In highschool, I had this boyfriend. We started to go out the second month of my freshman year, and broke up in February of my sophomore year.
I loved him lots.
This story isn’t really about him, it’s about a lot of other things.
That boyfriend’s first gift to me was a ring: A small, gold colored band with a stone that looked like a tiny diamond in it. It wasn’t a diamond, but it slipped over my third finger just so, and it felt a lot like a promise.
That ring could have been brass and granite for all I cared, I still would have held it more precious than gemstones. Later, there was a more appropriate ring with a heart and turquoise and silver, a gift from Mexico, but that first ring fit me more. It seemed to fit into my fairy-tale of us.
And I lost it. Not in an absent-minded way- I lost it big.
The summer between Sophomore and Junior year, my dad took Bryan and I to Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. There we were cordially encouraged to take a hike… a six day back-packing trek into the wilderness with girls/boys of our age group. We went in all confident, but being inexperienced hikers strapped with large back-packs and faced with 8-12 mile days of uphill switchback trails at high elevation, well… suffice to say I pretty much thought I would die that first day. And it seemed like a peaceful alternative to the gasping impossibility of going to sleep and doing it all over again the following morning.
I had a terrific leader on that hike though, her name was Terri, and I swear it’s true that you can make people do things through confidence alone: An unswerving, if staggeringly misguided belief in someone’s success can prompt them to actually exceed their physical capabilities. This method works better than torture, totalitarian threats or coercion. It’s an amazing thing.
The week we took our hike, I happened to be the only 13-15 year old girl in all of Philmont Ranch, so- since there were rules about the minimum number needed to hike the back-country, I ended up going with five college age girls- two leaders and three other people who worked on the administrative side of things. To them, this was great fun: a chance to backpack with friends without a bunch of bratty youngsters to contend with.
So being the only girls hiking the back country, we were treated kind of special. I know that Terri chafed against that at first. We passed many boy groups hiking, sometimes as many as twenty in a group. My brother was in one of these, and I remember waving to him as we passed each other on adjacent trails. He wasn’t having near as much fun. I’d been lucky, in a way… the anxiety of fitting into a peer group was lifted, because I was the only teenager. The older girls were nice to me, and since I was sort of shy, I didn’t pester or ask questions, and tried not to complain when my lungs were bursting, and that made them open up, let me in on their stories and the intrigues around camp, which was interesting.
There were outposts we tried to reach each day, permanent sites, a few of them with bathrooms and running water, but as we got further away, usually more like an outhouse and open-ended sheds for sleeping if the weather was poor. The first night we meadow-crashed. I never wanted the night to end, and fought sleep from snug inside my mummy-shaped sleeping bag, staring at the sky gently outlined by the long grasses on either side of me. But I was so tired, and morning came much too soon, with the conundrum of repacking. Backpacking fact: Your stuff expands and seemingly reproduces on the trail. Nothing ever fits snugly just the way it did the first time.
There was so much packed into those days, I could write a book about it. Weather and lightning hit us during the trip, and that was the first time Terri seemed happy enough to be treated like a girl. We made it soaked to an outpost way up in a wide meadow, sort of a mountain plateau. Many other groups were there at the same time, many of them had been forced to lie in the grass when the storm hit, ferociously, because being too close to one of the tall trees on the perimeter was like standing next to a lightning rod, but so was striding out across the meadow in a patch where you could count as the tallest thing standing. They huddled around the eaves of the cabin, while inside, the three main guys that supervised that post made a delicious stew and corn bread for their dinner which smelled exactly like heaven.
They picked us out quickly from the mob of boys, and invited us in for dinner. I remember those faces peering into the small cabin window as we ate our beautiful meal. I felt a little guilty, but my hiking mates ate with such gusto, toasting the miserable creatures outside, and they were all beautiful, their hair wet, mouths wide and laughing. It made me understand a little bit what it is to be a goddess— a creature of fertility and sensuality. Even damp and dirty and exhausted our skin shone, and I’m not sure the boys at the window only looked at the food with hunger.
The night most relevant here was soon after this one. Another post where we were given special treatment by the guides, mainly because Terri had an off again, on again liaison with one of them- a great bearded fellow (and this puzzled me. Terri had hero status in my eyes, and she could have plucked the hottest fellow from all the guides and rangers, but she wanted him. This also made me understand, subtly, that he must be special in ways I could not discern.) This time, it was not cornbread in a cabin, but a chance to sleep in a place that was usually forbidden. As a part of their educational outreach, Philmont had erected a line of tipi’s here in this back country spot. These conical tents were used for special presentation, and visits from the genuine Native Americans who sometimes held conferences/retreats at the ranch. That’s also why a sweat lodge was along the trail somewhere, but no one was allowed to sleep in the tipis, for the insides were just as decadent and startling as the out, lined with animal skins and furs, and rich bead work. They were show pieces.
But we got to sleep there. The bearded fellow bent the rules for us, and I didn’t even know how privileged we were until I saw all the girls exchange startled glances, and Terri smile a very un-Terri like, proprietary smile at the results her suitor had wielded.
