by Jessica Christensen
There isn’t one inch of my body in repose. Rocks jut through my sleeping bag, and the wind barrels through the canyon, whipping over the edge of the cliff. The August wind carries the crisp air of November. It seems to take me away with it, layer by layer, and I think of Thompson’s onion-peeling metaphor for getting to know someone, peeling and revealing to the very inner core. I remember walking fast the night last May when he peeled close to my center; I remember wishing he would follow. If he had come to where I sat alone and barefoot in that parking lot, breathing only calm understanding and no words, I would have given him all that was untold, all that was dark inside me, heavy to carry and explain, all that was programmed and unwanted in my genes that seemed to push others away. But he didn’t follow, and I walked home more slowly, my feet black from the asphalt. I had walked fast too many times before. Thinking of it now, my legs feel restless and tired at the same time.
I keep my head tucked tight inside my sleeping bag and continue shifting my body, trying to decided if it’s more comfortable to have a rock in a hard spot⸺my hip⸺or in a soft spot⸺my thigh. My jeans twist in one direction and the sleeping bag in the other. Everyone is still talking, but I keep breathing my own warm breath in my slick bag, the wind now only a hush outside. The wind carries to me snatches of their words, a laugh, and memories of our spring hike up Angels’ Landing. The moon was bright that night and the closeness became dangerous. When I realized Thompson was staying, staying forever if I let him, I wanted and needed to tell him everything, but was afraid he would turn away. I remember him looking up at me, the red rock behind him, and knowing the blue behind his Oakley shades was deep and his shoulders were strong. But I turned to say something to Laura and pretended not to see. Now I hear Rand saying this trip will be much tougher than our first “adventure” together.
I lie in my bag, each muscle contracted against the rocks and the wind, pulled tight in, listening. I am cold and hard, one with the cliff. I hear Brent and Rand laughing about the “ice queen” that Brent had obsessed over. Dave is spouting random comments and Scottie makes some sick remark. I don’t hear Thompson’s voice.
Thompson’s voice, the sound of promise and entreaty had followed me to London after the initial trip. “I’m staying to work all summer so there’s no rush. Don’t feel like you have to make a decision right now. I’m here for as long as you need me to be. I’ll wait as long as it takes.” I had tried to bury it in my cathartic journal and in my wanderings. But I couldn’t lose it in Trafalgar Square or mute it in the green of Kew Gardens. It spoke louder there, swirling in my inner ear and making me dizzy. Every wing and rain spoke his cool blue calm. “I just want you to be happy.”
But I don’t hear him now. Now that I have a heavy parcel in my chest to heave off, he doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t ask anything or offer anything. He doesn’t even laugh when Candice and Jana reminisce about playing “Truth or Dare” and “Skeletons in the Closet” at slumber parties. “Truth” is more risky that “dare.” Run down the street without your shirt on or open Pandora’s Box. Some doors are hard to open and some lids are better with a safety seal.
The chatting continues all night. Thompson is silent. Maybe he is holding his breath too. Everyone is rendered an insomniac by the wind, the roughness of the cliff, and the nearness of the trail down. I’m impatient to go down⸺down to where it is shady and clear, no walls and open air where thoughts can be breathed out into words that can be caught or let float away without danger.
I count the minutes until dawn and when the sun hints its arrival, it is enough. We roll up our bags with Orion faintly visible. We stretch and I wish I could stretch over to where Thompson is.
But I need to crack my back and rub the cold out of my arms. I strap on my pack. The sun is not yet over the rim of the canyon, but Thompson has his Oakleys on already. I cant tell where his eyes are as I brush past him to the trailhead, legs primed to go.
The trail down to the Indian reservation campsite of Havasupai is eight miles long, the first mile all steep switchbacks. Rand had suggested the trip as a challenge and reminded all of us girls multiple times that it would be “rough.” The pack I borrowed from my brother-in-law is heavy and old, too big for me, and the metal frame rubs on the outsides of my shoulder blades and sags on my lower back with its bulk. We all start together, but by the bottom of the switchbacks I am ahead and taking long strides. The thought of those shades hiding blue propels me forward, and I cannot slow down.
