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Joseph Olshan is an award-winning American novelist whose works include Cloudland, The Conversion, Nightswimmer, and The Sound of Heaven. His critically acclaimed first novel, Clara's Heart, was the winner of the Times/Jonathan Cape Young Writers’ Competition and subsequently the basis for a motion picture starring Academy Award–winner Whoopi Goldberg. A former book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal, Olshan has written extensively for numerous publications including the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, the Times (London), the Washington Post, Harper’s Bazaar, People magazine, and Entertainment Weekly. Once a professor of creative writing at New York University, Olshan currently lives in Vermont. His work has been translated into sixteen languages.
If you could be given your youth back, it might only have true meaning for a few days, or maybe even a week. A month might allow you to forget that you were ever old, but the whole point would be to never forget—to understand that your visit back in time would expire almost as soon as it began. Sam is thinking this as he and Mike soldier the last ascent up a trail in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, skis on their shoulders, notching their ski boots into steep snowpack, eyeing the flat table above where they'll soon stop and put on the rest of their gear. They've been hiking for an hour and a half in whirring, wintry silence, punctuated by groans and cackles of shifting snow and ice and by the soft wailing of the wind. The sun is high, and it's a bluebird day. Looming constantly to their left is Wolverine Cirque, whose headwalls are built up from ice melt that has gathered layers of snow; the slope looks almost vertical in places, dark dashes of rock to be avoided at all costs. It's an extreme descent that only solid expert skiers can drop into and be confident of surviving. The adrenaline blast of a run to the bottom of the canyon would, to those above them, be almost meaningless.
The night before, pointing to the image of the cirque on the computer screen, Mike said, "You can get into it one of two ways. You can sideslip in, ski straight down the first headwall, then check your speed and pick your way for a bit until it gets wider"—then he grinned maniacally—"or you can just jump off the cornice, which I don't think either of us wants to do."
At forty-five, Mike is five years younger, a stronger skier. He lived for three seasons in Tahoe, tuning edges, adjusting bindings and skiing almost every day, and that has given him a confidence, a fluidity of motion that never seems to falter, even when his skis trammel the eastern ice. He's a tough little guy of French Canadian background; one of his eyes is blue and the other is golden green. Last night he watched Sam staring slackjawed at the screen. "You with me, bud?" he said.
"Yeah, I'm with you."
"Don't overthink this, Sam. You overthink everything. You know the terrain. Now you just have to nail it. We've done the whole East Coast, we've done Tucks, we've done the West: Gunsight and the Baldy Chute at Alta, we've done Courbet's at Jackson. This is not far out of that league."
Sam disagreed; to him, Wolverine Cirque presented a higher degree of difficulty. Plenty of lesser skiers took on Tuckerman's Ravine's forty-five-degree plunge, which was pretty short and could be dispatched with five turns. Courbet's Couloir in the Tetons was admittedly very steep, but still a marked trail in bounds—whereas Wolverine Cirque was miles and miles off piste.
"But whatever you do," Mike spoke up again, "don't think about him."
Mike knew Sam was being coy. "About you-know-who."
But how could he not think about Luc? Doing the cirque together was what they'd talked about from the very beginning, when Sam had shown Luc the YouTube footage accompanied by a heavy-metal soundtrack of skiers tackling it. "We'll do it; together, we'll do Wolverine," they had promised one another, hugging tight and cringing, as they'd watched Billy Poole's final moment—miraculously captured on video—when he was killed there in '09 at the age of twenty-eight. But Billy Poole was scouting for a Warren Miller film, and everybody said that had something to do with his demise.
Mike and Sam finally reach the top, and without acknowledging their arrival, look around at the sweeping expanse of summit vistas, sheets of snow draping the peaks and folds of mountains nestled close to them, and then begin the mindless drudge of putting on equipment. Sam had been sure to ski several days at Solitude and Alta on his rented "fat" skis so that he was used to them. Mike, who'd brought his Atomics out from Boston, felt he would not need the advantage of wide skis.
They check their stowed avalanche gear (their probes and miniature shovels), turn on their transponders, secure their backpacks, and approach the lip of the cornice, staring down into what first appears to be a crevasse but is actually just a break in the fall line. As Mike has pointed out, dropping in off this major cornice is not an option because you'd begin with too much air and invariably hit rock below. You had to jet in from the lip at the side and, once in, ski straight down a sixty-five-degree headwall through a narrow gate of two squat boulders, then jump-turn down a slim ribbon of skiable terrain and continue jump-turning until you dropped lower into the bowl that would widen before you'd finally be free to turn widely. Nervousness and adrenaline were fine, as long your brain didn't go numb.
"Okay, it is a little tricky," Mike concedes as they stand there, studying the slope like military strategists, "but just set your skis, aim for between the boulders. You'll probably be going fast when you get through. So start turning as soon as you clear those rawks." His South Boston accent sounds quaint in these western provinces. And for a moment Sam centers himself by taking deep breaths and looking out at the graduation of peaks in the distant part of the Wasatch that unfurl toward western Colorado, and the white parentheses of Solitude's downhill trails, where they hiked in from.
