The Ice Story
(from Travelling Light)
Soon after I met you we took a trip. I had an appetite for mileage, for geography, and I persuaded you to leave town with me because I wanted to see what would happen. I was moving fast and you let yourself be carried along. I remember riding across a prairie landscape in eastern Washington on an afternoon between storms, and driving over a pass with ghostly elk on the highway. We slept in a Chinese motel in Vancouver, crossed the strait, traversed the island, rented the smallest of cabins on a beach miles from anywhere. It was late November, rainy, fogbound, the off-season. By then I needed you to fall in love with me. And I had to walk out every second evening to place long-distance calls to a woman waiting for me in Toronto. You knew about her but I don’t remember us talking about her. Instead we walked on the beach, where the fog smelled of cedar smoke, and scavengers who lived in pearl-grey shacks helped themselves to lumber that drifted in, washed and polished by the tide.
We slept together and remained strangers, sometimes taking our walks alone. You needed time to think, you needed privacy. I wanted to stay on that beach with you forever.
As soon as we drove back into the mountains the rain changed to snow. At certain times the highway was closed and I remember motel rooms with you. I needed to savour the miles we had left and to use them sparingly because you were nearly mine while we were travelling, you almost belonged to me. Long before dark I would start scanning the outskirts of towns for motels, even when you insisted that you were prepared to drive all night, or at least another hundred miles, or just over the next pass, to the next town.
“Too dangerous,” I’d say. “Too slippery.” I was worried about black ice, worried about losing you. I was grateful for the storms because I wanted to keep travelling in your company, and if the weather had been clear we would have reached our town in a day and a half instead of the four days it finally took us. I relished the small rooms, the polyester sheets, every rented bed you shared with me.
In the middle of a storm somewhere in the Bitterroots, we stopped beside a broken guardrail where the air was crowded with falling snow and black, greasy smoke. We rolled down our windows, heard flames snapping. The afternoon smelled of roasting meat. We got out of the car, walked to the edge of the road, and peered down at a Swift’s Sausage & Premium Hams eighteen-wheeler sprawled like a stunned animal at the bottom of a gully. Snow was falling thickly; it was a curtain blocking everything except subdued orange flames licking the sides of the trailer. Snow sizzled on blackened metal.
We started slipping down the bank. I jumped up on the running board and peered inside, expecting to see the driver’s body, but he had already been taken away. Snow blew through the broken windows and rattled crisply along the vinyl dashboard. Crumbs of safety glass were scattered over the seat and the rubber floor. A pair of elk-hide gloves, stiff and sweat-stained, were wedged above the big sun visor.
Standing on the running board, gripping the big truck mirror, I looked around and saw you falling backwards, laughing, flapping your arms and making an angel in the snow, and I recognized with a kind of gasping, breathtaking pain how much had changed in ten days; how you were ruining my past, making it dim and unimportant; how I was living for nothing except you, the road, the snow, the invisible mountains. I looked up the embankment to my car: engine idling, doors flung open, taillights shining through falling grey snow. It seemed extraordinarily beautiful, hopeful, a promise of everything to come.
Trips taken by lovers who don’t know each other very well can have unforeseen consequences. Attachment itself is a mystery. At some point I told you I was prepared to push everything as far as it would go. Hope, faith, and passion were talismanic words to me then, but when I said them to you, they only seemed to drive you in on yourself, you were silent.
When we arrived back in town, the weather was inhospitably cold, the river had seized, and hunks of ice were locked beneath the bridge. It was the middle of the morning and we ate breakfast in the café. The town was stunned under snowdrifts, our friends had vanished. We went back to my room.
I was in love, you were wary, and the inequity felt hot, something I could never swallow or digest. I kept telling you to trust me. I studied roadmaps while you slept. When you woke, I suggested California, Mexico. You didn’t believe I was serious. I told myself that when the time was ripe I’d convince you. I went out to make a call to Toronto. I had promised to return there by Christmas, and she wanted to know exactly when I would be arriving. She knew me better than you did, though I was always lying to her, always trying to give the truth to you. She sounded anxious and I fended her off with impatient lies.
We stayed in my room for most of a week. It kept snowing, a foot of snow a day, and I believed I was winning you. To be precise, I thought you were getting weaker, that before long you’d be going anywhere with me.
Overnight, arctic air blew the sky clear. You said you needed to get out for a few hours, no matter how cold it was. We rented skis and drove a few miles out of town, my car rattling over the road on frozen tires and stiffened springs. The snow in the woods lay deep and untracked, which was why we decided to travel across the lake. The air rasped our throats and lungs. Limestone mountains glittered around the shore.
Years later I told our story to my wife after she and I had known each other for only a couple of hours. We were sitting in darkness on a beach at Cape Cod. “I heard her scream,” I said. “Then I looked down and saw the snow around my skis turning blue. When I looked back, she was falling.”
