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Backcountry


[clock] 30-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Winter 2017

Illustration by Kristen Radtke

When Ingrid was twenty-five, she lived for four months in a big house on the edge of an unfinished—never to be finished—ski resort. This was in Montana, on Adelaide Peak, twenty years ago. Richie, her much older kind-of boyfriend, and mastermind of the whole sad enterprise, had borrowed against his land to build the house, a baronial place full of grandiose touches like antler chandeliers and stone fireplaces and a drawer that warmed plates. It was the only structure on the mountain. After Richie went missing and Ingrid was left alone, all his expensive possessions started to seem foolish, and a careless contempt for them would steal over her—for him, too, who had been dumb or weak enough to probably die. 

Richie liked to say the house was ski-in, ski-out, even if skiing out took some work since there weren’t any lifts. If they wanted to go down, they had to climb up, earn their turns. After the search was called off, Ingrid hiked or skinned up Adelaide on the days when the weather allowed and skied different routes down, looking for some sign: a ski tip poking out of the snow, his blaze-orange beanie snagged on a branch. Truthfully, though, she wasn’t looking very hard. Going up, she often lost herself in the rhythmic jab of her poles, the cold air cycling through her lungs, the crows caw-cawing in the trees, the distant frozen lakes visible from the summit. Coming down, she got to thinking about her technique and line and sometimes forgot all about Richie until she was back at the house. Then the sight of it, stone and timber, dark and empty, reminded her he’d be spending another night out there, somewhere, either dead in the cold with the night creatures or, less probably but still possibly, alive and safe somewhere else, somewhere like the Cayman Islands, having abandoned her and his other problems with one tidy disappearance.


Before she met Richie, Ingrid had been with Wesley, the man she would eventually marry. They’d gotten together one winter in Breckenridge, when they were both working in a ski shop, a clattering dungeon that smelled of socks and wax and steel edges fresh off the grinder, and had dated for some months, into the summer. When he’d left her, Wesley disguised the leaving as a simple departure: He was going backpacking around the world, seeking something vague yet important. To be fair, he’d invited her along, but he knew she didn’t have the money.

She had grown up on Lake Tahoe—her parents owned a bar and grill, a taxidermy-and-neon kind of place—and as soon as she finished high school, she’d taken off without any plan beyond drifting through the mountain states. The people she hung out with were seasonal people like herself: lifties or instructors or patrollers in the winter, rafting or fishing guides or dude-ranch wranglers in the summer. In the shoulder seasons, they tried to get jobs waiting tables or working cash registers, and they ate ramen and canned chili from the discount store while they waited for the snow to finish melting or start falling. 

Seasonal people are always in and out of versions of lust and love, and why not? Everyone’s fit. Everyone’s drunk on nature and cheap beer. When seasonal people spout off, without irony, about free love and mother nature and the purity of the mountains, all you have to do is keep saying, Yeah, totally, I know what you mean, and eventually you’re kissing someone. So when Wesley left, Ingrid was sad but not devastated. She decided she’d go where the wind blew her.

First it blew her to Keystone, where she got her first real instructor job and burned through a succession of amiably stoned snowboarder quasi-boyfriends, and then it blew her to Idaho for the summer (rafting gig), and then, in October, to Jackson Hole to teach ski school. Before the season started, before there was even any snow, she went to a party in a crash-pad cabin that reminded her of so many others she’d seen over the years—not squalid, exactly, but improvised, with towels for curtains and sleeping bags on bare mattresses—and that was where she met Richie.

At first she’d assumed he was somebody’s father, or maybe one of the lifer instructors who eventually get as craggy and weathered as the mountains themselves, but he was a stranger who’d been visiting a friend next door and heard the merriment and decided to investigate. He was a friendly guy—he said so himself—and assumed he would be welcome everywhere. When Ingrid went to get a beer, he buttonholed her near the refrigerator and started telling her about the resort he was building outside Yellowstone, how it would be world-class, a real destination. Then he switched topics abruptly.

“I must seem like an old geezer to you,” he said, “but the thing is, I can sell ice to an Eskimo. I can sell brimstone to the devil. I know I can talk you into going on a date with me.”

