When two men journey to the Rockies for a backpacking getaway vacation, the joke is always what would happen if we got lost? What famous movies would we compare our situation to, and would it give us a phenomenal story to tell around our respective fireplaces over wine? Or would it result in one of us getting murdered or hunted as prey and the other spending the next twenty years in therapy? Would we figure out how to make fire from grass and bark? Would we discover inner resources we never would have estimated, and return to our daily lives as heroes who survived the wild? Would the vicissitudes of marriage, mortgages and mid-life crises look like child’s play after a week spent fending off coyotes with homemade spears and sleeping in trees? Or would we just take a shower and get on with our lives? I suppose the joke isn’t specific to men. Two women, or a man and a woman in the wilderness would share the same obsession; what if we get lost? Maybe that’s why we go to the woods in the first place. Because we want to get lost. Like some universal Freudian longing. Maybe that’s why Brady tried to kill me. Nobody gets that pissed off over a bag of weed.
I’m a middle-school social studies teacher and Brady is a defense lawyer. I always said if Brady and I were a gay couple, we’d make a pretty damned good one. I like to light a joint and contemplate the sky. Occasionally I'll write some poetry. Brady likes to hit the boxing gym after a long day and pretend the punching bag is the prosecuting attorney, and then go home and drink Scotch. I met Brady in Alcoholics Anonymous three years ago and we quickly became drinking buddies.
This trip was pretty much inevitable.
I’m not very observant. In the car, he asked me to help navigate once we got off the major highways. I missed the sign. Lost before we even got to the trail head—hardy har har. It was when Brady snatched the map out of my hands that I wondered if I really wanted to spend four days with him away from electricity, running water and beer. He fixed it, like he always does. Yeah, we’d make a pretty phenomenal queer couple. If we, y'know, swung that way.
When Brady is pissed off, he doesn’t put on any music. If he’s mildly irritated, he'll turn on AM radio and look for a traffic report, and if he’s in a good mood, he'll play bootleg cd’s from obscure Sixties' bands, and regale me with the Brady VH1 Special on them. When he’s sour, he'll stew in silence for miles and then say something out of left field. Something like
"You always speak in metaphors." I like the way Brady talks. He’s a recovering New Yorker, but unless you're specifically listening for it, you won’t discern a New York accent. It’s the energy and directness that stuck with him; he speaks to everyone like they're his cab driver and he’s got the big bucks and he’s always in a hurry. The world is his taxi, and he keeps it in business. Shit, there I go with the metaphors again. "So why not stop. See if you can go one weekend without using metaphors."
Now he’s trying to lighten the mood. I can help with that—I’m not a complete social gimp, ya know. I'll be cute and ironic. "Can a car go a weekend without making left turns?"
Brady keeps a straight face. It’s his armor. I can picture him in court more easily than I can picture him on a toilet.
"You're hilarious," he says.
"Actually, that made no sense."
"No, you're funny." He claps me on the shoulder roughly. "Have you ever tried not being funny? Do it for an hour, I'll time you."
"What’s with all these dares?"
"Don’t you have one for me?"
"I bet you can’t go twenty-four hours without criticizing me and giving me stupid challenges."
"I bet I can." Brady looked at his watch. It would have required less effort to glance down at the digital clock on the car radio, but he didn’t seem to trust any timepiece other than his quartz watch. "In less than a minute it will be O-eight-hundred hours. No poetics, no humor, no personality revisions. Starting…now."
Brady held up his hand for a customary macho handshake, one of those athletic knuckle-clasping grips that he probably learned from his frat brothers at Delta Epsilon. How fucking immature is that. I just look at his hand, his elbow flexed at a perfect ninety degree angle like hydraulic machinery. I say
"And none of your crazy obligatory handshakes. We’re not renegades plotting an uprising, we’re two dorks on a road trip."
"What are you talking about?"
"You gave me two demands, I’m giving you a second one."
Brady nods, chews this over and almost smiles. To describe Brady as almost smiling is like saying a priest almost orgasmed.
"That’s what I like about you, James. People think you're this mellow sucker with one foot in the clouds who’s as easy to manipulate as my sister. But the moment I try anything slippery-"
"Yes, Brady, I occasionally pause between drug binges and spiritual trances to pay attention." Yes, that’s the way to play Brady; act hurt and offended. Because under that chiseled exterior, he’s sensitive. He’s got to be to identify with his clients and evoke a jury’s sympathy. I assume that’s how it works—I tend to daydream when he starts talking about his law practice, but I watch daytime courtroom dramas on television- I mean, y'know, if there’s one on while I’m doing the dishes or something. Yep, that’s how I play Brady’s emotions. And he knows it. I’m not so observant, but like he said, when anybody’s trying to slight me, my ears perk right up. It’s like an animal instinct. Speaking of which…
Brady said it started with a tickling sensation. It wasn’t poison ivy. Poison oak, whatever the hell grows out here. He could’ve been bitten by something, I don’t know. It’s really not my problem, but Brady has this way of making his problems everybody’s problems.
