The fire was steadily burning, a comfort to see even from a distance. As Virginia Li Taft, better known as Gin-Li, took her place in the half-circle about it, she found the group smaller than expected. Or it just felt that way, tightly drawn of six kids she’d known to one degree or another her whole life. They sat shoulder to shoulder; you had to squeeze your way in if you weren’t one of the gang–she’d seen that happen.
She thought some must have paired off, left for other places. It was the last of the afternoon, and without thinking she glanced to see if Robbie was there. Of course not. He’d be the last one in; his snowboard was about everything to him. Who could compete? Good thing she didn’t need to; she and Robbie were best friends. Just like she and Liz were, though Robbie was a male, yes. Some of the other girls said, “No, that one’s an actual man, right?” and then further emphasized with eyes widening that they were pleased one of the guys finally was. Gin-Li had noticed but it wasn’t relevant; Robbie was just Robbie. They were all sixteen or seventeen and it was true, though, that plenty of guys acted and looked like they’d gotten stuck in mid-to-late middle school. If Gin-Li was there, they didn’t bother her with speculations about him. He was single the past months but she was immune to his charms and there was no help for that.
Gin-Li felt relief change her limbs into jelly when she scooted closer to the mammoth fireplace. Sinuous flames flick light across shadowed skin. She sank into the rise and fall of laughter and chatter, though she remained quiet. Quietness, even stillness (despite the fact that she was a decent athlete) that caught people’s attention, was a hallmark of her personality–and as defining of who she was as her sleek, dark hair and almond eyes.
Or so her mother said often enough. The statement sometimes held a resentful, even sharp edge, as if every time she saw Gin-Li she had to be reminded of her father, long gone, sorely if sadly remembered. As if Gin-Li was responsible for her continued irritation. But then it would pass as she spoke of other things–until next time. He’d been her mother’s hero, “The One”, until he’d left for the ill-fated rafting trip in Peru. He drowned and left Marley Taft, Gin-Li’s mother, pregnant and unmarried. Mostly Chinese and a tad this and that, John Li was a respected biologist and eager adventurer. Marley Taft, his fiancée, was a geology professor at UCLA. Things changed fast after his death. And after twelve years, Gin-Li had no memories and Marley had fewer good ones of California but they had fashioned a very good life in Colorado. Even though Marley hadn’t yet found another partner that seemed worth keeping.
Arch Mountain Ski Resort was close to the city so a bunch of kids piled into a couple of vehicles with parents at the wheel (they’d drive at least one more year, they all agreed). It got to be a regular trip on week-ends for some, even most of the time for Gin-Li and Liz. They weren’t, perhaps, top-notch skiers but enjoyed it. Gin-Li loved snowboarding and was getting pretty good at it. But they also liked the group camaraderie as they hit the runs, reconvening during breaks. It was a feast for the senses up there, the work out fun, even amazing. You could see the Continental Divide and the brisk sharp air revived Gin-Li even on her less thrilled days. Her mother skied, too, they noted each other in passing which was more than enough.
“You want a coffee or tea?” Liz asked as her elbow poked her friend’s ribs.
Gin-Li shrugged and she stared at the fire. Liz was getting on her nerves lately, always talking about Phil or Denny or Gavin. She knew Liz was going to get caught up in talk if she spotted one of those older boys; Gin-Li might not get her tea until it cooled off.
“Okay, peppermint tea, thanks.”
Then Frieda pressed a shoulder into hers as the semi-circle closed in Liz’s absence. “Frieda the Needy One”, Gin-Li often thought but she could be fun.
“Gin-Li, I’d watch out for Liz if I were you,” she hissed in her ear. “She’s going the wrong direction with those other guys. Better to stick with what we know, right? At least when we’re in school.” She winked. “I saw a guy from Newfield last summer awhile, a senior!”
“She’ll do what she wants. Liz has strong preferences.”
“Yeah, older and wilder. Not like Robbie who is about as mellow as you can get, right?”
She threw Frieda a questioning look. “Well, he’s my best friend.”
“What? More a best friend than Liz? You’ve known her since third grade. You give preferential treatment, too!” and giggled her childish giggle.
