When I first saw Jack, I was standing in the lift line with my brother who’d taken me skiing in Aspen for Christmas break. I was eighteen, a freshman in college. My brother, Artie, was thirty-four and busy with some computer company.
We’d never spent much time together – a few skiing trips, a few backpacking trips, but he’d taken me on this trip because he didn’t have a girlfriend at the time, a rare eclipse. And looking back, I think he was afraid to go by himself, afraid to meet people.
I had never been afraid to meet people, and I had always worshipped my big brother.
It was a sunshiny day with yesterday’s storm and a fresh shipment of skiers unloaded on the slopes, and Jack stood right next to us, shoulder to shoulder with me, talking to another, taller man who had a tan baldhead and big dark glasses. The man saw me looking at them.
“Well,” he said. “You look like a beautiful young girl!”
Jack’s sunglasses were smaller than his friend’s, more penetrable, so I could see the squinting half moons of his eyes when he said, “What the hell would she look like? A building?”
Almost everyone in line, including my brother, laughed out loud. They’d all been pretending not to notice Jack, pretending to be distracted by their jacket zippers and Chapstick lids while secretly hoping for an excuse to pounce, to get “in” with him, quietly intoxicated by his celebrity.
My mother had been in love with Hollywood since she was a girl. When she was ten she’d snuck into the movie theatre “at least ten times” to watch The Red Shoes, and when she was thirteen, when National Velvet came out, her lifelong obsession with Elizabeth Taylor began. As far back as I could remember, Oscar night was the only reliable holiday at our house, my mother shushing me to savour her beloved movie stars – Audrey or Katharine Hepburn, Paul Newman or Robert Redford, and of course, Jack Nicholson. What would the Oscars be without him in the front row?
My mother thirsted for them, to be near them. Though, “it’s not like it used to be,” she’d say. “There just aren’t big stars anymore like there used to be. A big movie star like Judy Garland or Elizabeth Taylor was something special when I was your age. Now…”
I saw Jack from the chairlift the next day, his army green ski suit speeding down the hill. He wasn’t bad, skis parallel, turning in giant slaloms down the steep of the slope. I was almost at the top, and it wasn’t easy to catch up with him, weaving through all those slowpokes traversing the mountain – speeding through them like a star-struck desperado, my blonde hair whipping in my wake, racing toward Jack’s spotlight like a moth.
I’d been skiing since I was four and was fast enough, sailing up behind him just in time for the gondola. There wasn’t a line because it was after 2:PM on New Year’s Eve, and I was still out of breath when the attendant sat us next to each other. Me and Jack. It was a four-seater with couples sitting back to back. And as we lifted off above the trees, the couple behind us snickered and stole looks.
“I think it’s…”
I tried not to stare.
Easy Rider. Chinatown. The Shining.
“Are you skiing with anyone?”
Artie had gone to the other side of the mountain for more difficult terrain.
“Uh-” Jack grumbled. “No.”
I was surprised by how old he looked – thin hair sticking together in wet points, his face a splotchy map of wrinkles.
“You want to ski with me?” I asked.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Terms of Endearment. Jack’s eyebrows shot up into thin, spikey arches, then with a reluctant squint in his eye he said, “If you can keep up.”
If Jack had been the most expert skier alive, I would have kept up with him. I would have flown. Besides, Artie had taught me to keep up with pretty much anyone. What do you mean, you can’t, he’d say. I’d pointed my skis down the icy, black-diamond slopes of Vermont when Artie was twenty six and I was ten. I’m cold, I’d plead with him when the wind chill fell twenty below. That’s funny, he’d say, I feel fine.
It was thanks to him I’d never been much of a complainer. And I wouldn’t have dreamed of complaining to Jack. He didn’t say anything for the rest of the gondola ride, and I worried he’d changed his mind about my tagging along, but when we got to the top, after we heeled into our skis, he said, “Ready?” And I followed him down the hill.
The couple who’d been sitting behind us watched, and I knew they’d talk about me later with their friends – “that girl on the gondola,” but I wanted more. I wanted Jack to adopt me, take me home like a found niece. Your dad’s a fool for letting a daughter like you go.
