A Blue Epiphany
Ellie CooperPenelope grew her hair out into a cute pixie, and she chose the hair color, Baby Blonde, because she liked the name and hoped it took a few years off her appearance that chemo had added. She’d been in remission for six months and needed to reconnect. That’s why she insisted on accompanying Richard to the Albuquerque conference. He’d be the keynote speaker for Biomedics’ new, artificial heart valve.
He tried to dissuade Penelope, saying he’d have little free time, and she’d be bored. But a change of scenery would be welcome, Penelope reassured him; and, some free time would be better than none. She knew that North American surgeons would flock to hear her husband speak of the valve’s virtues--its lifetime guarantee—and, it being the season’s first snow–to ski. Penelope didn’t like either. Heart valves or skiing.
Penelope knew that if she ever had to have open heart surgery, she’d choose a pig valve over an artificial one, even though she was vegan. She didn’t trust a mechanical heart. Penelope didn’t think she could live with the pronounced lub-dub of the artificial valve as it opened and closed, pumping blood through her arteries, twenty-four seven. It was a little like anticipating death, waiting for the next shoe to drop, the next lub-dub.
But Richard, Chief of Thoracic Surgery at a major medical center, reminded Penelope that she’d given him Medical Power of Attorney, and she’d get what he wanted, should the occasion arise. He also reminded her that he knew what was best for her, didn’t he? At these times when she was being frivolous and particularly willful, he said, she was old-fashioned like her name.
But Penelope wondered what was wrong with old fashioned values. Especially fidelity. Richard had hinted at the benefits of an open marriage early on, but Penelope couldn’t imagine wanting anyone other than Richard. When she’d smelled perfume on him ten years ago, he’d promised to change.
Here they were--their one free afternoon. Penelope alone in the back seat; and Richard in the passenger seat of the big, black Ford Escalade with Catherine, their host and guide, behind the wheel. Catherine worked for Biomedics and had been Ms. Congeniality at the New Mexico State Beauty Pageant in 2009; it was her job to make Richard’s visit a pleasant one. When they passed the turnoff to the Taos Ski Valley, Richard, an avid skier, sighed. Not a silent exhale of resignation, but a loud exhale of disgust, dissatisfaction or impatience that Penelope recognized but habitually dismissed; she likened his often overbearing and unpleasant traits to be necessary, or even a side effect of his responsibilities—after all, peoples’ lives depended on Richard. She lived under the shade of a brilliant man. But lately, he became more impatient and reactive to her needs.
It was Catherine’s idea that hiking the Wheelers Park Trail, instead of skiing like the other surgeons, would be less strenuous for Penelope. Richard had acquiesced. He’d tried to teach Penelope to ski on their honeymoon years ago but had spent most of his time picking her up from the snow and getting angry. Penelope being raised in Central Texas, where the snow never stayed more than a few hours on the ground once every ten years or so, and her childhood family, being more of a Six Flags Amusement Park family, had never learned to ski.
When they pulled into the parking area, it was deserted. A bystander, if there had been one, would have thought Catherine and Richard dressed in vibrant REI parkas were a couple, the way they walked and exchanged sideways glances; they left Penelope at the car fumbling with the zipper of her full-length puffer coat, as she stepped into two inches of icy mush. Penelope pulled the fur-trimmed hood tight around her face and kept her gaze down at the deceptively smooth snow to avoid a potential fall.
The distance between Penelope and her companions grew.
At the entrance to the trail, Penelope caught up with them. Richard smiled as Catherine took a deep breath of mountain air--her chest rose to show the trim outline of her figure. Penelope thought that no woman over the age of sixteen should be allowed to wear hot pink. Catherine wore ear warmers and pulled her dark hair into a pony tail that swished with her every movement. Her teeth were white like a dental advertisement. Penelope’s fingers were already numb.
The park sign said the climb to the lake was 1.92 miles. It would be fine, if they weren’t 10,000 feet above sea level, and it wasn’t twenty-six degrees.
“Are you alright, dear?” Catherine said. “It’s an easy hike and such a lovely view.”
“Let’s go,” Penelope said.