Gin-Li hunched her shoulders, hugged her knees and let her hair fall forward to blot out Frieda. She was the kind of person who could make something of nothing with little encouragement and Gin-Li chose to ignore her a bit as years went by, though Frieda was nice to her. She in fact told her she got smarter and more pretty every week; their school lockers were just two apart so she was hard to ignore. Liz suggested archly that maybe Frieda was flirting with her but Gin-Li knew she was lonely and wanted to be noticed. She didn’t have close friends as she gossiped a lot or maybe that was why she did, thinking people valued her speculations when the opposite was ultimately true. But she skied well and was a good sport. People liked that, Gin-Li did, too, even though her alluding to her bi-racial features–Frieda just had to use the adjective “exotic” more than once– could burn inside her. It was how it was. Some people never understood and how could they? Gin-Li was who she was and, in fact, that wasn’t entirely clear to her sometimes. Good thing she had a couple of truly trusted friends, who knew her insides about as well as she did.
“Here’s your tea,” Liz said as she made her place in the loosened group before the fire. A few had clearly gone back to the slopes. “I saw Robbie about to come in, from what I could see from the window. But he sure looked good out there–we all know he’s talented.”
Gin-Li smiled to herself and sipped. He’d taught her a few things that improved her own form and speed. He’d show her a few more things before they left, or tomorrow if they both came back. They’d dissect the moves and tricks, even into the early morning hours if they felt like crazy insomniacs. She yawned; Liz followed with a bigger one. It was either get back out there soon or get drowsier but the fire was so welcoming. If she was going to return tomorrow, she might as well rest now.
“I’m done being lazy, up and at ’em!” Frieda said as she rose and started toward the door.
“Watch this,” Liz leaned her head sharply toward the other girl. “Have you even seen this yet?”
Frieda nearly ran right into Robbie and she apologized with great flair, her hand on his shoulder, her face upturned. He looked down, briefly smiled back and kept on walking. Frieda scowled at his back and left.
Gin-Li saw it, drank her tea. When he got to them the piney mountain air came with him and she shivered with pleasure.
“Hey, you guys, more snow coming in!”
His voice boomed and others looked his way, waving, calling out.
“I want you to come out again Gin-Li, to show you something.”
“I’m tired. Maybe I’m getting a cold.”
“Of course you aren’t, you’re just out of condition, just coming twice last week. A trial to start over this winter, I get it.” He crouched down to her level, the snow melting, water beading and rolling off his pants. “The powder remains excellent and the lights are now on!” he added with a gentle force he used trying to persuade her. “Everything is blue and white out there, see? You know you love that, come on, slouchy girl!”
Gin-Li looked at his chiseled and pinked cheekbones, his lively blue eyes and almost got up. “Nope, six hours off and on is enough today, are you trying to make me suffer? You’re the snowboarding addict so go for it.” She gave him raised eyebrows with a smirk and inched toward the fire’s magnetic heat.
“Party pooper! You should let yourself give in, you’ve got such talent.”
His palm slid across her shoulders then lightly smacked her back so she reached out and slapped him on the leg as he moved away.
“Hey, Robbie, wait up!” Ted from the end of the line called out.
“Yeah, we’re coming.” Two more got up. The small group broke apart like a natural phenomenon.
“Did you notice he didn’t ask me?” Liz gave a short laugh. “I’d be left behind so fast he’d forget I was ever there, I’d be lost in the spray.” She got up, looked around. “Where did Frieda go?”
Gin-Li stood, as well, then walked to the huge glass wall of windows where she could see all. Evening draped the snow in a watery but deep blue. She could track Robbie going up the slope and she suddenly wished she’d joined him. But there would be tomorrow. She would see him dazzle his way down soon. Meanwhile, her mother was just calling it day and chatting with others. Frieda and a bunch of girls had their heads together, all animated, then they started for the lift. She was half in- and half-out the circle, ever seeking her place. Gin-Li was glad she felt mostly at home with what and who she knew and loved. She had learned that during last winter, an event she tried to not think about, anymore.
When she searched for Liz, she saw her at a table with a plate of burger and fries. Gin-Li wasn’t hungry yet but she was warmed up, felt strong and limber even if her muscles and joints did ache a bit. She really could snowboard more, should have taken Robbie up on his tutoring.
But she took in the mountains’ jagged peaks, the snow bright and dark as electric lights more fully illuminated the scene, and that wide star-embroidered sky and all those people, and she was thinking of her father and how she might not have inherited his gene for daring, after all. Or maybe it would light her up tomorrow or next year or in her twenties. Wasn’t he twenty-six when he took off for Peru? Was he thinking that he’d be glad to hurry back to her mother or was he thinking nothing of the sort, only living in each moment until…he could no longer do so? She should try that, embrace it all more heartily rather than just sit with the moment. She wasn’t afraid, though. She was observing. For one example, for drawings she would make later in her candle lit room after her mother turned in. She would take all this and make it open up and tell her secrets as her hand was moved by the pencil. Or so it seemed.
