“Oliver! Olie-la!” Patti is getting ready to go for a quick “wake-up ski” and wants to know if her mini poodle Oliver is going to come. A white fluff ball dashes towards the door, yipping his consent.
“All right, well I’ll only be out for a lap or two. I’m really crap at this. But WHOO this is how you get better!” She shoots her fist into the air and bounds out into the snow. Her neon-yellow wind pants and white-blonde hair reflect the sun’s glare, and I find myself blinking red and purple dots from my eyes, unsure if I have been blinded by the snow or by Patti’s pants and hair.
Patti is a petite five foot three, with the lean figure of a yogi, and her favorite food is kale. I met her on my first day of work at the Snowmass Cross Country Center.
“Oh, goodmorning! You must be Ariella,” she exclaimed the moment I walked through the door, scrunching her nose and winking. “You just have that ‘Ariella’ look about you. Would you like some green beans?” She gestured towards a clear plastic grocery bag filled with at least a pound of the thin vegetables. “Mmm or some kale. Kale is so good for you, really has all of those nutrients that you need.” She grabbed the bouquet of leaves and bit off a mouthful. “Ollie, do you need some, too?” She tore off a leaf and handed it to him.
At one p.m. a troupe of four Brazilians arrived for a group lesson. Patti was the only instructor on duty, and the shop manager asked that I shadow her, since I had never taught before. We bustled around getting everyone outfitted, then headed down to the lesson loop. After the clients had figured out how to put on their skis and poles, Patti assembled everyone in a circle.
“And as you prepare to do this physical exercise, think about checking in with your body and really asking ‘how does my body feel today.’ Maybe now is a good time to stretch a little, and really just feel out your body. Do your hips hurt? Do your knees hurt? How do your arms feel? These are important questions to ask yourself, and you can find out the answers by just moving around. It’s like we’re dancing—we’re DANCING!”
I was impressed. I had never seen anybody move on skis the way Patti moved on skis. She crouched low, stomping and slapping her skis against the snow to “really feel grounded and take ownership of this activity.” She gyrated her hips. She lunged and waved her arms through the air.
“Let’s begin with some Bikram breathes. It goes like this: Aachhhhhhhh.” The four Brazilians—good students—dutifully laced their fingers beneath their chins and mimicked Patti’s thick hiss. I fidgeted with my pole straps and then my water bottle holster, certain that somewhere, someone was watching.
On day two, Oliver shat on the floor.
“Ollie, come here sweetie, what do you have on your butt?” Patti cornered him between the puffy coats and the ski pants and carted him off to the bathroom, where a series of sharp barks told me he was getting a most unwanted bath.
A man ambled into the shop. He started towards the desk and then stooped to examine something on the floor.
“Hi there, can I help you?”
“I think there is poop on the floor. Oh, you must be Ariella. I’m Tim. I work here. Nice to meet you.” We shook hands before turning back to the more important issue of the fecal matter smeared across the carpet in several places.
“Hello?” Patti emerged from the bathroom to see who had come into the shop, “oh it’s Tim! Hi Tim!”
“Hi Patti. I think Oliver may have pooped on the floor.”
“I think he just picked something up on his fur from outside.”
“No, I’m pretty sure he pooped in here,” Tim insisted, pointing out several small smears of greenish-yellow sediment that blended in with the carpet around the front desk.
“Oh, poor dog. He must be having some intestinal trouble today. How awful! I have some Clorox don’t worry I will clean this right away.”
I felt embarrassed for Patti, having to make excuses for her gastrointestinally-challenged dog and the inconvenience he had caused to her fellow employees. I tried to lighten the situation by suggesting that perhaps the upset was due to the kale Oliver had snacked on the day before.
As promised, Patti’s “wake-up ski” does not take long. She bombs down the hill, shuttering to a stop just before the cement entranceway.
She puts her skis back on the rack and grabs a few other pairs that need to be waxed.
“So you live in Carbondale?” she asks, dripping wax over the base of the Fischer Crowns. She runs an iron back over to melt the wax into a uniform layer. “I was looking to buy a house there, a while ago. Back when I had just lost my son. Things got all squirrely, you know.”
“Oh, right, right.” I replay the words a few times to make sure I heard them right. Still unconvinced—it can’t be true—I return to my hummus and chips. She goes on to tell me about the house she almost bought, down the road from where Hayden and I are renting. She loves the river there, and the view of Mount Sopris. I agree, glad to let the conversation shift towards a subject I can contribute to.
“So I was at the high school the other night, doing a presentation for my scholarship fund, and in the gym they had a picture painted of Jas. It was so funny!” Wax peels off the ski in thin ribbons as she makes passes with the scraper. So it is true. “I think I have a picture of it on my phone if you want to see.” She pauses to hand me her screen. A high school-aged boy just right of center, dressed in a football uniform, surrounded by teammates, with a half-roar plastered across his face. Pre-game chant? Or had they just won a game?
“Nobody wanted to match against him in volleyball!” she exclaims. “I’m sure you can see by that picture why that is.” My breath slows and I am not sure how to respond. “He died of cancer,” she offers, returning to the wax bench.
“What kind of cancer?” The question hung in the air, begging to be asked.
“Osteosarcoma. He found a lump on his back,” she turns and presses her fingers to her spine, midway between the neck and the tailbone. “We went to the wrong doctors, got the wrong diagnoses—we did everything wrong, and then sixteen months later he died.” She picks up a wire brush with both hands and heaves her body weight across the ski.
You said you were born in ’85?
“Oh, tiny baby! Jasper was born in ’81. He would have been 33.”
At the end of the day, Patti gives me a ride to the bus stop. I can’t help but smile when I see the color of her Volkswagon Bug: yellow. Inside, the seats are upholstered with cheetah-print fabric and the air is thick with the scent of tea tree oil. Patti clears a space for me among mounds of ski poles, snowshoes, clothes, food containers, and Oliver’s blankets. I instantly notice the picture on the dashboard. This time he is looking directly into the camera, arms folded across his chest, jaw squared. His stare is piercing, but I see softness there, too: a warm-hearted kind of confidence. I wish the picture weren’t there, and I pretend not to recognize who it must be. Instead I watch the foothills of Snowmass Mountain spill out from behind one another as we wind down the valley road.
“That’s Jas,” she offers, motioning towards the print. “He’s pretty, isn’t he?”
“I kind of like having a picture of him when he was not in a good mood,” she smiles out of the corners of her eyes, “just to remember that things weren’t happy all the time.” I nod. I am struck by how plainly she wears her grief alongside happiness, and how free she is in including me in her world. I wonder if, before Jas died, she would have fed kale to her dog or asked clients to begin their ski “practice” with Bikram breaths; or if the eccentricity is an outgrowth of her loss. I wonder she consciously chooses to speak lightly of such intense experiences or if she was always so enlightened. I wonder if I will ever be able to do the same.
“So you must really like the color yellow,” I motion to the hood of the car. It’s a non sequitur but it’s the best I can do.