Lambda Literary Review
A fluidic tale of the struggle to let go of past failures and move toward a fulfilling relationship... This is a story of the struggle toward possibility as old baggage is left behind. It’s a tale of the resiliency of the human spirit to find a true home in love and acceptance. This is one to snuggle up with on a long winter’s night, preferably with a fire burning in a cozy fireplace and a glass of sweet, sweet wine on hand—or a cup of rich hot chocolate.
Riley dropped her backpack on the nightstand and sank down on the bed. The red plaid blanket was rough against her hands and smelled of wood smoke but was thick enough to keep out the chill. Sharon had pulled back the curtains to show off the view of the courtyard. There was a gazebo painted dark purple with white trim, wicker chairs pulled out onto the grass to catch the last of the afternoon sun and, beyond this, a flagstone path leading to the hot tub and the main house. Aspen were grouped at the edge of the manicured grass and these held their green leaves but the maples were already beginning to turn a golden yellow.
A man came out of the back door of the main house. He stepped off the porch and lit up a cigarette, then strode down the path, eyeing the hot tub and the cottage. He tried one of the wicker chairs positioned with the best view of the garden, but the chair wobbled under his weight or, more likely, wobbled because the seats had all been arranged on the slanting hillside. He changed seats twice before settling on one with the least wobble.
Riley kicked off her shoes and leaned back on the bed. She had left Denver at rush hour and then sat in traffic for over an hour before even reaching the highway to the mountains. It was too late for a hike and she had no plans for dinner. She glanced at her watch. Lisa’s plane was due to leave in twenty minutes. Jen was likely already seated next to her, in the seat Riley had reserved for herself. Riley pulled the blanket up to her chin and closed her eyes.
The sound of rushing water awoke Riley with a start. She was certain a pipe had burst behind her head, but as soon as she realized she was dry, she recalled Sharon’s warning about the loud plumbing. She rubbed her head and fell back on the overstuffed pillow. She was in the same clothes she’d worn to work. She thought of changing but made no move to get out of bed. After some time, Riley realized the water in the pipes was battling with the noise of rain pattering on the shingles overhead. She stared at the sliver of light beneath the bathroom doorway, waiting for it to disappear.
Several minutes passed, possibly more, but there was no clock in the room. Riley wondered if the other guest had already left the bathroom and had accidentally left the light on or if it now served as a nightlight. She tried unsuccessfully to close her eyes and ignore it, but the light seemed to draw her attention like a beacon. Time dragged with only the sound of the rain to occupy her thoughts. After what seemed close to an hour had passed, she threw back the wool blanket and crossed the three steps from the bed to the bathroom door. She knocked lightly. No one answered. The door was unlocked and the fluorescent light within was blaringly bright. Her reflection in the mirror was that of a squinting stranger with wrinkled clothing and short, tousled hair. Cursing, she slapped the switch and hurried back to the warmth of the wool blanket.
* * *
“Go early, if you’re hiking today,” Sharon began, setting a steaming mug of coffee on the counter in front of Riley. “Last night was only a taste of the rain we’re due. Do you want one or two slices of French toast?”
“One slice, thank you.”
Sharon passed her a plate with a single piece on which a pat of butter was melting. “Enjoy. There’s more syrup in the dining room if you want it.”
“You’ve got a full crowd out there. Want help serving?”
“No, this is the best part of my job.” Sharon pointed to a stool. “Sit down and enjoy your breakfast. There’s milk in the fridge for the coffee.” Sharon placed two pieces of French toast on each of three plates, garnished them with fat slabs of butter and a smattering of powdered sugar and then sliced orange slices onto the side. Balancing all three plates, she smiled at Riley and scooted through the swinging door into the dining room.
Riley found the milk, pulled the stool over to the counter and sat down with her mug. Sharon had left the newspaper open to the section on local news, and Riley flipped the pages until she found the world news. After scanning the first few headlines and being hit with a wave of gloom, she folded the paper and resolved to ignore the news for the next several days. She ate the French toast, thinking she should have had two slices when the first disappeared quickly. She took her plate over to the sink, already half full with other plates. The window above the sink framed a view of the mountains, which were cloaked this morning with mist so thick that the highest peaks were entirely concealed.
Sharon reappeared with empty hands. “They like the toast.”
“It was delicious.” Riley held up her empty plate. “You really do enjoy this, don’t you?”
“Amazing, isn’t it, considering this whole thing never was my idea? In fact, I distinctly remember standing right here in this kitchen and telling Cherie she was crazy if she thought I’d be able to cook breakfast for a dozen guests—or more—seven days a week. But, yes, I really do. Tomorrow I’m making breakfast frittatas from my favorite cookbook. I make it even better than the book with a little green chile sauce on the side.”
