“The mountains are close today.”
She said this with such certainty that Lee felt he would be the silly one if he pointed out that mountains don’t move.
And, of course, they don’t, at least no more than anything else does on a rotating planet hurtling through space and time.
Maria took a heavy gulp from her water bottle and then pointed it in Lee’s direction. Lee leaned his head back and poured some of the cool water into the back of his throat. It was much needed. If the mountains were close today, the sun felt much closer.
Maria staked three legs firmly into the ground next to two of her own. Atop the easel she placed blank canvas.
Lee pulled out his easel and his paints. This, he wish he could say, was the moment he felt confident. But just like Maria was as natural hiking here as a deer who had never left these mountains (and, in a way, she was), she had also been painting throughout high school and college and most of the years since. This was Lee’s first year, and though she was not his teacher, she was the closest thing he had.
“How’s your mom,” she asked, making small talk the way you do when you’re close enough to know each other’s folks. Lee’s parents didn’t like anyone. They didn’t even trust other Chinese immigrants. But they liked Maria. If they were capable of love, he’d almost dare call it that.
It was a small miracle, really, considering how his parents felt about him bringing home girls, or going to visit girls, or talking to girls, or talking about girls. Maria was allowed in because she was Lee’s partner on a school project, and since they opened their world to so few people, there was a big void unknowingly waiting to be filled. Maria became not only Lee’s friend, but the daughter his parents never had and, in the absence of family nearby or neighbors they trusted, the first person they called for help.
“She thinks I’m not studying enough,” Lee said. “And she doesn’t think I’m studying the right things.”
“What’s wrong with English,” Maria said.
“My parents view learning English as a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.”
“Sometimes I’m glad my parents didn’t know anything about college.”
“My parents don’t either, remember?”
“I’m surprised they didn’t get over this the first time around. At least a master’s sounds important. A master’s in anything has the word ‘master’ in it.”
Lee liked this observation. Maria didn’t like to write, but Lee had always felt she had a particular way with words. Like the mountains being close.
“All they really care about is whether I master a good way to make money.”
One minute Maria had been talking, the next her mind was as far away as the other side of the valley.
Maria finished stroking the soft blue streaks of sky and began dabbing in mountains with an ever-so-slightly darker shade of blue.
After several forms of green had joined the blue, with the occasional red of a barn or white of a church, Maria walked away from the easel and sat down, crossed legged, on the ground.
Lee’s painting resembled nothing suggesting a complete work of art, so he continue at it, occasionally sneaking a glance at Maria, who remained completely still and upright, like a mountain herself.
After a while, Lee began to feel uncomfortable. Maria hadn’t so much as fidgeted for nearly half an hour. He stepped away from his easel and squatted down beside her.
“Is everything okay?” Lee asked.
Maria’s eyes were open but looking downward, as though something deep down in the valley had caught her attention. Lee looked, but he could find nothing trance inducing.
After another minute, he tried again, “Are you okay?”
“I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” Maria said, smiling.
Lee didn’t know what to say. What did that have to do with anything?
“If I spent the rest of my life painting these same mountains,” Maria continued, “it wouldn’t be enough time.”
Lee’s legs started to get tired, so he sat down beside Maria, stretching his legs out in front of him.
“What did you mean earlier?” Lee asked. “When you said, the mountains are close today.”
“You haven’t noticed?” Maria was genuinely surprised. “It’s the humidity. Makes the mountains seem closer or father depending on the day.”
No, despite also having lived in the Shenandoah Valley his entire life, Lee hadn’t noticed. Unlike Maria, he hadn’t spent all that much time walking the trails or, as was almost as common for Maria, venturing off them. He saw the mountains most often from 81 or 66 or 37. From a car, they were always moving closer or farther away.
Lee’s silence was enough of an answer. The two of them sat there like this for several moments longer. This time, for Lee, it no longer felt awkward.
“You know, my abuela asks when the two of us are going to settle down and have kids.” Maria revealed this matter of factly.
“What?” Lee asked, almost jumping, his heart racing. Maria had never come on to him before. Was that even what she was doing now? “Did you tell her you wanted to?”
“No, that’s just how my family is. I’ve been hearing this since we first met.”
Lee opened his mouth, then closed it, several times.
“I’m fine with being friends,” Maria said. “I haven’t felt the need for us to be anything more.”
Lee felt relieved. Then he didn’t. He didn’t quite know what he felt, what labels to give the emotions flowing through him.
Then Maria extended her palm. “Hold my hand,” she said. “As a friend.”
Lee didn’t think twice about taking her hand. There, they continued to sit. Lee crossed his own legs to shift his weight once his butt began to fall asleep.
“I would like to have kids someday, though” Maria said. Then, without shifting her eyes from the valley below, she added, “I wouldn’t mind if they were yours.”
This time Lee’s heart felt it had every reason to race. “I’m getting very mixed signals here.”
“Your parents are the opposite of mine in just about every way. That includes stability. This is part of the reason I love these mountains so much. They’re here. And you, Lee, you’ve been a mountain for me.”
“I mean what I said. I’m happy being your friend. But that doesn’t make you any less of a great guy. I love everything about you, even all the things you suck at, and I think you would have great kids. Why can’t friends have kids together?”
Lee let the question hang. He didn’t have answers. But neither did he let go of her hand. The two of them sat there, upright and still, looking out at the landscape. Then, when his arm began to get tired, he scooted in a bit closer.