He was taking his morning piss when we first stumbled upon it. It may sound strange—and a little gay—to describe a man as gorgeous when he’s urinating in the woods, but hey, call it delirium, call it misplaced yuppie syndrome or whatever, he just had this aura. Brady stood about five foot ten and his posture accounted for at least an inch of that. Take an inch where they'll give an inch—that was a Bradyism. He has blonde hair, but it darkens up real quickly when the seasons change. His skull is a little too big for his face—he looks kind of like I imagine Paul Bunyan would have looked, animated, blocky, rustic features, full beard, huge shoulders. He didn’t even look down when he pissed. This one time, he probably should have.
I didn’t know what it was at first. I was eating a granola bar and tending the fire when I heard him yelp. I’ve never heard a man react to anything quite like that. The sound he made was high pitched, but not exactly effeminate, and it came out of his mouth like he was swallowing an insect in reverse. He was startled, mortified, you might say. But it wasn’t the kind of reaction you wish you’d caught on some home movie camera to play later for all your poker buddies to laugh their asses off. It wasn’t one of those look at this macho guy shit a brick moments. It wasn’t like that at all.
In normal everyday life, at the office, on the highway, at the supermarket, people are always looking for things that might make for good anecdotes, scanning the minutia of daily interactions for entertainment fodder. Two days in the woods makes you stop thinking like that. When you sit and watch a snake devour a chipmunk, your mind doesn’t automatically structure how you might describe the scene to some chick at a bar. When you watch the sun set behind rocky peaks, huddled over a puny fire that you spent two hours gathering damp twigs to sustain, that’s all that you're doing; watching the sunset and feeling the warmth that you labored over. You're not thinking about how beautiful it is, you're not meditating on man’s detachment from nature, you're not making footnotes to transcendentalist authors in your head, you're just there. You might be wishing you weren’t there, but your head is right there with you.
They say that a man locked in a prison cell will create a world in his mind and live in it. The wilderness is the exact opposite of incarceration, and your mind does the exact opposite of escape: your thoughts are locked up in the vastness of the scenery, and God threw away the key. I’m not saying that to wax religious or nothing, I’m just saying. And when your best buddy takes a piss and looks down only after he gives it the mandatory triple shake to see that he’s just urinated on a naked human corpse…
It was like the scream was a self-contained knot in Brady’s stomach that wasn’t meant to be released verbally, and it escaped him like he were coughing up something that went down the wrong pipe. I don’t think he knew what it was either. Thing that struck me about it was, he didn’t run away when he first noticed it. Most people would have at least backed up a few steps, but Brady—if there’s any instant I could say I fell in love with the man, it was standing there with his cock out, dripping on this alien thing with human skin.
I finished my granola bar before I got up.
It was the following morning that he first started complaining about the itch in his genitals. His theory was that he contracted some infectious disease from the corpse thing, that at some moment his piss collided with a growth on the corpse’s flesh, and that in that instant an organism travelled up-current through the arc of his piss and entered his body. I’m no doctor, but I’m pretty sure that’s impossible. I told him
"Brady, that’s ridiculous. That’s the stupidist thing I ever-"
"You're not the one who’s got a funky looking rash down there, and you're not the one who went peepee on a cadaver yesterday, yet in your medical opinion those two events are completely unrelated, do I get ya right?"
"I’m not saying it’s a coincidence."
"Well what the-"
"Brady, calm down. See how upset you're getting? You're making yourself insane, and that’s why you’ve got an itch. It’s psychosomatic. Your brain is trying to process trauma and explain unknowns that are overwhelming it, so it’s working in metaphors, which is a natural response. A healthy one, even. That rash on your balls is a metaphor."
Brady didn’t like that. Gave me the silent treatment for half a rotational cycle of the Earth. I can live with that; sometimes—especially on vacations—you just need to get some breathing room. And if there was anything this forest offered in mass quantities, it was breathing room. Not to make a bad pun out of 'breathing room' but I do have certain habits I like to indulge in settings of natural beauty, habits let’s just say Brady wouldn’t approve of.
I’d light one up when Brady was off bathing or, conveniently, when he was walking a mile up ahead to relieve some steam. In my adult life I’ve grown gracefully proficient at rendering my altered state—how shall I say…—inconspicuous. That lightheaded stream-of-consciousness tactlessness- well let’s not wax all hippy romantic about it, but I will boast that nobody can distinguish between my normal behavior and me after a toke. Employers, girlfriends, police officers, I make no apologies for the cultivation of this art of deception. And so what if Brady and I shook hands and declared an agreement out of respect, it’s my vacation too, damn it.
