For twenty years Clayton lived in Twaine Hart, a tiny town in the foothills east of Sonora. Partly because of work, but mostly because he was tired of being alone and the dating scene in the foothills is non-existent, he moved last year to the Sacramento area. He shaved this morning so no beard, but with his soulful brown eyes, deep chest, and a naturally relaxed stance, he looks like a mountain man to me. We met on Match.com a few months ago. By the way ladies, if you have a pretty face and a well-proportioned body—meaning you’re not fat—the world of on-line dating is your oyster. Just check all the boxes when setting up your profile. From kinky sex to life-long partnership, if you check ‘em all you’ll be fully booked.
His long legs, his strong back, gliding. He’s an expert skier and I’m not half bad myself. I feel the deep bend in my knees, then extension; kick, glide, the power and flow of it. Aside from the tracks left by two skiers who beat us out here this morning, there’s no sign of humanity. The trail winds down into a pocket of hemlock and silver fir. With snow coating every twig and needle, the fir-tree branches remind me of a waffle iron grid when you pour in batter and discover there’s not quite enough. I’d like to tell Clayton about the waffle iron, but rather than break the spell I say nothing.
We ski up out of the trees and along an undulating ridge, the only sounds the hiss of our skis, the squeak of my ski binding, and the crunch of our poles breaking through a light crust. The skis we’re using today are the fish-scale type, which means they cling to the hillside when we climb but slide smoothly on flats and downhill sections. They’re so lightweight it’s like I’m barely skimming the surface of the snow. After a mile or so we stop to rest and take in the view: snow billowing away from us like tumbled white sheets after lovemaking, black basalt cliffs, forested valleys.
After we kiss, I point toward the horizon and say, “Look, there’s the house where I grew up.” It’s a joke, but not really. I’m from one of those foothill towns.
My parents loved camping in the Sierras. The trips I remember best were from my teen years, exercises in family-time tyranny, enforced s’mores and Mom’s guitar when I would so much rather have been with my friends. The campground we usually went to was near the Mokelumne River. My older brother and I had truck-tire tubes to float on, and how I used to wish my tube was a boat that could take me back home. For hours on end I listened to Eamon’s droning voice and played the splash-me-I’ll-splash-you games he loved. He wore a life jacket and always stayed in the tube. Swimming was my escape, to go under. Just fold my body like a letter and slip through the hole in the donut, down into the swirl. Underwater I could be anything. I’d rub my belly over rocks slick with algae and come up gasping for breath at the turbulent head of the pool, near the waterfall. I never minded swimming against the current. Eventually I’d paddle lazily on the surface back down to my tube, which was tied to Eamon’s for safety’s sake.
Not that there was any possible danger; the pool where we picnicked ended in small rounded rocks and shallow water, nothing a big tube could pass over unless you stood up and dragged it. And Mom or Dad was always there to keep an eye on us.
I guess they tried their best. But campgrounds offer less privacy than a single-family home or even our apartment, and did my parents have to send me to fetch him when my brother wandered through other people’s camps? Acting and speaking the way he does? To people who don’t know him, what he mainly communicates is how different he is from them, so that by the time I drag him away from the stranger’s tent, all the grown-up eyes are full of cheap pity, and the kids’ too; everyone over five has been socialized not to laugh. It’s not like I didn’t complain to Mom later, because I did, but my tears and protests made no difference.
We were floating in our tubes when Eamon told me he was sorry.
“For what?” I asked.
Our tubes bumping against each other, the rope slack. I looked into Eamon’s face and asked him again what he was sorry about.
“For everything,” he said.
Clayton and I make a gradual descent to snow-covered Lake Winnemucca. The tracks we’ve been following continue across the lake to the cirque, a perfect skier’s bowl. Ever wonder why cirques are so common in the Sierras? The reason is that glaciers sculpted these mountains. A couple million years ago a glacier’s head rested above the lake, and the pressure from all that weight caused the cirque to form. When I say the hike to the top of the cirque looks tough, Clayton suggests an alternative. He points, ski pole dangling from his wrist, to a streambed off to our right.
As we ski up the draw we look out for sinkholes, especially those likely to be invisible from above when we ski back down; this late in the season the creek is probably not frozen solid. High on a crest we see rocks that are free of snow, and we make that rock pile our destination. Leaving the stream behind, we cut a switchback trail. When we get to the ridge we take off our skis and climb over granite boulders the size of grocery carts. At the top we find a patch of flat, sandy ground sheltered by rocks.
Lake Tahoe, enormous. The Sierra Nevada, peak after peak. And here we are, two unmapped points, two backs against sun-warmed granite.
“This is a good place to talk,” I say.
“What do you want to talk about?” he asks.
“Can I trust you?” I ask.
He takes my hand and looks into my eyes. Because we’re wearing padded leather gloves and sunglasses it’s not as romantic as it sounds, but his meaning comes across. He loves me.
“So, childhood,” I say. “Basically, mine consisted of having a severely autistic big brother.”
Clayton squeezes my hand hard. “Oh, Evelyn. Maybe that’s why–”
And from there, he tells me what he’d never mentioned before: his brother has Down’s syndrome. I let him talk for a while. He seems to have a lot of bottled up feelings about the situation. Anger, love, frustration, worry, guilt, sadness.
Apologizing for being presumptuous, I ask if he would consider having biological children.
“I don’t mind you asking. The truth is, I’m not sure about kids for a slew of reasons. Not sure it’s the kind of life I want, the whole package—sports, schools, cars that seat more than five people …”
We both laugh at his funny way of putting it.
