Head Games

by Jane Koerner on November 5, 2010

From: Powder Queen

To: Rocky Mountain Stead

Drought breaking. Snow on way. Answer to your question: We were married for 15 years. A long time ago, before I moved to Utah. He’s still in Colorado. We talk on holidays. Not friends exactly, more like big brother, kid sister, although that relationship seems to be reversing as we age. Do you get along with your ex?


From: Dr. Stead Hayward Ph.D.

To: Jane

Which one?

From: Mountain Mama

To: Ironman Stead

Skis tuned and in trunk of car. Is there anything else you’d like to know before the big rendezvous?

From: Dr. Stead Hayward, Ph.D.

To: Jane

Let’s trust that we will have each other’s best interests at heart.

I can’t find the keys to my Honda and Stead is waiting outside in the cold with his skis. He drove all the way from Montana to see me. His first trip to Utah, our first meeting since exchanging emails for months.

Stead lives in a tipi. His hands smell of sawed logs and aged smoke. His hair is longer than in the photo on his website. A hint of mountain-man ponytail at the nape of his neck, surfer-boy bronzed curls. A voice like Charles Bronson in his prime. It took the better part of a summer to satisfy Stead’s standards for the tipi. He consulted an artist, a redhead, he said, whom he had treated for depression after a near-fatal car accident. She accompanied him to Montana last summer — the same summer we met on the Internet. He had just sold his private practice in Oregon and his cabin in the redwoods and most of his furniture, except for the memory-foam mattress, so he could move to another, less-populated forest at the foot of a ski hill.

I call it a ski “hill” because it is dwarfed by the mountain he will be skiing with me. Alta has steeps, stashed within thick rock bands, and if you’re not paying attention, you might enter the wrong chute and sail off a cliff. I avoid the high-anxiety terrain in storms and carry two pairs of lenses for my goggles. Yellow for whiteouts, amber for cloud cover with powder potential. The micro-fiber cloth in the pocket of my ski pants is for wiping my lenses clean so I don’t go blind and hit something. My helmet would provide little protection in a head-on collision with a tree.

Michael Lucero, American, born 1953

Discontent with the cipher-like drawing of his contemporaries, the artist prefers figures, which he pieces together from a variety of traditions. This portrait platter, with its mask-like features, disconnected images, and bright colors, dissolves boundaries into a dizzying array of meanings.

— Artist’s bio, Nora Eccles Harrison Art Museum, Utah State University

The white hat looks like it suffers from a severe case of arrested development in comparison to the size of the head. The sun-burnt skin is pitted as if struck by meteorites. The ears and nose are misaligned. Black tears drip from one eye. I missed some of the details the first time I saw it, or

misunderstood. During my second viewing, I notice the brain. It is partially exposed, revealing the upper lobe of the left hemisphere, which has been tapped by a tree. I assume its roots are embedded in logic. If only it were that straightforward. The right hemisphere manufactures musical notes and splotches of dim memory. In my experience, the right hemisphere causes the most trouble. It is the source of fear and rage, sorrow and confusion and all the other unacknowledged emotions that alter perception. I name Lucero’s untitled work, “Head Games.”

Stead is looking forward to Alta as much as I am. It is renowned for the abundance and purity of its crystalline powder. If our timing is right, and the storms lined up in the Pacific coincide with an increasingly favorable jet stream, we’ll have to wear snorkels.

The waves arrive in perfectly timed intervals that iron the mountainside flat, wipe the slate clean. By early afternoon, Stead is dunking himself in repeated butt plants and separating himself from his skis. To retrieve them, he has to swim uphill through quad-deep slash-and-burn. We take a break at the restaurant mid-mountain. He isn’t the only tourist who has done himself in. Their turquoise, silver and chartreuse jackets intermingle with the imitation Army camo-fatigues of the season-passers also camped out on the deck, blurring the distinctions between novices and pros. The restaurant is the one place on the mountain where the two remain unsegregated. From here, several hundred feet below the cliffs, it doesn’t matter how good you are; everyone on the deck is a spectator. Skis are parked at the bottom of the steps in a jungle of rabbit ears (I conquered my fear of heights!), pancaked skis (I give up) and skis propped against the railing as if they haven’t decided quite where they belong. Rather disoriented myself, I dump mine at the foot of the indecisive stack.

Sitting on the deck, sucking the last drops out of our water bottles, we listen to the swooshing and whispering of skis on Mount Baldy, admiring the vertical contrails of snow in their wake. The contrails descend in puffs of smoke, eliminating every figure-eight and semi-figure-eight. Next powder shot, virgin, theirs, all theirs. Limber pines grip the edges of the cliffs, their outstretched arms nailed to the cross of the sky.

All morning long, I have been playing mountain guide to a tentative Jeremiah Johnson. Now my head is spinning in the clouds nosing the ridge to the west. The next wave is approaching. I don’t need no pills. I toss my unopened bottle of ibuprofen in my pack and nudge Stead with my ski boot. I can hear the Hallelujah Chorus in my head and I’m singing along off-key, out-of-sync with my ski buddy, whose rendezvous has been disrupted by reverie. He looks at me with alarm. I hardly know this man. We’ve spent one weekend together.

I zip up my pack and point at Mount Baldy. “Ready for another shot?” Stead has to go to the bathroom. On powder days, I never take a rest break. I piss in the trees with the men.

