It was unclear whether I was supposed to continue my work. The guests sometimes left used dishes out on tables, and sometimes did the chore themselves, chatting with one another. Few things more grounding than housework, one said.
The first night of the blizzard, the storm of the decade the radio broadcasts and cable news networks called it, some staff sneaked to the least used balcony to smoke a joint. We huddled in a shaft some of the others had dug out, up to our necks in smoke and steam.
In the evenings, a few of the guests watched films in the home theatre, at intervals turning their attention away to discuss anecdotes of the actors’ lives and the social or political relevance of the themes. Others gathered in the den, shuffling between the wet bar and the lounging furniture. I would do a sweep, one or two a night, and the guests’ countenance spoke of an uncertainty apparently not unlike mine. Don’t bother yourself, one said, clearly betraying sincerity as he did so. Anyway, there was no real inlet in the various social scenes for me or any of the staff to meaningfully join.
I had come to Stowe, to Whitemare because I needed a job. I’d come to Vermont because, in my mind, it was the closest I could get to being somewhere while being nowhere, in a way. The catalyst for my decision to come to this place was a story, an overhearing that I, in time, integrated into my own set of possible choices. It happens more often than we’d perhaps like to think, more or less enacting the stories we pick up on our move through the world.
The Whitemare Mountain Lodge was a luxury accommodation less than a mile from the slopes, a fabulously expensive architecture of minimalist rustic design. I had the feeling that the new-old place would survive the worst catastrophes, for decades to come, in fact. If catastrophe struck - flood, wind, landslide - the Whitemare would stand. We were one of the very few around that didn’t end up requiring generators to keep the lights on.
On the fourth night, Dale died. He was found wilted over one of the beds, where he’d been making various phone calls. The staff knew he’d been dealing with late-stage congestive heart failure. A veteran staff, a woman around his age, sixty-ish, suspected his fate before we found him. She’d been the one to remind him to keep up with his medicines. He’s the only one here who knows how the generators work? A panicked guest asked.
Me and the rest of the staff made the decision to carry him to the hot tub room with the facts of chemistry in mind; the room went unused and remained cold unless the vents to the house’s main interior were opened. Several of the guests opposed this, worried that it would bring suspicion and lengthier procedure on us all. We laid a spare bedsheet over his body. The praying staff prayed at his side. Early on, Dale had told us, in the event of his death on shift, with a shade of humor: don’t worry, I won’t shit all over myself and make you clean it up. He’d been right, posthumously and, though I didn’t know him very well, found myself wishing I could answer to his joke.
I didn’t sleep that night, or the next. The staff had taken up bunkering in the little row of gabled guest rooms. For pleasure, we smoked weed, blowing the smoke into tissue-stuffed toilet paper rolls like teenagers hiding from parents, and bullshitted, exchanged unlikely stories, the best kind in such situations. One of the staff, a guy, probably a few years younger than me, boldly stole a bottle of vodka from the wet bar. In a moment of privacy, he offered me various amphetamine capsules he’d discovered in one of the guest bathrooms. After taking a couple, we had sex.
Michael and I spent the first hours of dawn talking on the smoking balcony. He’d moved away from active duty in the Air Force to get his license as a commercial pilot. You don’t seem military, I had said. He asked what that meant. I guess I don’t know, I’d said, because you smoke pot and listen to Radiohead. And, he’d said, I’m a communist. With a finger, he drew a circle in a wall of snow and called it capitalism, and everything outside the circle wasn’t, or wasn’t exactly. Inside the circle was work, travel, higher education, cultural institutions, financing unaffordable things, the internet, and so on. Outside was dying, suiciding, murder, sex and reproduction, taking or dealing drugs, theft from places of business, madness, public parks, and socializing. Whitemare in a nutshell, I thought.
He talked about how massive theft, a culture of theft, really, he’d said, was now the last method for meaningfully confronting capitalists. In Russia, he’d said with a tone of apology, which amused me a little, endearingly, because it had been only a few years ago that I had similarly felt so actively a part of the world. I don’t remember what he’d said about Russia, some undeveloped figuring of what went wrong then and what could be done differently now.
At one point I told him he looked like a commercial airline pilot, and he said it wasn’t the first time he’d been told that: male, white, tall-ish, plain features, except for the tattoos maybe. I didn’t feel dumb for my uninventive observations – I floundered, with nihilistic indifference to connection, trying to preserve a boundary – but for feeling that, because he was a single veteran, and I really liked him, I would probably mourn his leaving in some silly way.
The next morning, a nice thought struck me. In spite of the previous five days, I hadn’t been met with any seriously troubled thoughts or emotions, save for those outside of my control, the fact of Dale’s death. Being stuck in the Whitemare hadn’t bothered me; it was a fact of nature, and one I knew would pass. The recent gutter for me had been an attempted suicide, the reverberations of which had dragged on over two weeks in a psychiatric ward.
There, I fell in with a man, in his seventies about, a ceramics artist of some renown from a small town forty miles from my home city. I savored his articulations of his life outside the hospital, where he lived in an old farmhouse and passed his days between the garden and the studio. He was English, which added to a mystique I was a little taken by. I’d never met an Englishman before, and it was estranging to wonder why he’d chosen to live in rural Illinois, so cut off.
