portion of the artwork for Helen Beer's short story

Snowfall on Mt. Tam
Helen Beer

I learned Serbo-Croatian as an act of self-defense and a means to an end.

I met Nikola at a Halloween party thrown by a mutual friend. He arrived without a costume, the only one to do so—an attractive act of nonconformity. There was also something undeniably sexy, aloof in his bearing, and the Slavic accent fit him well.

He had been an amateur boxer in his country and had studied political economics. Why had he come here? To study art. To avoid compulsory military service back home. To make his millions. To buy a Mercedes. I was captivated by his charm, his directness, his slender hips, his broad shoulders, his perfect matador’s ass.

I left the party with him. We drove over the Golden Gate Bridge in his convertible Lancia, the relentless cold winds playing havoc with our hair. He lived in a tiny bungalow on Molino Avenue, in the shadow of Mt. Tamalpais. The furnishings were Salvation Army eclectic.

His bed was a king-size mattress on the floor, covered in a jumble of blankets. There were no pillows, but there was a cat. A tabby, at least a 20-pounder, he remained as we made love. Indeed, he became an active participant, pouncing on our feet, walking on our backs, meowing in our faces. He was jealous of his master’s affections toward me and demanded equal time. When I awoke in the morning, the cat was between us, snoring loudly. I glanced over at this man I’d bedded, and he was as beautiful as I’d remembered him from the night before.

I made my way, through a path of scattered clothing, to the bathroom. The toilet, the shower, the sink? All spotless. The evidence was clear to me—he had gone to the party with the intention of bringing a woman home. Either that, or he had a girlfriend in his life. I sat on the toilet, thinking that I should leave. But it hit me: I was somewhere in Marin, without a car, without a bus schedule, with little money, on a Sunday.

I wandered back into the bedroom to find this man, propped up on an elbow, stroking his cat’s belly.

“I don’t even know your name,” I said.

“Nikola.”

He patted the mattress. The cat jumped off the bed, ran past my legs, and out the swinging pet door leading to the postage-stamp backyard. I walked slowly toward the mattress, suddenly self-conscious of my nakedness—and his—by the light of day. He pulled me down onto the mattress next to him and I closed my eyes. His hands caressed my back, and he kissed my lips, his tongue gently exploring beyond them. I opened my eyes to meet his; they were warm and brown, flecked with gold.

“I’m Amanda,” I said. And then I laughed with no hint of embarrassment, as I scrunched my body and shimmied on top of him, disturbing the voyeuristic cat—when had he returned? I was forceful, aggressive, succumbing to hungry desire, welcoming his every thrust. And when he came, I collapsed into the salty skin of his chest. We lay motionless, listening to the pounding of our own hearts, and to the distinctive sound of the cat licking himself.

We showered together, then dressed—me in my ridiculous mouse costume, he in jeans and a T-shirt—and then he made us thick, strong, Turkish coffee. When we finished drinking, he took my tiny cup and stared at the fine grounds. He swirled them around.

“You’ll marry me,” he said.

“But those aren’t tea leaves,” I insisted.

He drove me across the Golden Gate Bridge into the city, then over the Bay Bridge to the East Bay. It was foggy and cold until we emerged on the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel. It was at least 20 degrees warmer, and the morning sun blinded me. I squinted my eyes into tiny slits, scrunching my nose in the process, and guided him to the Walnut Creek BART station with concise verbal instructions. As we pulled into the parking lot, I opened my eyes fully and, through the glare, struggling to focus, directed him to my car.

He said he had to work. Small remodeling jobs—completely off-the-books—paid the bills, he explained. He grabbed a matchbook from the messy floor of his Lancia, and a pen from the equally untidy glove compartment. He handed them to me and asked me to write down my number. I complied and handed them back. He drove off with a sexy Italian roar. I figured I’d never hear from him again, as I fished in my purse for my car keys.

* * *

Weeks passed, and there was no word from Nikola. While it didn’t surprise me, it was still disappointing. I called the friend who’d hosted the Halloween party, and asked her to tell me everything she knew about this man.

“Nikola? He has a girlfriend. What’d you expect?”

“Well … he told me I’d marry him.”

“What? Shit, Amanda, did he ask you?”

“No. He told me. He said, ‘You’ll marry me.’ The coffee grounds told him so.”

“It wasn’t the coffee grounds. His student visa expires in six months. The girlfriend must have said no.”

“Oh, I know. He told me,” I lied.

* * *

I’d been lonely since college, following a predictable path of my own creation: answering the siren call of a corporate recruiter, moving to the Bay Area, escaping from my warring parents. I’d left behind family, friends, all that was familiar, all that had given me a sense of place. I was isolated in a tiny apartment in the more affordable suburbs across the Bay, far removed from the city, in a complex of strangers.

