So she tried to keep her thoughts as small and contained as the jars of preserves that lined her parents' farmhouse cupboards, each one filled with the sealed-off glow of summer. Even her dreams were tentative. She wanted him to touch her hair. She wanted him to watch her sleep.
Yet Ryan, also, seemed to desire piecemeal things. That winter, all they did was boulder on the smears and short icefalls near their Midwestern university town, following the railroad tracks by the Mississippi River to look for frozen gullies, parking his truck by quarries, sneaking in, illegally, at night. She kept to the lower angle slabs. For months, the temperatures had dropped across America. Barns and silos faded into white tundra. Even the days were dark with cold. Too often, the tips of her axes glanced off the hardened ice. But whenever she turned, Ryan's shadow would be moving up the steepest sections without pause, just the sound of metal tapping against the ice, and the wind-chime falling of shards.
She wanted to feel what he felt, to climb what he climbed. For there to be no boundary between them. But he never brought a rope and he never soloed anything easy enough for her to try.
When he dropped her off at her apartment, afterward, the darkness between the half-lit streets would make the world appear to flicker, slowly, out. She tried to reassure herself that she was lucky to want so little: an unemployed man eighteen years older than she was, who went to the same small bars and chossy crags he'd frequented since high school. Beyond him might lie other, more infinite things, desires that could never be fulfilled.
In the evenings before she drove to his house, she'd spend hours in front of the mirror, plucking a stray eyebrow hair, using a different color lipstick—just as in her school essays, she'd pore over the slightest shifting of words and commas in search of something like beauty.
Too studious as a child, she'd been the most unpopular girl in her hometown: an even smaller place than the one they lived in now. After she discovered rock climbing during her first semester at university, nothing else had mattered, not even her belayers: only the euphoria that enfolded her, that didn't require anything or anyone outside of itself.
She saw Ryan for the first time late one November evening, soloing a pillar that had formed down a dormitory fire escape. His movements flowed in and out of the streetlight's shadow, tracing arcs and curves across the rippled ice and the black metallic grates. The most important part of aesthetics, she knew from philosophy class, was radiance, the awareness of the thing-in-itself. In the instant that she watched him climb, he "was." She told him that, once he returned to the ground. He made an ugly expression at the odd compliment, then grinned. “I like that,” he said. “What else do you think?” He handed her his axes and helped her hands through the wrist loops.
“You're a climber, try swinging a little,” he said, “and then tell me what you think.”
She'd never ice climbed before. That night and over the next month as she let him teach her, most of the thoughts she had were the kind she couldn't speak. Instead, she gathered her courage slowly, hoarding it in secret like the acorns the attic mice left in her abandoned dress shoes, adding to it each of his kind and absent-minded words.
At last one night in a quarry, after watching him climb up and down a steep bulge, she said. “I'd like to do that.”
Ryan dropped his axes in the snow, suddenly curious. “I'll spot you.”
The lack of confidence in his voice made her self-conscious. She didn't belong there. Not on a hard climb. Not on his climb. She began to swing too hard, as though she could force out the thought. Only a few feet up, a block turned opaque, then broke; she lost her footing, and the other axe sheered. His hands steadied her as she fell. Her feet hit the snow. She stumbled, caught her balance against him.
“Are you all right?” he said.
“Yeah. Are you?” His hands still pinched her waist.
“Why are so nice?” Jessie said. “Why do you climb with me?”
“What do mean, like me?” Distant streetlights turned everything—sky and earth, tower and road—a dim orange fading into black, like vision at the verge of losing consciousness.
“I think you're hitting on me,” he said. His voice had undertones she hadn't heard before: fear, contempt, anger. A sense of betrayal, perhaps.
“Fuck you,” she might have said. Or: “Don't flatter yourself.” Or: “Yes, actually, I am.” But she cried instead, and he watched her.
His hand raised, rested on the frame of her pack for a moment, shaking, and then drew away.
But the next Friday, Ryan sounded as cheerful as usual on the phone while he rambled through another weekend plan, a new place, just a few hours away. A public park this time; they could go in the daylight; they wouldn't have to trespass. Perhaps nothing had happened between them.
Winding paths lulled Jessie down the riverbanks, along a maze of dark, sandstone canyons to where a frozen waterfall hung suspended in a shaft of green light: thirty-five feet or so, and vertical.
Ryan uncurled a rope from his pack. “You seemed upset,” he said, as a sort of explanation. “I'm not even sure you should be climbing now.”
He dragged the rope up with him as he climbed without a belay, then set up a toprope anchor and rappelled down.
Stillness brimmed up from the canyon floor and became unbearable.
“It's OK,” Jessie said, when he handed her the rope. “I don't need it.”
“Don't be stupid,” he said. “I'd be more impressed if you'd act sensible.”
She moved the rope to the side and hung it over a bulge in the ice, where it wouldn't get in her way, where she wouldn't be able to reach it.
“You'd fucking better be doing this for yourself,” he said.
There was time and then there wasn't to back off.
Thoughts burst and receded between the choice of a placement and the swing of her axe, between the metal and the ice—he was right, she shouldn't be there, she shouldn't be doing this—but it didn't matter anymore, because she was too scared and too intent to down climb, because she had to finish. With each movement upward, she seized another fragment of his world: the curtain where he'd hooked his axes and left small white shavings; the loose snow at the top, combed through with his tool marks, that she struck over and over, her legs shaking and her mind stretched tight, until her axe hit a patch of buried, solid ice, and with a few more kicks she stood at last on a frozen creek bed.
Around her, silhouettes of branches multiplied, weaving together in infinite designs, drawing her gaze out past them into the vastness of the distant fields, the river and the sky—into the vision of an empty and suddenly unknown land. Then all across the snowy plains, the sunset, radiant and fading—was.
The sound of her own name startled her; Jessie looked down. She'd forgotten them both. Ryan's face turned upward, transfixed and pale. She'd frightened him into really seeing her. It was an unfair act. He was more vulnerable, she realized, than herself. For she could leave him, now, in this place, in this town, and he would never change.
High above the gathering dark, icicles formed streaks of sharp green light. Jessie's sweat chilled. Gratitude rushed through her, overwhelming as the sensation flooding back to her numbed hands: first pain, and then, renewed life. She'd taken all she could from him. But there was so much else the universe had left for her to find and give.
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