sending the route

The thick mats that cover the floors of this climbing gym are supposedly not meant for lounging, but no one seems to mind. Hailey and I are on our backs, arms pressed together, chatting about everything and nothing as our boyfriends attempt to climb a difficult undercut route nearby. I’d put my hands on the starting hold and said nope, but John was determined to conquer it.

He and I have never bouldered before. It’s a good middle ground for us—he’s incredibly strong and therefore able to haul himself up many of the routes, but his weight works against him, while I have less strength but more flexibility and can scamper up most of the beginner routes.

The sound of a body hitting the mat and the sight of chalk puffing into the air signals another failed attempt from one of the men. John and Hunter—Hailey’s boyfriend—make their way over to where we’re laying. When John appears upside-down in my sightline, I proudly hold my chalky hand out to him, boasting that I got my first flappie. The skin of my right pinkie finger had torn on the last route I’d tried, the skin underneath bright pink and raw. Hailey had congratulated me when I’d shown her.

Unlike John, I’ve wound down for the night. I’m satisfied with the handful of the beginning routes I’ve completed, and my body is pleasantly aching all over. But I’m not in any hurry to leave the gym—resting with Hailey, catching up on all the exciting stuff God had been doing in our lives recently, is nice. And it’s fun to watch our boyfriends interact—they’ve met once before, but haven’t gotten to interact one-on-one much until tonight.

I’m storing their laughs in my heart. Moments like this are rare, considering that John spends most of his days in New York.

My finger is still sporting the raw skin of my first flappie when we drive John to the SeaTac airport. It’s early in the morning; the sky is dark. His parents are in the front, mostly quiet; I’m squeezed into the middle seat of the back, arm tucked beneath John’s, hand clutched in his.

He was home for almost two weeks, which is a wealth of time for us. Now we enter the fall draught, with no visits between summer and thanksgiving. I’m usually dry-eyed with these goodbyes, and this morning is no exception. But there’s a hollow ache in my chest as I watch him disappear into the airport lobby, bag slung over his shoulder.

The tears don’t come until later that night, when I join my parents, who are leaders, at our home church’s youth group. When I was in high school, some of my best friends were made here, but now it’s just a sea of foreign faces.

Last week, John and I came together. I drew on his arm during the sermon. We were both weary from a hike on Mt. St. Helens we’d done earlier that day.

It’s a combination of things that makes me cry after the service—the fact I don’t recognize most of the people around me, the fact that I can’t seem to find my parents anywhere, the fact that my person isn’t here anymore.

That night I go to bed drained, eyes heavy from crying. When I wake in the morning, the sun is out. I haul myself out of bed, text John, wash my face. It’s a new day. A good day.

There’s a free on-campus climbing facility for students of George Fox. It’s only been in use for a year, so the shoes are mostly unscuffed, the holds still vibrant candy colors. At this point a couple weeks into the semester, I’ve managed to complete all of the beginner routes and have begun working on the moderates.

There’s a route here composed entirely of awkward blue blocks, and it’s with slight trepidation that I set myself up on the first hold—one foot braced on the wall beneath me, another on the wall across, since it begins in a corner.

This route is intended to stretch the climber—literally. There are large spaces between each hold, making each step a reach. I have long limbs, but I’m still surprised when I’m able to brace my hands on two far-apart blocks, plastered against the wall like a starfish. The next move requires me to reach my left hand across to the hold that my right is on, but that means trusting the precarious grip of my right hand and the unsteady bearing of my spread-apart feet. I’m certain I’ll fall, but I might as well try.

I hug myself close to the wall, release my left hand’s hold, reach—and, miraculously, I don’t fall. I’m able to grab the large hold with both hands, body settling into its new position, lips pulled into a wide smile, mind already working to strategize the next move.

When I inevitably fall from the wall a couple steps later, I explain this move to my friend—how it shocked, thrilled, empowered me. How I was certain my grip wouldn’t hold. That’s what I love about climbing, I say. Sometimes our strength surprises us.

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