My kids are looking out from high atop a brick building in the city, behind window guards and glass, I know this because I am seven floors below on an empty sidewalk, looking up, my hand shielding the sun from my eyes. Anton’s pudgy little hand scrapes the window with a wave to me, and six-year-old Emma presses her nose against the glass, her breath fogging up the window. My heart swells, my knees shake as if my body might collapse onto the concrete. The only way is up.
The window right next door, same apartment, another room I suspect, tells another story. Shadows dancing. You and her. I can only imagine the moans and promises being made while your children, OUR children, look down and yearn for their mother.
The doorman, his dark eyes piercing fear above the face mask, wouldn’t let me in. Only residents can enter this place, and all are sheltered inside their apartments except to go out for essentials or pick up deliveries at their mailboxes. Everyone looks like they are about to rob a bank.
Only a car or two drives by and, every so often, an ambulance siren breaks through the quiet. The concrete façade before me is a tangle of cracks and crumbles, and I sense the danger of this brick puzzle before me. No matter. I lift one foot, then another, toeing into each crevice to raise my body. Little by little. A story at a time.
First story: At the boisterous bar where we met (when you jostled me, shoulder against shoulder, and half my beer poured onto your shoes) I was taken in by your sense of adventure. Your love of risk and being on the edge drew me in. I was so different from you. Small town girl, graduated from a nearby community college, little ambition, little sense. Clearly, I was not you. You had taken a year off and traveled the world, only a backpack and a map for companionship. I imagined your journeys and imagined me experiencing those journeys with you. You made me realize that being cloistered had value, and that even I could venture out when I was ready. You didn’t ask for my number that night and that made me want to see you even more.
I returned to the bar the next night and the next. It took a month of nights, of nursing warm drinks, of rejecting the flirtatious, the desperate, the marrieds. Finally, you showed up, leaning against a far wall, a sly smile on your face. Instead of showing rage, which I had every right to feel, my heart beat a million times in that moment. You didn’t move from your spot, so I slipped off the stool and in what felt like slow motion and a swallow of pride, walked right up to you.
“Miss me?” you asked.
“Not for one second,” I said.
My upward climb is hampered by the buzz and mumblings of several passersby below. “What’s she doing?” I could hear them ask inside their masks.
Then another. “Is she crazy?”
Do they really want me to answer that?
Third story: We fell hard. We were so much in love.
“I want to wander,” I pleaded. “With you.”
“And I want to experience the newness of things through your eyes.”
So we did, traveling across the country, picking up hikers and listening to their harrowing tales of survival, philosophizing with an Indian chief on a reservation about indigenous people and how they got screwed hundreds of years ago. We sweat in the Encinitas sun, made sandcastles near Santa Monica Pier, and sipped margaritas in Cabo. We sustained ourselves on scraps of lust and a make believe future hidden behind smoke and mirrors.
I drank very little water today. My thigh muscles start to cramp up as I search for any fingerholds in the brick. Any mountain climber knows that hydration is essential; you’ll soon find yourself in trouble and in extreme pain if you’re in the middle of a climb and unable to find relief. I grit my teeth and surge forward. I attempt to pump my right leg out and over while using my left leg for support, then I switch. What keeps me going are the powdered smells of those babies, their little faces squished against glass, watching their mommy making their way to them. I can’t allow them to see me fail.
Fifth story: In North Dakota, we ascended White Butte Mountain, my first climbing experience. I agreed to do this with only half my wits and the fear that you’d find someone else.
“The only way is up,” you said.
We slipped on our snowshoes, pulled the gaiters over our nose and mouth, and made our way up the icy slope. I had insisted we bring along ropes and carabiners just in case, but we never removed them from our packs. I clawed my way, held onto scrubby bushes to push forward as you scrambled up with ease. It was blustery once we reached the summit. You were silent at the top and stood straight and tall looking at the gray skies above, a deserted farmhouse and winding trail below, perhaps planning where you would venture next. I was too busy catching my breath and in disbelief I had accomplished something I thought so impossible. I wanted to cut through your contemplation, to share this success, but you were so in your element, your usually tense shoulders relaxed. I left you to your thoughts and I left me to mine.
Finally, after you’ve taken in the sights and smells of the summit, you turn toward me and take my hand. “Well, what goes up, must come down.”
I’m many yards up in the air, my belly pressed against the cold outside wall. My foot slips a little and a staccato scream sounds from my lips. I inhale once I regain my footing, hold it then reach my hand up to try to find something to hold onto. An ice ax would have been the perfect piece of equipment to cut into bricks, a pulley with rope to hook around the archway right above me? Perfect. Mountaineers know that preparation is the difference between life and death. Obviously, I didn’t learn enough. This isn’t a hobby. It’s not fun like some board game. Climbing any sort of Everest can be a Zen experience. It’s exhilarating. You end up not only conquering a mountain, but you conquer your old self. You can never go back.
Seventh story: Neither of us came from healthy people, and so we had no clue how to do it. None at all. We were empty shells waiting for that ocean wave to storm onto shore. Listening for the roar that never came.
I never stopped climbing after you took me that first time. The wanderlust never left, but you loved the kids, had enough of the journeys, wanted more time with them. I wanted to keep climbing mountains because it is on the summit where I find the best of myself. That became our division, our end, and the courts weren’t comfortable to place children with someone who was constantly putting her life in danger even if she was the mother.
I am almost there, seventh story. I grasp the ledge, my knuckles torn up and bloody. Anton and Emma bang on the window half crying, half laughing. The noise echoes through the empty city. I hoist myself up, the cramps in my thighs so severe that all I can do is dangle my legs in the hope the pain will ease. I gaze through the bars and glass. Two sets of blue eyes look into mine now, but then they disappear. Their faces have been replaced with yours, a face piercing disapproval.
“Open the window,” someone says below. The masked crowd grows, but they don’t cluster. They seem to feel sorry for me. They cheer me on; want me to reach the summit.
“Somebody call the fire department.”
I stare down then up. I don’t plead. I just want to hold my children. So what if I climb mountains. And buildings. I climb anything. I climb to feel me.
If only I had the proper gear to rest here for an hour or two, I could perhaps reason with you. Maybe you’d open up the window and help me over the iron grate. We could share a drink like we used to. Maybe I’d like your new friend. Maybe not. It doesn’t matter. There’s always something for me to climb, and that’s enough. But you can’t stand on the summit and admire the view forever.
You don’t open it, you don’t save me, and I’m slipping. My fingers can’t hold on. My body feels like it’s drifting down an elevator shaft, down and down and down. And the last thing I hear are the gasps of the masked people who clear the way for me and the alarm from two blocks away.
Lori M. Myers is an award-winning writer of creative nonfiction, fiction, and plays. Her work has been published in magazines and anthologies such as American Writers Review, Transcendent, and others. Lori is Drama/Nonfiction Editor for the online arts and literary journal Masque & Spectacle. She is an adjunct professor of literature and playwriting and lives in New York where she hikes and loves singing in the car.
© 2020, Lori M. Myers