Luke has planned our whole anniversary weekend; after over a decade of relationship, my first love language—which Pastor Dan and Diane already spoke—is finally becoming Luke’s second. We get the sausage sampler at an authentic Bavarian joint in Leavenworth. We “swim” in the Wenatchee River and you can tell how far I push myself to endure the pinchy cold by the pink line on my otherwise translucent-peach thighs. We walk each street of the tourist-trap but realistic Bavarian village so I’m sure I see all the things. We walk back to our 1940s-Bavaria themed hotel early; we shouldn’t have been tired. We sleep in the next morning anyway. Luke had wanted to hit the drive to the trail he’d picked out months before, but neither of us has taken a real vacation in over a year. A six-year wedding anniversary almost wasn’t a good enough reason for Luke but he probably doesn’t want to hear—again—about how it took far less for Dan and Diane to celebrate me.
I’ve had almost seven years to straighten up my church story—the thing about trauma that makes it trauma is that it won’t fit into a cohesive narrative—and it still feels every time I start like I’m just getting out of our cushy rental car, clean, bruise-free, hydrated, nourished, still under the illusion that I was cared for, to celebrate my six-year-anniversary with my then husband and a blissfully uninformed idea of what’s ahead. I used to merely dabble in hiking, selecting rigorous strolls one might be able to complete over a long lunch as opposed to mountain scalings that take more than half a day and require maps and compasses. The first hike Luke took me on, two years before this one, was 11 miles in 50 degrees that took nine hours and the use of our emergency blanket and we came back wearing all the rain. I had never felt so alive. This surprised me and everyone who knew me, especially Pastor Dan and his wife, Diane. They were the first humans I’d ever permitted to know me, and they did it better than I ever had.
Today, it turns out that we do need to use my backpack, which is also my overnight bag for our whole trip. The unpacking and repacking of my backpack takes 45 minutes, but it’s good team building. This is a much bigger victory for Luke and me than it seems. We actually don’t fight. Luke buzzes with anticipation of showing me this hike, one of his favorites. I’m looking forward to working hard enough to be sore and collapsing in the car in six or so hours.
A honey bee investigates the car as I’m rearranging the food. Neither of us eat sugar, we have nothing remotely sweet—our 100% black chocolate tastes like dirt (as in the earth that produced it, not as in shit)—so I refrain from swatting. I feel bad for it: it must be really confused. I know the bees are struggling worldwide. I’ve thought so much about that I’ve been paralyzed in bed for weeks staring at the shredded blackness that is the future.
I finally get the food situated in a quick-access way in my bag and shut the trunk, my clothes and intimates and toiletries organized methodically in it. A moment later, a swarm of bees blinds me briefly. Now, I’m swatting like hell. Luke adjusts his pack while I clear the cloud and verify that I’m sting free. I surprise myself again, fragile little princess flower Luke acts like he thinks I am: I’m still ready for this hike. If I believed in omens, I’d take this as a good sign, that I’m no longer easily deterred and—even better—the only potential roadblocks will be small.
This hike is not to be trifled with: my calves start burning about three miles in—and already some minor disorientation because there are no clear signs on this trail I keep misspelling as trial—and, soon after the burning starts happening, Luke, in a rare moment of initiating conversation, asks if I’m ready to reconcile with Dan and Diane.
I’d been alone in Seattle, my new city since August 2006. Four months. Enough loneliness for me. I either needed to make friends or go back home to Colorado. The first Sunday of the new year, I walked up a dark rug bolted to the stairs five minutes after the start time posted on the website, the first time I was voluntarily going to a church since the end of high school, not certain I’d detoxed enough from being dragged to a building called church because somehow, my non-believing mother thought that’s how good people were made. I summitted the stairs to find myself, color-wise, inside of one of Seattle’s finest salmon. The balcony and bannister were deep turquoise. More than one person was up there with everything they owned, snoring. They must be the source of the ammonia creeping up my nose I mentally flogged myself for involuntarily thinking. My cheeks flushed in a gust of sun that sung through the stained-glass heart flanked by flames a few feet below where the vaulted ceiling sloped to meet the wall. A disco ball dangled on a short cord from the hexagonal scatter of stained glass in the ceiling over the exact center of the sanctuary. Off to the right of the gaudy ball, a 20-foot paper mâché butterfly with a map plastered across its wings lunged from the ceiling over hinky chairs that smelled vaguely of sunblock and mildew. The chairs radiated in semi circles from a hexagonal stage. Home if I ever felt it.
