A piece of me was left in Europe. It was one last thread to a year spent abroad, and to a relationship that no longer existed. I was set to fly out in a few weeks to retrieve it.
Then my flight to Dublin got cancelled.
In Grizzly Years, Doug Peacock opens the book in the wilds of Wyoming, in winter, when the grizzly bears get slow like molasses, a thick lethargy that sludges through their blood, and makes them want to bed down until spring.
He was there, out of season, not as a griz tracker, but as a troubled man needing to perform a last rites. A bear, one he’d gotten to know, was shot by a sheepherder, illegally. He now had the skull, cleaned by the tainted hands—poorly—strings of connective tissue hanging loose from the bone. Together, they sat by an open flame.
His daughter had said he should return the skull to her home, to bury a life prematurely annulled.
In the morning he would do so.
The day was three seasons in one. Cold rain gave way to damp gray then afternoon sun with a high in the 70s. These spring intervals are fickle just like the traction on the rock as they went from saturated to chalked up.
It’s this uncertainty of footing, of having to trust in the nature of things, of yourself and of the connection to something slippery, that puts you on alert.
I was supposed to be in Albania by now. But I willed the flight grounded.
The email came through, “We’re sorry to inform you…” I was sorry too, but I needed more time. I was awash in doubts: Should I go back? Do I really want this? Do I have to see her?
We were bouldering outside, it felt good to have my hands on sharp granite. I thought about staying and I thought of nothing at all. I thought about what climbing had meant in our relationship, and how that would be something we would carry forward in our woven narrative. I thought about wanting my gear back.
He took the skull and brought it to rest outside the den where the mother’s cub was settling in, left to its own devices from here on out.
The trouble with a change in plans is the need to communicate them with another party. We’d been trying to minimize talking, or at least I had, and I now needed to coordinate a new set of arrival dates, meeting times, exchanges.
The back and forth was hard for both of us. She lobbed a salvo,
“If you don’t really want to meet up, I could ship it wherever you need.”
I hadn’t thought of that, locked in as I was on a plan already set in motion; A march on a path that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be on any longer. The bigger trip was a tour through the Balkans, more climbing, more rootlessness. I had convinced myself I wanted to go and stopping in Budapest was the easiest course.
This new option was a cold shower for all of it.
The skull was placed in a willow that sat at the opening of the cub’s hideaway, to watch over it through their deep sleep. Peacock draped a small bear paw of silver and turquoise atop the skull. He spoke, “your fur against the cold, bear…”
The chrysalis was woven complete: Paper wrapping, padding placed, shipping labels printed and pro forma invoices filled out and slapped on. It shipped out Tuesday at noon, and with it our last tether severed.
Three days and two continents later the mail arrived on the front porch at 4:29pm.
“…When my skull lies with yours will you sing for me? The long sleep heals…
The package in hand marked the tying of our loose ends. The spool was finished.
What’s left is a tapestry, beautiful in its own way, perhaps misshapen, but uniquely ours. It was left unfinished and finished all the same. It’s better that way.
We’ll store it away and admire it for what we created together, a parcel of the past.
I didn’t realize how much baggage you could pack into a carry-on.
Three pairs of shoes, four pairs of pants, some shorts, enough underwear and shirts for a week. And all that shit about past breakups, of the romantic and business kind. Heavy. I’m glad they didn’t make me weigh it.
That tote, a Patagonia duffel in Skipper Blue. I had brought it while living in Mountain View three years ago, the last time I had been in Silicon Valley. It was an REI clearance find. A good deal.
Packing for this trip I hadn’t noticed the connection, it was just the best bag for the job. Just like the original intent, seven days of business in Reno. It all fit together nicely.
My clothes were scattered on the bed, it was an odd mix of attire and emotions. The feeling wouldn’t change once I arrived.
Flying in to San Francisco, we swooped in low above the green hills of Muir Woods headed south. Ahead lay a graph paper peninsula coordinated by buildings and strips of green painted slapdash through like abstract art with a minimalist flair.
The running commentary in my head was, “all those god damn houses.” I thought back to the excitement I felt the first time I arrived in SF years ago. My stomach tightened.
A few weeks back, in Boston, I got carried away by the idea of a business trip. It was the season that teases after all: Frigid temps that withdraw into snippets of Spring, before the rearguard battles back with the next cold front. Sunny California seemed like a reasonable excuse to escape the maligned battery.