“So what you’re saying,” she said, amused, “is that I need a date with you as much as an Eskimo needs more ice.”

“Hell, you can never have too much ice,” he said.

As happens to fair-skinned outdoorsy people, his face had been scorched and abraded by the elements to a deep, mottled pink, and he had a hard round whiskey gut like something out of a mold pan. A gold watch sat in a nest of crispy blond fur on his wrist. He was too old for her and too swaggering and slick, but she figured if the wind blew her out to dinner with some rich divorced guy (he told her he was divorced) and then, the next weekend, up to his lonely house on Adelaide Peak and never quite blew her out again, so be it. By the time he confessed he wasn’t divorced but separated, from a woman who lived in the nearest town, called Witching, Ingrid had not only given up her ski-school job but had started to think of herself as someone whose plates should be warmed in a drawer, who should be able to open a set of French doors and step out into killer backcountry. He seemed surprised by how little she cared about his bombshell. Your marriage is your responsibility, she told him. It doesn’t have anything to do with me.

“Her name is Adelaide,” he said. His wife’s name.

“Did you name the mountain after her?”

He laughed, an actual guffaw. “Someone named the mountain a long time before I came on the scene, honey. It’s a coincidence. But maybe I attached too much importance to it back in the day, when I was a romantic idiot.” His tone was indulgent and paternal, which she found irritating since she didn’t think of Richie as her superior in any way, except maybe on skis. She had been surprised, when the snow finally came, to discover he was a grade A ripper, fearless and stylish, his big body quiet through the tick-tock swing of his poles and the graceful genuflections of his Telemark turns.

Five years before, Richie had inherited 6,000 acres of land—the lower reaches of Adelaide. His father never built anything on it besides a few rickety hunting camps, preferring to live in Witching, in a modest A-frame with Richie’s mother. After she died, Richie’s father moved to a tiny cabin on the shore of Lake Witching that Richie described as a stupid fucking freezing-ass gnome house—typical of his father, who had never known how to have a good time, or even an okay time, or to let anyone else have an okay time, forget about a good one. 

A few debts came with the land, mostly tax-related, but Richie, who’d been dreaming since childhood of skiers swooping down Adelaide and clomping into a magnificent lodge to linger over beer and fondue and make impulsive offers on overpriced condos, had no intention of cashing out prematurely. He didn’t doubt he could cajole the government into selling him use of the much vaster parcel of public wilderness that extended uphill from his land to the top of Adelaide and, to the west, encompassed the eminently developable Mt. Gust. Of course they would let him build lifts and restaurants and crisscross the place with access roads and boundary ropes. He couldn’t imagine they would mind if he cut down trees, dug out boulders, piped in water for the snow cannons, sent patrollers up with dynamite to clear avalanches from the high bowl. Richie was so confident everything would fall into place that before the Forest Service even laid eyes on his proposal he’d started cutting runs on his land, treeless strips that fanned out down the slopes like veins. In Witching, he set himself up with an office full of letterhead and glossy trail maps and sweatshirts monogrammed with ski adelaide! that he gave away indiscriminately and 3-D renderings of the base lodge, complete with sundeck and ticket windows.

The first night he brought Ingrid to the house, she had played up her youth, marveling at everything with such rapture she worried he might think she was making fun, but he radiated pride, started pointing out custom-made cabinets, gave a demonstration of the ski room’s boot dryers. “No fucking way!” she said about the den with a pool table and carved cherry bar backed by smoked mirrors. “Get out of town!” she said when he flipped a switch to illuminate the Jacuzzi on the deck, even though she had known, from the moment she stepped into the house, that there would be a Jacuzzi. 

“How about a dip?” he said, handing her a glass of wine. She could almost have mouthed along with the question, she saw it coming from so far away. She felt a patronizing amusement at the power he seemed to ascribe to this glowing turquoise lure, kept snug under a vinyl lid and faithfully fed chlorine pellets in exchange for the hope that women might want to lower their bodies into it.