A very tall, very skinny man, maybe 20 years older than me, in starch-pressed jeans, navy-blue socks and tan Birkies took the pulpit and welcomed the 65 people present to 2007. He wasted no more time and jumped into his message. “Inner healing is sanctifying the past.” He didn’t need a microphone, or, it seemed, his notes.
The light, sifted by the flaming heart, made everyone look like cardboard. Except Pastor Dan, who jolted back into three dimensions when he said, “God cares about our relationships with each other just as much as God cares about our relationship with God. To say nothing of having to get along with each other for all eternity, how else do you imagine healing will come to this planet?” Ecocidal rulers, homelessness, chewing sounds, people who walk too slowly on the sidewalk right in front of you because it doesn’t matter to them that other people exist—what would life be like if I thought anything could get better? If I myself could?
On my third visit to this church, Dan doesn’t mill about the music stand he used as a podium for his preaching notes to talk to people after the service. He beelines for me.
“Welcome.” He didn’t smile, he searched. I felt seen in a way that made me wonder if I had ever been seen before. I liked it and his nosey questions that followed. I didn’t know what he saw or why he wanted to see it and I didn’t at that moment care. The questions I asked had always been annoying, disruptions in the sanctuary my dad longed for his house to be, and so, not answered. At no time when I was growing up do I remember any adult every asking me how I felt about anything. The only morsels of questions I got were from my mom: “Did you brush your teeth?” before bed—she would feel the sink in my bathroom whenever my answer was yes. Around matters of the soul was shrink-wrapping silence.
“Let’s continue this over lunch.” Dan pointed to the floor. “Great little Thai place rents basement space from us.” I had no idea what Thai food was, but I didn’t know if an adult would ever ask me about my feelings ever again, so I went with him down the stairs as he waved to his wife.
“Don’t wait,” Diane said, nodding toward the balcony. One of the homeless youth from the church’s pre-service program needed some reparenting.
Our menus hadn’t even been delivered before Dan started up again with the questions, not accusatory, not leading, and the duct tape around my lungs I didn’t know was there loosened. Do you remember before you had siblings? How long was that? Did they absolutely fawn over you when they did come? Did you register it at the time if they did?
I have a recorder for a brain and a nuclear reactor for an amygdala, so I wanted to say all the things—what being in this country was like twenty-years after the lockdown in 7th-grade language arts hearing the gunshots of the Columbine massacre ten minutes away thinking our country was at war and was never offered an opportunity to process being within range of America’s watershed shooting; my mother’s colon cancer—stage 3: metastatic—diagnosis when I was 18 followed by my father’s prostate cancer—stage 4: “nine out of ten people with your numbers die”—before my mother had fully recovered from her illness, which came before they both had recovered from their son’s nebulous but serious trouble that electro-convulsive treatment failed to get offline, none of which I was offered an opportunity to process; how much of a relief love is after all this time when I thought it was too late—I was still waiting for it from (with?) Luke. Dan and Diane, particularly Dan, listened to it all. They were too good to be true. And there were only a few red flags. Mostly just one.
I’d spent the summer of 2009 traveling Europe alone and stayed with Dan and Diane when I came home until I could make other housing arrangements. During the ten days I lived with them, we had our first actual fight.
“Okay, share a poem with us.” Dan yawned. It was very early the morning after we’d began another prayer session following home group at their apartment, but he’d gotten cup after cup of coffee.
I flipped through a notebook I’d started and finished in the seven weeks I’d hopped around the United Kingdom, Amsterdam and Switzerland. I got to the back and flipped to the front, then back, like a slinky.
“Maybe you want to talk about your trip a little first.” Diane asked, adjusting her blanket around her shoulders.
I shook my head and lifted the notebook.
“Yeah. I already asked you about that.” Dan nodded like he might have been nodding off, his grip on his coffee mug slackening.
“That’s only because I asked you to ask me.”
Diane went to the kitchen to start more coffee. Heat turned Dan’s neck pink. “Sure,” he said. “Does that mean we can’t be sincerely interested if you ask us to be?” It sounded like Dan had put his voice in a pencil sharpener.
