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The Birthday Dance - Friday, Dec. 20, 2019
Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019 @ 10:22 am
Friday afternoon, driving up to Squamish under a blazing October sun. Yellow splashes of autumn maples and alders interrupt the evergreen mountainsides.
We climb a 3-pitch route in the bluffs. We stand together, anchored to a granite ledge above the river valley, as the sun sets behind the mountains.
The final pitch is difficult, made worse by seepage that leaks from the crack. Russell struggles to lead the route. He curses and yells at the rock - an uncharacteristic display of temper. I feel myself shrinking in fear, my heart pounding wildly. Deeply triggered. I follow him up the route, and the climbing is hard, and I am similarly incensed, as the book described the grade of this route as well within our skill level. I am stuck for a while, trying different configurations in an attempt to move through a segment of thin finger crack with no apparent footholds. Layback to the right. Fail. Layback to the left. Fail. Toe jam into the crack for a brute-force vertical ascent. Fail. Finally, gathering my strength and powering through the left layback with a graceless grunt.
I reach the ledge from where he is belaying me. I grapple over the edge and stand beside him.
“I’m sorry for swearing,” he says. “I’m sorry if it scared you. I was frustrated, and I scraped my hand.”
“It’s OK,” I respond. Unsure of what to say. I’ve never had a man apologize for his anger before. This is different, a shift in the way that I expect things to go, and I am thrown off course. “It’s OK, Russell. I know that you were frustrated and hurt.”
Later, we are in a dirty pub sharing a pile of ribs and drinking beer.
“I really am sorry for that display of temper. I don’t like being like that. I can tell that it scared you.”
“You could tell?”
“Yeah. You turned away from me. You became silent. Your face went flat.”
I take a deep breath. “It was very triggering for me. You are allowed to express your emotions, and it’s up to me to process my own reactions. I don’t want you to be afraid to be yourself for fear of upsetting me. I know that your anger was not directed at me, but it will take me time to learn that. I have a primal reaction to anger now, and I am afraid of being blamed for something. I know that you are not like that, cognitively, but it will take me time to quiet the automatic response within me.”
“I still don’t like being angry around you. I don’t want to upset you. I am always thinking about how you are feeling.”
We camp in the van next to a river. Rain falls. We play a board game and drink late into the night. Climb up into the pop-top (‘the final climb of the day!’) and pull the thick sleeping bag around ourselves. I kiss him and kiss him and am so happy to be there, wrapped up with him while the rain falls. My breath visible in the near-freezing air.
The next morning, we make coffee and lounge around in the van reading books, waiting for the bluffs to dry. This ease, this comfort. I look over at him and watch him read, study how his limbs fold up around him, the way in which his fingers carefully turn a page. My heart aches with love. I repeat silently in my head, “I love you. I love you. I love you.” I nearly say it out loud. I start to form up the words in my mouth, take a breath in. And then I stop. I’m afraid to say it first.
When the bluffs are dry, we gear up and head out.
“It’s your turn to lead,” he says.
I nod silently in agreement. Our plan, today, if for me to lead my first routes placing gear - cams, nuts, slings, draws - to protect myself on the way up the face. I’ve studied the way that he places gear for months. I’m confident that I understand what to do, but actually doing it? My heart races.
He starts racking my harness. Cams clipped on the right side, arranged from small to large. A rack of nuts behind my right hip. An assortment of draws on my left side. Anchor material behind my left hip. He checks my knot. I check his belay device.
“Climbing,” I say.
“Climb on,” he replies.
I climb the route and place gear as I go. My nerves steady. I focus on the route. The climbing is easy so that I can focus on gear placement rather than the climbing. I reach the top and build an anchor and descend. I did it. I achieved a dream. I stand there with the cams dangling from my waist, slings across my chest, and I know that I look rugged. I am now a Trad climber.
We finish up and drive to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving dinner. Russell navigates my family with ease, meeting my sister and her partner for the first time. I glance over and watch him eat a plate of food that my mother cooked, and there’s a sense of becoming a sort of blood-brother with him. That he’s eating the food that I grew up on, that we now have this link to my mother’s hands.
We climb again on Monday. Again, I see his temper and frustration emerge when faced with a tricky pitch of climbing. I fear a pattern emerging. I am quiet, watching this side of him form up in front of me, like a tornado tentatively dropping down from a storm cloud. I wonder if he needs more time alone, if our closeness is becoming uncomfortable for him, if this is the time in which we pause momentarily to reset our bearings. I know that this means that we are at a transition point, the time when things shift into something more real. Am I ready for this? Will my relationship traumas resurface in the face of this? Can I stomach it? Can I learn to process my emotions and reshape my responses? I reframe it all and realize that this is an opportunity for growth. And further - what aspects of myself are finally being revealed to him?
On the fourth pitch, I nearly lose my composure. The exposure is terrifying. He drops a cam, and swears loudly, and I watch it turn end-over-end down as it falls towards the forest below, sunlight flashing off the metal carabiner. I traverse the slab with shaking limbs. When I round the corner and look up, there he is. He has his phone up to take a photo. I have a hard time forming up a smile, but he’s grinning and encouraging me.
“Don’t worry about the cam,” he says. “Lesson learned.”
We finish climbing the 5-pitch route and his mood shifts. He becomes cheerful and perky and congratulates me on the pitch that I led with Trad gear. We drive home, stop for groceries, and work together in his kitchen to whip together a Thanksgiving dinner. Holly and Anna arrive an hour later.
We sit around his table eating roasted chicken and yams and Brussels sprouts. We share climbing stories from the summer and then later lay prostrate in the living room, candles flickering, the room warm from the oven. I wonder what they think of me, his friends, of how I’ve become a part of his life. He kneads my feet as we all talk, and he becomes more cuddly with each drink.
I can hardly stay awake, the weekend adventures catching up with me. I stumble down the hallway to his room and curl up to sleep. He follows a while later, after loading the dishwasher and brushing his teeth. He hugs me from behind and kisses my shoulder.
“I’m so glad that you like to cuddle,” I tell him.
“And I’m so glad that you like to cuddle,” he responds. "Oh, and my mother said to say 'Hi!' to you. She can't wait to meet you.