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!"
Start of Part II
Before John could even begin to enjoy watching her climb, he heard the clank of the top anchors clip shut and saw her hanging from the top waiting for him to take the rope. When her feet touched back down on the ground, he looked at her and said, "That was quick."
"Thanks," she said as she untied her rope. Her breath was heavier than before, and she seemed to be warmed up now, maybe even ready to jump on harder climbs. I guess I have to get on the same page now, he thought and nervously tied in. He scoped out the route with his hands, as Angel had before him, grasping the invisible holds above. Angel warned him about a sloper just above the roof. "It's OK from below, but it loses it's effectiveness once you get high on it. I think you'll have to get your feet up first to get past it."
"What's the one above it like?"
"Good," she said. "Not great, but good."
Just as John was about to start up the route, a loud “HELLO” shouted across the gym. He looked up and saw a tall, thin, tanned man walking toward Angel with his arms outstretched, apparently waiting for a hug. She smiled, turned to her friend and gave him a strong, longing squeeze followed by a peck on the cheek.
“How are ya babe?” he asked as he wrapped his arm around her waist.
“Fine, and you?”
“Just jolly. You ready to climb?”
“I am, but I have a partner right now. Are you ready to climb?”
“Not yet, babe,” he said and turned to John. He extended his hand and asked with a huge smile, “And who is this?”
“John,” John said shaking his hand. “John Knowles, and you?”
“Phineas Costello,” he said. “Nice to meet you.”
Phineas Costello? Interesting name. “Are you going to join us?” John asked. He hoped Angel and Phineas were just friends, close enough to share “European” kisses on the cheek but not much more.
“Join? This is my girl,” Phineas said, again walking up to Angel and hugging her. “You’re joining us.”
“Phineas,” Angel said, “stop. Be nice. We can climb together.”
“Yes we can my angel, but I need to stretch first, and drink some water, and use the bathroom, stink up the place –”
“OK,” Angel said as she pushed him away. “We got the point. Go get ready.”
Phineas walked away with a bounce in his step that suggested he enjoyed being provincial around Angel. He acted as if he knew she was his girlfriend, and that she wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. John was disappointed, however. Up until that moment he had harbored strong feelings that this was the right time to jump back into the game. Everything seemed to fit together so perfectly: her name, her timing, her mannerisms and ability to show believable, kind support, things that Cassandra rarely exhibited. Almost instantly, his nervousness was swept away by a fierce wave of competitiveness, but it wasn’t aimed at Angel at all. Instead, it was aimed at both Phineas and Cassandra at the same time. For Cassandra, he wanted to prove he could overcome setbacks such as this. He was foolish to have thought this would be easy, that someone would walk into his life and sweep him off his feet without him going through the lengthy pains of a breakup. He should have known better, but that only deepened his resolve to not give up. Angel was nice, pretty and desirable. She wasn’t unworthy of his wooing, and he wanted her to know that.
For Phineas, well, John had always had a chip on his shoulder regarding larger-than-life figures. He wanted to be the star himself, but at the same time he never had the capability of holding on to such high ground. There were times when he had everything going at a party, when he had all the great stories, good jokes and one-line zingers that sent crowds of people into fits of laughter. But he always felt lonely at the same time, as if everyone expected him to lead the way, offering no support or advice from below. And when he disappointed, when his jokes ran out, people typically shunned him. But for people like Phineas, they got away with failure all the time. There was something about them that made everyone want to give people like him a free pass. It was as if talent had no expectations, but expectations were high for the untalented like John. In short, he simply couldn’t handle being that guy, and he envied those who could. Not only was Phineas one of those guys, but he was also Angel’s boyfriend, and that generated a roar inside John more vicious than the one he had when he first saw Cassandra climbing with her new beau.
“You ready?” he asked as he grasped the first two holds.
“Belay is on,” she said. “Good luck.”
Luck will have nothing to do with it, he thought as he powered his way through the start move into a tiny crimp hold that nearly sapped all of John’s forearm strength. He held on, however, and swung his feet up to the original starting hand-holds before standing up in a no-hands rest.
“Nice move,” Angel said from below. “I could never do that.”
Maybe I’ve got something to show her after all. The next section was short but steep, as a small roof protruded from the flat wall over his head. A series of underclings awaited him, and then there was the sloper she warned him about prior to his starting the climb. He grasped the first undercling with his left hand and shifted his feet higher to better utilize the angle of the hold. It was a stiff move, but he shot through it feeling strong for the first time that day. The second undercling was not as difficult because the feet were better, but the third and final one, the one leading to the sloper, required a shift in balance that John was not expecting. He stood up and grabbed the third undercling with his left hand, felt around for the best angle and decided it was too difficult for him to continue without scouting it first. He wanted to be able to switch hands on the second undercling because he felt the third one would work better with his right hand.