We slept that night in two separate tipis: Four of the leaders and me in one, Terri and her fella in the other. I don’t know how it came about, but I was directly in the middle, under the little hole in the top from which I could see the stars as I lay there. It was a strange experience. Even in that atmosphere a part of my mind kept needing to tell me that these weren’t ‘authentic’ tipis, they were for show. A museum recreation- but the skins were real. There’s a smell, even to clean animal skins that never leaves. A sort of spiciness, maybe enhanced by the methods they use to preserve the hide. That smell is part of my dreams, and also the fact that it was only soft sounds. Amy, one of my leader people had a tendency to snore, but I remember vividly looking up through the hole way up high, at the apex, and feeling around my periphery the young women who slept, all faced inward, in a circle around me. Their breathing was soft, no one snored, no one shifted.
I laid there and thought about Chris. We had broken up months before, but Chris was still all over my heart, and I had brought him with me by bringing the ring, that tiny little gold band. But the day had been cold, then hot, then cold again, and as my fingers warmed they swelled and tingled, making the ring uncomfortable on my finger. Not even thinking, I slipped it off.
It’s blurry— I know I put it on my first finger, the upper part, just to keep it, but it was too loose there. I think I put it in a plastic bag, I remember that, but I don’t know why I had a plastic bag on me. My stuff was far away, on the perimeter of the tipi.
I put it in that baggie and slipped it under the skin I lay on, under my head. I felt like he was with me, and drifted off, thinking that.
And in the morning it was gone.
It wasn’t worth much, except to me. I don’t think someone came and stole it, it just… disappeared. I upended a lot of skins, looking for it. I dug around and threw stuff. It became more and more of a long shot. We were moving on, going to have breakfast with those fellas then hike out, but I asked Terri if I could return for something I’d lost, and she nodded, so I rushed back up the grass slope to the line of tipis which looked completely different- too whitish, and canvassy, and odd in the daylight, not the glowing things that fit into the night scene.
There was no bag, no ring- my fingers clawed dirt, though this doesn’t make sense to me now. It was gone.
There’s relevance, or I’ve drawn it as such, in my head, what happened a few nights ago. My dream.
In the dream, I am in a room, and there is some urgency due to the circumstances, but the room is a room in my grandmother’s house that I don’t recognize. I just know it is. And I’m looking for something, but where I end up looking is my uncles pack. It seems he’s staying there and he discovers me looking there, and it’s inappropriate to be looking in his stuff like that. I’ve established some sort of intimacy this way, being alone here with his things, and now with him. I know that I did this. And then he’s taking me on the bed. I see a roll of wrapping paper extend out, and it’s crinkling underneath us. The white side is up, but the whole wall is red, and the paper is too, where it creases up.
I’m not unwilling, but I’m upset, way deep inside, cus I’m getting away from something terribly important, and I can’t seem to make myself stop yielding to it. He’s not the one I wanted, and in the act he seems awkward, solid, his face grows red. He’s not unkind but I understand that he is doing what has to be done and will move on from it without passion when the time comes.
And the scary part is that I’m cleaving away from something that I know is very important but I feel so divorced from what it is, and what it feels like. I am letting it happen.
I know what that dream meant. I know what it represented, and why. It was about the person I talked to the night before, and how I let an old, established intimacy build a sort of… potential situation between us. I was sort of lulled into letting a moment of closeness stretch out because it was familiar and safe, and the more I talked the more it seemed like that was an act of letting go, slipping a ring off my finger, yielding. And I didn’t want to do that at all, so I don’t know why I almost did.
For a moment I was that easily swayed- a moth perched on the end of a grass-blade, letting the wind push her whichever way. And I despair at that..
In the morning, I was disgusted and shaken at my dream, and also by the passivity in me that yielded it. I felt sort of sick inside, and then the phone rang, and there he was: Recognizable, real, recalled. The precious, unidentified thing that my night carried me away from was right there.
It was like finding that ring when I thought it was gone for good. Thank God it wasn’t lost irrevocably.
It seems important that the dream was so startling and warped. Like a warning. I’m glad it couched my actions with more authenticity- the gross, unnatural aspect of the scenario- no matter how ordinary it all played out, I can recoil from the idea of letting something happen.
And fight. Fight for what I want, not just be stupid and passive and lose something important to the seductive darkness.
Cus there’s a hole in me, sure, that seems predisposed to that, but it isn’t heart-shaped. It’s a circle. The circle of patterns that keep repeating, the circle of a tipi, the round absence of weight that a circlet forms around my finger. Circling back to the scene of old crimes to try and find new beginnings.
In real life, my uncle would have seen me there, and sent me on my way. ‘This isn’t where you belong.”
In a way, my ex did the same thing, he did it a long time ago, though we came to miss each other. It was in a goodbye speech he made from the circle of his own thoughts.
“Reach out and take what you want, Alissa. It’s right there, reach out and take it…”
What are you waiting for?