The dust is four inches thick on the trail and powdery. It coats us to our knees as we kick it up in small clouds, muting everything to beige. I remember sitting alone in the locker room at lunchtime, hiding when someone came in, ashamed of my aloneness and inability to “be me,” needing to stay up with the pack at practice, proud of broken-in, thrashed training shoes. I look at the dust on my shoes and am glad that mine are hard to distinguish from the ground. My feet consume the path ahead with each step, pounding each painful memory into the dust, memories of the time when only the moon understood and I just couldn’t pull out of it alone.
All this sweat in the cool morning makes me feel feverish. The need to fast-forward mounts and wills me around the next bend, then faster to the next boulder where the trail dips under an overhanging willow and disappears to the left. Looking back, I cannot see Thompson’s Oakleys glinting in the sun.
Bethany is breathing heavily and coming up from behind.
“Hey, speedy. You okay?”
“Yeah, I just wanna get there.”
She takes a double step to keep up and lowers her voice.
“I thought you two were talking again.”
“How did you leave things before?”
“It’s complicated. I didn’t really explain myself as usual. I mean, he told me not to throw what we had away and I told him not to wait for an uncertainty.”
“But he’s not going to Thailand to visit his brother?” she says.
“No. He sold his ticket.”
“And he came hiking in Arizona in hundred degree weather in the middle of August instead.”
Bethany is silent for a moment.
“I know you know this, but he’s strong enough to lean on.”
We don’t say anything for a few steps, and the hipbelt on the front of my pack is digging into me. “And if he goes away?”
She hesitates for a second. “Nothing would really be different, would it?”
I don’t answer. It would be different. It would be to miss the nearness, to strain and look without the possibility of hearing or seeing. Bethany stays up with me the whole way.
The rest of the trail is a dry, sandy river bottom that winds past giant boulders and water-carved red rock overhangs. There is a numbness where my pack’s weight presses on my collarbone, seeming to cut off circulation to my head. I shove my left thumb under the strap to relieve some tension and concentrate on my breathing. The sun is high when we reach the shack where we pay the wrinkled brown man. Brent pours water over his head and calls me “iron woman” and “the rest-free wonder.” Rand the ringleader reminds us that we have to carry all our trash out with us, can’t light fires, and should take advantage of the natural spring to fill up our water bottles before hiking out.
The campground is a series of cleared spaces under tall shade trees where the canyon walls draw close. The boys set up tents in a rough circle, and the girls spread a tarp in the middle where the canopy of leaves opens on sky. The air here is warm and dry, the breeze soothing on my skin. After a few minutes of repose and the rough, sweet tang of beef jerky, we leave our packs and head for the falls.
I leave my shoes behind, but have no sandals to wear. I don’t think of the white heat of the sand. Like I didn’t think of the black rough of the night I told Thompson I was only giving fifty percent and he needed someone willing to give herself whole. Like I didn’t think I’d like sitting in his passenger seat and listening to Van Halen⸺or that I’d miss it either.
Havasupai attracts many visitors because of its waterfalls. There are three giant ones within a few miles and even more if one is willing to hack a path in the brush or climb beyond the easily accessible falls. We head to the first one, and I am proud of the toughness of my feet as we climb over rough rock, down into the cliff’s edge⸺where we can see down fifty feet to the pool turned turquoise by lime. The pounding of the white falls prevents me from asking how we get down, and Dave pulls my hand toward a dark opening in the bleached rock. It is a cave-like tunnel, rough-hewn steps twisting down to the left. I see the light at the other opening and the outline of a metal rod with a chain attached. The remainder of the descent requires us to lower ourselves from metal pegs connected by heavy link chains to where we drop the last ten feet to the rocky beach.
The water is warm and mist rises where the falls churn the river. The walls, formed by hardened mineral flows, rise in petrified dripping masses around us, shading us from the sun. While floating in the pools of liquid aquamarine, we hear a call from Thompson and John, farther along the trail on the far side of the water, to follow them to some larger falls a few miles away. I think of my feet now, but it’s too late, and I don’t want to hike back alone. We join the pack, a bushwhacking war party, cutting our way through the green tangle where it obscures the white sand path.
My tough pads are feeling the wear of rough rock river crossings, and I find myself walking on the spiny brush at the edge of the trail to avoid the scalding sand. The sound of the last falls fades, and no sound comes to us from the canyon ahead. I let my breath out fast and hard when Dave says he can’t take the burning on his bare feet, and I volunteer to go back with him.
