At the Louvre. The winged goddess of Victory dominates the Daru staircase on the way to Mona Lisa. But I can skip Mona Lisa. It’s Nike I came for. Footsteps click and echo in the vastness of marble. Languages blend to a buzz, a hum. We’re dwarfed by tall ceilings, giant stairs and wide-open space. Dwarfed by Winged Victory. Pale blue marble. 9 feet of power and grace. 9 feet of boat base. Prow of a ship. Leaning in. Breasts leading the way. One leg slightly in front of the other. Strength. Poise. Her naked body beneath wet clothes. Power. Divine. Feminine. Grace. Muscle wings stretch back as though her feet just touched earth. Victory’s messenger. Nike.
What message was she bringing?
I’ve seen her before and every time, every time my knees cave and all the hairs on my arms, the back of my neck stand straight up. Skin washed in cool. Spine hot. Heart bumps ribs. Fast. Slow. Unmoored. I’m helium woman. I breathe to my little toes to root myself.
Kent grips my hand, pulls me in close.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” I say. My throat catches like there’s this tiny trap door that flaps just before I cry. “Can’t you just see her? Those wings batting the sky, touching earth. Bringing a palm or crown or some trophy. Blowing her trumpet.”
“Beautiful,” he says and kisses my crown. “Like you.”
He wraps me up and we stare, open mouthed, at Winged Victory. At Female power and love and grace and Don’t Fuck With Me. Earth and Air. Fire and Water. All the elements caught in marble.
His breath wet when he hums “I love you” in my left ear, the one closest to my grateful heart. This human. This husband who will die in two years and four months. He feels so real in this moment.
Me at 22
Wind River Range, Wyoming
Six months before I met Kent I straddled the Continental Divide. One dusty boot in the west. One in the east. Muscle legs with roots that stretched to the earth’s core. Hips bruised and leathery. Power hips. Shoulder and arm muscles strong too. Scrubbed by mountain air. Thin. Clean. Sharp. Lungs puffed. Ribs grew. Breasts rose. My heart banged through bones and skin. Blisters, scrapes, cuts, bug bites, skin dirt—forgotten. I blinked and blinked. Eyes wide to the Wyoming sky. Sky that pierced with its blueness, its big skyness. My hands full of sky. I threw my arms open. Wide. Wiggled my fingers. Toes. Stretched every atom of me to the glacier blue sky. I could have eaten that one squishy cloud.
Two weeks of hauling my beast of a pack that knocked me over, hammered me into my arches, bruised my hips and heart. Two weeks of struggle and grit and Never Give Up. Tears. Oceans of tears as I learned to wrangle 60 pounds, snug straps, stumble and push on while my brute backpack pressed the back of my head so I couldn’t look up while my beast of a pack yanked shoulders and pounded hipbones.
Two weeks through dense woods and boulder fields. Over ridges. Lost for two days in a snowstorm. Four scared hikers smelling up a two-person tent with fear with Fuck We’re Going To Die. Then. Laughter and happy and Boy Howdy relief when found. Two weeks of heart mashing beauty. Mountains and sky and sun slicing the canopy, slicing the clouds. Slept under star blankets, waxing moon, waning moon, night. The dark of night so black hole dark you can’t see your hand until you touch your nose. You feel the dark on your skin.
I learned to cook bread on a rock, make a splint out of limbs, pitch a tent faster than my tent mate could return with water from the close stream. Learned What now? Over I should have when I tripped and crashed in a boulder field—stuck between rocks bigger than VW bugs. When I fell off a zip-line crossing an icy river. When a bear batted my sleeping bag and chewed holes in my sleeping pad while we were away from our campsite.
What now? Beat out I should have. Right after, Motherfucker!
Every blister, every tear, every bruise and cut and mosquito bite (I stopped counting when I hit 30 on one arm). Worth it. To straddle the Continental Divide. Boots in the dirt. Wrapped in sky. Earth and air.
30 days in the Wyoming wilderness. To rearrange me.
30 days of singing Cat Stevens’ “On The Road To Find Out.” Between crying and swearing and jagged breaths. Between Just Keep Moving. Between Yes it’s hard. Between Yes you can.
“’It’s me!” I shouted at the mountains and trees. Legs strong to the earth. Shoulders back. Breasts first. I leaned in.
“I made it!”
I was every explorer who’d reached the summit. Silly with happy. Swamped in gratitude to my fellow hikers, to myself. No flag planting for me. I etched this moment on my heart. This victory will hold me when I need the reminder I’m made of Earth. Air. Fire. Water. All the elements. When I need to remember: I can do hard things.
