Fiction: Vilja Arnsteinsdatter is a Revelstoke-based writer and contributor to Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. This article first appeared in print in the July 2019 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.
He told me he wanted to marry me in an old town by the sea. It wasn’t a grand gesture. It was more of a declaration, and it suited him. As he did it, I had memories flashing before my eyes – memories of lost times, of good times, and of how we got here. I could see the men I had dated before him, I could see mistakes, and I could see wrong turns that eventually had led to some right ones. I could see old friends lost and new friends found. I could visualize the road we had walked and danced upon together. The final stretch of it was dusty, warm, sunny; sprinkled with voices calling in a foreign language, scented with grass and flowers baking in the sun.
There had been stretches like this one before. The summers in British Columbia’s Interior get hot and dry and smoky. They were busy seasons for all my fire fighting and tree planting friends. The mountains would be riddled with climbers and hikers. The wildlife and the flora would be booming. One could spot bears and cougars and wild salmon. Every little bar and café would have an outdoor seating area which would be filled to the brim all day and especially all night. My first of these summers, I hated. It was so far from what I was used to and what I knew. I couldn’t handle the heat, I didn’t know how to dress. I was living far outside town and didn’t have a car. I had romanticized the idea of living like that, and at times it truly was as great as I had imagined. Challenging hikes and rewarding views, bike rides along the river, horseback riding through the forests. Long summer sunsets with nothing but the sound of grasshoppers and howling wolves. Warm, early mornings with coffee on the steps, scaring away the deer as I opened my front door. Barbeque evenings and beer-fuelled nights. The roaring fireplace as autumn grew nearer. The excitement of the first snowfall, gazing out the window as it blanketed my raspberry bushes.
But for most of the time, I wished for something else. I longed for other places and arrangements. I wanted to be elsewhere. The house itself I loved, and it became my refuge. When the forest fires covered the whole valley in smoke, when the temperatures soared to over 40 degrees Celsius and the loneliness overtook me, I withdrew to this shelter of mine, and behind these crooked, wind affected walls I found solace and comfort, if only for a moment. In my solitude out by the Blaeberry River I gained a life experience or two. This was the summer when I met him, and I’ve always found it fascinating to look back at moments like that. Those life-defining moments that you don’t know are happening when they are, and how large an impact they will have on your future. We both moved from that tiny town to the next one over, where we were friends for a long time before anything else happened. The friendship was given time to grow and to prosper, which allowed our love to do the same.
Before him, there had been someone else. Where the summer had been fiery and intense with fleeting moments of happiness, the winter before was quite the opposite. It was the first time I could pursue my dream without interruption, and the mountains kept calling me back. It changed me forever. It was one of those periods one never wants to come to a close, when the days all blend and blur, where the happiness is so complete one starts to feel settled – the daily rhythm feels safe yet still exciting, nothing needs to change and one is content.
He was French and I was as Norwegian as they come and we found something unexpected in each other. We would laugh about how we both came to Canada only to find another European. We knew it could never be; the two of us would never work in real life. But in that moment, in the midst of those snow-covered mountain tops, while sliding down runs and chutes, while clicking in and out of our bindings, day after day, it could be us. Ours was a kind of love that gained strength from pure joy and from having fun together. Later I learned that this is the kind of love that I want. It does not ignite an immediate spark, it doesn’t burst into fireworks and impressive words, only to dwindle and asphyxiate once the spark has died. It slowly grows over time, from laughter and late night drinks, from shared passions and the pursuit of dreams, from mutual respect, admiration and deep friendship. I did not realize this until it happened again, the next winter, only this time with a Canadian.
“Jordan calls me McConaughey,” he laughed one morning as we were making our usual commute to the ski hill. It had been snowing the night before. The drive to the hill was as familiar as his car, as his voice, as the streets. I had only been in the town for three months but it felt much longer. It felt like home and I was having the time of my life.
“Why is that? Oh wait, I get it. Matthew McConaughey.” I started laughing too. “That’s a good one.”
“I know, right,” he said smiling, while moving to the music. Nothing got us going like some hip-hop in the morning.
“So I started calling him Michael. As in Michael Jordan. So now we’re Michael and McConaughey.”
I could never resist his playfulness. It drew me in, and then his serious side kept me there. His ability to seamlessly slide from toying with me to partaking in deep discussions to casual chats about everyday matters was part of what enthused me. With all the different men that had starred in my life, from main characters to brief supporting actors, I could no longer tell if we were an unlikely match or not. There were certain parts of him that I could recognize in previous lovers, yet other parts that felt brand new, different, exciting. His spontaneous yet clever speech, his enthusiasm for his interests, his eagerness for life.
