By Britany Robinson
After giving up on dating, a writer finds unexpected romance. Then struggles to move on.
A nearly vertical wall of sand can barely support itself, let alone the weight of a human being. Yet here I was, standing upright with clenched fingers, knuckle deep in scree and toes gingerly gripping a bowling ball-sized rock that shifted with my every breath.
“I’m going to check for a better path over here. You stay put.” My hiking partner’s voice sounded distant already. The swinging strip of illumination from Jacob's flashlight swept away from me, towards what we hoped was the correct line of boulders to safely traverse this incline.
It was 3 a.m. on the side of Mt. St. Helen’s. We’d lost sight of the wooden poles that were meant to keep us on the trail, and wandered into a steep field of loose rocks, not meant for crossing.
I’d met Jacob just two weeks prior to my suggestion that he join me in climbing Mt. St. Helen’s. We connected over keyboards, but sat just inches from each other at the neighborhood coffee shop where I spend most afternoons.
“What are you working on?” he asked enthusiastically, his unruly brown curls reaching towards the ceiling as if searching for the ideas that flowed from his fingers.
“Oh! Nothing interesting,” I answered, slightly startled by his confident approach.
“No? What do you do?”
“I’m a writer. But right now I’m not writing. I’m just invoicing.”
Stupid. I couldn’t have picked a more boring answer if I tried. Feeling compelled to make up for my lack of conversation skills, I asked, “And what are you working on?”
Smiling, he told me that he too was a writer. He'd actually written a few books. No big deal. I was intrigued.
There was something formal, yet slightly frenzied in the way he spoke. He presented himself in a way that made it all seem significant.
I liked him immediately. But when our conversation finally led to him asking for my number, I hesitated.
Since relocating from New York City to Portland, Oregon, I’d essentially overdosed on dating. Latching on to the practice of using apps and websites for meeting potential dates had allowed me to shamelessly experience a city through a screen. With boxes still towering next to my couch, I’d curl up with my phone and swipe left, left, left, right… then wait for the opportunity to get out and experience something beyond my bare walls, with the additional thrill of potential romance.
I’d pluck outfits from piles of clothes that still needed hangers, and blinking into my mirror with tape still protecting its edges, press red between my lips and wonder what this next man I’d never met would see.
The first brought me to a brewpub where he regaled me with insider knowledge of Portland’s famous craft beer scene. He had never lived outside of Portland, and looked more speculative than impressed when I rattled off the cities I’d recently called home.
I declined his offer for a third beer and returned to my apartment where I kicked off my regrettable choice in heels and swiped some more before falling asleep.
The second, coincidentally, brought me to the same place. He lived with his parents — a detail that he didn’t actively try to hide. At the end of the date I hugged him and said I had a good time, then hoped he wouldn’t call as I walked away.
By the third… fourth… fifth… I’d been to that same brewpub three times and never let on that it wasn’t a new, exciting experience. My sides of the conversation became scripted. I’d just moved here from New York City. I loved to travel. Yes, I hike and drink beer, just like everyone else in this town.
It was through these dates that I’d begun to piece together a sense of Portland through the eyes of brief acquaintances. The restaurants, the bars, and that apparently very popular brewpub, were like entries in a guidebook to a place I hadn’t yet discovered. But flipping through a guidebook is no way to treat a new home.
I started to wonder if this city would be as fleeting as these dates for me, just like my passion for New York and Chicago had fizzled before I could call them home in meaningful ways, other than my mailing address.
Eventually I took Tinder off my phone. I buried myself in work, and waited for something to make me want to stay here. And if nothing did? I could always leave. Moving fast was often safer than dawdling on loose ground, anyhow.
I agreed to the date with Jacob, because really — how else do you respond to someone when you’re not protected by the option to exit the app?
I met him at a popular date night haunt that I’d chosen myself. Over craft cocktails and surrounded by the hushed crowd and soft music, I abandoned my script.
We talked about being new in town — about always being new in town and the loneliness and thrill that comes with that. The path of Jacob’s life was even more meandering than my own and he rattled off cities and countries that had at one time or another been home. With our knees touching and our first glasses empty, Jacob then told me that he’d only be here for three more weeks.
A brief bartending gig had brought him to Portland. He was slinging drinks temporarily, visiting a city that many of his friends called home. He’d be packing up at the end of the summer to drive back East.
Of course, I thought, and returned to my drink with a sad slurp on my straw against naked glass.
Jacob’s voice echoed against rock when he found the path. Slowly, I began side stepping my way across the sandy incline, hopping from rock to rock before they had time to drop out from under me.
When I caught up with him, he was standing on sturdy boulders.
“Well, that was fun!” he exclaimed. I laughed nervously, sitting down on stable ground. The sky around us had shifted from nearly black to a dirty denim hue, finally allowing us to see the path that lie ahead.
Once my heartbeat settled, I had to agree. That had been fun.
I was delighted when Jacob had agreed to do this hike with me. It was an adventure I’d been craving since moving to the Pacific Northwest. Mt. St. Helen’s leveled peak would appear suddenly on bright, sunny days from my apartment in the city. My imagination would complete the invisible peak that once pointed towards the clouds.
We don’t have volcanos back East. The thought of something so big, erupting — sending these boulders we now stood on, rocketing upwards and tumbling back down — was thrilling, and terrifying.
Three hours later, we reached the top. With dizzying, deep breaths, we high-fived on the rim, staring down into the smoking center. The edges of the hole were sharp and red — hazy in the early morning sun. I stood aghast, remembering the park website’s instructions about not getting too close. People had fallen to their deaths, trying to capture photographic proof of themselves at the precipice of the volcano’s mouth.
I backed away, inching over to Jacob’s side and kissed him.
That weekend, we entertained his friends with the story of our climb while bar hopping in the Southeast neighborhood, where patio tables are littered with cigarette butts and withered limes. I held his hand under a sticky booth while he described the experience of traversing that field of loose rock. His friends were impressed. But once the story was over, I found myself receding from the conversation, as it shifted to inside jokes and stories I wasn’t a part of. Jacob caught my eye every time I began to feel awkward about my silence and offered me sweet smiles that his friends didn’t see.
I wished I had more to say. But I didn’t know his friends. And maybe, I didn’t really know him. I just knew that I didn’t want him to stop holding my hand.
Back in my apartment after last call, we stretched out side by side on my couch and I buried my head in his chest, hoping he couldn’t sense the sadness that was crawling up my own.
I wanted to ask him to stay in Portland, just as I’d always hoped someone would ask me — to stay anywhere. I wanted to hold on to this person in this city, and make them both feel like home because in this moment, they did.
But I didn’t ask.
Our adventure had been fleeting, but I would have plenty more of my own. Tiny, loose pebbles — pieces of this city and the people I would meet here — would gather to form solid ground. And while I might keep bouncing from rock to rock for some time, wondering when the ground might give way again, I knew I’d eventually find solid footing.
I would stay and he would go. I would make Portland my home, and he would return to his.
Instead, I said, “I’ll miss you,” and I knew at least that much was true.
Britany Robinson is a Portland-based writer and the journey editor of Limbo.