The Man on Mount Everest

You are a divorced white female looking for a ghost, looking for an outline. You do not know what you want; you do not know what you need. You only know that you need something different than what you have, and the thought has just dawned upon you this very minute, lying in bed with your ex-husband in the middle of the afternoon, the new heat of summer boxing you in. You can feel this new thought spreading through the wrinkles in your brain. You can feel, too, your ex-husband’s finger twitch on your upturned palm as he dozes. It reminds you of a telegraph. You wonder what the message reads, who it’s from.

Your ex-husband’s knees are bent, tenting your sheets away from the wet sex on his body, a gesture you find oddly charming.

And now you are thinking of the man you read about last night while you pushed an Ambien from one cheek to the other with your tongue, the man who slipped into a coma and was left for dead near the summit of Mount Everest. You stare at your ceiling and it stretches away from you, rises into the air and becomes indistinguishable from the thin, white sky. You think about this man who was abandoned in the snow and left to die alone and how he was discovered by climbers the next morning near dawn, very much alive, sitting on the precipice of a 10,000 foot drop, swinging his legs over the edge like a child’s. “You must be surprised to find me here,” he said. He had stripped his snowsuit to the waist, removed his gloves, his hat, his goggles. His swollen brain pressed tight against the inside of his skull.

Your ex-husband has left the bed. You hear him moving around in the hallway. He opens the door to the room where your 13 year-old daughter—his daughter—hung herself from her ceiling fan nearly four months ago. He does not go in. Though he’s never offered to patch the hole in the ceiling where the fan eventually pulled free and collapsed with your daughter to the floor, you know he’s thinking about it. You know that that’s something he would consider a productive step towards healing.

The man from Mount Everest survived, you remember. He lost his feet, maybe also his hands. At the very least his fingers. His nose. He said later that he thought he was sitting on the prow of a boat anchored off the coast of Queensland and that he was preparing to dive into the warm Coral Sea.

Your ex-husband is flipping through your records, the ones that you kept when he moved out. He never showed much interest in them before, but now he plays one every time he comes over. You hear songs you haven’t listened to in decades, songs that warm you like embers from deep within the hidden folds of your guts. He’s playing Paul Simon now, “Hearts and Bones.” He’s putting dishes in your dishwasher. You curl up on your side like a prawn, feel the heat of the day, a thin trickle down the back of your thigh. You let yourself feel comforted. You let yourself think, we made one and she was perfect. We could make another just like her. You let the thought dissipate like contrails.

You can hear your ex-husband crying. It’s always the last thing he does before he leaves your house. “What do you tell her,” you asked him once about his new wife. “She must wonder why you come here, why you stay so long.” His answer surprised you. “I tell her we’re in therapy,” he said, smiling. “I tell her things are bad.” You both laughed and you thought, yes, we are in therapy, and yes, things are bad. You didn’t quite know how bad until today, until right now.

You hear your ex-husband leave the house. He starts his car and drives away. You think again about the man on Mount Everest and his beautiful hallucination. No doubt it was his brain’s way of comforting him as his body turned itself off. You let yourself wonder—for a split second, no more—if your daughter’s brain paid her such a courtesy when it became clear that her mistake—her misjudgment, her misguided and childlike idea that nothing could ever be fixed or set right again—was irreversible. And then you wonder if the man ever had a moment, sitting in the snow, gazing out at the uncovered miles he’d have to navigate back to his life, when his brain clicked back on its tracks and he thought about all the things he was surely going to lose along the way, and he considered simply laying back and letting the profound sunshine and the sway of the boat rock him like a baby into something very much resembling sleep. And then you think, no. You think, of course not. After all, he still had his wife. He still had his children.  

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