Snow had fallen so delicately on the ski trail that it appeared as if the groomer had never passed, the crystals falling into the grooved corduroy as if hand-placed every half-inch to fill in the pattern. She was only a month into skate skiing.
Just two weeks ago, she had stood on the trail, barely able to push her body, skis and anger over the slight hill in front of her. A hill so slight it was barely perceptible to the naked eye. She had spent the last half hour falling, slipping, trying, failing. She had finally turned on her husband in anger, “Why am I doing this? I am not a natural at this. I suck! This sucks!” Hot, surprising tears filled her eyes and she looked away, embarrassed. Her husband clicked the tips of his skis together and said nothing. It was Jan. 19, the fourth anniversary of losing her mother. He knew what sucked.
That ski had ended with Lainey heading to the parking lot on her own. She insisted he go on. “Go do the big loop, I’ll ski on my own.” The man was smart enough to know he could do no right at this point. “Go on!” she shouted, half playful, half deadly. She hit him on the leg with her ski pole, turning the pointy end away from his leg at the last possible moment.
She watched him skate effortlessly up the hill and away from her. His only saving grace was that he looked like a panther, dressed all in black and loping up the hill with smooth strides, offering her a gamely view. She made her way to the Y in the trail and examined the old faded map with great care. Should she decide not to do the 5K or not to do the 10K? The options were endless.
She turned her face up into the winter sky. Was her mother up there? It was a gray day, no clouds, no sun, no way of telling where the sky started, where the air her children played in ended. It was a bottomless winter sky, the bane of Michigan winters. The idea that her mother was up there did nothing to soothe her. It was only sunny days or warm rain that made Lainey feel like there was any heaven at all.
She made her move only when someone called out to her.
“Hey!” It was one of her husband’s best friends.
“He just went that way,” Lainey pointed. “You can catch him if you hurry.”
He made noise like he wanted some convo, but Lainey kept her ski pole out, pointing up the hill, her expression like the sky. “Really. Hurry.”
She turned and skied back to the parking lot, still pissed, still helpless. She took off her skis at the back of the van, trying to look as if she’d clocked a huge ski to those around her. It had only been 40 minutes. She’d driven 30 to get there.
She settled into the front seat of the van and took off her boots, cupping her left foot as close to her face as her 36-year-old flexibility would allow. A red blister was forming, the skin rubbed loose by her ankle. “Figures,” she said into the silence of the van.
Lainey turned on the heat to an unbearable blast. She put her bare feet up on the dash, one on each vent. She rolled up her ski pants and shed her shirt, too hot in the heat. She sat in her tank top, snow melting on the windshield. Car after car moved in the parking lot, women and men getting their skis on and heading out, coming back in, parking next to her, their chatter coming through the door. She closed her eyes to invite no comment. She stayed like this for half an hour, inside the van, her feet on the hot dash and thought of nothing. She waited like this, waited for husband to come back from his ski and take her home.
But today’s ski was a different story. Two weeks had built her strength and her stamina and put the start of another year without her mother behind her, if only a little. She’d chosen to ski alone today. She wanted the freedom to ski, coast, sail, stop whenever she wanted. And it turned out to be a day perfect for just that.
The trails were fast, her skis clean and smooth, cutting in, holding and propelling her forward with little effort. She felt floaty, agile on the skis, the same skis she had cursed just days before. She spent the morning free and happy, experimenting with different kicks and glides, sailing first on one ski, then another. Pushing the bounds of her balance until she slipped, falling to one side, catching herself just barely as she cruised into the deep snow beside the trail.
Her tracks were the only ones on the trail, she looked back on occasion to admire their pattern, their simplicity, their uniformity in the wild of the pines. She pushed herself on straightaways, trying to change the pattern, lengthen the glide garnered from a single kick. She did this over and over, her blister revolting, her energy resurging again and again, the pain giving way to pleasure.