1/10 of a month in the country

Maybe a weekend in the country seems like such fertile ground for drama because with such a definite sense of beginning and ending it seems like there should be some sort of narrative arc connecting them. An old friend invited me for the weekend to a house in Steamboat that his girlfriend’s sister had had rented for her 18th birthday, but two seconds after entering the door I was already afraid that coming had been a mistake. My friend and his lady companion had already locked themselves behind a basement door and I was left with her two sisters, who were only not complete strangers in the sense that friends-of-friends’ bodies are probably usually familiar with each other’s pathogens.

The atmosphere was already dangerously askew. Would I even see my friend at all for the next two days, or would he just peace off to his basement Hades with his willing Persephone, abandoning me to two days of the barren winter of really awkward conversations with strangers? Fortunately it didn’t turn out that way, since the two sisters turned out to be as smart and vivacious in a sort of acidic way as the girlfriend, and in fact in general their voices and mannerisms were so similar to each other and hers that, as with siblings is sometimes the case, talking to them basically felt like an extension of my relationship to her minus any shared experiences or knowledge.

A couple of hours later we went off to a rodeo, where the announcer claimed that the guy with the sparkly American flag shirt beating a horse with a whip until it bowed down to him, then got up on a little pedestal and chased its own tail around in a circle symbolized the perfect working of American democracy, which I suppose after all it did. Six years of continuous living in the eastern U.S., Paris and China almost convinced me that I’m a real Westerner, and maybe I am, since that whole spectacle had the alienating effect of two magnets with the same charge coming together.

The next day the weekend got completely T-boned by one of the sister’s boyfriends, who the others definitely didn’t approve of, showing up on short notice. He was supposed to arrive at mid-day but was late, so we left her to wait for him and set off to go swimming as the sky was thickening into rain clouds. Within an hour of arriving at the pool rain was pouring down, but we stayed, since the girls weren’t going to let such untoward events make them abandon the outing. So naturally when we got home they tried to make conversation with “the dude,” as they called him, but now, with two couples, one of which only semi-welcome, out of six people, the gravitational fields had become definitely unbalanced, with random areas of the house becoming off-limits at a moment’s notice, like the highways being repaired in the summer, and no one satisfied with each other’s respect for etiquette in this regard. It left me alone a lot with the similarly unpaired youngest sister, whose birthday celebration the whole thing was supposed to be after all. I wondered whether I should be making a move on her or something, for the sake of symmetry as much as anything else. The whole mood was threatening to go all Chekhov at any moment, tipping from anticipation into regret before the weekend was even over, confrontations slipping away or left hanging in the air just because they were too tiring.

But the next day came at last, with a long early-morning horse-back ride north of town. The countryside was extraordinary: a wide valley under a rich blue sky, surrounded by a mixture of rounded and jagged mountains covered with the delectable white parchment bark of aspen trees which, all being connected underground into one super-organism, had a beautiful but disturbingly homogeneous appearance and, unlike most of the evergreen trees around, hadn’t been killed off by the current plague of pine beetles. So the forest appears to be going the same way as the rest of America at the moment, since under assault the ones that herd together in a clump are surviving. I sometimes think people are like aspen trees: an invisible subterranean mass of connections that only poke above-ground into the definite forms in which we see and hear them at the moments we run into them, and thrust up in other, similar forms at different moments. Maybe the price of being a perpetual traveler is never to be around long enough to get a reckoning of the totality, like I’m just channel-surfing other people’s lives.

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