I Am a Snow Whale
I can't remember exactly when it was that Alex offered up a vision of our collective future to me and my wife, but it was certainly before we were married and expressly before Trump's election made queer baby making seem like a very bad idea. "I can just see us all on family vacation together, me cross country skiing behind you with your child strapped to your back, and me making funny faces at her," she said. Or something like that. I have a bullshit memory.
In case it's not clear from my first sentence, Alex isn't my wife; my wife's name is Abby. Alex isn't related to either one of us. She's a friend, but the sort of friend we love desperately. Her acerbic humor, her genius musings on everything from Dante and feminism to The Crown and how real live Brits feel about King Edward, her ferocity towards anyone and anything that displeases her or threatens us; there are a good many reasons we love Alex like Leslie Knope loves Anne. And though I suspect my straight friends might have found it strange, the vision of a found family untethered by blood or marriage is a far more widely accepted notion among queers. We rolled with it.
Except neither Abby nor I have ever skied. Once, back in high school, I expressed a fleeting thought that perhaps I'd like to learn. My mother laughed derisively, looked me square in the face, and told me I'd rip my face off. I wanted to disagree (I was a teenager, after all), but I found I couldn't; I have many strengths, but balance and grace are not among them. I once took out an entire ballet class by falling over at the barre. And thus ended the last thought I'd previously had about skiing. I'd never even seen skis in person, actually. Alex was aghast. She decided that perhaps, given the givens, waiting until we'd engaged in the act of lesbian reproduction to teach us how to enact her vision would not be prudent and might endanger the health of future theoretical progeny. She invited us up to her grandparents' house in Stowe, Vermont, to rectify our physical and moral shortcoming. Alex belongs to the kind of New England family that has a family crest ring on each member's finger and straps all manner of winter gliding equipment to children's feet before they are even steady on them, so she was confident she could teach even me, the equivalent of a flightless turkey vulture, how to cross country ski. I told her the whole thing about my mom, and the laughing and the face-ripping, but she didn't believe me.
On the drive up, I voiced the desire that I would very much like to watch the Sound of Music. It was because I had shared a gif on my social media profiles of Captain von Trapp ripping up a Nazi flag. As we've reached a point in American politics where the phrase "Nazis are bad" is a partisan statement, I wanted to see Captain von Trapp rip up a Nazi flag. With singing. Singing and resisting Nazis.
"Actually," said Alex, “the Trapp family settled in Stowe, Vermont. It’s one of the places we’re going to ski, the Trapp Family Lodge.” Serendipity. Then my dog, bored in the back seat, chewed the leg off her stuffed moose and swallowed it. No more serendipity. The house was spectacular, a ski chalet the likes of which I had no idea real people owned. Exposed beams, 30 foot ceilings, taxidermy caribou, the works. Any class anxiety I was already feeling about never having seen skis before was now multiplied by the weight of this house and the fact that my dog was likely to puke up a moose leg at any moment onto its pristine white carpet. But I did manage to settle in and watch the Sound of Music, dog across all three of our laps. We did not make it to the aforementioned Nazi-flag-ripping because I’d been driving all day and we wanted to sleep early, be up fresh faced and ready to ski our faces off. Or rip our faces off. I was brimming with hope about it, which was maybe optimistic. But I had this lovely romantic vision of being one of those snow lesbians who wears flannel and chapstick and looks adorable with snowflakes that cling to my nose and eyelashes. But mostly I wanted to become one of those snow lesbians who can keep her dog from ingesting a stuffed moose.
We arrived at the Trapp Family Lodge and I had the song "I Have Confidence In Me" stuck in my head, which I recognize isn’t the most iconic of the songs, but I do know all the words to it because at 18 months of age my favorite movie was The Sound of Music, and when that’s the case, lyrics really stick with you. And I did, I did have confidence in me, even when I had to rent wide boots instead of regular because I have giant monster feet. Even though I was wearing entirely borrowed snow gear because my winter coat’s buttons fell off two years ago and I haven’t bothered sewing them back on yet because I live in New York City, where the maximum amount of time I’m outside is walking from my apartment to the subway station and I work from home anyhow so I can pretty much avoid weather. What I’m saying is, I had confidence in me even though I couldn’t sit down and tie my giant monster boot in my borrowed snowpants without unbuttoning them because they belonged to Alex’s mom who was a competitive gymnast and at her heaviest was the size of one of my thighs. I was full of promise.