“You won’t mind if I help with the cleanup? I want to do something in exchange for room and board if you won’t let me pay you.” Riley rinsed off her plate and set it in the dishwasher.
“Deal. But sit down and finish your coffee first. I’ll have that sink filled in a half hour and then you can really get to work. Sometimes I dream that I’ve made enough money to hire a year-round kitchen elf. I barely break even as it is through the slow winter months, though, so it doesn’t make sense to have another hand. Still, I wish I could…Meredith comes at noon to clean the rooms, but I don’t pay her enough to do the kitchen as well. In the busy summer season, I pay her daughter to help with the cleanup, but then she goes back to school and I’m left with all of this.” She sighed and found a towel to wipe a puddle of spilled orange juice off the counter tiles. “But you can’t beat September in the mountains. You’ve picked the best time to visit.”
An attractive woman pushed the door halfway open and glanced from Sharon to Riley and then back to Sharon. Sharon quickly motioned her into the kitchen. “What is it, sweetie?”
“Any more coffee? We’re empty out here.”
Riley guessed that the woman in the doorway was in her early thirties, but she showed no sign that she minded being called sweetie. Only a grandmother could get away with calling their customers terms of endearment like “sweetie,” Riley thought. Sharon had three grandchildren, in fact. Riley had seen all of their baby pictures. Sharon had been married once, years ago, but she never talked about the marriage except to say that the one good thing she got out of it was her son, Max. Max was twenty-nine, same as Riley, but he had already managed to father three kids.
“Of course.” Sharon reached for the carafe she’d filled earlier and then set another pot on to brew. As she filled the woman’s cup, she said, “Ana, meet Riley. You two are sharing the cottage.”
Ana held up her hand. She had manicured nails and a gold bracelet that caught the light when she moved her hand. “She might not actually want to meet me this morning,” she said, this time pointedly looking at Riley, “I think I may have woken you up last night. I needed a shower and forgot I was sharing the cottage.”
Sharon shook her head. “Don’t worry about Riley. She’s a sound sleeper. Her ex was a snorer.”
Riley laughed. “How’d you know Lisa was a snorer?”
“Oh, I know more secrets than that, honey.” Sharon winked. She excused herself and went out to serve the coffee.
Ana set her mug down and opened the fridge door to get the milk. She had a trim but curvy figure that was noticeably attractive even in loose pants and a sweatshirt. The rest of her was easy to appreciate as well, Riley thought. Ana seemed to know her way around the place. Riley guessed this wasn’t her first time staying at Sharon’s.
“Mind if I join you? I like the kitchen seating better than the dining room. It’s stuffy out there.” Ana pulled the second stool up to the counter. “I had an ex who snored. I always tried to convince him to stay up late so I could get to bed first.”
“I used that trick once or twice,” Riley agreed.
“But it’s hell if you wake up in the middle of the night to go pee, right? And earplugs drove me crazy. The sound of my own breathing isn’t something I ever want to hear in stereo.” She shook her head. “Anyway, that relationship lasted too long.”
“Yeah? So did mine,” Riley said. Ana flashed a smile, and Riley felt her heart skip a beat. She nearly laughed at her body’s eager response. Easy does it, she thought.
“Here on business?” Ana asked.
“No, this is my week of vacation,” Riley said. “I decided it was time for me to climb a mountain. I came here when my Alaska plans didn’t pan out.”
“Too bad. Alaska has some nice mountains.”
“And I bet my ex is enjoying the view.”
“It’s a long story…Let’s just say I’m done with snorers.” Riley took a sip of her coffee, which had cooled to lukewarm, and felt her stomach grumble. Sharon had come back and started another batch of French toast, and the smell of it was intoxicating. She thought of helping herself to another slice. “It does feel good to be here alone. I think I need some time to climb mountains and forget about girlfriend issues. I’ve been talking about climbing one of the fourteeners for two years now. Decided I should either shut up or do it. What about you? Business or vacation?”
“Business.” Ana glanced at her watch. “In fact, I’ve got my first meeting this morning. But I am going to fit in a jog beforehand. Do you run? Want to join me?”
Riley considered the offer. She didn’t ever really feel like running, but with Ana’s company she thought it might be more entertaining than a solo jog. She glanced over at Sharon, who, she realized, was carefully listening in on their conversation despite her apparent concentration on the grill. “No, I think I’m hell-bent on climbing straight up a rock slab to get a good view.”
“You know, you can drive to the top of Pikes Peak. You don’t have to spend all that time hiking,” Sharon said, lifting slices of golden brown toast off the grill. “Anyway, I think you should start with the Grade. It’s a nice trail and a good test of your oxygen levels at elevation.”
