"I hope that you remember that this was not my idea at all, Jeff."
"It will be okay, Barbara. Please, just let me keep my mind on the road."
He could feel it building, the familiar tension, as the Explorer crept forward on the snow-covered road. Throughout their twenty-nine years of married life she had always lashed out at him whenever stress arose. After all their years together he could foresee the warning signs in the far-off distance.
She sunk down in her seat, looking unsatisfied. She'd delivered the first salvo, measuring the range and bearing. He had not fired back, just a half-hearted parry. He knew that she wanted to anger him so that she could cloak herself in justification. If he would strike back she could enjoy the dual roles of victim and assassin. Progress on the road was slow, so she would have more opportunities. She was reloading.
Actually, the trip had been Jeff's idea. He called Sid, a business contact and friend, early in November, asked him for the loan of his corporate cabin in the North Woods. It would be a chance for Jeff and Barbara to get away for a weekend. They would be alone together for three days. He wanted renewal, re-contact with her. They could do it ahead of the Thanksgiving and the Christmas rush. Jeff's and Barbara's business was important to Sid's, and he readily agreed.
Jeff knew the way to the cabin because he had been there during the prior summer. Sid hosted a golf outing at the Thendara Course for his best customers. That had been a good time. Jeff thought the cabin might yield up another good time for Barbara and him. It was an impulsiveness that was unusual for him. The inspiration just wouldn't let go, so he grabbed the phone and made the call to Sid.
"Sure thing!" Sid yelled to him over the phone. "Help yourself to anything there that you find. There's a lot of canned and dried food. Just bring the perishables and dress warmly. There are a couple bottles of Canadian Club left from the golf outing. Just be sure to check the firewood, I can't remember what's left. You'll need it because there's no power in the cabin and it gets cold up there."
"Thanks, Sid. Do you think that there'll be any snow?"
"Probably only a dusting in November. If it does get heavy, don't go. You'll be deep in the woods and no one comes by at this time of year."
"Okay, no problem, Sid."
"I don't know what you're going to do all weekend. There's nothing happening up there in this season," Sid pause for a moment. "Or, maybe I do know, after all."
"Hey, you dirty old man." Jeff and Sid laughed.
"Just don't sue me if you get her pregnant, Jeff! I'll send someone over with the keys"
They laughed again. Jeff thanked him and they hung up.
As Jeff hung up the phone he felt good. The banter with Sid made him feel optimistic about the expedition. He and Barbara needed this respite, he thought. In September the last of their three children had gone off to college. Raising teenagers is stressful in any situation. Jason, their youngest, had been particularly difficult.
The recession following the 911 tragedy had been especially hard on the retail business that Jeff and Barbara owned together. It strained their finances and confidence in one another. For two long years the business struggled to recover. They repaired the business; it was healthy again. Jeff and Barbara were not going forget the hard times very soon.
Jeff was fifty-four, Barbara fifty-one. He had put on a few pounds, but not many. He looked very much like he had when he and Barbara got married, except that his hair was graying. He struggled to control his blood-sugar. He really didn't care about the gray, but kept fighting the battle of the waistline. He yook pills fot the sugar. She felt the signs of menopause approaching. She was not much heavier than her wedding day; perhaps with some slight shifting. Her dark hair was taking on a salt and pepper look.
Especially compared to others her age, she was still in good shape. To Jeff, it was a non-issue. She still looked good to him. He was glad that she didn't color her hair. Barbara interpreted Jeff's lack of concern as indifference. She was self-conscious of her aging. She looked in the mirror one morning and found that she was no longer a blushing maiden. Jeff sensed her displeasure, but misjudged the depth of it.
All of these factors combined together to create an atmosphere that was unpleasant and tense. At times things would improve, but some issue would arise and they would revert back to the stifling limbo into which their lives had fallen. Neither of them understood their condition completely. They didn't discuss it for fear of opening wounds deeper. No one in the outside world knew this, except for Barbara's mother, to whom Barbara confided all.
In November, when the cold winds over Lake Ontario shift slightly, and the waters of the Lake are still warm and pregnant with moisture, the Adirondacks become a banquet table. Nature spreads an impenetrable table cloth of snow, and a silver service of ice. The weather moves in fast, measured in feet, not inches; the cold measured in fingers and toes. On the menu are the unwary and unprepared; the wilderness devours them.
It was only after they made the turn at Eagle Bay that Jeff realized that they were heading into trouble. They were a long way from any help. They had no choice, except to keep going to the cabin at Big Moose before the weather stranded them. There, they would find shelter and food. Jeff said nothing to Barbara about this. The earlier barb had put him off, but he would not have done so, anyway. He would guide them through danger. Everything would turn out fine. He would not give up.