Sitting in her underwear in the roiling water, she let her head loll back. “Great stars,” she called over the jets.

“Wait till you see this place in the morning.” He moved stealthily through the maelstrom and was suddenly close, one hand on her thigh. With a dripping, steaming arm, he gestured to the cold-smelling darkness. “Ski-in, ski-out. You’ll have to imagine the snow.”

“What makes you think I’ll be here in the morning?”

He leaned in. Booze and chlorine, a faint gaminess she attributed to his being over fifty. “Just a hunch.”

She’d had a sense of déjà vu, like she was reenacting a movie she’d seen but couldn’t quite place, and what followed in his big bed on his lame red sheets had that same stale sense of role-playing. It occurred to her that maybe all flirtation is hackneyed and hollow, maybe all romance nothing more than biology gussied up in a tacky figure-skating costume. He called her “baby” and asked if she was a good girl and did lots of instructing and demanding in an alert, rapid, encouraging way that made her think of a jockey talking to a horse. 

He didn’t crave her pain or humiliation, just her submission, her doll-like malleability, her assurances that she did like it when he did that, that she was a good girl. He needed her to submit to the idea of him as happy-go-lucky ass-slapping good ol’ boy huckster always half a step ahead of trouble. She was happy enough to oblige. She believed in the power of lowering herself, and she believed she deserved to be celebrated for the accomplishment of not yet having lived too long.


There were traces of Adelaide, the almost-ex wife, scattered around his house. The pair of black cotton underwear balled between the washer and dryer got tossed in the trash, though Ingrid kept the tea tree oil and lotion and tampons she found under the bathroom sink, as pleased as if they had been left for her as gifts. She ignored the name scrawled in certain books she pulled off the shelves. She hung her necklaces from the delicate brass jewelry tree that stood, wintry and denuded, on a shelf in the cavernous master closet.

In their first couple of weeks together, Richie would make a big show of cuddling and kissing and whispering little endearments after sex, but before long he started going right from clutching and grunting to being an inert, silent mound on the other side of the bed. Back in her teens, Ingrid had learned that ejaculation sometimes emptied men of a certain animating humanity. The energies they used to attract women in the first place—attentiveness, empathy, vitality—were commandeered and diverted by their bodies toward the essential project of replenishing their testicles, and they became lumpen and taciturn. Usually she found this transformation annoying, symptomatic of a childish self-indulgence that men (generally speaking) managed to wield somehow as a strength, but in Richie’s case the shutdown was the only part of their whole arrangement that made her feel seedy and ashamed, less like a captivating, irresistible minx and more like a generic vessel required for an ancient but discredited ritual. She would slink out of bed and go clean up, dawdling in front of the mirror before she switched out the light.

Once the snow came, it kept coming. A couple of feet had accumulated when, early one morning, she heard a snowmobile and then a shrill human racket. Through the leaded-glass window by the front door she saw a tall woman in a black snowmobile suit with a fur-lined hood screaming up at the bedroom window. Her machine was slewed at an angle behind Richie’s truck. As she hurled something at the house—a rock?—Ingrid finally understood her cries. Richie! Richie! Richie! Another rock. Glass broke. Only then, running up the stairs to get Richie out of the shower, did Ingrid realize the woman had to be Adelaide.

Richie charged out into the snow in his bathrobe and slippers, steam rising cartoonishly from the top of his damp head, skinny ankles flushed salmon pink. He grabbed Adelaide’s cocked arm and forced it down. 

Her hood fell back. 

Ingrid had imagined Richie’s wife in various incarnations—mousy, sexy, rugged, frumpy—but always as a woman, whole and recognizable as such, not as anything like this bewildering being. The skin of her face resembled papier-mâché not yet completely dry, rippled and rutted with long, tender pink ladders showing where she had been sewn together, all of it off-kilter, pulling down to the left. She appeared to be missing an ear. Short, sparse dark hair sprouted chaotically from her furrowed scalp. Twisting in Richie’s grasp, she dropped to sit in the snow, legs bent under her. She looked at Ingrid. “You don’t belong here,” she said. “This isn’t your place.”

