Look, I tell other rock climbers I’m afraid of falling. I also tell people I’m allergic to shellfish.
The truth is I’m sort of afraid of falling. And I’m sort of allergic to a certain trio of shellfish under certain circumstances. If, for instance
1. I eat shellfish and
2. drink a glass of wine
3. while on a date with a man who’s the age my father was when I was old enough to understand how my dad tortured us—my mother, me, himself; and finally
4. go for a brisk walk…
Then, I’ll probably break out into severe, throat-closing hives. It’ll be my fault for ordering the bowl of shrimp when I know I’m allergic under certain circumstances. But it will also provide my date with the opportunity to come to my rescue early in our relationship. Gallantly, he’ll ask if I have any Benadryl. Yes, yes, of course.
“Take two. Chew them.”
“Do what?” I’m itching head to navel and my face is beginning to swell. I work the punch pack of pink pills in my fingers, head ducked so he doesn’t see how ugly I am; my eyes are puffed up the size of golf balls.
“They’ll get into your bloodstream faster if you chew them.”
He says he knows this from his work in the field. Like that means something to me. But my choices are Urgent Care or trust. I crunch down. Benadryl is the most wretched thing I’ve put in my mouth since that time I shot a teaspoon of Windex for a writing project.
It works. He even kisses me, my saliva still infused with metallic, pink residue.
“Yeah,” he says, grimacing. “That’s pretty horrible.”
You see, the trouble is that now isn’t always the time for stories. Now is often, for instance, when I’m at a restaurant with friends, ordering sushi for the table. I can’t say I’m only sometimes and in some ways allergic to crab, shrimp, and lobster. A story now, to explain myself, with the waiter hanging there with her notepad, would be oversharing at best.
So, instead of saying what I mean, I tell you I’m afraid of falling. I look you in the eyes and say, “Do you have me?”
Of course, you do. You’ve checked my knot and harness, your gate’s locked, I’m loaded correctly, you’ll give me a nice, soft catch.
But that’s not what I’m worried about.
I say, “Will you catch me?” still with my eyes on yours.
“I’ll catch you,” you say. Are you earnest, offended, sarcastic, concerned? I don’t know.
I have no doubt you’ll catch me. That’s not what I’m asking, either. But I don’t have any more words, and I don’t have the emotional energy to hammer out the problem that’s twisting my gut.
—Which should clue me in to what’s about to happen. If, for instance,
1. I go out rock climbing
2. while my tank’s burning fumes
3. with a human on the other end of the rope whom I’m learning to trust in more ways than this one, or even just this one, and
4. I decide to give it everything…
Then, I’ll probably fall. And I’ll probably break down into severe, throat-closing, body-racking sobs.
I don’t have time to curse or to warn you that I’m off the rock. Something rips out of me. The scream that would’ve helped me move farther, harder—now claws its way out of my throat. It’s rage and despair. A long, punishing wail.
Moments later, I see myself hanging: I’m a gnarled spider dangling at the end of one, pendulating strand of rope. I’ve curled up my legs and wrapped my arms around them, hugging my core, which is vibrating at a frequency usually reserved for muscle spasms. I’m crying so hard I don’t notice the gentle thump as my swing abates and my shoulder connects with smooth, canyon rock. Unconsciously, I uncoil enough to paw at it, aware of its good, sweet, solidness. I press my tear-streaked cheek against its cool hide and gasp between panicky inhales.
This is not a response to a fear of physical injury or death. I’m not thinking about the quickdraw I’m hanging on or about the pocket handhold I didn’t quite throw hard enough to. It doesn’t enter my brain that I haven’t hit the ground, that I didn’t come in too fast. That my belayer gave the perfect catch. I won’t thank you until later.
Right now, I’m unhurt except for my ego and my faith. And those are the things that have me tortured and wrapped in a fetal cocoon of self-hate. I’m thinking about how pathetic I am, how disgusting and stupid I must seem, how pointless my efforts are, how weak and alone I feel, how very alone and tired I am. How I want to hang in this caught cradle between sky and rock and earth and never come down.
It’s only then, only as the tirade drags to a grumbling, hiccupping halt—all those voices that are mine and not—that I hear you call up, “I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.”
I look down and realize what it means to be caught: I can let go. I can give up. I don’t have to keep climbing. I can fail.
With this realization, the sobs come again, different sobs, as I rest my forehead against the route and close my eyes.
“What do you want in a relationship?”
It was the first word that came to mind and I had only the faintest idea what it meant. It’s that feeling of coming home after a long day. You dump your bag at the door and kick off your shoes and plop down into the armchair. What is that feeling? It’s not being taken care of, exactly. But the knowledge that, if or when I need to, I can drop it all, all the horrible weight of doing, of getting it right, of persisting. I can rest for a goddamn second.
“That’s what I want.”
It’s not very glamorous. It’s just the thing that’s always been missing. So, of course, I wanted it then, want it still. And of course, when I come to the crag to do battle with my mind and my body, to climb into a space where every screaming part of my will alarm-bells at me, Not safe, not safe, not safe—I surrender to it. I collapse into the old story. I try so hard, too hard. I do not believe in falling because in life if you fall, the story goes that no one will be there to catch you.
“I’m here.” Your voice is steady.
Others look on—I’m only partially aware. Is she okay? they ask. Is she hurt? I was crying so hard. Now, so silent.
I could say, Look, that’s the difference between real life and rock climbing. It’s just a sport. That’s the whole point. Your belayer catches you. There’s no belayer in real life….
But what I’m learning every time I fall—not during the fall, but when I’m caught—learning a little bit more each day out on the rock, is that the storytellers in my head got it all wrong. For all those long, hurting years.
I can let go. I can give up. I can fail. I’m not alone.
Lora Rivera writes and climbs rocks in Tucson, Arizona where she's worked as a literary agent, children's biographer, and crepe maker. Today, she develops eLearning for child welfare professionals and serves as the senior editor of Stories from the Drylands, a community climbing anthology. In a land awash with sunlight, she'd trade her mother's Irish hues for her Asian-Indian father's darker tone—but that's all she'd like from him, thank you. Connect and learn more at www.lorarivera.com.