This week, a new Maggie Shipstead story at Virginia Quarterly Review explores love, infidelity, and the ways life can slip from under your feet like an avalanche. Bonus: there is also a literal avalanche. The story, “Backcountry,” follows a twenty-five-year-old ski instructor named Ingrid (#1 baby name for future ski instructors) who meets a fifty-plus-year-old married (he tells Ingrid he’s divorced) man with big dreams of building a ski resort on a nearby mountain. The man, Richie, invites her back to his extremely fancy and isolated house, the only current structure on said mountain, and Ingrid ends up living there for several months because she is young and free-spirited and why not? When she learns Richie is in fact still married, Ingrid is unfazed.
By the time he confessed he wasn’t divorced but separated, from a woman who lived in the nearest town, called Witching, Ingrid had not only given up her ski-school job but had started to think of herself as someone whose plates should be warmed in a drawer, who should be able to open a set of French doors and step out into killer backcountry. He seemed surprised by how little she cared about his bombshell. Your marriage is your responsibility, she told him. It doesn’t have anything to do with me.
Ingrid is, at this point in her life, caught in the prideful stage at the confluence of beauty and youth, when you are both an adult with the freedom to make your own decisions and also at the peak of your physical fitness and beauty (by some standards), and with this can come a naïve sense of untouchability, even immortality. This heady combination can lead you to take risks, to believe yourself above the reach of messy divorces and being cheated on even while you are the live-in girlfriend of a married man, the proof of the lie itself. So Ingrid lives in Richie’s ski-in, ski-out house with its antler chandeliers, uses his wife’s abandoned tampons, and performs the nubile vixen. She is not in love with Richie; she is in fact silently contemptuous of Richie’s age, played-up swagger, and grandiose dreams. But she is content with him for now.
When Richie’s wife appears outside the house on a snow mobile, throwing rocks at the house and screaming, she is not what Ingrid expected:
Ingrid had imagined Richie’s wife in various incarnations—mousy, sexy, rugged, frumpy—but always as a woman, whole and recognizable as such, not as anything like this bewildering being. The skin of her face resembled papier-mâché not yet completely dry, rippled and rutted with long, tender pink ladders showing where she had been sewn together, all of it off-kilter, pulling down to the left… She looked at Ingrid. “You don’t belong here,” she said. “This isn’t your place.”
The wife, Adelaide, had been mauled by a mountain lion, which she amazingly fought off herself, saving her own life, but the attack left her permanently disfigured. It was after this that Richie left her, although he claims things were wrong between them beforehand, a thin façade to make his reasoning not entirely craven. As Ingrid watches from the floor-to-ceiling windows while Adelaide argues with Richie in the snow, she pities Adelaide.
Poor Adelaide. No matter how ferociously she insulted or berated him, how eloquently she denounced his disloyalty, how incisively she exposed the futile vampirism of his horniness (he would still die one day, no matter how young his lovers), she was helpless to make him feel the shame she thought would balance out her suffering.
Ingrid resolved never to be so powerless. It did not occur to her that such resolutions are in vain, that destruction is built into love as fundamentally as into atoms of uranium.
“Backcountry” does not end here. There is a disappearance, Search and Rescue, an avalanche, and a twenty-year jump into the future. Shipstead effortlessly harnesses all the moving parts of this expansive story with her elegant and restrained prose, and the result is a concentrated and beautifully written reflection on youthful naiveté, the disappointments of age, and the constant tug of lust. The snowy mountain on which much of the story is set serves as a quiet metaphor beneath the story, a reminder that like its snowy slopes, our planned lives that appear so smooth and stable are often only lightly packed together, and a shift in one small part can bring down the whole.
She didn’t think the impulse to be wild, if you had it, could ever really be purged. You tamped it down and let your life settle on top.
Logo art by Max Winter.