Fiction Romance Friendship

He saw fragmented patterns in the snow of flickering white and dark shadows without definition or topography. The background vista of the valley below with evergreens and snow-covered granite outcroppings beyond the immediate landscape of the ski run was hidden from his eyes. He stood alone with his skis pointed across the terrain, ski poles planted on the side of each ski, looking to the world like any other skier poised for another run. The ski equipment and clothing were not the latest technology, except for the ski helmet, which was a gift from his wife. He wore the helmet but still preferred the feel of a wool ski cap and the sound of wind rushing past his ears as he attacked the slopes. He admitted to himself those days were gone. Alan knew this winter might be his last skiing season without an escort. The bright orange vest warned everyone around him that Alan was a “Visually Impaired” skier. A man who yesterday lived for deep powder and double black diamond runs was today challenged by intermediate trails. He was learning to be satisfied with sunshine and gentle slopes. A lifetime of skiing had become a compromise of goals and values. 

Alan McClure grew up skiing the mountains of Idaho, Montana, and Eastern Washington, becoming an accomplished recreational skier at an early age. He spent more years in college than was customary or necessary because skiing came first. The Winter quarter was time for Ski Patrol and occasionally avalanche control for ski lift operators. He managed to avoid the draft and graduated with honors. He found a position as an adjunct math instructor at North Idaho College in Coeur d’ Alene. It was a part-time job, which allowed him to join the Ski Patrol at Schweitzer Mountain, where he met a young woman who shared his passion for skiing and outdoor activities. Nancy was a sales representative for a company that sold outdoor recreational equipment, including skis. She lived in a Sandpoint condo which she shared with other Ski Patrol members. Alan and Nancy began dating, and after the ski season ended, she moved into his Coeur d’ Alene apartment. The following summer, they were married at the famous Idaho Hitching Post and spent their honeymoon touring National Parks in Montana. 

The following year an opening for a full-time teaching position at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham came to Alan’s attention. He talked to Nancy about this opportunity for career advancement and explained that he could study for a master’s degree at Western Washington University while teaching at the Community College. They agreed he should apply for the job but reserved further discussion depending on whether he got an offer. The offer to start teaching the following academic year came with a deadline for acceptance which started the argument. 

Nancy was reluctant to leave her job and the skiing in Idaho. However, Alan pointed out that one of the best ski mountains in the nation was only an hour from Bellingham. Finally, Nancy said, “You took a turn in life before me, and that is OK.” She then proposed a compromise to maintain the marriage, suggesting a commute on weekends and meeting somewhere in the middle when possible. 

Alan started work at WCC in the fall, and by Christmas, they both realized their busy lives, divided by time and distance, could not support an already unstable marriage. The childless couple finalized an amicable divorce in Idaho, shaking hands as they left the courthouse, promising to keep in touch but knowing in their hearts that would not happen.  

While working as a math instructor, Alan completed graduate school at WWU and obtained an M.A. Degree in Education. The following year he was offered a part-time job as an instructor at the University, with the opportunity for promotion after a probationary period. A few years later, the University offered a tenure-track position on the faculty. Every step in the process meant more responsibility, more money, and maybe less time skiing. 

Alan had already joined the Ski Patrol at the Mt. Baker ski area, working weekends and the infrequent weekday when he could get away from duties at school. On one such day in early March, he was paired with Alexandra Brooks, who had been a Patrol member for several seasons. He had noticed her before but had never been paired with her on patrol. Alan soon discovered she was his equal on skis, and she attracted attention with her graceful edging and control of her skis. On the ski lift rides, when they had time to themselves, Alan learned that she was called Alex by her friends, was a WWU alum, worked for the County Prosecuting Attorney as a paralegal, never married, and loved to ski. Alan had found a new reason to stay on Ski Patrol.

When the ski season ended, Alan kept in contact with Alex, who he referred to as his Ski Patrol partner. At the beginning of a new academic year in the fall, he asked Alex if she would accompany him to a fundraising event at the University. It was a meet-and-greet between faculty, administration, and people who donated to the school’s scholarship fund. He promised they would not stay long and buy her dinner after the event. Alan assumed the event would be casual, so he was surprised when she came to her apartment door, dressed for business in a beautiful red dress, heels, a sheer blouse, and a black leather jacket. He stood at her door in jeans, pullover sweater, and running shoes, stunned at how attractive she looked. Alex pretended not to notice the contrast, picked up her matching purse, locked the door, and waited for him to lead the way to his car. 

Alex fit right in at the event, and she knew almost as many people in the crowd as her escort. Alan watched her greet people and move effortlessly around the room as he stood with an empty glass of wine, feeling uncomfortable about his apparel.  

A man Alan knew from a faculty committee leaned over and asked, “Is Alex your date?”

“Yeah, she is my Ski Patrol partner,” Alan replied noncommittally. “Why, do you know her?” he asked the man.

“She used to work here,” he advised as they both watched Alex across the room. “She was in the registrar’s office until the County hired her away. We hated to see her leave. It is good to have her back, even for a visit.” 

At dinner that night, Alan asked, “Why didn’t you tell me you used to work at the school? You knew more people there than I did,” he offered.

Alex pushed her almost empty wine glass toward Alan, waited for him to pour, and said, “A girl doesn’t tell all her secrets.” He realized she had just answered his question about whether to tell her of his brief Idaho marriage. 

