I met her in early January on a sidewalk in Missoula, Montana. It was only nine but it felt past midnight, the dark and cold thrumming along my skin, the stars dagger points suspended in the frozen air. A puff of air came from her mouth as she said her name and extended her mittened hand. I offered my own name puff and reached back. The snow crunched beneath our boots as we parted ways, hurrying to our vehicles.
When I next saw her, she was my bus captain on one of many Women’s March buses headed to Helena, Montana. The temperature was 20 and the bus was filled with women in layers of sweaters and coats, scarves and pink pussy hats. The bus captain was in charge of making sure we were all present, before and after the March. She was the only black woman on the bus. She quizzed us on Montana history as the bus driver took us two hours through a stiff, white landscape. Her voice was confident and she held herself with a commanding air. At the end of the March I tried to speak to her, but I stammered and my face flushed.
On a Saturday night three weeks after the March, a gay couple emerged from the Rhino Bar holding hands. The streets were layered with ice and the cold was the kind that seeps in and settles, the kind that warmth can’t ever quite reach. It may have been quiet. It was late. They passed two men on the sidewalk . “Fucking fags” broke the air between them, a fist connecting with a jaw. Another fist connecting with an eye.
One week prior to the Rhino assault, I’d held a rainbow sign on a street corner at the northwestern edge of town. Fifty other people waved rainbows of their own. Phil Roberston, of Duck Dynasty, was across the street speaking for a fundraiser for a faith-based addictions recovery program. I had organized the rally as a way to say love is love is love. I had not yet contacted the bus captain I was so smitten with. The Rhino assault would come the next week. I stood in the frosty twilight because I wanted to believe the hate was only coming from outside.
It was March when I finally met the bus captain for coffee. I perched at the edge of my seat as we talked. My hands trembled like birds. I didn’t notice this, but she told me weeks later after the hours of phone conversations late into the night. The ground was still frozen that day—our first date—as we parted ways with plans to see each other again, the air and the hate like plate glass we had to smash through.
Emily Withnall is a writer, teacher, and queer solo parent of two daughters. Originally from the high mountain desert of New Mexico, she survives the winter and cold of Missoula, Montana, by writing dark essays and odes to the sun. Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, Orion Magazine, and High Country News, among others. She has an essay forthcoming in the anthology “Janeland” from Cleis Press in 2017. Most recently, she was a fellow at the Fishtrap Summer Writing Workshop, was awarded a residency at Sundress Academy for the Arts, and an excerpt of her manuscript, “Fracture,” won first place in creative nonfiction for the 2016 AWP Writers’ Conferences & Centers Award. Her work can be read at www.emilywithnall.com.