We were leaving for home.
Somewhere between 170 and 177 mph, the passenger jet lifted its nose to a sunny Denver sky. Katarina squeezed my hand and smiled just as the tail of our plane scraped the runway and flamed like a wooden match stick.
Long before we met each other, Katerina snapped a picture of a crystal clear pond high in the Colorado Rockies which reflects a smooth stone table perfect for a picnic basket of cold chicken, cherries, and Chardonnay. That exact moment, seen through her young blue eyes, is immortalized and hanging on the wall of a carpeted stairwell in her big Barbie doll home. For more than two years now, I’ve stared at that singular snapshot with a private romantic fantasy of popping the question to her—there —at Gem Lake.
Last week we finally made the climb at Estes Park, huffing and puffing and cramping and sweating all the way to the top with a bittersweet middle-aged awareness of the passing of time. At 7,892 feet above sea level (though less than a thousand foot climb on a moderately difficult trail), I fondled a diamond ring concealed in the dampened pocket of my jeans. A chorus of frogs with better hemoglobin than our own banished the silence of Kat’s sweet anticipation and my unusual nervousness as I cancelled a beautiful dream by never getting around to asking the right question. After some time, Kat, visibly disappointed, warned of an imminent sunset and suggested we begin our descent down the winding trail to our red Jeep Wrangler. Much later that evening, starving and exhausted, we freshened up at our cabin and drove through a cool valley breeze to the Rock Inn Mountain Tavern where we ordered a flight of local beers, potato soup, a salad wedge for her, and two plates of elk sausage. The lovely features on Katarina’s face were muted in the shadows of that place, flickering between happy and sad, just beyond the dancing light of a single lantern. If I were an artist, I would’ve painted that moment and the whole world would’ve cried or fallen in love.
My Kat girl saved a remnant of dinner, laying down the offering on our cabin porch and disregarding a sign that warns, “Please do not feed the wildlife.” She wanted to see a bear. I caught her once or twice in the night, peeking out the window like a little girl waiting for Santa. This is one of the many reasons that I love her. Her cotton pajamas. Her perfect ass. Her crazy hair. A full-grown woman with the breasts of a goddess and the heart of a child, rushing to the window first thing in the morning, pouting in the cutest way after discovering the sausages were still there. She shrugged her shoulders, brushed her teeth, and kissed me the way a man should be kissed—with a teasing dominance before sauntering away— leaving me a horny wreck. And so the daily chase was on.
Even though we aren’t married, we were, we are. No piece of paper is necessary when God already knows. Still, such a gift as ours must be wrapped. Ring it, she always says, lock it down.
That memorable morning, my Katarina—the best cook in all the world — made microwave popcorn and a pot of coffee for breakfast. As unwed newlyweds, we sat side-by-side in two sturdy wooden chairs next to a white water river—The Big Thompson, Big Tommy, Big T —foaming, dancing, bubbling, sparkling, and rushing by at no more than twenty feet from our front door. An hour later, the rising sun (thirty percent more efficacious at that altitude) prompted Kat’s decision to seek shelter at the famous Stanley Hotel, the inspiration for Stephen King’s novel, The Shining. Our muscles were clawing up from the climb the day before so we rested our bodies and enjoyed a delicious overpriced dinner (elk meatloaf) and liquid gold drinks. We were intrigued by the pale waiter. He spoke kindly to us but his mouth never actually moved. It was fascinating to watch and reminded me of a how the shocked and sagging jaw of any corpse is sewed shut by a humming mortician. I toasted my bourbon to Kat’s wine and admitted that our waiter was the nicest cadaver I’ve ever known. God bless him. Kat laughed with an endearing snort. After brunch, we searched the grand hotel for ghosts but didn’t find any so we sat on the front balcony and gazed with worshipful awe at the majestic snowcapped peaks. We sat there for a comfortable while, sipping white chocolate coffees and snickering at a herd of inebriated senior citizens, peach lipstick and plaid pants. Katarina’s blue eyes matched the sky and I wanted to ask her again but didn’t.
Before we left Estes, we stopped at a winery and sampled several wines and bought several bottles. We drove slightly drunk but functional and joyous up into Rocky Mountain National Park. We removed the rooftop of our jeep and felt as if we were flying. John Denver’s unique voice serenaded us through an iPhone plugged into the console. It was a perfect day on top of the world. We were dizzy with euphoria. Completely in the now.
