If he could reverse the order of the day, taking them back to the morning – to the moment before the argument – it would look something like this: the sun would lower among the peaks and the mist would thicken; the tourists would pick their way backward along the icy overlook; the ride back to Murren would seem nothing out of the ordinary, as the gondola belies no face nor a rear; then on lower ground they would all walk backward again, the group spreading apart in twos and threes as each returned to their lodgings.
Trent would step into the shower and the water would fly up off his skin and syphon itself back into the pin pricks in the shower head. He would peel himself into his pajamas again and step out on the terrace, where Henry would be sucking smoke clouds out of the thin mountain air, his cigarette growing longer, while Trent spat chocolate slowly into a teacup until it was full again and quite hot. Then and only then would they have reversed time enough to avoid the argument.
They would be a blessed moment ahead of misunderstanding. He could have imagined going back further, trains backing into tunnels, the plane recklessly hurtling itself over the Atlantic, tail first, seeming to gobble up its own jet stream. And again the sun would have drawn shadows in reverse, skin growing just a day younger, dew drops returning to the ethos. But at that moment on the terrace overlooking Murren, there was still a chance that would have sufficed.
It was just after they talked about taking the lift to Schilthorn and a moment before Trent asked if Henry had gotten any texts from George Hargrove. The chill settled closer about them when that was spoken. Henry stiffened.
“I’m surprised you’d ask.”
Henry shrugged. It was between them in the icy air, poised above the street, above the station so ideally close to the guest house. Yesterday had brought the first snow of the season, causing the yellow leaves of autumn to fall, a sumptuous golden confetti under sugar drifts. There had been jokes at check-in about them bringing winter with them.
Trent tried to move past it then. “It really is like stepping straight into winter, isn’t it? In Milan it was still rather summery. Chilly at night, of course. Remember you had to go back and get your sweater. That’s when I saw that man. I wish you’d seen it. So odd.”
The man with the huge hands. They’d looked like something out of those old pictures from freak shows. It was curious, because he was handsome – tall and manly enough – yet the size of his hands had given him a sinister edge. One didn’t look at those hands and think of how they might caress a person; rather they seemed made for wringing a neck or for covering over a whole face, nose and mouth. They were smothering hands.
“I didn’t get a text until this morning,” Henry said calmly. “He just asked how our trip was going.”
Trent forgot about the man in Milan instantly. He felt his stomach turn over. A flush set his cheeks afire like razor burn. “That’s rich,” he said. He didn’t recognize his voice. It was stilted, forced.
“He’s trying,” Henry said.
“I know he’s trying. But it’s not what you think.”
Then Henry ground out his cigarette. “Well, it’s more than you’ve done. He’s not got it so easy, if you think of it. He has the job of shutting down how he feels for me, of drowning it, putting it away. You on the other hand have me – and you treat it like a house plant.”
“Not that analogy again, Henry.”
“Familiar little house plant. You know how much to water it and where it likes to sit to take the sun. It doesn’t require much. Perhaps you’ll talk to it now and again. You’ve heard that helps. Read it somewhere, didn’t you? Maybe you’ll tell it about the man with the big, funny hands.”
“And if it grows too much for its container, you can always clip it.”
“How the fuck am I clipping you?”
Henry went silent.
Below them some other guests pushed out onto the street, drawing their hoods up, pulling on gloves. And there was laughter as they chatted and made their way toward the gondola across the village. Someone was talking about breakfast and another about lunch. Curls of vapor escaped their happy mouths.
“My god,” Trent said. “You want to be with him, don’t you? That’s how you think I’m clipping you. Monogamy. It’s cutting you back. It’s not what you want.”
Henry stared at him stonily.
“Go take your shower,” he said. “Let’s not do this today.”
“Tell me I’m wrong.”
“What I’ll tell you is that we both worked very hard to get here. The last thing I want to do on holiday is audit my marriage. Is that what you want?”
Henry always had a knack for cutting to the heart of the matter. Of course it wasn’t the time. He should never have asked if Hargrove texted. Then again Trent had always been one to peel away bandages and to pick at scabs. He took in all the silver Swiss air he could draw and held it for a long moment. Henry had turned to look out over the village by the time Trent stepped back into the room and removed his pajamas.
Shortly after they walked through the village, people joining the procession in twos and threes, until they came to the lift office. And they climbed into the gondola and they rose up and lilted outward over the valley floor, little leaps as they crested the supports, butterflies bounding in their guts, gasps of surprise and shared laughter. When they landed on Schilthorn, they followed along in a line until they came out onto the overlooks. There were still patches of ice because the day was yet new; the sun would melt them later, after their group had returned to lower climbs.
The ice made them cling to one another; mothers to fathers; children to mothers; lovers to each other. Until they came to the rails, where some of the group broke off and stood alone, taking pictures, or merely gazing out. The view was rapturous: in every direction one saw charcoal peaks floating in pewter mist. Here and there, as the sun plucked through, a ben-ben captured rock and ice, glittering like fragments of gold.
How had they come here? Before there were lifts how had people the tenacity to keep climbing into this unknown? Was is summer and green? Did they come to make a home when it was warm and easy, only to find themselves marooned later, unsure of how to descend when every deer path was but a series of bone shattering missteps?
The mountains were giving up no answers. Trent stood by himself for a long while, and it seemed that the other world – the world of their real lives – was small and clumsy and a little embarrassing up here in the divinity of Swiss highlands. The testy exchanges when the internet wasn’t working right; the spot on the bathroom vanity one couldn’t help noticing when one sat on the toilet; the mind-numbing tasks at work, tackling the same problems from slightly altered angles. Home and work. Ice and accidents. What we earn to keep and what we lose without knowing.
Once he’d been in New York, dashing across the West Side Highway. His scarf had come loose but he didn’t realize it then. Only when he got back to his hotel did he find it was gone. Sometimes he wondered if it had looked romantic to the people waiting in traffic, the length of the scarf coming loose, whirling upward off his shoulders and floating down. Then he imagined the tires rolling nonchalantly forward, grinding it into the grey detritus of the street. As each car crushed it, the scarf was less and less a thing of use and beauty and more and more it became merely city filth.
Henry came to stand at the rail beside him. A moment later, they took each other’s hands and they found the restaurant and shared firstly a salad and then coffee with schnapps. It was difficult to fathom the way forward. Trent would need to discover what Henry wanted and Henry would need the same. Once they got back from holiday, it was hard to know what would remain of that distant life.
Still they made an effort to chatter about the trip and somehow or other when Trent got back around to the subject of the man in Milan with huge hands, it came out fresh and funny and made Henry laugh. That felt good. The dining room revolved slowly so that they saw the world below them from every angle as the sun came out to burn away the mist.