There were no code words, no shiftiness, no subterfuge, no apologies. I have to give him credit: He was honest from the start. He liked me, I liked him, and he was leaving in three weeks to spend the season in the hills. My heart, which had been thudding along pleasantly, skidded to a stop.
"I can't do it," I said, letting go of his hand. "I can't date a guy who grows."
It's a lie. I can, I could, I want to, but I won't. I won't take him home to meet my parents and hem and haw over how he earns his money. I won't explain to my friends why he's disappeared for the summer. I won't wash the smell of green bud from his clothes. I won't ride along with him when he heads south after harvest, praying that we don't get pulled over. If he's in, I'm out. No one can build a relationship over a secret that big.
A single girl in Humboldt can't afford to be too picky. I'm not the only one of my friends spinstered on principle. We've consulted. We've weighed the pros and the cons and came back mostly cons.
He thinks I'm being silly. He's not a bad guy. His friends aren't bad guys. There are plenty of bad guys and bad growers, with shady operations and shitty labor practices and guns and hard drugs and awful pesticides. He says they run a clean gig, and I want to believe him. He asks me to come up and see for myself. The journalist inside me grins. The girl inside me cringes.
Because I could ask a thousand questions and still not ride easy in his arms. Where do you get your water? Where do you get your soil? Do you use pesticides? Which ones? Who do you sell to? Who do you employ? Who does your trimming? Do any of you have kids? Are the kids at the site? I could visit the grow with clipboard in hand, ticking off the details one by one and still leave unhappy. I know what I'll find. Trash blowing in the wind. Someone spun on speed. A gaggle of teenage girls brought in to trim. Someone shysty. Someone with a sidearm. Or simply that omnipresent tension. The sideways looks and terse words and trust that's never given without some quota of complicity. A den of young men and young men's problems, multiplied exponentially by fast money and fear.
What's your crew like? How long have you known them? Where do you mix your diesel? How do you get rid of your trash? Do you have dogs? Who takes care of the dogs? Who will take care of you if you get hurt?
I'm sad to let go of his hand because I like him, and because I'm afraid he'll think that I'm claiming a rung above him on the moral ladder. I'm not. I don't hold the hands of men who are bad or immoral or unworthy of my respect.
But he's urban and I'm rural, and we come from opposite ends of the War on Drugs with no middle to meet in. He thinks I'm silly because he'll never get how hard I scrabbled to stay out of the Industry. I think he's reckless because I didn't grow up in the specter of a poverty and circumstance so difficult that growing weed is a comparatively small risk to take. I succeeded by virtue of the American dream, but the American dream worked for me because I'm white and middle class and had two parents who stayed together. He's the product of a socioeconomic system that was always going to be stacked against him. No scholarship or policy change will even the playing field for him as fast as black market marijuana has.
My blue collar values make me blanch at the idea of anyone earning easy money, but I know that growing isn't exactly easy. And the money he earns goes toward luxuries that are hard to begrudge: a decent car, cheap travel, Christmas presents for his little brothers.
He thinks the system's broken, and I can't disagree. Lord knows he felt disadvantage in ways I'll never understand.
Because I've had more given to me in life than I know what to do with I tell him, "If you don't like it, then build a better system."
Because he's had more taken away from him then he'll ever earn back he says, "I am."
We'll never reach accord long enough for this fear to fade, this fist that opens and closes in my gut even as he puts his arm around me and tells me not to worry. He needs a lover, not a fighter. I need a fighter, not a grower. And I'll never shake the knowledge that the system he's building is just as fucked as the one it helped him escape.
It's just a weed that some use as a drug and some use as medicine. But the rivers are running dry and the hills are getting ready to burn. Another man was killed recently in Alderpoint. In my hometown someone's starving dog has been set loose on the county road and someone's kid is spending the summer running waterlines. The money is leaving and the crops are bigger and young men with pinprick pupils finger guns that they need to make them feel braver, because first the world made them feel very, very small. And as long as the system is set up to make them feel that way our hills will continue to fill with young men in various states of desperation.
So this summer I'll read the news closely and chew off my fingernails and wonder what's happening up there. I want to see for myself, sure I do. I want to know he's eating right and misses me. I want proof I'm wrong and I want his mustache to tickle my upper lip again. I want a revolution. I know he'd give it to me if he could. But you can't fix broken with broken. In the meantime, my baby's on the mountain, and the mountain is a place I just can't go.
Linda Stansberry is a freelance journalist from Honeydew.