My weekday mornings were spent riding the crowded, rocking BART trains into the dark of the tunnel under the Bay to my Financial District office, where I toiled away, hidden in my cubicle, staring at Excel spreadsheets that swam across my multiple screens. Weekends, I’d hooked up with rudderless men—and that was like holding a mirror to myself, making me feel lost, desperate. Nikola was the only bright spot in my new life. He was so certain of what he wanted and how he’d obtain it—I lusted after his self-assurance, his carefree approach to life, so foreign to my own.

Months passed, and there was still no word from him. Then one Saturday evening, I was lounging on the sofa in my pajamas, watching an old movie, having an intimate affair with a pint of ice cream. My cellphone rang.

“It’s snowing on Mt. Tam. Take the BART train to the Civic Center station. I’ll pick you up in an hour. Dress warmly.”

“Nikola?”

“Yes. Hurry.”

He hung up before I could say no. I threw on my warmest clothes, relics from my Midwestern college days, grabbed a woolen cap from a shelf in the closet—I remembered that Lancia—and laced up my hiking boots. I glanced at my watch. It was 7 o’clock. It was only a few minutes’ drive to the Walnut Creek station, and there were trains for the city leaving regularly; but I still rushed out of my apartment, anxious not to be late. I was never late.

I arrived at the Civic Center station at 7:40. Nikola was there already, standing at the top of the escalators. He had double-parked his car on the street not far away; it was ticketed. He grabbed the offending piece of paper, wadded it into a ball, and threw it onto the floor of the backseat.

We roared across the Golden Gate, and up 101 to the Mill Valley exit. I remembered the way. I was glad I’d brought the woolen cap. We stopped at his little house long enough for him to put the solid top on the car. And then we were driving again, steadily upward, until we could climb no more. He parked the car, squeezed between those of others who’d arrived before us, on the narrow shoulder. We walked, hand in hand, toward the summit. We didn’t speak until we reached the observation area at the top and found a bench.

“You’re beautiful, you know.”

“How can you see anything?” The snow was swirling; we were engulfed in whiteness.

“I can see you.” He shined his flashlight in my face. “You’re beautiful.”

“I’m so beautiful you want to marry me.”

“Yes. I haven’t stopped …”

“Stop there. You need a Green Card.”

“Yes.” He wasn’t surprised that I knew. He looked at his feet, not at me. “So, will you marry me?”

“You’re serious?”

“Yes. I don’t want to go back.” He lifted his eyes to mine; he looked vulnerable, childlike. “I can’t go back.”

“When?”

“Before the end of May.”

“And I’ll have to live with you?”

“Yes. USCIS is pretty savvy about those things.”

“Where?”

“I just signed a one-year lease on my house.”

“You’re a cocky son of a bitch, aren’t you?”

He laughed; I couldn’t.

“The sex was good, wasn’t it?”

“The sex was great.” I started to shiver.

He stood up, offered his hand, and I took it. We walked down the mountain to his car, the snow enveloping us, drenching our clothes. I spent the night with him, on his mattress, his cat observing our every move. We made love—no, we had sex—twice before morning.

The morning’s light fell on our naked bodies. I glanced over at this sleeping man, this man whose life I might come to share, and my thoughts swirled. Perhaps this thing will evolve beyond a mere transaction; perhaps he’ll come to love me; perhaps it won’t be the greatest mistake of my life. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

* * *

Nikola became a fully ingrained part of my life, embraced by my family who knew nothing of the pragmatic reason for our marital pairing, and never could; they only saw his charms. His cat’s alliances shifted; he loved me more than his master, choosing to curl himself on my body whenever I sat or slept.

I became a convenience to him, a handy bed partner, a cook and housekeeper for him and his brothers, a means to an end—his permanent residence status. I had grown to love him, though—much as I hated myself for doing so—and those intimate moments, those small glimpses of mutual affection, we still shared. I spoke his language, but he no longer spoke mine.

The weatherman predicted snow on Mt. Tam. I went alone. There was no more perhaps; there was only enough.



Helen Beer’s Comments

Playing around with old written works has proven to be a constructive outlet; the older they are, the greater the objectivity. It’s actually a damn good distraction from … the latest political distraction. It’s also a lot less disruptive to my household than a timely primal scream. This piece has evolved over the years, through multiple rewrites—in kick-in-the-pants workshop settings and, most recently, in pandemic-pajama-clad mode. What hasn’t changed? The basic question of what constitutes “enough”—and how it may be a tenuous concept, and fluid reality, at best. When faced with complex, life-changing decisions, a common default behavior is to second guess, and judge, one’s choices. But what if judgment of one’s motivations—the very core of the moral dilemma itself—was removed from the equation? Would that be freeing, or pose its own set of burdens, including external judgment imposed by others? And if your mind is swimming now, you’re welcome; you’ve been distracted for a few moments.

Table of Contents



FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 56 | Fall/Winter 2020