Far, far below: a patchwork quilt of green and dull brown. In my ears, the muted roar of jet engines. My parents, Grant, and I are on our way to Idaho for my cowgirl aunt’s wedding. My grandparents bought me a ticket, because it was time that I took an airplane.
The stewardesses push the drink cart towards our seat. My father’s eyes light up. He orders a gin and tonic. When the stewardesses move on, he snickers and slips the tiny glass bottle into my mother’s purse. You’re not supposed to take them off the airplane. A few minutes later he flags down a stewardess and orders another one. She gives him a dirty look as she hands him the bottle. I’ll give them to my friends at work, he whispers to my mother. It’s his first time on an airplane, too. He hasn’t drunk any alcohol in years, except for wine at church. That doesn’t count, because it’s the blood of Christ.
Grant babbles and hums in his deep musical voice as he bounces up and down on my mother’s lap. Recounting a tale only he can understand. The other passengers laugh. He is nine months old now. He has so much to say, but no words to say it yet.
I lean my forehead against the cold glass window and watch the fabric of the Earth turn to ripples of white and gray. The Rocky Mountains. My heart flutters. Most of my aunts and uncles moved out West right after they graduated from high school. Their faces are blurred in my mind. My mother’s address book is filled with their current and former addresses. They move around so much. Newport Beach. Santa Ana. Costa Mesa. Bend. Hailey. Sometimes they come back at Christmas, but never at the same time. They call instead, and the phone is passed around to those few who stayed behind. Every year their voices become more distant and unfamiliar. One summer, I wrote letters to them. A couple of them wrote me back once, and then I never heard from them again.
We are the last to arrive in Ketchum. Hugs and laughter. Loud, excited talk. They are all together again after so many years. Those who now live in these parts say howdy instead of hello. They wear cowboy hats, cowboy boots, and flannel shirts.
Howdy! I reply.
In the hours before the wedding, my mother, Grant, and I hang out in my California aunt’s hotel room along with the other women. My cowgirl aunt and her best friend sit behind me on the bed, while another aunt writes out place settings in calligraphy. A hand reaches out and snaps my bra. The room goes silent. I look behind me. My cowgirl aunt and her friend giggle. My mother shakes her head at them. I blush and look down at my hands, too ashamed to cry. I know that I don’t need one, even though I am eleven. My mother only bought it for me, because all the other girls in my class are wearing bras. She hopes it will make them tease me less. My cowgirl aunt has always been beautiful and popular. She doesn’t know what it’s like to be a dork with no friends.
For the wedding, I wear a red empire waist dress and brown clogs. My mother says that this type of dress is good for thin girls. She rubs some rouge into my cheeks to give my pale face a little color. The church has a large glass window that looks out to the mountains. Most of the pews are empty, because the gathering is only close family and friends. The photographer is a friend of my cowgirl aunt and new uncle. His postcards of Idaho scenery are for sale in gift shops around Sun Valley. He has thick blonde hair and a weird name. A cowboy name. His movements are slow and careless, but there’s a crafty glint in his eyes. He puts his arm around people when he talks to them, even if they’ve only just met.
The reception is at a famous hotel. Just before we enter the building, the photographer takes my hand and leads me to a tall pine tree. He places my hands on the branches. I should feel happy that he wants to take my photo, because I’m ugly. But I don’t like him. My parents stand behind him and smile. My mother looks sad. My father looks proud. The photographer gives my father a dirty look and steps in front of him. Smile, pretty girl.
I lift the corners of my mouth, pressing my lips together to hide my crooked teeth.
Inside the hotel, the photographer takes my photo again next to a metal sun. He moves closer to me, blocking my parents out of sight, and aims the camera at my head. One eye behind the camera. The other eye staring deep into mine. Cold determination. My stomach churns.
I sit across from my parents for dinner. Every few minutes, someone taps a fork on a glass. Everyone joins in, whooping and cheering until my new uncle grabs my cowgirl aunt and gives her a kiss. For dessert there is something called cherries jubilee, which has alcohol in it. The waitresses light the glasses on fire. This burns up the alcohol, I am told, but I can still taste it. Sharp, bitter. People must only like it because it makes them feel good.
A man from my new uncle’s family tells a story about a horseshoe nail. When he sits back down, the photographer calls me over to him. Everyone will be mad if I’m rude to such a fun and nice guy, so I walk over to him. The photographer puts his arm around my shoulders and draws me close. This is what we’re going to do. I’m going to tap my fork on the glass and then I’m going to steal a kiss from you. His grip on my arm tightens.