As efficient in a restroom as I am in the trees, I beat Stead to the ski rack and hunt in vain for my pair. My vision has clouded over, and each pile looks exactly like all the others. Panic rises to my throat, cresting in an unbreakable wave that crashes through my brain, jolting it with an electrical shock and a flash, as if a camera temporarily resided there. I hear a faint shout and whip around, jostling the skis propped behind me. I grab the most endangered pair before it topples. I hope it doesn’t belong to Stead.

“Jane, watch out! You’re going to knock someone’s skis over.”

The skis I dumped at the foot of the rack closest to the staircase are impeding the mass exodus from the restaurant. If I don’t get out of the way, I may be trampled to death.

“Your behavior is unacceptable, totally unacceptable,” Stead yells. My windblown face burns. Our reflections stare back at us from the lenses of startled sunglasses.

A month later he emails, “I think we are stylistically incompatible.”

I don’t remember what awakened me: the coal-powered locomotive of my sister’s snoring or the soft wail of the moonlight-serenading saxophone on the car radio. Their heads are silhouetted by the dashboard light. My mother’s head rests on my father’s shoulder. I am eight years old. This is my only memory of her leaning on him. I suspect there were other times. Despite the passage of time, or perhaps because of it, memory conforms to the childhood narrative rather than the actual events.

As they left the house for the fiftieth wedding anniversary celebration at their church, my father asked me to take a photo of them. Mother objected. She didn’t want to be late. Caught in the middle as usual, I took his side for once and posed them on the front steps. In the photo, his arm is draped around her shoulders and he is gazing down at her, his Jerry Lewis mad scientist glasses poised on the tip of his Teutonic nose. She looks up at him, shrinking the one-foot disadvantage in height with shriveled lips and bared teeth.

X

“You don’t know me. You just think you do,” Stead says. I’m on his turf now. He hasn’t sent the “stylistically incompatible” email yet. We’re lying next to each other in his tipi, and he has turned his back on me. Shut his eyes, rolled over and curled up in fetal position, the artificially deep breath of his feigned sleep muffled by the crackling of the woodstove he lit before lying down beside me. The flames spit and dance in the glass window of the stove. The ponderosa poles moan in protest as the wind whips the white canvas walls of the tipi, scattering snowflakes through the eyelets.

I’ve been probing, asking questions, too many questions, and maybe he feels like I am psychoanalyzing him. He is the therapist, not me.

What drove her to it? The second wife, the one he diagnosed as bulimic after noticing the contradiction. She was a runner. Skinny as a POW, with the appetite of a combat-fatigued platoon. I don’t ask about her. He says he still loves her. So I ask about the gypsy. “A gypsy in Oregon? How do you meet a gypsy in Oregon?” That marriage ended in six weeks, when he learned of his emptied bank account. His eldest son lives in Tahiti. They haven’t spoken in years. Stead volunteers that information. I keep the next question to myself. Why did the mother, the first wife, from the marriage that lasted the longest, fifteen years, as long as mine, demand full custody with no paternal visitation rights?

That was the question I cared about most but by then I had checked out, Alta all over again. Middle-aged mountain men are hard to come by in northern Utah, and my Honda is parked a half-mile away, at the bottom of a steep, snowed-in hill.

Stead’s diagnosis? Attention deficit disorder, and even though I disagree (my therapist of 20 years ago likened it to a flooded engine), I don’t try to set Stead straight. He has already made up his mind. Maybe his Dear Jane two weeks later is his way of avoiding a scene.

What was his diagnosis for Loretta, the artist redhead? I don’t ask that question either. He is her therapist, her healer. Her painted buffaloes stampede across the canvas, the Indians in hot pursuit with bows drawn.

“You’re my Pocahontas. I want you to be my Pocahontas,” he whispered in my ear after crawling in beside me and draping his fleece blanket over both of us. He stroked my hair with his fingers, which smelled of burnt matches. He gazed into my eyes, his fire-lit irises inflated into identical North Stars, and whispered, “I’m your Captain John.”

X

The heartbeats detonate, muted and remote, as if launched from a submarine. I hear a thin whistle, shriller but also distant. The heartbeats have surfaced. Or is this just another misperception?

“See your murmur?” the technician says. He points at a swirling galaxy of gray dots on the screen.

“The mitral valve? My father has that problem.”

“You inherited it then. Sixty percent of us are born with this murmur. It would be hard to hear with a stethoscope. You’d have to place it over the exact spot.” He rotates his chair so he can look me in the eye. “Nothing to worry about. Yours is very minor.”

“Miraculous.” I mean the pump, not the defect.

He nods in agreement. “The heart beats 100,000 times a day, 30 million times a year.”

“And the number over a lifetime?” I ask, incredulous.

“Three billion beats pumping one million and 56,000 liters of blood.”

The atria do their job quietly, in the background, pulling in the oxygen-saturated blood, detoxifying it, passing it on. At each exchange, the ventricles withdraw from the atria in a violent thrust. And just as rapidly, in the blink of an eye, they collapse and re-engage. Between the right and left ventricle, a wall of muscle separates the replenished blood from the unpurified blood. The muscle is the strongest muscle in the chest cavity. It must withstand all the forces of human nature.

Jane Koerner teaches journalism at Utah State University and is working on a book of essays set in the Colorado Rockies. This is her first story for the Gazette.


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