This has gotten me in trouble before in my life. A therapist once told me it’s an attachment injury: it sounds like I want people to read my mind, but what I’m afraid of is that my asking for something somehow makes the person do it, that I’m manipulating them and they’re therefore not being genuine. When I lay it out like this, of course I see the flaws. And clearly, being able to ask for what you need directly is a developmental task healthy adults have completed. But this thing was lodged pretty well in my psyche; I’m numb to the gifts I have to ask for. I couldn’t receive what I said out loud I wanted. But being indirect about what you need is what makes someone “needy.” It pisses people off.
“I don’t know why I’d have to ask if you were sincere.”
“So you don’t want to share a poem?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“What do you want me to do?” Dan said, suddenly in my face, unhooking his jaw as he shook me by the shoulders. His narrow face went glossy; my skin went black and blue under his fingertips, my chest stabbed cold. We didn’t talk about it again. I couldn’t. I didn’t need to. I didn’t need to. There was one other time he squeezed my arms; April of 2008 as he passed me on his way up to the pulpit (I was a greeter that morning), he pinched my upper arm and said in the same voice he used to preach, “You should start working out.” Around about this time was when he start signing his emails, “Your biggest fan.” So two red flags, then. Three?
But his church, the one I’d been at four years at this point, the one that got me to call it family there for a minute, loved well enough to cover a multitude of sins. Praying for and receiving prayer after the service followed by tacos and chips and guac on the lawn of the University of Washington near the church. Birthday parties, arts team meetings (the team commissioned me to write a poem huge on the wall just under where the 25-foot cross hangs for the 30th anniversary-celebration of the church’s founding). House- and pet-sitting. Trading massages for writing lessons. Home groups all over the city. People taking reconciling with each other seriously, working things out when they are missteps, having grace for those of us among them who still demand the love from others they won’t give to themselves because they believe—not in a ‘knowing’ way because what they ‘know’ is that this is irrational—that, if they’re happy, they’ll be alone. All-church camping trips—the first one I went on, Pastor Dan introduced me to Luke, who spent most of the trip trying to capture my face on paper with a charcoal pen.
Luke pulls out both his fancy cameras with all the knobs you have to turn before anything will focus and winces as he stretches the older, easier-to-use one out to me. “Both hands,” he says. He doesn’t trust me. My hands aren’t steady? He’s still holding onto the time in Mazatlán I got a dot of green paint on the body of the camera he’s now handing me because I’m inattentive? I’m so inattentive because I’ve always wanted to be other than where I am—has it been this lack of presence that keeps me from seeing when things are not good for me until way too long into them?
Luke’s been a gifted visual artist longer than he’s been an engineer and he can get his hand to draw whatever he looks at because he knows how to see. As part of this anniversary celebration plan, he’s going to teach to me how to see, too.
Well, he’s going to teach me how to look. You can lead a horse to water…
This hike is enough work on its own, though. Maybe a setup for me to break his prized machine. We’re not just getting glut work in, the cardio’s so intense that I’m too out of breath to keep asking questions and Luke’s too out of breath to answer them. We push forward immersed in a volume of sound more varied and harder to identify than we urbanites are accustomed to, periodically reaching for each other’s hands, reminding each other to drink our electrolyte-laced water. I dare to feel it—to sample it, really: contentment in and with the moment.
We had left our phones in the car as we figured they’d be useless out here with nothing to connect to; the only way we can keep track of time is by the timestamp on our photos. I ask what time it is when we crossed that foot log, when the trail forked hectically, just before a small, orange butterfly landed directly over my heart, as we passed a boulder that rolled into a tree and it looked like the tree spread like gum but kept growing around the boulder, incorporating the boulder’s intrusion in its splatted but still healthily elongating trunk. The smoke from the wildfires in Glacier National Park, British Columbia and California begins to clog my breath; is the forest we’re hiking through trembling with wind or fear?
Dan, Diane and I first got the idea for a weekend trip to Canada at three o’clock the second morning of that long prayer session in their apartment. It had only been six months and these pastors, childless due to infertility, had already pseudo-adopted me. Drives to British Columbia quickly became a ritual that went: stay up until the small hours praying and talking about feelings—“pastoral counseling” was a lot less scary than counseling done by a counselor because pastors don’t have the power to get you locked up—but it was still weird because, up until then, I’d thought that the way I’d know I was officially an adult was when I no longer had feelings at all; crash—them in their bedroom where they kept their hissier cat and me on their nine-foot, bright red sofa next to their grand piano; wake five hours later, scarf grocery-store croissants Diane would dab with butter and zap in the microwave and drive north for three hours.
