He doesn’t love me. He never loved me. And he isn’t looking for me — so I damn well better survive the night on my own. No food, no tent, no map. No one to blame but myself. Too bad burning hot shame isn’t a heat source.
Moonlight traces a craggy ridgeline up around me in a massive arc. The sparse lodgepole pines give way to barren rock, which means 12,000-foot elevation. Thin air breeds spartan creatures — mountain lions, king snakes, bighorn sheep. Not soft-fingered writers.
My body curls into the fetal position inside the soggy sleeping bag as my teeth chatter with percussive violence. No comfort for animals that don’t belong. The hard earth refuses to yield an inch to the curve of my hip.
I lay my spine flat and look up — I haven’t seen a star in nine years. Even through my panicked fog, the glory catches me. The sky glitters and winks like a showgirl. The Perseid Meteor Shower should peak tonight. Hey if I don’t make it, at least I’ll get a good show, right? But nothing falls.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” writes Joan Didion. “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
My compulsion started around the time my father surprised everyone by dying. I’d just been dumped by the first person I’d ever kissed (and asked to keep it a secret). Then I’d blown out my knee in a basketball game and torpedoed my collegiate career. I craved control over an uncontrollable world.
So I began to write. When I’m overwhelmed, I imagine I’m inside a movie of my own design. Nothing can hurt the omniscient narrator.
Of course, it’s a trap.
This is a love story. More specifically, it’s a story about how I froze the phantasmagoria into a false map and got terribly lost. Sure, emotionally lost, but also get-me-the-fuck-off-this-mountain lost. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, unless they end up killing us.
I met Mountain Man at a boarding school in Ojai, California — my first job out of college. As an expression of its “ranch values,” the school assigned each kid a horse to ride and shovel shit for. The faculty led mandatory backpacking trips twice per year, often to a camp under Mount Langley in the Sierras.
I was eager to create new memories in the wild after my last experience: a college trip in New Hampshire where we went off course. Administrators spent three days searching the White Mountains to tell me that my father had died. Others might hold a grudge against Nature for this affront, but not me.
My dad, a second-generation Finn, respected Nature’s brutal majesty. I’d seen the photographs of him in pre-suburban life — paddling on wooded lakes and tromping across snowy bluffs. Two summers earlier, I’d completed an Outward Bound leadership training course. I’d spelled out sisu in my head over and over when the trail got tough. He beamed when I told him this. Sisu means “guts” in Finnish.
At 6-foot-4, I’ve inherited my dad’s frame. I’m the tallest woman most people have ever seen. Strangers tell me so on sidewalks, at cash registers, and in public bathrooms. A hipster once asked, “Do you secretly hate yourself?” No. I was just bone-crushingly lonely. I was a 24-year-old Harvard-educated virgin with a signed copy of The Elements of Style. I’d never had a boyfriend. Given Ojai’s microscopic dating pool and my waning confidence in the allure of late bloomers, perhaps I never would.
Mountain Man arrived my second year at the school — the hirsute love child of Ryan Gosling and Bear Grylls. His eyes were the blue of alpine lakes, and although only 5-foot-11 he swaggered like an NBA champ. He took jobs when he felt like it and lived off the grid when he didn’t. Before this gig he’d led scared-straight wilderness treks in Idaho — like the one he’d been sent to as a teenager. He brewed his own kombucha, caught trout with his bare hands, and had once lived in the Sierras for 40 days and nights alone. How Biblical.
I saw him for the first time at an outdoor school assembly. I’d spent the morning asking 12-year-olds, “What three adjectives would you use to describe yourself?” and proffering gingersnaps to their anxious mothers. I stepped out of the air-conditioned Admission Office wearing a Laura Ashley knockoff from The Tall Girl Shop. Mountain Man strode in from the Horse Department — sweat-stained in jeans and leather. Blades of grass leaned toward him, hoping for the crush of his boot.
I’d heard about him. News travels fast at small schools in small towns. He’d taken his freshman boy advisees out for pizza that week and a minx had dropped her number on his plate — solidifying his godlike status among the prepubescents faster than you can say arrabbiata.
Mountain Man introduced himself to the student body and began a tutorial on how to light a fire by rubbing sticks together and blowing on them —
[A film producer interrupts from behind her posh desk.]