I look over at my parents. Like everyone else, my mother is looking at my cowgirl aunt and new uncle and cheering. My father is staring straight ahead with that strange empty look in his eyes. His lips are moving. He’s talking to himself again, but no one notices. No one ever notices anything.
The photographer puts his hand on my face and forces my cheek to his lips. A white-hot wave moves through me. I tear myself away and storm back to my chair as the cheers die down.
What’s she pouting about now?
Always needs to be the center of attention.
I grit my teeth and choke back tears. I don’t want him to touch me. Just because they all like him doesn’t mean I have to. I don’t look at the photographer again for the rest of the dinner.
We stay until the restaurant staff tells us that we have to leave, because they are closing. The photographer inches towards me, sliding between people, hand outstretched. I move close to my father and look away. My father smiles down at me and puts his warm hand on my head. He sees me now. I am safe. The photographer makes the rounds, hugging some people, shaking hands with others. He then strolls away, down the darkened path between the tall pine trees. He turns once to look at me and wave.
What a neat guy he is!
A real character!
The party is moved to my Idaho uncle’s hotel room. He takes out a Mason jar that’s filled with clear liquid. Corn whiskey. Moonshine! He takes a swig and coughs. It’s time to get Grant from the babysitter, so my parents say goodnight. As we walk out the door, the uncles push the beds against the wall so people can dance. My parents walk ahead of me. My mother’s head hangs low. Her shoulders slump forward.
The next morning after breakfast, we pile into vans and rental cars. I load a fresh roll of film into my camera, a Keystone Everflash 10. It’s a hand-me-down from my grandfather. It has a built-in flash and something called an electric eye. Someone gives me a road map to look at. I watch the road signs and chart our progress to Stanley. There is much talk of a hot springs, but when we get there I’m disappointed to see that it’s just a tiny, stinky pool of water by the roadside. I had imagined a waterfall, or something. Everyone lines up next to it for a family photo. Laughter and shouts of amazement. They are always so enthusiastic about everything. At other lookout points, I take photos of the snow-capped Sawtooth Mountains.
When we get to Galena Summit, the uncle who moved to California to become a millionaire says, Hey, Julie! I’m going to go look up at the sign like I’m surprised and then you take a picture!
Then we turn around and drive back to my uncle’s house in Hailey.
Suitcases are loaded. Goodbyes are said. Cars drive away. A silence creeps into my uncle’s place. He paces back and forth for a while, and then he loads some shotguns into his pickup truck. My grandmother and I squeeze into the truck with him and a couple of his friends. We are going to a canyon to shoot off the guns. The mountains that rise above this canyon are a dingy brown. Not as pretty as the Sawtooths. But they are mountains, and I stare up at them.
Can I climb up there?
Go ahead. But go up this side, because we’re shooting the other way. We’ll honk the horn when we’re ready to leave.
My wedge heel fashion boots slip on the loose rock. A stone gouges a small hole in the fake leather. I keep an eye out for rattlesnakes, even though it’s November. The peak is just up ahead already. But when I get there, another peak appears just beyond. The gunshots and cowboy whoops echo off the canyon walls. I am climbing a mountain in Idaho! No other kid I know has ever done that. And I’m doing it all by myself. Higher and higher I climb, but the real peak keeps slipping out of reach. Soon I hear nothing but the wind and my pounding heart. I turn and stare down at the canyon. The dirt road is just a thin line. A gust of wind blows, carrying the faint sound of a horn and someone calling my name. I look once more at the top, and then start back down.
You really climbed up high, young lady!
I thought I was almost at the top a few times, but then it was just another small hill on the way up.
My uncle looks at me from under the brim of his cowboy hat. His eyes twinkle like my grandfather’s. That’s called a ridge. It takes a long time to climb to the top of a mountain. But you did a really good job. He ruffles my hair as I climb into the truck. My grandmother puts her arm around me and squeezes. That’s my tough girl. My face flushes with joy. My mother will probably get mad about the hole in my favorite boots, but I don’t even care. Every time I look at it I will remember.
*This is an excerpt from my memoir, Wish I Were Here. These are the very same photos that I took during the trip, except for the last one of myself with my younger cousin standing near the hot springs, which was (obviously) taken by someone else. I still remember the smell of film fresh from the envelope. A smell like things kept forever.