We drove up the snowy, winding road towards the cozy A-frame cabin. Our rented Subaru lurched up the final incline and we parked at the end of the plowed driveway.
“Looks perfect,” Brian said gently.
“Mhmm,” was all I could muster at the moment.
A couple of hours before, we’d landed at Burlington airport for our long weekend getaway from the pressure of life within the Beltway. My parents were watching our son, Nick, while Brian and I spent three days skiing and snowshoeing in the wilderness, hoping to recuperate from the stress of the fall.
When we got to the luggage carousel, a few bags were already beginning to circulate. I yawned, watching a few more cascade down the ramp onto the belt.
“You want to go get a coffee? I’ll wait for the bags,” Brian offered. I had risen at 5:00 that Friday morning to finish packing, get Nick off to second grade, and work a half day before we set off.
“Sure,” I said, “Flat white?”
He nodded, “thanks.”
When I returned with the coffees, Brian was standing where I’d left him with his suitcase and some of the ski equipment.
“That’s it?” I handed him his coffee.
“So far,” he replied, scanning the line of luggage. The carousel became increasingly sparse. The crowd was thinning— more and more people walking away with their bags.
Another fifteen minutes passed. Brian checked his phone while I shifted anxiously from foot to foot and paced. Eventually the empty belt came to a halt. I felt a rising sense of panic.
“Where’s my bag?” I cried. “How could half of our stuff be here?”
We spoke to an agent and learned that some luggage from our flight and another that had left DC around the same time had been mishandled and ended up in Puerto Rico.
I thought of the weekend we’d been planning for months: we had lift tickets at the mountain Saturday and plans to snowshoe Sunday. We had reservations at The Uncommon Man, a classic and renowned local restaurant Saturday night. We loved to get beers at the lodge after skiing and to peruse the local shops. Brian was unaware of the lingerie I had packed in hopes of rekindling some kind of passion in our marriage that had felt cold under recent stresses. I would have none of the warm clothes or equipment I had so carefully planned and packed, no clean underwear, let alone lingerie, and worst of all, my skincare and makeup was all gone for the weekend, maybe longer.
It was the crack of a beam that woke me that night. The sound still echoes in my memory six years later. Brian and I sprung up in shock as a wall of our bedroom collapsed into a pile of roaring ash. We leapt out of bed, too shocked and petrified to even scream. Around us, the house we’d recently renovated in the Virginia mountains was erupting in flame. There was no time to think. I was the first to reach Nick’s nursery, the room next to ours and scoop him up. He was unharmed but writhing with fear, bundled in his footed pajamas. I crashed back into Brian who was trying to follow me in the hall. He turned and ran down the stairs through a cloud of pouring smoke and straight out the front door. I was right behind him, it seemed, clutching Nick to my chest, pressing his little screaming face hard into my nightshirt. But in the difference of those few seconds, the landscape changed. Fire suddenly engulfed the bottom of the stairs. There was no means of escape behind me. I had no choice but to go through. There was no hesitation but the moment felt painfully slow to me. I shoved Nick under my shirt and ran as fast as I could, bursting through the opening where the front door was and collapsing on the front lawn with Brian. I have a brief memory of seeing the stars in the black sky above us before I passed out.
The months before my hair grew back were the worst. I wore scarves and hats but they made me feel like a cancer patient. I was not ill, but I was still physically and emotionally trying to recover. I’d been separated from my baby during a two month hospital stay, undergone blood transfusions and skin grafts that left rectangular scars on my inner thighs where the healthy skin was harvested. Eventually the patches filled in and I felt like I could call it a hairstyle. The patient plastic surgeon finally convinced me to let him graft my eyebrows back which felt gruesome at the time but helped to restore my appearance. But the scars linger.
The years pass and the scarring lightens slightly, becomes a bit less pronounced, but nothing could convince me to like the way I looked at myself. The vision of my face, marbled by scar tissue, did not feel like my reflection. Makeup helped, but even with it, I still felt people’s eyes on my face everywhere I went.
Brian and I brought the bags we did have into the cabin and turned on the lights. The place looked cozy and pleasant enough. We lit a fire in the fireplace and made ourselves comfortable. It was not the evening in with my husband that I dreaded. But the thought of washing my face tonight, having none of my medicated scar cream to use, and then having to go out in public without makeup, sent a pang of anxiety through my chest.
I connected to the cabin’s wifi so I could search what was around. No pharmacies or stores nearby. We sat on a secluded mountainside. I resigned myself to skiing without makeup, where no one would be looking at my face anyway. But I would need to figure something out before our dinner reservation Saturday night.
That night as we got ready for bed, Brian easily tossed his sweater and T shirt on a chair and shed his jeans. I glanced at his unmarked back and shoulders as he undressed. How simple it was for him to bear his skin. He crawled into the bed and picked up his Kindle.
I turned off the bedside light and undressed to my underwear to sleep in.
“You going straight to sleep?” He asked.
My skin felt tight, my limbs cold.
“Yeah,” I sighed, “I’m exhausted.”
He draped an arm over my waist.
“Love you,” like it was uncomplicated.
Saturday morning we rose early and dressed for skiing. I had been wearing my ski jacket and luckily could manage with the rest of the outfit between what I had on and what Brian brought. I’d have to rent equipment. I wished for a balaclava but was happy enough for a scarf and helmet.