As I followed his green ski-suit down the hill I imagined how proud and happy my mother would be at Jack’s Thanksgiving dinner table. Maybe she’d match with one of his friends. Jack, I knew, had a nineteen-year-old girlfriend with a new baby cooped up in a cabin somewhere nearby. At least, that’s what I’d heard.
I held back my full downhill power at first because I didn’t want to upstage the guy, but I couldn’t help shooting past Jack on the bumps, and when we stopped he said, “Man, I thought you wouldn’t keep up. But when I saw you on those moguls!”
His tone didn’t sound complimentary, as I remember it now, and I worried I’d already disappointed him.
Before long we came to a lodge that sat at the middle of the mountain where a sweet, burnt smell hung in the woody air, as if they’d just shut down the barbeque, and I followed Jack to the side door where he planted his poles in the snow and took off his gloves. He looked embarrassed, I thought, with nervous, freckled hands, asking me to wait for him.
“You want a lemonade? I have to go talk to some people.” He tossed me a glimmer of eye contact.
“No, thank you,” I said, wishing he’d invite me in with him, introduce me to his friends.
“It’ll only take a minute.” He walked quickly up the wood ramp and disappeared around the corner of the building.
It didn’t occur to me to wonder how often Jack had tolerated star struck tagalongs like myself. I thought I was special, waiting outside for him under the outstretched sky, the rest of the world like a half-muted backdrop – the snow on rocks and trees like sheets on abandoned furniture. Other skiers putting on or taking off their gear appeared distant, like they wouldn’t hear me if I spoke to them. And I didn’t want to speak to them. I didn’t want to meet anyone else. I was with Jack.
Birds whistled, three or four voices. A blue jay swooped down to the roof of the lodge and stood with his feathers erect, as if posing for me, as if sharing the spotlight – a little co-star in the Cinderella movie of my life. I tried to act cool when I saw Jack walking toward me again with his ski hat in one hand and a big white cup in the other. Everyone who saw us would think I was Jack’s friend. And maybe there was a chance he’d invite me to Mezzaluna, the restaurant where I knew he’d booked a party later. I’d heard Jack took LSD every New Year’s Eve. That was before I’d tried it.
“Here ya go. Sorry that took so long.” Jack handed me the lemonade. He’d bought one for us to share, and I thought how cool some people would think it was to touch lips with the same glossy cardboard cup as Jack Nicholson, to possibly share Jack’s saliva – so familial.
We took a few chairlifts up together, talking about movies. Thanks to my mother, I’d seen almost all of them.
“Who do you like?” Jack asked. He meant actors, and it felt like a game show challenge. All at once, my mind went blank like in a cartoon, until finally, after perpetual pregnant seconds, “Robert De Niro” popped out of my mouth. His was the only name that would come to mind. My mother thought De Niro was Great. And I remembered his films. Raging Bull. The Godfather II. Taxi Driver. That was the one I remembered best. His obsessing, his Mohawk, his shooting and blood in the halls at that pimp’s apartment to save Jodie Foster, the fourteen – year – old hooker.
What a relief it was when Jack said, “Bobby’s one of the great ones. One of the only great ones left.”
My mother would have liked that, I thought. This was her conversation, not mine.
Jack offered me a cigarette, Camel Filters. And what billboard advertisement could be more enticing than Jack Nicholson holding the open pack against a backdrop of snow – lit pine trees?
“No, thank you.” I was an aggressive anti – smoker. Not that I’d tell Jack.
“Christ – nobody smokes anymore,” he yelled. “A cigarette in L.A.’s a fucking breath of fresh air!” He shook his head. “All this ‘Just Say No’ crap – Hell! I’ve always smoked. I never wore a condom. And nothing’s been wrong with me. I haven’t been sick a day in my life.”
“Yeah – it’s ridiculous,” I probably said, and then threw in something about smoking weed, so he wouldn’t think I was a square. I’d smoked weed at least ten times.
“Those CAMP assholes – they burned my whole damn crop!”
My mother thought it was crass when anyone said asshole.
“All this Nancy Reagan bullshit!” Jack said. Butane and burning tobacco flooded my nose like car exhaust, then passed, and the cold air quenched my lungs.