For a confused moment, Ingrid wondered if Richie, still gripping Adelaide’s arm, had been the cause of her injuries. But, no, this woman had been savaged by something more fearsome. Atop her ordinary body in its snowmobiling suit, her mangled face and wild, patchy hair had the effect of a headdress, something a shaman might wear, a coyote mask. 

Richie said, “Ingrid, quit staring. Go inside.”

He didn’t stay out long. Ten minutes. Ingrid watched from upstairs. The contortions of Adelaide’s face must have been painful. Eventually she scooped up handfuls of snow and pressed them against her cheeks.

Richie came inside after the snowmobile had gone revving and growling away. “I was meaning to tell you about—” he stopped and stared into space, then said, “Anyway, now you know about her. Now she knows about you.” He sounded both grave and sardonic. “Now everybody knows about everybody.”

Ingrid asked what had happened.

A mountain lion had attacked Adelaide while she was jogging in a canyon, he said. She’d surprised it. It must not have been very hungry or determined because she’d managed to fight it off with a branch and rocks, and then she’d walked two miles to get help, knocked on someone’s door basically flayed, holding one of her eyeballs in place with her hand. She was tough, he’d give her that. 

“Was that before or after you separated?”

“After,” he said. Then, “Damn it. Before. There’s the truth.” 

But things had already gone wrong between them, he said. That was a fact, even though, okay, maybe he couldn’t deal with it: her drooping eyelid, the pucker at one corner of her lopsided mouth, how her left ear was just a hole in her head. She’d been under bandages for so long, had so many surgeries, he’d held out hope she would emerge, at the end, looking more or less as she had before. Silly in retrospect. 

He said he would tape some trash bags over the broken window so they could get out and ski, enjoy the fresh snow, the bluebird day.


In late January the Forest Service put the kibosh on Richie’s plan. They denied his application to develop the upper reaches of Adelaide Peak and all of Mt. Gust, citing elk habitat and restrictions on land use and, infuriatingly to Richie, local opposition. “Don’t they want jobs?” he demanded of Ingrid as though she were a delegate sent by the people of Witching. “Don’t they want to sell their shitty little houses for a fortune?” 

Money dried up fast. A few days after his main investor pulled out, Richie left the house before Ingrid woke. His skis were gone, but she didn’t think to look for tracks until late in the afternoon, when snow was already falling. Everyone had known a big snow was coming, expected to last two days, and she couldn’t explain to Search and Rescue why Richie would have stayed out so long or why he didn’t tell her where he was going. There wasn’t much the guys could do until the storm passed, and then there was so much snow, so much mountain. After ten days, they called off the search.

“The truth is,” Leroy, the search boss, said, sitting on one of Richie’s rustic leather couches, “we probably won’t find him until spring. And even then…” he hitched a thumb over his shoulder, at the mountain out there, the great secretive bulk of it. “He could be anywhere.”

They sat in silence. She suspected Leroy didn’t have the heart to suggest Richie might have gotten lost on purpose—Richie’s troubles were no secret—and she didn’t have the nerve to voice her theory that his missing skis were a red herring and he’d slipped away to some tropical haven with whatever money he’d managed to sock away.

“I’m going to keep looking for him,” she told Leroy.

Leroy said he was going to pretend he hadn’t heard that. “Do me a favor and make sure we don’t have to come up there after you,” he said.

Ingrid thought she would get some communication from Adelaide, who was probably the owner of the house if Richie was presumed dead, but no word came. She figured Adelaide must have decided she’d rather let her squat than deal with kicking her out. In any event, she stayed.


Sometimes sluggish wasps appeared in the house, usually one at a time, wandering sleepily out of a hidden nest somewhere, drawn to the wall of windows where they would land and walk slowly up the glass as though crossing a frozen pond, a whole sideways world of sky and snow and mountain beneath their barbed yellow feet. She watched them glumly, mesmerized, wanting neither to kill them nor live with them. 

