Spring 2011 — THE POTOMAC

Put on Your Shoes and Get Out
   Pat Stansberry

"We need to talk about priorities," she tells me one night in her apartment. She means my priorities, the negotiating game. I consider which way to go. Forward will be, if not best, then at least mercifully quick.

"Rock climbing is a big part of my life," I say. I grip her rug with my toes. The pile is long and thick and offers a good hold. "I told you this when we started dating."

"How clinical," she says.

"Just factual."

"Factual? You sound like a lawyer."

And so I sound but don't feel. We are, at this moment, exactly where I knew we'd be when climbing season arrived. I venture an observation.

"Climbing seems trivial to you, and relationships take compromise. But I'm thirty—eight and set in my ways."

"Meaning what?" she asks, too calmly.

"I can balance the two."

"The two? Climbing and ... ," she says, stretching the last word, raising her pitch, telling me, complete this sentence.

"Our relationship?" I ask.

She smirks at my pathetic gambit, repeats, "Climbing and ... ?"

The quickness of forging ahead no longer seems merciful. An unfinished sentence. Almost anything could complete it. This is the tipping point.

Climbing and ... she asks.

What if I say...


"Climbing and you." Brutal and true.

"Me equals climbing, climbing equals me?"

I see the pit and bamboo stakes but I'm just a stupid tiger. "You're both important. I don't know about equal. I never figured it."

"Figure it."

"Fine," I say. "Different but equal. They're my priorities, so why shouldn't I set them?"

Brutal and true.

"You prefer the rocks to a lover."

"Not quite," I say and can't leave it at that. "But almost."

She doesn't even look at me when she says, "Put on your shoes and get out."


Climbing and ... she asks.

But what if you say...

"Climbing and our relationship," you say. True, but not too brutal.

"Me equals climbing, climbing equals me?"

She wants the truth, but you know where that can lead. "No," you say, lying.

"Yes," she says, calling your lie.

You dig your big toes into the carpet, twist them, feel the pile through callus and sock. Soft and pliant. Not like rock. Soft or hard is your choice. You wish for the choice of not choosing.

"This isn't either/or," you say, looking for a balance that isn't there.

"Then cut back. Once a week with the locals, three trips a year."

You're not a hardcase climber, obsessed with rock, but you're not a weekend climber, either. "This isn't just a hobby," you say.

"Okay," she says, sounding to you like a hostage negotiator. "But I need a little compromise."

You know that compromise means something must be compromised. By you, of course. You've evaded this confrontation, kept it at bay. Now she's cleared the path in both directions, in and out, soft and hard. Standing still is no longer an option.

"How much is enough?" you ask.

"This isn't math," she says. "You sound like an accountant."

"I feel like a hostage negotiator." You've climbed this far and only the final move remains. "No. I feel like the hostage."

You see tears. You know which direction you've chosen.

So does she.

She seems to be looking at your hair when she says, "Put on your shoes and get out."


Climbing and ... she asks.

But what if he says...

"Climbing and us." Us is one of those tiny repair words jammed into relationship cracks.

"Fair enough," she says. "I know it's more than a sport for you."

"Fair enough," he says. "I can be pretty obsessive."

She's staring at him. He looks down and rubs his callused toes through the carpet. Soft, like her, but underneath he can feel the rock—hard cement.

"Let's negotiate," she says.

"Fine," he says. "You're asking for more. What do you have to offer?

"You're going to abandon me, what, three nights a week, two weekends a month, for the entire summer? I don't want more. I want what we have."

"I told you about climbing season when we started going out last fall."

"Told me? Yeah, but I figured things had changed. Because of us. Me."

"They have."

"Then show me."

Is there a right answer, he wonders, or is he even considering the right question. Which are the things I really need to balance. Climbing and us, or climbing and me?

"Twice a week with the locals," he says. "One trip a month."

"That's your answer?"

It's us or me, he thinks, but says, "That's a lot."

"You miss the point. You're trading one hard number for another."


"Shouldn't it all depend? On what we're doing, what we want."

"I know what I want."

"I? Really? I?"

"Yes," he says, making his decision. "A third of my time I spend climbing, the rest with you. Is that so unreasonable?"

"No. It's perfectly reasonable."

"Then everything is all right?" he asks, knowing the answer.

She sounds resigned when she says, "Put on your shoes and get out."

3rd, Redux

Climbing and ... she asked.

But what if he said...

"Climbing and you. I mean that only in a practical sense. I don't equate love for a sport with love of a person."

"That's reassuring," she said.

"This isn't something we should negotiate, like money."


"There's no formula."


"It's not like you equal climbing, climbing equals you."

"Of course not."

He dug his toes into the carpet. "Please say something tangible," he said.

"Okay. You're saying all the right things, but what's the plan?"

"I'll climb one day a week with the locals," he said, watching her face. "Three trips a year."



"Sure," she said. "But what about the other six days a week, the time at home? Will that be time with me or time not climbing?"


"Are you my lover who sometimes climbs?"


"Or a climber with a lover, a climber waiting for his next climb?"

He looked down at his toes buried in the thick pile of the carpet. Strong but slippery. No foothold here.

"Neither," he said. "Both."

She stared at him, exhaled a long breath, and tipped her head side to side, like a scale coming to rest.

"I understand," she said. "Now put on your shoes and get out."

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