Late-afternoon sun heated the rocky foothills, releasing the savory scent of sage. A turquoise sky rose above us, the sun bestowing glints of copper in Ben's hair. Bent at his work, gathering sage, he swiped a tear and sniffled softly. A beautiful August day in Colorado, and I had ruined it.
I suppose I could have picked a better time to tell him I was breaking off our engagement, but now that the words had flown out of my mouth, I couldn't take them back. We had been climbing the foothills just outside of town, collecting sage for Ben to dry, bundle, and resell to tourists in the former mining community where we lived. As I'd handed him an extra hemp bag, simultaneously taking from him the one he'd filled, he'd chirped good-naturedly, "What would I do without you?"
"You might have to figure that out," I had told him.
Immediately, he'd straightened up, running a hand feverishly from his temple back through his long, sandy-colored hair. "What are you talking about?"
I'd gestured for him to sit down, and we'd perched on a flat rock while I'd explained that, while I thought he was a really great guy -- possibly too good for me -- that I didn't see our futures following the same path. He was an earnest soul, a nature lover who thrived on the great emptiness of the Western U.S., working two part-time jobs, along with selling sage and hand-made hemp bags, all so that he could afford tuition for a Wildlife Science program. By contrast, I longed for the thrill of the big city: with numerous restaurants, clubs and art galleries to explore. Working in a coffee shop in a small western town, supported in winter time by an influx of rich skiiers, seemed, to me, a dismal future.
Desperately, Ben suggested I seek a full-time job at the local newspaper, where I'd been contributing freelance pieces. "Once I get my degree," he said, "we could move someplace with more excitement, like Denver."
I sighed and hit him with the real reason, the one for which I knew he'd have no answer. "It's just -- " I crunched a piece of sage between my fingers, releasing the pine-like smell. "I love you, Ben, but I'm not in love with you." And before he could ask me when my feelings had changed, I added, "I'm not sure I ever was."
After earning my bachelor's degree in journalism at a small Pennsylvania state school, I had been sure of only one thing: I'd wanted to start a new life as far away as possible from my well-meaning but frequently meddling mother, who lived in the Virginia suburbs outside Washington, D.C. So after talking to a few friends and doing a little research on the Internet, I'd moved to Colorado. I have to admit, the history of the Old West has always fascinated me.
Having secured an apartment long-distance, thanks to Yahoo! Real Estate, my plan had been to get settled and then track down all the historical sites I'd been reading about. So it seemed like fate, one night, as I'd sipped a Smirnoff in a saloon, supposedly haunted by gunslingers, that Ben had taken the stool next to me. Within a short period of time, he'd not only given me his entire personal history but also offered to give me a tour of the town, complete with local legends he'd learned there, growing up. How could I resist?
After our exhaustive tour, including a historic theater, the site of a famous showdown, and graveyards filled with the markers of settlers, he'd walked me home and said good-bye with a gentle kiss on the lips. I was surprised; I hadn't thought of our tour as a date. But I also hadn't turned him down when he'd asked me to go to an outdoor showing of "King Kong." I'm a sucker for classic movies. Plus, he was cute, in a granola-eating, John Denver sort of way.
And so Ben, the first person I met in town, had become not only my source for local knowledge but also my default boyfriend. After a year of nature hikes, skiing, and catching local bands at the downtown saloons, he'd surprised me, at the summit of his favorite trail, by kneeling down and asking me for my hand in marriage.
I should have listened to my heart and said no, but my brain had been too busy telling me that, really, he was a great guy. I was lucky to have him; after all, maybe I wouldn't ever find anyone better.
Stunned, I'd nodded yes, and he'd pushed a hand-made hemp ring on my finger, telling me the real ring would have to wait until he could save up enough.
That had been at the beginning of summer and now, in August, I'd had enough time to regret my decision. As earnest and kind-hearted as Ben was, and despite his nature-boy good looks, I had to admit that I'd never seen him as more than, perhaps, a friend with fringe benefits. He deserved more than that.
And so, after we'd talked it out for a while, and I'd shared my plans to leave when my lease was up and go back east, he stopped sobbing and stood up. "Well, we might as well finish filling this bag," he said, weakly. As he stooped, again and again, to break swatches of sage from the bushes that lined the hills, it seemed as if the action was a sort of meditation: a way to control his heartache.
I imagined the sage, spread out on his back porch, drying in the sun, the aroma suffusing his simple cabin-like dwelling. I imagined him bundling swatches together with hemp, wrapping them tightly and placing them in pre-marked plastic bags, labeled "Ben's Sage."
In winter, when I was long gone, a wealthy tourist would buy a bag, plunking down several dollars for the privilege of "local sage," take it home and light it on a ceramic tray. The thick scent of burning sage would fill the room right up to its lofty ceiling. A scent of Christmas trees, of figs and licorice, of heartbreak and indifference.