"Your picture almost lies," he told Luc, concealing his delight.
"I have to lie, because it's a secret," Luc said, the first words that Sam, of course, should have heeded.
"Well, I lied, too," he admitted. "I'm fifty, not forty-five."
"It's okay. I'm only into older guys," Luc said, then winked and admonished, "But tell the whole truth next time!"
Even then Sam was still thinking it would be quick and easy, never dreaming he would be compelled to tell the young man how beautiful he was or would hear Luc say the same thing to him. Or that back at Sam's house, when they were taking a breather listening to an Internet radio station that played tunes from the sixties and seventies, Luc would recognize songs like "Under Pressure" by David Bowie, able to sing the lyrics while they were lying in bed together.
"But this is so before your time," Sam remarked.
"Good music is good music," Luc said with a wise grin.
"I couldn't imagine growing up listening to my parents' music."
"Nobody did that before the revolution," Luc pointed out. "After the revolution everything changed."
"Free love." Luc laughed, laying his head on Sam's chest.
Weeks later they would playfully argue about how many hours they stayed in bed that first day. And it was only when they were showering that Luc revealed that he'd been recruited to Cornell as a Division I soccer player and had changed his major from economics to ecology and, after college, hoped to spend a few years working outdoors at a national park.
"You have nothing to prove to anybody," Mike now tells him sagely. "You've wanted to ski this since college." They'd met at Middlebury in a ski club when Mike was a freshman and Sam, two years graduated, was teaching an English I class before going to architecture school. "And we're gonna do it!"
Now time seems to telescope; no sooner does the grin on Mike's face fade, than he pushes out and grabs several feet of air off the lip before his skis hit and he's already rocketing down the narrow path toward the rocks. He's through the gate in a moment and then adjusts his speed beautifully and then begins the quick jump turns down the narrowest part of the face. Sam notices another drop that neither of them had anticipated, but Mike, who has remarkable reflexes, takes it in stride and gets some more air before hitting the slightly flatter, wider part of the cirque. And then he's turning great S's through the new snow—Sam can hear whoops of pleasure—making virgin tracks, as though writing words on a blank white tablet. And then, ever so faintly, "Awesome!" floating back up to him. As agreed, Mike finds a good place to stop halfway down and turns his face up to Sam. He yells something, but he's too far below now for Sam to understand it. Sam knows he's got to jump in, that he's going to do it, but hesitates just one last moment to collect his thoughts, to review what needs to be done, maybe even pray because he's superstitious.
"I'm afraid," he admits aloud to the blustering wind; solitary, he knows it's not just fear of the adventure—it's fear of losing his power, his athleticism, his attractiveness. Muscular and rugged throughout his life, he's reluctant to let it all go. Ever since he can remember he's been dreaming of mastering Wolverine Cirque, a notch in his belt before he gets too old to attempt terrain that often intimidates equally talented younger skiers. Shredding it all the way to the bottom of the canyon will hopefully slow his own decline down another arguably more difficult slope. The hardest part is getting off the lip and making it down that first schuss, and to continue strategizing while doing so. "Come on," he imagines Luc urging him, and then he's in and knows with a flash of exhilaration that it's a good entry. He's following Mike's tracks, gaining speed down the headwall toward the stubby boulders, zipping through them until a jolt of his shoulder hits one of them, throwing him off his game for a second, but instinctively he bends his knees, checks his speed, and then enters phase two: the slightly less steep chute that's maybe two feet wider than his skis. Mike excels in such tricky terrain; he can turn precisely and descend, not veering to one side or another, never unnerved by the fact that sheer rock or free fall lie just beyond the tips and tails of his torquing skis. Sam is making his way down, jump-turning to the right and then the left, but just as he's about to enter the bowl's wider field, one of his edges catches, and with a flash of paralyzing panic, he knows he's going to fall forward.
The second time Luc stopped by, he texted one morning at 11:30 and asked if he might visit at 12:30 that afternoon. It'd been raining and his landscaping company had called it a day. Sam had already spread some blueprints out on his drafting table: a house in Cornish, New Hampshire, that he was designing for a French couple, a minimalist building with walls of translucent glass, a whimsical structure that they loved. Due for a meeting with his clients at seven that evening, he'd promised to have everything finished, but figured, When am I going to get such a chance again—with somebody like this, somebody so open, so youthfully unguarded in the act of love? Then, too, Luc was as yet undeclared about what he ultimately wanted—men or women—and could very easily have decided that one tumble with Sam was enough.
When the young man walked in the door, his Adidas bag slung over his shoulder, a sheepish, slightly frightened look on his face, Sam guessed Luc had probably thought a lot about their first encounter and that sheer compulsion had driven him to the second. As they were passing Sam's office, Luc noticed the plans on the drafting table and wandered in.
