The sun is morning-perfect as it glints between the trees. John takes one deep breath and then he's flying, cutting a sharp line through the new snow. He ducks off the main trail, dodges a branch and hops down an embankment, tucking his knees to stay in the air as long as he can. He pops onto the next run behind two tourists practicing their wedge turns and smirks as he zips around them, skating to pick up speed before the long smooth straightaway leading back to the chairlift.
McKay is standing next to the lift line, looking uncomfortable in his boots and squinting up the hill. John heroically doesn't spray him with snow as he stops. “Hi,” John says, pushing his goggles onto his helmet. “I didn't expect to see you here on a Tuesday.”
McKay toes at the hard-packed snow and smiles, just a little turn at the corner of his mouth. “I was in the neighborhood,” he says, and it's so obviously a lie that John can't stop his grin, huge and goofy.
“Want to go up?” John asks. McKay makes a little hesitant noise and puts his hands up, but John knows that game. “Weather's nice,” John says, pulling his gloves on a little tighter. “Unless you plan to sit inside all day?” McKay glares and snaps his feet into his skis defiantly.
Awesome,” John says, and heads for the lift.
His first week at the resort, John was loitering in the office, trying to sneak a look at the lesson list for the day and call dibs on a kid who could ski powder. There was a foot of untouched, ungroomed, beautiful plush snow at the top of the east bowl, and if he could score good skiers, they could be up there by 10:30. “McKay’s requested another private lesson,” said Chuck, leaning conspiratorially over the registration desk.
“Who?” John asked.
“Seriously, you haven’t heard about this guy?” John shook his head. “He’s a legend. Up here every few weeks, asks for a one-on-one for his niece, and then berates the shit out of the instructor at the end of the day. He almost made Laura Cadman cry. I thought she was going to punch him in the face.”
“Sounds great,” John said. “I’ll take it.”
“So where’s Madison?” John asks, after they’ve settled on the chair and pulled the safety bar down, at Rodney’s insistence. (“Of course I want the bar down! Do you know how high up we are? Do you understand that gravity is real?”)
“Unfortunately, she’s at school. I can’t just liberate her willy-nilly, although I doubt that whatever passes for American education these days is even worthwhile enough for it to matter, given that –”
“Hey,” John says, sensing an impending rant, “twelve years of it didn’t kill me.”
“Oh, that’s very reassuring, given that your life path is to throw yourself down steep sheets of ice on carbon-fiber planks and probably live in some sort of remote mountain shack,” McKay says, and then abruptly looks horrified. “I mean – not that there’s anything wrong with what you do, or your shack, assuming there is a shack –”
“Relax, McKay,” John says, stretching his arms across the back of the seat. “I like my job.” He figured out pretty quickly that McKay only belittles because he cares. Well, mostly. “And it’s a very nice shack.” he smiles. “What do you want to ski?”
John can remember tottering around the bunny hill when he was five or six. By nine, he was sneaking away from group lessons to do tree-runs and trying to ski a perfect line through the moguls. His family went to Aspen every year, renting a huge house right off the hill with a rustic theme, all log-walls and crackling fireplaces. Ski resorts were one of those acceptable ways for people like them to spend winter vacations. Dave would zip down the groomed runs with his posse of socialite groupies, and their father smoked cigars in the most expensive restaurant he could find. (His mother – by the time he was old enough to keep track of her, she was already a ghost, departed and taboo. John looks like her.)
John preferred the back of the mountain, the steeps, the bowls, the trees. He rode the lifts to the top of the mountain and then hiked up even further, skis on his shoulders, walking until his shins ached. It was quiet up there, and empty, just the trees whistling in the wind, and then once he broke above the treeline, gusting sparkling clouds of fresh snow whipping around him.
It was always over too soon. Sitting at his desk in January, trying not to fidget with his tie or run his hand through his combed-flat hair, he would think about the wind on his face, and how the light changed just before the storm, and the gentle melt of snow on his cheeks, and the way he felt slicing the perfect turn on the brightest day, like he could achieve escape velocity, like he was in love.
They start off with a wide, smooth run, gently sloping and freshly groomed. John lets McKay go first, his automatic mental inventory ticking off things to improve. McKay’s not bad, just a little overcautious, skidding where he should trust the turn to slow him down. John messes around a little as he follows, spinning all the way around a few times with his skis flat on the snow before passing McKay going backwards.
