Each time you leave, my face gets tired from pretending to be brave. Holding back tears, the top of my throat hurts and my belly feels full of marbles. I turn my head to watch your silver Toyota Tacoma, our home, drive away. My crooked glasses slip down my greasy nose and I unconsciously make the turtle imitation face as I push them up. But you’re not here anymore to tease me and pretend to push your imaginary specs up your nose. You’re gone. Out of contact for the next five weeks until I see you again. Headed to the Colorado desert to teach students how to rock climb, how to live simply and with intention, how to be nice to each other even if they’re uncomfortable or scared.
Our time together is feast or famine. A month of beautiful, intense, magical growth followed by a month in the wilderness with no contact. A 20-word letter becomes more important than food or water or sleep, maybe even more important than coffee. Maybe. I read and re-read the hasty note on the back of your drawings of a cutthroat trout and Mirror Lake each night when I curl into my sleeping bag and hide from the rain. I can recite it by heart. I can probably recite the best parts of every letter you’ve ever written me from memory, like the Brothers Karamazov quote about the silly old joker.
This life we choose. A life, for me at least, of seasonal, no-guarantees work. A life in which that work is sleeping under the stars and having “nerdy dance contest” dance parties with ten nineteen year olds and getting to know individuals in their most raw, most pure, most authentic moments. Watching change and growth and revelation.
It’s a life in which we go months at a time with no contact. Like in June when I sat in the Lander, Wyoming, woodchips trying not to cry in front of your students while you taught them how to use a bear spray canister. After a quick kiss and a squeeze you loaded onto the bus for a month of mountaineering in the Winds, and I drove up the hill to our room in my sister’s basement that we call the dungeon. It sure felt empty with only my piles of t-shirts and bike shorts stacked on the floor.
When I’m with you, it’s a life in which there is no moment but now. An hour becomes an eternity. Like when I visited you near Deep Lakes after climbing in the Cirque and stole you away from your students and we sat with my head in your lap. The words and the happenings and the stories didn’t matter. We could’ve sat in silence or repeated the word “watermelon” two hundred times and it would’ve felt the same. Just looking at you and touching your hand and feeling my pulse in my toes. That’s what mattered. I’d go another three months without seeing you if it meant I could feel that alive, that present, that full again.
It’s a life in which our vacation is a month or more at a time. In which we can go on a horse-supported rock-climbing trip with your friends into Titcomb Basin and bring a two burner and a few cases of beer and half a gallon of almond milk. Where we can spend a day beneath the September sun fly fishing and reading. Remember when I caught that beautiful golden trout, Eddy, and then I saw that I had hooked her eye socket and panicked and started crying and you rescued her? I need to work on my fishing skills. That day the three others were off climbing. We made them pizza dough, cut up toppings, and left it all under a bowl so the marmots wouldn’t eat Italian food for dinner when we left that evening to get to the base of Ellingwood Arete. We didn’t pitch a tent that night. We zipped our sleeping bags together into the double wide that I call “the tooth” because it looks like a molar and counted the stars and kept each other warm with dreams of holding hands on the porch swing in 2092.
It’s all worth it for those moments. For the simple, calm, exciting, close to the heart of life reality that makes months apart a mere nuisance as innocent, benevolent even, as a fruit fly. It reminds me of that quote in the first love letter you ever wrote to me from, yes, the Brothers Karamazov:
“As for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits and jolly punches in the side bestowed by and unseen and unaccountable old joker.”
Dostoyevsky nailed it. He must’ve known, even from 19th century Moscow, how good it is to hold hands under the stars in Wyoming.
Kathryn Sall is a not-frequent-enough contributor to AJ. Photo by Scott Wagner