Sun Valley, Idaho, 1998
One of the swans was murdered; he was stabbed in the night. Swans mate for life, so his mate grieved. She lay on the steps of the boardwalk that traced the pond, head bowed into her legs. Tourists approached her tentatively, threw breadcrumbs at her, but she looked up with large, teary eyes, then rested her head back into the billowy down of her feathers. One afternoon, I sat on a step beside her and watched the pond. She lifted her head towards me when I sat down. Her eyes, large and damp, sparkled. Painful like bright snow. I slid a cracker in front of her, but she pushed it away. She was starving herself to death.
Someone had offered a $10,000 reward for the arrest of the person who had stabbed her mate.
I thought of the dead swan in the snow, blood spreading through the ice like petals. Death is everywhere during an Idaho winter. I know how blood looks against the glistening whiteness.
Or was it actually two springs before when the swan was stabbed, and I tried to give her a cracker? The spring when my high school classmates and I went to Sun Valley for a school newspaper competition? The spring when I envied all of the pretty girls who had the attention of the boys from the bigger school districts? The spring when I consoled myself that at least I was the smart one? The spring when, even though I was the smart one, I only won an honorable mention in the writing competition I was expected to win? The spring when the announcer gave me my certificate and the word “Superior” had been crossed out?
Instead, someone had scrawled “Honorable Mention” in black marker just below it.
How did I end up in Sun Valley nearly two years after graduating from high school? I was the smart one. I was the one who my high school newspaper advisor had said would be her Pulitzer Prize winner. I had been in a graduating class of less than eighty students, so it wasn’thard to be the smart one, but I had left high school flush with expectations.
After graduation, I started college in Montana—the only student from my rural high school to be admitted into an Honors College—but I spent the days huddled in my dorm room trying to out-sleep the anxiety, the expectations, the weight of all of the people I knew I was going to disappoint. I dropped out two weeks into the second semester.
I looked for a cure for my anxiety. I blew my student loans on a trip to Europe. I spent the following summer waitressing in my hometown. I tried living independently in Portland, Oregon. After all of that, I ended up back in Salmon, Idaho on my parent’s doorstep.
Back in Salmon, after moving back from Portland, I ran into Ann, my best friend from childhood. As girls, we had spent long days at her house across the street from mine, playing Barbie’s, brushing out their hair, coveting their long legs and tan skin.
Her family had a playroom in the basement that was cold and damp. Ann and I huddled underneath hand-knit Afghans for warmth; sometimes, we played house—fantasizing of love. Sometimes, Ann pressed me to the wall, pushed her hand over my mouth and kissed the other side of her hand passionately—with force—the same way we had seen Patrick Swayze kissing Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing. We played like that until we grew bored of the game, moving on to Hungry Hippos or Monopoly.
We avoided Dale, her younger brother. He was violent, out of control. He pounded me over the head with a meat tenderizer. He slammed me in the back so hard with a whiffle bat that the wind formed a bubble in my chest and my face turned red from the pressure. He chased me and pulled my long hair back, so that my neck stretched tight.
He hid in the closet and eavesdropped on our private conversations. I got my period when I was only eleven. I huddled on Ann’s bed and whispered the news to her. She asked what it was like, and I described the humiliation of my mom showing me how to rinse my panties in the bathroom sink—cold water, not hot—and the horror of wearing a pad in public, convinced that someone could see it. Dale burst out of the closet laughing and pointing. He ran out of the room shouting “Kelly’s got her period! Kelly’s got her period!” My cheeks flushed red, and I ran across the street, threw myself on the bed, and cried while my mom watched.
Dale skulked, lurking around corners, hiding behind shadows. Even the bathroom wasn’t free from his gaze. Their bathroom in the basement had a hole in the door where a door knob should have been. Sometimes, when I was peeing, I would look over and see Dale’s eye pressed to the hole, his fleshy cheeks protruding through the gap, eye bulging, and I’d scream, “Dale, stop being gross!”
Ann told me about a job in Sun Valley as a lift operator at the ski hill. It only paid minimum wage, but housing and meals were provided for a nominal fee, and the idea of living in Sun Valley was better than the thought of spending the winter trapped in my dead-end hometown, so I packed up and moved three hours over a mountain pass to the neighboring ski town.