John leads them to the Eagle Flyer lift. This far up the mountain, there’s no line, so they skate to the front and hop on “Pretty good, McKay,” John says, sprawling a little. It’s a quad chair, room for four. McKay, predictably, is sitting with his arm wrapped around the side pole. “Um, thanks,” McKay says. “And you can call me Rodney.”
“Cool,” says John. “Want to learn how to carve?”
“How to – what? And I didn’t know you were on the clock,” he adds, eyeing John suspiciously.
“Then why do you want to teach me things?”
“Because I’d like to,” John says.
“Hmm.” Rodney considers for a moment. “So – carving?”
“Yeah,” says John. “When you turn, you’re on the edges of the skis, right, so you accelerate - ”
“Hello!” Rodney waves his gloved hand wildly. “Doctorate in astrophysics, I don’t need Physics 101 for Ski Instructors.”
“Well, good, then you know that if you go fast enough, you can stay on your edges most of the turn and not skid,” John fires back.
“But skidding slows you down! We can’t all be moronic speed demons,” Rodney says, with a pointed look.
“I am not – ”
“I have seen you,” Rodney says, before John can even finish. “Do not lie to me.”
“Yeah, okay. You’re going to like this, though.”
Bad things happened to John in 2005, and again and again, like the universe had a grudge. First, the call that Dex and Mitch had been killed by the semi that plowed into Dex’s sub-compact. Two months later, in March, the last, bitter fight with Nancy before she slammed the door behind her for the last time. April, when she served him with papers, and it was really over. June, July, and August, the three interminable months after his dissertation advisor collapsed and before his children took him off life support. October, he totaled his car falling asleep while driving, and his apartment complex burned most of the way down.
But by some miraculous convergence of the stars, in November, he finished his goddamn dissertation. His most vivid memory of the whole year is sitting in the hallway after his defense, with his head between his knees, gasping and gasping because it was finally over. He graduated in December, and slept for a week afterwards.
He knew he should find a good post doc job, that he should face the real world since he was truly, finally, done with school. He knew, but instead he put everything worth keeping into the back of a Jeep he bought for three grand and drove to Colorado. There was no reason to stay in California, and he needed a vacation. He needed to not think for a while.
John picks the next trail, a meandering run with some good flat spaces for drills. McKay – Rodney – rolls his eyes and grumbles, but agrees to follow John’s tracks. “Yeah, okay, stay on my edges, roll my ankles, I got it, can we just go?” John obliges, picking up a little speed and then demonstrating the best pure carve he’s done since his certification exam.
Just before they reach the lift, John stops off to the side. “You go first,” he says, after Rodney slides to a stop beside him. Rodney pushes off with his poles and carves all the way to the lift. John skis down after him, smiling. “Awesome, buddy,” he says, clapping Rodney on the shoulder.
Rodney smiles a little. “So am I ready for the Olympics?”
John laughs and knocks into him companionably as they shuffle towards the chairlift.
Going to Colorado was a ritual journey, the second time John made the trip. Again he was going with as few things as possible, empty car, empty mind, trying to start over, or at least on a blank page. The first time he came to Colorado, he was throwing off the expectations of his father, his brother, their dreams for him like an anchor pulling him to the bottom of the ocean. If his father’s idea of rebellion was Stanford instead of Harvard, John would flee to public school. If Business and Accounting were the only sensible degrees, he would be as impractical as he could bear, Applied Math. He had to prove that he didn’t need them. He didn’t need to become the thing they wanted. For all his father’s love of being a self-made man, a rugged individualist, it seemed to never have occurred to him that either of his sons should become something on their own.
On the lift, they rehash a little: John starts in on a few notes about friction; Rodney rolls his eyes and cuts John off at every opportunity. “So next time, we’ll go faster,” John says brightly. Rodney scoffs a little. “Come on, it’ll be fun. Your kid niece skis faster than you, old man,” he jokes.
“Yeah, well, 8-year-olds have 8-year-old knees, and also? I can’t believe you’re encouraging her to go fast! If you break her, Jeannie will break me.”
“Relax, Rodney,” John drawls. “I haven’t broken anyone yet, and I don’t plan to.”