Without a match? You’re shitting me!
This is exactly how it happened.
Love it! Add a kitten rescue in the rewrite.
(picks up phone)
Gina, is Chris Hemsworth available? …
How about Liam? …
I looked across the faces in the crowd — there was a blaze all right. Even the aged school nurse and her hound had heart-eye emojis. My married colleague, heavily pregnant with her second child, leaned over and whispered, “Damn.”
This guy is such a cliché, I thought. Hard eye roll — chased by self-loathing.
I, too, was charmed by Handsome McMuscleface, which made me a worse cliché — Girl Who Didn’t Stand a Chance. I hadn’t successfully dated anyone, let alone Field & Stream’s cover boy. Plus the height difference? My desire was humiliating.
Yet still! My storytelling brain sensed an opportunity of Hughesian proportions. Sexiest guy in school falls for intriguing, overlooked assistant admission officer.
The secret to elevating my dating game lay in the heart of my favorite teen rom-coms: Don’t be yourself. I pictured him with a SoCal Lara Croft — half assassin, half sun-bunny. You know, a cool girl.
Adorkable overachiever was my brand. Cool was not. My mother once punished me in high school by forbidding me to study on a Friday night.
Another time, I accidentally outed my 14-year-old sister, Sarah, for taking the family car on a joyride. I was 16 and hadn’t bothered with the car yet — the library was within walking distance. When Sarah wasn’t in bed after midnight, I’d assumed she’d been kidnapped.
“I’m so sorry,” I told her when she was grounded into oblivion. “I never considered the possibility of something fun.”
“It’s OK,” Sarah’s braces gleamed beneath headgear. “I know.”
Nonetheless, I had minor superpowers. I understood narrative. I knew how to play a part. See: Lady Macbeth, third runner-up, Central New York’s Teen Shakespeare Monologue Competition.
How hard could it be to write myself into this story?
Cool Girl made no effort to meet Mountain Man for weeks. I watched from afar in the cafeteria. He’d clomp over to the soft serve station in his big boots after lunch.
[Re-creation of the famous balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.]
Mountain Man (Juliet) swirls up a vanilla ice cream cone and takes a sensuous bite as Cool Girl (Romeo) watches below, unseen.
COOL GIRL (ROMEO)
O, that I were sprinkles upon that
cream, That I might touch that lip!
I forced my eyes away as he passed. Let him come to me. Cool Girl 101.
The Spanish teacher at my lunch table said, “I’m a happily married woman — but for a chance with him … ?” She whistled through her teeth. “You should go for it.”
This is me going for it.
“He’s not really my type,” I said, channeling my best James Dean lean.
“That man is everyone’s type,” she hissed. I smiled and shrugged.
Basketball season rolled around in November. As head coach, I mentioned I could use an extra practice player. He offered with a grin. I put on my best game face, but my players, teenage girls fluent in body language, tittered on the sidelines.
As Mountain Man and I drove the team in two passenger vans to an away game one sunny afternoon, my van started to giggle. I turned to look at his, the next lane over on the highway. One of the darlings pressed a handmade sign to the window: Ms. Johnson, he’s too short for you!
Both vans shrieked with laughter. He couldn’t see the sign. I prayed they didn’t tell him what was so funny.
Kill me now. Just end it.
I smiled at my girls and shrugged again.
I was assigned to chaperone a holiday school dance. I’d seen Mountain Man’s name on the list too. However, it was midnight and all of the students had left, with no sign of him. He was probably out birthing a foal or eating a volcano. The school webmaster-cum-DJ cranked up ’90s jams and we chaperones took over. Nothing like earnest high school teachers getting stanky to “Big Pimpin’.”
I danced, sweated and didn’t care how I looked. A tap on my shoulder — I turned. It was him. His cerulean eyes locked with mine. “Trust me,” he said, and put his forearm against the small of my back. Cool Girl was ready to rob a bank.
I leapt up and back as he flipped all 76 inches of me, 360 degrees, head over heels. Adrenaline surged through my veins as I stuck the landing. Cheering friends circled around. He flipped me again. I was giddy, dizzy, unable to comprehend the physics of such a move — but when the ground looks like the sky it’s no time for thinking.
The lights came up and the music stopped. I gave him an awkward high-five and bolted for home, like a Cinderella who knew tonight’s ration of magic was up.
