Downhill

Photo: © Stefan Hengst. All rights reserved.

Since their trip to Mexico, Nick had been confused, and he was reasonably certain his condition had nothing to do with his increased intake of booze—tequila, bourbon, Scotch, whatever was on hand. The thing was, Alexis had ceased to be the obedient mannequin she’d been for all the time he’d known her, all the time she’d worked as a model for his advertising agency and then, in short order, moved in with him. Whereas once she had worn only the clothes he selected for her and ate only the meals he ordered for her, she had become disturbingly willful. Who had told her she could wear that sweater with those pants? Who said she could have the steak when he’d specifically told the waiter that Alexis, his girlfriend, he emphasized, would have the salmon? It was all so very disconcerting.

Something had come over her in Mexico, some sort of revolutionary zeal, and he didn’t like it one bit. He longed to recover his dominion over her, to rein in that spark of independence before the flame grew entirely out of control.

But how?

“Let’s go out for a nice dinner,” he suggested as they were making plans for the weekend. “I want to try that new Korean and French fusion place in Lincoln Park.” Fusion makes her crazy, he knew from experience. Last year she’d cried when he took her to the restaurant in Bucktown that served a blend of Ethiopian and Chinese cuisines. Nick didn’t like the food that much—the combination made no sense to him, either—but it was nothing to cry over. Alexis just didn’t understand the concept.

“Yes to dinner,” she said, “no to fusion.”

Now Nick was seriously concerned by this continued streak of rebellion. He knew it was the foundation of their relationship, this inability for Alexis to know her own mind. She had always been completely dependent on him. If she began to think for herself, what would become of them?

“No?” he asked.

“No,” she answered firmly.

All right then. No fusion. He could understand her resistance. The blended flavors might not be to everyone’s liking. A physical rather than a mental reaction. Maybe that’s all it was.

“You’re right,” he said. “No fusion. How about—”

“Italian,” she said. “There’s a great new Italian place in River North.”

He’d been going to suggest Italian, but now that she’s come up with the same idea, he’s reluctant. If he agreed now, what message would that send? But Italian was what he wanted. It was only a minor setback in the grand scheme of things.

“Took the words right out of my mouth,” he said.

~

At the restaurant there was a wait, but they found a spot at the end of the boisterous bar. Alexis appeared bewildered by the drinks menu the bartender handed her, which gave Nick hope that life might soon return to normal. As she struggled to make up her mind, Nick rolled his eyes conspiratorially, but the bartender, a tattooed hulk with curly blond locks, waited patiently for the order, his snowy smile never wavering. When she finally decided on a glass of Chardonnay, the hulk promised he’d be right back. He was trained in customer service, Nick concluded, possibly ex-military. It wasn’t nice to make fun of the airheads at the bar, no matter what the guy was thinking. Bad for business.

The bartender returned with Alexis’s glass of wine and the Manhattan Nick had ordered and from time to time stopped back to see if they needed anything else. They ordered another round, no residual indecision on Alexis’s part, and eventually the hostess seated them at a table in the dining room, which somehow was even noisier than the bar.

“The bartender was a dolt, don’t you think?” he asked Alexis. Nick had concluded that the musclebound cretin must be even dumber than his girlfriend.

“I thought he was cute,” Alexis said.

When the server appeared, Nick ordered appetizers—calamari and a roasted squash crostini—and a bottle of Barolo that was neither the least nor most expensive on the wine list. Would Alexis object? She’d already had two glasses of white wine, so might have wanted to stick with the chardonnay, or maybe she’d had enough. And did those appetizers suit her? Nick was pleased by her silence.

“What would you like for your main course?” he asked her.

“I’ve been dreaming of fettuccine Alfredo since we decided to come here.”

He grimaced, and because she’d been looking at her menu at the time, he grimaced again when she raised her eyes.

“What?”

“Do you think that’s wise?” Although she still had the figure of a supermodel, and spent hours in the gym to maintain it, she sometimes needed reminding of what she should avoid. “How about the cioppino? Or the salmon?” The illusion of choice.

“I suppose you’re right, Nicky. You always know the right thing. What would I do without you?”

That was the meek Alexis he loved, bending to his will. Wait. Did he detect a hint of sarcasm?

~

“I was thinking,” he said—they were lingering over their coffee, the remains of the meal having been cleared away, the Barolo finished—“that we’re due for a fun trip.”

Alexis’s eyes sprang wide. She’d been fading as the evening wore on, but now looked alert.

“Oh, Nicky, that’s a great idea! We could go to—”

“I was thinking Lombok, an Indonesian island. They say it’s the new Bali.”