“How long have you been at this? Six months?” Rodney snaps.
“A few years,” John hedges. “Since I got done with school.”
Rodney snorts. “Right, your Bachelor of Arts in Ski Instructing.”
John smiles and shrugs noncommittally. “So how long have you lived in Colorado?”
“I’ve been here four years,” Rodney says. “Jeannie and Madison came down about two years ago, after her husband died. We hadn’t spoken since she got married, and then she needed a job.” His mouth is set in an unhappy slant. “I wanted her to keep working after she got married – she’s a brilliant theoretical physicist, possibly as good as I am, and I am very good – and she wouldn’t. So that’s why we stopped talking. Or she stopped talking to me, anyway.” John thinks about his brother, and the long years of silence, and nods. “I’m glad she’s doing work, but it’s weird, because I didn’t want bad things to happen to her, and that’s why she’s here. Anyway, we work together now. And it’s nice having her around, even if she still makes me do all the dishes. Plus, Madison is – well, you know. She’s -“ Rodney makes a series of flailing gestures, made even more dramatic by his huge gloves.
“Yeah, she’s a great kid,” John says, untangling his pole straps as they come up on the top of the lift. “So, fast run this time?” he says, and jumps off the chair as Rodney starts to grumble.
They take a blue run, groomed and steeper than most others. It’s the trail that the race course goes on for competitions, but John keeps that to himself. He leads Rodney for eight turns, super-G style, stance wide, edges cutting through the snow in a huge, clean arc. When John stops in a cloud of snow halfway down, Rodney is two turns behind, and he looks good, solid through the turn, smoothly switching from one turn to the next. “Now you’re ready for the Olympics,” John says, when Rodney stops beside him. “How did that feel?”
“Good,” Rodney says, a little out of breath, looking a little surprised. “I know I’m going fast, but it feels in control.”
“Awesome. Lunchtime?” John asks.
“Oh thank god,” Rodney says. “I seriously need a cheeseburger.”
“I’m not keeping you from a busy day of jumping off cliffs or anything, right?” Rodney asks, slightly anxious, after they’ve grabbed a seat at the lodge’s bar and peeled off of their outer layers.
John smiles. “Nah, there’s no fresh snow today. I like a soft landing for my cliff-jumping. Gonna snow tonight, though,” he adds. “At least a foot. So tomorrow, all cliffs, all the time.”
Rodney relaxes, just a little. John considers telling him that it’s nice to ski with someone who’s old enough to have a beer afterwards, but doesn’t want to sound too pathetic. He’s been a little lonely, lately, feeling too old for the twenty-something stoner lifties and snowboarders with big headphones under their hats.
Once their food arrives, Rodney kills the cheeseburger in two minutes flat while John picks at the bread bowl his chili came in. “So what do you do, exactly?” John asks, as Rodney starts to wolf down fries. John is kind of entranced. It’s like an optical illusion, how fast Rodney makes food vanish.
“Oh, um,” Rodney says, “well, its’ all classified, and anyway very complex and mathematical. Deep-space telemetry, mostly.” He keeps jamming fries in his mouth. Seriously, John wonders, can he even taste that?
“But you work in the mountain, right? NORAD?” he asks. “Lots of telescopes 50 stories down?”
Rodney rolls his eyes. “No, lots of math. We’re not astronomers, we’re – well, I’m an astrophysicist, anyway.”
“Cool,” John says, swiping a fry.
“Hey!” Rodney protests. “I was going to eat that.”
“I’m sure you were,” John says.
Madison’s a cool kid, mostly peppy and smart, easy to teach. Some kids, you can tell them something a hundred times, a hundred different ways, and they’ll pout or do the opposite or give up when it gets hard. Madison will watch, and try hard, and ask questions. She’s not really into the games, though, which makes John a little sad. Nine is not too old to play “Fly Like an Airplane,” in his opinion.
Once, early on, he asked on the chairlift what her parents did. “My mom’s a theoretical physicist,” she said, enunciating every syllable. “My dad died.”
John thought about being nine, missing his mom every day and not knowing how to forget. “That sucks,” he said, with feeling.
“Yeah,” Madison agreed.