Dan had big feelings, too. And you didn’t have to crowbar him like you did with Luke to get him to talk. Dan’s not always in control of his feelings, either, but at least he’s not a robot. It’s nice when the bigness of big feelings makes sense: his dad threw hammers at his children’s heads. His mom was “hysterical,” not a loving container for her own feelings. Most of what came out of Dan’s mouth, when he was given an inch to speak, were memories of what might likely cause a shattered-up insides. Endogenously quiet Diane, who fit in better as a missionary in Asia than in blustery, swaggery America, suggested we pray. There was always so much air in her voice you wondered whether she’d preferred to whisper when she had to talk at all.
‘We got the idea’ means I gave the idea to Dan when I casually said I had gotten into the University of British Columbia’s delicious English program—I was even offered a scholarship, which was the first time someone told me my writing was good, but it wasn’t enough for me to avoid debt and I was so, so scared of debt—but didn’t go because cute little stories don’t feed kids so empty they’re fat. Poetry is not penicillin. I never visited UBC back then. Why walk straight into the torture of temptation? I stayed in Colorado and tried to study something useful to a world in crisis—at one point, I was double-degreeing in English and Chemical Engineering and didn’t see how ridiculous that was until a friend asked if I was planning on using essays as an alternative source of fuel.
Dan, Diane and I always found something awesome to do: a tour of Stanley Park, a craft fair in downtown Vancouver, a beach clean where “Everyone is Wanted!” as the sign advertises. The air on that beach was minty, the ponderosas soggy. We spent the rest of the daylight helping UBC’s environmental club gather trash. Diane collected an unopened package of diapers and cradled it for a bit before lowering it into her garbage bag. Most of the things I thought were trash turned out to be shell pieces, sea glass, a sand dollar. The forest of driftwood is smooth and whiter than age. We all got shirts the size of tents to commemorate our achievement.
A year later at UBC, Dan asked me why I torched the hundred or so notebooks I’d spent my childhood filling up. He remembered not to call them “journals.” They did not just tell you what mystery food was served in Goddard Middle School’s cafeteria on October 8th, 1997, or what boy was ruining my life by not even looking at me in social studies. They were stories. Poems, character bios, me explaining to myself why I should write this or that book and explaining to you why you should read it. Fifteen years’ worth. I burned them all (and saved, for God knows what reason, my journals).
“Were they in pencil?” Dan took the lead on the trail through campus that makes like it’s taking you off to the shore before veering back to Buchanan Hall.
“Why would that matter?”
“Were they faded? Could you still read them?”
“No, they were pathetic and fake. Trying too hard.” I toed a stone on the path. The Douglas Firs gave off oregano and smoke.
“To do what?” Dan’s eyes went sharp; he was just about to preach.
“Be loved,” I said, but not right away.
“No, that’s what you’re doing now.” He looked into me, dug until I looked away. “With us.” He glanced behind to see if Diane was catching up already. “What you were doing then—obliterating your notebooks, hiding, trying to be something else, was trying to be loveable.”
“It takes immense strength to be loved.” I said it just below a wind’s thrum in pine as we arrived to clean up another shore.
Colchuk Lake is Mozart-esque. We have lunch here two hours and 41 minutes after our departure from the parking lot. Two chipmunks make a break for our food bag. Avocados, cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches, hazelnuts, pistachios, parmesan cheese, so much of that chocolate that tastes like soil. The sardines in olive oil stay packed in their magenta tin cans. The water is a nacreous blue that does not depend on the sky and you can see every divot in every stone at the bottom. A renegade ripple turns out to be a water snake. The haze of cremated trees from two states away creates the illusion that the sun is perpetually poised to set. This sovereignty of creative power is marked up by drunk and camping humans; still, you would not have heard the music this scene makes before.