What would John Li think of it? He’d kept travel journals, made sketches of what he saw, too. She had taken one from her mother’s old trunk, hidden it in her closet. It was what she had of him. His eyes and hair, yes, but even more, those rich words and pictures. So she could imagine him just a little better, live what he lived.
The scene below was perfect, astonishing in its beauty and it gave her the tingling feeling that told Gin-Li the whole universe was alive and busy with mystery. And then in the center of that expanse of opulent snow one person appeared in the distance and came forward and down and down and then a singular action multiplied and transformed into something else.
A snowboarder had completed a frontside 360 off a kicker, then landed wrong. Thudded–she could almost hear the body and snowboard, feel the vibrations enter the earth–and bounced once and slid and crumpled hard on the fast descent. Her hot hands pressed against the chill glass and she could hear shouts inside and out. Down the slope the body tumbled and then it stopped.
That unearthly stillness.
Gin-Li grabbed her jacket and raced out the building before Liz could call to her and Gin-Li down the stairs and out the doors, past her mother without seeing her and then slogged through snow partway up the slope where so many had stopped and were looking, gawking, reaching down and recoiling.
“No, don’t come close, we’ve called for help, stay back!” someone yelled at her and then more shouted but she knew what she saw and she was not stopping.
“Robbie!” she cried out and knelt in a twilit pillow of snow beside him, his body all zigzag. With three bare fingertips she smoothed away tiny crusts of ice like snowflake tattoos on the hair on his forehead, along his jaw.
His lips were perfect, chapped. His eyes were closed and his gaunt face, white as the moon but for flaring cheeks, said nothing to her but pain. He was hovering, she knew it, she had felt this last year after her bad car accident, such pain lifts you to another plane and leaves you there when all around people are doing things or not doing anything. Robbie was quieter than a hiding fox, quieter than the snow falling. More still than ever he had been unless he was sleeping in the ratty hammock or tents they’d set up in the woods and even then, she watched him breathe.
More still even than when he’d come last year to sit in the hospital with her, to keep watch as her own agony leaked out, as she ranted and raged about the meanness of rehab therapists. But she did not believe he could die, not now. She held him in her heart and told him so.
“He’s breathing, eyelids are twitching.”
Gin-Li took his freezing hand in hers and blew on it. Where was his glove? Robbie did not speak to her but he was telling her to just hold on, he was only floating nearby. Sudden lights flashed like mad carnival colors on whiteness. The siren wound down.
“Move aside, miss,” the EMTs said and touched him to find where and what things were doing as his eyes started to move behind his eyelids, as he started to come back to the pain.
She let go with the cry of an alarmed bird.
“Come, Gin-Li,” her mother said, arm about her. “We’ll follow the ambulance.” She had to keep blinking to not see John Li’s face looking back at her before he left for Peru. She squeezed her daughter’s hand and prayed.
Liz barely kept up with them she shook so hard. Not again, not another friend she might lose.
After the back surgery to put things together that threatened to come apart via fractured vertebrae and left shin that cracked, he came uneasily into consciousness. In the recovery room she stood behind his parents but Gin-Li kept well away from his bed to let his mother weep his father twist his cap. She was waiting until he could spot her and knew it might take a while. She waited all night and into early morning as her mother fretted, exhausted, with Liz in the waiting room. She now realized how her daughter felt. She so feared they would lose this good and kind one, too–her father, now Robbie. But Liz said she knew better, she felt it would be okay and Marley held onto this small thing.
It was just going to be like this, Gin-Li saw that at last. The difficult things he insisted on doing, the happy abandon he gave to all because he was an optimist. The risk taking. The near misses, downright failures and eager new beginnings. He wanted to find and push limits, “pursue the heart of living”, he’d confided in her as they’d hiked along a ridge that felt close to the sun. And she was willing to be there, cruising or working alongside him or quietly watching, whatever worked best, because she believed in him and he, in her.
He’d told her this last year after her own accident. And now she could not deny it.
“Gin-Li?” Robbie’s groggy voice made its way to her.
“I’m right here for you, my daredevil friend, dear Robbie,” she said as she leaned over, touched her lips to his forehead. His eyelids lowered; he smiled and slept. It was likely that she embraced all these possibilities because she was Gin-Li, the only honorable daughter of John Li, respected biologist and cheerful explorer of wild places (who missed her even now, as she missed him).