Me at 6
Grandma Sally’s hands. Dry. Gnarled with years. With digging dirt, wringing laundry, mixing meatballs. Green ropey veins. Skin tents when pinched. Knuckles a landscape of circle wrinkles like a pebble dropped at the center of each bend. Index finger crooked at the first joint.
Grandma Sally with her silver grey hair, silvery grey like our falling down barn. With her sparkle eyes.
“What color are my wings?” I ask Grandma Sally.
“Shiny,” she says. “Like mermaid scales.”
Warm spreads through my belly like spilled soup.
“Like water? Like rainbows?”
I twist to try and see my back. Chin to my shoulder. Blinking back sun.
“Why can’t I see them?” I ask because I want to see them. Bad.
Grandma Sally laughs her laugh that sounds like a chipmunk. Her strong hand on my back. Between my shoulder blades. Her hand. Warm and pricking and soft too. Hands that open pickle jars the first time. Hands that yank out thistles by their roots. Hands that hurt my mom. Hands that never hurt me.
“They’re wing buds,” she says and presses her thumb and pinky just inside my shoulder blades. “Can you feel them?”
I squeeze my eyes so hard little ink dots, tiny floating barbells dance on the black of my eyelids. Grandma’s back yard smells like cut grass and ripe plums. Smells like dirt and manure for her garden. The push of summer on skin. The tickle of grass on bare calves. Arms and legs prickle with heat. An ant climbs up my leg and in the quiet of me it feels like fingers.
“Angel wings?” I ask like I’ve asked before. “Fairy wings?”
“More than that,” Grandma Sally says, gravel voice low in almost a whisper. “Goddess wings. Messenger wings.”
“Because we’re Greek?” I ask since Granddad tells me about Greek gods and goddesses and Nike with her huge wings. Tells me to be proud because I’m Greek. Stand up. Be strong. Always use your brain. Greek means powerful and sure. Greek means even though I’m small, I’m big. Greek means listen to stories and tell your own.
Grandma pats my wing bones. “Oh Annie,” she says. “You came to be more than Greek,” she says. “You came to fly.”
“She’s so beautiful,” I say. Words catching in the trap of my throat.
Scot’s warm arms circle me. His moustache on my ear. His breath tickles me everywhere.
Then. “Are you crying?” he asks.
This sweet husband of mine. I’ve said it for years. How lucky I am to marry kindness, twice.
Kent for three years and a son. A daughter-in-law too.
Scot for twenty-nine years and a daughter. A son-in-law too.
I’ve aged and changed since I last stood here. Lost a husband. Gained a son. Sobbed through grief’s fire that seared my skin through bone through marrow through heart. My heart. Punched and pummeled. Cracked and glowing. My heart. Never gave up. Tethered me to life. To love. To another husband. To a daughter. To joy in the blue of day. Joy in the throbbing night sky.
Winged Victory. Femme power floods the massive Daru staircase at the Louvre. Stairs and arches and space lead eyes and bodies and voices to 9 feet of statue, 9 feet of base. Pale marble. Nike’s naked draped in wet. Body wrapped and exposed. Her unfastened cloak held by wind pressed against muscle. Flesh. Skin. Thighs. Belly button. Breasts. Tunic wraps hips, catches between her legs. One leg forward as though she just touched earth with her bare toes. Right foot skimming the ship’s deck. Left foot in the air.
Wings. One marble. One plaster. When found, she was missing a wing.
Wind in her wings as she bats blue sky. Then silence as she touches the prow of the ship. Motion and stillness collide.
I’m prickly skin and hair at attention. I’m heart in a bone cage. I’m gooey throat and wet eyes.
“I love you,” Scot whispers and wraps me up. This man who tastes like honey and jazz and starlight. This husband who slipped in my life when my body was waking up when widowed was What Happened not Who I Am when gratitude won over hurt when my mountain strong heart whispered, We’re okay. Let’s be brave.
Standing on the open staircase. Victory’s stretched wings, caught between beats. My own wings. Hollow bones. Mermaid shimmer gold wings. Feathers of steel and water. Scot’s breath in my ear. Moist. Tender. I lean in. The boom, boom of his heart on my spine. His words. His “I love you.” My heart all mush. Once beaten. Still beating. This triumph heart engine. Nike’s victory message as her toes touch earth, wings flutter and still: The heart is a muscle. Never broken. Yes bruised. Yes pummeled. Yes stretched. Always beating love.