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I’m at the top of the mountain, wind whipping hair around my head. From where I stand, I can nearly see the Continental Divide to the west, Kansas and New Mexico to the east and south. The city of Colorado Springs isn’t even a toy town, just a scattering of tiny gray blocks nearly 8000 feet and seven miles down.
The trail is a rocky zigzag across the stark red moonscape of the peak. Three miles down, it meets tree line, then dives across tree roots and swoops around boulders and hikers panting their way up. Once, I slammed into tree and fell at the feet of a mountain lion sunning himself on a flat-topped pink boulder. He’d been sleeping when my crash startled him awake.
The breath was knocked out of me and I couldn’t do a damn thing but stare straight up into gold eyes and a face so wild and perfect that it would have been noble to be eaten by him. His whiskers caught the light. His paws were white at the front. For what seemed like six years, we stared at each other, then he turned and disappeared. A couple of hikers came around the bend, and didn’t even see me. Or the mountain lion.
Would he have eaten me if they hadn’t come?
I breathe the thin, oxygen-poor air at 14,000 feet, breathe out, trying to get rid of the memories of Jess at the airport this morning. I found her getting ready to go to security, her backpack heavy with too many books, her face a mix of apprehension and hope. Excitement shone around her like a shiny gold aura, so bright you could almost touch it, and that’s the part I’m trying to get out of my head. She was flying away, not from me exactly, but to something else where I won’t be part of the landscape.
My own damned fault. I turn the handlebars right, then left, gauging the play, pulling my focus in.
Forget Jess. At least for this minute. If I don’t, I’ll kill myself on this hill.
The wind whistles under my helmet and I bounce a little on the bike, feeling it beneath me, bonding with it. It’s never like the board, not like flying off a jump and sailing in circles in the air and landing super sweet and soft in a skim of fresh powder. Not like that.
The smell of lightning is building, crackling along the back of my neck, raising the hair on my arms. Tourists, farted out by the train, munch on doughnuts and buy t-shirts. They peer at me curiously.
I launch, sailing down, slamming over rocks, dancing the bike over dips and down a set of steps. My left hip feels it, but only barely these days. My twice-broken left wrist doesn’t feel it. My ribs are finally solid. The muscles in my shoulders and across my back hold the bones together, in my hands and wrists powerful from cooking, stirring, chopping. Bizarre what pulls you together sometimes. My legs are stronger maybe than they’ve ever been. The bike requires it.
All around me is open sky and rugged trail. I’m pounding down, then sailing across the switchbacks. And now we’re sailing, past the worst of the upper trail and into dizzying speed. My body is pure power, pure adrenaline, the bike an instrument of drug delivery. I can see for three miles straight down and there’s not a hiker or runner in the way. A thin crack of lightning/thunder splits the silence, so close the hair on my arms rustles. Gotta get outta here.
I let loose, faster and faster, slamming now and then into a hole, a rock, sliding sideways, catching it, control and ease and mind-busting adrenaline rocketing through me. I whoop into the thin mountain air.
My mother sneers that I’m an adrenaline junkie, but I’m telling you if you ever felt that rush, the way it erases everything, you would be, too. It erases the memory of Jess going down that security line, taking off her shoes and belt, leaving me to go 4000 miles away, my own idiotic fault.
Adrenaline erases her. Erases the possibility of going back to jail. Erases everything.
Flying down the mountain, I’m free.
I whip down the moonscape of granite, zigzag into the trees, pass the spot where the mountain lion slept. Down down down down. Seven miles goes fast like that. I’m sweating, teeth jarring, still in control.
I’m going too fast around a narrow switchback when I hit a fucking root. The bike goes left, I go right, slamming into the ground, skidding down the hill on one shoulder, feeling skin come off my arm. My face hits a rock and I see stars as I tumble backward, trying to halt the roll. Brain clicks on picture-words, bright and loud: Cliff! Tree! Rock!
I plow into a boulder and come to a teeth-jarring stop. Everything goes still. I’m seeing stars, then the blackness clears and I’m staring at a ladybug crawling through a pickup stix arrangement of pine needles. Dirt and blood fill my mouth. Adrenaline buzzes through my body, numbing the pain that will crawl in under it, but nothing is broken. I can feel road rash, that prickly open sting of skin scraped away along the front of my lower left arm where the shirt was ripped away, maybe more on my knee. Definitely face, maybe eye. I roll over and sit up, probe my nose. Not broken, but it forms the center of an octopus of pain spreading outward. Jeans are torn to shit, showing thigh and raw skin and ground in dirt. Mouth is bleeding. I touch it with my tongue, find the cut. Not too bad. Arm is scraped raw from elbow to wrist, open and stinging, littered with dirt and pebbles, bleeding enough to wash out the worst of it.
I limp up the hill and retrieve the bike and my water bottle, pouring some into my mouth, some over the arm. I swish water through my mouth and spit out blood just as a pair of older hikers round the bend. “Oh, my God,” the lady says. “You all right?”
“Yeah, fine. Thanks.” I wipe my mouth with the back of my wrist. “Always looks worse than it is.”
She shakes her head. “You boys and your toys.”
I take another swig of water, give her a half-grin. They pass me, and I put the bike back on the downward trail and get moving.
I haven’t thought about Jess in nearly ten minutes. Yeehaw.
* * *
In the middle of the night, I’m painting. The arm is hot and irritated and keeps waking me up, and painting is a good companion in the loneliness of three a.m. . Music playing, smell of acrylics, darkness outside the windows, far away lights of the city shining in the valley.
