This is my first of two entries for Week TwentySix of The Real LJ Idol competition, where the topics are "The End of My Rope" and "Current Events." I'll post an update about voting later. If you haven't already, you may want to join therealljidol, since some voting will be restricted to community members. Again, I really appreciate all the support so far!
Me as a college undergrad, on some rocks
As I watched the pre-teen cling to the cliff face, trembling in all her limbs, I knew what she was feeling. I'd been up there just a short while earlier, but I had taken an easier route. She was just a skinny little thing, in faded jeans and a gray T-shirt, and she was the only one to make it that high. I guess that's why the camp director wasn't letting her give up. "You can make it," he said. "You just have to gutter up that crack. You're almost there."
"I can't," she shouted, her voice wavering. "Please let me down."
I was a freshman in college, working as a summer counselor at a church camp. Each week a new group of kids would arrive to participate in specialty camps run by volunteer directors. The computer campers were a pasty bunch, confined to the computer lab in a cabin on the main campus. The adventure campers, like this group, spent most of their time off campus: hiking, taking bicycle trips, canoeing, and occasionally, rock climbing.
We summer counselors divided ourselves amongst the camps, with additional help from volunteer counselors. I was one of the only female summer counselors who would take the adventure camps.
In this case, the director was a solid wall of a guy, sporting a beard and ponytail. Normally, he was very affable, but today he reminded me of Henry Higgins from My Fair Lady, insisting that this poor girl strive for perfection.
"Let her down," I said quietly. "She doesn't want to climb any more."
I don't know if he heard me or not, but he continued chatting with the volunteer male counselor, a buddy of his with a halo of golden curls, a moustache and big glasses. He had won my heart with his juggling skills (I've always been a sucker for someone who can juggle). Later that summer, he would visit me at the camp, endearingly awkward and eager. We would kiss. I would break his heart.
At this point, though, there was simply one young girl on a cliff. She probably could have made it to the top, but her cries were so piteous I insisted they let her down. Finally, the director relented, and she descended to earth. When the camper finally hit solid earth, her whole body was shaking. I asked if I could get her some water. She nodded gratefully.
My climb had been a lot less eventful. I had tackled the "beginner's route," one of two that had been set for us by a local rock-climbing group, who was helping us for the day. The woman who was belaying the beginner's route was a lithe, athletic brunette who probably owned more exercise gear than I did tie dyes, and at the time, that was saying something. She helped me with my harness and explained how she would ensure my safety, as well as the commands we would use to communicate.
Unlike the more challenging route, I had a wealth of easy handholds and footholds. It was almost like a rock staircase. But I wanted to know exactly what I was getting into, what might happen if I lost my grip and went spinning backwards. I told the belayer I wanted to see what would happen if I fell. She said that would be fine, any time I was ready.
So I pushed backwards, off the rock face.
We were in an empty classroom, because I'd told him I had to tell him something important. He was my best friend, and I was in love with him. I loved the way he made me laugh, his lop-sided smile, even the way he soaked the grease off his pizza with stacks of napkins. We hung out every week, ate lunch together, went to movies, and laughed ourselves silly. But at the end of the semester, I simply had to tell him how I felt. He shifted uneasily on the desk where he sat. "Can't we just stay friends?"
A kid with acne scars sneered at me as I walked slowly down the bus aisle on a bright spring day. It was my stop, and I had to brave this gauntlet every day of fifth grade. I was wearing my favorite shirt, a blousy sleeveless button-down in pastel stripes, perfect for the warm weather. Other kids giggled as he shouted, "Are you pregnant or just fat?"
My mom had gathered my sister, my brother and I in our cluttered living room. I sat at the edge of the couch, tense, knowing what she was about to say. I'd noticed how often Mom was displeased with Dad. I'd heard them arguing, late at night, my Dad's voice rising, desperate, as he tried to convince her to change her mind. "Your Dad and I are separating," she told us. My brother crossed his arms. My sister bit her lip. Mom explained Dad would move into the apartment over his office. My Dad thought it would be temporary. The rest of us knew it wouldn't.
The rope went taut. My feet kicking, my heart racing, I stopped in mid-air. The rope held.
I did the rest of the climb with confidence, grabbing for handholds and footholds (even, using terrible technique, kneeholds). I knew that no matter what happened, my belayer had my back.
But now, the preteen girl sipped her water bottle in silence, gazing into the forest, seemingly sunk in thought. It occurred to me that if I didn't say the right thing, she might never challenge herself again, never take a risk. "You were really brave up there," I told her. "You did better than anyone else could have."
She looked at me with disbelief, her shoulders slumping. "I wasn't brave," she said. "I was just scared."
I nodded. "I was, too," I told her.
After I heard those words, "Can we just be friends?" I called up a good friend and asked her to meet me on campus. In the failing late spring light, we sat on a bench on the Campus Mall, where she listened to me pour my heart out about my recent rejection. She told me everything would be OK. "You're lucky to have such a good friendship with him," she said. "One day, you'll realize that." Then she put an arm around me and said, "You can call me any time you want to talk."
She caught me.
When I got off the school bus, I burst into tears. The two-block walk up the steep hill to our house felt seven miles long. When I opened the door, the warm tomato smell of spaghetti sauce greeted me. Hearing me sob, Mom asked, "What's wrong?" Between sobs, I choked out the story of what happened on the bus. She smoothed back my hair, looked into my eyes, and told me that I was beautiful.
She caught me.
My brother, my sister and I joined my Dad for a dinner at his new place. He still had boxes in the front room, but the place was looking more and more like a home. We had developed a new weekly ritual, where we shared a meal with him and told him about our daily lives. As we joked and laughed, my Dad looked relaxed and happy. Even if things had changed, we were still a family.
We caught each other.
The girl had finally stopped trembling. "It's normal to be scared," I told her. "But we wouldn't have let you fall." She nodded and gave me a weak grin. Up on the cliff, other climbers grasped for handholds and footholds, making their slow way up the craggy rockface, secure in their harnesses.
Scared of falling? That's what the safety rope is for.