June 1, 2001
Learning to ski with her expert boyfriend...
by Karin Beuerlein
hen you announce you're going to learn to ski, it's amazing how many experts crawl out of the woodwork to give advice. Your brother, who learned by throwing himself down a mountain in the general direction of his more experienced friends. Your cousin, who swore off the sport after one drunken half-run down a bunny slope. Your mother, who doesn't ski or fly and would prefer you didn't maim yourself or die in a plane crash en route to the resort.
Take a lesson. Don't take a lesson. Learn to snowplow. Snowplowing is for pantywaists. Wear thick socks. Wear thick socks and your toes will turn black and fall off. Stirrup ski pants are stylish. Stirrups are out, boot-cut is in. Write down all your flight numbers so I can check them against the evening news. (Okay, Mom.)
Then there's your boyfriend, who's a great skier and a patient teacher to boot. He doesn't care if all your borrowed ski clothes make you look like a crazy quilt; he doesn't complain about having to forsake the backside of the mountain for an afternoon on a snowy bump with you, the beginner. He's just happy you're taking up a sport he loves.
But you can't learn from him to save your life.
I've known for a long time that I would have to learn to ski. Jack, my boyfriend of six years, is not just good at it - he goes all soft-focus just talking about it. Misty eyes, hushed voice, desperate, longing gazes from our Tennessee kitchen toward the Rockies. I've known that if we were to have a life together, I'd have to understand this mysterious joy they call 'ski.'
I also remember the time he was giving me tennis lessons and we didn't speak for a week. In heated arguments, the tennis thing sometimes slips out of nowhere even though it happened in 1996. That one bleeping summer afternoon can be used for everything from simple argument leverage to a total indictment of my personality. Perhaps that's why when Jack tries to teach me something now, I hear nothing but Charlie Brown's teacher: 'Mwa mwa-mwa mwa mwa mwa.'
This January, I let Jack take me to Gatlinburg on a wintry East Tennessee evening, where I suited up and took to the baby hill with him as my instructor. It didn't go so well. He would cry out things like, 'Weight on the downhill ski!' or 'Feel your edges!' and I would short-circuit. Time after time, I bailed out of turns by throwing myself to the ground and wondering if we would ever have children. Jack, meanwhile, kept yanking me to my feet and pointing me downhill, trying to buoy me as I sailed madly akimbo by calling out to me, telling me how naturally athletic I was as I crashed to avoid stuffing my head through a fence.
Fate, however, would not back down. In a strange karmic jackpot, I won two free nights at a Lake Tahoe hotel in an online drawing, along with lift tickets. Jack's eyes sparkled and his teeth gleamed, and I knew this was my chance to redeem myself.
Lake Tahoe, when we arrived, was fresh from a four-foot snowstorm, the mountains covered in buttercream and soft, sleepy quiet. I was in love before I even stepped into a ski. First thing I did was take a lesson - from a stranger. I was amazed at how different things sounded coming from someone else's mouth. Weight on your downhill toe to turn. Oh, easy, easy. Knees bent, arms out. I felt the love.
But when I emerged from my lesson and tried to show Jack what I'd learned, I froze. He started in with his litany of advice (incidentally, the same advice my ski instructor had given), and I suddenly couldn't remember how to wedge, turn, get up, get off a lift, or eat lunch. I was a big fat blank.
'Don't listen to what I'm saying,' he said finally. 'Just think about what you learned earlier.'
I could feel my bottom lip trembling, and I wiped my nose. 'Let's go get a sandwich,' I said. I felt like the biggest jerk on the slopes, but I didn't know how to stop being afraid.
Too much rides on a relationship to learn anything reliably from the one you love, especially when the one you love is already extremely good at what you're learning. The dynamics of attraction and compassion saddle simple things like your stupid downhill ski with unbelievable baggage. If I'm vulnerable and look like an idiot, will he still want to linger tenderly over hot buttered rum at the lodge? If I completely depend on him to get down the mountain, will I have surrendered part of my cherished independence? And, most importantly, if I cry one more time over my sore shins, will he dump me for a ski bunny?
After lunch calmed my edgy nerves, I started to have insight about how to handle the problem. In the end, we made it down a mile-long green run with minimal damage to my body and psyche, but only because I began to consciously separate the words I was hearing in my head from the words I was hearing Jack say. After all, he was truly interested in making me a better skier, not in humiliating me in front of half the population of California. I wasn't fighting Jack so much as I was fighting myself. I had to unplug my ears.
'Mwa mwa mwa flex your ankles,' he said, and I really, really almost heard him. Ever so slightly, I relaxed my feet, and something got easier. Inside and out.
'Mwa mwa great job,' he said, obviously relieved as he skidded past me on his skis, dodging and swooping and motioning for me to follow him. Delusional, for sure, but that's part of his charm.
'Mwa thanks.' I continued my conservative and lazy descent, knees bent, arms out, and I watched him disappear over the rise.
Tiny step by tiny step, I incorporated my morning's lesson into my body movements, relying on my mountain man for encouragement, and I began feeling how to ski instead of thinking how to ski. Jack, convinced I was ready for solitude and proud like a new papa, left me to pursue a heady black run, and I took the vast, gentle hill three times by myself. Faster and faster, with increasingly more control. The third time down, I even felt lithe, and some random guy flying by made a comment about my ass. I immediately checked my backside for a hole in my pants - then I realized he just thought I looked like a hot ski mama instead of a goofy, wedge-grinding klutz.
Each time I finished the run, I rode the deserted gondola back up the mountain alone, quadriceps firing and calves in knots. I was giddy. The first time the doors shut on me and the gondola pulled out of the station, I became keenly aware that I had conquered something huge, both geographically and emotionally. The cables jerked me high into the air, and I was all alone with the scenery, my cloudy breath, my muscle pain, and the monumental quiet. I was a skier. I did it by myself, and I did it with Jack, and we survived physically and emotionally intact.
Most gratifying of all was seeing the look in Jack's eyes when he returned from the hell runs to see me gliding down the mountain without help, engaged in my own miniature version of the ecstasy he experiences every winter. Beneath his goggles, I could swear I saw a new glimmer of tenderness in his eyes... and maybe a little, uh, magnetism? Hey! Was it just me, or was he checking out my backside?
Tight ski pants rock.
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