From the road, Grande Grotta was impressive. I imagined a giant carving out a chunk of the mountain, leaving behind a cavity where stalagmites formed over the centuries. Climbers called it a cave but it looked more like a mouth. It was early in the morning and the air was cold. Higher up on the hillside, a herder let his goats out of their pen. The wind was blowing hard, muffling the ringing of bells on the goats’ necks.
In the car, I knew the wind was blowing by the shaking of the leaves and the whistling and howling. I always saw and heard the wind before feeling it. We stepped out of the car to unload our packs and now I could feel the wind. My wind-whipped hair flew around wildly and I put on a head wrap to control it.
I took a picture of the crag to send to Dad later; I wondered what you would think about it. Staring at the picture on my phone, Grande Grotta looked underwhelming — on the pixelated screen, it looked more like a large dent in the rock face.
Would the dent remind you of anything, Dad? It reminds me of the day I got home and saw a golf ball-sized depression on our living room wall. Mom told me you threw a pack of frozen meat. I was at school when it happened but could still hear and feel the speed of your anger as it collided with our wall. Even if I hadn’t been there, the extra softness of Mom’s voice and her red eyes told the story. They probably repaired the dent on the wall when we moved out although I have a hard time picturing it smooth.
I was aware of what happened then but didn’t understand why you were upset. I couldn’t understand the struggle of raising a family as an immigrant, of forgoing your mother tongue and learning a new language, of feeling alienated in a place that you were supposed to call home. Now I understand and I write, and in doing so, forgive you, for my own sake. Mom talked to her friends and family to release the pain. But she hasn’t forgiven you, I don’t think.
I had no one to talk to back then, so I couldn’t process things like Mom. You used to wonder why I didn’t talk much at home and I didn’t know what to say. I still don’t know how I would explain it to you, especially in Vietnamese. Hold on, let me Google translate “I created a shell of myself and withdrew inwards to cope with the trauma.” This shell also started biting its nails uncontrollably, and it would take twenty years to stop biting them.
I tightened my trail runners as best I could and pushed off, feeling the full weight of my pack digging into my shoulders. I leaned very far forward to fight against the steepness and was still upright. The wind also did not ease up. Why was it that when I remembered the wind, it was either a piercing gust at Odyssey or a soft breeze at Arginonta? I couldn’t remember it being moderately windy but I’m sure we had those days.
Halfway up I glanced back down to see how far we hiked, taking in the morning sea, pale turquoise and calm in the distance. The island of Telendos sat in the middle of the Aegean, and was close enough that, if I made a C shape with my hand and tried to grab it, it would fit perfectly.
There were no trees on the mountainside and I had a clear view of the crag. Thyme and oregano shrubs dotted the ground and sometimes I stepped on them, releasing the herbaceous oils in their leaves. The smell reminded me of the rosemary bushes on the sidewalks back home. It’s true that scent evokes memory, but no one talks about how it works the other way around too.
When I remember Dad back then, I can smell cigarettes during those rare times you pressed your stubbled cheek into mine. That harsh, punchy aroma of tobacco wasn’t so bad in those days. I might even have enjoyed it if the associations were better. If I think about it, smells have no agenda of their own — they don’t look to please or burden their recipient. It’s how they’re delivered. Pair scents with good experiences for long enough and one would probably grow to enjoy that scent. I don’t have enough fond memories of tobacco, unfortunately. I wish I did.
These days, I associate cigarettes with the feeling of resignation. That’s your morning routine: to read and smoke outside on the back stairs. You happily inhale the smoke and slowly plunge towards death, which I think you’ve been looking forward to for a while now. Relaxation and rest — the long, long rest. You’ve told me many times, “I’m proud of you and your sister for making it into the world. But now I’m done. I don’t have any obligations anymore.” And that’s fair — you’ve worked your entire life for your family. You should enjoy retirement.
Staring at the ground and hiking slowly, lost in my memories, rocks sliding and crunching, I pressed on. I saw the others in the distance and realized I wandered off the main trail. I walked diagonally across the rocky terrain to avoid slipping backward and returned to more solid ground. Under my layers, my body radiated a hot constant heat from the prolonged exertion. But I wasn’t sweating because of the wind.
Finally, I reached the top and was inside the giant’s creation, no longer observing it from a distance. Stalagmites loomed above me, looking like the crooked fingers of haggard witches. They were unfinished marvels; water continued its work, still seeping and dripping down the porous limestone. Some of the stalagmites must have felt lonely, and decided to fuse with others to form complex structures that resembled the inside of an ant’s nest. Other formations were thin and wide, protruding out like the fin of a sailfish. I could stare upwards for a while and find all sorts of animals in the rock.
I took off my pack, put on my harness, and loaded the rope into my Grigri to belay Charles. My carabiner was auto-locking and gave a satisfying click when I fastened it to my harness. That click was the start of our climbing session. Clicks usually meant the start or the end of something.
When you came home in those days, the click of our door unlocking signaled the end of my show. I changed the channel because I was watching a show you didn’t like — Sabrina the Teenage Witch. I enjoyed the talking cat and the magic and the funny female cast but you felt young boys weren’t supposed to enjoy that. Another time I was clicking around on the computer, playing a game called Gaia Online, and you thought I was involved in a gay online community. I was confused, just like the time I hugged your leg at a baseball game, and you said don’t do that, people will think you’re gay. None of these things made sense back then but now they do.
I suppose we’re all a product of our time, and that was the way you were raised. So that was the way I was raised. Little did you know I kept watching those shows with an all-female cast (Charmed had a cult following by the way). I kept playing Gaia Online with my friends. Later on, I even danced with a guy on New Year’s Eve; the ecstasy, lights, music, friends— everything that makes life worth living — made sense in the moment, and I didn’t care what anyone thought. I haven’t danced like that with another guy since but I hug my guy friends when I see them.
Charles tied his figure eight, racked his quickdraws, and put on his shoes. We performed our usual dance, checking each other’s knots and gear, and then he started climbing. Charles maneuvered quickly through the forest of stalagmites, taking rests when needed. At the top, he attached two quickdraws to the anchor and clipped his rope into them. Click, click.
Afterward, Charles asked what I thought about the crag. I said the view was pretty and the stalagmites were cool but there was a lot of goat poop everywhere — more poop than stalagmites. I had smelled it before I saw it. I wondered if I would remember Grande Grotta for the poop or the stalagmites. It would probably be both.