She hadn’t met many of Richie’s friends before he disappeared, but now gradually she did. They came by the house, or they introduced themselves in Witching. She could tell they thought she should leave but were also impressed, in spite of themselves, that she kept searching. Richie’s life, as she pieced it together from their stories, had been a steady undulation of grand plans and ignominious failures. He had tried to start a bison ranch in Wyoming, but his animals caught a virus and died. He partnered in a restaurant in a transitional Denver neighborhood that transitioned the wrong way. He invented a new kind of ski binding he was sure would change the sport until he broke both his ankles demonstrating the prototypes. 

Adelaide (the human Adelaide) had been another grand plan. Ingrid found a box of mementos in a cabinet: yellowed wedding invitations and obscure souvenirs and photos of Adelaide with her original face—on the flat side, with high cheekbones and wide-set eyes and determination lying like bedrock under all her expressions. There was a journal in which she and Richie had written sappy notes to each other before they married. 

Sometimes I think of you, and it stops me in my tracks as though I walked into a wall. And I just have to stand there and think about you some more before I get back to myself enough to go about my business. 

Richie had written that. Ingrid recognized the handwriting but not the man. 

You are the axis of me, Adelaide wrote. You are my sky and my skin.

Ingrid put the journal away, faintly revolted. She couldn’t imagine being willing to lower herself for Richie in a way that was not a game, not tawdry role-play meant to squeeze the final twinges of sexual novelty from a humdrum life. She supposed there were men she’d beg not to leave her, whom she’d throw herself on the ground for, but they would have to be extraordinary in some way, misty Hollywood ideals. Richie was just a guy, just a puffed-up, old rooster guy, though the fact that Adelaide loved him so much raised his stock a bit for Ingrid. Poor Adelaide. No matter how ferociously she insulted or berated him, how eloquently she denounced his disloyalty, how incisively she exposed the futile vampirism of his horniness (he would still die one day, no matter how young his lovers), she was helpless to make him feel the shame she thought would balance out her suffering. 

Ingrid resolved never to be so powerless. It did not occur to her that such resolutions are in vain, that destruction is built into love as fundamentally as into atoms of uranium.


Near the end of March, when Richie had been missing almost two months, a late snow came: almost a foot at the house, more up top. Ingrid stood at the wall of windows, wearied by the sight of it. She wanted springtime. Sun and rain. If Richie was on the mountain, she wanted meltwater to sluice him down, for some hiker’s dog to sniff him out. She wanted permission to take up her life again. Finding Richie would change nothing—she knew that—but still she felt bound by some garbled, residual obedience, like a flustered, prideful child alone in a gathering dusk, the other hide-and-seekers maybe too well hidden or maybe gone home laughing.

Out she went into the fresh snow. As she skinned up, her mood improved. Squeaking, coppery-smelling powder made a nice change from icy, dirt-patched crust. The sun was full on the slope, and by the time she got to the clearing where the upper terminal of Lift B was to have been, she had shed her layers down to a long-sleeved T-shirt. At the base of the ridge that led up to the bowl, she paused to drink from her water bottle, then went on, her tracks the only thing marring the smooth snow.

The wind had accumulated a blue-white cornice below the summit, a thick lip of snow she eyed as she climbed. At the top, she stopped well back from the edge. Far below, a narrow road ran through the valley beside a river still frozen along its banks. To the east, Lake Witching was a flat plain of white interrupted here and there by hedgehog islands. All around were mountains: snow and rock and black masses of trees clinging on like mussels. She had the sensation of having lost track of scale, like she was looking down into something beautifully crafted but not quite real, a model world in a glass case. An airplane carved through the empty blue sky, pouring out skinny, parallel clouds. Probably someone was looking back at her through an oval window up there, though neither could see the other, only the plane, the snowy peak. 

She pulled on her jacket and zipped it, straightened her goggles, tugged her hat low, did all her little rituals, her systems check, her superstitious adjustments. Gingerly, she stepped closer to the edge and jabbed with her pole. Solid snowpack. She inched further, jabbing until the pole slid into the cornice. She lifted one ski, turned it sideways, and, leaning away, delivered a firm, flat kangaroo kick and then another until the snow gave way, shearing off in a crumbling hunk and sliding away down the bowl, a cloud of crystals billowing up in its wake. She watched it go, reassured by the way the fluted face held firm under the sluff. Climbing, she had heard some troubling creaking, the mountain grinding its teeth. 