We spent afternoons doing jigsaw puzzles and playing chess in the common area, the latter game he’d taught me from scratch. I reminded him of his late wife, a housewife, he’d said, with the brain of an engineer that made light of so effortlessly giving him trouble. I recoiled at the comment, feeling a little self-conscious. That young man over there, the old man pointed, said, what do you make of him?
A teenager covered in homespun tattoos up to his ears, he walked determinedly back and forth in a straight line, a span of ten feet. He appeared completely dissociated, but that morning I had waved and said hello in passing, and he’d stopped still and returned the address, then resumed his routine.
We were, in that moment and with regularity besides, interrupted by a middle-aged man, schizophrenic, who told us in detail his plans to move to Vermont to start a ski touring business in the town in which his adopted parents frequented winters. He left abruptly, telling us he was readying to meet with an investor and did we want to invest, too.
I told the old man that I thought the tattooed boy was probably generally kind. Do you think him harmful to himself or others? Yes, I said, insomuch as the general conditions of life pose dangers either way. The explanation made me feel as if I hadn’t said anything at all; all inane. The old man leapt into a monologue about the history of madness, how only in the last century did madness come to be treated as maladaptation.
I could’ve clung to the old man’s shirt sleeve, asking for a job, unpaid even, any job, assisting him at his country estate. I’d thought about it. But I felt I would be bothering him or encroaching somehow on the life he’d made.
I realized I was pregnant the day the snow melted enough. The big storm had been a month before; little fits of blizzard came and went.
Are you insane? Guests and staff took turns asking me variations of this question, and, you could seriously die out there! Except I’d realized several things, and needed to leave promptly. It was an old habit, feeling nosed into an impasse then fleeing.
I had been pregnant once before. Married, too. Married up, married well, my mother teased in the early days, but I hadn’t married him for those reasons. I was young, twenty, an English literature undergrad, content in love and possibility. Neither of us foresaw in any meaningful way that the fun, the novelty, and the somehow enlivening stress of my graduate-level fiancée was temporary.
He got the job he’d wanted since high school, an engineer at a big tech company out west. For me, time folded. I found even less time to continue university courses, and he admitted that he had always thought the humanities were hopeless anyway, especially for someone from a poor background, and would I have liked to join a book club instead. I fell into a depression so mired that, while I felt free in an obviously limited way, I became unanswerable to his demands for a streamlined lifestyle, my ultimate purpose in the relationship, it turned out. He began hitting me, a slap or hair pulling in anger, a damned cliché that I found intensely disappointing, above all. I wanted a baby, the baby, to give my mind and attention to. He threatened to leave if the baby came. For several months, we performed normalcy, subtly vying for our own interests, should the relationship be salvageable. One evening, I drove to a nature preserve, one I savored in frequenting, and planned to die in the Illinois winter.
So in the airless frigid morning, I left Whitemare. The snow had melted enough to walk to town. Enough for me anyway; just above the knee. It was necessary to walk through two or so miles of forest, where I was pleased to discover I could ford the boulder-studded river. I didn’t mind the numbness all over, or the brief lostness among the trees, all alike in their bareness. All sensations are -nesses; I tried to instead think of what was real and on the other side. For one, my bed.
I had an apartment, shared with a roommate, the rare shithole in town. The place was in astonishingly high demand; one missed rent payment and we’d be wiped from the slate in a blink. My roommate padded to the door and, breathlessly, inquired whether I was okay. She didn’t know where I‘d been, or that I worked housekeeping at Whitemare. My brother works there, she had said. The father of the embryo growing inside me, I realized during her articulation of him. She asked what we all did to stay sane, to make the best of the storm. Attempting humor, I said, simply: drugs and booze. I withheld the sex part and made a mental note to deal with the why later.
We sat on opposite ends of the couch, curled up watching Anthony Bourdain re-runs, making indirect proposals to share a cooked meal every now and then. Then, a gardening special on the BBC wherein the mentally ill were prescribed gardening as therapy. I wondered if my current arrangement, being in that faraway town, at that crap job – my god, intending to remain pregnant – was therapy self-imposed. If so, things were worse than I’d thought. Where did I stand? What was I denying myself?
The day of Dale’s funeral, I learned that Michael – that was his name, had left the day before to Burlington to join a band with an old high school friend. An exercise in freedom, possibility perhaps, before starting flight school. I took a shuttle that day and found a small café with a window overlooking the women’s reproductive health clinic, feeling bereft of my decision-making faculties but feeling good about having come that far.
On the street, an old woman in stained rags for winter garments ran in and out of view, shouting at passersby. She covered her ears as she shouted in machine gun repetition TORTURER to no one in particular. I became self-conscious when I realized I was the only person in view observing her. People kept their eyes elsewhere, parted around her in eddies. I mourned that shape, that diagram of alienation, which I felt laid bare in such starkness the paradox of loneliness. Police and EMTs escorted the woman, who went willingly into an ambulance, and the street resumed its rhythm.
My mobile phone rang. Michael said his sister told him I was in town, and did I want to get together like, now? Yes, I said. But there’s something I want to tell you. While I waited in the café for him, I did a thing people do but rarely say they do, lest they seem irrational or naive, or maybe that was my own false prejudice, hardened in the threads of cynicism I clung to, lest I be rendered irrational or naive: I imagined our lives together, one year from now, five, twenty.