The stair cave is cool and dark when we reach it. I want to stay, but we keep on until we reach the shaded, soft path to the camp. I lie on my bag when we get back, smooth under my stomach, no rocks to disturb me, and write my fever out, my fingers scraped and raw from the return ascent, and the burn on the balls of my feet pounding with my heart.
The others return triumphantly reporting the “undiscovered and gigantic” waterfall they have found. They play Rook and Nertz until dusk. With the dusk comes quiet and the smell of ramen noodles from Scottie’s portable stove. I am content with the gritty cleanness of granola bars and fruit leather. Laura offers free ear cleanings, hygiene in the sticks, her ziplock of cotton swabs raised above her head in invitation. She commences work with Brent, her first hesitant customer, his blond afro glowing around him like a halo in the near twilight. His thin face breaks into a ghoulish, Jack-the-Pumpkin-King grin when I look at him, and Scottie says he could use some “backrub lovin’.” John seconds the motion with a half-raised forearm from his face-plant position on the far end of the tarp. A few groans all around and no one moves. Thompson is silent and his head twitches slightly from his book as I step toward him and then over him to start on John.
John hands me a wooden massage roller and is soon rubbed into sleepy delirium. I stop and listen to the night sounds. The stars in the moonless canopy are bright and pulsating. It is fully dark now and Thompson lies on his stomach, reading with his Oakleys on. John is breathing heavily and my hands have stopped. The silence stretches, someone shouts “Nertz!” from the picnic table, and Laura sends another clean-eared boy back into the game.
Thompson hasn’t turned a page: his breath seems caught it his ribcage. I let the wooden roller on the tarp, staring at his back. It isn’t moving and I can barely make out his white t-shirt in the dark. I imagine his heart still in its place, no longer pumping, the blood slowing, and I have to put my palm on his back, on the left side, my thumb gripping the edge of his scapula. He lets out his breath and the faint rhythm comes to me from inside. My rehearsed lines run the trails of my brain, coming out of my fingers, not yet vocally clothed. As I work out his weariness with the thoughts on my hands, my fever ebbs and the ache in my feet dulls. They are tired from walking so fast. Here, where it is open and smooth, where the trail does not cut down or burn like coal or cast up clouds of dust, I let him catch up with me. When the last knot is eased, he shuts his book and moves to his tent, pausing to touch my head in one smoothing motion from brow to crown, his breathing even. Tomorrow we will speak; I think myself to sleep.
During the day, Thompson is at the upper falls, jumping cliffs with John. I chase streams with Jana and Laura. All day, a song plays on repeat in my head: “I wanna hold you close, I wanna push you away. . . .” I have to sing something else out loud to get rid of it. At night, it is Nertz and Rook again. When the yelling is too much, Candice and I make ourselves absent and wash our hair in the river. My head is cool with the tight coil of hair piled on it, and Jana pats a spot on the tarp for me between her and Thompson. Her red hair reminds me of Glenda the good witch, and she seems to wink at me in the dim light as I lay myself down.
“We’re talking about books. I just asked Thompson what his favorite book is,” Jana says.
“I read Nibley mostly. I like the substance. I like to know
things, to understand,” he says.
I turn toward the sound of his voice. “I never knew that.”
He turns his face to me in the dark. I cannot see it, but I can feel it.
“What?” He didn’t hear my whisper.
“I never knew you read Nibley.”
“That was probably about my second layer. Maybe you weren’t listening.” It is quiet and he thinks I don’t hear, but I hear. I hear his voice and the implication that we’ve arrived beyond the second layer, deep enough to breathe liquid, but I’m still holding my breath.
My knot of hair feels tight and is pulling at my temples. The warm night air is smoothing the coolness out of my hair. Jana is called as referee and goes to the table to calm the debate. A sudden blast of wind from down the canyon blows over me, and I nearly miss the quiet words from Thompson.
“How is your brother?”
This layer is safe; it’s been exposed before, so I can show it.
“Not so good. My mother is worried.”
“Are you okay? I remember it was hard for you before.”
Before. The night last winter when he asked if I wanted to talk about it and he listened. I duck. “They don’t really mention it anymore, but it’s always there, y’know?”
“It’s there, right below the surface of everything, ready to explode. I don’t know what to do. I don’t feel there’s anything I can do.”
“Sometimes there isn’t anything to do but wait. Time is a healer. He needs that. I told you about me, didn’t I?”