And then I actually put on the skis.
I was on my ass within ninety seconds. Which was expected. I had, after all, taken out that entire aforementioned ballet class and that was just in soft, easy ballet shoes on regular, unfrozen ground, whereas I had now decided to strap two waxed sticks to my feet and walk on an unsalted, unpaved mountain where gravity would be my literal downfall. What was unexpected was that once fallen, I could not get up. I wallowed in snow while Alex, determined, tried to walk me through how to stand in skis. It did not go as planned. I felt like I was going to snap my giant monster foot off at the ankle, wide boot and all. Each time I fell, therefore, I had to unsnap my boot from my ski, walk four steps and attempt to put them back on again. As I was almost as bad at separating the skis from my feet as I was at getting up while wearing them, this became an ordeal. I lumbered forth, determined to make it any amount of yards or seconds without eating it. That determination was not rewarded.
Meanwhile, Alex was a snow gazelle, a graceful, flying unicorn of a skier with the pretty pink flush of someone lightly working out in mildly cold temperatures. I admired her skill, her grace and her femininity when I halted to hold one nostril shut while I blew snot into the snow out of the other one. I was red, sweaty and bruised. I had to remind myself not to compare either my outward expression or the enjoyability of my experience to Alex, who grew up skiing and could do advanced things like “turn” and “stop.” So I turned to look at my wife. My wife, who hadn’t before skied either.
When I could see her, when she wasn’t twenty-thousand leagues in front of me, I knew I was looking at the right person because she was rocking Alex’s mother’s violet jumpsuit. It was an 80’s number, complete with shoulder pads. Never mind that it should have looked ridiculous in a modern context or on someone two heads taller than the original owner: Abby was killing it. She looked like a sexy purple astronaut. Moreover, she fell once. Once. And got up again. Continued skiing like it didn’t take millennia and a prayer to get oneself back on track. I didn’t even see her fall! She moved fast and, from all outward appearances, didn’t sweat a single goddamn drop. Perhaps not a snow gazelle, nor a unicorn, but definitely, like, a snow pony or a snow bird (and not a giant flightless turkey vulture, either). Like me, my wife has a sedentary career—she’s in her final semester at Columbia Law, poised to place her ass behind a desk for just as many hours a day as I do. Yet watching her tight butt ski away from me in a purple onesie, I discovered yet again that being married to my wife is a constant reminder of two things: first, that life isn’t fair and second, that one of us lucked out hard in this union and it wasn’t her.
As I breathlessly chugged along, lunging and gliding such that my doughy-sitterarse began to burn, Alex skied up next to me. “It’s only been twenty minutes,” she said. And, “you know for deaf skiers, they have jackets that say deaf skier. Same for blind skiers. I should really get one.” This was an accurate statement, for Alex is deaf and could not hear me when I fell down behind her. All the better, I thought, because she never had an accurate count of how much time I spent in a position reminiscent of a dead beetle, and I didn’t want to be a disappointment. It got me thinking—I wanted a jacket that said “Hopeless Skier.” When people saw the jacket, I thought, they would step out of the cut tracks and go around me, excuse me for running into trees and taking off my skis on the trail, and just, in general, not expect too much of me. Little did I know I was wearing a Hopeless Skier jacket already—it was my gawky, awkward body, my flailing, my attempts to get off the ground. No fabric needed.
