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Time Off (Excerpt)
The next morning, Lawrence gazed up at the impressive face of Mont Blanc. The chill air penetrated even his warm clothing. He resolutely tugged on his ski gloves, slung his MIT scarf around his neck, and hefted his freshly waxed skis to his shoulder—he was all set. Boots climbing across the snow, he headed for the gondola. He could see the tiny figures of skiers already skimming down the steep slopes above, and his pulse quickened.
As the group shuffled toward the gondola, he nodded to several familiar faces, relieved to find neither Proust nor Maurice among them. He thought he’d seen Emma in line ahead of him and fidgeted through the whole ride, oblivious to the spectacular view that spread below him. When he reached the advanced level, he got off, pulled his goggles down, and stepped into his skis.
He picked Emma out immediately, even under her goggles and sporty ski hat.
“Hi,” he said with a big smile, glad they both had the morning free from meetings.
“Hi,” she replied, moving to his side in one smooth fluid push.
Several others said, “Hello.”
He returned a nod and pulled his jacket tightly around him against the chill air.
A veteran skier strolled past with weathered skin and disrupted hair. He wore a turned-down smirk that challenged all comers to prove their worth. These were all experienced skiers, dressed for warmth, and equipped with the best quality gear. The first pair left together, plunging down onto the black runs. Others quickly followed, separated enough to avoid interference.
Finally, he and Emma were the only ones on the top of the world. They felt as though they had the mountain all to themselves.
Lawrence breathed in the crisp Swiss mountain air. It felt different somehow—cleaner, freer, better.
The temperature was 5 C.
He said, “Wow, what a fantastic day! This is an amazing resort, and the snow looks perfect.”
“Something tells me I’m going to like this place.”
Emma tugged on his scarf, and with mischief in her eyes, dared him, “Race you to the bottom.”
He started to ask, “What do I get if I win?” when he realized she was already ten yards ahead.
Though not an expert, he was a good skier. He shoved his poles hard into the snow and leaned forward, propelling himself down the slope after her. The skis hissed smoothly on the packed powder as he pulled himself along with his poles. Picking up speed on the gradually steepening slope, he was still falling behind. Going over the first vertical drop with spine-chilling ease, he found his rhythm and felt the adrenaline rush of speed, snow, and slope.
Concentrating on his own maneuvering, he couldn’t watch Emma but could tell he still wasn’t gaining on her.
He leaned over his skis, pulled up his poles, and dropped into a tuck. Instantly his speed increased, and his skis drifted a little farther apart than good style dictated. His hips and knees swiveled left–right–left–right–left in smooth, sweeping micro-turns, shoulders barely moving.
Still, Emma held her lead ahead of him.
A cluster of trees loomed ahead. He shifted his weight to come around, the right edges of his skis, biting hard into the slope and swung past them cleanly. He straightened up and turned to avoid several rocky obstacles. He maneuvered through a series of flags on the run, carving an extended S in the snow. He was close behind Emma now and could see her looking back at him, her face alive with pleasure.
He was delighted.
He aimed his skis straight down the slope again and felt the joy of zooming down a 45-degree drop. The thrill of speed and mastery of the terrain far outweighed any concern of potential danger. As he followed the curve of the mountain to the left, he came upon another row of flags, black and red, fluttering in the wind. The slope suddenly rose up under him, his knees compressed, and at this speed, he felt the lift as he caught air. He gave a shout of pure glee.
Emma was near, and she ran an S-turn through his track.
The slope eased a bit, and he jammed his left pole into the snow for leverage, pushing his skis down hard. The snow sprayed out from the abrupt stop and hung, crystallized, for a moment in the still air as he looked across a shoulder of the mountain. It plunged down toward a grove of trees, black in the distance.
Breathing hard, he glanced over his shoulder but couldn’t see Emma. A momentary concern flashed through his mind, but then he caught a glimpse of her through some trees to his left.
He swung back downhill and zig-zagged through the mounds beneath the gondola cables, driving his poles in hard with each knee-pounding bump.
With her more direct route, Emma was ahead of him again.
He pushed harder, trying to catch up to her, his knees straining on each turn.
Without warning, his right ski caught an edge. He flailed, struggling to regain control, skidded, and fell.
Shaking himself off, he quickly regained his feet, gasping for breath, and wiped the snow off his face and goggles. He stamped his feet to make sure his bindings were still tight, then set off in pursuit of Emma once more. Gaining speed, he schussed across the undulating ground, his skis intertwining with Emma’s tracks.
A row of bright-orange warning signs made him check his speed sharply. This run had taken him dangerously close to a ravine. Behind the crossed sticks he could see where the cliff dropped and didn’t stop to think how far down it went into nothingness.
He carved another hard turn, angling his skis back toward the left, and raced for the tree line.
Keep forward. Get your hands in front of you. Set shoulders downslope, keep knees, and hips loose.
The wind buffeted him, a pounding wall of resistance against his increasing speed. The wild schuss was nearing an end.
Pine and spruce trees rushed by him, blurring into an impenetrable wall. The sun glistened over the snow’s surface, a sharp stretch of rocks and ravines was marked by warning flags thrown into high relief. Dark shadows obscured the terrain, making the slopes more dangerous. He knew there were sheer drops on each flank of the run. He felt an absurd desire to kick off his skies and run. Instead, he kept his focus on the track ahead and ignored the folds in the landscape.
Finally, he saw an opening through the trees that had hemmed him in. He veered more left and shot through it.
As he straightened his course, Emma whizzed by him, so close that he felt a spray of snow.
Is she really that good, or did she misjudge her position?
Trees pressed against the uphill side as the run curved around the mountain’s flank, their branches brittle against the white cold of the sky. Lake Geneva, now spread out in a breathtaking panorama below them. The thermometer had dropped precipitously to -3 C, and flakes of snow began to prick Lawrence’s cheek.
Speed seemed no longer possible against the cold resisting wind.
As the slope leveled out to the end of the run, he saw Emma out of the corner of his eye, only a few yards and scant seconds behind him.
He angled his skis to cross the finish line.
As his momentum slowed, he suddenly felt exhausted.
His head throbbed, and his muscles ached from a combination of exertion and dehydration. His joints ground and creaked. His fingers refused to release their grip on the poles. Every sense seemed to have turned against him, and he blinked hard, his breathing labored.
With an effort, he pulled off his soaked gloves and unzipped his jacket, sweating heavily. Stabbing his poles into the ground, he groaned as he bent over to unlatch his skis. Luckily the bindings sprang open easily, and he straightened painfully.
The snow was falling faster now. He hadn’t noticed before.
He cradled his stiff hands to his chest like a drowning man trying to catch his breath. The bracing wind stung his cheeks, leaving a bittersweet icy red welt. He was spent.
As he looked for Emma, he wondered . . .
Did I win?
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