[Photo Credit: Mountain Project]
Sara considered cigarettes the residue of her past. She picked up the habit during the period she called the “great stupor,” when she and her former boyfriend Miles would gather with friends after work and drink until they couldn’t stand up. These nights tended to end with the pair of them slipping off for unspectacular sex in whatever empty room or closet space they could find. They lived in Detroit then. To hear it from her, she and Miles pulled each other out of the stupor, although it seemed to me like she pulled him out, like they were his friends more than Sara’s and weighed him down more. I supposed that would’ve made Miles a weight for Sara, but Sara would hate it if I reduced her relationships to so many weights and pulleys.
Sara ashed a cig on the ground of Red Rocks, despite the sign that said not to. With most people I would’ve complained about that, but I could always make exceptions for her faults. We were a mile above the freeway, about sixteen from Denver. From that distance, those two landmarks looked like lights drawn toward other lights, on pilgrimage. I wondered what drove the pilgrims toward those lights, what they sought to gain from their journeys. I would’ve asked Sara but it seemed like a better time for silence. Looking back, maybe a few words would’ve distracted us from what followed.
My arm was around Sara, her head nestled in the crook of my neck. I stroked her hand. Even with everything done, I don’t quite understand why things went wrong between us. Faint strands of “Tiny Dancer” played from the movie screen. Sara lifted her head from my neck and took a drag on her cigarette. Smoke lingered for a minute before the night’s wind scattered it across the sky.
“Miles and I,” she said. “This was our song.”
Something about my face must’ve silenced her. I now wonder what failure of empathy I might’ve conveyed. Or maybe it was more a question along the lines of “what will our song be?” Even a teenager on prom night would’ve considered that too forward.
“Don’t pay it any mind,” she said. “I’m sorry. Stuff just comes out of me sometimes.”
I relaxed. Now I wonder now whether she meant to reassure me or herself.
Back when Sara was with Miles, we’d spend our time in Boulder, drifting into used bookstores with loose books stacked on the floor, gliding through art galleries in search of pieces by our friends, parking ourselves on benches and listening to string quartets play Beethoven or Shostakovich. We lived in Denver but preferred Boulder. Despite our history, asking her out frayed my nerves. My high school fears of rejection were and remain less vestigial than I thought. Several times I managed, like I thought they only did in the movies, to turn “I like you” into “I like your shirt.” I was only moved to action when I read the words “ask her out you pussy” on a bathroom stall. To my liquid mind, the graffiti wrapped serendipity in awful sentiment. The question followed. Now here we were at Red Rocks.
People forget how cold the desert gets once the sun goes down. There’s science behind it, but all I know is to bring a windbreaker and sweatpants even on ninety degree days. The Fast and the Furious played on a distant screen, a theater to this open space’s lobby. We’d showed up for Battleship Potemkin, Sara laughing at my crack about kissing in the name of the glorious revolution. Except their copy of Potemkin had a scratch on it, so they changed the movie out.
“Let’s make our own fun,” she’d said. I pictured us in the back seat of her car like teenagers. When two people are sufficiently overcome they’ll do it anywhere. Instead we planted ourselves here.
Sara looked at me like someone about to break a rule. “I’ve got a stupid idea.” She disentangled herself and stood up. Behind us was a rail, and behind the rail, a bluff. Sara climbed onto the bench, clambered over the rail and tottered onto the bluff, arms out like a child playing airplane. She got halfway to the precipice before turning around.
“Come along,” she said. I looked around, found no one who could stop me, and jumped the rail myself. As I followed, Denver came into view. The sought-after lights sat in office buildings like towers of Babel, small from this distance. Wind whipped at the tails of our jackets. I ran through a list of possible gestures, discarding them as I went. The arm around the shoulder hadn’t had the anticipated success, the hand on the thigh seemed too crude and anyway we were standing. I still marvel at people who can read erotic codes and make the appropriate moves. Our arms swayed by our sides. She took my hand, but neither sat nor enveloped herself in me. I looked at her and she looked at Denver.
“What’s on your mind?” I asked.
“The usual. Old parties. Miles.”
Miles was never far from Sara’s mind, an omen I ignored. I hope she doesn’t still think of him. We once swept through a bookstore with an autographed copy of Nabokov’s Ada on display. Sara, who that day hadn’t yet mentioned Miles, called it the perfect birthday present for him. I never met a bigger Nabokov fan. He called me a plebe for describing good old Vlad as a supercomputer playing tic-tac-toe. According to Sara, that meant he liked me, and he debated me about literature each of our subsequent meetings. Sara always joined us, playing pragmatist to our dogmas. It upset Miles that she took my side more often than his.
“He’s not bothering you, is he?” I asked.
“No, but I wonder what he’d think if he knew I was with you.”
“With me?” I said. “Why, what was it about me?”
“Miles always had his opinions about us.”
“Can’t say he was wrong.”
Her smile was fragile and weak around the eyes.
Sara and I sat on the edge of the cliff. I could see the names of the skyscrapers: the Republic Plaza, the Wells Fargo, the Four Seasons. Specks swam in rooftop pools. Miniscule cocktail waitresses served infinitesimal businessmen drinks on top of bars. Billboards advertised art exhibits, celebrity shows, bail bondsmen. Church spires, clocks, high-rise apartments challenged the sky, and yet still barely came up to the feet of the mountains.
The wind blew Sara’s auburn hair across her face. When her hair settled, I ran my fingers through it. It fell down to her shoulders and smelled of tobacco. She brushed my hand away, a sad smile on her face. For her as for me, I hope.
“I’m sorry, but I’m just not ready yet.”
She shifted enough to be out of reach. I didn’t close the gap. She crushed her cigarette against the rock. Ash merged with the namesake red. I wiped it up, let the wind carry it away. Sara walked back toward the rail.
“I think I’m ready to go,” she said. “You want a ride to your place?”
“We could stop there for a drink if you’d like,” I said.
Sara didn’t respond. The weight of embarrassment settled on my shoulders. I think I knew in that moment things were bound to fail, but we all mythologize moments when granted retrospect. Maybe our golden age ended then, maybe we never had one. Either way, I wonder whether Sara detected our collapse with such acuity as to rule our romance out, at least for then. We now speak of that night in euphemisms, “all the stuff that happened three years ago.” She has since reunited and broken up with Miles, and this time she swears it’s for good. I still wonder what chance we have.
We climbed over the rail and walked back to the parking lot, down flights of stairs cut into the rock. Our hands didn’t touch. We didn’t exchange a word as we drove back toward Denver. The arches of the bridges and black steel of the buildings sprang to life, the trees and telephone lines returned to existence. As we got off the freeway and immersed ourselves in the city, I scanned her face for some hint of what might come next and found nothing.
Chris Schahfer received an MFA in Creative Writing, fiction focus, from Roosevelt University in December 2016 and a BA in English from Wayne State University in May of 2013. His fiction has appeared in the Dapper Lounge and Caffeine Presse, and in July of 2013, his short story “An Impasse” was a top twenty-five finalist in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Story contest.