But I didn’t have to come to CA. I suggested it to the company.
Why go? What was I hoping for?
I think, at some level, I was keen on making a return, to see what it would be like years later and without a connection to the area. To experience things as removed from a past life.
What I didn’t expect was all the emotion that was still wrapped up in the place. I thought about stopping by the old apartment. Imagined what it might be like.
There I am.
The smell of shade.
It’s musty with a breezy fragrance of flowers and pollen that streams in from the screen door. Dry leaves scatter about the patio behind a flimsy fence that offers little resistance to prying eyes.
I see the place empty, ready to be moved in. The opportunity for new memories, perhaps of just starting out: A family, a job. I’d tread through the living room, to the corner where we’d once set up a makeshift shipping station. Maybe peer into the kitchen and sniff the outline of Soylent shakes that sustained us for too many meals.
I’d tiptoe down the hallway. I can’t remember if the floorboards creaked, but going lightly seems important. The first room on the right was alien to me. There was a rug and a closet with board games that we never played.
The bathroom at the end of the hall was tight with a tiny window that looked out onto the trash bins for the compound. Decay and other funny smells would seep in while you showered. All for the low-low price of $3,300 a month. Perched on the shelf were bottles of microbes that allegedly ate the compounds that cause stench on the body. My roommate didn’t use soap to wash, he conscripted miniature beings to do the job for him.
The second bedroom was shared. It’s where I slept on the floor, on a mattress. It sat in the corner, and when I’d lay against the wall, reading perhaps, my feet would point to the floor-to-ceiling mirrors on the closet doors. I came to resent the reflection forced upon me each morning. Steve Jobs’ words, “Is this what I want to be doing today?” would cross the mind with increasing frequency.
Some days, when no one else was home, I would lie in bed staring at the ceiling fan lights, the blades circled like a drunk crow tied to a leash, round and round. I found that if I stared long enough at the argon-infused bulb the colors would melt out in thick strands of amoeba squiggles, rotating and twisting. The goal was to keep staring to see how far the mirage could go and to find that line where I was just on the edge of falling into some unknown. There was real fear of losing my grip.
Something beyond told me it was wise to avoid the depths.
In this imaginary vision, I’d lie there again to see if I could reproduce the effect. Maybe go over the edge, if I had the time.
The hope in this exercise?
Perhaps to exorcise ghosts, of her lying in the bed crying, disappointed in my not renting a car, of my selfishness. She’d have to lug bags to see her friend at Stanford. I was supposed to drive. We’d break up a few weeks later.
Perhaps I’d cry in that room in that spot, to feel the pain of let down.
I won’t make it to Mountain View.
But I’m just a few miles away on the other side of Palo Alto. It feels the same, a proxy but with better vibes.
The weather is cooler than when I arrived years ago, the cherry blossoms are in bloom. So much of what I tried to slice out of my life creeps back in.
I walk around to soak in ambiance, and listen to Frightened Rabbit’s The Midnight Organ Fight, the album with The Modern Leper, The Twist, and Poke. I try to disentangle my own braided memories: A breakup, a dissolution of a dream, the splitting of a company.
The other day I sat staring at the comforter on my bed, crossing my eyes so the beaded leaves blended together. They mixed into a stereoscopic image of porous bone like you’d see under a microscope. There was depth to the chambers, I almost reached out to feel the calcified crust.
I thought to myself, “What would it be like if I could just let this all float away?” I sat with the idea and let myself smile.
The sailor’s knot began to come undone, and I think I’ll be able to leave here with a little less baggage.
“I was really excited to meet up with you because I knew you’d be gone in two weeks.”
Maybe I should have read the writing on the wall.
It’s that modern romance, man, the kind that starts with a match. We got to talking during a dreary February in Budapest, a city known for arresting architecture, stag dos, and Eastern Europe’s most blatant political swindler. I’d come to the city with dreams of writing and soaking in thermal baths, the idea stemming from a Wes Anderson flick that actually had nothing to do with Budapest itself. I’d only end up doing one of those things.
She caught my eye, and my swipe, because she was into climbing and had a rad photo of her scaling a steep sun-baked rock face with a siren’s call of sparkling emerald water in the background. That day, the sun shone brightly in the pixelated universe, you could feel the heat emanating from the screen.
