Tucking the bottom of his left foot against his straightened right knee, he leaned forward and pulled the toes on his right foot backward. He was tight, and was sure that had more to do with being stressed and tense than it did with a lack of stretching. Since he found out that Cassandra had been cheating on him, he felt like he had been sleepwalking. Everything around him became a slow blur; unfocused when he tried to concentrate. His boss noted his lack of attention and twice he exploded in meetings where he felt as if he was being attacked. A scream erupted from within his chest as he stretched. Thankfully, It was held back by a combination of the lump in his throat, a hardened chin, and his gritted teeth. What am I doing here? he wondered. Despite wanting to be alone, actually climbing alone was something he never considered. There were several friends of his who often climbed alone and enjoyed the solitude, but John preferred the company, the help he could get from his belayor below him and the camaraderie. He and his friends were constantly tossing barbs and cheers at each other. Cassandra was both his biggest supporter and toughest critic. While he understood that climbing was ultimately a solitary sport - his own courage against nature's impossibilities, all played out in his mind and no one else's - there was also safety in numbers. Without Cassandra, John felt that his climbing grades would fall precipitously until he found someone to catch him, and hoist him back up again.
He took a long time to stretch: twenty minutes beyond his normal five to ten minutes. He wanted to make sure that he was ready, completely flexible to take on whatever the world was about to throw at him. He had quite a shock when Cassandra told him it wasn't just a fling -
"It's pretty serious now," she said.
"How long?" John asked.
"Three months, or so. I like him, and I think I'm going to go with him from this point on. I'm sorry."
What if she shows up? What am I going to do? How am I going to react? he asked himself over and over again. These were questions he should have answered before showing up, but he came to the gym that day partially to find the answers at the same time. It’s sink or swim time now. He figured that climbing the past three weeks had been easy on Cassandra without him at the gym to bother her. All she had to do was show up, look around, be relieved that he wasn’t there and enjoy herself. His absence gave her all the room that she would need to completely move on, or at least that is what he hoped. I don't need drama when I'm trying to move on myself. Still, tightness had formed in his throat when he left his apartment to come to the gym. He desperately wanted to see her, but only as his flame, not someone else's.
Finally, he took a deep breath and sighed, slowly, anticipating the worst, before looking up and around him. There was no sign of Cassandra just yet, and that made him feel a little better. At least she's extending me the same courtesy of not showing up, he thought and breathed a sigh of relief this time. She wasn't there when he wanted to climb and he wasn't there when she wanted to climb. Not only was it convenient, but it was typical of their relationship. There was no question they cared deeply for each other, maybe even loved each other, but they were always too wrapped up in their own worlds to make accommodations when the other needed support. When he didn't see her at the gym, it was more than a matter of consequence to him; it was about respect, breathing room, trust, courage – Argghh!!! Keeping his emotions in was proving difficult. Every little thought triggered another thought, and then another. After a while, he resigned to believing that he couldn't single out one element. It's was about everything. The problem was figuring out which thoughts were priorities that had to be dealt with, and which ones were born from pettiness and anger.
“Wow,” he said to himself, “the hurt never changes. It's just as confusing today as it was ten years ago.”
No matter how many times he’d been through this, from his first high school crush, to the various college encounters, workplace romances and his recently finished five-year relationship with Cassandra, he always felt the same, as if he wanted to scream, shout, run around with his arms flailing, punch walls, hit people – whatever it took to take away the pain. He felt his chest tighten, even as he stretched it, and his eyes bounced around from one object to the next, never staying focused long enough to make out who or what he was looking at out fear that, when he did rest his eyes, he'd be staring at Cassandra, maybe even longingly, to her discomfort. Eventually, however, he did lock eyes with a blue-eyed, blond girl who was also stretching nearby in a long-sleeved, dark, green shirt and a yellow headband. John had seen her before and thought she was attractive, but he had never spoken to her let alone lock eyes. There was never any need to because he was always firmly attached to Cassandra and his or her friends. She smiled, and he returned the smile thinking that it was just an awkward moment that she diplomatically diffused by not being rude.
"OK," he said to himself as he stood up. "What am I going to do?" He honestly had never climbed alone before, but that didn't mean there weren't opportunities to do so. There was always bouldering. If he did that, all he needed to do was stand up and start climbing. If he fell, there were always plenty of mats to fall on. That's what bouldering is, he thought, climbing for people who don't like heights, don't have gear, prefer power to grace, or don't have many friends. It sounded like the perfect activity for him until he saw that he was wrong on the last point. To his surprise, few boulderers were actually climbing alone. Most were spotting other climbers or, at the very least, cheering them on as they grunted their way up the short, powerful routes. While he knew there was a strong likelihood that no one would ask him where Cassandra was, he didn't feel like talking about it to anyone. All he wanted to do was get the lump out of his throat and the pain off his chest. He never really liked bouldering anyway, mainly because it required a combination of strength and dynamic moves that caused his joints to snap back painfully. He had tried it several times before, and each time ended up hurt, straining a muscle or aggravating a nerve, usually in his elbow or just below his neck. His friends who bouldered called him weak, but his head didn’t work like theirs did. He needed to conquer the fear of falling to make him feel like a man. Strength was never his strong suit.