When they go back outside after lunch, the clouds are coming up fast out of the northwest, rolling blacks and grays. “Big storm,” John comments, shading his eyes as he surveys the sky. “You got a place in town for the night?”
“No, I’m headed back to the Springs,” Rodney says, distractedly, trying to get his heel locked into the binding.
“Hmm.” John has a feeling – well, him and the meteorologists – that this will be a big one. The light is already starting to turn, and it’s only 1:30, wind starting to rustle the tree branches with the first shades of ferocity. If it gets bad enough, the highway patrol might shut the road down. Even if they don’t, it’s a long way to Colorado Springs in the snow.
“So?” Rodney asks, and John shakes himself out of contemplation.
“Ready for some moguls?” John grins as Rodney looks aghast.
“What? No!” he yelps. “My knees are too old for that. Your knees are too old for that, you maniac.”
“Come on,” John wheedles. “Have I led you wrong?”
The moguls are fun, Rodney grudgingly admits. “But only because those ones are little,” he qualifies, as they get back on the lift. “Not Volkswagen-beetle sized death lumps.”
John laughs. The wind is getting stronger, and he pulls his zipper all the way up to his chin. “Getting cold?” he asks.
“I’m from Canada. This is nothing,” Rodney sniffs.
“Okay, now I’m cold,” Rodney says, an hour later, after the snow starts to fall in fat, wet flakes. John, who came dressed for the morning’s sunshine, nods vigorously.
“Thaw break?” he proposes.
“Please,” Rodney says. His face has disappeared into the top of his jacket, just the top of his nose still visible below his goggles.
They head to one of the on-mountain huts, named The Sunshine, although there’s none to be found at the moment. John nods to Brendan, who’s flipping through a magazine behind the counter, as they come in and head for the fireplace.
John takes their gloves and sets them on the radiator to warm up before throwing himself in one of the big comfy chairs and unbuckling his boots. Rodney’s already got his boots off, and if he gets his toes any closer to the fire, they’ll probably singe.
Brendan wanders over after a few minutes, with big paper cups of hot chocolate. “On the house,” he says, setting them down on the table.
“Thanks,” John says. “How’s the weather looking?”
“Awesome,” Brendan enthuses. “Report is up to two and a half feet.” John and Brendan bump fists in powder-day victory.
“That’s ‘awesome?’” Rodney says, with little air quotes. “You people are sick. Some of us have to drive in this.”
“No way, man, there’s no way you’re driving in that,” Brendan says. “They’re definitely going to close the pass.” He heads back towards the counter.
Rodney stares at John. “What? Seriously?” Rodney looks stricken, and John feels bad, even as he suddenly has an idea, gaining momentum and then tumbling out of his mouth.
“Want to crash at my place?” He tries to seem casual, but he’s suddenly nervous. Rodney squints at him speculatively. “It’s in town, we can take the bus from the base. I mean, unless you have something against mountain shacks.” There are half a dozen hotels in town, probably more, and mid-week in January there would definitely be rooms. John waits for Rodney to figure that out, and then –
“Sure,” Rodney says. “Provided your shack is structurally sound.”
“Oh, it’s sound all right,” John says, adding smugly, “I built it myself.”
Rodney almost spits hot chocolate everywhere.
He didn't technically build the whole thing himself. Technically, there was no building involved - the guts were already there, so to speak. It was his first week in time when he met Jim in the bar, and Jim was talking to the bartender, with whom John had already established a great, great relationship. And it so happened that Jim needed help putting the innards into the house he was building. Jim was a general contractor, and he had built everything on Rose Street, and now he was building the last house on the corner, where the road dead-ended into the mountain. He was building it for himself, and it was mostly put-together, but he was having some trouble with his heart, and needed someone to carry the cabinets up the stairs and nail up the drywall. John was staring down a summer of unemployment before ski season started, so he mentioned that he was very good at picking up heavy things and setting them back down again.
That was how John ended up spending that first summer in Colorado outfitting a cabin in Silver Creek with a stainless-steel sink and oak cabinets, laying tile in the bathroom and doing whatever other odd jobs Jim needed.
By August, the house was almost finished. "Hey, John," Jim said, coming up while John as tinkering under the bathroom sink. "Can I talk to you for a second?" He had a strange serious note in his voice, something that made John suspect this wasn't about whether the primer in the hallway was dry.
