When I was in college I took an ethics class. The professor would start every class by telling a story. Each story outlined our class discussion of the day. My favorite was about an old man who seeks nostalgia by climbing a mountain. It went like this:
An old weary man sits in a rocking chair. He remembers how vigorous he had been in his youth; how he would climb a mountain every day to spend time with a beautiful woman who lived on the very top. That woman later bore his children, who bore his grandchildren, who bore his great-grandchildren. This man was very old. The woman no longer graced his life, or anyone’s life on this planet, and he rocks in the chair remembering the exhilaration he felt at the end of each climb, when the woman smiled upon him. He misses that feeling. Nostalgia fills his veins as he yearns to climb that mountain again. Although his children and grandchildren strongly disapprove of his plan, he decides to hike up that mountain again. They tell him he’s too old to partake in such a difficult hike, and that because of his weak heart, death might be eminent, but he ignores them. When he arrives at the base of the mountain, the smell of pine trees in his nostrils ignites his memory. He remembers the eagerness he felt before each climb, and he feels twenty years younger. However his body, unlike his mind, is unable to shed the years. His limbs ache with every step he takes. His lungs gasp for oxygen, which is limited at such high altitudes. His blurry vision, too busy making sure he doesn’t trip over any rocks, ignores the bright yellow wildflowers that grow there. He finally reaches the top, and he’s in pain and barely breathing. He remembers that the woman he was climbing for has descended into the next world. Without her smile he feels no exhilaration. He sits on the fresh moist earth, amid the yellow wildflowers, and looks over the edge. In his youth he had been too busy courting the woman to notice the view below him. Now he looks down and sees many storybook villages. The clouds, also below him, hover over the villages, shielding them from the bright yellow sun. A forest surrounds the mountain, and every tree stands proudly displaying their sturdy branches that are covered with green leaves, and glistening under the sun. The old man closes his eyes and dies.
This story split the class into two points of view. Half the class said that the old man was foolish to climb that mountain. He wasn’t able to relive his exhilaration, and because of his selfish desire, his family was forced to suffer because of his death. They felt he represented the foolish choices people make. The other half of the class said the old man made the right decision, and even though he died in the end, he took a risk for a chance to feel the happiness he felt in his youth. They felt he represented the purpose of life. Although I did not share my opinion with the class; I had a completely different thought on the subject. He had climbed the mountain with the purpose of enjoying the smile of the woman. Although he didn’t achieve that goal, because he climbed the mountain he was able to take pleasure in a beautiful view, a view he never noticed because the woman’s smile blocked it. I felt that the story warned us if we put all our focus on one desire, we might miss many opportunities that could have brought us greater amounts of happiness.
I am in Auburn again. This time I volunteered to go. I was ordered to spend a month here running the office, and Charlie had been upset that I would be away for so long.
“I don’t understand why you have to go”, Charlie complained.
“This is a good career opportunity for me.”
“I think you just want to get away from me.”
“Don’t be so melodramatic!”
“I still don’t understand why you have to go.”
In the end Charlie relented; mainly because he had no choice.
I have been in Auburn for two weeks, and this time I had fulfilled my wifely duties, and ate dinner with my in-laws. After dinner I would have a drink or ice cream with Mike. We talked about our lives, flirted inappropriately, and kissed at the end of night. Although I was close to the edge, I haven’t jumped off the cliff yet.
Earlier today I had shown him my mom’s scrapbook. “I wish there was someway I could find out who these people are”, I told Mike.
“Maybe you can.”
“I’ve tried to question my dad, but he won’t tell me anything.”
“People often write captions on the backs of photographs. Did you ever think about looking there?”
Now I sit alone in the hotel room, holding the black leather scrapbook. The idea of dismembering this book makes me uneasy, but it’s the only chance I have of finding answers. I carefully take out the first photograph, and am disappointed to find a blank back. I reassure myself by remembering that I have fifty-nine more photographs to go through. I go through forty more photos, and each time I see a white back, I feel more hopeless. I take out ten more photos, and they all give me the same result. I am on the fifty-fourth photo, which happens to be a photo of my mom hugging a red-headed friend of hers, and as I turn it over, the black ink on the white background hits my eye. “Kelly Myers 801-223-4562” I read the name and numbers to myself over and over. I tell myself I need to focus and look at the rest of the photos. I take out the other six photos, and they all remain blank on the back. However I no longer care, because when I saw “Kelly Myers 801-223-4562” I had struck oil.