Luke and I actually agree on something else today (two in one day is probably a record): we both still think there’s time to get around Colchuk once, up and down a very steep pass and back around Colchuk in time to drive home and get a responsible-adult night’s sleep before returning to our jobs—structural engineer who draws up plans that contractors can follow so they build buildings that don’t fall down and case manager at a crisis center that serves mainly homeless clients with severe and persistent mental illness and/or co-occurring substance use disorders—the next morning. But the trail is vague even in adequate light, so we really do have to get back before dark. We look each other in the eyes. I don’t know if this is what he’s thinking, but I think that, after our four breakups, two marital separations including the one we’re in the middle of, countless volcanic fights, and general mistreatment we’ve put our relationship through, a bitty hill with some shaky stones ain’t no thing. When you say until we are parted by death before God and 150 other people, commitment—for the times you can’t pull off loyalty—becomes your sacred rule.
Christmas Day 2011—when Luke gave me a purple sapphire he had to send back twice because it wasn’t purple enough in all kinds of light and my dad was hiding in an Aspen grove taking pictures (he was so excited, most of them are off-center or not entirely in focus, which I wouldn’t have noticed if Luke hadn’t pointed it out before the day was over)—the sleepovers on Pastor Dad and Dianemom’s big red couch started to stop. The last trip to Canada wrapped up before the end of 2010. After-service check-ins slowed. But there were still one-on-one lunches. Many emails, including, finally, some of my poems. Texts. Over-lunch phone calls. The premarital counseling sessions. The extra sessions as the date, 8/18/12, grew nigh upon us.
Jason was an interior designer who’d been going to this church since last century. He was sort of my adopted older brother. I handed him a feeble vision of how I wanted the sanctuary decorated for my wedding, and he worked a scene so tenuous it could be a dream but so captivating it could be music: a 50-foot weeping willow made of packing paper, 923 origami lotus flowers spray-painted green and strung to copper wire; festoons of multicolored, spray-painted origami cherry blossoms, Irises and lotus flowers taped to kite string adorning the windows; a curtain of brightly spray-painted butterflies the guests would walk through on the way to their seats; miniature origami lotuses and Irises and cherry blossoms pinned to a gauzy curtain hung across the opening of the stage area to backdrop the ceremony, especially one of the three shots I’d specifically requested our photographer make certain to capture: the moment Luke saw me for the first time in my ivory dress with the deep purple train coming to allow myself to be made his.
This train covered half the staircase I walked down to the Enter The Bride music Dan wrote based off a poem of mine he loved and played on the keyboard. My feet, trained by six years of marching band in my semi-distant past, found the beats quickly and began to roll step down the stairs, down the aisle, one parent on each side to steady me—I was not woozy; I have Jell-O joints thanks to a congenital connective-tissue issue named Ehlers Danlos syndrome—all the way to the altar.
There probably wasn’t one person in attendance I hadn’t misconnected with at one point; still, those in the church that hadn’t been involved in the months of gearing up found a wedding-day task to volunteer to do; I had to hire no outside help but a caterer. If anything (besides the choice I had made in a partner) went wrong that day, God bless these people, I didn’t hear about it. All I heard that whole day, whether from actual instrument, Luke’s voice as he promised me the rest of his life, or the breeze in the (real) cherry blossoms during pictures before the reception, was music.
We arrived at Aasgard Pass, the “shortcut” to the Enchantments—a crafting of earth’s surface where the human longing for immortality explains itself in three alpine mirrors—at 3:00pm after encountering two sets of mama and baby mountain goats at arms-length and learning that the babies sound like squeak toys. Aasgard is 2,000 feet of elevation gain in three-quarters of a mile. It’s base starts at 5,200 or so feet above sea level and you summit Aasgard, not so much by walking on good old ground, but by bouldering and climbing and avoiding the seasonal streams of snowmelt, which are unpredictable in location and volume. You won’t avoid triggering micro-avalanches even if you could follow the cairns the exact way their makers intended.
“What do you say we turn around at 4:00 wherever we are?” When Luke did this hike with another dude a couple years ago, Aasgard alone took them two hours, they didn’t reach the top until 5:00 in the evening and then they got lost getting around Colchuk and didn’t get home until 2:00 in the morning. He assures me this is largely because they paid the cairns no heed.
I exhale, equinely flapping my lips, which is supposed to communicate both agreement and “we will, today, see the Enchantments,” a scene, I’m told, so desirable to behold that the state runs a lotto drawing every year for permits to camp overnight anywhere in the general area. The day hike—what Luke and I are not yet halfway through— just doesn’t afford enough time for transfiguration.
