Melissa stood at the kitchen counter, making a sandwich. Her phone chimed with a text message from Allison: “Chris Ritter committed suicide.” For some reason, the first thing she thought of was Chris’ old joke about the Smashing Pumpkins’ song, “Mayonaise.”
She finished building her sandwich, and now the components, including a mayonnaise jar, sat on the counter, waiting to be replaced. Melissa just stood there, wondering if she was still hungry.
Alone in the house, she sat down at the kitchen table, stared outside at the withering late-February snow. It seemed like the snow had been deeper when she was a kid. Like there had been more of it. Like whole epochs of her young life had taken place in Maine winters. She thought of Chris Ritter, when they were on the ski team in junior high, his practical approach to negotiating a slalom course: “First rule: don’t die.”
She decided to call Allison, rather than reply by text. She had not seen Chris Ritter in more than fifteen years- nor Allison in five, she realized. One of the gloomy facts of adulthood was that many old friends drifted away.
Allison told her that Chris had died in Antarctica, where he had been studying ice melt. Melissa had read Chris’ various published articles on climate change. Chris studied the deep snow of the past, looking for microbes, remnants of past life, clues to what kind of future the melt might reveal. The tone of his articles had progressed over the years, like stages of cancer, from informative, to alarmist, to grave.
“There was a note,” Allison said, adding that her source was Chris’ sister. “Apparently he was depressed. Co-workers were worried about him. He spent days watching the ice sheets break off and crash into the ocean. They found him in the bathtub….”
Melissa shut her eyes. It was horrible to envision someone mutilating themselves with a blade. Someone she had once loved and cared about very much.
She and Allison spent half an hour on the phone, catching up, making vague promises to get together. Then they ran out of things to say, and hung up. Melissa quietly cleaned up her lunch. Her husband would pick the kids up from school later that afternoon, giving her a few hours to herself. She decided to go dig through the crawl space in the attic.
She and Jack had finished the attic two years earlier, turning a dusty storage vault into a cozy, livable room. There was a home office set-up; a couch and a TV. Melissa wedged herself into the crawl space, and starting digging through the archives of her life, until she found the box with the yearbooks. The first yearbook she had ever acquired was a hard-bound, silver-covered junior high school Torch, 1995-96. Crisp, glossy pages. Black and white photos of everyone she had known in the world, age 13.
She brought the yearbook out of the crawl space and sat down on the couch. Flipped through the pages. Inscriptions decorated the inside covers, and many random pages, a multiverse of handwriting, scribbled in various colors of ink. She knew where Chris’ inscription was, in the sports pages, toward the back, over the photo of the junior high alpine ski team. She found the photo and stared at it, remembering with crystal clarity the day it was taken. The whole team huddled together, sitting at the base of the practice hill at school, random skis sticking out of the snow. Fourteen kids on the team, seventh and eighth graders, all of them grinning like they had just laughed at the same joke. Her 13-year-old self, cherub-faced, with sharp brunette bangs, reclined on the snowy slope, her legs splayed out and half-buried, her upper body leaning against Chris. His hands rested on her head, like he was holding her hat in place.
His inscription read: “When I can, I will;” lyrics from the Smashing Pumpkins song, a concise note that belied the intensity of their feelings for each other. Many friends had written long, flowery testaments to the seventh grade, a year that ultimately had not mattered very much. But just five words from Chris.
She sometimes wondered if her memory was peculiar. She did not think of her life as a linear chain of experiences, the past a foggy haze at the end of the chain. For her, memory was more like a clear, amorphous orb. She remembered her entire life as if everything had occurred in the past couple of weeks. She remembered not only everyone she had known in junior high, but what they had looked like, sounded like, conversations she had had with them. So many details that her mind just refused to forget. Her marriage, the births of her children, her career, past relationships, friendships, school, college, vacations- everything existed in the same space, like a neat, orderly bookshelf, from which stories could be easily plucked.
She thought about that year on the ski team; riding creaky chairlifts up remote Maine mountains; the “whishing” sound of her skis on the slalom courses; eating chicken sandwiches and fries at McDonalds after a meet; the long bus rides home in the dark. Chris Ritter’s easy smile, and calm, shoulder-clapping advice from the top of a mountain, as Melissa stared down a terrifying incline: “First rule: don’t die.”
She hunted through more boxes until he found her music collection. She pulled her old CDs from the box, inspected each one, stacked them on the table, until she found “Siamese Dream,” by the Smashing Pumpkins. The plastic case still opened and closed, but the twin halves had broken and separated. The jacket with the song lyrics was so creased and bent it was nearly parchment. She pulled the jacket out and flipped through the lyrics.