"And what were we going to do on this weekend getaway? Was it to be some sort of romantic rendezvous in the woods? Were we to prance around naked in the cabin with the hots for each other? We're not newlyweds, Jeff. You could have asked me. What would have been wrong with a nice hotel in the city? I haven't seen my parents in three months. No, here we are getting ready to freeze to death in the forest." As she spoke the words spat out of her like the hiss of a serpent. The aim of her second salvo had been precisely on target.
Jeff felt the bitter pall of smothered hope descend on him. He banished any remaining hopes for their weekend retreat. Optimism and energy died in the sinking of his romantic ship. Adrenalin, charged by the weather conditions, kept him moving steadily on.
Jeff absorbed the verbal assault. He kept his outward silence. Internally he answered her, "If they find us as frozen ice cubes, we won't be any colder than your cold heart right now." He felt shame at the thought. He could not despise her, but he was struggling to love her.
He spoke calmly, because he had to tell her of their situation.
"Barbara, there is hard weather moving in. If we don't make it to the cabin we're going to be in big trouble. I think we will make it. It's only three miles ahead. We'll find the passage; I know where it is. Please just work with me; I didn't know this was going to happen."
She fell silent. She had known the tone of voice that he had just used only a few times. He only used it in serious situations. Fear evicted the disgust and venom that had possessed her moments before. Her husband seated next to her, erstwhile object of her contempt, was her lone vehicle for safety. She knew him; he was resourceful and tough. It was a difficult situation, but he could handle it. She just sat silently.
She knew that she had gone too far, regretted her words. She just had to vent herself; she asked herself why she'd chosen him as her target. He was the source of few of her troubles. Maybe it was the close range and that he had no camouflage that her keen senses couldn't penetrate. Perhaps it was the toughness that she had always known in him. He was one of the few people she knew that could take such a pounding. "He'll get over it", she assured herself.
The narrow road had now become a path, just a passage in the snow. Barbara looked out over the reservoir. The snow was falling too hard to allow her see the opposite bank. Jeff hadn't exaggerated. This was the real thing.
The Explorer soldiered on. A sedan would have been out of service long ago, but another thirty minutes of forced-marching brought them to a roadside gate.
"We're here. Reach back and get the boots and coats."
While she did so, he went on, "Leave the food here in the Explorer. It will act as a big refrigerator. We'll just bring in the clothes."
The Explorer couldn't get close to the cabin because of the snow. They stood outside the vehicle, loaded down with backpacks and suitcases. Atop a hill, about three hundred yards away stood the cabin, silent without light or smoke from the chimney. The snow had already risen to eighteen inches and covered any trails. A cut in the tangle of trees and shrubs indicated a route in. It was their passage to safety.
Plodding up the grade loaded with their gear wasn't easy for her. She was never an 'outdoor girl'. The wind coming off the hill hurled itself against her. It drove snow into her face and she could barely see what lie ahead in the passage. The snow was already deep. The cold was gnawing at her resolve to save herself; the cabin was so far away. She didn't know how they were going to make it. The shelter might as well have been a mirage in the desert. She fell, covering herself with snow. Jeff helped her stand up.
He knew that the cabin was their only hope. Each passage to salvation requires courage and belief. One can never be totally certain that the view on the hilltop is real. Guarantees are for the cowardly and faithless. Struggling upward, through the passage would save them. What choice had they? Going backward was no solution.
"C'mon, it isn't far," he yelled over the gale.
A half minute later, she fell again. Snow found its way under her parka and inside her gloves. Jeff lifted her up again.
"Leave your stuff here. I'll come back for it!" He doubled his own load with his share of it that he had lugged from the Explorer on one arm and Barbara on one the other. They had not even gained a hundred yards since leaving the Explorer, and the storm was sapping them.
Finally, they struggled to the top. Jeff's muscles were drained, but the victory over the elements enlivened him. Confidence was returning. Barbara had hurt him, but he refreshed his sense of worth without her. They stumbled through the cabin door and set down the baggage he'd managed to bring up the hill. He paused to look at her. He could see that she was still frozen from the trek, unable to move about. Although sheltered from the wind, it was cold in the cabin. He opened the flue of the fireplace and with shaking hands applied the match to the tinder.
"I'm going for the rest of the bags before the snow covers them. Keep the fire going," he told her He disappeared out the door and down the hill.