The Sun Valley Lodge—a massive, lumbering hulk of a log cabin—sits at the foot of the small resort town, an ice sculpture of a grinning sun sweating in front of the paved turn-around. Across the boardwalk, through the snow-covered lawn, past the man-made pond where the swans—the Sun Valley mascots—glide lazily, is the Sun Valley Inn, a massive stucco hotel built to look like a Swiss chalet. The entire town is enclosed by parking lots, but in the distance, mountains loom over the valley, mansions dotting the winding roads. Aspens fill hollows in the hills, white wood bends achingly toward the blue sky, and Bald Mountain, an enormous ski hill, dominated by an intricate network of ski lifts, looms over the entire Wood River Valley.
Ernest Hemingway lived and died in Sun Valley. He wrote the majority of For Whom the Bell Tolls in room 206 of the Sun Valley Lodge. He later shot himself in a home built in the same style as the Lodge. The walls of the lodge are dotted with photos of Hemingway and other celebrities—Marilyn Monroe, Adam West, and local favorite Arnold Schwarzenegger, among others.
Beyond the Sun Valley Lodge and Sun Valley Inn, another town is hidden. The Pit. The Pit also has buildings made to look like Swiss Chalets should any unsuspecting tourist stumble upon them, but the insides of those Chalets are stuffed with bunk beds and bean bags. The carpet is dirty, and the buildings smell of armpits and bare feet. The Pit is where the employees live. The Pit was where I lived.
Ann and I had grown apart in the sixth grade. She had gone on to become a stoner and ended up at the alternative school while I became a bookish nerd, but we reconnected when I left college. Ann’s family had imploded by then. Her Mormon mother had an affair with the Baptist preacher. He was excommunicated, and Ann’s mom divorced her dad. The preacher broke up with her mom shortly after the divorce, and her mom took to drinking as if she had been doing it her whole life, as if she hadn’t been baking cookies and attending day-long church ceremonies for most of my childhood.
Ann, her boyfriend Tim, and I drove to the Oregon Coast once. Ann was struggling with depression. She sat in the back seat quietly while Tim sat up front with me. Tim and I chatted about unimportant things as we drove up the winding coastal roads. I tried to pretend as though I wasn’t a third wheel, chattering even more than usual. I didn’t understand their relationship. They seemed in love, but very sad. I had never dated then, did not yet understand that love could be sad.
We drove all day to find the ocean, then finally, decided to take a right in the direction of the ocean and ended up driving on to sand at dusk. Three kids from small-town Idaho, and none of us had ever seen the ocean. We stood and watched the sunset, the light golden on the dark waves that crashed on to the shore. Ann and I rolled up our pants and waded into the water. Tim took our photo. In it, I am leaning forward, laughing, my hair blowing. Ann is upright—an unreadable smile on her face—an irresistible combination of beauty and sadness.
Before we left, I took one last, long look at the sun disappearing behind the waves. I turned back to the car and Tim had scrawled in the wet sand with a stick, “God Was Here.”
The following winter, Ann and Tim had broken up, and Ann and I started working at the ski hill. There were only a few women working the ski lifts, and Ann and I were the youngest. The rest of our co-workers were men. The work was tedious, and I stood and watched the ski lifts swing by, floating through blue sky. Occasionally, I stopped the lift to help a child into the seat, but most of the time, I stood and daydreamed.
When the supermodel, Elle McPherson, wanted to ride the lift while eight months pregnant, I stopped the machine for her while a tanned ski instructor helped her sit down. One of her slender hands rested in his, and the other hand waved at me generously while she smiled through her fur face mask. She was as beautiful in person as she had been on the cover of Sports Illustrated. I looked down at myself. I was in an entirely purple uniform that consisted of ski pants, a heavy Bavarian-style sweater, ski coat, and a matching purple hat with a tassel that swung down into my eyes. I was dumpy.
Another time, I helped load a ski patrol sled. I stood in front of the sled, waiting for the chair to sweep it up, but became distracted when I saw Maria Shriver in line. She was unmistakable in her full-body, Holstein cow-print ski suit. I stared at her, hypnotized by the black splotches on her white suit, while the chair swept both me and the sled away. I clung to the sled, desperately trying not to fall as the chair crawled up the mountain. The ski patrol officer shouted and rushed over to hit the stop button. The chair lurched to a stop, and I fell with a thud into the snow; flakes rose up around me in a poof, landing in my nostrils and eyes. When I stood up and brushed off my face, Maria Shriver leaned over and asked kindly, “Are you okay?” Embarrassed, I nodded yes.