“I’m going to put this on,” she said to no one, indulging the habit she had developed of talking to herself when she was alone in the house. She put “Siamese Dream” in her stereo, pressed Play. A fresh injection of memories surged through her mind. She and Chris had listened to “Siamese Dream” dozens of times, passing the lyrics sheet back and forth, trying to decipher Billy Corgan’s angsty poetry. Their favorite song on the album was the dark and mysterious “Mayonaise,” a dirge of obscure promises. The song’s opening bars took Melissa’s heart to a place she could not explain, even twenty-five years after hearing it for the first time. The powerful explosion of guitar at 53 seconds plunged her straight into the bipolar years of ‘90s rock. Corgan took his time pulling you into the song- a masterpiece of sound recording- before his voice eventually arrived, like the whisper of God, bleeding secrets he would never suture. The refrain, “When I can, I will,” seemed like a teary, desperate resolution to do something better. Melissa and Chris had spent hours debating the meaning of this song, the meaning of all the songs on “Siamese Dream.” They laughed at their own fumbling interpretations. Corgan’s lyrics were deeply personal, and profoundly opaque. The song titles- “Hummer,” “Silverfuck,” “Pissant”- were like jokes, laughing at the listener’s insights. A song about love, or escape, or inadequacy, or who knows what, called “Mayonaise?”
“Maybe he was making a tuna fish sandwich,” Chris suggested. “When the lyrics came ti him.”
Melissa lay on the floor, poking him with her socked toes, laughing up at the ceiling.
“Don’t you want a pickle right now, for some reason?” he asked.
“Stop,” she begged.
“That’s all it is,” Chris said. “He was hungry. Rock stars need protein too.”
Later, after they had listened to “Mayonaise” maybe twenty times, Chris speculated that the lyrics “When I can, I will,” perhaps meant that the singer, or the writer, or the voice, was telling someone that they were not perfect, and never would be, but all they could give, in their better moments, was their better self, and when they could, they would.
She listened to “Siamese Dream” all the way through, then started it over. She was glad her family would not be home for a while, would not find her quietly crying in the attic, over a long-estranged friend, before she had time to compose an explanation. Her mind flitted through countless winter memories of listening to music with Chris. But the memory she really wanted to relive was from the ski team.
It was January, 1996, a Saturday. The junior high alpine and Nordic ski teams had meets at Bleak Mountain, a jagged, rocky peak deep in Western Maine. Bleak Mountain only had two or three trails, one of which was just long enough for a slalom course. At the base of the slope sat a squat, wood-frame lodge. There was no chair lift, or even a T-bar, but only a rope-tow. Melissa had learned to ride rope-tows on the practice slope at school. You had to grab the moving rope, lean back, and squat, itself an effort of athleticism, and if you didn’t lean back far enough, you’d be dragged. Everyone on the team duct-taped their gloves to prevent the rope from shredding through the material and burning their hands.
The alpine competition comprised over a hundred skiers, each running two heats. The eighth graders went first, then the seventh graders. Melissa, Chris, Allison, and three or four other seventh graders spent the afternoon lurching up the hill in the falling snow, cruising the easy trail, waiting for their turn to race. By the time their competition began, the slalom had been run about two hundred times. A slim snake of ice wound downhill from the windy mountaintop to the lodge, the snow as firm and hard-packed as concrete. Melissa waited by the starting gate with her teammates, squinting through her goggles at the frozen course.
“This is crazy, man!” shouted Nick Barrett as he inched up to the starting gate. “It’s sheer ice all the way to the bottom.”
“Remember,” said their coach, clouds of breath puffing around his head. “If you miss a gate, you’re disqualified.”
Nick Barrett clapped his poles together, screamed, and took off. Melissa watched Crazy Nick fly down the mountain, clipping gates, skis carving tight grooves in the snow. After what seemed like forever, he finally arrived at the bottom, cruising toward the lodge with his poles in the air.
Coach skied up to where Melissa and Chris stood shivering in the wind.
“Missy,” Coach said. “About half of the girls ahead of you have already disqualified. All you have to do is complete the course, and you should place pretty well.”
Chris clapped a hand on her shoulder. “No pressure.”
“Just focus, and plant your poles, and you’ll do fine,” Coach said.
“I’ve never placed before,” Melissa said to Chris.
“Me neither,” Chris replied.
“I don’t want to screw this up.”
Chris’ number was called. Before he stepped up to the gate, he turned to Melissa. “First rule,” he said. “Don’t die.” The wind snapped around their ears like bullets, but Chris seemed perfectly calm.
“Don’t die,” Melissa repeated.
Chris waited for the signal, then took off. Allison stepped up beside Melissa. They huddled together against the wind, watching Chris weave down the course. He clipped the first few gates with expert precision, planting his poles and pivoting around the turns. Then he took a gate too wide, lost his balance, and wiped out, tumbling past the next two gates. Melissa held her breath as Chris careened out of control. But suddenly he hopped up and righted himself, skiing the rest of the course deliberately, disqualified. Melissa thought their second runs would be even worse.
She ran two heats down what was basically a luge course, and somehow miraculously finished them both. The key, she discovered, was to completely dismiss any particle of fear, to just fly. Crouch, tuck, plant, turn. Don’t die.
At the end of her second heat, her heart pounding, she glided across the softer snow at the base of the mountain to the lodge. Fresh snow was falling, painting the mountain twilight blue. She clacked off her skis and set them against the wall of the lodge.