He browsed over the bouldering routes in front of him anyway, studying the various grades and he gritted his teeth. The easiest bouldering grades were usually the equivalent of moderate roped grades. He never even started his days on the moderate grades; preferring instead to ease into his sessions by warming up on the easiest routes in the gym. Because of this, he ruled bouldering out, at least for the time being. I might have to come back if nothing else works out, he thought. He shrugged his shoulders and looked toward the roped climbs.
"Excuse me," a voice said to John. He turned around and saw the girl with the yellow headband trying to squeeze past him toward one of the easy bouldering routes. He apologized and stepped aside to let her through, watching her as she sat down on the ground and grasped the two starting holds with each hand. She placed her feet solidly on the jibs and, in one single motion, she stood up and reached across her body with her right hand to the next hold above her. She then brought her left foot across her knees and gracefully turned a barn-door into a move up to the next hold. Four more moves of similar elegance brought her to the finish, where she brought her feet up into a squat and walked off the top.
When she disappeared over the railing above the boulder, John took a closer look at the roped area, this time paying attention to what he saw. Still no Cassandra. He was feeling better now; more confident that maybe she wasn't going to show up after all. He knew that there was still a chance that she could be climbing around the corner where he couldn't see her, but he was OK with that. I can always climb where she can't see me. He smiled until he realized he still didn’t have a climbing partner. Seeing the girl in the yellow headband gracefully work her way up the bouldering route made him think about traversing instead of bouldering. Traversing, to him, was different than bouldering because there was significantly less impact on the joints. Sure, it was pumpy and required strength, but the required-strength was more based on a sustained diligence, an ability to maintain a hold, cross over, lay back and shift one’s weight to better work with the angle of the holds and the wall. Sustained climbing sounded good to him, but if Cassandra was climbing in the gym then he’d certainly come across her as he made his way past every single route. It would be lame to be traversing and, all of a sudden, see her, get off the wall and walk away to another part of the gym to finish his workout. I have to be my own man at some point, he thought. Because he wasn’t sure about his emotional stability, he passed on traversing and turned toward the cork board behind him.
Attached to the cork was a whiteboard with a dry-erase marker dangling by a piece of black tape. There were three names already written there, but John figured that, because most of the time people from the previous day didn’t erase their names when they found a partner, the names on the board wouldn't be relevant to him. He paid no attention to the names already on the board, and wrote his own (John), the time he showed up (3pm) and his identifiable clothes (long-sleeved, navy fleece). After he wrote his name, he read the others names for kicks, and looked around to see if anyone fitting the descriptions was climbing.
Name one: Barry – six o’clock – black shirt. Obviously yesterday considering it’s only three o’clock now. Besides, who writes “six o’clock” on a dry-erase-board? He erased the name, not caring if Barry’s watch was wrong and he was sitting in a corner somewhere lonely, waiting for a partner or wondering why no one was talking to him.
Name two: Jackson – 10am – brown shirt, black pants, orange harness, green chalk bag, yellow shoes. Whatever. Either he’s already found a partner or he lied about what he was wearing. That name disappeared with one swipe of his forearm across the board.
Name three: Angel – 2:45 – long, green shirt, yellow headband.
"Do you need someone to climb with?" someone asked from behind. Great, he thought, I'm going to be saved by an angel today. Whoopee! He turned around, and was immediately taken aback when he saw the girl in the headband standing next to him.
"Uh, sure," he said. "Do you?"
"I'm Angel," she said as she extended her hand, apparently saying "yes" to his question.
"John," he replied as he shook her hand in return.
"Do you have a rope?" she asked.
"That's OK," she said, "I'll get mine. You can lead belay right?" He could, and nodded to her to suggest that as she walked off.
Huh, he thought. What do you know? He wondered if this was some sort of divine intervention, as if he was being told to forget about Cassandra and focus on Angel instead. Her name certainly lent itself to that ideal, but he shook head thinking that it was too soon. I can't be expected to jump back on the horse after only three weeks. My head is just playing games with me. Forget about it.
When she returned with her rope, they ventured over to a warm-up route that she picked out, a 5.7, and he belayed her as she led her way up the wall. He was impressed with her movements, each transition was so smooth, so carefully thought out just as she was on the bouldering route earlier. She clipped each draw with poise too, almost without looking, and scouted each move above her without stopping to think through the sequence. She just moved up the wall. There was no wasted energy. He felt that he was watching someone with real talent, and couldn’t wait to watch her climb the harder routes later on.
When she came down, it was his turn. He complimented her on a nice climb and tied in. But as he grabbed the first hold, an odd nervousness came over him that reminded him of the first time he had climbed with Cassandra. Despite the fact that he and Cassandra had already been together for two years, John felt as if he needed to impress her that day, to show her that he could do this despite everyone's general fears of heights and unfamiliarity with climbing in general. While John and Cassandra enjoyed climbing with each other, it became a source of competition between the two, with each trying to out-climb the other. It was always a race to see who could flash the first 5.10, then cleanly lead the first 5.11, and so on. They encouraged each other, and hoped that each would succeed. But deep down inside, John always wanted to get there first, to be one step ahead of her. He cringed as he remembered that, and realized that it was she who was one step ahead of him now. Proving himself to Angel at that moment was just as important as keeping up with Cassandra. It was the same thing in his mind. If he was going get back at Cassandra by moving on before the hurt should have subsided, he needed to impress Angel that day, and he needed to start by climbing as well.
