It’s Tom’s fortieth birthday. The girls bring him breakfast in bed: toast, scrambled eggs, bacon, and coffee. Singing, Eleanor dances down to the kitchen and microwaves a chocolate muffin with one candle. He blows out the candle, hugs the twins, and kisses his wife. The girls get ready for school as he tries to enchant Eleanor into a quickie before she leaves. It doesn’t work.
“I have an early meeting—but later, I promise,” she says.
Tom places the plates on the nightstand; gets himself showered, shaved, dressed, and ready for work. Then he decides to call in sick. His boss understands, doesn’t need any explanation of what illness he has. Tom is a healthy man. He asks the girls if they want to go sledding and of course they do. They run downstairs to put on their matching pink snowsuits. He can hear them giggling in the mudroom. He follows the sound of happiness.
Eleanor walks into the kitchen, where Tom is sitting at the table drinking coffee, reading The Wall Street Journal.
“You sure you want to encourage them to miss school?”
“It’s only one day Baby.”
The girls cover their heads with hoods, duck their collars deeper into the neck holes, pretend they’re invisible. They drag themselves across the hardwood floor. Yesterday’s waxing is a wonderful coagulant against their nylon outer shells. Eleanor is brushing her hair in the mudroom mirror, fixing her lipstick with the corner of a Kleenex.
“What time will you finish your meeting?”
“A couple hours,” she says, leaving the mirror, face all perfect for selling houses in a down economy. She kisses Tom on the lips, pulls back the girls’ hoods to kiss them on the checks—then she’s out, into the winter sunshine.
She shouts through the glass: “We can go skiing when I get home.”
The Saab pulls out the driveway and all that remains in the frosty air is exhaust, for a few seconds at least. Tom finishes his coffee and zips up his jacket, pulls on his boots, hat, and gloves. He helps the girls into their hats, their mittens. Then he ties their shoelaces.
“Happy birthday Daddy,” they say, as he pulls their sleds and inflatable donut out of the garage, into his car already warming. With all the heavy snowfall so far this winter, there’s no need to use the bicycle pump. The snow tube is so fat Tom has to use his shoulder to wedge it into the back of the station wagon. A few flakes fall from the maple tree. He shoves the door closed. The icy ground is so shiny, like anything is possible. Tom places his boot on the gas peddle, puts the car in reverse and backs out of the driveway.
The golf course is empty, except for the eighth hole, where the slope is such that on any given day when the weather is frigid enough and the snow abundant you’ll find a few children (or stoned teenagers) using the hill. Today, there are three young boys and one nanny. Tom and the girls take turns racing down the hill. Then one of the boys collides with a tree on the far side of the fairway. His forehead is bleeding, and seeing that the nanny has no car, Tom rushes the boy to the Emergency Room.
Sitting in the waiting room with the girls drawing with crayons while the boy gets his head stitched up, Tom watches the nanny out of the corner of his eye, ponders the perfection, the rotundity of her snowcapped ass cheeks as she speaks with the doctor in her exotic Norwegian accent.
The boy comes back with a bandage and an enormous lollipop. The nanny and the mother are having a discussion in the corner. Tom leaves without saying goodbye.
“That boy hurt his head Daddy.”
“Yes, he did.”
In the kitchen Eleanor is singing into the phone. She hangs up as they enter, hugging her girls, helping them peel themselves like bananas from their snowsuits.
“Still want to go skiing?”
All four eat lunch: cold chicken sandwiches from last night’s leftovers. The girls drink root beer floats with curly straws inside frosted glasses and laugh as they burp.
“That’s not cool girls.”
Tom secures the skis on the roof of his car. All three of his little ladies are happy—but all he can think about is the nanny. He hopes she doesn’t get fired for that unfortunate accident. It could have happened to anybody.
Tires crunch against the sludgy pavement as the birthday boy hits the highway, heading toward the bunny slopes. The ski lodge is only a few miles from their house. Smoke billows from the chimneys; young couples wearing dark glasses and goggles on their foreheads kissing, sitting outside drinking beers in the sun. Tom pays for two adult day passes, taking advantage of his birthday discount. He snaps the ski boots around his daughters’ ankles, but can’t stop thinking about how nice it would be to have a nanny.
As family tradition has it, he takes the first chair lift by himself, so his girls can watch him slalom heroically down the mountain. But this time Tom’s mind is in a different place, between distant peaks he dreams of what his life would have been if he never met Eleanor.
Tom catapults himself down the mountain, ski poles pointed toward the clouds, faster, till an edge threatens his balance and he’s in midair, then six feet deep in a snowbed. The sky is so blue. Tom’s seeing it for the first time. Every time he tries to free himself he just digs himself deeper until only a narrow opening remains, almost unattainable so high above.
The ski patrol arrives, digs Tom from his icy crevasse. He’s fine—a few bruises. Tom refuses treatment, but the rules forbid him from skiing after suffering such a fall. He resigns himself to the lodge for cold German beer and a warm fire. Eleanor asks if he wants to go home, but Tom tells her, “Of course not, let the kids have a few runs, I’m fine here. We’ll meet up in a couple hours.”
Across from Tom a college girl is sitting, texting like a demented pubescent carnival while sipping a chocolate martini. She meets pupils with Tom for a split second—but shies away. Tom drinks his frosty Heineken as if it were water from a glacier, staring into the abyss of her cleavage as she fingers her pink BlackBerry. She loosens up as the chocolate fluids enter her bloodstream.
Tom imagines what would happen if he invited her up to his room for a cocktail. Of course he has no room—but what if he had—would she follow suit? A few hours later and the kids and Eleanor having not returned, he follows the woman into an elevator.
“What do you do?” she asks.
“Investment banking,” he says.
“I’m interested in becoming a realtor,” she says.
She hits the 6 button and the doors close. Tom can smell her perfume in his hairy nostrils. He can imagine her naked in his arms. The elevator stops on the third floor and a group of frat boys enter, wedging him and the woman into a corner. Tom mortgages the future against the warm breasts and crevasses of a woman half his age. Then she squeezes out and disappears with the boys. Tom rides the elevator to the bottom floor, watching the neon downward arrow and the red numbers descending, until the doors open with a peaceful chime and the girls are warm in his arms beside the fire. The orange on their faces is refreshing, and Tom knows he’s done more than enough sledding for one day.
Matthew Dexter is an American writer living in Mexico. He survives in Cabo San Lucas.