Tension starts blooming in my calves again—I’d gotten used to the pain—about ten breaths in and I’ve never gotten sore wrists hiking before. But I will touch the peak of this pass with my own two, achy hands, if only for a glimpse of God’s piano room.
Four months after presiding over Luke and I declaring our union, Dan called an urgent meeting. I called off sick from my transcription-proofreader job to meet him and Diane at a Thai place a meander from their old apartment I spent so many nights in. They haven’t lived there in two years; I had recently moved to a place eight blocks from the restaurant into a basement unit that would become Luke and my first marital dwelling.
“We haven’t caught up since your honeymoon.” Dan, able to eat the curry he’d ordered, could be disorganized, but there was no way this emergency meeting was to catch up. Why not wait till Sunday after service and go to our little spot in the basement of the church? My nerves were on their tip-toes throughout our utterly normal meal; I picked at my tofu teriyaki or whatever the hell I ordered, and subsequent half-hour of shit-chat.
Diane: inaudible whispers to Dan, leaves table.
Dan: “I have never met anyone as good at getting people to love them as you.”
Me: perplexed brow furrow.
Him: “I mean, I have affections for you.”
Me: deeper frown.
Something large and metal clangs to the tile in the kitchen. Voices yell over each other in Thai.
Me: “How long?”
Him: “When you shared Uncollected Height.” The poem he based my bridal entry song off of. I shared it with him four and a half years ago.
Me: silence, then “Does Diane know?”
Him: “Diane told me.” He sounds truly surprised.
Him, just before Diane comes back: “If I were younger, if this were a different universe…”
Dan fully expected me to say “Me, too.” How do you reconcile with that?
Luke, docile, agreeable with everyone and everything besides me and except when I’m present, keeper of the peace even when there is no peace by striving hard to make sure everyone gets their turn to speak because apparently, everyone getting their voices heard creates harmony and community and healing and all that stuff I was under the impression you had to do actual work for and may not even then, even if you put in the pain and the loyalty and the honesty and the showing up, and I, boat rocker, provider of fiery wall of judgment and “wrong” feelings for those who like to play victims to hide behind, loyal and literal as fuck, which sometimes means keeping people up until 3:00am hewing it out back to harmony because you should never let the sun go down on your anger, have at best five hours of daylight; seven miles of trail, starting with a scrambling descent; two sets of feet on fire every place our shoes don’t fit exactly right and muscles on the brink of “not another step.” We’re 90 percent of the way up but with a liter of water each remaining. What we don’t have is a strong enough container between the two of us to hold this fact: my then husband, my husband, wanted to reconcile with a man who coveted his (new) wife and isn’t sorry. The summit is not within reach.
Dan was fully confident that I would jump on the chance to start an affair. This is why the shock when we did the appropriate thing and left the church, why the weirdly clueless emails from Diane, maybe why the silence from the whole leadership team and many of the beloved people I trusted to be loyal friends. Why no goodbye.
A large, male mountain goat takes an interest in us as we pick and limp our way down the granite gobs he slinks down like a cat.
Dan was also fully confident that he and his wife were “the only ones who could help me.” This was what he said when I asked him why he continued counseling me for four and a half years after his infatuation with me began.
A marmot with a hearty mouthful of greens scampers fluently atop the rocks and into a crevice that nearly twists some hell into my ankle when I assume it’s a good foothold for a human, too. I curse the marmot, its family, its useful muscle memory, that it has likely made it up and down Aasgard several times and all around The Enchantments with no idea, no appreciation, forget about awe or reverence for God’s choice of furniture, how impeccably placed the paintings are, the soundtrack. Lo, the soundtrack.
The ends of my toes blow up in pain every time they so much as graze the ends of my hiking boots. They’re not going to stand for this. My quads shake as I ask them to take turns holding me up. They can’t really stand for this. I lean forward too far multiple times for reasons I can’t understand or gracefully correct; my alarm at my own vertigo increases the dizziness. Luke rummages for the Advil as he, also gingerly but with more strength, descends the slope. Once we get down the pass—me mostly on my butt—he offers his hiking poles.
We of course don’t ring Colchuk completely by dark. Part of this is because Luke has no sense of time, even when it’s staring him in the face as he takes photo after photo of the same damn thing, needing to get the shot he wants to get instead of the shot that’s actually there. He agrees over and over that this one is his last. Then he tries to encourage me to go ahead, he’ll catch up, as if it’s not wildly easy to take the wrong trail or thing that, even in solid light, looks like a trail but is only one of many paths to abyss.
