We were two pitches up, I was four beers in, and my girlfriend at the time, “Agnes,” had sent me three angry text messages. She’s not really an Agnes, of course. Nobody born after the First World War is. But at least this way she won’t get on my ass about appearing in “some stupid rock climbing magazine.”
I wasn’t four beers in, not really. We were sixteen. At the time I was into this thing, see. I’d drink glass-bottled root beer and peel the labels off, then let the empty bottles roll around in the floorboard of my car. I figured girls who got in would think I was cool. Like a renegade or something. So I was four root beers in. I was stashing them in my backpack.
Tom flicked me. I looked up from my phone. “Your lead, O,” he said.
I looked back at my phone, jammed it in my pocket, and started off from the belay. I tiptoed up the grainy slab, inching just above the treeline. At the belay, Tom was blasting Skynyrd. I clipped two bolts, got up five feet from the second one, then fell, the rock peeling the skin off my right knee like a cheese grater. I screeched and clung to my bleeding joint.
“You alright?” Tom called.
The pitch was 5.8. “I know it’s 5.8, alright?” I said.
“I didn’t say anything!”
“You were thinking it.”
“Alright.” He held up his hands.
“Agnes’ been texting me,” I said.
“What’s she want?”
“I dunno. Something about her and Trinity.”
“The hot one? Got fingered by Tyson Lee in like 6thgrade.”
“Like Trinity told Grace I liked her. Or, I think actually Grace told Trinity I liked her. Then Trinity told Agnes.”
“That you liked Trinity?”
“Nah, Grace…I think.” I shrugged.
“Jesus Christ. Sounds like high school shit,” Tom said.
“We are in high school, dumbass”
“Well yeah, I know. But like high school movie stuff. Mean Girls or whatever. You gonna climb this thing or what?”
“Roger.” I plodded back up the slab to the last bolt, then got a few feet beyond. The wall turned close to vertical, and a thin finger crack was moving in from the left. I swung into it, laybacking. My phone buzzed …cause we are living in a material world, and I am a material girl… Madonna was blasting from my phone. I fumbled one-handed to switch it to vibrate, but my fingers slipped from the crack and I whipped again, smashing my already bloody knee into the wall.
“That’s got to be the queerest ringtone I ever heard.” Sam was laughing. “What the hell, man?”
“It’s only for Agnes, alright. She fuckin put it there.” I massaged my aching knee. “It only goes off when she calls. Not my fault.”
“Not your fault? You own that phone, don’t you?” Tom said.
“Am I gonna have to lead this brutal 5.8? It looks like it’s tearing you apart.”
I latched back onto the wall and battled up to the top of the cliff. My phone didn’t ring again. It was starting to get dark by the time I brought Tom to the top. Crickets were making their music in the bushes, and in the distance, someone was blasting down the road in a F-150 with holes drilled in the muffler. I didn’t see the vehicle, of course, but I knew what kind of vehicle it was. It also had a “Don’t Tread on Me” sticker on the back. We were in central Alabama, you see.
Tom and I rigged the rope to rappel and rapped to the base of the crag to hike out.
“Prom’s coming up,” I said.
“Yup,” said Tom. He scratched his armpit, then slapped at a mosquito.
“You got a date?”
“Me?” Tom laughed. “I got plenty. The question is which one of ‘em I’ll deign worthy to accompany me. You taking Agnes?”
“No offense, man, but she seems like kind of a handful.”
“Yeah, but she’s cool sometimes.”
Tom hopped over a log in the trail. He pulled a Clif bar from his pocket and started munching on it. He shrugged. “Whatever you say. Just seems like kinda a pain.”
“How much of a pain is too much, though? She’s cute, at least.”
“I don’t think so,” Tom said.
“Well, fuck you. She is to me.”
He raised his hands in mock surrender. My phone buzzed in my pocket. I gripped it until it stopped vibrating so Tom wouldn’t hear.
“You know that old water tower up on Monte Sano?” I said, trying to change the subject.
“By the elementary school?”
“Well I was thinking it’d be cool to climb it sometime. You know? There’s like a ladder that goes most of the way up, but it inverts at the top. We could get some slings and biners and clip into the rungs.”
Tom laughed. “Sounds like a shitshow.”
“Be cool though, you know?”
He shrugged. “I prefer rock.”
When we got to the road, where Tom’s Camry was parked, trouble was waiting, in the form of a little white Volkswagen Bug.
“Is that…” Tom started.
“Yep,” I said grimly.
Agnes was out like a rocket. “You think I like tracking your phone? Why the hell weren’t you answering me?”
Tom was already backing away slowly, towards his car.
“I dunno, I was on the wall, Jesus. Chill,” I said.
“You know how this made me feel?”
“Me not answering my phone?”
“No, Grace. Grace and Trinity saying those things about us. I love you. I love you! Don’t you get what that means?”
My stomach squirmed. “Uhhh, I’m sorry. It’s not true.”
“I think I might need some space. I can not deal with you right now.”
Why the hell are you out here then?
“Whipped,” Tom was mouthing to me. “Whhhiiiippppppped.”
“Fuck off,” I said.
“What’d you say to me?” Agnes shrieked.
Tom got in his car and drove away. After he was gone, I was yelled at for approximately 3 ½ minutes. Then we rode home in her little bug, my head jammed against the ceiling. The car smelled oppressively of perfume.
When Agnes dropped me off, I got in my car, followed her home and told her we were breaking up. Then I took two short slings and two carabiners, and aided my way up the rusty water tower on top of Monte Sano mountain. At the top a large bird eyed me carefully, as if surprised to see me. Then it flew away. When I got down, a squad car and two cops were waiting. An old man smoking cigars in his backyard had seen me clambering up the rusty overhanging ladder.
“I’m whipped,” I said to the cops. “Don’t you get it?”
Then I sprinted into the woods, my carabiners swinging from my belay loop. One of the cops ran after me, but he was fat and slow and I disappeared into the night amidst the roaring of the crickets.