Andes Mint #28: My magical friend K

It was many years ago that I met K. In my memory, she came up to me in one of the marble-floored halls of a turreted building on the east bank of the University of Minnesota, took my hands in hers, and said, “I’m K. Who are you?”

That memory has to be wrong, but nonetheless it’s how I remember meeting her. It’s something she might have done, that much I know – see a young woman with a big pregnant belly ease her way into a chair around a big table, make a mental note to get to know her, then find her in the hallway and take her hands. Yes, that’s something K would have done.

I was young, she was a few years older, and I remember her looking at my belly and then looking up at me. Still holding my hands.

“You’re going to have a baby,” she said. “How wonderful.”

This was my second baby, and even though I wanted it, I was exhausted, couldn’t stop throwing up (morning sickness, for some lucky women, lasts until the minute the baby’s born) and overwhelmed. But there was something in her soft voice, something in the way her head was tilted as she spoke.

“Do you want one too?” I said.

“Oh, I do,” she said. “I do want a baby. But I’m afraid it’s too late.”

Those are my first memories of K. So long ago now. From that day forth we were friends. She was –and is– a beautiful woman with a soft voice that always sounds, to my ear, full of air. As if her voice belongs to the sky. She is slender, and light on her feet. She doesn’t make much sound when she walks.

Back then, in those long-ago days of grad school, we used to sit in workshops together and communicate telepathically. We reacted the same way to certain comments, suggestions, and styles of teaching. We followed up afterward when we met for coffee or tea or dinner at the King & I. We were of like mind.

At that time, K lived in a sublet, a studio in downtown Minneapolis. I remember it as full of clothes and books and papers and photos.

That soft, air-filled voice of hers, her gentle touch, her lightness, belied an underlying steel. Grit. Determination. I used to laugh inside sometimes, watching how she’d tilt her head at a cutting comment in workshop, smile that beautiful smile, and say, “Okay. . . okay.” I knew exactly what was happening inside her, knew that that gentle okay meant anything but.

Back then, K longed for horses. She longed for the west. I think now that what she really longed for was freedom. Freedom, for her, meant a horse that she could jump on and ride for hours, through land where she would see no one else. Freedom meant wide-open space, huge mountains that she could ski down all winter long, rangeland where animals far outnumbered humans. Freedom meant a child to pour her prodigious love into, a child she could raise to be as fearless as she was.

I remember when she got pregnant. Solo didn’t matter to her; she had no fear of raising a child by herself. I remember being as thrilled for her, almost, as she was. By then we were long out of grad school and she had moved to Texas.

I remember a phone call, when she was halfway through that pregnancy, which broke my heart; hers was already broken. Sometimes babies, no matter how much you want them, don’t come together inside you in a way that’s going to let them live once they’re outside.

I remember getting on a plane and going down to Texas to hold her hand through an awful procedure that she would never in her life have chosen to go through. It happened before dawn, in a locked room in a locked hall of a locked building; it had to, for safety. Why do so many try to make a private, agonizing decision a matter of public policy?

She took a few years after that to pull herself together, and then she became the mother of a little girl from a faraway country. The last time I saw K, until last month, was twelve years ago, when she came briefly to Minneapolis over the holidays.

My only memory of that visit was of sitting on a couch I’d found on the curbside and dragged into the living room of a new apartment. She wrapped her arms around me as her baby girl hauled herself around on the floor and I cried and cried and cried; I too was going through something awful.

Flash forward to a month ago. My youthful companion, herself a girl who longs for horses and wide-open rangeland and the peace that comes with that, was going to work on a ranch in Colorado. K had been living in Colorado for years by then.

“You have to come stay with us,” she said, in response to a Facebook post of mine in which I had asked for suggestions of good hikes in southwestern Colorado. “I insist. My horses insist. My daughter insists. You are coming.”

Twelve years stretched between the last time I’d seen her. But a while ago I decided to say yes to every invitation that comes my way. And this was an invitation from K.

So out we drove, to find ourselves winding around a dirt road that went on for miles, me laughing because somehow, it was only fitting that K –who began in a rented studio in downtown Minneapolis, remember– would end up here.

As we drove farther and farther from anything that felt like people-world, we began to see horses. Dogs. This felt like K, like a place where she would live. My youthful companion pointed out her window at the slightly insane sight of a dog leaping wildly at a sprinkler, over and over and over.

We turned the car off when we could go no farther. There was a house perched on hundreds of acres of Colorado high desert. We were still laughing at the insane sprinkler dog when we got out of the car.

“This has got to be her place,” I said to my youthful companion. “This is exactly K’s kind of place.”

The air was dry and warm and filled with the scent of sage, that high desert smell that I remembered from living in Colorado during summers long ago. My youthful companion and I stood in the drive and looked around: horses in the open grassland, heads down and tails switching.

Dogs everywhere, racing each other down the field or lying in the shade of giant sunflowers. Chickens, clucking and pecking by the side of the house. A potbellied pig, waddling across a muddy patch of irrigated garden.

K emerged from the house. A parrot clung to the top of her head. Her daughter followed, holding a rabbit in her arms.

I gave her a hug, still laughing. The parrot leapt from the top of her head to the top of mine. I spread my arms wide and turned around.