Inside, the lodge was packed with the kids who had finished racing. Melissa found an empty seat at one of the long tables, peeled off her jacket, and sipped hot chocolate until the coaches arrived with the final results.
“Well, it was an ugly day,” their coach said, laughing off what everybody already knew. “An icy course, but I’m proud of you all for running it. Some of you even finished.”
Nick Barrett nudged Chris.
“We’ll skip the disqualifications,” Coach said. “And there were many. But we did manage to place three boys, and one girl, in the top ten.” He read the names of the boys, all eighth graders, the usual suspects, who punched each other with snickering congratulations. “And our top lady racer was Missy Caouette, finishing eighth overall in the women’s competition. You’ll get your name in the paper, Miss.”
The team swamped Melissa with cheers and hugs. Chris wrapped his arms around her shoulders and shouted: “Nobody touch her! We need her alive!”
It was a thrilling moment, but Melissa had never really liked public attention, and she felt more embarrassed than proud. It did feel good to have Chris’ arms around her.
Darkness came quickly on Bleak Mountain, the snowstorm swallowing up the late-afternoon sun. Snow fell steadily as they loaded their gear back onto the bus for the return home. Melissa stared up at the black sky, the deceptively innocent snowflakes fluttering to the ground, the same icy substance that had tried to kill them on the slope.
The road home from Bleak Mountain led first, as always, to McDonalds, where the ski teams stuffed themselves with gluttonous glee. Lumbering back onto the bus in her thick coat, boots, and snow pants, Melissa collapsed into her seat.
The last four rows of seats were packed tight with gear. The eighth graders crowded the seats as far back as they could get from the door, hiding from the coaches, conspiring. Melissa sat with the seventh graders toward the middle of the bus, their allotted territory. Placing eighth in the race drew her no closer to the cool kids, which was fine with her, since the cool kids intimidated her. Next year, if she was still on the team, she could sit at the back of the bus.
On the way to the meet, she had sat with Allison, the two of them whispering about the boys on the team, and the boys in their classes, the entire way. Now Allison chose a seat near the front, where she could stretch out and go to sleep. Melissa watched Chris amble onto the bus with Crazy Nick and the other seventh-grade boys, staking out territory close to the girls, but separate. The boys started talking. The bus lurched into gear. Chris suddenly stood up and slipped into the seat beside Melissa.
“I’ve never sat next to someone who placed before,” he said.
She laughed. “I didn’t die.”
“That’s the most important thing.”
“You pretty much died though.”
Chris shrugged, as if he hadn’t really expected to win.
The bus hit a frost heave, and everyone cheered, as their gear rattled onto the floor. Melissa jumped a few inches across the seat, nudging Chris. Chris started rooting through his backpack.
“Do you want to listen to some music?” he asked her.
“Sure,” she said.
He fished a Walkman out of his backpack, untangled a length of wire with two ear buds. He handed her one of the buds.
“What is it?” she asked.
“A mix from the radio. I listen to 92-Moose when I’m doing homework, and record the good songs when they come on. Some of the songs might be missing the first few seconds.”
He tucked his ear bud into his ear, and Melissa did the same. The wires were short, forcing them to scooch up against each other. Chris turned up the volume, and they listened to the tinny music as conversation around the bus trickled to a hush.
One by one everyone fell asleep. It took a while for the bus’s heater to get cooking, but once it did, Melissa and Chris took off their jackets. Chris took out his ear bud and yawned. “I’m beat.” He handed her his jacket. “Pillows.”
Melissa bunched up their jackets and pressed them against the window. She removed her own ear bud, leaned against the jackets, felt the cool of the window through the puffy down. Chris put away his Walkman, slid over next to her. Without speaking, or explaining anything, he leaned his body across her lap, stretching his legs out into the aisle. Melissa’s heart raced as he settled in against her. She glanced around the bus, to see if anyone was watching them, but no one was. Carefully she wrapped her arms around him, pulled him tight. He closed his eyes and let her hold him.
Melissa had never felt more excited, or more terrified. She had always wanted to hold a boy close to her. Suddenly she felt powerfully, almost murderously, protective of Chris. She almost wanted someone to interrupt them, to try to poke Chris, or steal his boots, or any of the other pranks they all endlessly pulled on each other, so that she could snap at them, lash out like a cobra, defend her boy.
The feeling did not pass. It strengthened into a proud, purposeful certainty. She loved Chris, and would never let anything happen to him. She felt his warmth in all kinds of thrilling places, on her face, in her belly, in her breasts. In that moment, the world seemed perfectly aligned, with Chris in her arms, snow falling outside, and a long drive back to school. She understood, for the first time in her life, that love was as thick and blinding as a snowstorm, as relentless as an avalanche, entirely capable of swallowing her- crushing her- if she wasn’t careful.
First rule, she told herself. Don’t die.
Adam Matson’s fiction has appeared internationally in over twenty magazines, including Mobius: The Journal for Social Change, The Oddville Press, Black Scat Review, and Terror House Journal.