We spent the night in Vail, Colorado. The lifts were still closed (because of COVID) so the following day we walked through the town and a mile-long dog show and watched as canines jumped high high high into the air and launched their wagging asses into a pool. We wanted to purchase some beer but every stand and bar informed us with a righteous wink that it was still much too early in the day to be “hittin’the sauce.” Kat and I laughed off our little drinking problem on the way out of town and purchased a six pack of Bud Light Lime at a gas station.
We stayed two nights in a spacious villa at Snowmass and spent a whole day on a bike ride into Aspen. Most of the trip was downhill but at one section of the trail we had to dismount our bikes and walk them up the steep grade. Kat was extra cute and complained about her ass. It hurts, she said. I’m sick of this shit, she said. Kat wanted to ditch the bikes and go for a drink. I agreed and confessed to her that my left testicle was completely numb and that I had read somewhere that professional bikers suffer from erectile dysfunction. This interesting fact (which I discovered during my daily toilet reading) almost compelled her to keep going since I’m constantly pestering her with a stiffy and a little down time might be nice.
In Aspen, we glided to a stop and secured our bikes. Not long after a cold drink or two at a busy corner brewery (everyone with an IPA in one hand and an iPhone in the other) we found ourselves upon the serene paths of the John Denver Sanctuary. Hand-in-hand, sweaty palm to sweaty palm, Kat’s heart and mine beat as one in the summer heat. We crossed a talkative stream, walking on water by means of a stone path. Our eyes were introduced to thickets bursting with summer foliage and our minds to hypnotic lyrics as well as some much-needed advice. Katarina pointed to a quote by John Muir engraved in granite:
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”
Kat read these words to me with refreshing conviction. Respect and admiration filled my heart. I felt the ring in my pocket, poking me again, prodding my thigh like an old friend. A grove of Aspen leaves encouraged me with trembling applause.
The remaining details of our docile adventure may seem boring as they are quite normal and happy. Bears, wildcats, poisonous snakes, avalanches, flash floods, and hitchhiking serial killers were locked safely inside of our late night snack dreams. But there were many tiny memories along our merry way, moments that will ferment and swell into a warm loaf of bread to feed my writing and nourish this growing love that I have for Kat. I enjoyed the gift shops more than I should, wondering if it was the little boy inside of me or the approaching old man who enjoys fiddly farting around in air conditioned places and purchasing things he doesn’t need: Indian whistles, dream catchers, x-ray sunglasses that promise to see through Kat’s shorts, bone handle pen knives, or maybe a coffee mug in the form of an open-mouthed grizzly bear. We sat at the famous Red Rocks Amphitheater, playing the music of departed hippies on our iPhones honoring peace and free love. We stood over the grave of a famous cowboy and said, “Yup” before walking away with Solomon’s warning floating on pine breath that every man’s fate is the same. We wrestled with bear-proof trash dumpsters, solving them together like a puzzle. We said words like shit and damn (after promising to give up cussing) when our washing machine wouldn’t drain and we had to wring out our clothes before we could put them in the dryer. We had a thousandth conversation about sobriety while sipping whiskey and wine. We tried to outdo each other by ripping loud farts under the covers at night and laughing and gagging until tears filled our eyes. On a different note, Kat taught me how to meditate on a mountaintop—she told me to picture my feet forming deep roots in the ground and I asked if it was okay to lay on my back and imagine roots shooting out of my ass and pinning me to the rocks. She scolded me kindly and told me to be serious and to please quit being so crass. I watched as she closed her eyes. Breathing deeply, she transfigured into love and light. She spoke to me gently, encouraging me to allow the energy of the sun to surge in my heart and to imagine light shooting from my eyes and fingertips. We listened to worship music in the canyons and spoke of God and of our need for Him. She showed me a peaceful spot near Lookout Mountain—her favorite virginal view so many years ago— where she could imagine the shepherds of Bethlehem and white woolly sheep scattered on the green and rocky steeps, perhaps sipping cold spring water from the gentle tributary below (I loved her even more at that moment, soaking up the details of her precious life long before I had the pleasure of knowing her). Kat dared me to pet an elk but I refused since I chose to die by something not so adorable—daring any wilder, scarier beast to break my ribs, gore my sphincter, and drag my mottled flesh onto the evening news. These kinds of things and many others, though seemingly unimportant, are vital to the everyday. No drama. Lots of humor. Plenty of fun. Occasionally swimming out into the deep of our thoughts. All those hours and we never wearied of one another’s company. Ours is the kind of lock and key love that works. A perfect fit. And I am compelled to point out that we passed the ultimate marital test: surviving the bossy assholes of homeland security at the airport without turning on each other (we simply calmed our souls by purchasing nineteen dollar drinks and laughing about my being frisked—promising that those “medicinal drinks” would be our last —forever! —happily lying to ourselves in blurry, eloquent, passionate paragraphs of conversation). All I know for certain is that whenever Kat takes my hand and walks by my side, no matter where I may be, I’m the proudest bastard on earth.