We talked a little politics, agreeing we hated the same people. And I thought I sounded intelligent, like I knew what I was talking about when I said, “Reagan killed our healthcare system.” I was good at reciting – a parrot for my social worker single-mom. Not that I disagreed with her, but I only pretended to have political awareness of my own, because sophisticated people, according to my mother, were politically aware, and I wanted to be a sophisticated person.
I wanted her to be proud of me. I just had no idea what that meant.
Leaving for college was like breaking out of an egg. I was idealistic and self-absorbed. Wild and naïve. I believed people were free, like my mother had always told me I was free, to do whatever they wanted with their lives. Only, I missed the “do” part. I believed success would just come to me, that I would shine like a star and my wonderful life would just happen, because I was bound to be adored once everyone had a chance to know me, once they realized how special I was, once they saw how good I was in my heart. And I believed everyone was good in their hearts. I even believed I had a gift for connecting with that goodness in people, especially if it was hard to reach. I had a lot of dangerous beliefs.
I knew meeting Jack was meant to be. I told him how I loved that scene from Five Easy Pieces in the diner where a waitress won’t take an order for toast because toast isn’t on the menu. Jack orders a turkey–melt. Hold the turkey, hold the cheese, hold the lettuce and tomato – hold everything but the damn toast.
“I bring up that scene sometimes in stupid situations.” I hoped he’d be impressed I knew his older work. And I did reference that scene sometimes. I’d just never actually seen the movie. I’d only heard about it from Artie.
There were whiles Jack and I didn’t talk, soaking in the quiet afternoon, the rhythmic crank and squeak of cables taking us up the mountain, sun warm on are faces, hush of skiers below . I followed his giant S down run after run, until finally, just after 4pm, I trailed him to the bottom of the mountain, past the gondola entrance and ski-racks, nearly to the sidewalk where he stopped.
“That’s it for me.” Jack said he was going to take a nap, and I stood there for an awkward moment, irrepressibly expectant, like a puppy waiting for my treat while he dislodged his skis.
He was tired. I remember there was some struggle in it for him, and now I wonder if he was trying to act cool, too. But how ridiculous I must have looked to the Hollywood royalty with my chlorine – bleached hair pouring down my back in sunlit curls and my eighteen-year-old ass springing around in those tight eighties ski pants that were already out of style.
He didn’t invite me anywhere.
I mean, supermodels threw themselves at Jack Nicholson. But we did kiss half on the mouth, the corners of our lips touching before Jack said goodbye, half apologetically.
“It was a pleasure.” He peered at me over the frames of his not-too-dark shades.
Then I watched him disappear into the places-to-go-on-New-Year’s-Eve, Aspen crowd, while the afternoon sun sunk behind the mountain, and a jagged shadow ripped across the Gortex and mink and cobblestones, early dusk separating cottage roofs into sides of gold and grey. I wasn’t too disappointed, I mean not enough to chase after the guy.
But I felt how young I’d looked to Jack with my dreamy Girl Scout eyes. So much younger than his girlfriend looked, I bet. Nineteen – she was just one year older than I was. But even I, a year later, would lament having met Jack too soon – still dreaming we could have been friends, if only I’d smoked.
That day, I would have been shocked to see a clip of my future life, to know the choices I’d soon make or the consequences I’d pay for them. At eighteen, I imagined a red carpet already unfurled in my direction. It was just a matter of time before it arrived. My mother had even named me to be famous.
“You can go by your middle name,” she’d say. “Christy Leigh.” She thought it sounded glamorous, like Vivian Leigh, or Janet Leigh. I thought it sounded like a stripper name, or a porn star. She was angry, acted angry for years about the cigarettes and condoms remark. I can’t believe he’d say something so irresponsible to a young girl, she said a dozen times when we were alone together. But she never missed an opportunity to quip about Jack at cocktail parties – half pie-eyed, her arm squeezing my waist like a bunch of cut flowers.
“Christy was so charming and together, and just perfect,” she’d say. “Until she met Jack Nicholson.”
As if he was the start of everything.
Christy Shick teaches at San Francisco State University, with an MFA in Creative Writing from City College of New York. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, most recently Barely South Review and Six Hens literary magazine. In 2017, she won the Norton Girault Literary Prize for Creative Nonfiction from Old Dominion University. “The Start of Everything” is an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir, Big Bird.