In this summer without summer, a story from a winter without winter. I guess you could call this a prequel to my railway memoir series, which is slowly getting under way.
She looked across at me and started to cry.
Don’t cry, Jessie, I said. I LOVE you. I won’t let you down. We can make it through this together.
Saying I love you: As the words spilled out I felt my face flush, knew as I was saying it that it was a desperate move, out of place and out of time. I’d only kissed her for the first time three days before, but it was all I could think of saying to make her feel it was worth taking the risk she had to take.
I can’t do it, she moaned, shaking her head. I’m so scared I’ll slip.
She was less than six feet away, but between us lay a steep slash of ice, a creek frozen and dusted in snow we’d blundered upon with numb feet and trembling fingers. What had started out as a happy walk in the woods had turned into a dangerous mountaintop expedition, unplanned and ill-equipped.
Here, take my hand, I said, reaching out as far as I could while holding onto a shrub poking out through the snow.
I can’t reach it. You’re too far away.
You’re going to have to trust me, and you’re going to have to trust yourself, I said. I can go back and get you, but I can’t carry you across, so I’m going to stay here and help you over it. You have to jump and grab my hand. Then I’ll pull you the rest of the way.
She leaned into the snow, her head shaking.
Trust me, I said. We’ll be OK. Just aim for my hand.
Flecks of snow tumbled into the gap between us as she shifted her feet to a better position. They whispered down the icy trough like sand on glass, skitting the surface in streaks of turquoise.
Don’t look down. Just across at me. Look at me.
I felt shame as her eyes caught mine. This was all my fault.
It had been such a warm and dry winter, there’d be no snow to worry about even way up there, I’d said. I know a great place where we can go behind Britannia. We’ll take my old man’s car, we’ll drive up through the forest on a road I used to take when I was just a kid in the back of a truck, past a ghost town where we’ll stop and look at the old swimming pool, the tennis courts, the old baseball diamond, the foundations of workers’ houses, the rusting machinery strewn around the entrance to the mine. We’ll drive past a dam, up a road I took last summer to another dam, park the car and walk across its lip to the other side to the trailhead that leads to a cabin way up there. It’ll be so much fun.
Now we’d somehow lost the trail we’d stamped through the snow on the way up, snow I never expected to find. We could have turned back on the ascent, but I knew there was something to eat and a chance to warm up a bit in the hut if we just kept going a little higher. Rest our feet, too. The snow wasn’t deep, but the surface crust wouldn’t hold us. We kept breaking through, the hard jagged edge scraping our ankles with every step.
Suddenly she lunged forward, aiming for my outstretched hand.
I grasped her arm as she slipped below, then wrenched my body back to pull her over. She landed beside me, covered in snow and shaking, so I dusted her off and held her close.
As she melted into me with relief I could smell the earthy leather of the jacket she always wore, the scent like vapour in the cold, still air.
Let’s keep going, I said, pulling back. We’ve not a lot of time to reach the top dam before it’s dark.
We walked in silence, our feet throbbing.
As we slowly descended, the snow thinning out to heather and shrub again, I was no longer worried about us not getting home, 16-year-olds having to be rescued and then having to explain what we were doing in a restricted area, driving beyond all those No Trespassing signs, going on a jaunt in the middle of winter without telling anyone, up a trail I knew only from one hike in the glinting flash of summer.
I was thinking more about what I’d blurted out in my desperation. I love you. Something instinctive told me that even though that’s what we both were feeling, had felt since we first shut the door behind us to listen to records in her bedroom, I shouldn’t say it. Don’t be the first one to say it. Ever.
January 30, 1977 is often in my thoughts, and I still wonder what it meant to her.
Because about two years later, close to the wrenching end and long after we’d begun that slow unwinding of the bonds we’d sealed together that day, she insisted that she’d been the one to first say I love you. That night a couple of months later when we’d stopped at the lookout on the way home from Vancouver, a breathy whisper in the moment she lifted herself just enough so I could lower her jeans down past her knees, the doors locked, the windows dripping.