“Take,” he said as he began to lower his body off the hold.
“Uh, John,” Angel said, “you didn’t clip the first clip. Sorry, I thought you were going to before you went into the next hold.”
What?!?!? Jesus! His feet were now a solid seven feet above the floor, and his head and back were angled in such a way that if he fell he was certain to land on his back if he couldn’t get his feet under him first. Sweat formed again on his right palm, which was still holding the second undercling, the one he was going to have to retreat to if he wanted to clip.
“If you want to bail,” Angel said, “I’ll spot you.”
There was no way he was going to bail. Not when he heard Phineas walk back up to Angel and ask, “What’s his problem?”
John slowly lowered himself from the third undercling to the second where he shook out his hands, switched a couple of times to chalk up and then clipped the first clip. He was tired, his arms were pumped and he could feel his leg begin to shake underneath him.
“I’ve got you now,” Angel said as she pulled the rope tight. John nearly let go to rest until he heard Phineas say to Angel, “Is he really going to rest on the first clip of a 5.10?”
All at once, his rage ignited a fire in his chest and he threw himself into the third undercling, let his body barn-door and slapped his hand on the sloper above the roof. After clipping the second clip, he remembered Angel’s warning about having to get his feet up before moving past the sloper, but he ignored her. He was going to do this his way, to show Phineas, at the very least, he was his own man, capable of climbing a stiff route and being a threat to his relationship with Angel at the same time. It was a powerful move that required him to turn a two-handed mantle with solid feet into a one-handed mantle with no feet below him. The next hold was another crimp, similar to the one at the start, and he tucked his fingertips behind the tiny edge as he matched his right foot to his hand on the sloper. He stood up and clipped the third clip.
“Wow,” Angel said from below. “That was a really nice move.”
“Wasted some energy there,” Phineas said, “but you did it.”
“I had to get my feet up,” Angel said to Phineas.
“I can see that being the right move,” Phineas said.
It was amazing to John how tired and energized he felt at the same time. He wasn’t sure how long he would last if he held the crimp forever, but it seemed as if he could hold it for a long time. His fingers, shoulders and legs were tired and he had broken out into a sweat. But his heart was calm now, not racing as it was earlier. His head was clear of distractions, and his only goal was to show up Phineas and make him feel inadequate. The next five moves to through the fourth clip and to the top were slow and easy, and John crept up them without any annoying comments from below. When he was finally back on the ground, Angel congratulated him yet again on another solid climb. This time, however, there was a level of excitement in her voice, and her face suggested she was truly excited to see him succeed so well. Gone were the polite pick-me-ups from before, and John felt as if he had finally broken through to her. Phineas seemed less thrilled, and offered to belay Angel before John even had a chance to untie the rope.
“I have to wait for the rope,” she said with a half-giggle in her voice. It was clear she was amused by his territorialism, but was also telling him to be kind at the same time.
“Top rope something,” he said. “Over here, there’s a new eleven just put up last night. I’ll lead it after you top it.”
“Don’t you want to climb something?” she asked.
“Nope, I’ll belay you,” he said. “He can belay me on lead when you’re done.” She looked at John and he said he’d bring the rope over once he finished untying. Angel and Phineas then walked around the corner, out of sight from where John was resting, and John flopped down on his back, letting his arms fall out to his side as he tried to catch his breath. It was clear to John that Phineas wanted John to watch him climb a difficult route, more difficult that the one John had just come off of. There was no other reason why Phineas would be so adamant about wanting John to belay to him. John smiled. He figured Phineas also wanted to belay Angel so he could hold her and be her protector. It made John wonder if women saw these games that men played, if it was obvious to her what Phineas was saying.
Despite not being able to see them, he could hear Phineas’ deep voice teasing Angel, and her responsive shrieks of laughter. It was going to take a lot more than a stiff 5.10 to win her over. Phineas clearly had her heart entrapped, and John knew he was going to have to find a way to get him out of the picture. As he untied, he realized he had stopped thinking about Cassandra and had moved on to Angel. It might have been the adrenaline, but he also felt there was a separate peace inside of him. He wasn’t sure if it was acceptable to have moved on so quickly, or even if he had moved on. Certainly, Angel had captured his heart, but he also knew Cassandra could come stabbing back at any moment, making him feel lost and guilty at the same time. In one direction there was pain and in another there was hope. It was as if he was driving east at daybreak. It was still dark in his rearview mirror, but the sun was rising in front and he looked forward to the new day.
