"Mountaintops" by J.D. Isip

J.D. Isip

J.D. Isip

J.D. Isip’s full-length poetry collections include Kissing the Wound (Moon Tide Press, 2023) and Pocketing Feathers (Sadie Girl Press, 2015). His third collection, tentatively titled Reluctant Prophets, will be released by Moon Tide Press in early 2025. J.D. lives in Texas with his dogs, Ivy and Bucky.

Mountaintops for the Lathams

When you make friends at a certain age, you begin with your past self. If you don’t begin there, you get there as soon as you can. You find a way to bring whomever you were into the conversation. I don’t really know why this is. If I had to guess, I’d say it has something to do with the self we see in the mirror in the morning in the present. That self is better in some ways, sure, wiser, but also cautious and wary. Not nearly as exciting nor as sexy as you remember. That self takes another look in the mirror before leaving the house. That self is always second-guessing. That self misses what it used to be.

“We didn’t summit,” Michael corrects Lisa when I ask about the picture of them in Nepal, “But we did make the trek.” They’re smiling in front of the snow peaks, the worn prayer flags waving behind them. There they are in India. Another of them in a midair jump at the Chilean salt flats.

I’ve known Michael for over a decade, but I begin to see how much I don’t know someone I’d call one of my best friends these days. Each little Buddha and piece of pottery, the paintings on the walls, the bluegrass playing in the background as their sons and husky swirl around us, reminders of what little I know. Perhaps what little he’s shared. Perhaps how little I’ve listened or paid attention.

Lisa is doing her best to catch me up. “We were already in our thirties there,” she smiles at me admiring their wedding photo. It’s not two decades ago but feels like a hundred.

Michael has given me the story of their prolonged romance in fits and starts—started dating, broke up to find themselves, found themselves back with one another, found themselves in this picturesque neighborhood, cul-de-sac lot, two sons, good jobs, an evening routine, a forlorn work buddy who should have met them before all of this, back when they climbed mountains.

Not that they’d go back. Back has its blemishes. Lisa tells me about Michael’s college roommate who showed up to their house on their wedding night. He decided to stay with them for the next ten or so years.

Michael fake-whispers to me about Lisa’s older sister who had an affair with the cousin who is maybe coming to Christmas dinner in a couple of days. Some moments we collect by accident.

“He’s not coming to Christmas,” Lisa folds a giant blue three-ring binder, filled with recipes from all of the exotic places they’d been. Some moments we collect on purpose.

I can’t get enough of their stories. All the imperfect players. All the twists and turns. Our dinner is from the Mexico trip. The roast tastes like a good memory. I have a second helping. Then it hits me: I am jealous of all of it. The way they maneuver around one another in the kitchen, the well-behaved dog, the kids too adorable to believe—the oldest one thanking me for their gift at least three or four times before we sit to eat—I am happy my friend has this. But I am also a little angry that I don’t. I’ve lost a job I loved; I’m angry about a lot.

Dinner was about me leaving the college where Michael and I met, were hired together, taught together— English and Economics, and the students loved it, loved us. I tell Lisa I wish we’d have taken more pictures with our students. Michael agrees. Sometimes you forget to collect the moment.

Michael had invited me over for a while, but now that I’d probably be moving, the invite seemed more pressing. I’d been doing my best to keep a stiff upper lip and all of that. But here I was, unemployed and alone, and my friend and his wife are looking at these past versions of themselves so seemingly unaware of their present latitude.

“That’s the current, jaded version of yourself talking,” Michael says when I quip about maybe not choosing to get a doctorate again if I had a choice. Maybe not becoming a professor at all.

The comment stuns me in its honesty and truth. It’s one of the most reliable things about the Michael I know: honesty and truth. I am embarrassed for my envy, for the momentary condescension of my thoughts – They don’t know how good they have it.

Their oldest, Hays, casually comes over and says, “I really like the toy you brought us, J.D.” That’s thanks number six, I think.

They tell me more family stories, the mess of it all. It hasn’t been easy for them. Is it easy for any of us? Even their house, this place so perfect to me at the moment, was a bit of an argument between them. It worked out, of course. As they walk me to the door to say goodnight, I see their little room of adventures. The picture of them in Nepal is positioned to be one of the first things you see when you walk in. It makes sense.

Even if you didn’t reach the mountaintop, you want people to know you made the trek.

There are two ways of reading the room. One, you read yourself, you see a mirror, you see braggarts; it’s like you don’t know them at all. Or, two, maybe you listen a little longer, get past your own shit just long enough to see something else, something closer to true: people who know exactly how good they have it.

People who made the effort to remind you it’s not all valleys. You suddenly wonder how many times is too many times to say, “Thank you.”