Her face fell.

“In fact, I’ve taken the liberty of booking our flight and a room at a nice resort on the beach.”

She looked positively glum.

“Is there a problem?”

“I don’t want to go there, Nicky. I don’t even know where ‘there’ is. Can’t we go somewhere civilized?”

“Civilized? The resort is one of the finest hotels on the planet.”

“I want to go to Hawaii. All my friends rave about it. Can’t we just go to Maui?”

Before Mexico, she would never have opposed him like this. Although he’d known even then she wanted to go to Hawaii, that was precisely why he’d chosen Cuernavaca. The Mexican mountains were the opposite of the beaches of Hawaii. The lesson was, apparently, lost on her.

“We need to expand our horizons, Alex. We can learn something in Lombok, see another culture. What’s in Maui?”

“Relaxation, Nicky. Beaches. Sunshine. Surf. Can’t we just have a holiday?”

“I made reservations, my love.”

“Unmake them.” She grabbed her purse and stormed out of the dining room.

~

There were no Lombok reservations to unmake. That had been a ploy meant to gauge her mood, although it did sound like a fascinating place. He consoled himself that the trip to Hawaii would be much easier to undertake. Instead of interminable cramped flights, making connections in Tokyo, Jakarta, and Denpasar, they could fly directly to Honolulu, with just a short hop then to Kahului airport on Maui. There would be no risk of Bali belly, or whatever the Lombok equivalent was. And Hawaiians spoke English, more or less. So there was that. He warmed to the idea. He hadn’t given in to her tantrum. He’d just changed his mind.

~

He had hoped for an upgrade to First Class. He flew often enough on this airline. Shouldn’t he be rewarded for his business? When they checked in at O’Hare he asked the ticket agent, who smiled her insincere smile and told him ever so politely to inquire at the gate about an upgrade. He asked the agent in the airline’s lounge and the answer was the same.

The gate agent was no help. “Sir, First Class has checked in full. I’m terribly sorry,” she said.

“Are you sure?” he asked. “When we checked in, the ticket agent said we were first on the upgrade list.”

“Nicky,” Alexis said, “don’t badger the woman.” She tugged on his sleeve to pull him away.

He sulked in the long queue to board the flight.

Inside the cabin finally, they settled into their Economy Class row, with Alexis in the middle and Nick on the aisle. In the window seat sat a bearded man in a yellow flowered shirt, eyes closed, head slumped against the cabin wall. When the flight attendant reminded their seatmate to fasten his seatbelt, the man’s belligerent reply made it clear that he was drunk, despite the early hour. And after takeoff, he loudly demanded to be served, ordering a double Bloody Mary and then fumbling with his wallet and credit cards to make payment. Nick assumed they served him just to shut him up.

At cruising altitude, with Alexis flipping through the pages of one of the fashion magazines she’d picked up in the airport, Nick opened the novel he’d brought from home, a thick one sure to last their week in the Islands. This isn’t so bad, he thought. Alexis is happy. The resort he’d booked sounded posh. He might find someone to play golf with. And then there was Alexis’s new bikini, which she’d modeled for him the night before. He felt himself harden uncomfortably at the thought. Oh, yes, this could be a very excellent vacation.

And then Alexis shrieked.

“Get your hands off me,” she shouted.

It was the drunk by the window, sleep groping, or wide awake. Either way. Nick reached across Alexis and grabbed the guy’s arm, wondering how hard he would have to twist to pull the thing off. The flight attendant appeared, then the male steward materialized, and everyone in Economy was looking their way.

“We’d like to be reseated,” Alexis said. Tears had started to flow.

“I’m so sorry,” said the flight attendant, “but the plane is completely full.”

Nick stood. “We’ll swap seats. Let the creep grope me, if he dares.”

He stepped into the aisle, then Alexis followed, and Nick climbed in and dropped heavily into the middle seat, hoping to send a message to his neighbor. The groper held up his hands—surrender?—and shrank back against the window. When they were all settled again, the flight attendant disappeared into First Class and returned with a bottle of wine and two glasses, which she presented to Alexis and Nick. Not that the incident was the airline’s fault, but Nick had to admit the gesture was nice and even Alexis appeared to be mollified. She rested her head on Nick’s shoulder and clutched his arm. The creep kept his mouth shut. And Nick was grateful for the small victory. A little heroism might reap great rewards.