The paintings are all Jess, of course. I keep my back to the bed in the studio where she fell asleep one night, watching me paint, where we spooned when she came over to tell me she was going to New Zealand after I fucked everything up in my ever so expert way. The emptiness in the room makes a noise, so loud I have to put on headphones. I’ve made about 900 playlists, some hard guitar, some blues, some Hendrix and Joplin, classical but no fucking piano. My mother plays piano, and let me tell you, you wouldn’t like it either.
Dabbing eggplant and white into the shadow of her elbow, I think—again—that I’ve gotta get my act together. The past seven years have been like something out of a manual on how to fuck up your life. The injury was outside my control, but the rest of it—the drugs, the fighting, the mindless, mostly anonymous sex—have been all up to me. Trying to fill the hollowness left by a dream turned to ashes.
Everything is a substitute for snowboarding. The cooking, the painting, the mountain biking. Definitely the women. I skateboard, which can be like flying sometimes, on the streets in Manitou, the steep hills. There are always some kids around to do tricks with. They sleep in the park, runaways from who knows where. I don’t ask. We smoke a little dope, skate, and I buy sandwiches.
Painting is the only thing that feels as real as snowboarding. Middle of the night, headphones, the canvas and the darkness. That’s what I’m doing the night before I have to go to court. Painting another portrait of Jess, number forty thousand and two. The tablets of sketches are stacked on one easel and I flip through them, seeing through the charcoal and pencil on the page the angle of her elbow, the glow of her peach-colored skin, the tumble of her hair. Alone in my studio, I can immerse in the memory of her eyes, looking at me with that intoxicating mix of wary innocence and desire.
Trying to figure out how to get what I see in her on the page is the challenge. Like trying to tell someone how it feels to fly through the air, blue sky and snow and the rush of danger and possibility in the spins.
I can see her, the long aqua eyes, the oddity of her Roman nose, a little too big, and her wide mouth. She’s not pretty, actually, but she is a beauty. Light breaks over those planes in the most gorgeous way, and those eyes, those eyes, those eyes—they are the eyes of an ancient looking out through a young face.
That’s what I’m always trying to catch, the beauty and the ancient all in one. Not wisdom, not yet. But, eventually, she’ll be wise.
I dab paint on the canvas, adding light to her irises, my gut heavy with missing her.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
They always say that falling in love at first sight is bullshit, but I swear I did. Somebody had told me about the old-school pancakes they served at Billy’s and I drove over there the first day of summer to check them out. It was already getting hot by the time I got out of the car at ten a.m. . The diner was perched on an open expanse of parking lot, all boxy blond brick, a relic from 1972, the window painted with horses and saddles. Inside it was pretty much the same spirit. Bad country music, turquoise booths, linoleum tables. I couldn’t tell if it was meant to be hip and retro or had just been standing there forever. It was busy, so either way it would probably be good food.
Jess was swinging a coffee pot around the room, her hair caught back in a long thick braid, the kind that’s meant to be practical, not messy/cool, but it was gorgeous, streaky blonde, the color of sunshine. The clothes were ordinary server, a golf shirt tucked into jeans that fit a sweet ass and long legs. All the guys at the table she was talking to were admiring her, looking at her face, breasts, her legs. The hot girl who gave them breakfast.
She looked up with those old soul eyes and caught my eye and her mouth twitched into a tiny smile, and just like that, I fell. Like I knew her, like I’d been waiting to find her and finally had. There was a lot of relief in it.
But the other waitress got to me before she did and I accepted that. I sat down in the booth and ordered coffee and watched Jess whirling around the room, flying from task to task with the confidence of an expert. She was too young for me. Wrong for me. I didn’t care.
When the car drove through the window and she came rushing out to see if her friend was okay, I saw that she was more than beautiful. Courageous and intelligent and vulnerable in a way that made me think I should leave her alone.
Afterwards, we were standing in that hot flat parking lot and she pulled out her flip phone. I felt an ache, but I still didn’t walk away. I don’t mess with girls like her, so poor they don’t have a single good dress or a pair of shoes that aren’t scuffed, or anything else at all, like a computer or a television. It felt wrong to pursue her, knowing she’d never fit in my world, not the world I’ll have to join eventually. I’d be slumming, even if I told myself I wasn’t.
But I could help her get a job. Maybe figure out why I wanted to paint her.
Then she’d come in to apply at the Musical Spoon, looking like an ad for Colorado living with her long tanned limbs, her hair floating and free down her back, those big, earnest eyes looking out at me with wary attraction.
For awhile, it had started to feel like I had another chance to make my life right, but nope. I had to fuck it up, once again, temper and jealousy out of control, and now she’s half a world away, getting scouted by film people.
On the canvas in front of me, I use a tiny brush to edge her brows, one hair at a time.
I’m thinking of the way she moves, so easily, so unselfconsciously. It’s not like she’s so stupid she doesn’t get that people are looking at her, but she forgets about it. It’s not the thing she’s thinking about all the time.
Thinking too, about that hair, which is something out of a fairy tale. It’s too much, really, too long, overpowering her. I’d love to see what she’d look like if she cut it.
Dawn bleeds pink across the horizon, and I’m still painting. The sun rises and tumbles into the mullioned windows of the room, shining like something good might happen, and I put down the paint brushes. I might finally be getting somewhere.
I finally captured her eyes.