The mountain sits in the middle of town. It has always been there. It will always be there. You pass by the mountain on your way to work, on your way to the store, on your way to drop the kids off at school.
At the supermarket, in the frozen-foods aisle, you run into your next-door neighbour. “Have you gone up the mountain today?” you ask her.
“Not today,” she says.
She grins a tight grin and gives the sort of shrug people always give when they haven’t gone up the mountain. It’s the same shrug they give when you ask about their new elliptical or how the diet is going or if they ever signed up for those night classes that were going to turn their life around. You open the freezer door and take out a stack of lasagna dinners.
Your neighbour says, “Have you gone up the mountain today?”
You grin and shake your head and shrug.
“I’m really hoping to go up tomorrow,” you say.
Your neighbour opens the freezer door and pulls out a stack of frozen dinners. Hm. Spicy Thai. Does that make her more interesting than you? More zesty? You pretend to take great interest in the frozen corn, and when your neighbour leaves, you trade one of your lasagnas for a Thai dinner.
On your drive home from the supermarket, you glance up at the mountain. There it is, off to your left, where it always is. You think to yourself, It’s the mountain’s fault I never go up the mountain. If the mountain were a limited-time sort of thing, you would make time for it. You would find the time. But the mountain is always there. It is never not there. So, in terms of priorities, it always gets bumped. Anyway, maybe today’s not the day. You feel too . . . something. Too blah. Maybe when you feel less blah, you’ll go up the mountain. What’s the rush? The point of the mountain is not to rush the mountain. You remember reading that somewhere.
“Let’s watch our show tonight,” you say to your husband when you get in.
“I’ve been thinking about our show all day,” says your husband.
“Me too,” you say.
You smile at each other as your dinners thaw.
“I love our show,” you say.
“What’s with the Thai dinner?” says your husband.
“Oh,” you say, “I thought I’d try something new.”
“Wow. I thought you hated spice.”
“No, I love spice.”
You sit down with your husband to watch your show. It begins with the two of you waking up and follows you throughout your days. The show people have added funny commentary and sound effects. There’s a slow-motion replay of Cynthia from HR spilling her coffee on her brand-new blouse. Oh my god, you think to yourself, that was hilarious. You watch your husband’s reaction. He thinks it’s hilarious.
“Oh man, that’s hilarious,” he says. “That must have been hilarious in real life.”
“Oh man, it was,” you say. “I couldn’t wait to see your reaction. I thought about it the whole drive home.”
That’s what you had been thinking about when you looked out the window and saw the mountain. But you don’t tell him about the mountain.
Later, after you’ve put the kids to bed, after you’ve watched all the shows of all the people you know, or at least the postgame recaps or the trailers, as you lie in the dark with your husband spooning you, you say, “Hey, what do you think about going up the mountain tomorrow?”
Your husband does not respond right away. After a long silence, he says, “Well . . . it’s Saturday . . . I was really hoping to relax . . . ”
“But remember that time we went up the mountain? Remember how relaxing it was?”
“Well . . . but I was going to finally set up the barbecue . . . ”
“Oh, right, the barbecue.”
“And the kids need to be scanned . . . ”
“Oh, right, we were going to get the kids scanned.”
“And the dog needs reindexing . . . ”
“Oh, right, we haven’t reindexed the dog in a while.”
“And our friends Ted and Kiera are streaming their wedding in Cancun, the one we couldn’t make it to . . . ”
“Oh, right, we can’t not watch the live stream of our friends’ wedding in Cancun. I forgot about all those things. The mountain can wait.”
Your husband tightens his arms around you.
“The mountain will wait,” he says.
And the next day, as you drive the kids to the scanning place, you glance out the car window, off to your right, and you notice the mountain there, and you think to yourself, Maybe I can squeeze it in tomorrow.
Oh, wait, but you were going to go for cheesecake with your sister tomorrow at the new cheesecake place, the one with the 3D-printed cheesecakes. The place just opened, and you want to get in and find out all about it before everyone else does so that you can have an opinion.
“Why even bother going up the mountain?”
You look up from your cheesecake. You look at your sister’s face.
“I mean,” she continues, waving her little spoon, “the mountain doesn’t need us to climb it. In fact, I think that if the mountain could talk, it would ask us not to climb it. We just contribute to erosion.”
“The mountain is eroding?”
“Didn’t you know that? Some of the trails are heavily eroded. It’s becoming an issue. So my feeling is, the mountain would prefer us not to climb it, if it could prefer anything. But that’s kind of my point. The mountain doesn’t care. And if the mountain doesn’t care about me, why should I care about it? Relationships are two way.”
“Do you love me or what?” says the cheesecake slice on your sister’s plate.
“I love you,” she says, then digs in with her spoon.
“Why don’t you tell your friends how much you love me?” says the cheesecake.
Your sister stares into space and says, “I love this cheesecake. I love it. Everyone should come here. Five stars out of five. The service is so efficient. I feel pampered.”
You watch your sister spoon up her cheesecake. You look down at your own slice.
