Reference: 8/14, 9/8, 10/10, 10/25, 11/13…

Cedar Mae’s parents drop her off at the craft school just as I am done with my closing shift. She was busy all fall with gymnastics, broke her ankle this winter, then traveled for spring break. It’s been months since just the two of us have had girl’s night out even though we’ve seen each other in passing almost every week.

We hug and she offers to help me finish tidying up before heading to dinner. We lug the ice cooler down to The Pines, where everyone eats together at the craft school and I am eager to introduce her to some of my friends. On the spot Cedar has always been a bit bashful. It’s surprising, considering how talented she is as a young thespian yet how quiet she becomes when meeting new people. Still, she smiles politely and we are both pleased to find out that she doesn’t even have to pay for her dinner as a guest since she is under fourteen.

I ask her if she wants to sit at a table with my friends or just the two of us outside. She chooses the latter and we set up at a picnic table facing Seven Mile Ridge and the scarred feldspar mine atop Chalk Mountain. With unseasonably warm weather, even by 7p.m. we are both still comfortable outside in shorts and tank tops.

Right away we get down to business. There is a lot of ground to cover – since we’ve last had time together she’s ended a relationship, traveled around the region on a three-week school field trip, and decided what she wants to do with the rest of her life. In order, the reasoning goes like this: “We broke up just because, [sigh] he was so, Uck. I just don’t know,” and “I forgot to put my duffel bag in the van for the trip so my mom had to mail me my clothes. I brushed my teeth with my fingers for four days but mom sent my brownies and remembered to pack my PJ’s for me so that was awesome,” and “After next year, I want to go to the local public high school for 10th grade, then to North Carolina School of the Arts for 11th and 12th grade for drama, then to Warren Wilson College. Then I want to have my city life for like five years. Then I’m going to build a cob house with my dad ‘cause he knows how to do that kind of stuff and live somewhere nearby where the view from my porch is nothing but mountains.”

It is hard for me not to romanticize my time with Cedar. She is by all accounts an all around good kid. She lives in a supportive community and her parents are exceptional – fair, honest, and fun while also setting high standards. She attends the school I used to teach at, the alternative farm-based school for teens just across the river from my cabin. She’s physically active, loves the outdoors, and like all other human beings I know, also has real flaws that present her with hearty opportunities for development.

But above all else, she really is my friend. What we have is different than big-sister/little-sister. It’s not quite teacher-student either since I’m not her teacher anymore. It’s kind of mentor-mentee but even that’s too official. We respect each other. Her honesty and efforts teach me things about how to live life and help me remain in touch with a time in my life that was difficult yet fertile. And she trusts me, which of course means a lot. And although I can’t always put my finger on what I give to her, I know she appreciates the openness I have with her and I know she thinks I’m whacky-funny sometimes.

Instead of heading for BigCity, NC after dinner, we decide to hole up and have a Depppathon (watch only movies with Johnny Depp in them) but after Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory we call it quits and in a bold move drive up to Patton Cemetery to watch the moon rise. We lie on our backs gazing at the stars and sharing stories. We share firsts – first time to get your period, first time you ever kissed a boy, etc. The big dipper stands out boldly in the navy blue sky, always bright even when the moonlight spreads across the thin night clouds and spills across the cemetery grounds where we are.

“I can’t imagine growing up without stars,” Cedar says, “I think I’d die. Or, like, I wouldn’t die, I just wouldn’t be the same person. I’d be different.”

We end with a daring dive in the river. It is April, mind you – frost is still on its way and the leaves are not even out on the trees. But today was warm, Cedar reminds me, and the air temperature is perfect. We make a pit stop at her house to grab her swimsuit on the way to Granny’s Beach (our favorite swimming spot along the South Toe) and head down to the river, guided only by the moonlight and our memory of the trail.

Whereas I almost chickened-out at the thought of the cemetery in full moonlight, Cedar almost backs out when we put our toes in the water. But no! Onward, I convince her and we dive in 1-2-3 together, heads breaking the surface of the water on the way back up, shrieking and hollering into the night, then laughing at our mutual shock.

“It’s not to bad,” she shouts. It’s hard not to shout when you’re cold and crazy and happy in the mountains.

“One more time!” I shout back, and we dive again, then rush-run-wade out of the river quick, quick and shiver into our towels. We sit on the beach for another half an hour, watching the stars and talking.

“This is so great,” she says. “We should try and do this once a week until the middle of the summer, and just compare the temperature each week and get to know it by feel. We could see how long it takes to get it to warm up.”

“Or we could make a pact to go in the river or the pond every month for the next twelve months. Now that would be crazy fun,” I suggest. We sit more and the silence is easy, peaceful, full.

“This is so awesome,” Cedar says, wrapping the towel around her more tightly and tilting her head back to look at the stars again.

“This is way better than the anti-Easter hunt for baby Jesus party I was going to go to tonight. That’s how artists celebrate things around here. Funky, huh? I mean, the bonfire would have been nice – but just imagine twenty people my age running through a field and searching for a plastic baby Jesus figurine!” I say.

Cedar is cracked up by now, giggling at thoughts about my other life. I mean it when I say being at the river with her is better. It feeds my soul.

I wouldn’t change a thing at this moment, and it occurs to me how good it is to stay in the valley, right here, close to the river, close to home, with good people that I know and love. Two days after the Marshall date I am still reeling – not because it was awkward, not because of anything he did, but undeniably because I have been in his shoes. I know that loneliness and eagerness to prepare for romance. I know that neediness and remember it well – it was a time in my life that I experienced loneliness without even being able to name it.

And here I’ve been sitting, hungry for partnership yet oddly rich in some in-between-land of dates and temporary connections with various men. It’s not really what I want to invest stock in though.

Life has a funny way of teaching us the things we already know in our hearts. Thank you universe for that date with Marshall. It helped me see that I already have what I need. It gave me permission to stop looking. Likewise, thank you universe for my friendship with Cedar Mae. It gives me permission to start settling and stay in touch with what life’s really all about.

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