Her husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, famously had a fondness for redheads. When he came through my lift line, his Viennese ski instructor had me take off my hat. “Ooh,” said Schwarzenegger, when he saw my bright red hair. “I like.”
I blushed. After that, the other lift operators called me “Schwarzenegger’s girl.” For the girl who had only ever thought of herself as the “smart one,” the attention was secretly heady. No one in Sun Valley cared if I was smart. I could be whoever I wanted to be.
Ann and I befriended a group of international college students, mostly from Australia and New Zealand. They were fun, friendly, and rich. They ate Vegemite and called each other “mates.” My windowless dorm room was in a renovated ranch house on the edge of the pit. It had plywood walls and two hard twin beds with a dresser pressed tightly between the bed and the wall by the door. My room was slightly larger than the other rooms, so it was a good room for gatherings. We lined up along the edges of the beds, passing around beer, bowls, tabs, or mushrooms. The walls of the room expanded temporarily—laughter blending into the night air outside—clear, and cold, and hard.
After a while, Ann’s brother, Dale, decided to join her in Sun Valley. He, too, got a job as a lift operator. I wasn’t happy when he was put into the room next to mine, but he had grown large and awkward, like a child who had outgrown his limbs. Despite all of the years I’d known him, Dale treated me with shyness, shuffling his feet when he spoke to me and lowering his eyes when I met his gaze. Ann, by then, had thrown herself into a relationship with a young Australian man and showed no interest in hanging out with Dale, and Dale no longer resembled the malicious boy of my childhood, so I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him.
One night, when I was laying down for bed, I heard Dale leave his room. The plywood separating our living spaces was the cheapest variety available, and I could hear most of what happened on the other side. I was still awake when Dale came back, the door slamming behind him. I pulled a pillow over my ears to block out the sound, but after a few minutes, claustrophobia set in, and I let the pillow slip to the side. His light switch came on, and a faint glow peeped through a knotty hole in the plywood located above eye level. I heard the sound of bottles opening.
The next morning I saw empty Malt liquor bottles in the trash. It was an intimacy I didn’t want to share with him.
In the confines of the Sun Valley village, a regular rotation of tanned millionaires in fur coats glide along the boardwalk, stopping to watch bon-bons being hand-dipped into chocolate or to toss a few crumbs to the swans. In the pit, we ate their left-overs, but for us too, every night was a party.
After we finished eating, we got high, then went for a swim in the heated, outdoor pool. The steam from the pool merged into the cold winter air while we hung from the sides, our heads light from the heat, the flirting, and the marijuana.
Sun Valley was different from Salmon. In high school, my cross country team traveled to the public school in Sun Valley for a meet. It was the first time most of us had seen this neighboring town. We drooled at the site of the mansions as our thirty-year-old bus farted and burped up the highway. When we reached their school, the building wasn’t sinking into a swamp like ours. They didn’t have to tow cars out of the mud in the spring because they had sunk up to their bumpers. The track was paved and lacked puddles. The bleachers weren’t caving in. But the biggest difference was how the runners looked in their shiny uniforms and new shoes. Standing at the starting line, I looked down at my uniform in embarrassment. My jersey number was made out of electrical tape. The original number had washed off long ago.
This was before I learned that I was only an honorable mention when I thought I had been a winner.
Ann and I danced late into the snowy, starry nights. The Kiwis and Australians went to clubs at night, and we went with them. We danced at Bruce Willis’s club, The Mint, bought expensive cocktails, and watched for glimpses of ourselves on the big screen television above the stage. A night at The Mint meant I needed to live off a box of Grape Nuts for the rest of the week, but I thought it was worth it.
A guy named Smitty with a long, stringy ponytail who proudly boasted that he had lived and worked in The Pit for twenty years had a side business giving loans to young girls like me who partied away their paychecks, so whenever I ran out of money I knocked on his door. He didn’t even charge interest. I only had to give him some extra attention in line at the cafeteria, which meant a long full-body hug after I paid the two dollars for my employee meal. I was discovering the power that came from being young and pretty enough. Not pretty enough to turn heads, but pretty enough.