I try it, hiking alone in rushing dark on a tricky trail. This situation, though maybe the physical equivalent of my whole emotional and mental life, does not work for me. Luke keeps lagging behind because I do not want to stop. It’s not just the imminent night. It’s also that it takes me days to feel normal after one bad sleep; my chronic pain flares for over a week after sometimes. It’s not till I tautly remind him of this, that he can function almost perfectly even while sleep deprived and that I feel pretty disrespected at this point that he finally (insolently) shuts his camera off. We run almost completely out of water before coming across a generous group of Boomer ladies who’d obviously known and loved each other for years. They squeeze two of our bottles full of filtered lake water and point us away from the wrong direction we’d planned on taking.
I wouldn’t be making it down at all without the poles, which I can barely use as it is since my wrists are so sore from that uselessly fast scramble. The extra support isn’t enough to keep from falling on the “flat” part. My leg is gouged but doesn’t bleed because the fall packs dirt into the cut just in case I’m a weak clotter; my wrist is sprained. It goes dark in the half hour I’m on the ground scrubbing out my scrape and testing out the various joints and muscles I’ll need to get back to the car. This makes me a serious hiker now.
For the two hours left to safety, I’m up to my strength in terror. Luke fishes out an Ace bandage and tenderly tries my wrist; he’s even more ginger with my anger.
“At least we’re prepared.” I try to get out from under his stonewalling fear.
“If you and I have to break out the emergency gear every time we go hiking,” he says, “I’m not sure the word for that is ‘prepared’.”
Tiny white moths, gnats and other specks of bugs horde my face the moment Luke straps the single headlamp we have around my grimy hair. The spotlight from the lamp blasts away all color, reduces everything to minerals. I’m simultaneously on the moon and surrounded by life that will surely end mine presently. Life that has led me to believe it’s harmless in the light. But I know how to look now.
Not that it matters. The throng of insects swarming the light on my forehead, blinding me if the dark hasn’t, doesn’t clear until we reach the car, feet so swollen we can’t get our boots off right away, and I can shut the face light off. We pull into our parking slot outside our apartment complex at 2:42am.
Diane went in for, it took me a second to realize, a hug. I was technically the the ‘other woman’ in this scenario, but I gave it to her. Whatever got this over with the fastest. They drove me home in the white Dodge caravan that’s taken me up to Canada, down to Portland, to various pastors’ conferences around the Seattle area. There was another hug from Diane outside my apartment.
Every week or so for the next month, she emailed me and CC’ed Luke. “We understand that you may need some space. We miss you.” There were two right away from Dan: the first informing us that he’s told the worship pastor and Papa Tim, one of the elders—the one I got especially close to when I lived with him in the house he shared with his wife during my senior year of undergrad—what happened—“they’d both be happy to talk to you.” The second, the morning of the Sandy Hook massacre: “I know there’s a ban of silence on me, but I just saw this morning’s news—how are you doing, Megan?” I’m from Littleton, remember, which means that every 4th of July and New Year’s and whenever a car backfires and big things collide in the distance…
Neither the worship pastor nor Papa Tim were willing to talk to me. Worship pastor wanted to remain neutral, mediate a conversation between the four of us. “Remaining neutral” was what our best man and his wife also wanted to do to. They declined to hear the story at all, as if neutrality is ever a real choice.
Papa Tim felt it was my fault. I learned why two years later: that year I lived with him—the one that healed me greatly—had given him Stockholm Syndrome, as he told my best friend when she called him after I reported to her over a year of silence from the leadership, trying to figure out what the hell was going on.
I learned later that Tim was probably also Dan’s impetus for telling me.
“How long are you going to keep counseling her?” Dan refused to give a date, opting for getting his inappropriate feelings off his chest one-on-one with me.
The reason my best friend called Tim, and most of the other elders, was because they all stopped talking to me. Finally, she got a few who would tell her why, though she got two different stories: the regional direction, Holly, had told them not to me either at all or about this specific thing so as “not to feed the rumor mill.” Holly. The woman who was initially apologetic? Who called Dan’s actions what they were: abuse of spiritual power? Who promised to talk to them: if their story matched ours: remedial action; if it didn’t: discipline? Yes. Also the one who said, “You can be as involved as you want to be in whatever process we go through,” but then stopped responding to my emails and got all harsh with Luke’s.