It was the second winter in a row that I never wanted to end. That whole season I had felt a sense of belonging, a sense of community and companionship and shared life that I had not felt in years. When going there, to Revelstoke, I had opened myself up to opportunities and chances, and I had been greatly rewarded. As the end of the season came closer, it felt more and more like a physical entity that I could grab, that I was dragging around while it was weighing me down. The late nights at the bars, the early mornings on the chair lift, the dinners and the card games in between. It all felt like a dream I wasn’t ready to wake up from. I was heading home for the summer, and the insecurity of not knowing when or if I would be back was stressful. I told myself it would be ok, it might be different, and by closing one of life’s chapters another one begins. McConaughey was so excited about his upcoming summer, his job on the river and his mountain biking plans, and I shared his excitement as best I could. I engaged myself in the ideas of future explorations and adventures to come, but it was challenging.
“I’m afraid of going home,” I confided to one of my closest friends. Sebastian was nine years older than me, with greying hair and wise eyes. He was a beautiful man, yet nothing more than friendship came of our time together. It was good. I felt inferior when I met him, in that peculiar way one feels secondary and subordinate to curiously beautiful people. That was long gone, and what replaced it was a cordial and generous affection between friends.
“I worry about treading up well-walked pathways in worn out shoes. Of falling back into previous patterns and old habits.” I knew he understood, as we had had this conversation before, but from his perspective. His plans and desires would change every time we talked, and we were both concerned with what was to follow our time in Revelstoke.
I left my heart there, in that small mountain town, surrounded by the Kootenay Rockies. Months later, I flew back to pick it up again.
Standing on that dusty road, feeling the salty wind from the sea on my hair, the warm sun on my back, I could picture him lying on our sofa.
“I have a surprise for you,” he declared when he came over that night, before rolling up a joint with weed from his house. I could see him now, wrapped in my roommate Lucy’s blanket, smoking the joint and looking me in the eyes while explaining gravity to me. Such a mundane moment. I had played it countless times in my mind, and here it was again. I remembered how I felt. I visualised our basement suite with all the homemade furniture and I could hear the ceaseless footsteps from our upstairs neighbours. I reminisced over how our entrance was buried behind a massive pile of snow from the garage roof, and how we had to dig our windows out of the snow so we could get some daylight. I could almost feel the sweat dripping down my neck from chipping away at the ice to make steps down to our door. I could sense the frustration we felt over all the plumbing issues we had that winter, I could vividly picture the surprise party they threw for my birthday, and the nights of joy that never seemed to end. Just like the snow that wouldn’t stop falling.
I remembered how blown away I was by his very detailed description of how gravity works, how the weed accentuated every feeling I had, and how sweet he was for even explaining it. As I had stepped out of his truck earlier that day, he had interrupted my talking because there was a car behind us and I had to get out so he could move.
“Sorry but you need to shut up,” he grinned. “I promise you deep conversations tonight.”
And he delivered as promised.
This wasn’t the moment I knew I had fallen in love with him. It had happened before, but it certainly opened my eyes to it. I was dating someone else when it happened. A tall, skinny guy with curly hair and trucker hats. He had dark brown eyes which lit up when he smiled. We met just before Christmas that winter. He wore old university T-shirts and he was a snowboarder, not a skier. He had a beautiful singing voice, he was up for fun and adventures, and we shared a calm, collected demeanour. I thought it could be something good, but it was short lived.
Partially because he was younger than me, and I missed the security of an older man. Mainly because our conversations ran dry. But he was kind and I think about him still. The defining moment, even though I did not understand it when it occurred, was our Christmas Eve party. Lucy and I had invited all of our friends, we had cooked and decorated, and it ended up being one of the best nights of that season. I was homesick and missing Norwegian traditions, including how we all get dressed up more than they do in Canada. Canadians dress differently than us Europeans. They have a more relaxed way of going about things. Everything happens at a slower pace, and while in the beginning it would drive me crazy, Norwegian efficiency still in mind, I learned to embrace it and later came to adore it. Now I gladly participate in small talk with whomever is around, I find the easy going way of life endearing, and I appreciate how no one cares what you look like or how you dress. But this night I missed our ways of doing things back up north. It was my second Christmas abroad and I wanted a piece of home. And so I dressed up, skirt and jewellery and all, expecting to be the only one who would. And then he showed up in a suit. That was it.
He wasn’t wearing a suit when he proposed, nor was he wearing that purple jacket and those yellow ski pants I’d grown so accustomed to seeing him in during our first winter in the mountains. We had travelled to Europe together, to walk upon warm, soft beaches, to admire ancient architecture, to listen as our shoes resonated on the cobblestone; to be where the wine was flowing and the food was made with love. It wasn’t as smoky as our first summer, and it wasn’t as adventurous as our first winter. It was something else.
“I want to marry you,” he said. I wondered if he had taken as long to gather the courage to speak those words as I had taken to say my own words. I had been scared of ruining our relationship; of bringing something into our world that didn’t belong there. How wrong I had been. It all felt like one long, good conversation with him. And how can you say no to more of that?