I also did not know I was doing the easy bit. Uphill. Which sounds counterintuitive, but when you’re contending with Newton’s great discovery, uphill is so much better. When we turned around and came back, I began whizzing down the hill at an alarming, face numbing speed. Never mind that this was not downhill skiing; never mind that the hill was barely hill. I moved fast enough that I uttered my favorite line from The Sound of Music: “Oh help.” It’s a weird favorite line, not one you might remember, but I promise it’s in there. Maria says it when faced with the Trapp family home for the first time and she’s hella intimidated by it. Somehow I latched onto it at 18 months of age and I remember saying it when faced with anything that challenged me as a toddler. The irony of saying it when faced with the Trapp Family Lodge for the first time is something I’m only realizing now, which makes me feel like an idiot. Anyhow, I was unprepared for the abject terror I felt at speeding forth, unable to control my direction or how fast I was going. I hate being out of control. Hate it. Hate not knowing how to circumvent danger, to mitigate harm. The problem with encountering a hill, even a small one, was all the ways I was unprepared began to flash through my head. I freaked out coming around a curve, tried to drag my poles to slow down and crashed (for the fourth time? Fifth? Ten thousandth?) into a snowbank, skis up in the air.
Alex skied up behind me. I turned to her and said, “I live here now. I’m a snow whale. Once beached, I can’t get up.” And then I started crying.
Alex looked horrified. Abby was one million miles ahead, as she planned to be when I inevitably started crying, so Alex couldn’t even pawn me off on my wife. I could see in her face that she was beginning to question that notion of found family, whether she might leave me behind and find another. After I rolled around in the snow, detached my skis, walked four steps and put them back on again, I asked, “Suppose I’m going downhill like that and I want to stop. What do I do?”
Alex blinked twice. “Well, you don’t really stop.”
“Okay, but say I’m coming up on another skier. And they fall. Or aren’t going fast enough. How do I stop?”
“Well the minute you try to stop, you’re going to fall. Just ski through it.”
“Okay, say I accidentally leave the trail and I’m about to go into the creek and I want to stop. How do I stop?”
She looked at me quizzically. I wanted to grab her and shake her and scream IN THE EVENT OF AN EMERGENCY WHAT RED CORD OR LEVER DO I PULL TO NO LONGER MOVE FORWARD. But if I did that, I probably would have fallen again, because standing still was just as dangerous as moving. “I’m not doing this anymore,” I said instead. “I’m on vacation and I’m supposed to have fun. This is terrifying and I don’t want to do it. I don’t understand why people like to do this. I will do something different.” I was also unprepared for how hurt she would look. I felt bad. She skied ahead. I cried more. I was a let down to my friend and frustrated at my own fear. But I kept moving, because I was at least pointed back in the direction of the lodge and the promise of this being over loomed large and was enticing.
I ate it coming around the last bend, lodge in sight. The tracks they put there for the Hopeless Skiers gave way to flat snow and I couldn’t keep my skis from going crosseyed. I skidded down to a stop on my side. I took my skis off and trudged forward, not bothering this time to put them back on. Close enough. “How was it?” the nice woman at the front desk asked.
“I’m probably going to switch to snow shoes,” I replied. It was obvious that I was a breath away from tears. I was embarrassed by that.
“I didn’t think it was that bad,” Abby said. Chipper. And for the first time in our marriage, I wanted to stick my giant monster wide ski boot into her mouth.
We went to lunch at a malt shop done up to look like a set from Grease, the kind of place people long for because it reminds them of a time when I wasn’t visibly married to the woman across the table from me. But the fucked part is I find shit like that adorable and was quite pleased with Alex’s choice of lunch spot. “Did you expect to be an expert cross country skier right away?” she asked.
That hurt because it was so totally not the reason I was crying. “It’s not that,” I said, completely honestly. “Bad skier is fine. I can handle being a bad skier. I expected to be bad at this like I am bad at literally every other kind of physical activity. I just didn’t expect to be so afraid. And I expected to see the glimmer of fun in it. And I didn’t. This is great though!” I exclaimed, perhaps laying it on a little thick as I sipped my chocolate milkshake and took a bite of my vegetarian burger because I am a walking stereotype.