One, night, as I stripped down the layers of my work clothes—boots, wool socks, ski pants, ski sweater, and long underwear—I pulled my tight duo fold top over my head. It hooked on my head, so I yanked, the fabric stretching my eyes tightly upwards in the process. As I looked up, I saw an eye pressed to the hole in the wall, fleshy cheek bulging. The eye looked down upon me, scanning the room back and forth nervously.
I screamed and threw my arms across my chest. The eye quickly disappeared. My roommate told my supervisor, and Dale was quietly dismissed. Someone came in and nailed a board over the hole, but I shivered every time I saw it, every time I remembered his nighttime ritual, every time I realized how thin the wall that divided us had been.
At the bar one night, I drank too much beer to drive home. The ski patrol had bought a keg, and although I was not 21, the bartender didn’t check my ID. Another lift operator, a man who wore turtlenecks, had been flirting with me. I was not attracted to him, but I enjoyed the attention. No one had ever paid attention like that to me before.
I couldn’t drive home, and he offered to share a cab. We stopped at my dorm first, and he wanted to walk me in—just to make sure I got in okay, he said, but when he got out of the car, he paid the cab driver. I was confused, but too tipsy to ask questions. He walked me to my door, and I let myself in. He followed.
Then, he was on top of me. The smell of beer and dryer sheets. I wasn’t a virgin, but I had only had sex once.
The thin plywood walls rescued me this time. Another man heard and banged on the door. “Time to go, buddy,” he yelled.
The man in the turtleneck left.
In the morning, I found my tampon in the sheets next to me—a blossom-like stain around it, like red in the snow.
For the first time, I had known how it felt to be held down.
Soon, Ann’s ex-boyfriend Tim moved into Dale’s old room. Ann seemed okay with it. She was in love with her handsome Australian. We were convinced Tim had followed her to Sun Valley, but he left her alone, so it didn’t bother her.
I had never told Tim, but I had a crush on him when he first moved to Idaho from California in the eighth grade. He had a floppy bowl cut and skateboard. At the eighth grade prom, no one asked me to dance, so I sat in a chair next to Tim, my legs stretched out onto the chair in front of me. I wore a pleated miniskirt and bare legs. I twirled my feet in front of me out of boredom. When I looked up, I caught Tim staring at my thigh. For a moment, I didn’t move it. Instead, I looked at him, boldly. He looked back. He wasn’t scared, but I was. I quickly pulled my legs down and tucked my shins under my chair.
Later, he took my best friend in high school on a date to a movie at the Roxy, the only movie theater in our one-stoplight town. She was Mormon, so her mom would only allow her to go if I accompanied her. I wished that Tim had asked me to the movie instead of my friend, but they never went out again, and, in time, I forgot about my crush on him.
I was relieved when he moved into Dale’s room. I felt that I could trust Tim. In the mornings, I knocked on his door to wake him up, and then gave him time to dress while I made coffee. I filled a cup for him too, and we drove together to the ski hill.
On Valentine’s Day, I opened my door and found a rose on the floor. My heart sank. I picked it up and knocked on Tim’s door. “Did you leave this?” I asked.
He shrugged and smiled. “Nope, it wasn’t me,” he said.
I handed him his coffee and tried not to think about where the rose had come from. The man who wore turtleneckshadn’t forgotten me. He skied by my lift, but I hid in the shack. I could see him peering through the glass, but it was one-way glass, and he couldn’t see me. My lift partner asked, “Why don’t you like that guy? He’s interested in you.”
I stared at the coffee mug in my hands and shrugged. “I don’t know; I just don’t.”
I’d never known shame like that before.
I slipped the rose into my bag and put it out of my mind. That night, I returned to my room and changed into my pajamas. I was just readying to turn off the light when I heard a scratching outside the door. My hand froze above the light switch, my heart beating. I stood very still.
There was a knock at the door. I didn’t answer. Another knock, then Tim’s voice. “Kelly, it’s Tim.”
I let my hand slip down in relief and opened the door. I was surprised to see him standing in front of me, drunk. He leaned forward, glassy eyed. “Can I come in?” he asked.
I stood aside, and he came in and sat down on the narrow bed.
“I have something to tell you,” he said.
I sat down next to him. “Okay.”