It’s not that Holly was unduly suspicious; there was a rumor spreader. She hated me since I walked into “her” church. She helped Luke break up with me the second time by giving him a “prophetic word” that he was idolizing me, “and you know what they do with idols in the Bible, right?” I imagined Luke nodded smally—his fear nods—as the rumor spreader said, “They smash them.” Because of this, I could predict exactly what she’s going to say when I attempt to talk to her.
She basically promised me she’d be spreading rumors. “I always knew you’d hurt the people I love. I will make damn sure everyone knows the truth so help me Jesus.”
I get accused of black-or-white thinking a lot (when really, I’m a black-and-white thinker, thank you very much)—or referred us to Dan and Diane to work things out directly so I’ll say that not everyone shunned us. Jason and his wife didn’t talk to us for four months, but we did have lunch with them the spring after Dan’s confession/accusation/invitation.
“I’m going to tell you the same thing I told Dan when I met with him earlier this year, friend.” Marie braced. Jason meant well, he always, always, always did—it’s maddening and inspiring and guilt-provoking—but this is a big opportunity for his signature intermittent interpersonal cluelessness. “He came to me just lamenting this whole situation, how he screwed up, how he loves you guys, but he feels like there’s nothing he can do.”
“Jace.” Marie touched his arm.
“He came to you instead of us. Interesting,” I said, hearing in my mind Dan’s self-pity tone perfectly.
“Joy can win, guys.” Jason continued like he was responding to a conversation only he could her. Marie leaned back and sucked a breath quickly through her teeth. “Family binds, “he said. You know that willow we all thought would just barely make it through your ceremony?”
Luke nodded. I tucked my chin to catch my breath.
“Still standing.” (It would for three more years.)
“Dan told you what happened earlier this year?”
Jason pronounced his nods.
“And it took you four months to contact us why?” I literally bit my tongue.
“Jason,” Marie used all of her voice, the one on reserve for Jason’s especially exasperating actions, “Dan didn’t tell us what happened.”
“Well, not specifically, like you guys did. But it could have been worse, right?” Jason said. “He didn’t touch you, really. Nobody’s pregnant.”
The hike from car to Colchuk is fine. The trek around Colchuk is the preparation for marriage. The climb up Aasgard Pass is the months after Dan’s confession. The hike back, including the fall and the dark and the lostness is the four and half years of close relationship I had with our pastors and the church that helped Luke and I not kill each other while working out how to have a relationship, the church that somehow got me calling it family there for a minute. And the whole day is our marriage. Because that’s what’s so shitty about trauma. You think you’re going forward in your life and in time and then you’re hiking in the unmitigated black again and it’s alive and you don’t know which way’s safety again and who told you things could be worse again?
Or maybe it’s that the hike from car to Colchuk is fine. The hike around Colchuk to the pass is the five years in the church that got me to call it family there for a minute with the pastors that had me calling them Mom and Dad. The climb up Aasgard is the dating and the marriage prep. The climb down is Dan’s confession/accusation/invitation. And the aftermath, the darkness and the bruises and the sprain and the lostness but not knowing we’re lost is the now. Depends on the day. (Because that’s what’s so shitty about trauma.)
We are legit lost until we see headlamps on the other side of river. I am not getting sucked back by the fear, though, because the moment I go to is the one right after we are found by little lights on the right side of the water. In the pressurized quiet of respirating trees, my breath hung up at the top of my lungs, where the tapping of branches, the ancient confidence of the birds and the million rissing brawrshing whishing throoting fob fob fobbing things human consciousness has not categorized move together all around me, delectably independent of my achievements or pain or bits of my own personal consciousness I struggle to classify, I turn on the ball of my foot, an amateur ballerina, or one worried about her slippery joints. I would not have heard all that as music, but it was the moment I finally take my last step in the wrong direction.
Megan Wildhood is an empathic, neurodiverse lady writer in Seattle who helps her readers feel genuinely seen as they interact with her dispatches from the junction of extractive economics, mental and emotional distress, disability and reparative justice. She hopes you will find yourself in her words as they appear in her poetry chapbook Long Division as well as The Atlantic, Yes! Magazine, Mad in America, The Sun and elsewhere. You can learn more at meganwildhood.com.