“I live in Denver, Sharon. I think I’ll be fine.”
Sharon shook her head. “You’d be surprised.”
“Your day is going to be more interesting than mine no matter which hike you pick,” Ana said, carrying her mug over to the sink. “Thanks for breakfast, Sharon. Delicious as usual.” She left through the back door, glancing back once at Riley.
Riley followed her with her eyes until the cottage door closed behind her. “I know she said her ex was a guy, but she doesn’t seem all that straight to me.”
“I won’t remind you that you just broke up with Lisa this past week.”
“I’m just saying.”
“You’re ‘just saying’…uh, huh. I’ve heard that tone in your voice before and no one is ever, ‘just saying,’ when they say things that way. I don’t think you’re ready, Riley.”
“She was the one who came over to sit down with me. I was just sitting here drinking my coffee and she invited herself over.”
“What’s wrong with you butch women?” Sharon waved her spatula. “She’s friendly and talked to you for two minutes. That doesn’t mean she’s interested.”
“Well, not always. But in this case, I think she is.” Riley held up her hands when she saw Sharon’s skeptical gaze. “Look, I’m on vacation and could use a distraction. And she’s cute. Besides, you know everything with Lisa was a long time coming. If I’m not mistaken, I broke up with her in December and then again in April. I’m not freshly bruised.”
“And she still lives with you. ‘If I’m not mistaken,’” Sharon said, mimicking Riley’s tone, “a month ago when you were going to break up with her for the third or fourth time, you decided to work things out. What if that happens again?”
“It won’t,” Riley said. “Not after she and Jen have been to Alaska together.”
“Not ‘after Alaska’? How about ‘not after realizing that she’d been sleeping with her ex for months despite telling you and everyone otherwise’?” Sharon paused, then waved her spatula again at Riley, adding, “You deserve better.”
“Everyone says that. What you really mean, is, ‘you deserve someone who will be monogamous,’ right? But the thing is, Jen wasn’t the problem with our relationship.”
“No, the problem was that you decided to pretend the thing with Lisa and Jen wasn’t really happening,” Sharon broke in, raising a hand and cutting Riley off when she tried to speak. “You knew. You knew Jen was her girl on the side whenever you two had a fight. But you didn’t want to be alone, so you let her hang on long after you should have locked the door.”
“I didn’t know the half of it,” Riley defended. “Not for a long time, anyway. She said nothing was going on and I believed her.”
Sharon picked up two French toast platters and a pitcher of water. “Lisa and Jen were more than just friends from the very beginning. I warned you last Christmas…You may have thought that she was going to forget about Jen eventually, but it never happened. And I think you still aren’t convinced that the relationship is over. You are still holding on.”
“Trust me, I am done. I’m done with all of the games, and Lisa knows it. And I don’t need an ‘I told you so’ right at the moment.” Riley’s stomach had tightened into a hard ball. She didn’t want to hash out the details of her breakup with anyone, even someone as well-intentioned as Sharon. And she had already admitted that Sharon had been right about more than a few things with Lisa.
“You are still letting her stay at your condo.”
“Should I have kicked her out the same day I broke up with her?”
“Yes. She could stay with Jen. Or go live with her mom.”
Sharon was close friends with Lisa’s mother, Jeanette. In fact, Riley had first met Sharon at Jeanette’s Christmas party two years ago. They didn’t see each other again until Jeanette’s next Christmas party, which was the same night Riley broke up with Lisa the first time. Jeanette was also the owner of the clinic where Riley worked, which had made the whole situation with Lisa muddy right from the start.
For some reason, Sharon and Riley had formed an unlikely friendship. Unlikely not because of the difference in their ages, but because most of their conversations had involved Sharon trying to convince Riley to forget Lisa and move home to Washington. Sharon had been a stranger at the time and Riley had decided to trust Lisa instead.
Riley downed the last of her coffee and stood up, reconsidering the idea of going for a run. “It really doesn’t matter at this point, does it?”
“I think it does. You aren’t ready to start something with anyone, straight or otherwise.”
“There’s no harm in flirting.”
Sharon shook her head and pushed open the door. She paused, balancing the platters and water pitcher with practiced ease. “I think you need to be alone. Try it for a little while anyway. The last thing you need is to get involved with another woman. And stick to the easy hike today. The rains might pick up this afternoon. I don’t want to worry about you up on the Peak.”