John put his wrench down and wiggled out, pushing to his feet. "What's up?" he asked.
Jim sighed, leaning against the door frame. His flannel shirt hung loose, untucked, and Jim’s shoulders were curled towards each other. "I'm putting the house on the market," Jim said, and John rocked back on his heels a little. "Doctor says I can't stay at this altitude," he continued. "I'm going to Florida to live with my sister."
"Wow," John said. "Okay." Jim loved the house - Jim built the house to his exact specifications. The shower head in the master bedroom at the optimal height, the cabinets in the kitchen with the shelves perfectly set up.
"I think we've only got a week of work left," Jim said.
John blinked. "Yeah, just the rest of the paint," he said cautiously. "Why? Do we need to get it done faster so you can start showing it?"
"Well, I was wondering if you'd like to buy it," Jim said, a little mischievously. "And then you can paint it any color you damn want."
"So he sold me the house, and now he sends me ugly Disney World fridge magnets," John says, as they click out of their bindings at the bottom of the hill.
"Well, I am reassured that a professional ensured the structural integrity of your shack," Rodney says, with a wry smile.
"None of the other houses he built fell down, so I think we're good," John says, locking his skis together and swinging them onto his shoulder. The snow is falling furiously, and already there are several inches of loose snow on top of the hardpacked base. "Which lot did you park in?"
"The one with the blue bus stop," Rodney says. "You?"
"Oh, I took the employee shuttle up here. You're driving."
Rodney rolls his eyes. "Please tell me you are not one of those tree-dwelling hippies who doesn't have a car."
John grins. "I promise I am not a tree-dwelling hippie. I'm a mountain-shack dwelling hippie."
"Whatever," Rodney says, waving him off. "Let's go, I'm freezing."
The house is in Empire, the small town three miles down the road. "It's mostly people who work at the resort, a few people who retired up here," John says. Rodney's makes a distracted noise, focused intently on the empty road. It's still passable, but the asphalt is already almost completely hidden by snow, and soon it'll be truly terrifying as opposed to nerve-wracking. John feels unaccountably relieved to know that Rodney won't be trying to drive down the hill tonight.
"Turn right, up here," John says. They drive down Sixth, the main drag, with the gas stations and the little gift shops. There's one burger joint and one bar, and then they turn into the residential section.
"I can't believe you don't have pavement," Rodney mutters, as they turn onto John's street. "Dirt roads! Join us in the 21st century, please."
John smiles. "It's the blue one, on the left," he says, pointing at his house. "You can park in the driveway."
"You do have a car," Rodney says, as he pulls in behind John's Jeep. "This whole granola-boy thing is lie. A front. I'm onto you."
They haul their gear into the house and Rodney immediately flops down on the sofa. "I'm just going to sit down for a minute," he says.
John smirks. "That's funny, because I was going to offer to let you have the first shower," he says, pulling off his gloves and setting them on the rack by the door.
"Oh, god, shower," Rodney says, starting to half-heartedly peel off his layers.
"First door on the left is the guest bathroom. Should be clean towels," John says, heading for the kitchen.
While Rodney's in the shower, John proceeds to kick the dirty clothes in his room into the closet, make sure there's no porn on the coffee table, and then make faces at the collection of weird food in his kitchen. He unearths a jar of decent tomato sauce from one of the obnoxiously high cabinets (Jim was 6'5" and built to put things in easy reach for him, which makes John regularly feel like he lives in a house for giants, which he does, really), a box of spaghetti, and a package of ground beef from the fridge. He thinks about making meatballs, but decides he's too lazy and dumps the meat into a frying pan while the water boils.
He's got a nice little happy-homemaker thing going on when Rodney reappears, down to his sweatpants and long underwear shirt, wet hair all slicked down. "Hungry?" John asks.
"So hungry," Rodney says, sitting down at the high counter separating the kitchen from the living room. "I wasn't tired before, but my legs are killing me."
John nods in sympathy. "Want a beer?"
Rodney eyes him skeptically. "Is it good beer?"
"Come look," John says, pointing at the fridge with his spatula.
Rodney takes his time poking through John's beer collection, which is fair, John figures, since there's a lot of beer in there. "Want anything?" Rodney asks, head in the fridge.
"Yeah, I'll have one of the IPAs," John says.