“Yeah. Is that what helped you?”
“Yeah. I mean, I’m not saying it’s the answer to his situation because mine was different, but he’s not the only one to ever struggle like that. He just needs love right now. Love and time.”
“We all do sometimes,” he says.
“He’ll come around.”
His eyes are still fixed on the darkness near my face, but I do not turn to him. I cannot see him clearly, not clear like the night my brother’s band played and I first met her. I broke down and told Thompson all about their hasty Las Vegas wedding to fix the problem coming in nine months and showing in just a few. When I thought the silence would stretch heavy and long with hesitancy, he said he’d stay as long as I needed him. He’d stay until I was okay and the shaky breathing was regular again. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You can’t expect so much on your first encounter with her. Give yourself some time and things will even out.” The light in his blue eyes had penetrated me. He’d seen me⸺not all, but that part riddled and swaying with fear⸺and he’d stayed. He’d stayed as long as I needed him, until I was okay.
The wind picks up in the night and I feel a drop on my cheek, followed by a low rumble from somewhere down the canyon. It is too hot to stay in my bag, and the air in my nostrils is musty with the coming wet. I am still, but the wind gives me the sensation of tossing. Another wet drop and I hear a rustling from one of the tents. I can hear the soft rush of feet on sand and see the haze of a white shirt move to the trail down to the falls. I curl up to stand and follow, barefoot.
Without the moon, it is hard to see the sand and I stop at the rocks. I sit down to go over the edge to the cave opening. I can hear the scrape of him inside and I enter the black. Thompson is sitting on the edge of the other opening, feet dangling over the lip of the cliff. He doesn’t turn as I sit down, lowering each leg slowly.
“Couldn’t sleep.” He looks across the canyon to the clear sky of stars above, unobscured by trees. “You can’t hear it, but you can see it.”
“The sky. The night.” He pauses without breathing and turns to me.
“What?” Sleep is still clinging to my thoughts.
“I got your postcard from London about doors loosening and rooms needing air, about how savory an onion can be unpeeled and alone. I may not get all of Shakespeare’s lines, but I got yours. I see you walk; I see you fighting to be brave and tough, hiking barefoot without admitting it hurts. I see you.”
I can feel his blue eyes on my face. “I know.”
The water pours down hard and loud, and I can feel the cool spray from far below. I want to pour like that, rushing down so loud that he can hear it, that he can feel it and see it and taste it and know it⸺know all the inside and out. I want to let him hear it and see if it’s too much, see if he still wants to stay. I can feel the lines in my head, building, like the speed of the river as it comes to the drop.
I breathe deeply and watch the water as it spills over the cliff freefalling to the bottom. He remains with his shoulder turned to the stars and his face intent on mine. “You don’t have to. ”
I pour. I sit still and I pour it down fast and quiet, the dark and the struggle, the years of loathing myself for not being stronger, not fighting harder, the carrying of the constant weight, and the fever in my head; the night my eyes lingered on the knife rack and it seemed easy to stop the struggle of self against self the day I ran with the team down to the canyon trail, and a semi was coming opposite us, and I though how easy it would be to take two strides to the side in a stumble and end it; the fear of and need for help; the hours of clinical terms and soothing voices, little blue and white pills. I pour it all down for him to catch, to hold in his hands or let pass through. That night the stars spoke to me, and I knew that something bigger than me had a hand in it. I had to hold my grip and keep my pace.
My temples burned with the fear of admitting the need for medication and “talking it through,” relaxation breathing exercises, positive and constructive coping mechanisms, and cool, clinical tones.
With the lifting comes ease and the cranial pressure lessens.
My breathing is shallow. The falls are quieter. How long have I been speaking? Thompson is facing me, and I have to count before I turn. The light of the stars is bright, and the white of the water catches it. A drop on his cheek reflects light as it comes down. He blinks and another follows the first salty trail. He doesn’t look away. He doesn’t speak. His eyes are full of blue, fluid and deep, deep enough to draw from and still be bottomless. We don’t move, but stay as we are. We cannot hear it, but we can see it and feel it⸺the night and the sky and the enormity of the space where we have entered, whole and seen.
My face is warm now where his heart pumps under it. The falls cool my fever-abandoned head, and I know that tomorrow I can walk slowly up the trail with him⸺up and out.