writing exercise #37: There was no other option

The sun glinted off the river. She stepped up the rocks, reaching a hand to steady herself, wishing she were the sort of person who could just skip up and down mountain trails and stacks of boulders with equal ease. But she was always reaching to steady herself.

Just yesterday she’d grasped the shoulder of a man in the elevator when the lurch to a stop had sent her off balance. “Whoa, there!” he’d said as he removed her hand from his suit jacket. “You okay?”

“Sorry,” she’d mumbled, the red heat swelling into her face. She couldn’t make eye contact, could only glance in his general direction as she affirmed her apology once again. He responded with some words she couldn’t make out over the blood pounding in her ears, but they had a certain tone of reassurance. She didn’t breathe until he’d stepped out of the elevator and it had continued on its way.

The rocks stacked against each other, a stone staircase or, in some places, a stone ladder or, in some places, she discovered, a stone slide, impossible to climb up except several people had come this way and continued skyward so the journey must be possible. She hovered on her toes, fingers clenched into a crack splitting one rock and the other hand pressed against a waist-high rock. The heat moved through her in waves, the rock under her hand alive with it.

He’d spoken in awe of her heat, the first few times. “Your whole body,” he’d said. “It’s like your temperature goes up ten degrees.” They’d been lying naked on the bed after, sweat-drenched and exhausted. She couldn’t stand him twining around her, couldn’t handle covers. She was a supernova. He tugged the duvet over his waist. “Good night,” he mumbled. The breeze shuttled in through the window, ocean cool and salty. She closed her eyes. Months into winter she would still leave the window open, a different heat radiating from her body, her arm curved around her belly.

She placed a foot on the lower rock, pressed upward, balanced on her knee as she clawed her way over the hump. From here the rocks merged with the cliff into a trail that slanted at an angle that gave her pause, but was a trail nonetheless. She picked her way forward.

He was born two weeks early, healthy, but a touch on the small side. The best, one of the nurses whispered. “It’s that much easier,” she said, “and you don’t have to feel any guilt because look at him! He’s perfect.” She noted his worried expression heightened by his barely-there blonde eyebrows, his arms flailing as if still unused to having this much room to move. “Shhh,” she said, drawing one thumb softly, butterfly softly, across the bridge of his nose, smoothed his brow to make him appear less vexed, calmer. “You’re close enough to perfect for me,” she whispered. Love rocked through her, more than love, a fierceness flooding her and she knew she would die rather than let him suffer, ever.

The last few steps were the easiest or at least the gentlest. The path leveled off at the top. She found herself poised a good twenty feet over the river. A group of kids laughed among themselves, the sound nearly drowned out by the river’s murmur. Her skin blistered in the sun, her vision blurred, heat waves emanating off the rocks, the world distorted into a haze green, gray, blue. She closed her eyes until the moment passed, imagined her center of gravity low, in her ankles. Don’t fall, she told herself. Don’t fall.

She used to tiptoe into his bedroom to make sure he was breathing. When he was a baby and again when he was a teenager. She’d wake in the night needing to pee or fetch a glass of water and then worry would doom her to insomnia, her imagination taking her down the very worst of roads until nothing but seeing him in the flesh, mouth gaped open, sheets moving up and down with his breathing, would reassure her that her panic was silly, the tears gathered in the corners of her eyes, useless. She’d inch downstairs and breathe herself slowly back to sleep.

Someone else was clambering up the rocks. The plateau did not offer room for two. She couldn’t think about it any longer or she’d find herself crawling down the cliff face, a failure. Deep breath, arms outstretched, a shriek she didn’t mean to happen, she jumped. 

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