Rodney straightens up and kicks the fridge shut, bottle in each hand. "Bottle opener?" he asks.
"Nah," John says, taking the bottles and using the edge of the counter to snap the lids off.
"That's bad for the counters," Rodney sniffs, taking his wheat ale and returning to his seat.
"Good thing it's my house," John says smugly, "and I can mess up the counters all I want."
"How did you afford this place, anyway?" Rodney says, with his usual lack of tact or boundaries, John notes.
"I dunno, Rodney, maybe I bought it with my trust fund," John says innocently. Rodney snorts.
John smiles and takes a drink.
He really did buy it with his trust fund.
Rodney attacks the food with an enthusiasm that John frankly thinks is slightly outlandish, given that it's marinara from a jar and boxed spaghetti. But they manage to eat almost all of it between them, and John feels a nice food coma coming on as they stack the dishes in the sink.
"More beer," he says. "Beer, and then I'm going to kick your ass at Halo."
"I hear a lot of talking," Rodney says. "I'll believe it when I see it."
They play Halo, and Call of Duty, and then Rodney wants to play Grand Theft Auto, so
John sprawls out on the sofa and watches Rodney drive around and shoot things for a while.
"I had a really good day," John says, smiling at Rodney while he waits for the load screen.
Rodney pauses the game and puts the controller on the coffee table. "Me too," he says, and then, abruptly, "You didn't only invite me over because it was snowing and you wanted to play multiplayer X-Box, right?"
"Rodney. I made you dinner. I let you drink my microbrews." John grins. "Do you want me to write you a note - you know, do you like me, circle yes or no-"
"You are ridiculous," Rodney says, but he's smiling, and leaning forwards, closer and closer.
John hasn't kissed anyone in a while, but it's not hard to kiss Rodney. He's already relaxed and he lets Rodney wash over him, until he's leaning back against the arm of the sofa and Rodney is half on top of him. Rodney's mouth is soft and his lips are chapped. He's a little demanding, a little pushy, his hand twisted in the fabric of John's t-shirt. But John likes Rodney, and he likes it a little pushy, it's all working really nicely for him, until Rodney pulls back slightly.
John opens his eyes and looks at Rodney, who's flushed, lips shiny and eyes dark. "Not that this isn't - very nice, but -"
"Bedroom?" John says, shocked at how rough his voice sounds.
"I thought you'd never ask," Rodney says.
John dozes off, after, feeling satisfied and peaceful to his bones. He wakes to the small light next to the bed clicking on. Rodney's sitting up, journals open all around him. John rolls over to face him and stretches, says, "Hey."
"John, what the hell," Rodney says, looking up from the open book on his lap. "I can't believe you didn't tell me you could do math." His hair is tufted randomly and his eyes are bright. "I mean - obviously you're smart, but you're published! And it's not entirely wrong!"
"Aw, shucks, Rodney," John says, smirking.
"I'm serious!" Rodney yelps. Rodney leans down, books and papers sliding off the covers and onto the floor, cupping the back of John's head and bringing their mouths together.
"It's disgusting, you're hot and intelligent," Rodney gripes, sliding down and burrowing under the covers.
"If I had known you were so into partial derivatives I would have mentioned it earlier,"
Rodney makes a little noise and grabs John again. "Holy shit, you really are into math," John says, laughing, as Rodney pushes him onto his back.
"I want to give you a -"
"Blowjob?" John finishes hopefully. Rodney smacks him in the face with a pillow.
"A job, you pervert."
John pushes up on his elbow and looks at Rodney steadily. "I have a job. I like my job,
Rodney tilts his chin defiantly. "One day. Come see what we do for one day. You'll like this job more, I swear to you. And if you don't, you can come back and teach ski school forever."
"Done," John says, and flops back down.
"Good. You can come down to the Springs with me tomorrow and-"
"Oh no, no way. Not tomorrow. You know why?"
"Tomorrow, I'm teaching you how to ski powder."
Rodney's right. John does like this job more.
Later, John will think about the incandescent feeling of making the perfect turn in fresh snow, of achieving escape velocity, of realizing the crucial secret to solving a proof. And none of it will ever be as good as Rodney's tremendous, real smile as the room lit up around them, the first time they stepped into another galaxy.