“Trees don’t hate,” said Mr. Cutscore. “They love, like how flowers open. They just do.”
It was a drizzle of a day. Rain ticked on the classroom windows. The hills beyond were blanketed by a gray mist.
“Now, since it’s a rainy day, I think this next assignment is fitting,” Mr. Cutscore said, grinning.
The thirty-something teacher had a monkish air about him: clean-cut, disciplined and studied; but hilariously, outrageously kind. He was the kind of person who gets easily entranced by trees and rocks and all things natural (especially rain-wet trees), and who suddenly laughs out for no reason at all.
“I want each of you to find a rainbow,” he said. “You don’t have to write about it, but when class is out, go and find yourself a rainbow. Report back here tomorrow and be ready to share exactly where you found it.”
The class moaned and jittered. I was thoroughly startled, not only by the confrontational nature of the assignment (to hunt down a rainbow!), but because just before Mr. Cutscore’s request, I’d caught a flash of the girl named Diana, who always sat alone in the front row. She was the girl I had a crush on, but more than a girl. She wore no makeup. She wore cheap clothes. Her hair was the color of wild deer hide. She had somehow slipped from youthful femininity into something heavier, solid as a tree trunk and radiating sad beauty. She was more attractive to me than the men I sometimes fantasized about.
I was then a half-built man myself, not sure how men should act. Barely old enough to vote, barely old enough to go to war, I choked on my own breath at the sight of her, as if a creature were trapped in my chest trying to get out, clawing and scratching for its life. And I was holding it down, terrified of letting it make a sound. Out of habit, I slid my hand under my desk and clenched the loose fabric of my jeans. I held tight until the commotion passed. When my hand returned, it left a mangled patch of denim, like a crumpled sheet of paper. Later in life, a doctor would tell me I was bipolar, less than man and greater than man at the same time.
That evening, I stood before the misted hills. Since I’d come to Salt Lake City for school, I hadn’t ventured into the mountains much. I’d found a job in the middle of the valley, where the city had flattened life into a maze of roadways and alleyways, duplexes and minimarts. It was a place of no clear direction, no instruction, asphalt and beaten-up bus benches. I’d find myself in one corner of the city, feigning safety, only to realize it was the start of another maze, endless sharp corners where buildings turned under power lines and traffic screamed like a hammer. So when I stood before the mountains that evening, I felt something different, a clarity of place I had not often felt, as if I belonged to the faulting edge of the world.
Up over the first hill, I reeled with exhaustion. My chest burned, my legs pudding. As I sat to rest in a patch of scrub-oak and golden bunchgrass, I could feel the silver particles of the mist dance in my nostrils. I could feel them deep in my lungs, too, like tiny bells. Sunshine was near, the air told me. Keep going. I was too young at the time to realize purity itself was a false dream. I craved it, ached for it— something to cleanse all fear.
Dripping pines covered the next slope. The smell of wet trees hung in the air like a balm. I pinned my eyes to the ridge-line, where the mist seemed to be lifting, and I pushed my young body forward. I pushed hard, harder than I’d ever pushed in the valley, and though my limbs felt dumb and sore, I discovered inherent strength in my own motion.
When I reached the ridge, I was dazzled by an explosion of golden water particles. The sun in the west had set fire to the fray of mist, and the light was so much that I had to close my eyes. In the darkness, I couldn’t see any rainbows, but I could feel them beaming all around me. Their colors raced in the blackness of my mind. Against this exhilaration— blind, careening creation—I stood almost perfectly at rest.
Minutes later, I opened my eyes. The sun’s fire had subsided in smoldering pinks and purples. In front of me, beside a smoking tree, stood the girl named Diana.
“Looks like we had the same idea,” she said.
She wasn’t smiling. She looked concerned, as though weighing how to share the moment with me. Her fists were clenched at her side. I could tell I had to prove I wasn’t an interloper. I wanted her but had to pretend I didn’t, a trace of the rainbows still in my my mind like an iridescent film.
“I guess so,” I answered. “I’ve never been up here before.”
“What do we do now?” she asked, and she stepped closer to me.
The colors in my head faded, and I could think of only one thing to say: “Nothing.”
Scott Neuffer is a writer and musician who lives in Nevada with his family. He’s also the founding editor of the literary journal trampset. Follow him on Twitter @scottneuffer @sneuffermusic @trampset