Katarina drove Independence Pass while I marveled and groaned at the height and the depth and the possibility of death. No guard rails and I am afraid of heights. At the Continental Divide we parked and walked a private trail. I only halfway joked with her and pointed out the dreamy fact that the Divide would be the perfect place for a good solid blow. Her silence provided a clue that she was actively considering the possibility. We came to a rock heated by the sun. I named the innocent boulder Cock Rock. I unbuckled my jeans and she took me into her mouth. I was in ecstasy but the moment felt selfish and one-sided so I stopped her. Kat was extra sexy wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, a quizzical expression on her wicked angel face. I took off all of my clothes with the exception of my socks and a purple cross necklace. That’s when I stepped on cactus grass. Sharp needles pierced through the sole of my right foot. I was pulling out the needles while she was undressing and laughing about what might become a legendary epic fail at sex, worse than a teenager’s first time. I spread my Levi’s beneath her and entered. She was soaking wet and fit like a glove, something hot in the cold. She was wearing a headband to keep the hair out of her face and a pair of brown fade sunglasses—slightly crooked at that moment —which shielded the heat lightening in her eyes. In the crisp air of the Continental Divide our love was on fire. Because we feared another hiker discovering us, we agreed upon what is commonly called a quickie. I remember clouds of dust forming with every thrust. It was an eye twitcher for sure (orgasms are sharper with less oxygen) and in two semi-controlled minutes, love came in a series of warm gushes, both of us dripping and contracting as we slipped awkwardly and excitedly back into our clothes. Afterward, we embraced and she kissed me long and thoughtful and I could taste her and smell her in the wind. We went back to the blushing red jeep, dirt all over us, smiling from ear to ear.
Onward to Denver. We ate at an Italian restaurant that night, Maggiano’s Little Italy. Katarina wore a blue dress that buttoned down the back instead of up the front. A violinist played every song perfect for a proposal. The ring was still in my pocket and for some reason I didn’t ask her—even though I know that there is no one else for me. My heart is complicated. It doesn’t want to be anchored but there also comes a time when one is left with the ultimate choice. Love was sitting across the table from me. Waiting.
Kat was patient at Maroon Bells, too. We could’ve eloped there two days before. She wanted to see me in a tux.
With our bellies full, we made love on the 17th floor, far above the cannabis sidewalks of Mile-High City. In the panting afterglow, we clung to each other as if there were no tomorrow. As we drifted off to sleep, I pondered the delightful bookend contrast of one day: sex on a mountain top and sex above the bright lights of the city.
This pulsing love that gives me peace also steals it. Maybe because I hate to be confined — not to one woman but to one place and one job and one expectation and one singular outline that never changes but for the pittance of an annual two week vacation (if it even gets approved). Life is too short and I refuse to be a puppet dancing on someone’s else’s string. The freedom of the road is what I need.
But I also need her. More and more.
Because it’s not good for man to be alone. Isn’t that what the Good Book says? The earth is less beautiful if there’s no one to share it with. She’s the one. I know this—without the tiniest shit of a doubt.
We’re no longer in Colorado.
Some five or six-year-old sticky little dick turd dumped a bottle of water on my computer during the flight home. Now all of my writing must be done on paper or spoken into this phone as I’m doing now. Katerina’s face smiles at me every time the screen lights up. I feel like crying.
I awoke in a ratty Days Inn. Alone.
I only dreamt that our plane had caught fire—maybe it was a prophetic confirmation of how a perfect relationship will go up in smoke if a man isn’t careful to cherish what he has while he still has it.
At our final dinner together in Atlanta, a young man with courage, selflessness, and blind faith proposed to his girl and the candlelit restaurant erupted in applause. Katarina clapped but remained quiet with secret thoughts and a far off look in her eyes. She was already gone and the loss was both of ours to share.
11 p.m. Midweek.
I’m smoking a Black and Mild and sipping some Beam, celebrating all the soul-deep regrets of my own fuckupedness. Tonight I’ll go for a long damn walk under a crescent moon. I can’t sleep. Mike Posner’s, Song About You, is playing on an endless loop in my mind.