As the jet approached Kahului Airport, he reflected on what had brought them to Maui. Not only had Alexis made it clear that she wouldn’t go to Indonesia with him, she had refused for days to speak to him. She’d shut herself into the guest room, emerging only to retrieve a blouse here, a dress there, from her closet in the master suite. She came and went without telling him where she was going. She neglected the laundry, forcing him to do it himself, perhaps the greatest insult of all. He’d contemplated the implications of her resistance. What would it take for him to persuade her to change her mind? She seemed particularly firm this time. If he continued to insist on the Indonesia trip, wasn’t there a risk he would doom their relationship? But if he gave in to her wishes, wouldn’t he be accomplishing the same thing? And so he slipped a note under the guest room door:

Dearest Alexis: I know you had your heart set on visiting Lombok—it does look like a beautiful place—but it just isn’t feasible. So far away! And you know my stomach has been giving me trouble lately. I just don’t think it’s possible. So I’m afraid I must insist that we stick to my original plan of visiting Hawaii. I hope you understand. Love and kisses, Nicky.

He’d run out of the house then, afraid to see what her reaction might be. When he returned, she had emerged and was humming a pop tune while she attended to the laundry.

Now, on their final descent, despite the low clouds ringing the volcano, the landscape was enchanting. From the airport on the coast, Maui’s jungle stretched inland, up the slopes of Haleakala, and the white-flecked waves relentlessly lapped the endless beaches. The landing was barely noticeable, the smoothest he’d ever experienced. They managed to flee the groper, who had also continued from Honolulu to Maui, and lose him in the deplaning crowd, Alexis sticking close to Nick at every step. Their luggage was already waiting when they got to baggage claim, and in moments they were in a limo heading along the coastal highway toward the Fairmont Kea Lani resort. Alexis held his hand and chattered happily about the beautiful beaches. Nick beamed. Order had been restored.

~

Rich coffee. Mounds of fresh pineapple. Buttery croissants. They ate breakfast on the lanai overlooking the resort’s private beach. “So, my love,” he said, “what shall we do here in paradise?”

“Do we have to do anything? Can’t we just lie in the sun?”

“Exactly what I had in mind,” he said.

On the beach, Nick watched Alexis through the lens of his camera. Her new bikini was bright red, with a strapless top that looked as if it might at any moment slip and expose her luscious breasts. Click. The camera loved her. Click. She posed with her hands on her hips. Click. Pushing her hair up. Click. Now she trotted down to the water. Click. Splashed at the edge. Click. Wait. Who was that guy she was talking to? Click.

Nick lowered the camera. Alexis was laughing, the guy—a tanned, muscular lifeguard type—was grinning an impossibly white smile. Sickening. But Nick wondered if they’d had enough of the beach. Couldn’t they find something else to do?

“Who was that?” he asked Alexis when she returned from the water and settled on the beach towel next to him.

“Who was who?”

“The guy you were talking to?”

“I don’t know. Some guy.”

“What was his name?”

“I don’t know, Nicky. Jim, I think.”

“Jim. Of course.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“He just looked like a Jim is all.”

“Nicky, there was nothing to it. He’s just some guy.”

“Who was flirting with you.”

“I guess.”

“You guess.”

“It was nothing!”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

~

Later, they had drinks by the pool and a candlelit dinner, and no more was said of Jim, although Nick kept an eye out for the intruder. Had they made plans to meet? Was she going to sneak out to see him? But how was he going to keep her away from the beach?

“I have a surprise for tomorrow,” he said.

She lit up. Such a simple girl, who loved surprises. “Ooh, what is it?”

“If I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise, now would it?”

“Don’t be a tease, Nicky.”

“Just get a good night’s sleep. Big day tomorrow.”

~

The wake-up call he’d asked for came at 2:00 am. “What time is it?” Alexis said groggily, pushing the sleep mask from her eyes.

“Time to get up, Alex. Time for our big adventure.”

“It’s the middle of the night!”

“Rise and shine, sleepyhead. You’re going to love this!”

~

They stood in the dark in front of the hotel, Alexis’s head on his shoulder, her eyes closed. All the better, he thought. She won’t see the sign on the van that advertised the tour he had booked to take them as far from the beach as possible. The van pulled up, already filled with other visitors, and they climbed in. Nick wrapped his arm around her, let her nestle into him, and off they went.

All was dark, but the van’s headlights illuminated the winding road ahead of them. The other passengers snoozed, like Alexis, or murmured quietly in the dimness, but Nick watched, alert to the shadows and the excitement of what was to come. Alex would love this. Wouldn’t she?

The van groaned as it twisted up the steep road to the summit of Haleakala. At last they arrived and those who had been sleeping roused themselves.

“Where are we?” Alexis asked.

“The volcano, my love,” Nick said.

