As promised, every two weeks (until I catch up to the work in progress), I’ll include a chapter, in sequence, of my novel-in-progress, The Forever Game. What follows is the opening chapter (remember, there were two different prologues, one for the script and one for the novel.) Feel free to send me your comments and suggestions.
Sideways and Down
Petra doesn’t need an alarm, not after all these years. Though she sets one every night.
Waking before the alarm goes off—not a stumbling into the day but sitting up alert and relaxed—she checks the clock, though she knows what it will say. 5:40. Clad in yoga pants and a sleeveless stretchy black t-shirt, she slings her feet over the side of the bed and pads out of the bedroom on panther feet.
The second bedroom is bedless. She strides over to the incline table, shackles her ankles in, and tilts back until she’s completely inverted, the soles of her bare feet staring up at the ceiling. She reaches over and touches a small square box that is on the floor next to her head; the room is transformed into a beach, with the sound of small waves gaining the shore. For fifteen minutes she lies there, suspended, restrained, at rest. At fifteen minutes she hoists herself up into a half sit-up and holds that position for a full minute, her stomach quivering at the end, her forehead beading. And she’s done.
She taps the box, bringing the room back from the beach, then rights herself and clips out. She walks over to the Pilates reformer, an impressive gathering of wood, straps, and springs that looks like something designed by Torquemada. She puts the machine and her body through their paces, employing a series of exercises to tax every part of her body. Prone, springs pulling her legs back over head; kneeling, working her arms and abs with a variety of curls and pulls; standing along the machine, pushing as if she were training to push a bobsled. and letting the springs pull her legs back over her head to standing on the pad and doing a series of arm exercises with the weights and springs. Thirty minutes and she’s done.
The collar of her t-shirt neck now a sweaty black, she moves into the kitchen. She pours the fruits and powders, measured out the night before, into the blender, then the oat milk and ice. When the grinding sound settles into a whir, she shuts off the blender and pours the resulting concoction into a to-go cup and places it next to the gym bag and briefcase standing by the front door.
The carports of her apartment complex are still full at this hour. Over the years, Petra has determined that the valley wakes up in shifts. There are the Type A’s, who are standing in line at gyms when they open at 5:30. Most of them are VCs or people trying to impress VCs. A majority of these early risers are Masters swimmers, meaning they get their mile in, shower and are off to work by 6:45. The standard business crowd is on the road by 7:30, hoping for a Starbucks drive-by and an arrival at their place of work by 8:30 at the latest. Finally, there are the engineers, the rock stars of the valley after all these years. They generally roll in somewhere between ten and noon, then work through a company-provided meal and often long into the night, reinforcing the stereotype that they have no lives outside of work.
Petra lives in one of those nondescript apartment complexes that populate the different areas of Silicon Valley. From San Jose up to SFO, it is one interconnected sprawl, Cupertino blending with Mountain View, which bleeds north into Palo Alto, then into Menlo Park, which is where Petra lives. There is nothing particularly compelling or attractive about Menlo Park to her; she chose it because it’s where Salvana, the company she works at, is located.
Her choice of accommodation, as she would be the first to acknowledge, is based, like so much else in her life, on practicality. In her first meeting with her financial advisor, when asked to define herself in a few words, she led with practicality. When he asked for a second, she thought for a moment and then said, ‘functionality.’
“Let me make it simple for you,” she had said. “I don’t drive to make a statement, I drive to get from one place to the other. I don’t dress to impress, I dress for warmth and to avoid being arrested for public nudity. I’m your basic Subaru person.”
“How about vacations?” He had asked. Your profile lists some exotic locations.”
“That’s true, but I chose them not for their cultures but because they’re where the faces and peaks I want to climb are located. Not that I don’t enjoy the cultures while I’m there.”
“Okay, I think I’ve got a feel for lifestyle. How about risk? I’d assume, based on your hobbies, that you’re pretty comfortable with it.”
“I don’t regard my climbing as risky,” she had corrected him. “Planned and executed right, it’s far safer than driving a car. When it comes to finances, I’m risk-averse.” She nodded at the portfolio on the table. “I know that conventional wisdom says that at the age of thirty-two eighty percent or more of my assets should be in the market. But my guidance to you is no more than fifty percent.” When he started to respond, she pulled out an envelope and slid it across the table at him. “This is a discretionary account, from my winnings, which I keep separate. Since it’s found money, take as much risk with it as you like. Just explain it to me first.”
It’s a ten-minute drive to The Ascent. She lets herself into the gym with her own key, given to her long ago by Spyder, the owner. She opens her gym bag and removes a pair of climbing shoes, which look like a pair of slippers mated with running shoes. She puts them on and walks over to the bouldering area, a large, low-ceilinged room with padded floors and walls and ceiling that looks like something out of a spelunker’s wet dream: different shaped and sizes of plastic rocks affixed to every surface. She grips two rocks on the ceiling and hoists herself, swinging her feet up until they wedge into two of the larger rocks. Suspended upside-down and bug-like, she releases her left hand and grasps a new rock, then releases her right, reaching for a rock that seems out of her reach. But by contorting her shoulders and changing the position of her feet, she’s able to reach it. Her arms, lean to begin with, are now simplified to straining, articulated muscle and tendon. She surveys her next move, but physics intervene and she’s unable to sustain her position. She falls to the heavily padded floor, slapping it with her forearm to absorb some of the impact. She then hoists herself up to a new ceiling position and tries a fresh set of moves.
Twenty minutes later, her calves and forearms shivering, on the fringe of cramping, she takes a break, lowers her head, and exits the bouldering room. She puts her back against the wall facing the climbing wall and slides down until her butt’s on the floor, her knees up around her ears. Then she stares intently at the wall facing her.
