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Tom Barbash

How to Fall

I rode up to the snow-blessed hills of Vermont on a ski trip for singles. I did. Two overheated buses full of women and men between the ages of twenty-two and thirty drinking flavored vodka from plastic martini glasses, and trying to mask their awkwardness. My college roommate Amanda dragged me along, in part for company, but mostly to extract me from the ditch I’d dropped into since things ended with Mitchell. I was permitted to mention Mitchell once — for under ten minutes — Amanda said. The subject was otherwise off limits.

“Deal,” I said.

“Let’s see,” Amanda said.

There were a few more women on the trip than men, not by design, but two of the men had called in sick at the last moment and another — the one I decided I would have hooked up with — was in Florida arranging his grandfather’s funeral.

A broadsheet was circulating with mini-profiles of all of us, and pictures of everyone but me (I’d signed on too late). Amanda quickly sized up the talent — dentist, doctor, actor, shrink … software engineer, sports agent, magazine editor — and she picked out two lawyers, Kevin and Roland, who worked for the same public interest firm, and were sitting two rows back from us. Kevin’s hair was thinning and his gray eyes were slightly amused. Roland, who wore a pale blue ski cap, had a wide smile, the patchy beginnings of a beard, and attractive lines around his mouth. They seemed charming enough in our initial conversation and if I pretended I was someone else I could get through this, I thought.

 

We were booked into a fairly large bed and breakfast — eight rooms, and Amanda arranged it so our room was next to the lawyers. It was around nine when we arrived. Killington, Vermont. We went straight to dinner. There were other singles at our table, all perfectly harmless, but after they cleared the salads we confined our conversation to the four of us. The lawyers were telling stories of spectacular ski accidents from their childhoods. Roland used to race. He’d had a nearly fatal collision with a tree when he was seventeen and lay in a coma for a week. They were certain he would die or end up a vegetable. “I think my brother had already made plans to move into my room.”

He closed and opened his eyes as though reenacting it for us.

“Then one day I just woke up.”

“He transmogrified,” Kevin said.

We waited for an explanation.

For around half a year — while Roland convalesced from his broken leg and two broken ribs — all the murkiness and “fuckedupness” in his adolescent life disappeared, he said. His grades improved. He wrote a play (loosely based on his hospital stay) that earned him raves in the school newspaper, and he learned how to play the French horn. He read War and Peace.

“It was as though I’d cleared out all the clutter in my brain and I suddenly had room for everything I’d wanted to do. It lasted until the summer after graduation.”

Kevin refilled everyone’s wine glasses. We looked at Roland now, who seemed uncomfortable with the attention he’d drawn.

“Then I went back to ripping off convenience stores,” he said. I believed him until the corner of his mouth turned up in a smile.

“He was a god as a racer,” Kevin said.

“I’m far more restrained these days,” he said.

“His restraint would make your hair stand on end,” Kevin said. “I’m mister leisure out there. I snowboard with the high school dudes.”

“How old are you?” Amanda asked him.

“Thirty.”

“Have you ever been married?”

Amanda was a financial analyst, and accustomed to gathering information before committing her clients’ resources. I shot her a look.

“Yes,” he said.

“Somehow I knew it,” Amanda said.

“She died,” Kevin said. “Not from skiing.”

“I’m so sorry. How did she die?” Amanda asked.

“She had an aneurysm,” he said. “Listen, I don’t want to depress everyone. It was a while ago.”

“Two years,” Roland said.

“You poor, poor thing.” Amanda leaned toward Kevin with increased interest. “My uncle had a stroke. He’s better now. They got to him early I guess. How old was she?”

“Twenty-six.”

“My god, that’s so young.”

“It is.” He fidgeted with the clasp on his leather watchband. “Anyway, how long have you guys lived in the city?”

“My whole life,” I said.

“Five years,” Amanda said, about herself. Then she told them about my childhood. It was a sweet gesture I suppose, though she mangled several details and made me sound fairly disturbed (and my father sound like a polygamist). While she was talking, I started to picture Kevin’s young wife a day before her death, booking a vacation she’d never take, or buying groceries she’d never eat, and then I remembered Mitchell and I realized he was at a secure distance now, and I felt calm, because when you got right down to it, what had happened to me? Nothing life-threatening. No coma, no aneurysm.

