The Cloud Climber
The night before Cindy and Bruce moved to Reno, their friends toasted them on the patio of their Long Beach bungalow with plastic cups of Prosecco. Take-out containers littered the picnic table, refried beans crusting inside.
“Here’s to clouds,” said Bruce, who was going to be studying them at UNR. Not just studying them, but seeding them, a process Cindy didn’t fully understand. She envisioned him floating underneath a parachute, dropping seeds—little transparent teardops, like cucumber seeds—into puffs of mist.
“Here’s to the Biggest Little City on Earth,” said Cindy’s friend Robin. She had made a sheet cake festooned with the iconic Reno arch in red frosting, hard sugar letters spelling out CINDY + BRUCE DO RENO following its curve. Cindy was eager to try the cake even though the chile rellenos from Alberto’s sat in her stomach like lead.
“Here’s to the easiest state to get a divorce!” their friend George joked, raising his cup, and Robin smacked his arm so hard, half his Prosecco flew into the gravel. Cindy and Bruce just laughed and kissed. They had only been married two years. Divorce seemed unlikely as a trip to Mars.
Five months into their stay in Reno, Cindy found herself eyeing billboards and window signs for divorce attorneys, filing some of the easier-to-remember numbers away in her head. Reno wasn’t the problem. She was surprisingly impressed by Reno—its big skies, its range of restaurants, its great bookstore housed in an old mansion, its easy to read personalized license plates (things like POOCHIE and CUISINE, so refreshing after the brain scramble of Southern California vanity plates). Not to mention its proximity to Lake Tahoe. She and Bruce drove up to Tahoe their first weekend in town, the weekend before he started his PhD program in Atmospheric Studies. She couldn’t believe they were so close to such aggressive beauty. Those trees! That expanse! All those shades of blue! She felt something open in her head, open in her chest, as she stood in the water, bracingly cold even on that hot August day. The sand glittered—truly glittered—around her numb feet, and she took that to be a sign, a sign their future here would sparkle.
But then Bruce started his classes, his research—his first time back in school in 10 years—and if he wasn’t busy, he was stressed, and if he wasn’t stressed, he was asleep. He didn’t have time to talk; he shied away from her touch; he spent every spare moment at the lab or the library—the Knowledge Center, as it was called on campus, where a robotic system called MARS retrieved his books. And maybe it would have been okay if their Tercel was working and she could really explore the area, if she could go up to Tahoe again on her own, but the engine had conked out after their trip back down Mt. Rose Highway and they couldn’t afford to fix it with Bruce’s pittance of a stipend. She was limited to her bike and public transportation, and stayed within a tight radius.
“You should make friends—they could drive you places,” Bruce told her when she complained—he would get rides from his colleagues to field work sites—but she didn’t want to make friends. She barely kept in touch with her friends from Long Beach. Robin texted her every once in a while, but Cindy didn’t know what to tell her; she usually just texted things back like “super busy. talk later. life’s good,” then watched another episode of Law and Order.
On a whim, she applied for a job at a cupcake place in Midtown, and got it, part time. In Long Beach, she had been a copyeditor for a motorcycle magazine, a job she had never quite warmed to. Motorcycles intimidated her and she was offended by the pictures of bikinied women straddling the choppers, but it was a job. She thought a bake shop would be a refreshing change of pace—how could she not be happy around all that sugar?—but as she watched moms in yoga pants pick at their paleo treats while their kids gorged on heaps of buttercream, she felt more depressed than ever. Even cupcakes for lunch didn’t help.
After work, she would ride her bike around the neighborhood before heading back to graduate housing on campus. She took her time; no need to rush back to an empty apartment. She tried new streets every day—her way of doing something positive, she told herself, of getting to know Reno, and it was how she discovered the food co-op and the taxidermy shop and the park along the Truckee River. She always felt both creeped out and intrigued when she went past the large, faux-Grecian gentleman’s club next to the mini-mall where she worked. A tall, Soviet-looking hotel loomed directly behind it; a brothel, she assumed, but never saw anyone going in or coming out. Maybe the place didn’t open until after her shift. Maybe there was a secret entrance in the back. What would it be like to work there, she wondered, to have sex with strangers? Would they even hire her if she applied, or would they say she was too old at 33, too heavy around the middle? She and Bruce hadn’t had sex in weeks. The next time they did, it would probably be like having sex with a stranger. How had he become a stranger so quickly? When she first met him, it felt as if she had known him all her life.
Cindy pumped the pedals harder as she neared the low gold geodesic dome of the Pioneer Center; it reminded her of a glam, sci-fi helmet. She wished she could wear something like it, one if its points plunging down her forehead like a widow’s peak, instead of the scuffed blue helmet Bruce insisted she wear. At least he cared about her brain.
She pedaled toward the Discovery Museum, then paused; she had passed it often, but had never gone in, figuring it was a place for kids. This time, the word Discovery, splayed across the glass building in large blue letters, beckoned.