"Ready?" he asked.
"Belayor is ready," she said.
"Climbing," he said as he pulled himself up onto the first set of holds. Easy enough, he thought as he positioned himself to make the first clip. When he grabbed the rope with his right hand, however, he felt his left palm moisten from sweat and begin to slip off the hold. As a result, he rushed the rope up to the clip and dropped it in unsteadily, trying three times to get the rope through the gate before it fell in. That was weird. He never broke out into a sweat until after his third or fourth climb of the day, - after he was well-warmed up - and he had never fallen on the first clip of a 5.7.
"Belay is on," she said from below. Great, he thought. He was convinced that she had sensed his nervousness. What a way to start out. The rest of the route went much the same: hand holds that he should have felt relaxed on were slippery under his fingers; foot holds that he should have been confident on were too slopey, small or in the wrong place. Three times he nearly dropped the rope while trying to clip. He simply could not get into a rhythm. When he finally came down, she said "nice job" to him and added that she thought he looked smooth and strong throughout. OK, he thought. What was she looking at exactly?
"Not bad for the first climb of the day," she said. "What's next, 5.8?"
"Sure," he said. She picked out the second route and it felt much the same as the first; her advancing through each move with the grace of a cat, and John struggling to find his hands and feet. Thank God I haven't needed to rest, he thought as she lowered him off the 5.8. She complimented him again, which made John feel odd. What is she seeing up there? I'm barely holding on and she thinks I'm flying up this stuff.
"How long have you been climbing?" she asked.
John was breathing heavily, so he used the fact that the knot was tight to not answer her right away. No need to let her think that I'm wasted this soon, he thought. When he finally got the knot loose enough to untie himself, he looked up and said, "Three years. That's it."
"You do well for only three years," she said. "I liked watching you climb this last route. You seem like you are really in control. Real strong."
"Thanks. So do you, by the way. Real graceful."
She blushed, and John looked away to give her a moment to regain her composure. He didn't want to embarrass her the first day they met, so he asked her if she had another route in mind just to get the embarrassment out her head.
"Sure," she said, "over here." She walked over to what John thought was a 5.10 and dropped the rope.
"I need a drink," he said. She acknowledged him by nodding her head, and turned to map out the route with her hands by grasping into the air every time she felt she had read the sequence properly. It was so casual to him, the way she moved about. Even in moments of uncertainty, she held her arms above her head in the position she imagined herself being in until she knew what to do next, and then she moved on to the next set of holds. John became nervous again. This was going to be a test for him. He knew he couldn't compete with Angel. She was simply too good. But at the same time, he desperately wanted to prove to her that he was worthy, that he was confident enough to take on challenges without letting on that something was, in fact, a challenge. It was the same when he first met Cassandra. They sat across from each other at a rapid-fire dating event, where each person sat with another for one minute, asking and answering as many questions as possible in a short period of time before moving on to the next person. He wanted her to ask all the questions so he could show her that he had all the answers. It somehow worked, albeit for only five years.
When he returned from taking his drink, a song ("Push" - by The Cure) came over the speakers that made her smile. "I love this song so much," she said as she fixed her hair into a ponytail.
"Yeah, so do I," John said. "I saw them live a couple of years ago. I never realized how talented Robert Smith is."
"I know what you mean," she said. "I never fell into that crowd when I was growing up, the "Cure" crowd; you know, the crowd who always wore black clothes with black eyeliner, white faces?"
"Oh yeah," John said. "I'm the same way. It took me years to discover them just because of that. It's funny how one holds on to stereotypes from high school. I wish I had been exposed to them earlier."
"And you know what? Before I got into them," she said, "I thought they were all about depression and suicide, but that isn't it at all. All their songs are about love. Kind of weird isn't it?"
"It is," John said. "And to think when I saw them in concert, not only was I surprised that it wasn't all about depression and suicide, but I was shocked to see Robert Smith smiling throughout the whole show. 'I'm happy!' he seemed to be saying. It was an education, I'll say that much."
She turned back toward the route and John thought, Hey, not only does she climb, but we share something in common too. Everything seemed to be falling into place, even though he didn't plan anything. Cassandra dumped him three weeks ago and he was given a few weeks to compose himself and move on. He hadn't tried to talk to Angel at all, yet there she was preparing to climb above his belay. Even when they first locked eyes, John thought it was nothing more than an awkward moment. He wasn't looking for romance, but it seemed to have found him anyway. The fact that her name was "Angel" was starting to sit well with him too. Maybe it is divine intervention. Maybe this was meant to be after all. Before she jumped on the first hand holds, she began to sing the opening lyrics to the song:
"Go, go, go,
Go, go, go - Push him away!
No, no, no,
No, no, no - Don't let him stay!"