She tapped her poles together—another ritual: clink, clink—then dropped in. She made only two turns before she realized a buckle on her left boot was loose and stopped, cranky at her carelessness. The face was steep, and she had to dig her edges in hard as she reached down.

A sandpapering roar, a glittering fog. 

She hadn’t told her friends or parents about Richie. No one knew where she was. After she’d settled in at his house, she’d called a girl she knew in Jackson Hole and made a vague excuse about having to quit her ski-school job and go away suddenly for family reasons, a story that was accepted with little resistance, as seasonal people were always disappearing and reappearing. See you when I see you, the girl had said.

Later, among other skiers and boarders, Ingrid sometimes did occasionally mention she’d had a close call with an avalanche, though she fudged the circumstances, just said she was in the backcountry in Montana, foolishly alone. By the grace of some motherfucking miracle, she said, when the slab gave way she had barely moved, slid just a few feet, like the mountain was grabbing at her but couldn’t quite hold on. When things settled, she was standing on the edge of a mini-cliff, just above the fracture. Literally inches above it, she said. Downhill, the snow was still sliding, white and churning, sweeping along like an ocean wave. The sound of it grew fainter. Mountain people knew what she meant. Close calls were never really clean escapes; they introduced you to your own ghost. 

After the avalanche, she stood for a while and waited for something else to happen. When nothing did, she sidestepped cautiously down into the slide zone and made a few turns. The snow held. She continued on, skirting the place where the avalanche had petered out in a jumbled mess of snow and rocks and branches, where she could easily have been buried, contorted under the snow, packed tight like a fossil. When, farther downhill, she paused to catch her breath, there was silence except for the crows, the meltwater dripping from the trees. Maybe she’d skied right over him somewhere and never known.

When she got back to the house, she packed up her stuff and left.

She went to Jackson Hole and got lucky at the first place she tried. A bartender had gotten busted selling coke, so she was hired. A few weeks later, she read in the paper that Richie’s body had been found. Some snowboarder kids had come across him on Mt. Gust, sitting against a tree, still half-buried in snow, 9mm in his hand, hole in his head. Ingrid had been looking on the wrong mountain. 

She thought one of the Search and Rescue guys might have called to let her know he’d been found, but then she supposed she’d surrendered any claim on Richie when she left. Maybe they’d gone to the house, found it empty, and decided she’d gotten bored and had taken off to look for a new benefactor. In the article, Leroy was quoted as saying that Richie had been irresponsible not to leave a note. “Guys risked their lives out there looking for him,” he said.

Adelaide, asked what she would do with the land, said only, “Nothing.”

Toward the end of the season, Wesley slid onto one of Ingrid’s bar stools. He’d planned to travel for a year but ended up being gone for three. “One thing led to another,” he said. “I kept meeting great people who were on their way somewhere, and I’d go along.”

He never apologized for leaving, but he did say he was sorry if he’d treated her badly. She said she didn’t think he had.

“I had some stuff to get out of my system,” he said.

She wondered if he expected her to ask if he had succeeded, if all that indefinable, corrupting stuff had been successfully jettisoned over the world’s beaches and mountains, dispersed among its temples and hot springs, its hostels and nightclubs. There was no point. She didn’t think the impulse to be wild, if you had it, could ever really be purged. You tamped it down and let your life settle on top. Right then and there she decided she didn’t need to know everything about Wesley. 

This was another foolish resolution, made in mockery of her future self, who became chaotic with fury after she opened the file in Wesley’s e-mail marked “Tax Stuff” and found pictures of his twenty-six-year-old mistress, all smooth skin and pointed breasts and eyeliner, though even in her shock Ingrid noticed that the girl’s face was plain under all that makeup, with a nascent shrewish sharpness. This hint of ugliness both consoled and embittered her. She raged at Wesley. Then she begged and pleaded with him, not so much so he would stay but so he would somehow not do what he had already done. 


