“All my life,” Daddy said, “I could never do boy things. When I was a little boy, the Slocums down the street asked me to help them harvest their watermelons. They were going to pay me. But I knew they loaded their watermelons onto the truck by tossing them to each other like an assembly line. I was so afraid I’d drop a watermelon that I wouldn’t go help. Wouldn’t let them hire me.”
Outside my car window, southwest Georgia’s leafless trees flushed black against a night sky the color of burnt sugar. I knew that sky. I knew those trees. The horizon spread flat and the trees passed somber and busy, the dampened march of ghosts. Growing up in West Tennessee, I did not have the red clay or the gnats or the smell of harvested peanuts thick like stale piss that comprised the landscape in which my father had grown up and to which he eventually retreated. But we had those trees. I wanted to uproot them and sit them in the car beside me.
Some nagging of curiosity or desire for finality had prompted me to ask my father, “Daddy, do you remember why you became so sad?” So he told me the story of the Slocums.
A month later—back in Montana, five years after my father’s last suicide attempt—I went cross-country skiing. The fact that I had never participated in any sport successfully did not deter me. The fact that I did not care for cold weather or snow or the bulkiness of old jeans over polar bear pajama pants over Cuddl Duds—I refused to buy snow pants—also did not deter me. I liked the idea of calling myself a skier.
Montana was the first place I’d lived west of the Mississippi. I had lived in cold climates before—Massachusetts’ North Shore, New York’s Westchester County, Russia—but the American West seemed the place to cut my skis. I recruited three friends to join me in nearby Idaho for an afternoon of skiing. Two of my friends had grown up in the snowy wilds of Northernness and had winter athleticism in their Yankee bones. The third, a bookish New Jersey boy with a self-deprecating stoop, took to the skis just fine. Me, I struggled. Running in a heated gym hadn’t conditioned me for actual athletic endeavors.
As a girl growing up in the South, I shunned the outdoors. We were air conditioning people. We owned bikes but didn’t ride, had a full badminton set but never learned to volley, and didn’t care when neighborhood boys broke our basketball goal’s backboard. My mother played softball as a girl, but during my childhood she was content to kick back with a People magazine or the O.J. Simpson trial. Baskets of laundry flanked her as she stared at Kato Kaelin and folded play dresses. “He has your name,” she told me.
My father gardened, but his outdoor time stopped there. I would sometimes wander outside to help him. We ripped moss from the base of tree trunks, which I added to an imaginary stew of sticks and dandelions. I stood behind him and handed him his spade, braiding pine needles while I waited for him to bury the bulbs. But I never had any real interest and retreated into the house after an hour or so, asking my younger sister Amelia to play school. I always played the teacher.
Our cross-country ski trail cut through Idaho’s Clearwater National Forest, a surreal arrangement of whites and greens. Snow-to-tree in one fluid motion, the ponderosa pine branches as soft and cleansing as the ice beneath them. I wanted to stand still and look, but the long slip of ski attached to my foot insisted I move. I clunked forward, extending my gloved hands to buffer my inevitable fall.
In the beginning, my friends and I skied in a pack. Jon stayed beside me explaining the necessary movements. His help seemed like someone instructing a toddler to dress himself, “One leg in, push the foot out. Good job! Now let’s try the other leg.” I sensed my slowness, and Jon’s readiness to just get on with it. Glide and go. He couldn’t hide his happiness to be out in the open on a good powder with ski poles in hand. I felt each instruction he gave me was a leg lost on the trail for him. Eventually, I told the guys to just go on. “Don’t worry about me,” I said. “I’ll catch up.”
Except I didn’t. I fell further and further behind until the boys passed out of sight. I skied alone, their tracks cut in the snow before me, the banks to my left and right still pristine. At first, the isolation seemed ideal. Me, nature, sport. But not long after the male silhouettes disappeared I felt my stomach drop. My feet fell heavier against the snow. I took large, open-mouthed breaths and noticed my teeth aching with cold. My muscles tensed, even though I kept moving. I made no sound. I knew I’d been in this moment before.
Last time, I’d been thirteen hiking out of the Grand Canyon with my father. We’d spent five days rafting the Colorado River with my father’s best friend from college Mike and his daughter Carolyn. Mike and Carolyn were the only reasons we’d found ourselves outdoors participating in something that resembled a sport.
On the river, our guides did the work. The four of us lengthened and unfurled in the sun for most of the day. I stretched against the yellow raft, gripped the side ropes and closed my eyes to the blue, blue sky. I felt each wave as the turquoise water moved underneath me, quick and lonely.