“I love my cheesecake,” you say.
But, secretly, you wish you’d gotten the Black Forest.
“And then she said, ‘If the mountain doesn’t care about me, why should I care about it?’”
“What did you say to that?” asks your husband.
“I don’t remember.”
You are sitting together in front of your living-room screen, watching your sister’s show. The show people have edited out the discussion of the mountain. They always edit out the boring parts. On the screen, your sister eats a luxurious spoonful of cheesecake. The shot zooms in. You watch your sister’s mouth open in slow motion. You watch the spoon glide between her lips. The lips close tight. The spoon pulls out, streaked with whipped cream. The shot widens. Your sister looks up and says, “I love this cheesecake.”
“I’ve often thought myself,” says your husband, “that if the mountain expects us to come to it, it should offer some incentive.”
You consider this for a moment. Then you say, “But that’s the thing. The mountain doesn’t care if we come to it or not.”
“No, it doesn’t,” says your husband. He sounds put off.
“The mountain is just there,” you add.
On Monday, it’s your husband’s turn to drive the kids to school and pick up dinner. You watch him hustle them off to his car. You wave from the window. Your rooibos has steeped. You take out the tea bag. You are in the kitchen, at the screen set into the granite counter, watching everyone’s weekend summary at double speed. You don’t need to leave for work for another hour, and you’re already dressed and ready to step out the door. A whole hour just for you. An hour of well-earned downtime. You sigh and sip your rooibos. You glance out the window at the mountain, and you try to remember when you last went up. When was that? Weeks ago. Months, maybe. You can’t remember. You look at the clock on the microwave. You look at the clock on the countertop screen. The microwave clock is three minutes fast. It’s always gaining time. You feel like you just reset it last week. Maybe you should buy a new microwave.
You get up from the counter stool and poke at the microwave’s settings buttons. You poke at the clock button, then the timer button to reset the minutes. You have to push the minute button repeatedly to advance the minutes; you can’t just push and hold, not with this clock. So you push and push. You push and push and push. Oops, you pushed too many times. One minute too many. You can’t go backwards, not with this clock. You can only push the minutes forward. You have pushed them too far, so now you have to push again. Push, push, push. Maybe you should set the clock a few minutes early so that you won’t have to reset it for a while. Yes, that makes sense. How early should you set it? Not too early. If you set it too early, everyone in the kitchen will fall out of sync. Five minutes early seems like too much. Five minutes is a meaningful unit of time. Set it three minutes early. That’s a negligible amount. That’s a rounding error. People can live with a three-minute time displacement. Lives will not be lost.
You set the clock three minutes early and sit down again at the kitchen screen. You glance at the mountain. It’s a small mountain. Ten minutes to the summit, that’s all it takes. Ten minutes up, ten minutes down. Twenty minutes total. It’s not really a mountain. It’s more of a hill. But it looks like a mountain. There’s snow on the peak, somehow, though it isn’t cold up there. You remember that the peak is warm, despite the snow. Not hot, but pleasant. Perfectly comfortable. You could wear what you’re wearing. You could go up right now. It’s a five-minute walk to the mountain. No matter where you are in town, it’s a five-minute walk to the mountain, like magic. Then ten minutes up. You only have to stay on the peak for a second. One second, that’s all it takes. Then ten minutes down. Then five minutes back to wherever you started from. So five plus ten plus ten plus five. So thirty minutes total. Plus one second on the peak. Thirty minutes and one second. Surely you can carve out thirty minutes and one second in your day. Surely you can find the time. Of course, you don’t have to spend only one second on the peak. You can stay as long as you like. You can stay forever. Well, not really—because there’s work and groceries and driving the kids to school. And all the other things. Remember the last time you went up the mountain? You went with your husband, which was nice. Getting him to go up the mountain was like pulling teeth. All of the teeth. All of your teeth and then all of his. No easy task. But the two of you found some time and went up there and stood together in the snow, and you turned to your husband and said, “It’s so peaceful up here. We should do this more often. Why don’t we do this more often?”
You notice the time. How did that happen? It’s time to leave for work. You see that Cynthia from HR has gotten the coffee stain out. She is triumphant on your screen, modelling her stain-free blouse.
“It took me all weekend,” she says, aglow.
You turn off the screen and run out the door. Your neighbour is also running out her door. You both head for your cars, which are parked in your parallel driveways.
“Did you manage to get up the mountain?” she asks as she opens her car door.
You grin and shrug.
“Maybe tomorrow,” you say as you get in your car.
You pull out. You glance up at the mountain. The last time you went up, you remember your husband got a look on his face. He didn’t say it out loud, but his look seemed to say, This is always here? I can’t believe this is always here. You wish you could replay that day, go back and see the look on his face, but the show people always edit out what happens on the mountain. You remember a tiny snowflake landed on his cheek. It was a perfectly formed snowflake, the really rare kind, so symmetrical and intricate that you just wanted to take a picture. But you didn’t take a picture. The snowflake melted fast, and then it was gone.