Once I was gliding down the slope, the brightness of the glittering snow and weightless sensation obscured my anxieties. At lunchtime we would normally go into the lodge to eat and take a break. We leaned our skis against the rack and climbed up the stairs. I had a hat pulled low over my brow and scarf wrapped up to my nose. I slowed before we approached the door.
“Are you okay?” Brian asked.
I tried to take a deep breath, feeling unable to.
“Caroline, what is it?”
“I’m nervous,” I said softly, tears burning my eyes.
“Babe, don’t be silly,” Brian said. He knew how self-conscious I was about my appearance. “You always look beautiful, and besides, it’s just a ski lodge, no one’s looking.”
His words weren’t as comforting as he intended. My heart pounded when I stepped in and lowered my scarf.
We took a few more runs after lunch and then when we hit the bottom of the mountain road, I directed Brian towards a CVS. I usually used makeup and products more sensitive to my skin concerns, but it would have to do in a pinch. The familiar sense of dread hit me again when we pulled up to a store that was closed throughout the entire weekend.
Back at the cabin, we argued over whether to cancel the reservation.
“Caro, we came all this way and have been looking forward to this ever since you read that article in the Post. We can’t cancel now just because you don’t have your makeup,” I could hear in Brian’s tone the same effort at patience he made when Nick was frustrating him.
“I know it might seem… frivolous to you, but I’ll be so anxious,” my voice was catching in my throat, “I won’t be able to enjoy it.” I imagined a waiter looking into my eyes, studying the topography of my face while I tried to order. “You go,” I told him.
“I’m here because I want to go with you,” he said more gently, putting his arms around me. “Please.”
In the end, I pulled on the same jeans I’d worn yesterday and borrowed a sweater of Brian’s. With no products, makeup, or hair styling tools, getting ready to go to dinner was simple. I showered, brushed my hair and teeth, and found an old hair dryer in a drawer. I glared at my face in the bathroom mirror while drying my hair. It looked and felt leathery after a day of wind and cold with no moisturizer. I turned away.
“Let’s call my parents before we leave and say hi to Nick,” I suggested.
My mother saw who was calling and handed the phone to my son.
“Hi mama!” he chirped.
“Hi baby!” I replied. Six years later, it was still hard to be away from him, especially at night. “Are you having fun with grandma and grandpa?”
“Yup! Are you and daddy in Vertmont?”
“Vermont, Nickie, yes, we are. It’s beautiful here. What are you guys doing?”
“We ordered pizza!” My heart ached to be at home enjoying pizza with the one person who had no idea that my face had ever looked different from this.
After saying our “love yous” and “goodnights” all around, Brian and I drove to the restaurant. He thought he was being considerate, opening the door for me, but it only made me walk in first alone, feeling as though everyone looked up from their table to stare. The whoosh of the door sucked the air out of the room. I could only hear my heart pounding. I looked at the floor and let Brian do the talking.
When the waiter first approached to take our order, I could only clench my fists in my lap and hope Brian would take the hint while I looked down, but he didn’t quite read the message.
“And what would you like, ma’am?” The waiter paused expectantly.
I took a slow breath, looked up and fleetingly met his eyes. I registered slight surprise cross his face but he hid it well.
“I’ll have a glass of the pinot noir and the duck, please.” I said as quickly as I could without sounding strange.
“Excellent. Thank you.” I breathed a sigh of relief as he walked off.
Brian laid his hand on mine.
“Hey, you’re okay,” he whispered, “well done.”
I smiled weakly, my hands clammy.
As the evening went on, I felt a bit of relief. The waiter no longer reacted to my appearance when he returned. Other families enjoyed their meals and were not concerned with me. I sipped my wine, felt my face warm and relax.
“Did I tell you what Nick said the other day when I picked him up from after school?” Brian asked me.
“About the winter musical show?”
“No, no, I must’ve forgotten to tell you, but it was so funny, he goes,” Brian paused for a chuckle, “Dad, guess what? We had chicken fingers at lunch and they were even worse than when you make dinner!”
We both laughed. I noticed the glow of the candle glinting in Brian’s eye and thought it had been a while since we’d shared a genuine laugh. It was good to hear him sound happy.
When we fell into bed that evening, I didn’t worry about my appearance or the lost sexy lingerie. It was natural and unconscious the way we found each other. Although the air in the cabin felt bracing on my face, we were snugly curled under layers of down as we fell asleep.
Sunday, our final day, we strapped into snow shoes and made our way up the mountain behind the cabin. I realized after an hour or so in the woods that I really hadn’t considered how I looked at the start of this day. I didn’t consider seeing other people as we hiked through the crunchy snow and evergreen branches. It was just Brian and me, climbing as long as we could, side by side. He knew what I looked like before, and he knew what I looked like now.
The icy crust of the snow cover crunchy beneath our shoes as we climbed higher and higher.
Around midday, we made it to an outcropping.
“Come here, Caro,” Brian gestured.
I stood beside him and we turned together to survey the view.
Below is the valley expanded, textured with spiky trees, icy patches, and a few smooth snowy clearings. The sun glinted off the crystalline peaks. We exhaled puffs of warm vapor.
“Gorgeous,” I breathed, more to myself than anything.
Brian murmured his assent.
That evening when we returned to the cabin, I stood before the mirror to undress as I readied for a shower. I looked at my face in the mirror and for the first time recognized resilience.