On the day of the largest rapid, Daddy interrupted our tranquility. “You know I used to row some in college,” he said to our guide, Orea.
“Did you?” She more sounded interested than professional courtesy required her to be. “Would you like to try rowing some today?”
“I sure would.” Daddy wasted no time changing seats with Orea. He smiled too much.
“You’re pretty good,” Orea said after a few minutes of observation. “How would you like to navigate us through this next rapid?”
“I’d love to.”
“You’re not serious, Daddy?”
Mike turned to me. “He isn’t serious. Your dad isn’t going to navigate a rapid.”
When the rapid came into view, the guides brought the rafts ashore to evaluate its strength on that particular day. Carolyn, Mike, and I stood on the beach like we were told. I arranged sand with my feet and watched as my father hiked to the overlook with the other guides. He placed his hands on his hips as he took in the monstrosity of the current.
“Here we go,” Orea said as she stepped into the raft and pointed Daddy to the center seat. My father sat and took the oars. Mike and Carolyn glanced at one another. He tightened his life jacket and asked Carolyn to do the same.
I knelt in the raft. A small, still pool of water settled around my knees. I took both ropes in my hands, opening my arms to an empty sky. We moved closer to the static of the rapids. I watched an eddy’s hands grip a rope and pull until the center collapsed, taut and sinister.
We closed in on the rapids. Daddy looked determined, but he then shifted, rose, and handed the oars to Orea. “Maybe you should do this one.”
“Good idea,” she said. They both laughed as they watched our faces ease. Daddy winked at me as he knelt beside me and grasped the ropes.
Later that day, we abandoned the rafts for a free-float down a side stream. Daddy and I floated together. “I got you good, didn’t I, darlin’?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “You did.”
We hiked out of the canyon two days later. The final morning passed easily enough, but at midday, the trail became steeper. I fought to keep pace. When I called to Daddy, he couldn’t hear me. He hiked up the trail, a blurring figure in a bucket hat. Mike stayed with me. I was embarrassed. I didn’t know him well, and as he watched me walk his face registered not quite disappointment, not quite disquiet, but something that exists between the two. I felt accused. As though I’d blundered and sent one foot off the ledge to dangle in clear, terrible air.
I knew I wanted my father beside me. I knew Mike walking beside me instead of Daddy felt wrong. I knew I had to keep walking. If I hadn’t been thirteen, if I hadn’t been exhausted, maybe I would have recognized the knot of emotions I kept slinging around inside as familiar. I might have expected Daddy’s abandonment. He hadn’t shaped a noose for himself yet, but it was coming. I sensed this, even then as a girl with a green backpack.
Years later, when Daddy was hospitalized for one of his mental breaks, I asked him why he’d left me on the trail. He only had two modes then, blank and sad, and when I asked my question, his face contorted into sad.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s haunted me that I did that.” That was enough. I let him sit on his bed in silence. His knees tucked under his chin, his calves young, lean, and healthy.
The moment I could no longer see my friends skiing in front of me, I became thirteen again on a canyon trail. A flesh memory, they call it.
A skier came up beside me. He appeared ruddy and seasoned. I hoped he would ignore me. “Did you get left?” he asked.
“Looks like it,” I said, forcing a grin and waving him by.
“That’s not good. Are you okay?”
“Oh yes, fine. Kinda nice being alone in all of this.” Pass me already, I thought.
I was that girl. That girl that got left. I hated being that girl. The skier meant well, but I wanted to pin him to the ground and drive my ski poles through his earlobes. I said nothing more, and eventually the skier let me be and went ahead. I noticed he paused every few feet and glanced over his shoulder.
The world crystallized around me, the snow, purest, whitest, the trees innocent and two-dimensional. I didn’t want to machete the perfect banks or de-needle the trees. I just wanted it to come back to life, to stop being so picturesque.
That evening, I called my father. “I went cross-country skiing today,” I told him.
“Good for you,” he said, “Soak it up. Soak up Montana. Are you warm enough?”
“I wasn’t very good at it.” I wouldn’t tell him about the boys skiing away on the trail or about my flashback to the Grand Canyon. Still, I wanted to offer him a small, inconsequential, failed experience. I drop watermelons, too.
We didn’t talk long. We never do. We understood our pauses said as much as our words and we paid attention to both. I knew what had happened to me on the trail could happen again. I knew how I became the seething skier or how Daddy went from a prankster to an empty jar of a man had no simple explanation. Still, I wanted to understand what I could. Because I knew my father now sat alone at a kitchen table with a ceramic rooster beside him. I wanted be able to say when, in snowy wildness, a stranger asks if I’m okay, “Yes. It’s nice being alone in all of this.”