They followed their guide to the rim and gazed into the world’s largest dormant volcano as the sun rose pink above the low clouds to a chorus of oohs and ahs. The guide—Nick now saw that he was a young man, tall, broad-shouldered, a neatly trimmed black beard that framed his firm jaw—was talking about the flora and fauna of Maui, many of which could be found thriving in the volcano’s crater and nowhere else on Earth. Alexis had perked up and was listening intently, a little too intently, to the handsome guide.

“And now for part two of our tour,” said the guide, herding the group back into the van.

“Part two?” Alexis asked. Nick winked at her.

~

As the sun continued its rise, they started down the mountain. After just a few minutes, the van pulled off the road and again they all climbed out. “What’s going on, Nicky?”

“You’ll see,” he said. “You’ll see!”

The guide began passing out yellow slickers, promising that the jackets would be handy as the group passed through the cloud layer and modeling how their helmets should be worn. Another guide opened a shed and began rolling out bicycles. They weren’t normal bikes, though. When Nick got his, he saw that it had wide tires and no gears, but it did have heavy-duty brakes. The frame was scratched and dented, but it would definitely do the job.

The guide was explaining the drill to Alexis. The riders would start out together, heading down the mountain. There was only one road, so no chance anyone would get separated from the group, and near the bottom was a cafe where they would all meet for a champagne brunch to wrap up the tour. One guide would lead the way and the other would go last to mop up any stragglers, but gravity would keep them mostly clustered together.

“Haven’t lost anyone yet!” said the guide cheerfully.

Alexis grabbed Nick’s arm. “I don’t want to do this. What the hell made you think this was a good idea?”

“Don’t tell me you’re afraid. Come on, it’ll be fun, Alex. Piece of cake. Like the man said, it’s all about gravity. Let’s go!”

Despite his bravado, Nick was a little unsteady on the bike. It’s not like he’d ridden much since he was a kid, couldn’t remember, in fact, when he’d last been on two wheels. But it’s just like riding a bike, right? He laughed out loud at his own joke as he picked up speed heading down the mountain following the first guide, an athletic young woman with long black hair that flowed behind her from under her helmet.

He immediately passed one of the other riders, a timid, older woman who was pumping the brakes, which was probably the right thing to do to control her speed but made for a jumpy motion that looked uncomfortable. It made him think of Alexis, though. He should have waited for her, at least long enough to make sure she got underway and didn’t chicken out. Once she was moving there would be no stopping her. But had she even started? Or had she waited at the top with the macho guide? The road was steep and he was picking up speed, but he was also worried about Alexis, so he slammed on his brakes, skidding sideways to a stop. He’d wait.

One after another, the tour riders passed him. Now that he was standing still, some of them seemed to be moving dangerously fast. He recalled from the drive up that the road was full of twists and switchbacks, which would be hard to navigate at high speed, even for an experienced rider. He’d lost count, but he thought everyone, including the older woman, had passed now except for Alexis and the guide. He wondered if he should try to pedal up the mountain back to the starting point, but he didn’t think the one-speed bike was built for that sort of climb. It was strictly a downhill racer.

Finally, he spotted them, Alexis and the guide, speeding down the mountain as if they were racing to the bottom.

“Nicky!” Alexis shrieked happily as she passed.

“Loser!” screamed the guide. No, surely that wasn’t what he said, but it sure sounded like it to Nick.

It dawned on him that he was now the last rider of the group, the guide, who was supposed to lag behind to make sure everyone got down the mountain safely, having zoomed past in his pursuit of Alex. Nick pushed off and resumed his descent. He’d already lost sight of Alexis’s yellow slicker, so was reluctant to use his brakes. As he picked up speed, he recalled the formula for acceleration of a falling object he’d learned in high school physics: thirty-two feet per second per second. That second “per second” was the tricky part, he remembered.

He rolled faster and faster, leaning into the first tight curve. He caught a glimpse of yellow disappearing around the next bend and knew there was no way to catch them unless he picked up his pace. He tried to pedal to go even faster, but without gears he was just spinning, completely at the mercy of gravity. He crouched in the saddle, hoping to at least reduce wind resistance and gain speed that way. The next turn was coming up. He should brake to take the turn at a slower speed, but he’d lose ground on them if he did, so he was determined to lean through the corner. He bent low over the handlebars, raised his knee, something he remembered from his youth, and felt the bike fly out from under him, sending him bouncing across the pavement into the brush on the opposite side of the road.