Adversity had placed him back in command of his senses. He trudged down the hill, searching for the abandoned gear. His thoughts returned to the aborted marital tryst that Barbara had so neatly spoiled. The disappointment and hurt left him. He reviewed events of the day. His idea had been a good one. Barbara's actions, not his, had doused any flame. He had brought them to safety through the storm, this time and many others. He would not assume guilt that wasn't his to bear.
Near the bottom of the hill he spied the forlorn Explorer where they sparred during the drive to the cabin. It was an empty shell that carried them to their point of departure. It had served them, but not well. It carried them but not warmed them. The vehicle was a symbol of a bitterness that he was eager to leave behind. He wasted no time pondering it. He turned his back to it, toward the passage to the cabin and steadily made his way up.
When he arrived inside Barbara was kneeling before the fire, waiting for it to warm her. The snow that she had carried in on her clothes was melted on her.
"You better put on something dry. I still have work to do. There isn't enough firewood. I need to bring some in before the snow covers it up."
That was all he said to her. With ax in hand he disappeared out into the storm.
It had seemed like their ordeal had taken days, not hours. In truth, it was only three in the afternoon, two hours of daylight left. Barbara rose and stirred about the lonely cabin. There were some canned beans, but she wasn't hungry. She found some whiskey and poured some into a coffee mug that was in a cabinet. She would have preferred Chardonnay, but the Canadian Club was all that was available. The wine would have been mild and dry. She would have to partake from the bitter cup. She reseated herself in fronot of the fire.
Jeff's 'to hell with you' demeanor was one that she'd seen before. She knew that he wouldn't approach her for reconciliation. If only he would, she could be gracious and permit a return to a more acceptable condition.
She took a pull on the whiskey. It surprised her that the generous swallow didn't choke her. It warmed her belly. Anticipation of the warmth spreading to her brain freed her to consider the events of the day...
She asked herself why had she lashed him so viciously. It puzzled her because she knew his vulnerability to hurt when she squelched his idealistic plots. She thought that it would pleasure her to do so, but she felt none.
"Why was I so quick to reject his plan for the weekend in the cabin?" In their early years she would have relished it. He would have ravished her and she would bask in his doing so. Their satisfying of one another would have spurred their thirst anew. Their only regret would have been the eventual obligation to return to the real world. There were few opportunities for them to do so then, a struggling couple just starting out. Now she had time, money, and a willing husband, yet she couldn't bring herself to accept the adventure. Children, obligations, convention had all contributed in wiping desire away.
She thought of her college friends. Perhaps she wanted to be more like them. Their dress sizes increased by one each year. Their husbands no longer lusted after them. In their coffee klatches the women would make little jokes about their mates' lack of 'prowess', testing their friends and searching for truth. Maybe they had found the secret: that the effort required for sustaining desire was no longer worthwhile.
Barbara sat before the fire, another pull on the whiskey. She was sobbing. She did so without holding back. The dram forced it out of her. Jeff was out collecting wood; he couldn't see her. If he did, she knew that he would melt in compassion. She did not want his pity.
"I've traded one kind of life for another," she said silently as she cried. "It was never something I decided—it just happened. I never knew it. One day, it was just there."
She regretted much, but events couldn't be undone. Soon Jeff would come back in. He would want her to ignore him, leave him to his own solace. She was nearly finished with the whisky She would get up and get some dinner together. He would need some food. He should not have gone out without eating something first; She worried about his sugar. She would see to it in a minute. It was the best she could do for him.
Jeff strode into the cabin, finished collecting firewood. He was tired, but somehow refreshed. He felt the heat from the fireplace. He hoped to see to food laid out; there was none.
"At least she kept the fire going." He would fix his own food.
He glanced to the fireplace. She was still sitting in front of it, leaning against some pillows that she had propped behind her. They allowed her to be in a comfortable, half-reclined position, looking pensively into the fire. She was wrapped head to toe in an oversized Hudson Bay blanket that she found in the cabin. She was sitting on another one. It was almost five o'clock; daylight was gone. The storm continued to rage outside. The fireplace cast a glow throughout the cabin, reflecting some objects, darkening others.
Jeff saw her wrapped before the fire. Only her head protruded from the blanket. It was draped in a heap around her. He was perturbed that she had remained there all the time he was outside. It wasn't cold in the cabin anymore. Then he considered the possibility that the chill of the trek up the hill had brought on some fever. He walked over to where she was to find out.
Before he had a chance to speak, she looked up at him standing over her. Remaining seated she uttered the most important words that she had spoken to him since their wedding day:
"Jeff, I have hurt you. I was unfair. I was wrong. I'm so sorry," she began. Jeff stood beside her listening and thinking.
"I'm talking about today and what I said in the car, but not just that. I know that's not all of it."