Riley stuck around in the kitchen long enough to clear the sink. By the time she returned to the cottage, there was no sign of Ana. She thought of waiting until she returned from her run, but she couldn’t come up with an excuse to have another conversation. She stood in the doorway of her side of the cottage, pondering what to do next. The room was cramped and made her long to be outside. There was a narrow walkway between the double bed and the dresser and an old woodstove stood in one corner while the nightstand took up the other corner. The door to the shared bathroom was on the same wall as the bed, and Riley now understood why Sharon had warned her that the plumbing was in the wall behind the headboard. She doubted anyone could sleep through the noise of the shower.
She considered her options. For the first time in months, she had no real agenda. If she’d had more time to plan, she would likely have jumped on a plane headed for France or maybe Costa Rica. Instead, with only two days’ notice, she’d called Sharon. The last vacation she’d taken alone was in college. Since then, she’d always had a girlfriend’s company when she traveled.
Riley pulled out the trail map that Sharon had given her and glanced at the circled hikes. She recognized the Grade, easily visible from the cottage window and marked by the brown gouge cutting in a straight line up the side of the mountain. Dark evergreens covered the terrain on either side, giving the trail the look of an abandoned ski run even though it was clearly much too steep to be one. She changed into her hiking boots and tucked the map into her cargo pants’ pocket along with her wallet and phone.
Riley took the winding main road through downtown Catori, testing her Honda’s old brakes frequently for a good number of tourists. The entire downtown took up only four or five blocks. Storefronts filled with mountain resort kitsch and tie-dye apparel fought for space among pubs and restaurants, none of which seemed to target a local crowd.
When she got to the trailhead parking lot, Riley found it poorly marked but filled to near capacity. She pulled her Seattle Seahawks ball cap over her short hair and felt a twinge in her shoulder. She owed the sore muscles to the crush she had developed on the woman who led the group lifting class at her gym. For the past few months, she had managed to shift her work schedule to start appointments an hour later to fit in morning workouts. Mostly she had used the class as an excuse to leave the house early. Lisa wasn’t a morning person, and since Riley had finally come to terms with the fact that Jen was more than Lisa’s friend, she could hardly face Lisa at all, let alone in the morning. The weight class had, however, done good things for her abs and back, something that was useful in her line of work. Over the past few weeks, though, she’d pushed her limits. The coach had finally noticed and intervened. By then, however, Riley had lost the desire to flirt with her. Convincing Lisa that their relationship was over had taken too much energy. The weight routine was a good outlet for stress and had helped her fit into her favorite pair of 501s, but that was all.
Sharon had claimed that rain was predicted for every evening that week, but there was only a weak breeze, and a cloudless sky framed the mountains in a blue that left the eyes to wander in search of something more interesting. Pikes Peak, a grayish-purple rock slab that was too large to appreciate in the lens of her iPhone when she snapped a shot, loomed close and cold. Most of the surrounding mountains were softened with evergreens, juniper and a gravelly red soil that crunched underfoot. On the northern edge of the vista, ridges of dusty brown claimed the skyline. A fire the year before had left scarred hills thousands of acres wide. Riley trained her gaze on the Peak, not the burned hills in the distance or the closer green slopes.
The Grade was aptly named, if nothing else. There was little else to consider about the trail other than the grade itself. Railroad ties were arranged into stairs reaching upward to the summit in a number that seemed never-ending. A seasick feeling rose in her stomach when she turned to get a look at the view about halfway up. The range stretched out in a flat line of fading browns and darker blues as far as the eye could trace the horizon, disrupted only by a cluster of red rocks jutting skyward. Riley had walked arm in arm with Lisa along the paved paths between those red rocks a year ago. She even recalled bits of their conversation: they’d discussed the name of the place—Garden of the Gods—and wondered if the plural had been intended, if whoever had named it had believed in more than one omniscient being. Somehow, that discussion and the entire day, in fact, had ended without a fight. So much had changed since then.
Riley shifted to the edge of the path to make passing space for a stream of joggers. She had already caught her breath, but she wasn’t going to let herself race to the top. Some in the group grinned or even nodded their heads in a greeting, others grimaced or had the same set gaze as the determined faces on folks struggling on Stairmasters back in the gym. One couple came up clad in matching yellow road bike racing uniforms, chatting all the while. As they neared her spot, Riley noticed the woman hesitating as she placed weight on her left knee. She wasn’t limping, but she was clearly uncomfortable. Riley guessed she had an old injury to her meniscus or her ACL, or both. As soon as this thought passed her mind, she chuckled. She couldn’t make it even one day out of the clinic without work thoughts springing up to distract her. She let the bikers get some distance up the hill before she fell in line behind them. Row after row of railroad ties, each cased in soil with the same texture and crunch as Grape-Nuts, drew her attention back to the trail.
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