After Ingrid and Wesley leave their marriage counselor’s office, they pick up their younger son from a friend’s house and their older son from his soccer game and drive to a pizza parlor where the team is having a party. It is a hot, low-ceilinged place with a red-and-black-tiled floor and a claw machine full of plush animals waiting to be grappled up and away as though from the embassy in Saigon. The tables are crowded with pepperoni pies and pitchers of soda and amber plastic cups and boys in green jerseys bent to the work of eating, their hair still damp with sweat at their napes. 

The humid, noisy place comes as a shock after the concentrated hush of Dr. Rivkoff’s office, its cocooning misery.

“It’s over with her, and I’m sorry,” Wesley had said. “Isn’t that enough?”

Dr. Rivkoff had fixed Ingrid with a game-show host’s keen but impartial gaze. She is not a Jungian but dresses like one, in long beaded necklaces and expensively minimalist layers of draped linen. “Is it?”

“I’m so tired of talking about myself,” Wesley added before Ingrid could say anything.

Skepticism had flickered under Dr. Rivkoff’s neutral expression. Therapists were like astronauts, Ingrid thought, striking off through the infinite vastness of people’s willingness to talk about themselves.

Ingrid sits in a booth with some other moms. Wesley is with the dads at a table on the far side of the boys, all of them angled to watch basketball on an enormous flatscreen. A young waitress in a ponytail and short shorts brings them a tray of beers, and they eye her and smile. Ingrid wishes there had been time with Dr. Rivkoff to discuss how, the other day, she had walked in on her older son masturbating to a Victoria’s Secret catalog (“Old school!” Wesley had said, forgetting for a moment that he was still supposed to be monkishly contrite and nonsexual), and while she knows this is natural and inevitable and something her son will do frequently and forever, she can’t help but blame her husband. He has invited the serpent into their house.

“I don’t know what’s enough,” Ingrid had said to Dr. Rivkoff. “I want him to be embarrassed about being such a cliché, the aging doofus slobbering over the pretty young thing—well, the young thing—but I can tell deep down he’s proud of himself, like, still got it! I’m not saying he doesn’t feel bad. I just don’t believe he genuinely regrets it.”

“I can’t control what you believe,” said Wesley.

“You could make more of an effort to be convincing.”

“So,” interjected Dr. Rivkoff, “Ingrid, you’re saying you’re frustrated because Wesley doesn’t seem to feel what you want him to feel. But that’s life, isn’t it?”

Ingrid had stared at the strange, spidery plants that live in a glass bowl on Dr. Rivkoff’s coffee table without benefit of soil or water. She had never told Wesley about Richie or Adelaide. Finally, she said, “The problem is, I think I can imagine what went on between them too clearly.”

“So I’m supposed to be responsible for your imagination now as well,” Wesley said.

“I just mean,” she said, “that I’m not sure I can pretend not to be haunted by this.”

“I’m afraid we don’t get to choose what haunts us,” Dr. Rivkoff had said.

Ingrid’s older son tips his head back and lowers the point of a pizza slice into his mouth, tongue extended to meet it, eyes closed, being silly, though she can’t help but see lasciviousness. They are virginal, these boys, but no longer innocent. Their minds are already churning with muddled fantasies; they can’t possibly imagine becoming bored with a woman’s body, and yet that capacity is already in all of them, buried under their narrow, hairless chests and downy cheeks and briny pubescent odors. Maybe it’s in girls, too, but Ingrid doesn’t think so. Not in the same way.

All at once the cheese separates from her son’s pizza and lands flat on his face, red sauce-side up, slick and shiny, grotesque. The boys laugh. Ingrid thinks of Adelaide in the snow. She thinks of her young self standing and watching and feeling almost nothing: mild pity, faint embarrassment. She should have been afraid. She should have understood that even a life lived properly, lived better than she was living, would bring so much grief.

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P. Kearney Byrne's picture
P. Kearney Byrne · 1 month ago

A terrific story, Maggie. Muscular and insightful. Thanks

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