The bus picks us up when it’s still light out, drops us off at the bottom of Mount Nittany, which doesn’t really look tall or like a mountain when we’re standing at the beginning. Me, Deb, Nat and a bunch of others start the climb, boys too, some carrying silver kegs in pairs. At first the walk is easy, pleasant even, with a nice breeze and blue sky, and we climb, climb, climb, make small talk, build up a thirst for a cold one and talk about how we can cross this one off our college bucket list, even though we probably called it something else like goal or milestone or rite of passage. We joke about the air getting thinner, huff and puff a little bit, kick small rocks as we struggle to lift our feet and fall to the back of the pack, me and Karen mostly, saying, geez maybe it’s time to stop smoking, but knowing inside we’re just plain out of shape. It’s too late now because we’re maybe halfway up or halfway down, and the rest of our crew has gone ahead, and the guys with kegs who were bringing up the rear have passed us, too. They turn around and cheer us on, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, but we’re full stop, lungs in throats, thinking this might be as far as we ever go. They weigh us with their eyes, hatch a plan to carry us like we’re filled with beer, but we get a second wind, or maybe it’s our fourth, and we reach the top, hands on hips, bent at the waist, catch our breath, fill plastic cups with our share of the gold prize and toast each other, clink, clink, clink. We watch the sun fade and feel the shade as the day is pulled away, fade to black, then campfire red, and we’re buzzed now, dancing in between the plumes of purple smoke, partying on top of the world. I’m not thinking about graduation day or career goals or finding true love or who I’ll be when no one on this mountain remembers my name. Then the fire’s out quick like that and there’s nothing but inky ash and empty cups and the trek to the bottom, which is easy with the mountain helping out this time, pushing us along in the dark, pushing us into tomorrow.
Rae Theodore is the author of ‘My Mother Says Drums Are for Boys: True Stories for Gender Rebels’ and ‘Leaving Normal: Adventures in Gender.’ Her stories and poems have appeared in numerous publications, including Our Happy Hours: LGBT Voices from the Gay Bars, Sinister Wisdom and Bureau of Complaint. Rae is the winner of the 2020 Joan Ramseyer Memorial Poetry Contest and past president of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the Women’s National Book Association. She lost a tennis shoe descending Mount Nittany, but that’s a tale for another time.