~

When he opened his eyes he saw that both he and the bike were on the edge of a precipice, saved from free fall by a tangle of growth he couldn’t identify. Where was he? He’d been riding a bike, he remembered that much. It obviously wasn’t Chicago. Mexico? He was in the mountains of Mexico with Alexis when she disappeared into some palace. Cuernavaca? Where was Alexis? And then he remembered. Hawaii, not Mexico. The volcano. The bike ride. The tour guide. The crash.

He lifted his head. He raised his left arm. His right arm. The yellow slicker he’d been wearing had disappeared, but when he turned his head he saw it clinging to the lava surface far below him on the slope. The helmet was gone, too. He sat up. So far so good. On closer inspection he saw that his hands were covered, palms and back, with road rash scrapes that oozed blood. He got to his feet, but when he took a step, his knee crumpled and he fell, saving himself from tumbling further down the mountain by grabbing a spiky branch of whatever those bushes were. The pain—the thorns, his bleeding hands—caused him to let go, no longer caring if he plunged to his death. But he slid only another foot, and lay back, considering his predicament. Surely the guide—Jim, right? Or no, that was the muscular lifeguard on the beach—surely he would notice that one of his charges was missing and he’d circle back for him in the van. Wouldn’t he?

Nick waited. He sat up. Now he saw the gash in his jeans that had exposed the knee, which looked even worse than his hands. He felt the ache there now, too, a growing sensation that spread to his entire body. Everything ached.

When after an agonizing wait the guide didn’t return, Nick gingerly got to his feet without putting weight on his damaged knee. He hopped over to the bike and lifted it out of the brush and back onto the pavement. He found that the bike worked as well as a crutch and he could move forward by hopping and supporting himself on the frame, but he realized it would take him forever to get down the mountain that way. Why had there been no cars on this highway? Would no one stop to help him?

After progressing only a few yards, it occurred to him there was another way. Coasting down the mountain didn’t involve pedaling, so he didn’t need to put pressure on his knee. He could climb back onto the bike, push off with his good leg, and be on his way. And the brakes still worked, so he’d just have to work his way down carefully. Off he went, helmetless, jerking forward exactly like that old woman he’d passed at the beginning of the morning. He thought the guide would appear at any moment to retrieve him, and the longer that did not happen the angrier he got. He would sue the tour company for negligence. He’d sue the guide. Criminal negligence, that’s what it was. Macho man would pay.

On he went, braking, coasting, braking, until the highway flattened and he finally came to the T intersection where he was supposed to rendezvous with the rest of the tour. The sun was now directly overhead and he had to shade his eyes to see the restaurant across the road. He dismounted—he could barely feel his leg now—and limped to the entrance. Dropping the bike, he hopped up three steps to the door, pulled it open, breathing heavily, and hopped inside. The place was deserted.

Where was everyone? He was sure this was the right restaurant, but the dining room was empty. She’d disappeared again, just as she had in Mexico.

Laughter. Alexis laughing. It came from the back, so he hopped further, discovering a private room in the back of the restaurant.

He stood at the door, peering in. The tables were littered with the detritus of brunch: egg-encrusted plates, empty pastry baskets, crumpled napkins, champagne bottles upended in ice buckets. At the far end of the room sat Alexis and the guide, huddling close, laughing heartily. The guide refilled their flutes and they raised their glasses in a toast that Nick could not hear, but there was more laughter.

Nick willed them to turn, to notice him in the doorway, but they remained preoccupied with one another. He was again transported to Mexico, the feeling that he was watching a movie. But, damn it, they needed to see him. They needed to pay attention to him! He took a step and, when the pain exploded in his damaged knee, fell forward. He cried out in agony and reached for the nearest chair, which crashed noisily to the floor along with him.

He closed his eyes, waiting for the pain to subside. When he opened them again, he was certain he was dead, as two angels hovered above him, and he was not unhappy to see them. But the pain had not left him, so perhaps he wasn’t dead after all. Not angels, then. It was Alexis and the guide who stood over him, their heads haloed by the ceiling lights. They made such a handsome couple, Nick thought. He was so tired, and the pain was everywhere now. He let his eyes close again. He heard voices. Alexis? The guide? But the light was gone and he let the sound fade with it.

 

by Clifford Garstang

 

Clifford Garstang.jpgClifford Garstang is the author of the forthcoming novel, The Shaman of Turtle Valley, the novel in stories, What the Zhang Boys Know, winner of the Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction, and the short story collection In an Uncharted Country. He is also the editor of Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet, a three-volume anthology of stories set around the world. His work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Blackbird, Cream City Review, Los Angeles Review, Tampa Review, and elsewhere, and has received Distinguished Mention in the Best American Series.

About the Artwork

The accompanying artwork is by contributor Stefan Hengst.

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