We messaged back and forth and she’d speak to deeper topics, respond with thought and care. Intriguing. I’m no good at flirting, but we did a little of that too. We planned to meet at a bouldering gym for our first date.
The match moved towards the striker.
We met at UjjeroBoulder Terem, which loosely translates to “Finger Force,” on the south side of Buda, near the Petőfi Bridge.
She was taller than I expected, and late, which would be something I’d get used to during our relationship of ups and downs and angst over delayed periods.
She came striding into the cave-like entrance in a grey petticoat that she tied around her waist with the built-in belt, mid-calf black leather riding boots, and a blood red scarf wrapped around her neck.
I stood up to greet her.
The climbing goes and we spoke all the while like lost souls do: About life, dreams, poetry, the call of the mountains.
It all sounded wondrous, impressive, inspiring. I’d never met a woman who had climbed so extensively and she talked about these things cooly, like they were nothing special. She was smooth and smart and funny. I thought I’d hit the jackpot, and that the date was only going so-so.
It was my first time back to climbing in nearly 8 months, and she was much stronger and more technically sound. We ended with her traversing the entirety of the gym and my forearms too pumped and fingers too weak to do much but watch. I tried to act cool and not focus too intently on the leggings she wore. I decided to start climbing again that evening.
On the walk to the tram we were in the middle of a conversation about personal values and what it means to live well. We were about to part ways, or so I thought, when she asked if I wanted to get drinks.
I had tempered my expectations about the evening, figured she was only mildly interested and that maybe we’d have a second date. I guess I wasn’t so good at reading the route that night.
“This is an interesting conversation, so I’d like to continue it,” she said.
She’d end up making the first move after two fröccs, a Hungarian wine spritzer. She shuffled around the table to sit next to me and gave me a look that invited me to kiss her. So I did.
The match struck.
We fell for each other and decided to give it a go.
But not before some discussion. In a moment of blunt honesty before I left for Boston, she’d tell me, “I was really excited to meet up with you because I knew you’d be gone in two weeks.” She wasn’t of the mind to date, she said, but I had thrown a wrench in her plans.
We were together for the better part of the year. She’d teach me to lead and we parlayed that into my first and second ever climbing trips.
And yet imprinting is hard to shake, her comment would run through our months of quasi-commitment. I learned to expect the unexpected on the terrain ahead, that trust in your belayer is as important as the trust you have in yourself, that a partnership needs a common goal to succeed.
My guess is you can read the writing on the wall at this point.
The funny thing is, the gym no longer exists. They shut the doors and moved on to a new venture with the hope they could make it work out better.
Spaces come and go, but they hold memories, that’s what gives them significance: She’d learned to climb there and I’d gotten back into the sport because of it. Our lives danced about because of climbing, and it started at that gym.
Eventually the lights turned off and we’d never be able to go back to that place again.
I’d never wanted a vacation to be over before it started.
Maybe it was because I knew we’d be over when the trip ended. Maybe I was trying to delay the inevitable.
But we were 10 months in and things still weren’t working.
We tried of course, but when it came down to it, you kept holding back. Something didn’t feel right, you said.
We decided it was time to move on. But not before some fun.
A two-week climbing trip in Turkey awaited. A nice way to end things after the shit that was Kraków. Let’s go out on an upswing, we thought.
I knocked on your door in Budapest.
We hadn’t seen each other since that fateful weekend. We were filled with trepidation.
I entered. You gave me a look. I threw myself into your arms.
We moved to the bedroom and eliminated the distance between us. We fucked then held each other. Hours passed. Sometimes it was so easy.
They were good days. Then we left for Geyikbayiri.
Maybe this will work.
Budapest went well, maybe this will work. Maybe.
I repeated those words to myself like a prayer. I had a bad feeling but tried to be hopeful. My stomach began to knot up at Atatürk airport, not a good sign.
We caught a flight to Antalya, then took a shuttle to our hostel. I’d tip the driver too much.
It was dark when we arrived.
The air smelled sweet. Oranges and pomegranates wafted ripe around us.
There was something else too, the citrus masked a pungent aroma. I breathed a sort of goat, orange, mountain air mélange. It reminded me of the farm. A memory of mixed associations: The smell of verdant life and an imminent season of change; Of the infinite cycle and of confinement.
