In this story of deep winter dreams, romance and music, nothing is ever as it seems.
He thought of her when he skied, in those moments skinning up the hill when time stands still. She had long auburn hair and deep brown eyes with a calm, unwavering stare.
She was in upstate New York, where nothing but the weather ever changes, wearing warm sweaters and driving her VW Van with rusted bumpers, burning candles in empty red wine bottles and listening to vinyl while she read books about places in Europe where she never really considered going.
He was in Colorado, remembering how he stayed with her when the rain came, then the deep snow. He thought of her bed by the window, the bathroom that was always cold, and those sweaters on the floor.
Up high among cathedral peaks with skinny evergreens, he would strap on his skis and climb alone. He would get caught in a trance at the unending revelation of cold alabaster turned to aspirin under the weight of skis separating the powder. Adrift in all that space, his was the only shadow moving through the cold.
Once he started, he wouldn’t stop for water or food. He headed straight to the summit, where he would change shirts, put on another layer, then ski back down to his little caretaker’s cabin, or sometimes all the way to town a little bit farther below.
He rarely savored the view, ignoring the rugged restlessness of nature, and even the soft joy of fresh turns. There was only that Sisyphean satisfaction of for a moment, existing in free fall. Then, if it was a weekend, or there were tourists in town, he would go and play guitar.
There was a buzz building about his music, how he could hold a stage by himself. People would drive up from Denver to see him. A local producer offered him time in a studio. But it was the girl from upstate New York who taught him how to play.
It surprised them both how quickly he improved. When people would stop and listen to what he could do, he wanted to repay her, and take her skiing to show her what he loved to do. Although “love” was not a word he deliberately used.
She wore jeans tucked into gray rental boots, his parka and his green knit hat. She was laughing as she started to slide, her cheeks as pink as coral. Then she held him as he caught her. They only stopped for one drink at the bar.
Days went by when nothing happens. Weeks. Years. When you suddenly can’t tell if anything ever existed beyond another chorus of “Take it to the Limit,” or “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” or the way people start lining up the shots as soon as the band takes the stage, trying to speed up the feeling of feeling better than they did before.
Sometimes he could hear her voice like a duet when he wrote a song. He could see how onstage they could just exchange verses, and watch each other with such constant fascination that all the audience would fall in love with them too.
He would look for her in the audience, swaying with her eyes shut in the back of the crowd, a quick spotlight beaming across her shining face as white as the snow. Even when all the lights were on him, he could imagine he caught a flash of her.
Until the night he booked a show at the old opera hall. In the mining town days, it had been as elegant as any theatre in the world. And when he took the stage he felt as if that moment was all there was, and ever would be. As if without his music it would all disappear.
When they sat down, dressed in their ski-town best, murmuring with anticipation, he felt an exhilaration of some cosmic truth about to be unveiled. Like he was being carried into something inevitably unclear. When he started singing a song he felt he hardly knew the words to, everyone in the audience was singing along. And on the next song, too. Off on some soaring chorus, then some singular solo, that he never knew before.
The more he played, the less familiar the song was to him, yet the crowd roared louder. It became a sonic wave rushing the stage, drowning him in a buzz of bright lights, and the gleaming crescendo he just couldn’t let go. With sweat pouring down his face, it echoed into eternity, until everything vanished into the winter air.
Then there was no audience. No stage. No folksinger. And maybe not even a mountain town.
But there is the girl. Her name is Layla, because her mother loves rock and roll. They are both as dark and lovely as the eyes of the world. She smiles to see it is her mom on the phone as she wakes up in her bed in Upstate New York, wishing for just a minute she was still in that opera house.
She says, “It was one of those cowboy dreams. Except he could ski and play guitar.”
When her mother asks if he had a name, she stops, then replies, “I don’t know.”