“What was it like growing up with a mentally retarded brother?” I ask.
“Well, I’ve been telling you … ” He shrugs.
“What about bullies? Being a girl and younger I couldn’t defend Eamon, and that used to bother me quite a bit.”
Clayton talks about the intimidation factor. With him around, he says, the bullies had to keep a lid on it.
“Were you ever the bully?” I ask.
“Did I beat up other kids you mean?” he asks.
“Did you try to hurt your brother?” I ask, coming to the point.
“Are you kidding? George had it bad enough already. He and I were very close.”
Clayton moves his legs into a different position. Even though the ground is dry, I feel the cold coming through the seat of my snow pants. One advantage of a place like this is how quickly it can go from pleasant to physically awkward; keeps the conversation short.
“I used to do things to hurt Eamon, but it was like shouting hello to someone flying past in an airplane. I used to tell him I wished he was normal.”
“I tried to pretend he didn’t exist. I wished he didn’t exist.”
“You were a little kid.”
The wind is picking up. I hear it blowing through the pines and firs below us. I feel the wind on my cheeks.
“Let me tell you what happened when I was twelve and Eamon was in eighth grade. That was the year I started middle school, not an easy transition let me tell you, but things were going okay for me until one day when, instead of going straight home like he was supposed to, Eamon went with some older kids who beat him up on the school grounds, bloodied him, everything as bad as you can imagine.”
“Eamon, you mean? His injuries healed after a few weeks. That episode—the assault with all its ramifications—slammed the door on my chances for a normal life at that school. Even two years later, when I was in eighth grade, I couldn’t walk between classes without people pointing and whispering.”
“It’s hard for everyone in the family. Funny how we kind of block that out. Forget the pain.”
A lull in the wind. A hollow silence.
“Are you and George still close?” I ask. To me, this question feels generous. I’m giving him one last chance. A final, final chance.
He leans his head back against the granite, which rises behind us like an eight-foot fence, bits of embedded mica and quartz sparkling in the sunshine. He takes a breath and the exhalation is mostly tremble. “What I try to do is have some kind of project going at his house. Our parents bought him a place. So I work on the fence or the painting job or whatever and just kinda hope he feels the love.”
We get up and stomp our feet to get the blood back into our toes. Shedding my sunglasses for true blue, I look at Tahoe. It’s tempting to think more of the lake’s beauty would come through if I only stared long enough, but I know better. We climb down over the rocks to the snow bank where we left our skis and poles. Still ahead is the fun part, when we ski down the mountain we’ve climbed up. You know how at the bottom of a hill, or at some point midway, you pause to look back at an S-track you’ve just laid down in fresh snow? I love that. Soon we’re back on the main trail, now a mess of snowshoe tracks and dog’s paw prints. If you ask me, way too many people have discovered the High Sierra. Clayton and I ski to the trailhead. We take Highway 50 back to Sacramento.
Clayton lives in a condo complex. Using his remote, he raises the gate so I can drive into the underground garage. We’re in my car, and I plan to leave soon, but for now I pull into a parking place. I get out of the car but leave the engine running. While Clayton’s taking his skis down from the roof rack, I grab the rest of his stuff from the trunk. I start to carry his duffle over to the elevator but on second thought just set it down by a nearby pillar. I make sure the ski rack is securely closed. Clayton looks surprised when I say I’ve decided not to spend the night. Rather than bring up a difficult subject while driving, I’ve waited until now to tell him I don’t think we should see each other anymore.
I’m standing beside the open driver’s-side door to my car. Clayton is still holding his skis. By comparison with alpine skis, cross-country skis are typically thinner and longer; Clayton’s extend a few inches above his head. He is 6’4” and weighs nearly 200 pounds, but the way he’s hanging onto his skis now it’s like he thinks they’re a rope that could keep him from falling. He keeps asking why.
“You owe me an explanation,” he says.
“I’m only twenty-six, I don’t have to settle,” I tell him. “Sure I get lonely, but I have good friends, I like my job, and I love my free time. What I mean is, I have something to lose.”
He’s clearly upset. He should be glad he doesn’t have to drive eighty-five frigging miles after this, like I do.
“Are you breaking up with me because of what we said about our brothers?”
So we’re finally getting somewhere. Here in this echo-ey basement garage under florescent lights. Not a good place to talk.
“Essentially, yes. Your wholesome goodness toward your brother makes me want to throw up,” I say.
With that, I get into the car. Clayton implores me to wait, to listen. He says there’s more to the story. I pull the door shut, but I can still hear what he’s saying.
“Sometimes I hated him. I did things—things I’m ashamed of. I’ve wrestled with this my whole life. We’re just getting to know each other!” he cries.
See what I mean about trust? Up on that rock pile, I gave him every chance to show me his nasty side. But all he did then was tell me what he thought I’d want to hear, and he’s doing the same thing now.
“Okay, we’re both tired. You go home and get some sleep. I’ll call you tomorrow,” Clayton says.
I buckle my seatbelt and maneuver the car around so I’m facing the exit. The garage door swings up. The gates on these garages typically open automatically from the inside. I hear Clayton’s skis clatter down and then I see his face through the car window. He puts his hands on the car. I put my foot on the brake. For a moment I think he might grab the door handle, really try to stop me, but he doesn’t.
I drive through the gate and out of Clayton’s life.
About the Author: Stories by Karen Laws have appeared in The Cimarron Review, The Antioch Review, The Georgia Review, Confrontation, and Zyzzyva. Karen lives in Berkeley and is currently at work on a novel set in the Sierra Nevada.