“So this is you,” I said.

“This is me,” she said.

It was her: all that open land. All those animals. Ten chickens and five dogs and two cats and one rabbit and two pigs and seven birds and ten horses. All of them, with the exception of one cat and the chickens, rescue animals. All with names. All loved, all understood in a way that most humans don’t understand animals.

That is K. That is how she’s always been.

“So you finally have your magical menagerie,” I said. “The menagerie you always wanted.”

“I guess I do,” she said, looking around. “I guess I do.”

“And the dogs don’t eat the chickens and the cats don’t eat the birds and nothing chases the rabbits and everyone is free to go in and out of the house,” I said. It wasn’t a question; I already knew the answer. “How do you do it?”

“I don’t know,” she said in that same soft, sky-filled voice. “It all just works.”

So that is how the youthful companion and I came to spend an enchanted three days in the high desert, sleeping in a room with a rabbit and two dogs and a couple of potbellied pigs and a chicken or two wandering in and out. The youthful companion and K’s daughter rode bareback through the rangeland.

K and I sat on the deck drinking wine and watching a full moon rise over the mountains to the east. We watched our girls come riding back to the paddock. We talked about them, how easy they are in their bodies, both of them, and we talked about that long-ago baby boy, the one who wasn’t ready for this world, the one who had to go back to that other, unknown one.

Some people are drawn earthward as the years go by. You can see them on the sidewalk or walking up a set of stairs, their heads down, backs curved, that earthward tug calling them down. Hard to stand up straight.

Others are drawn skyward. They lighten. Their bones hollow out. Whenever they want they can turn in all directions and see the enormous horizon. Hard to keep anchored to the surface of the world.

I’m sitting on my couch right now thinking about K, how filled she is with air and light. A sky person.

How clearly I can still see her green eyes that day in the marble-floored hallway when I first met her, here in the city in which I still live. How I can feel her hands holding mine that day, telling me how much she wanted a baby. Horses. Animals and animals. A life in the country.

I’m thinking about how twelve years can pass with only an occasional Christmas card between two friends, and how –when it all works– that doesn’t matter.

How sometimes you can drive a thousand miles and end up on a dirt road in the midst of hundreds of acres of juniper and sage, to find someone you love having winnowed herself and her life down, funneled it all into the exact life she was meant to live.

Andes Mint #4: Rocky Mountain High

What you remember from the summer you turned 20:

How it felt to behold the snow-capped Rockies rising up out of the distance, far higher and far more jagged than you, a girl from the foothills of the Adirondacks, knew mountains could be.

How it felt to stand in the living room of a kind stranger who had offered you and your boyfriend shelter that first night, stars whirling in your eyes, the world going black, and wake on the floor a few minutes later with chipped teeth and a fierce headache.

“Altitude sickness,” said the kind stranger. “You took a divot out of the table on your way down.”

How to clean a hotel room. Bathroom first: a) sink, b) tub, c) toilet, d) mirror, e) floor. Mini-fridge: check for leftovers. Strip the bed. Remake the bed. Vacuum. Dust. Lock the door behind you.

How you laughed at the title of the job your boyfriend got at that lodge on the edge of town: Houseboy. How he used to lock himself and three oranges inside a room inside a room inside a room on his lunch hour to teach himself how to juggle. How good he got at it.

How every day around 1 p.m. thunderclouds gathered over the mountain and rain poured down for twenty minutes. The scrape of chairs and tables being hauled inside. The smell of wet cobblestone and pavement. The scrape of chairs and tables being hauled outside again. The rinsed smell of the air.

How it felt to hike up the mountain and ride the gondola down, as if you knew a secret none of the tourists who rode the gondola both ways knew.

How angry you felt the night the cops came to the apartment to arrest your friend for taking a single piece of ham and an orange from the kitchen of the restaurant where he worked.

How triumphant you felt when you dangled a piece of string in a stream high up in the mountains and watched in amazement as a trout impaled itself on the safety pin you had tied onto the end of that string.

How you used to stand by the side of the highway, thumb out, hitching a ride to the Safeway a couple of miles away. The feel of the tall grass brushing your bare legs. The dry smell of sage.

How the boys’ voices drifted back toward you near the summit of that one mountain. Headache, pounding heart, swimmy stars. Altitude sickness, said the kind stranger. How you jackknifed your body so that you could use your hands to climb the rest of the way, like a monkey.

How the girls with long hair and tie-dye skirts, flowers in their hands, danced for hours at that Dead concert that the three of you hitched to. Or took the Greyhound to. How you got up in the middle of the night, in darkness, to get there in time. How the sweet smell of pot drifted over the canyon.

How you got so good at flipping through the Welcome to Colorado magazines that were placed in each hotel room in order to find the Buy One Whopper Get One Free coupon near the back. How you carefully folded the page in quarters so as to tear out the coupon.

How it felt to come home after cleaning all those rooms, tired, and drag yourself up the double flight of stairs (Altitude sickness, said the kind stranger) and put your key in the lock.

How you used to mix a tall glass of lemonade and vodka and sit cross-legged on the balcony to watch the sun set. How you used to sit there and wonder, “Am I a grownup now?”