The museum was roaring with children—the din grew louder as she walked from the ticket counter to the main part of the building, centered around an atrium that featured a giant climbing structure starting one floor below and reaching another 20 feet above her; it looked like a giant, irregular white pine cone caged by a web of cables. The whole thing was teeming with kids, like an ant farm, so many little bodies clambering up the pinecone’s wavy scales, a few intrepid grownups joining them. She looked at the kids sitting at the very top, and her stomach lurched—if she were a mom, she would probably faint to see her kid up so high.
“It’s the Cloud Climber,” a voice said into her ear. She turned around and found herself chest to chest with a young man. They were the same height; his eyes, inches from her own, were a startling green, flecked with gold. He smelled like hazelnut-spiked coffee; when he exhaled, she could taste it on her lips.
“Excuse me?” she asked as they both stepped back. The railing pressed against her spine; she felt momentarily dizzy, imagining herself tipping backwards over the edge.
“It’s called the Cloud Climber,” he said again. From here, she could see his head was shaved close on one side, dark hair swooping over to the other side like a wing. He wore an orange Discovery apron over his striped t-shirt. His tan arms glowed. He was probably in his early twenties. “It’s supposed to represent the water cycle. Evaporation and all that.” What she had thought were pinecone scales were individual clouds, the structure a whole cyclone of them.
Cindy was about to say “My husband studies clouds,” but something stopped her.
The guy walked away, humming a song to himself. The front of her body still felt hot from brushing against his. Hot and buzzing, like the air in front of an old tv.
A stream of kids emerged from the Cloud Climber just as she stepped onto the lower level—a school group; a teacher called the names of the stragglers, and everyone lined up against the wall. As soon as they marched off, a lovely silence descended over the room. Cindy felt like she could breathe more fully. She looked up into the Cloud Climber; dare she give it a try? She poked her head inside—the elongated cloud platforms were a few inches thick, covered with a speckled blue sort of rubber. The clouds overlapped at their tips, spiraling upward; a lot of them seemed too close together for an adult to squeeze through. A wave of claustrophobia hit her gut and she decided not to risk it. She walked over to a sign on the wall: “Pretend you’re a drop of water as you climb through the water cycle.” She felt too solid to imagine her body that small, that fluid.
A waterway threaded around the room in a channel about knee heigh, colorful plastic balls and wooden boats bobbing along its current. Another sign on the wall said it was supposed to be the Truckee River, starting in Lake Tahoe on one end of the room and emptying into Pyramid Lake on the other. She was tickled to see that the bottom of the Tahoe model sparkled, just like the real thing.
The guy from upstairs wandered by with a mop to clean up all the water that kids had splashed onto the floor.
“Hey!” she called out. “Do you know what makes the lake sparkle?”
He wandered over and peered inside. “Looks like glitter to me,” he said.
She laughed. “I mean the actual lake.”
“Oh, that,” he grinned. “That’s fool’s gold.”
Fool’s gold. Of course. She had thought she was looking at something real in the lake, something magic, something that foretold a bright future. What a fool.
“You go up to Tahoe much?” he asked.
“Just once,” she said.
“Just once?” he asked, incredulous. “We gotta change that.” He winked and walked away with his mop, humming again. Cindy sucked her lips into her mouth and let hazelnut flood through her.
That night, when Bruce came home, Cindy told him “There’s a Cloud Climber at the Discovery Museum.”
“A what?” He looked exhausted.
“A climbing structure that teaches kids about clouds. The clouds are hard, though.”
“Hard clouds.” He shook his head, took off his shoes, and fell asleep in his clothes.
Cindy rode over to the Discovery Museum after work again the next day. Almost all the cars she passed seemed to have plates related to Tahoe: TAHO JOE, SF 2 LT, SKITAHOE. If she couldn’t go to Lake Tahoe, she told herself, at least she could visit it in miniature. She wondered if the hazelnut guy was serious when he said “We gotta change that.” Did “we” mean he was offering to take her to the lake? Bruce had told her to find a friend who could give her rides, right? She tried to ignore the buzzing in her body, the sweetness in her mouth.
She hovered near the sparkly water, breathing in its chlorine scent, on edge with anticipation until he came by with his mop. Today, he smelled more like nutmeg. Nutmeg and cardamom, maybe, but she wasn’t close enough to tell for sure.
“Back again, I see,” he said, pushing water toward the drain in the floor. The fact that he remembered her made her blood glitter like the lake.
Before she could answer, he said “Hey! Are you doing anything tonight?”
Her heart started to race. Was he asking her out? She slipped her hands behind her back so he wouldn’t see her wedding ring.
“We’re having this gala fundraiser thing here and some volunteers bailed—we could use some extra help.”
“Oh,” she said, disappointed and excited at once.
“Wear something black and be here by 7.” He pushed his mop again, water sheeting toward the drain.