Not yet anyhow.

I poured myself another glass of wine. Then two more, and we had shots of vodka after that, which Amanda said should be our last.

We started telling jokes. Or maybe I just did. I told them the one about the city boy moving upstate. He gets invited to a party by his downstairs neighbor.

“What’ll it be like?” he asks.

“Oh it’s going to be wild,” the guy says. “There’s going to be some drinking, there’s gonna be some fuckin; there’ll be some fightin, and maybe a little dancing.”

“Who all’s coming?” the city boy asks.

“Oh, it’s just going to be you and me.”

I’m not sure why I told that one, or why I thought it was so funny. But the men laughed and Amanda didn’t.

“So the first guy gets raped,” she said.

“No,” I said. “That’s not it at all.”

“So then what is it?”

“It’s about false advertising,” I said.

Roland raised his glass, “And that underneath it all we just want to drink, fuck, fight, and dance.”

 

The night he broke up with me, Mitchell and I decided to sleep together one final time, and when he slipped out the front door in the morning, I felt surprisingly intact. I had the typical what-did-you-do-over-the-weekend conversations at the media distribution company where I work, accomplished a few basic tasks, and I thought: maybe this’ll be easy. And then I thought, what does it mean if it’s easy? And then I started to call Mitchell to ask him what it meant. But I remembered the rule we made about not calling and so I hung up.

After work I went to the Museum of Natural History, and I coursed around my favorite spots, the whale and the dinosaurs, and the Pygmies. I tried to make it fun, so that it would be a story I’d tell my friends—you know what I did? I went to a museum by myself and you know what? I had a blast. And they’d think— she’s going to be just fine. I’ve always liked seeing people alone in museums, jotting down notes, lingering at a painting or a piece of Mayan pottery. I liked the idea that I could be like that. But I began to feel very self-conscious, and I wanted to get to a phone so I could call Mitchell. I had left my cell phone at home so I wouldn’t be tempted.

 

I hightailed it through the park. It was November and fairly cold, and you could see the breath emerging from the mouths of the bundled-up joggers and shoppers who passed by. I began to think that going out without a phone had been a mistake. I wondered, What if he calls?

He called, I thought. Or stopped by to make up and I wasn’t there. Convinced that this would happen, I stayed in the next few nights watching DVDs. I chose ones I thought would distract me, like The Matrix, which with my diminished concentration I couldn’t really follow—people in pods, and a world that might or might not exist, and Keanu Reeves in a black coat taking pills and shooting people in what looked like the entrance to a bank.

At eleven the following Sunday night, I called Mitchell and told him that if he came over and we slept together it didn’t have to mean anything.

Brilliant move.

It was two weeks before I heard from him. And over those nights it was like I imagine life must be in a methadone clinic — cold sweats and a soul-shriveling restlessness — but this is nothing new. Everyone in every country of the world has bushwhacked through this. It probably didn’t help that we slept together twice more. I have no explanation other than that both times I believed we were back together, though he explicitly told me (“Are we clear on this, Jen?”) we weren’t. When I left at three and searched for a cab I did this thing where I dug my fingernails, and one time a pencil, into my arms, the way I would as a little girl when the doctor gave me a shot and I wanted to divert the pain. I saw my reflection once in the wide-angle mirror of my apartment building’s lobby. My hair was squashed and matted and my arms were blotched with little red cuts. I looked like a junkie with shitty aim.

 

Under the silky light of a storybook moon, the four of us walked back through the cold to the B and B. The proprietress was at her desk when we arrived and she asked us for our breakfast preferences. She handed us sheets of pale green paper with an impressive list of food and beverage selections. I circled grapefruit juice and pancakes, and bacon, and then thought better of it and crossed out the bacon, and then wrote out the word bacon, and then wrote the word Yes next to bacon, so they would know I wanted it. What the fuck. I asked for a pot of coffee — it said a cup or a pot, and I liked the idea of someone brewing a whole pot just for me.

We turned in our lists and then we lingered in front of our room. A dog barked from downstairs. I thought Amanda might ask the guys in and I would have gone along with it, but it was better we went our separate ways. The rooms were small and one of us might have felt trapped. We could hear their voices through the walls though we couldn’t make out what they were saying, even when we listened through the water glasses.

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