Elevations by Gary Fincke

My boy, thirty-two this week and still aimless, said he’s bringing his girlfriend to visit for his birthday. Not the first time, but the other one visited from three blocks away for his senior prom, which maybe doesn’t count, you decide. She’s forty-eight, he says, like I might be interested in mulling that over, but she looks his age when they walk in, like she’s been in one of the cryogenic pods space travelers use for trips to faraway galaxies. So, I’m thinking maybe this will work out, her mothering him, his body looking middle-aged since he dropped out of college with nothing to show for the two years except forty pounds of not-so-attractive flesh.

But wait, before you start thinking you’ve heard this one before, let me tell you about her disability. That’s what she called it, “my disability,” like she’d bought a puppy at the animal shelter to save it, and now it’s a full-grown nuisance. She said she has a thing with elevation changes. I nodded. My ears have popped in descending planes and on highways ascending into the Rockies. But no, hers is nothing like common.

She’s been living at 1,000 feet, she said. Like she’s measured it. Like she searched for a place perched on a round number. The problem is we’re at 1,217 here in Pennsylvania, which is causing her discomfort that’s testing her pain threshold. Never mind what you’re already considering–the drive here, the ups and downs.

And hiking? Not mountain climbing, mind you. Hiking anywhere but Kansas. She’s sensitive to differences of more than fifteen feet, she says—up or down—so hiking near where I live is pretty much out except around the yard. The stairs, thank God, only take her eight and a half feet up or down, but we use three floors here. She calculated the risk and chose the bedrooms, which are upstairs, saying she could do without the entertainment in the basement for now. And she was cheery about it, saying it the way some folks tell a story about a wedding, say. Or the way she interrupted herself to reminisce about when, during her barista shift, she spied my boy in Starbucks, noticing how he sat in the corner where the only two cushioned chairs are located. No hardbacks for him. She deduced that right off, him being there for an hour mid-morning after the rush, that other cushioned chair an invitation.

She made a hard stop to look at what I took for a Fit-Bit, maybe a special one that kept an eye on the elevation while it counted calories burned from walking in circles. My son, the gentleman, let her have her silence for a minute (I started counting the seconds). Then she snapped back into focus and announced that the Starbucks she was talking about sits at 1,006 feet, and it’s just two streets from her first-floor apartment, an arrangement, now that my son was part of it, made in heaven.

Like you might expect by now, there was more. The coma. The six years she was under its spell, the length of it maybe explaining her looking younger than you’d expect. A pint-sized, female Rip Van Winkle who said, three times that first hour she was under my roof, she came out of it no worse for wear.

Well, I should stop right there because some might be offended. I get it. That woman has had some tough breaks, a few more, for sure, than my son the Tik-Tok addict, and now they have each other and are happy. Or so it seems, him honoring her elevation thing by letting her lead, him taking the long way here, adding ninety miles to what is normally a two-hour trip in order to make their approach as gradual as possible. What he confessed had been an enormous, meandering set of pseudo-switchbacks, a lot of back roads and even a few U-turns, trying a different, less-steep road, including one not exactly paved and with three one-lane bridges.

Their trip made for story-telling. It kept me listening on the front porch that stands only two steps up and down, well within her comfort zone, something she demonstrated a few times, walking down and then up, smiling all the while, showing her boyfriend’s mother that things could work out just fine.  That they knew the best way here now and could visit often, snaking uphill in loops and circles that added only an extra two hours, maybe not even, now that the roads were familiar, to the trip. The roads, my son showed me, were highlighted in that old atlas he’d taken with him a decade ago, its pages all marked up by my husband before he passed because he was always in charge of finding our way to wherever and back. That artifact was getting a new life, a few pages already with hand-drawn red routes snaking across the chunks of two states the two of them had figured out how to travel, a necessity, they both agreed, now that they were desperately in love.

Photo by John, used and adapted under CC.