"What are these?" he said, gently caressing the blueprints with a finger.
Sam approached and fit his chin on Luc's shoulder. "House I'm designing. Done a lot for these people. Did their place in France."
"Where at?" Luc said.
"A town called Lourmarin, it's in—"
"I know where it is. We know a Canadian lady who has a house there. And that guy who wrote all those books about Provence was really describing Lourmarin. Now our friend says it's overrun; it's ruined." Luc glanced at him with a smirk, then regarded the row of sharply focused photographs above the drafting table and smiled goofily. "Would these houses be your designs?"
"Yup. All local. Except for the one in France ." Sam pointed to a photo of the old stone house whose remodeling he'd overseen. "I've never done anything on a national scale."
Luc shrugged it off. "So what? You make a living at it, don't you? Better than blood sucking on Wall Street or ambulance chasing, right?" He winked. "Plus, you're sexy mon," he said with a Caribbean accent. "Too sexy, really."
"What does that mean?"
Luc laughed. "I don't know, but don't make me explain it. Just keep being it." And then he kissed Sam.
"His moon is conjunct your sun," said a close friend of Sam's who dabbled in astrology (Luc had mentioned a birthday in August and Sam had asked him what day). "I mean, if he's the age he says he is."
Sharply skeptical of this new-age perception, Sam nevertheless said, "No, he is—he showed me his driving license when he could sense I was nervous that he might be younger, not that he looks it."
"With his moon conjunct your sun, you'll always know pretty much what he's feeling, even when he's trying to hide it," the friend said.
That second day when they were in bed together, there was a great deal of emotion in Luc's pale eyes, and he started to use the word love to describe what they were doing. "Oh baby I love it when you I love when you do this to me." And every time Sam told Luc he was beautiful Luc would turn it around and say, "No, you're the beautiful one, Sam," with his face in a kind of religious rapture.
Sam wakes up to a sky that has cooled, a lower sun, and the snowfields taking on rosy color. He's lying at a critical angle, his right leg folded beneath him. He gasps, realizing something is terribly wrong, then glances around and spies his right ski lower down, sticking out of the snow, jackknifed over itself, snapped in half, shocking. He can no longer feel his leg and yet there is pain pulsing everywhere in his body, electric surprises radiating from a dead zone. But then it fades for a bit; thankfully it's not constant. Soon it occurs to him that it's more than just the skewed limb, divining a deeper wound. He is losing something, and he's losing it quickly, and he doesn't know quite what it is. And then hearing Mike calling—he'd almost forgotten Mike was there with him. At last Sam tunes in to the litany, and he's in an echo chamber: "Sam!" Sam! Sam! "You okay?" You okay? You okay?
Shifting his head to the right, Sam sees Mike one hundred yards down, skis off and crisscrossed at one side, trying to scale the shallower part of the cirque, near an outcropping of rocks, having terrific difficulty. "Don't try and get up here. Just call Life Flight," he manages.
"So it's that bad?"
"I think so. Stay there, Mike. You can't make it up here."
Mike had once been a gymnast, but this was one of the steepest slopes on the North American continent.
"Are you cold?"
Sam takes a moment to assess. "Nah, I don't think so."
They've rented avalanche satellite phones that have Life Flight's number programmed in. Muted tones of conversation float up to him and then he hears Mike yell, "Okay, they're on their way!"
Though the pain slams him again, he is able to consider that this is his first—and maybe the only—moment of relief. Life Flight is coming; it's in their hands now. They'll know what to do. Sam leans his head back, admonishing himself to rest despite the intermittent screams of his injured body. When they rented the phones they were told Life Flight was pretty quick, so maybe he'll have to endure another half hour of this? At first he thinks, okay, I think I can handle it, but then panics as he did once far out in Grafton Pond, when he was swimming between two coniferous islands, growing afraid of drowning, and then turning on his back and trying to relax and then hearing the sound of loons, the birds that mate for life, calling out in their haunting lament, like the hooting of a train he once rode in the Alps, trudging along a high bridge one thousand feet above a valley. And then he discovers wetness, and manages to unzip his jacket and almost passes out when he spies the tremendous pooling of blood. And dimly wonders: What could possibly be causing this? How much have I lost?
The times Luc actually could drop by were not so numerous over the summer; his predicted arrivals always amended due to the vagaries of his parents or his job. Sam made him promise two things: that he'd never cancel at the last minute and that they'd ski together.
And Luc, who jumped off cliffs and did back flips, taunted him, "As long as you can keep up with me."
"I'm fast—I'm really fast but I'm not reckless," Sam said once when they were together. "So even if you wait, it will only be ten or fifteen seconds."
"I'm just having you on," Luc said with that dazzling smile, youthful but so manly, his baritone voice that always sounded so reasonable. "I'll wait for as long as necessary. Or maybe you'll be waiting for me."
Excerpted from Wolverine Cirque by Joseph Olshan. Copyright © 2013 Joseph Olshan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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