The climbing wall is the town square of the gym, the area where everyone congregates, either to climb, to belay, or simply to watch. The rocks affixed to the wall are, for the most part, smaller and farther apart than their bouldering counterparts. Ropes hang down from the top, straight and serious.
Petra rubs her hair—brown going to black, worn short, with little sense of style—pushing out some of the sweat that has gathered there during her upside-down workout. She is slender but with muscular shoulders, an ideal climber’s build. Her skin has an almond hue, portraying a mix of two cultures, if not races. Her nose is thin-lined and strong-boned, with a slight bump in the middle, from where she broke it climbing in Yosemite and set it herself. It works just fine, so she’s never seen the need to have it surgically corrected.
Her looks often come up right after people meet her. “She shouldn’t be attractive,” said a friend of Will’s, upon meeting her, “but she is. Part of it is her intensity. You know what I mean?” In answer, Will relates a story about his wife, Sonia, who has known Petra since college and is now part of her circle of tight friends here in the Valley. Sonia’s sister is a casting agent in Hollywood. As such, she’s quick—and merciless—to categorize people upon first meeting, since that is often all they’ll get in a casting call.
“You, for example,” she said to Sonia, “are of what we would call ‘hardy stock.’ You’re big-boned and…”
“God, I hate that term,” Sonia had moaned. “How about ‘zoftig’? I’d even be okay with ‘Rubinesque.’”
Her sister had shaken her head. “Those aren’t words that Hollywood is familiar with. But you’ve got this healthy beauty that make you great as someone’s best friend, the one she can depend on, the one with the heart of gold.”
“How about Will?” Sonia had asked.
“Everything about Will is solid. I’d cast him as the rugged outdoors type, a mountain man, a great friend. He shaves off that beard, I could see him as a bodyguard that the woman he’s protecting is interested in.”
“And what about Petra? You just met her but you said first impressions are critical.”
“Now she’s interesting. In my industry she’s what we could call a ‘Sophia.’ After Sophia Loren. You take any of her features by themselves and they’re wrong, even off-putting. But put them together and you’ve got something. Your pal’s eyes are slightly froggy, she’s got Joni Mitchell teeth, and her nose is a little off. But there’s something there. The keywords in my file would be ‘edgy’ and ‘compelling.’ Indie directors would definitely be interested in her.”
Petra continues to stare at the climbing wall, her eyes flitting from one rock to the next. The rocks are color-coded, each color indicating a route of a particular difficulty. You can use any of the rocks on the wall, but to achieve the level of difficulty assigned, you need to use every rock of that color.
Her route is lime green. Spyder, the gym owner and her climbing coach, designed it specifically for her. The most advanced climber in the gym, and one with a number of Yosemite ascents, she was in need, in his opinion, of a challenge that was as mental as it was physical. The lime green route has stumped her for the last month, with one spot in particular, only fifteen feet from the top, that has her stumped. She’s tried every approach, without success.
She’s so focused on the wall that she doesn’t hear Spyder’s key in the door. It isn’t until he slides down next to her that she realizes she’s no longer alone. He motions at her hands, the fingertips white from the chalk that she uses for difficult grips. “Still working on fingertip strength, aren’t you?” he says. He nods up at the wall. “I keep telling you, it’s not a muscle move. You need to re-orient your thinking on this one. You want to give it another try before you go to work?”
She doesn’t answer, just harnesses up. Spyder stands up, clicks in and leans back slightly into a belaying posture. She clicks the carabiner onto her climbing belt. “On belay?”
“Belay on.” Spyder answers.
“Climbing.” She clambers up the wall as if it were horizontal, rather than vertical. Then she comes to the place that has stumped her, either climbing or in analysis from the floor, for the past few weeks. Spyder cinches his rope a little tighter and watches. After a minute of her eyes darting around the wall, she calls down.
“You swear to God it’s doable?”
“Yeah, but like I said, it’s not a muscle move. All the strength in the world won’t get you to the top.”
Her eyes settle on a spot just above her head and to the left; she leaps into a dramatic move in which both feet and one hand find new homes. They hold for a second, but as she releases her other hand, she comes off the wall. Spyder’s belay halts her fall after only a few fee.
“Bring me down,” she says.
Once she’s on the floor she clicks herself free and stands next to him. “Okay, so it’s not a muscle move. But I had to give it one last shot. Now give me a hint about what I’m doing wrong.”
He rests a reassuring hand on her elbow as they both look up at the wall. “First off, think as if you’re outside, not in the gym. You’re my fastest climber by a lot, and if this were the Olympics, where all that matters is how fast you get to the top, I’d have my money on you. But that’s not true, climbing, the kind we both like to do.”
He guides her over to the wall behind the counter, to a large framed poster of a solid granite wall. There’s no Ansel Adams moodiness to it, no ominous clouds. This is a climber’s photo, taken straight on in the middle of the day, so that climbers gets a clear view of what’s facing them. Even with this warts-and-all lighting, the granite face seems almost impossibly smooth.
“This is that face in Peru I told you about, the one I climbed two years ago. I tried it four different times and each time, just like you, I wound up stuck in the same spot. And each time I tried to muscle my way up. And each time I came off the wall. If I’d been free climbing, I’d be a dead man.”
His eyes narrowed on the photo, as if he were back in Peru. “But coming off the wall was what solved things. Hanging there at eight hundred meters, rather than viewing it from the valley floor, I realized that if I climbed down at thirty degrees, about a hundred meters over was another route. And it turned out I was right.”
She looked at him without saying a word. Her eyes scoured the poster, her fingers flexing. Finally she nodded. “I’m too linear in my thinking, aren’t I?” He shrugs. “All I’m saying is, you could do with a little more lateral thinking.”