Then we went back for an afternoon of punishment because I’d already paid to rent the skis. I fell almost immediately, and I was rolling around on the ground like a beached whale. I looked up and there were children. If you’ve never engaged in a scary and dangerous physical activity in the same space as children, there is almost no way to explain the shame you feel while doing so. Children are made of rubber and bravery. They break no bones and feel no fear; they need only learn the skill in front of them instead of unlearning terror and hesitation to then learn the skill in front of them, as adults must. These children slid on their actual faces down a practice baby hill that I wouldn’t dream of touching. I took off my skis and walked across it, and I watched a girl dig her skis into the slope to climb it. It occurred to me just then that there’s more than the flat bottom of the skis. Like, they have edges. I felt like an idiot. Again.
I put my skis back on when I got across the slope, avoiding children rocketing downward on the ice. I fell once again, this time having not moved an inch. I was about to take my skis off and sob, open-mouthed into the cold and unforgiving winter landscape when an older man skied up to me. He was white and wearing goggles and I don’t remember a damn thing else about him. For the first time in my adult life I thought YOU THERE, MAN, EXPLAIN THIS TO ME without a single regard for mansplaining or Rebecca Solnit or feminism. My own strength undeniably did not exist. Very politely he asked, “do you want a tip on how to get up?” I was taken aback, unable to remember when a man last asked me if I wanted the information he was about to provide. I nodded.
He got on the ground with me. “Get your knees to the left of your body, that’s it.” He walked me through the process that sounded like rocket science when described to me by Alex, who never fell and therefore never had a reason to be on the ground with me (see: snow gazelle). It turns out it was as simple as kneeling with the equivalent of a two-by-four strapped to your feet, which isn’t simple, but certainly made more sense when spoon fed to me as a step-by-step with pictures. When I stood, I felt so much better, like when I inevitably found myself on my back again, staring at the sky, that it would no longer be a multi-minute, wallow about, Hopeless-Snow-Whale-detach-the-skis death sentence. I thanked the man and he skied away. I do not know that mysterious stranger’s name and I hate to admit it, but he was my Batman that day. A day where I, a damsel in distress, needed a superhero.
And that’s when it occurred to me. Now that I knew how to stand up, if I didn’t want to keep going, I could just fall over. That was my emergency break. The ability to get back up conferred upon me, Hopeless Skier, Snow Whale, Extra-Wide-Boot-Wearing-Sobber, the power of the gazelle, the Hopeful. I could always eat it and stand after. My whole outlook changed. I rented the skis for another day. And then another. And another.
It wasn’t quite like flying; I was certainly no winged unicorn. But even when I ate it four times on the way down a very small slope that gave no one else any trouble at all, it didn’t matter. I could stand to ski another inch. I began to look up at my surroundings as I spent more and more time on my feet than on my ass. In the distance there was a little red barn—a sugar shack perhaps? Was it where maple syrup got born? The sunlight filtered through the leafless branches and I didn’t think they looked dead at all, or unforgiving or even cold. They looked sleepful. Stark against the snow and the sky, but not like corpses. Like something quietly reaching, something that would be here long after I drove back into the city, back to a life that didn’t look frosted. Where we did not have drinks at the von Trapp lodge while watching children dare each other to lick the ice sculpture carved to welcome in 2017, sure to be even worse than 2016. Back to a life that moved much faster, where I didn’t have days on end to devote to learning a skill that would serve me not at all. Back to the real world where it was scarier than sliding downhill, completely out of control, because it felt like that all time. There was no more agency. Only hills I was unprepared for, having been soothed to sleep by my own recently-dashed optimism, my sense that engagement would only mean a face-ripping crash.
On our last night, when we cooked dinner all together, I thought about Trump for the first time since we’d arrived. I’d been so occupied with figuring out how to not die on skis, legs pumping, counting one, two in my head to find that gliding rhythm, that our descent into a new age of American fascism hadn’t whispered in my mind’s ear once. Or so I thought. And even at this point, where we were cooking eggplant and drinking wine and I was standing with my dog leashed to my belt to prevent her from chewing the remaining legs off her stuffed moose, I thought of Trump only to note his absence from my daily life, where he’d been a specter haunting it before. And it all came crashing down upon me, as I stood in a very nice kitchen equipped with two beautiful, deep farmhouse sinks that I will never be able to afford.