The bungalows where we’d stay were coupled off with fruit trees in little vistas of privacy. They were small cottages like gingerbread homes with a Turkish twist. Inside, an Ottoman gourd diffused light through shimmering gems of red, orange, and green. The lamp was too weak to read by.
That night we settled around the fireplace to shoot the shit with our new camp mates. She’d sync in with the rhythm of the place more easily than I would.
She was so god damned cool with everything.
It was the lightest I’d ever seen her, just carefree and enjoying herself.
I wasn’t able to match the buoyancy.
Why? I didn’t quite understand.
How could she be so at ease when nothing (and everything) was on the line?, I questioned myself. I questioned her.
We’d talk again about our thoughts on love — how we love.
She’d say, I’d rather give and receive love when it’s there.
I admitted it sounds good in theory.
I’m not sure why it is like this for me, though. I do find the clarity of knowing things will end to be a relief. It makes it easier.
Not that I’m happy about things ending, but it helps to have resolution.
I do wonder if I’m the one with the weird strategy, she offered.
She’d told me before that she always feels the emotional pains of a breakup months later. I wondered about the mechanics of regret and grieving.
The trip would be a tug-of-war with myself.
I was frustrated as hell and felt uncomfortable with us. What we were. It was hard for me to love so freely knowing it was over. It felt pointless at times.
I wondered why I put myself in this mess.
Days passed. It wasn’t working. I needed to get away.
Away from the room, away from the camp, away from her.
We talked and I said I wanted to go for a hike the next day, to get some space to think. She misheard me and thought I was asking her to join.
The next morning, I left two hours before sunrise. Mostly, I stumbled around in the dark. My headlamp was too dim in the blackness, it made me near-sighted. I kept going off-route.
Come on sun, rise and take me with you. I want to go fast. I want to go far. I want to explode.
In time the sun came. It shone out onto the kingdom in long streaks of color and flare. My feeble eyes tilted towards the sky. I could see a path forward. I ran.
I needed to feel the freedom of movement.
We settled into an up-and-down rhythm.
We had a cadence of a few good days then a fight. I was mainly the instigator. She was always the more understanding one.
On one day the Slovakians went into town for a rest and to re-stock on cigarettes. Only the ear, nose, and throat doctor stayed behind.
We invited her to join us climbing, which made four. We paired off and I chose to climb with Doc. I wanted a day away from her. I felt tight and distracted. Not good for belaying.
I’d lead my hardest climbs to date.
On another day we’d hitchhike to town to buy food. We’d end up with bottles of wine from the driver’s private vineyard and Toblerone. S has her unique social charms, and conversational German.
It was my first hitchhiking experience. We’d toast to our fortune later on.
On another day I’d surprise her by dressing up the bungalow with birthday decorations. I got her some small things and we enjoyed the morning sipping coffee and talking on the porch. I decided not to make a cake.
Yet another day I’d be cold and distant.
We’d talk through our frustrations and challenges which ironically brought us closer. When we were relaxed we found harmony in continuous laughter. At points we’d feel the closest we ever felt.
It was emotionally taxing.
The days marched on.
Nearing the end we looked back and wondered where the time went.
I had been agonizing, which had made the days feel slow. Now our time was fleeting and it felt like everything was slipping through my hands.
We left camp and drove down the Turkish coast along the Mediterranean Sea, taking the D400 from Antalya to Çıralı. Three days left, just the two of us.
We each chose one activity: She wanted to go hiking, I wanted to see ruins, and we both wanted to climb.
We walked among the dead.
The mausoleum had fallen into the sea. The foundation was washing away and the walls now spilled into the sand. The cacophonous chambers were aired and quietly filling with empty water bottles.
I seek the ancient world because it reminds me that it was once the present. We will all topple some day.
Phaselis was a prosperous port city that passed hands from Greek to Roman to Persian and on and on, before eventually falling out of favor for larger ports nearby. The slow decline lasted until the 11th century when it stopped being of any importance. Quite a good run, though.
That night she’d tell me, When we were in the car, you were talking with Nico about something — I was only half-paying attention — I was looking at you in the sideview mirror and just felt this overwhelming sense rise up; This swell of love for you filled me.
We did love each other after all.
I pulled her close, held her. What am I supposed to do with that?, I thought.
Quite a good run, though.
December first. Our last night.
