“There is nothing a mountain can do to hurt you,” Brian said. We were in the car, heading towards one of his favorite hiking spots, and he could see my chest rise and fall as my breathing quickened and the way my cheeks got hot and my fists clenched. Anxiety, that’s what my doctor said.
Screw my doctor.
“I beg to differ,” I told Brian, except that I didn’t, because what was the point? He was taking me on this trip with an explicit and very obvious reason. A proposal. This wasn’t exposure therapy. This was a romantic gesture.
Screw romantic gestures.
Brian and I had history. Two years of it. And six weeks of dating before that, if it counts. “Meeting through an online dating website does not a forever make,” my mother told me when, in my honeymoon phase glee, called to tell her that I finally had a boyfriend.
Screw my mom too. Except she was right. At least in my case. Still, screw her. Screw her for being right. Screw her for planting that seed of doubt that’s now grown into a weeping willow that I can hide inside and feel safe in.
And then this mountain business.
Brian pulled our backpacks out of the back seats of his SUV, which he called his truck even though it wasn’t, and gave me one. It was lighter than his, almost for sure, but it was heavy enough to reset the disaster reel in my mind. Falling down backwards down the trail, falling sideways off the train and into a chasm, slipping and breaking a leg or an arm or a rib or my head, being attacked by a wild boar or a black bear or a snake or—
I followed him towards the base of the trail. I watched his boots thunk down and tried to match his pace. I had always been a devout shoe-watcher. My mom always told me to put my chin up, to be proud, to let others stare at my skin if they had to but to know that I was beautiful. I didn’t know how to explain her that looking down had nothing to do with any of that. Nobody knew where to place me, so everyone put me in a comfortable box and didn’t see me as a thug, because I wasn’t big or a man or dark enough to be a thug. I knew thugs, real ones and ones who just looked it, and they didn’t think I belonged to them either. Mom thought I belonged everywhere. That I was some free-spirited sprite like her, able to jump through environments and homes and societies like an acrobat. Instead, I put my head down and found things that were interesting and similar everywhere. It was easier to move around when I knew that no matter where we went, I’d have shoes to look at. Almost everyone wore shoes. The ones who didn’t, I knew, were even more on the outside than I was.
Brian’s shoes were sturdy yellow Timberlands. I’ll say this for him – they were broken in, not shiny and new. He really was a hiker. He said he was many other things that he wasn’t (tender, intelligent, original) but this one thing was true. He loved the mountains. I used to love that about him.
On the trail, Brian made me go in front of him and kept up a running commentary, so I could never forget where we were.
“Careful of that rock, babe. There’s a tree branch coming up on your left. We’re going to curve here, so don’t look down to the left, okay? It’s not that far but I know it freaks you out so just don’t look. There you go. Good girl.”
Idiot. I wasn’t afraid of heights. I lived in cities all my life. I was afraid of nature. Of this mountain we were on. Of what would happen at its summit.
It was beautiful, I was big enough to admit that, even with my sulky silence. The air smelled different, tasted like cold water when I breathed it in. The trail itself was nothing special, but the views of other mountains was more impressive than the view I was used to: a bunch of identical high rises in what was called, in every city I’d been to, the ghetto.
I was still scared of the mountains. Man made disasters I could understand. I grew up seeing people get into fights that left them bloody. I knew gunshots when I heard them. Sirens were a constant, and the sound of pounding meat as cops beat up on other people was more familiar than any tree. I had no idea what trees were around us. I didn’t know more than a handful of names for tree: birches, furs, weeping willows, regular willows. Apple trees. I knew there were more, but it’s not necessary knowledge for a city-dweller.
An hour in, when Brian told me we were halfway there, I stopped. He bumped into me. We fell. I screamed, even though we were nowhere near an edge. We were firmly in between large rocky bits, on a trail that made a little valley between them. There was dirt in my mouth and Brian was cursing, and he got up and tried to help me, but I only turned over off my stomach and sat there, spitting out dirt and taking swigs from my water bottle and spitting them out too.
“You’re wasting our water,” Brian said.
“I thought you said we had enough for four treks like this,” I told him with a thick tongue, still trying to expel the feeling of dirt from my mouth.
“That still doesn’t mean you should be wasting any. What if something happened?”
“You said nothing could happen.”
He shut up, knowing it was better not to argue with me when I was like this. I would win. My logic was as curving and twisted as a Möbius strip. Those I knew about. I was one of the ones who paid attention at school. Every school I went to, the math or science teacher (sometimes both) did the Möbius strip trick for us, trying to show us how cool it was, how it defied logic or didn’t or something. Once it was an art teacher who showed us how to make one.
Brian wouldn’t sit. He stayed standing, bouncing on his toes. Everything was going wrong, as far as he was concerned. I wasn’t having fun. It was getting colder than he’d meant it to get. And we weren’t moving, which meant he wouldn’t be able to time his proposal with the pre-sunset colors.
“I want to go back down,” I said. He kicked a pebble around with his foot.
“After all this way?”
“We’re only halfway. You said.”
He didn’t say anything. A gust of wind blew through our clothes and hair. It smelled delicious. I wanted to grab it in handfuls and put it in my pocket and breathe it in every time I had to pass the garbage room and the hallway of my apartment building which smelled like piss.
“I’m going to say no, Brian,” I finally said.
“Then why did–”
“I thought the mountain might change your mind.”
I snorted. “And you say you’re barely Indian.”
He was a half blood like me. No one knew where to place him either. It had been part of what drew us together originally. There was a lot of ground to cover when it came to identity. We had an endless supply of conversational material. Not a day passed when we wouldn’t call or text each other with the latest slur, awkward question, or odd look directed at us.
“Yeah, well.” He was quiet, a shoe-watcher, looking down at his Timberlands and moving them around, back and forth, a tiny dance of discomfort.
“I still love you,” I said.
“I just don’t know how much yet. I don’t know if it’s a forever love.”
“I do,” he said.
“I know you do.”
“Okay, come on, get up,” he said, helping me to my feet.
We began walking down, him in front this time. Either he didn’t want to look at me or he trusted me to walk well enough on my own now. Maybe both. I followed him, keeping an eye on where he placed his feet, and tried to put mine in the same spots he did. His stride was wider than mine. I had to stretch to match it sometimes. I was a game. I was having more fun now. I pointed out birds I’d never seen before, and the shapes I saw in the shadows of trees. Brian answered when I spoke, and I could hear a smile in his voice. Maybe even relief. Maybe I just wanted that part.
We unloaded our backpacks into the backseat of the truck that wasn’t and got into the front. I reached over to kiss him, and he kissed me back. I could feel the lump of a box in the pocket of his flannel shirt when he leaned against me. I put my hand on it.
“Keep it,” I whispered in his ear. “Let’s wait and see.”
He drew away and started the car. “Maybe next time,” he said as he drove us out of the parking lot, which felt more familiar to me than the mountain dust clinging to my clothes and hair. “Maybe we’ll make it to the top, next time.”
The story above got an honorable mention from the judge at Hour of Writes, who was reading the pieces blindly.
Image / flickr: Doug Wheller