Brady’s next words to me were
"I think Selena’s pregnant." He said it right before diving into the river to bathe, when the crickets were already audible and the moon was stamped in gradations of blue-gray. He likes to do that: drop a bomb, in the form of an oh, by the way, just before leaving a room. I didn’t know Brady as a nine-year-old, but I'll bet his favorite thing to do was hold in farts for hours and then let them rip the moment before making his exit.
Selena was a woman in his professional sphere whom he fooled around with. I think she was a judge or something, I don’t know. He only mentioned her in passing, and he hadn’t brought up her name once this entire trip, so until he said that, I’d just assumed they’d had a falling out and I wasn’t gonna pry.
I watched him splash around, meticulously scratching dirt off his chest with one hand while doing the back stroke with the other. I knew he would join me by the fire and we would have the classic hold-out battle. I want to hear about the Selena thing and he wants to tell me about it, and this game of his is so immature it makes me want to puke. I mean that as a figure of speech, of course: when you're in the woods, procuring and preparing food is a major undertaking, and there’s nothing in the world that would make me actually wish to vomit.
"Brady, what’s going on?" I say as he warms up.
"What, Selena? I was just kidding, bro." He claps me on the shoulder. His hand feels weaker than it should; his arms have not atrophied by any means.
"No you weren’t."
"So what? Chicks have babies. We’re out here in the mountains. Whatever."
We finished the last of our oatmeal packets with water from the river boiled in my aluminum mess kit, and didn’t look at each other.
The corpse (although the more distance I get from it, the less sure I am that that’s really what it was) was of indeterminate gender and age, and its head and legs were buried in the dirt. It was just a round belly that protruded from the ground, distended and sap-colored, and a couple feet away a mound that may have been its kneecap, and might have been a root formation that just sort of looked like a human knee-cap. And of all the spots on the ground he could have arbitrarily pissed on, he had taken aim at this thing’s belly button.
"This is delicious."
"I mean it. This oatmeal is divine."
"Shut up about the oatmeal and tell me what you're really-"
"Do you know what direction we’re going? If I didn’t mark which tree the sun rose behind every morning and chart our course, would you have any clue?"
"You're angry at me?"
"No James, I’m not angry at you. I’m just tired of walking in front of you all the goddamned- Yes, I’m angry at you. Would you even care if we got lost?"
"How’s that rash on your ding-dong? Is it swelling up? You're not scratching it, I hope."
"Do you even notice that I check our direction every morning? You probably think I’m just staring at the sky philosophizing or something. It’s like you're not even interested."
"What if I told you I have no idea where I’m going, I was just following you this whole time."
"James. James? Are you high right now?"
I wonder how many times Brady’s given someone that exact same look in a courtroom. The one where he’s just completed the mental puzzle to prove his case and his opponent knows it. Brady was onto me, he had been suspecting for a long time, and had gathered his evidence like a bandit in the night. His suspicion never even occurred to me until right then when he pounced- literally pounced on my frame pack and tackled it to the ground. It was almost comical, like he was expecting me to wrestle him over it.
He even knew exactly where to look; he unzipped my second-to-front pocket violently (not angrily, but violently, the way a cop would) and rifled around. He tossed a pouch of bandaids, a bottle of Tylenol and a silver dollar on the ground before plucking out that incriminating baggy with the Twistie and holding it up in his shaking fist. Actually shaking. And not in a cartoon way. It was like the substance in the bag had momentum and he was struggling against it to…to…I don’t know, insert some sissy-ass metaphor. The point is, he was beyond angry. Yeah, there was some anger, there was some paranoia, there was all his personal insecurities, guilt about his interactions with women, guilt from all the criminals he’d defended and people he’d sued, but we were in the mountains and that shit was all somewhere else, I mean that was the whole point of coming out here, but my point is, I was witnessing the complete mental collapse of a man.
I didn’t care about the weed at that point. If he wanted to scatter it in the river, let him. I just remember his fist shaking, not an angry shaking, but a trying-to-hold-on shaking.
And then I was running. This crazed, savage animal was chasing me through the woods. Fucking chasing me.
I wanted to see him cry. I wanted him to dive on me and punch me in the back until I coughed up a little blood, and then collapse in tears and apologize. That’s how two guys bond, that cathartic fight and then that masculine vulnerability, it’s in all the Hollywood buddy movies.
He never caught me. I was faster than he was mad. If I were a better man, I would have slowed down a little, faked it and let him catch me, let him grab me by the back shirt collar and fall into his fist. Then I would have fought back and given him a good pounding. Then we would have caught our breath and trusted each other.
That’s what guys do when they're in love. But I just kept running.
I don’t know why Brady hated drugs so much, hated what they represented. I don’t know why I liked pot so much. It didn’t matter, of course. It’s all metaphor.
Later that night, after we’d both piped down, I looked at his hands and noticed that he wasn’t wearing his quartz watch. I have no idea at what point—what day—he had taken it off, and I didn’t ask. I think it’s safe to say we were past that.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED