Jack kneels at her feet, adjusting her ski boot buckles.
Bundled in layers of unfamiliar mountain gear, Rachel tries to catch her breath in the thin-aired, sharp-peaked realm of snow and ice. She looks down at the wide shoulders and the muscular thighs that belong to a man who was once the boy who gave her rides on the back of his bike in summer. In ninth grade she and Jack had traded notes in class, in winter he’d pelted her with snowballs. He had always been her best friend.
As a young woman, Rachel remembers, she’d held all the cards. Now, like a middle-aged version of Cinderella, she struggles to put on her game face while Jack buckles her feet into the heavy rental ski boots. The boots will attach to the two fiberglass planks on which she has agreed to be propelled into the terrifying unknown.
All around the resort lobby, boisterous groups of athletic jet setters gather for a day on the slopes. She notices a woman in a slim white ski suit, with taut, Nordic beauty and a loud, excited voice drawing the attention of an elegant flock of friends. The woman pauses to stare at Rachel, her glance lingering on the borrowed ski pants and down parka. Are Rachel’s lack of physical bravado and fashionable ski ensemble bringing down the quality level of the establishment?
At the gourmet breakfast bar in the lobby, handsome young men serve up flirtatious banter and frothy cappuccinos. The familiar aroma of coffee fills Rachel with a desire to retreat to a comfortable chair by the picture window and throw in the towel. What if she suggests that Jack go on without her? He could join the aggressively cheerful crowd while she stays here, wrapped in the safe, warm smell of over-priced lattes and blueberry scones.
But that was the trouble—she’d always hesitated. I can’t leave New York, she’d tell him. Her job was too important, or it might be, someday; or the timing wasn’t right as another romantic interest distracted her. The city spun fantasies of cocktails and laughter, gallery openings, parties, and cab rides after midnight. It whispered that it was only here, in the crush of striving and ambition, where her dreams could be fulfilled.
Eventually Jack had stopped asking her and simply moved forward, his modest hopes and practical plans always lighting a clearer path for him. He’d driven his parents’ old VW super-beetle out west, found a job teaching skiing. And Rachel had stayed back east.
Where did she put her helmet? Her gloves? Her mouth is dry now, and sticky with fear. She anticipates her humiliation as Jack regrets inviting her to his rarefied world where sporty competence surely wins the day. Had he hoped she’d be more like the beautiful, chic woman jostling out the doors to the gondola with her entourage of friends?
One day—how had so much time passed? —Rachel had realized that everything just seemed to have gotten smaller. Her apartment, her work, the tiny office down on Varick Street with the window and a door that she’d fought so hard for. Her life and her range of options, shrunken as the years had gone by.
“Okay! That should do it.” Jack presses up off his knees and stands before her. He radiates uncomplicated warmth, and enthusiasm for the adventure ahead. “How does that feel, Rach?” In the muddle of Rachel’s anxious-hopeful mind the answer to that question becomes something about the sensation of his hands, how they felt even through the hard boots, the thick socks. Strong. Sure. Encouraging.
If he’d wanted someone else, he wouldn’t have asked—again—for her to come. And despite being muffled beneath tectonic layers of fleece and thermal and all-weather engineered materials, Rachel can imagine exactly the sensation of being touched by him. Like snow melting. Like forgiving herself, for all the wrong turns, detours, the time lost.
“I feel good!” She answers Jack.
Jack pushes open the heavy doors for her, to a world of dizzying space where soaring white pinnacles press up against the blue-domed sky. “You ready to play in the snow?” his voice calls to her.
A gust of wind blows up a flurry of powder; the brilliant crystals catch and swirl all around them. She lifts her face to feel the cold sparks against her cheeks. There are many kinds of magic, after all.
Rachel stomps her heavy boots, and her smile meets his. “I’m ready.”
Christina Holbrook lives in the ski resort town of Breckenridge, Colorado. When not writing she is probably out hiking with her dog Luke and trying to avoid surprise moose encounters. She has just completed her debut novel, All the Flowers of the Mountain.