The trail rose 800 feet per mile, and the temperature dropped as the trail meandered through deep patches of pines and aspens. Penelope would walk and then rest in the clearings where the sun warmed her face a little. She couldn’t keep up, and Richard and Catherine soon disappeared. It was so quiet, Penelope heard nothing but the pounding of her own human heart, lub-dub. She couldn’t get enough oxygen.
She knew Richard should be with her instead of with Catherine. She’d sensed the familiarity between them during dinner the previous night. Richard didn’t think she noticed, but she had. Catherine’s hand had slightly brushed Richard’s at the table, and Penelope didn’t like the way Richard’s hand touched the small of Catherine’s back while they waited for a taxi. Little intimacies. Penelope imagined Catherine’s hand stroking Richard’s leg under the table.
Richard who usually gave Penelope half an Ambien at bedtime to help her sleep, had given her an entire pill and a glass of Chardonnay the previous night. When Penelope woke, it didn’t look like his side of the bed had been slept in.
Penelope’s heart had finally quietened, when they found her. She sat on a dead tree stump in a clearing where three mountains formed Wheelers Lake. The beauty and purity of the ice and snow had worn Penelope down; perhaps, she was wrong about Richard. He often told her she made silly things up in her head. “You could have been a writer,” he once said. At that moment, Penelope could have forgiven Richard for all his little transgressions, if only she could get warm again.
“Where have you been?” Richard said.
Penelope stood and kissed him lightly on the lips. All she wanted was to get back to their hotel, to have a hot bath, to slip into her new silk nightgown and to feel the warmth of her husband beside her. She might have dismissed the irritation in his voice, but she smelt hot cocoa on his breath. Catherine had brought hot cocoa for him in a thermos. Another little intimacy.
Penelope turned away from Richard. She looked at the frozen lake and pointed. “It’s supposed to be blue,” she said.
“Oh, sweetie you’re thinking of that brochure,” Catherine said. “The one I sent you.”
“It was blue.” Penelope insisted.
“That was summer. This is winter.” Richard said. The irritation in his voice, undisguised.
Penelope walked towards the frozen lake. Years later, she realized that if that lake had been blue, things would have been different. She probably would have kept on pretending, and let Richard have his way. She probably would not have left him. But hope died there. Her faulty thinking had led her to believe the lake would be turquoise like it was in the picture she’d seen. Her faulty thinking had led her to believe that life would resume the way it had, before she got sick. But things had changed irrevocably and not just her body. Things weren’t as she’d imagined they would be. Like the lake.
The wind began to spin drifts of freshly fallen snow, little snow tornadoes, that danced across the frozen surface of the lake. Penelope walked towards them and into the alpenglow, the reddish sunset.
“Penelope, what are you doing?” Richard said. He took a few steps towards her. “Come back here now. You can have your bath, your glass of Chardonnay and your half of an Ambien when we get back. Penelope!”
Catherine tugged at Richard’s sleeve. Richard and Catherine argued over Penelope like she was a misbehaving child and couldn’t hear them.
“Do something, Richard,” Catherine said. “It’s getting late.”
Richard began walking towards the lake. He looked carefully where he put his feet and only looked up occasionally. He couldn’t tell where solid ground ended and frozen water began.
Penelope being a small woman, barely a hundred pounds, had almost reached the far side of the lake where another trail began its ascent to Wheelers Peak, the highest point in New Mexico. Perhaps there she could look out over the mountains and see the horizon.
Richard looked back once and saw Catherine waving frantically at him. He was halfway between the two women, but it was too late to reach either. He took another step and fell hard on his knee.
The faint smell of cocoa lingered around Penelope like the memory of perfume. When she’d first met Richard, he’d told her he fixed broken hearts. And she believed him. He’d been her higher power for twenty-six years. The early Spaniards had named these mountains, Sangre de Cristo. If Jesus had only been a man, she thought, that would have been enough. And if he’d loved a woman, he would not have betrayed her; this she knew.
Penelope never heard the ice crack and never looked back. All she heard was the faint lub-dub of her own heart, as she took one step forward, lub-dub, and then another. Maybe that’s the way life was supposed to be. Not worrying so much about what happened—if she reached solid ground, or if the next lub-dub would be the last. She thought that one of the maids would find the nightgown that still hung unworn in her closet back at the lodge. It would be the color of the lake in the spring; when, her heart thawed.
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