We jumped into the Mediterranean naked.
We’d swam in the ocean — in December — and were all giggles and shivers over it.
Over it. That’s what we were. Tomorrow we’d both fly out from Antalya. You’d leave half an hour before me. We had separate flights because I had bought my ticket later. Because I wasn’t sure if I’d want to jet before the trip was done.
It had been hard. But I was glad I stayed.
A small part of me hoped that I’d run into you on the layover in Istanbul. That wouldn’t happen.
The ocean waves bristled with electricity, the shock absorbed us. We swam with the current then broke the circuit. The lights dimmed.
We left on good terms.
We had a joke that these were the best breakups we’d ever had. Or maybe it was only me that said that.
Parting at the airport was confusing, difficult. We both admitted we felt closer, more open, more honest. We agreed not to talk for awhile.
Back home she’d show pictures of the trip to her grandmother.
I popped up on the screen here and there. She asked who I was. She said something about a complicated relationship.
Her grandmother said a few words and they both moved on. She told me she really liked her grandmother because she didn’t judge.
In Istanbul I was going through some old emails.
I can trace our time together in the flight details in my inbox. We covered a lot of miles.
In the end, no matter how far we went, we couldn’t bridge that final distance.
We walked to the quarry and had our first talk of the end.
She’d come to visit from Budapest and was staying for a long weekend. We’d last seen each other five weeks before and spent the ensuing time apart on separate continents. We left on good turns.
Now we were back in Krakow and a lot had changed. I hadn’t realized how much. She had no idea.
We were feeling claustrophobic in the apartment, and in our own heads.
We needed to get out.
Krakow contains several parks. We sought refuge in nature.
The Zakrzówek quarry is rumored to contain black magic. Pan Twardowski, a sorcerer from the 16th century, made a deal with the devil for great knowledge and supernatural power. He allegedly practiced his dark art among the rocks.
Pan is said to still be alive: He lives on the moon and keeps tabs on Krakovian gossip via a spider’s thread spun down to the city center.
Today, we were trying to disentangle our own web.
We walked from the apartment to the quarry, 4km west from Kazimierez. We strode along the Vistula and atop hard concrete sidewalks desperate for fresh air.
The weather was cold, clouds hung heavy and damp. It smelled of decaying leaves, slightly sweet. Like stale black tea. Oranges, reds, yellows and dark grays were sprayed along paths and dusted the windshields of parked cars.
At the conclusion of a few sharp turns, the quarry strode open and evoked an antediluvian fortress or a secret garden. Sheer limestone walls enclose old apple trees and a shrunken deciduous forest. The trees were lithe and thin. We walked in. I had to piss. She kept on.
To our right, chalky stains ran along the wall. It’s the closest outdoor climbing in Krakow and the cues are all over.
There were signs marking our relationship too: Difficulty fully committing to each other, a chasing of narratives and expectations across cities, countries, continents. In the process we ended up in different places and at different conclusions.
We moved to the long crack in the rock face and played on the limestone in street clothes and inappropriate shoes. We scaled a short traverse, the stone was slick. Climbing had been a way for us to bond. I had learned to lead climb with her.
All around it was quiet. The winter breeze rushed into the valley and swirled around the posthole quarry. It felt like a day for endings.
We made our way to the top of the rock and peered about. We sat at the edge and observed the pastel colors of fall and a sunken sky.
We talked about us and the future.
It was the first of several conversations we would have that week.
I moved away and became cold and despondent. We walked on and spoke in terse tones.
Tension was strung between us, the spider’s line might snap at any moment. I wasn’t being compassionate.
We walked around the lake. The vibrancy of the fall palette and crisp air remained fixed in view. I was moving down a hole.
“You don’t have to wait here for me,” she urged as she sat staring out glassy-eyed over the water. “I need some time to myself, since I’m not getting any empathy from you.”
I was being a jerk, detached. I was falling into old patterns. Needs were met with ice. A stonewalled heart. My gut tightened with regret. Past car crash moments flashed by. My shoulders and back tensed, the breath became shallow and rapid. It’s fight or flight.
I tried to get out of my own head, to stop the record and listen. There she was, right there, you could reach out and touch her, offer support. You could throw a lifeline.
You’re iced through.
Cold to the touch, prickly.
Why? Why do this? You ask yourself often over the coming days.