A weekend ski retreat, and after a full first day on the slopes, our college group is back at our rented chalet, warming up by the fireplace and playing a strange version of a game show, replete with trick questions. For example, I was just removed from the game because I guessed (like an idiot), “the north side” to the question, “If a rooster lays an egg on the roofline of a shed, which side will it roll down?” The answer, of course, is that roosters don’t lay eggs, but now I’m standing in the back of the room, next to beautiful Ethan, my friend of just six months, who was convinced by his brother to come along at the last urgent minute even though he doesn’t go to our school.
Ethan teases me about my stupid answer, but somehow he manages to be very charming about it. Ethan has gray eyes and messy curls and this persistent ghost of a grin that always makes me wonder. He plays bass guitar in a local indie band called Flight Theory and started his own web design company with Miles, his (also talented) brother. Ethan uses his words very wisely, and sometimes I think that I might end up loving him.
I’m the most experienced skier of the group, so this weekend Ethan asks me the questions, although it’s usually the other way around. Although he’s met everyone in our group before, it’s me he’s chosen to cling to while Miles races around like his usual manic self. And now, here we are, Ethan in dirty denim and a clinging gray thermal, standing beside me, his arms crossed, appearing a little nervous and out of place.
He smiles. Ahhhh, that’s good. The hair on my arms stands up, and I feel cold on my neck behind my ears. Crazy how beautiful boys can slow things down. “Do I look that uptight?” he asks. “I think I’m still keyed up from that Straight Shoot run.”
“How is it that you live in Minnesota and have never been skiing?” I ask, wandering across the open concept to pour myself some decaf from the pot beside the fridge.
“I don’t know,” he says, now leaning over the kitchen island, his back to the game show chaos. “I guess I just never had the desire before. It’s good to be here now.” He looks at me, vague clouds of confusion resting in those gray eyes, his lips pursed in thought, probably pondering something profound, perhaps how fate kept him from the hills until just this weekend, for some experience that could happen only now.
“It’s like an eclipse,” I say. What am I talking about?
“What is?” His eyes are so warm. Not like Miles’s.
I swallow. “I don’t know, I guess. Something about timing. Waiting a long time for something.”
Ethan looks at me longer than normal without speaking. It’s good. Comfortable. I offer him a drink of my coffee, but he shakes his head, and we both turn at the sudden burst of laughter coming from the seats around the fireplace.
The catalyst is Ethan’s brother. He almost always is.
Yes, Miles, whom I fell in love with (or something I mistook for the thing) two years earlier, when we were silly college freshmen, once upon a different lifetime. And now things are so different, so sad and strained, and it’s bizarre being back here with him but without him, this same chalet where he first made me blush in a very, very good way. We stayed up talking all night in the loft and watched the sun rise through these floor-to-ceiling windows when morning peeked in on us. It was probably all wrong, but his offering was exactly what I searched for during the year that tripped behind those days … then that year doubled, and the whole enterprise went crazy because in July his older brother was introduced into the unspoken mess.
And Ethan is clever and willing and always up for discussion about metaphysics and logic and God. I desire to desire him more, but I’m so distracted by Miles, wondering what exactly happened those early months, if Miles was intoxicated with the weather, drunk on the cold. Meanwhile, I confused a winter-induced kiss with love and a connection that I fooled myself about for the next year and a half.
Miles had rescued me from the overwhelming transition to college. After a semester of dorm room insomnia, worrying about classes, grades, and my ex-boyfriend James, when Miles stormed onto the scene, it had been a welcome distraction—but more than a distraction, a delight. Miles was wild and brilliant, resourceful and creative, full of ideas and passion—all of which he still is, only now his moods flash like lightning and roll like thunder, and his pride is a wall I can’t see over. I remember the old Miles sometimes, like the special seconds when he actually raises both his eyebrows in a way that shows he’s learning. So infrequent. Today he stooped low to talk gently to the kindergarteners making their way to the bunny hill, and it punctured my heart with that old syringe of longing.
But those days are rare now. He is as fascinating as ever—but insolent as hell.
Ethan is usually around then, and looking so alive and accessible. Last summer, the whole college gang spent a week at the brothers’ family cabin on a lake up north, which is where I’d first met Ethan. Miles had run around that week in red swim trunks, his mood as unreliable as our cell phone signals that far north. One minute he was telling jokes and entertaining the crew, the next he was remote, letting us guess if he’d wandered off on one of his long walks alone around the lake.
So I ate lunch with Ethan that week and journalled about the way he looked so responsible as he steered the boat. Ethan was older, brimming with respect and artistry and quiet words. I wanted to be near him—it was something very different, much less humbling, than my desire to serve Miles, the boy whom I figured could command the stars and spill success anywhere. Ethan felt more like someone you could sit with on a park bench and watch the clouds, the people, the birds.
“Everyone up there just loves Miles, you know,” I say to Ethan as we both lean against the island.
“I know.” Admiration from him too.
I sigh. “Oh that Miles.” It’s loaded.
So the question becomes this: if Miles returned to the 2-years-ago Miles, would I abandon this little untenable affair with his brother? Maybe that exact Miles is an illusion, or maybe the illusion takes form in the person of Ethan. Do I want Ethan to be more like Miles or Miles to be more like Ethan?
“How did you and Miles meet anyway?” some bad muse prompts Ethan to ask.
I offer a crippled smile. “We met at school but really clicked on a trip here. You wouldn’t know it now.”
“No, I guess you wouldn’t.” Oh horrid honesty of the older guy. “So,” Ethan continues, “what happened between then and now?”
Do I really want to discuss this with Ethan? “I don’t know.”
“Miles needs to grow up, Claire.”
I just look at my woolen socks, gray like his shirt, like his eyes. When I look back at Ethan, those eyes are sad with knowledge. I breathe quickly, feel my chest rise and fall. It’s a peculiar moment, plump to bursting with unprocessed truth, for both of us. In our own ways, we’re facing a reality we can’t hold. I want to force myself to feel things; he does too; neither of us can. Maybe we need to hold Sorrow’s hand longer to learn other things.
If he said that he himself is grown up, it would be cliché. I notice that it has begun to snow outside. This room is thick with heat and I need to sit down.
“I know,” I say, and it suffices as an inclusive answer as I find a kitchen stool for myself. I hand another to Ethan, and he perches on it, now listening closely to the next game show question that his brother is attempting to tackle. Ethan’s focus is so attractive that in that moment I want to lead him out of the chalet and wrap myself around him under the witness of the pines.
Stupid. Somehow, in this ridiculous triangle, the rooster conceived. None of us know (and right now, Miles doesn’t care) which direction the egg is rolling off the roof, and all at once it feels fated and manipulable, and all I can do is breathe in, breathe out, wait.