They continued to date for several months, falling into a comfortable rhythm of dates and weekend trips to various ski areas in the Cascades. Alan consistently invited her to join him at school social events and occasional faculty parties, where she was quickly accepted as part of the social circle among younger faculty members. 

Seasons changed, the snow melted, and their infatuation grew into love and unstated expectations. Thus, on a spring break ski trip to Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia, after diner at a favorite restaurant in Whistler Village, Alan produced a ring and proposed marriage. Alex acted truly surprised and accepted his ring and proposal. The couple married the following summer at the lodge on top of Whistler Mountain, followed by a reception filled with family and friends. 

The couple became a family with children, responsibilities, and careers. Their two children learned to ski early in life but transitioned to snowboarding during their teen years. Both parents dropped out of Ski Patrol duties to spend more time on family activities, including recreational skiing. 

Alan noticed changes in his life that he assumed were natural to the aging process. He later realized he should have paid more attention and asked the right questions. He noticed that he had problems driving at night, which caused him to find excuses not to drive. His eyes tired when reading, and he started to see floaters in his field of vision. After an eye exam, an Optometrist confirmed that Alan’s eyes showed disease symptoms and referred him to an Ophthalmologist who diagnosed Diabetic Retinopathy. The doctor prescribed medication, but nothing would reverse the damage already done. 

The University made accommodations for Alan’s rapid vision loss. Technology helped him do most things as an instructor, but the loss of mobility most impacted his life. He had to give up driving, which meant somebody had to drive him to and from work. He was now in his fifth decade when most academic professionals were at their peak years of performance. Alan was looking at an early disability retirement. The only recreational activity left for Alan was skiing. 

“I’m not going to lose you to a head injury,” Alex exclaimed as Alan unwrapped the ski helmet she gave him at his 55th birthday party. “If you insist on skiing, then you need to protect your head. Don’t even think about getting on a ski lift without it,” she instructed. 

“Isn’t an orange vest with Visually Impaired printed on both sides enough protection?” he asked, knowing nobody in the family was going to agree. To show his acceptance and obedience to his wife, Alan stood up, put the helmet on, got into a ski tuck, and said, “Somebody point me to the powder!” His pantomime was greeted with laughter and applause from their children.

Their oldest son, Evan, had become an accomplished skier and was the driver on a trip to Mission Ridge, a ski mountain they had been to before. After skiing together in the morning, Alan encouraged Evan to take the more challenging runs in the afternoon and let the old man enjoy the lower intermediate runs by himself. Alan was on his last ski run of the day when he came to an area where the trail merged with a larger trail on the left. The merge area produced some congestion, especially when most people were headed to the lodge at the end of the day. As he approached the merge area, Alan sensed he was too close to the left, so he turned right to get closer to the middle of the run. By the time she saw Alan turn into her path, it was too late. The two skiers collided, and Alan landed face down, sprawled out in the snow. 

Alan’s goggles were covered with snow, his skis were gone, and only one ski pole was still on his wrist. Once he caught his breath, he did a quick inventory and determined that nothing seemed to be broken. He heard a woman’s voice asking if he was alright and the familiar sound of ski bindings snapping open to release ski boots. “Let me help you,” the woman said. 

“Where are my skis?” he asked as he sat up and wiped snow from his goggles.

“I see them,” the woman replied. “Are you alright? I’m so sorry; I didn’t see you,” she said. Alan assured her that he was not injured but wanted to sit for a few minutes to get his bearings. He waited as she walked down the hill to retrieve his skis and pole.

“Let me help you get to the lodge,” she offered when Alan stood up to put on his skis. 

“I’m OK,” he insisted and asked about her condition. The woman reported that she had not even been knocked off her skis. 

“I’ll follow you down the hill,” she said and waited for Alan to get his equipment organized, then pointed with a ski pole to the lodge. 

Alan and the woman released their ski bindings near a ski rack area at the lodge. All around them were skiers heading to the parking lot with skis and poles over their shoulders. The woman asked again if Alan was alright and received his assurance he was feeling better by the minute. Once his skis and poles were stacked together, Alan took off his goggles and helmet and turned to the woman. He could see her silhouette and vague facial features of the woman who stood facing him with her skis in one hand and poles in the other. She seemed to be staring at him, which made him think there could be a cut or blood on his face. He took off a glove, ran a hand over his face, and felt nothing. 

He checked to see if there was any red on his fingers. “I’m fine, and it was my fault for turning in front of you,” he reported. “I should be grateful to my wife who makes me wear a helmet,” he added. 

The woman continued to look at him, “I should have been more careful. I usually ski at Schweitzer where I’m more familiar with the trails,” she added. Alan smiled and made general comments about his experiences at Schweitzer. The two people talked for a few minutes as the woman started to release the top buckles on her boots and gather her equipment. 

As she lifted skis to her shoulder, she said, “I’m glad to have run into you, Alan.” 

“I get it; you ran into me, . . .” he replied. “Wait, how do you know my name? We never introduced ourselves,” he said to the woman who was turning away. 

“Oh Alan, I was your first wife,” she replied and disappeared from his vision into the crowd.

The next thing Alan heard was the voice of Evan from behind him, “Dad, who was that woman?”

January 21, 2022 17:02

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