When he finally made it over to where Phineas and Angel were climbing, she was just coming down and was noticeably tired. She explained it was a tough route, but was happy she had done it cleanly the first time. Phineas was up and, without a word, grabbed one end of the rope and tied in. John looped his end through his belay device and nodded to Phineas to suggest he was ready. Phineas turned to scope out the route. His back was to John and he seemed to be muttering something John could not hear.
“What’s that?” he asked Phineas.
Without turning around, Phineas pointed to midway up the route and said, “Don’t short rope me there. I’ll need the slack to get up.” He then placed his body into the start move and began to climb the first section. John noticed he wasn’t as graceful as Angel was, but he was strong and powered through a series of laybacks and mantles with ease. He clipped the first clip with some difficulty, as he had a hard time staying in a locked, dead-arm position, but that moment was short-lived. The next three moves were completed with refined power; no grunts or heavy breathing but it was clear his core was stiff as he squeezed each crimp on his way up. He clipped the second clip from a jug and rested in a solid, dead-arm position.
John looked above Phineas at the area where he pointed to before climbing. There was the jug he was holding on to, then what looked like a half-moon off to his right. Above that there was nothing for several feet until John’s rested his eyes on a tiny foothold below a much larger jug of some sort. He couldn’t tell how positive the jug was, but he figured the move from the half-moon to the jug was going to be a big one, and if Phineas didn’t make it, there was a chance he could deck out if John had too much rope out.
“How did you get through this?” John asked Angel.
“I had to dyno through it,” she said. “But I’m shorter and I wasn’t on lead. This would be scary for me.”
Phineas breathed out three quick, heavy breaths before he grabbed ahold of the half-moon. It was obvious he was in a spot that was more stringent than any of the other areas at the start of the climb. John gave him slack, not knowing if Phineas was going to dyno from the start. Instead, Phineas started to power his way through the half-moon slowly. He wasn’t going to dyno at first, instead he was going to try to mantle up to the jug. But that didn’t work out, so he retreated to below the half-moon and chalked up. He went for the same move a second time, this time getting a little higher than before. But it still wasn’t enough and he retreated again. The third time he went up, he was able to just get his fingertip on the foothold below the jug. Phineas was now in a position where down climbing was not going to be as easy as it was the first two times. His entire body weight was leveraged on his right hand, which was in a stiff-arm mantle, and his balance depended on him holding himself by the fingertip on the foothold. His right arm started to shake under the weight of his body and John took in a little bit of rope just to make sure Phineas didn’t deck out if he fell. Slowly, Phineas’ finger wrapped itself higher up the foothold. He was getting a better grip each time he repositioned his finger, but at the same time, John thought his core was giving out and that he was going to fall at any moment. It was a tense situation for John. One the one hand, he didn’t want to drop the guy, but on the other hand, he desperately wanted him to fall. Seeing the difference in Angel’s facial expressions between when he successfully climbed his 5.10 and Phineas falling on this 5.11 was going to be worth it. It didn’t matter that Phineas was on a harder route. There was no doubt he was a better athlete than John was. But joy and happiness rarely come from failure, regardless of difficulty, and John understood he’d have the leg up on Angel’s admiration if Phineas fell. Seeing Phineas was about to fall, John took in more rope, but just as he did so, Phineas gained enough grip on the foothold to propel himself up toward the jug.
Unfortunately, John had taken in too much rope, and as the rope went tight Phineas’ hand went searching for the jug that was now just out of his reach. He hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity to John, his suspension framed by the chimney-shaped walls below him. John prepared to jump in the air to give Phineas a soft landing, but as he did the rope fell slack again, confusing John as he slipped to the ground. He looked up, first seeing Angel’s hurt eyes and then blood dripping down from Phineas’ head. He had apparently hit his head on a nearby hold on the way down, and there was blood all over the wall. John quickly lowered him, and Angel rushed to see if he was OK. Phineas was dazed, but responsive. He didn’t look at John, only at Angel who was pushing apart his hair to see how bad the cut was. Other people ran to Phineas’ aid, including one of the gym’s managers, Gene Snively. Gene asked Phineas a series of questions to see if he was alright and then helped him to walk to the door. John stood below the route with the rope still in his belay device. He watched Angel place a towel over Phineas’ bloody head before they walked out the door. He wondered if he would see either of them again.
Gene then walked over to John, shaking his head as he approached. When he did, he asked if the rope belonged to him or Angel. John said it was Angel’s, and as Gene took the rope from John and started to walk outside to return it, he looked back at John and asked, “Was he short-roped or did you pull him?”
Note from the Author - Partial credit deserves to go to a favorite author of mine who wrote one of the most influential books I ever read. Kudos to the the first reader to guess the book and author that inspired this story.