What Cindy called her “little black dress” was actually a t-shirt dress she occasionally used as a nightgown, but with black tights and black pumps, it looked fancy enough. She stuffed herself into Spanx and added a thin belt around her waist after she took a side look at herself in the mirror and saw the dress billowed out in a way that made her look pregnant. She put on lipstick, a rare occurrence, and mascara, even rarer. She swept her hair into a twist. She texted a picture of herself to Bruce, trying to look seductive. He wrote back “In class.” She sighed and hopped on her bike, hoping she wouldn’t get too sweaty on the ride. She left her helmet at home. Let Bruce find it. Let him fear for her brain.
The party turned out to be a fundraiser for an arts organization. People were in costumes that appeared to be a mix of Renaissance and goth garb, lots of women in giant lacy skirts; lots of men in tight, high-waisted red and black striped pants, everyone wearing bird and fox masks. Some of them were crawling through the Cloud Climber, making it look like some sort of dream-scape birdcage. The live music—accordion, stand up bass and snare drum—only added to that effect. Hazelnut guy was manning the bar, passing out bourbon and champagne and some sort of green cocktail with gold flakes suspended inside that reminded her of his eyes. He was wearing a bird mask, too, but she could tell it was him. She walked up to the bar and he handed her one of the green drinks.
“That’s real gold,” he told her. “24 karat, baby.” She took a swig—she had no idea what was in it, but it was delicious, herbaceous. He raised his own glass, then directed her to a room where she could pick up trays of appetizers to pass around.
The museum was trashed by the end of the night—cups and napkins and greasy plates everywhere. The other volunteers helped clean up, but one by one, they bowed out, citing babysitters that needed to be relieved, early meetings the next morning, sciatica.
After everyone else had left, hazelnut guy—she still hadn’t learned his name—said “I heard someone spilled champagne in the Cloud Climber. Want to help me clean up?” The mask had left red grooves around his eyes.
She looked up at the Cloud Climber. It seemed to waver slightly, the clouds drifting to the left. She had had two of the green drinks at this point, a flute and a half of champagne, a shot of bourbon. She hadn’t had this much to drink in years, but he had handed her something new whenever she walked by with a fresh tray of short ribs or crostini.
“I don’t know,” she said, feeling dizzy.
“Come on.” He grabbed her hand and led her to the entrance. The two of them crawled inside. The rubber was surprisingly giving on her knees, even though it was firm, not squishy. She followed him up the structure, having to duck more between certain clouds than others.
When they were about halfway to the top, hazelnut guy turned and kissed her. She didn’t expect it, not right then, even though she had kind of been hoping it would happen. His lips were warm and soft and open, and her whole body followed suit. The two of them melted to the ground and she felt herself melting, too, her edges blurry. His hand slid up her dress.
“What’s this?” he asked, snapping the elastic on her thigh.
“Spanx,” she said, embarrassed, quickly congealing back into her form, her bones, all the flesh she tried to hide.
“If that’s what you’re into,” he said and smacked the side of her ass so hard, she felt instantly sober. What was she doing? She scootched away from him on her back, and he followed, thinking she was being playful, moving himself forward by his arms. She inched backward through a narrow space between clouds and he burrowed in, too, right on top of her. She tried to keep moving, but she realized she was stuck. They were stuck. Sandwiched between clouds, his weight pressing into her. At least her head and arms were out on the other side, his head smashed into her collarbone.
“Can you move?” he asked, his voice muffled against her skin.
She tried. She tried and she tried and she tried, but she couldn’t budge. “No,” she said. “Can you?”
He shifted his body back and forth a tiny bit, like a timid hump. At this point, she didn’t want him to hump her at all; she didn’t want him near her at all. This guy whose name she didn’t know, whose breath smelled like booze and kimchi now, this guy who said, simply, “Shit.”
“What do we do?” she asked, panic mounting inside of her chest. She started to feel short of breath. She tried to take a deeper inhale but she couldn’t—he was mashed against her ribs. He murmured something she couldn’t make out, then started to snore.
“Are you kidding me?” she shouted, then yelled “Help! Help!” but no one was there.
When her phone, tucked into the side of her bra, buzzed, at first she thought it was one of his snores, but then it buzzed again, that unmistakable jolt. She contorted an arm to fish the phone out.
A text from Bruce: “You look amazing, babe. Where are you?”
Adrenalin shot through her; she hoped it would propel her out from under the guy, out from between these clouds, but all it did was make her limbs feel more restless, more trapped. She smacked the top of the guy’s head a couple of times, but he didn’t stir. His drool slid between her breasts. She wanted to claw herself out of her own skin.
She remembered the sign: “Pretend you’re a drop of water as you climb through the water cycle.” Her face went numb as hyperventilation set in.
“I’m a drop of water,” she told herself, starting to pant, “I’m a fucking drop of water,” as she swiped her phone to call her husband, wishing she could evaporate, dissipate, wishing she could rise and rise until she was cirrus, cumulus, cumulonimbus, any cloud that forms within unstable air.
Gayle Brandeis is the author of The Art of Misdiagnosis (memoir), The Selfless Bliss of the Body (poems), Fruitflesh (writing craft), and several novels. Her novel in poems, Many Restless Concerns, was published in February 2020. She teaches at Sierra Nevada College and Antioch University