by Erika Nichols-Frazer
With the chairlift stopped, the only sounds were the crack of branches snapping with the heft of the snow and the swoosh of sharp edges of skis and snowboards carving into the groomer’s corduroy pattern below. If it weren’t for the cold, Kristen wouldn’t mind sitting for a few minutes. Her energy had been low since the surgery. She had noticed her limitations with more concern since her diagnosis, surveying every mood and feeling in her body as potential symptoms of a greater threat.
Their legs dangled over the trail, the weight of their skis and boots pulling their feet towards the snow thirty feet below. The chairlifts swayed, out of sync. The lift fit four, but it was just the two of them, spread out on the far sides of the chair so that a gap sat between them.
Kristen had an impulse to swing the chair to see if she could touch the lift tower—it looked so close—but she knew James would not be amused. He was already acting impatient, swinging his legs back and forth. When their kids were small enough to slip under the bar, she and James would each hold one of them back with their poles. Kristen had what he called an irrational fear of them plummeting.
This would be her first run all season. They’d both bought season’s passes, like every year, perhaps optimistically, but she hasn’t been up to it. She had expected things to go differently. She hadn’t missed a season since her father taught her on the bunny hill when she was three, and she’d be damned if she was missing one now. James had been skeptical of her strength, but she’d insisted. More than anything, she wanted one more good day on the hill.
They used to compete for first tracks or skin up parts of the mountain the lift couldn’t reach, but post-mastectomy, just putting on her gear tired her out. James insists her body is still her body, that he still loves all of it, but she knows something has changed between them. He reached for her in bed last night, ran his hands up her ribcage, but when they got to her missing breasts, she pulled away.
She was only forty-nine when her body declared war on her, her breasts casualties. Her body didn’t belong to her anymore. It had become a foreign entity, enemy territory. She felt as though she were in a constant struggle against it.
As the coffee percolated this morning, he’d asked her yet again if she was sure she was up to skiing. She hadn’t had much exercise these past few months. But she wanted to ski the trail they met on at least one last time, not sure of the condition she’d be in by next season. It’s a double-black diamond, way too steep and challenging for her right now, James said. He joked, “You could end up like I did the day we met,” which meant with a broken leg from sliding on ice into a tree. She was on ski patrol then and rolled him onto the orange sled and skied him down. She had rescued him, but he doesn’t know how to rescue her.
They were stopped by the bra tree. She could see the tree from the lift. Still a ways’ off, at the crest of the knoll before the lift’s final ascent. An aspen, she thought, decorated with at least thirty bras, some new, shiny red satin or still-white lace, others shit-speckled and worn, nearly transparent with weather and age. She could see the colors dotted through the tree’s otherwise-bare branches, a bright blur without her glasses.
In a forest of bare trees on either side of the lift line, the lace and satin stood out, flapping in the branches. Bras waved in the breeze like flags, taunting her. The bra tree was a bold symbol of femininity that existed at every mountain she’d skied since the late 70s or early 80s, when the trend spread and stuck. At mountains all over, bras waved through tree branches, proudly announcing We were here.
The abandoned bras belonged to generations of women bold enough to shimmy out of them on the lift, toss them onto the tree, and ski down bare-breasted (or, they brought them crumpled in their pockets, but that was far less exciting). A bizarre rite of passage of the young and privileged that she never understood.
Her daughter once casually mentioned she’d tossed a bra up there as a teenager, which she immediately followed with, ‘What? Everybody does it.’ Kristen had felt a pang of envy then, a momentary desire to be as brave as her daughter, a woman who could fling lingerie onto trees with abandon. She had never been a woman like that, even before going flat.
“I swear, if they don’t replace this old hunk of junk lift soon…” James’ threat faded to a mumble.
That was a habit he had developed recently. He mumbled half a sentence and let it taper off unfinished.
“It’ll start up as soon as you stop complaining about it,” she said.
The lift had only been stopped for about a minute, but time seemed to drag by with her legs dangling heavy in the air and the wind biting at her cheeks. She pulled her fleece neck-warmer up and tucked it under her goggles to protect her face. The fleece quickly became matted with her spit; wet tufts of pink fluff stuck to her lips and tongue.
The cogs at the top of the tower ground slowly into gear and the lift sputtered back into action. She moved quickly. She tucked her gloves between her knees while she pulled her arms inside her jacket, sweater, and long-sleeved t-shirt, like a turtle withdrawing into its shell. James said something, but she couldn’t hear, shrugged into her jacket and sweater as she was. He might have asked what she was doing, as if it weren’t clear.
They were almost past the tree. Her elbow got stuck for a second or two and she nearly missed her chance, but, just in time, she pulled her white cotton post-mastectomy bra out of her sleeve and tossed it into the branches with the others—inserts falling to the trail below—a white flag waving, perhaps surrendering, but to what.
* * *
Erika Nichols-Frazer is the author of the essay collection Feed Me (Holbrook House, 2022) and the editor of A Tether to This World (Main Street Rag, 2021), an anthology of mental health recovery stories. She has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her work has been published in Lunate, Bloodroot, Red Tree Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Vermont and can be found at http://www.nicholsfrazer.com.