Heartbreak on the Hill
By Allyson Whipple
This essay is set in the Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, in Texas. It received an Honorable Mention commendation in our Fall 2016 Essay Contest.
Your fifth mistake was not bringing sunscreen. Your fourth mistake was to wear flip-flops, shorts, and a tank top. Your third mistake was to only bring one twelve-ounce bottle of water for each of you. Your second mistake was to tell Missy that her obnoxious friend Clementine could go with you. Your first mistake was falling in love with Scott eighteen months ago.
Missy had suggested the trip to Enchanted Rock because you clearly needed to get out of the city, even for just a day. Two weeks into your second breakup, you were handling heartbreak even worse than the first time. At least when your college boyfriend dumped you, he lived 75 miles away. The physical distance helped. But Scott, the one you wanted to run off with and marry? He chose someone else, and all three of you all run in the same social circle. You can’t go more than three days without seeing them and remembering what you lost. So you’ve become the Queen of Passive-Aggression, the Mistress of Oversharing on Social Media, the despondent twenty-six-year-old acting like she’s sixteen. Everyone in your life has run out of sympathy in a very short time.
As you feel your skin frying, turning so red it starts to resemble the color of the rock beneath your feet, you can’t help but think you deserve the pain. Not because you were irresponsible and failed to prepare adequately. But because you’ve earned it for the way you’ve been acting lately.
At 10:00 one August morning, you, Missy, and Clementine, head out of Austin toward Enchanted Rock for a brief escape from the reminders, the mess you seem so hell-bent on making. Despite the fact that at least two of you should know better, you’re all secure enough in your summer tans to think you don’t need sunscreen or proper clothing. All convinced of your strength and hardiness, so obviously your feet don’t need supportive shoes. All certain in your bodies’ respective abilities to only need twelve ounces of water each the entire hike.
Perhaps you did this to yourself subconsciously. Perhaps you wanted to be punished by the sun and the heat. Perhaps you wanted to stand on top of the giant rock, look down on the only place you’ve ever considered heaven, and in the presence of its majesty, remember that nature can break you. A man could break your heart, but the landscape could swallow you whole.
Twenty minutes into the trip, Clementine launches into a diatribe about soul mates. How there are different kinds. How you might have multiple types of soul mates throughout your life. As much as you think she’s full of shit, every time you hear the phrase soul mate, you think of Scott and want to cry. But you let go in front of Clementine. Not in front of someone for whom you have so little regard. So you swallow hard every time you hear the dreaded phrase and train your eyes on the window, focus on the weed-filled highway medians, the scrubby trees, the succulents that line the road.
You focus on those succulents when you’re standing on top of Enchanted Rock, picture the roots and hearts buried deep in the earth. Your own roots seem to be shallow, barely clinging to silt and gravel. Your own heart is exposed, burning just as badly as your skin. After an hour and twenty minutes, the drive is finally done, and you are ready to choke Clementine if she mentions love or soul mates or commitment one more time. But Missy is the only person who has any patience left for you right now, and she wouldn’t appreciate you hurting her friend.
You try to ignore the things that don’t matter. The people and their chatter. The highways in the distance, and the cars driving along them. The evidence of human development. When you concentrate just right, you can pretend that you are alone, that no person can hurt you, even if the wilderness can. Fortunately, Clementine switches topics as you begin the climb up the pink granite dome. She can yammer on about her retail job and reality television all she wants. Those topics are easier to turn out. They’re not sandpaper on your skin. You wish, briefly, that you could disappear into pink granite and scrub. You wish you could sneak off, and have the last friend you have abandon you out here.
Instead of being social, you keep your eyes trained on the rock, imagine yourself on another planet. Not Mars. Enchanted Rock is too fertile for that. The pink granite, however, is otherworldly. You can pretend you’re somewhere beyond Earth, beyond self-pity, beyond the alienation you have thrust upon yourself.
You can’t believe how fast all the water disappeared down your throat. How everyone guzzled it too fast, too soon. You’re relieved that nobody expects you to talk right now, because you feel as though the second you open your mouth, your tongue will dissolve.
By the time you reach the top, the August sun is in full force. The skin on your face feels tight. You’re a little dizzy, so you clench your thigh muscles to keep from fainting as you gaze out at the expanse of hills and cacti. You think you are supposed to feel whole and healed right now, but really, your shoulders are on fire and your shirt is drenched, and your mouth feels like it’s full of cotton. As you stand beneath the blazing afternoon sun and feel heat rise up from the rock, you understand that your misery is your own making. Both here and back home. Not the lightest thought for you to carry down that pink dome. And Missy and Clementine are both too tired and dehydrated to talk, so now you can’t even tune out your thoughts with their voices. You’re stuck with yourself for a while.
In the car, Missy blasts the air conditioner. In the restaurant, you guzzle four glasses of water in a row. To hydrate. To recover. To nourish. To cleanse.
Allyson Whipple is an MFA student at the University of Texas at El Paso. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks, most recently Come Into the World Like That (Five Oaks Press). Allyson also serves as co-editor of the Texas Poetry Calendar. She teaches at Austin Community College.
Banner photo by Travis Swicegood