My feet were in the air, my heart was in my throat. I pulled furiously on the lead rope, hating the man on the other end. He had been recommended to me by a former climbing partner, someone who would no longer climb with me. She said I was dangerous. She said I took risks beyond what she was willing to deal. I am Southern. I smiled and told her I was terribly sorry, that I must have given the wrong impression. She was not Southern, and she did not smile. She glared at me over her gin and tonic.
Now, I was angry. I am rarely angry; it is an emotion that is as unfamiliar to me as snowstorms in July. Yes, they do occur, but they are abnormalities, far from the norm. If pressed, even now, I can remember every time that I was ever actually angry. The unfortunate thing, for me, is that when angry, logic, reason, tact, restraint, and every other safeguard of human emotion is abandoned in the heat of the moment. I was fast approaching that moment.
My climbing partner, met a few days’ prior at the restaurant in which I moonlighted, had seemed capable enough. He had recommendations. I asked around about him, as I’m sure he did me. He was a good climber, they said. He was a good second. He was not a lead, but he was good at belay, cleaning and so forth.
Ice particles hit my face. The rock had been almost unbearably hot, exposed as it was to the western sun. Lake Tahoe danced in the distance, not visible, but there, nonetheless. I could feel the wind off the face of the deep waters. In midair, I wondered briefly what it must be like, at that moment, to dive into its cold depths, to welcome the blue.
Even as the thought went through my head, I silenced it. I was not going to die. Not that day. Not with some spineless idiot tethered to the end of my lifeline. I had yanked and pulled on the rope all day, feeling his apathy at paying out line, feeling the hold of his fear. I was climbing, in those days, in the grips of mania, convinced of my own mortality. He, on the other hand, was terrified by me. All of the rumors of me were true. I was nuts. Bonkers. I climbed and surfed as though there was no other destiny for me, other than death.
I planted my feet on the rock wall and shove out. I screamed something about the asshole on the other end of the rope getting the hell out of the way as I fell straight for him. Passive protection anchors popped like sparkling coals as I fell, feeling the tug of each piece as it came loose. I thought I had done a better job at setting them, but in my irritation and haste, I had not.
They say that there is no time to think while you are falling. I beg to differ. Anyone who says otherwise has not fallen that far. I had time to think. I thought it was a damn shame that I didn’t get to climb more in Nevada and California. I was slated to be in Washington, D.C. in two weeks to begin a new job. I thought I wasn’t ready for that. I thought it sucked that I would never see my ex-girlfriend again. But most of all, my brain was on fire with survival. I tried to grab sections of the granite (orthoclase, I thought) as I fell past. My fingernails parted from my hands with miraculous ease, sending pain signals through my frontal lobe, although I ignored them as completely as I have always ignored pain.
Three weeks later, I was in the Outer Banks, on the opposite coast, still procrastinating. I didn’t want to start the new job. It was going to be my life, I thought. I camped, morosely, staring at the impossibly flat ocean. My favorite surf spot was a bathtub. Phosphorescence turned the sea impossibly green. I scraped my feet on the sand at night to watch the glow of my receding prints, reminded over and over of my own mortality.
That was October. In June of the following year, sitting in a bar at 11:57 a.m., a girl slammed through the door of the establishment, looked around impatiently, and grabbed her phone. She was wearing a white skirt and a black tank top. Her blonde hair was yanked back and constrained by a tie. She wore another on her wrist. She was in short heels, with no makeup. She was my blind date. She was my future wife, the mother of my son. I picked up my beer and watched her carefully. She called several numbers, irritated that no one was answering. My phone rang. It was not her, and I ignored it, as I am prone to do. I have issues with cell phones. Her phone rang. She obviously did not have issues, and she seemed irritated by the conversation.
Our lunch company was late. Ten minutes. We ordered our food, I ordered another beer. We ate, and I watched her carefully, as sunlight played about her features, rendering her beautiful. I wondered what she was like, where she went to college, if her heart had been broken before me. I had no idea that twelve years later we could break like fine china in the face of addiction, grief and loneliness. I had no idea that this was the one woman I would love like no other, for the rest of my life. I had no idea that she had been born on September 20th, and that one day, twelve years later, I would not be able to wish her happy birthday. I had no idea that we would travel across Italy, Mexico and Costa Rica together. I had no idea we would have a son, whom I would love as fiercely and completely as any human could love another. I had no idea how much I would love her parents, nor how devastated I would be when her father passed.
I had no idea. I was falling. Again.