I pick up my phone to call Mike. My fingers have an urge to dial Charlie’s number because he had always been the person I called when a major event happened in my life. I imagine what Charlie would say if I called him now. “You are crazy Annabel, go to sleep, and let the past sleep too.” No, Charlie is definitely not the person I want to call. I consciously force my fingers to dial Mike’s number.
“Hello”, Mile answers groggily. I tell him how I discovered the name and phone number, and within seconds Mike is sitting at his computer. He googles the area code and says “it’s in Salt Lake City, Utah. Of course it would make no sense to search the number, because it’s been so many years, and the number probably doesn’t exist anymore. Searching the name won’t help you either, because since Kelly Myers is obviously a teenage girl, the house she lived in would be under her mom or dad’s name. However what you could do is going to a library in Salt Lake City, and look through the yellow pages that were issued thirty years ago. Search all the Myers until you find one with that number.”
He continues to talk about what I could do once I find the address where Kelly Myers lived. I listen intently, although everything he says I’ve already figured out in my head. However, I want him to feel important and essential, because I’m afraid without his help, I’ll take Charlie’s imagined advice, and “let the past sleep”.
I am at work, but I cannot concentrate on my assignment. I spent the entire morning concocting a way I could go to go to Salt Lake City without Charlie knowing the reason. I could go to Utah and tell Charlie I went somewhere else, but the probability of getting caught would be too great. I could tell Charlie that I have to go to Utah for work, but Charlie knows my company doesn’t have any offices there. I could tell him that I have to do training there, but that reason could ignite Charlie’s curiosity, and all my answers to his questions would sound dubious. I wonder if Mike would accompany me on my trip. Since all this planning prevents my ability to work, I decide to go into the kitchen for a snack.
In the kitchen I see Jessica, our receptionist, munching on some cheese. She is barely out of her teens, and her voice reminds me of a buzzing beehive. She is always talking; usually about trivial matters such as the weather, her boyfriend, or the latest Paris Hilton scandal. She sees me, and her eyes light up at the prospect of a chatting companion.
“Ann, how’s life?”
“Good”, I reply. And then to make her day, I add, “how’s your life”.
“Decent. My sis and her husband bought a beautiful house on the lake. It has wooden floors, a homely looking porch, and an apple tree in the front yard. There is plenty of land for their dog, Chompers, to run on. They treat that dog as if he was their kid. I don’t know why sis doesn’t have kids, maybe she’s barren, but unfortunately we’re not close enough to discuss that.”
“How long has she been married? Maybe she wants to get used to her marriage before she adds children too her family.”
“Well she’s only been married two years, but she got married when she was thirty-two. She doesn’t have time to get used to her marriage. My parents were afraid she’d end up an old maid, but along came Ben, and he rescued my sister from our mom’s pitying glances and our dad’s mournful sighs.”
“It’s weird that your sister is in her thirties and has only been married for two years. I’m not even thirty, and I’ve been married for almost six years.”
“You’ve been married for six years! I can’t imagine being married that long. I’ve never even had a boyfriend last longer than six months. I think I am going to be one of those women who changes husbands every couple of years. Although I have been told that when you fall in love all the rules change. Is that true?”
She stares at me with hopeful eyes. I can sense that she wants me to tell her a story about how I dated hundreds of men, and that I could never imagine settling down with only one of them. However, the second I saw my husband everything became different. I realized he was my soul-mate, and the idea of being with another man made me nauseous. She wanted me to tell her that although I might have minor fights in my marriage; every morning I wake up grateful that I have been lucky enough to find the love of my life. I am not about to indulge her with such a ludicrous fairytale, but I’m not about to slap her with reality either. “Yes it’s true”, I reply. And this answer seems to satisfy her.