He looked at me, then looked down at his hands. He told me about how he had been working on a fishing boat in Alaska before moving to Sun Valley, how he had befriended an alcoholic with liver disease, how they had to work so hard that they would do lines of cocaine to get through the long shifts on the trawler, how they would drink themselves to sleep on their days off. He told me how his father had been an alcoholic, how he had left his friend in Alaska knowing he was going to die.
He started to sob, so I hugged him, and he soaked my shoulder with tears, his back shaking.
He pulled back and looked at me. His eyes scared me.
I grabbed a pillow and scooped it into my lap, hugging it to my chest. I wanted protection from his pain. “That sounds awful,” I said.
He nodded. “There was so much anger and hate on the boat. Everyone wanted to kick everyone else’s ass. I just wanted to stay out of it. I just wanted to have a good time.”
I looked at my hands clutching the pillow. “I know that feeling,” I said.
He reached over and took my hand. “When I got home, all I could think of every day was how I wanted to die. Life seemed so hopeless. I had a gun.”
“But then I got here, and I saw your smiling face.” He smiled at me then, his face still teary.
I nodded my head—shoulders tense—finally understanding. “Did you give me the flower?”
He smiled again. “Of course it was me.”
His shoulders straightened. “Now, every morning, I want to wake up, because I know I’ll see your face. At least I have that. You give me a reason to wake up.”
I was sick. I had so much of my own darkness right then.
“Tim,” I said. “I don’t know what to say to that.”
He looked disappointed. “It’s okay,” he said. “Really.”
I stood up. I just wanted him to leave.
“Okay then, well I need to get up in the morning—” I said. “So I should probably go to bed.”
Tim went to the door. He stopped at the door, and turned back to me. “Can I just spend the night here?” he asked.
I thought of that man, but I didn’t know how to say no. “I don’t know,” I hedged.
“Can I just sleep on your floor?” he asked. “I just want to be close to you.”
I relented. “Okay,” I said.
I turned off the light and climbed into bed. Tim curled up on the floor next to me, and I lay in the dark, listening to him breathe. He wasn’t sleeping either.
The room was pitch-black. I knew he would never hurt me, but still, I was afraid. And ashamed.
I couldn’t be his reason to live.
I had to leave.
I was a tourist in that life, and that town, too. The party wasn’t a party anymore. The next day, I wouldn’t be going back to work. I wouldn’t be going back to the mountain that loomed over my life, full of money and excess. I wouldn’t be going back to my lift shack with a white board in the corner where a ski patroller had scrawled, Welcome to Spun Valley—a nod to the cast of Beverly Hills 90210 who showed up at a party on New Year’s Eve looking for cocaine while I drank champagne, and danced, and laughed. I wouldn’t be going back to that man—who wore turtlenecks. I’d never be attracted to a man who wears turtlenecks.
I wouldn’t be going back to dead swans and plywood walls.
I was going to pack my car up during the day when everyone was working, and I was going to run. I was going to leave it all behind— the holes in the wall, the parties, the wealth, the constant staging of everyone, as if we were all just players in a community melodrama. I knew my life needed to move forward.
But it didn’t.
Instead, I went home. And a couple of years later, after my heart had been broken by a man whom I had thought would love me forever, I let Tim hold me. I let him hold me on the floor of his mother’s house, the same way he had wanted to hold me in that dorm room. I let him hold me and hoped that I would grow to want his love, but I didn’t. And the next morning, I drove away again.
Shame is the void left by the stories I still can’t tell.
As the Australians would have said, Tim and I had been “mates,” but I mislead him. I mislead him because, in my most vulnerable moments, the version of myself that I didn’t like continued to return.
In Sun Valley, on the night when Tim had lain on my floor, I had wanted the darkness to hold me—to confine me—to wrap around me like a blanket and make me safe. But it hadn’t.
And the next day, as I drove out of Sun Valley, I left the closeness of the town—the small Wood River winding through aspens, the ordered rows of condos, the grid-like subdivisions, the mansions dotting the hills, and the looming brick of the Sun Valley Lodge—all of them were dots in the distance. My car wound through switchbacks, climbing the steep mountainside of Galena Summit. When I reached the top, I stood at the overlook where I could see the bowls and dips of the valley that stretched for miles, cradled in snow—so clean it seemed limitless. As I looked at the vista before me, I could almost convince myself that Sun Valley wasn’t still there—waiting—just beyond that immaculate whiteness.