The beach was at approximately the same latitude as Portugal. It was midnight and we had been swimming in the white surf. She had slipped out of her clothes and dived in. It wasn’t very dangerous in the waves but there was a slight riptide, an element of treachery.
I think I told her the story because I wanted her to believe that I was capable of loving someone. If she had interrupted at any point to ask what it was really about, I would have said, passion. For a long time I have been trying to attach an acceptable meaning to our story.
You slipped into the water wearing skis as narrow as bones strapped to your feet. As I lay down for you, the ice beneath my belly began to soften. I held out something to you, a stick or a ski pole, but it was ignored, and then the ice below my body began to crumble. The cold water struck my chest like the flat blade of a shovel swung hard. I could feel my lungs shrivel.
We bobbed in the hole while our lips were being sealed. I kept ducking beneath the surface, trying to detach my skis. The water in my eyes was black and burning. Breathing was difficult and noisy. When I tried to launch myself out of the hole, every piece of ice I touched crumbled in my hands. After a while it seemed less than sensible to struggle. Your breathing sounded like an engine with something severely wrong. Your hair was laced with white frost, your face was lumpy and pale, you kept looking surprised. Still we kicked, sputtered, and splashed, trying to keep apart so our skis wouldn’t tangle. I already felt sorry for your family. The rest of my thinking was being lulled as the cold settled in. Water slopped back and forth, subsided, and a skin of soft new ice began forming at the rim of the hole. We would look at each other, then look away. Dying together was a little humiliating.
I told our story to another woman. We were sitting in a booth in the Chinese café last week. When I finished, she reminded me that J. Edgar Hoover kept boxes and cardboard cartons sealed with masking tape in his basement and the back of his garage. Inside were his “raw files,” which he used to guard and extend his power.
“Are these your raw files?” she said.
I told her that you and I had often sat in that same booth. I pointed out items on the menu that you used to order. She said, “You have the structure of a story all set up and now you’re trying to fit me into it.”
She said, “Where is your wife?”
A piece of ice held and I was kicking, slowly at first, not much caring. Then with a little more will. Did you even notice? I surprised myself when I flopped up on the ice and stuck to it, sucking and gasping. All my clothes became hard, instantly. You drifted nearby; I touched the collar of your jacket, or it could have been one of your braids. Was your hat off by then? You came out on your own, pushing and kicking. You had abandoned your boots and skis in the water. You lay on the ice, making sounds.
We began crawling. The trees on the shore grew bigger, then stopped, and after a while we realized we were no longer crawling towards them. Instead we were pretending to sleep. I got up and started running and you came after me. We moved like monsters in our stiff clothes, lurching and grunting. When we reached the shore, I broke off my icy hunks of skis. We were taking in air in sore gasps. I started through the snowdrifts and you followed, shouting in pain because your feet were so tender.
We couldn’t see the car for a long time, but then it appeared. The key was in the zippered pocket of your jacket. Neither of us could grasp the zipper, so I pulled the jacket off you, hooked it on the bumper, and tore the pocket open. The key dropped onto the snow. It took a long time to pick it up — it was so smooth, cold, and slender. Finally we got the door open.
I was trying to start the engine when another car chugged over the bridge. These people seemed to know what to do. They got us into their car and began driving to the hospital. I sat in the front seat and a woman tore my clothes open with a knife, pulled off her shirt, pressed her hot breasts against me. I could hear you in the back seat, suffering. The car floated into town. At the hospital they went to work on me first and left you in the hallway in a puddle of water on the floor.
Six hours later we were released and went back to my room, wearing borrowed clothes.
I called Toronto twice while heading east that Christmas. From a café in South Dakota, a motel in Michigan.
By the time I arrived she knew something was wrong. She said she had known for a long time how things would end. She was angry with me for driving all that way to tell her I was in love with someone else. The next year she met another man and married wisely, flowering with conjugal zeal. I see her whenever I’m in her city. There isn’t much to say, yet I feel compelled. She would rather I didn’t need to see her, but she is gracious. And I don’t stay very long. A single cup of tea and I am on my way, following subway maps through the city of Toronto.
You and I had a short subsequent history. It’s not important what went wrong, is it? The flaws of character and circumstance that kept us apart? I could list most of them and it would be depressing, but it wouldn’t matter.
Is our story about passion, or faithlessness, or is it about an accident, a series of accidents? What seems important now is how much I remember. Your kiss in a supermarket parking lot. An argument in a basement apartment. You turning away from me at an airport while engines roared.
In the middle of that night you woke up howling. Your skin was on fire — you felt it broiling and burning and sloughing off your bones. I led you into the bathroom, shut the door, and turned on the hot water. It roared from the tap and the bathroom packed with steam. Your hair was damp, fragrant; your body reflected in the fogged mirrors; your skin was the colour of light.