Even though I hadn’t thought about him, he’d been there the whole time. Guiding my hand as I pointed at each new thing I saw and learned; each tear I shed over my lack of control and terror at careening downhill when I should be harder than this, my body should be less breakable; each thumping desire to see someone tear the shit out of a Nazi flag. It was all a response to the political miasma from whence I came. Everything, including my resistance to learning to ski, my inability to see why it would be fun.
I remembered standing in my own kitchen, equipped with one stainless (yet somehow stained) too-shallow sink that we could barely afford. Abby, having been sitting in the living room frowning at her resumé, popped her head in and asked whether I thought future employers would accept Hillary Clinton’s loss as a reason for her fall semester grades. “Yes,” I said without hesitation.
“You think?” she asked, or some variation of that. Perhaps, “but isn’t it a sign that I can’t deal with loss? With grief? What if they’re like, well, what if someone dies while you’re working for me?”
I don’t remember how she said it; I don’t remember how anyone says anything because I have a bullshit memory (except, of course, for lyrics learned at 18 months of age). But I do remember how things make me feel.
Astonished, is why I remember the interaction at all. Because something bubbled out of my mouth like bile or poison or songs rattling deep in my makeup as a person and I didn’t even know it was in there: “It’s not the same. Someone dying is, like, your past dying. This was our future dying. It’s not every day your future is slaughtered.”
That vision, once presented to us by Alex as a happy jewel shining brightly in our hands, something to point toward, the idea of being a Hopeful Skier, well. It was gone. The new white nationalist administration was not going to make the world safe enough to grow our family. The world will burn. War will be waged. And a good many members of the executive branch now believe that, if I am electrocuted enough, I will no longer love my wife. My wife who can wear a purple jumpsuit from the 80’s and look like a dream, my wife who can ski without ever having skied before, my wife the genius, worried about A grades with the minus after. If they don’t believe we should have a future, how can I learn the fun I’m supposed to have with kids we might not bring into a broken world? I could not see the fun in this skiing thing because the thing that sparked it, that possible future, was already vanished. And I was left on my butt, legs in the air, looking at the sky. I almost cried in the kitchen. Instead I ate eggplant.
We skied one more morning after that. I went in front so I wouldn’t have to fall over when I came up too close behind someone. I thought of one, two, one, two and pushing forward, not up and how my skis have edges I can dig into the snow. I thought of Captain von Trapp ripping a Nazi flag in half and how the whole family and all the children came here when the fascists killed their future. I thought of how much love for the snow and the bare trees and the mountain it must have taken to build a lodge, how tenuous it must have felt knowing that, at any time, you might have to say so long, farewell to the life you expected you would have. I wondered when they realized they were in danger. Did they still ski in the alps that winter? Would they be skiing now? Did any of them ever give up, beached on sorrow, unable to move forward without falling? Who said, “oh help,” and when?
Or did they always have the hope of standing back up again? I put the goggles over my eyes and my hat (knitted by my wife) over my ears. I approached the final downhill, final curve on the way back to the lodge that the von Trapps built. One that I hadn’t skied through without falling, sliding across the ice onto the practice hill in front of the children who were much, much more elastic and equipped than I was. I clenched my teeth and thought of the von Trapps, singing even as their world was burning around them. I clenched my teeth and sat into it. I dug my edges into the snow. And I turned in a new direction.
In case you were wondering, my dog waited until we were back in our own apartment before she vomited up a stuffed moose leg.
Ali Osworth is Geekery Editor at Autostraddle, Managing Editor at Barnard Center for Research On Women’s Scholar and Feminist Online, and Part-Time Faculty at The New School, where she teaches digital storytelling. She’s writing a novel about GamerGate, which is really depressing. Follow her on Twitter or on Instagram.