I laid awake in bed. After the school year, I’d be moving to New York City to accept a fellowship in public affairs. Time was running out.
The following week, my basketball team, perennial underdogs, won a big game on a heart-stopping buzzer beater. Mountain Man and I celebrated by playing pool in the back room of a local dive bar. It was the first time we’d been alone together. I matched him point for point until his final turn. I swigged my beer like Angelina Jolie — if Angelina Jolie drank Miller High Life.
I perched against the table, blocking his approach and said, “Take your best shot.” He stepped between my legs, took my face in his hands and kissed me hard.
All the fireworks fired. Holy shit I’m a natural!
Some minutes later we were still atop the pool table when a guy opened the door.
“Are you guys still playing or … can I have a round?”
The darkness enveloped my flush. “Sorry man, all yours,” Mountain Man said with a wink. “She’ll do anything to win.”
We drove to my little house where he strummed his guitar and sang a song by U2. His eyes were closed and his voice was deep.
In a little while
This hurt will hurt no more
I’ll be home, love …
I held myself, fingers digging into flesh — tight, lest I burst into flames.
The sex was great, but what really blew my mind was the story. To be desired by the Most Desirable, I must be fucking exceptional.
As our romance progressed, he confided that he was drawn to a solitary life in nature. “I’m bad at relationships,” he said. Again, with those eyes.
I’ve never been in one.
“Me too,” I answered.
He liked independent women with their own passions — but so often they changed, lost themselves. Like one college girlfriend who started showing up to watch his lacrosse practices.
Pathetic, I thought. I wouldn’t do that in a billion years.
I doubled down on Cool Girl. I served up the fun, wild parts of myself and kept the wobbly bits hidden. A nasty blister stained the inside of my boot blood red on one of our treks, but I didn’t let on. I drank whiskey without flinching, hustled darts with my opposite hand, and wore low-cut tops with black bras when we played pool. Oh, if the Teen Shakespearians could see me now!
I listened for cues to up my game. “Don’t ask for what you kind of want,” he said after hearing me on the phone with a customer service representative. “Ask for exactly what you want.”
I didn’t just love him; I wanted to be him.
He suggested we try dating long-distance. I was elated. Coup of the century!
My sister Sarah, now a design student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, moved in with me in the Big Apple. We caught five mice in our decrepit apartment in the first week. Yet as long as Sarah was there, I was home. I wrote her résumés. She framed fashion feedback in a way I could understand: “Your outfit,” she’d say with the forbearance of a monk, “is not telling a consistent story.” She threw herself into the maelstrom of New York dating as I happily abstained.
Mountain Man sent me handwritten missives and pencil sketches of my face. He highlighted words in a pocket Spanish dictionary — amante, beso, toque. In between pages, he pressed columbine and Indian paintbrush. He included a little satchel of rocks — limestone, hornfels, mica — tiny treasures from his rambles in the high places. His letter read, “My longing, in a pocket for you.” New York City was kicking my ass, but my belief in our epic love story buoyed me.
He even came to visit me in Babylon, as he called it, for New Year’s. It was the first time I saw him away from his other woman, the wild. He strained to put on a good face despite obvious irritation with the concrete canyons, $14 gin and tonics, and affected hipsters. I joked about the local wildlife (pigeons, rats in the subway, my asshole mice roommates), but it was plain that he was lost without his true love. I could never compete.
“So great to see you killing it out here,” he said.
This city is crushing my soul.
“You know me,” I said.
Cool Girl was wearing me out. I’d pulled off the heist but now had to live with the con.
When it was time for Mountain Man to fly back home, I watched him in the ticket agent line, certain he wouldn’t be let on the plane. He’d lost his license. This was post 9/11 LaGuardia — no chance. Sure, he knew how to survive in the wilderness with nothing but a pen and ball of twine, but I knew how this city worked. He waited, beaming at the agent, wafting manbrosia from 20 feet away.
“Driver’s license?” She called him forward. I shook my head. I’d tried to warn him.
“I don’t have a driver’s license,” he replied, “but I do have a diver’s license.”
He slapped a scuba certification ID onto the desk. In it his hair stuck out in all directions, his expression adorable. She laughed and waved him through. What?! Manic Pixie Dream Boy strikes again. He gave me a winning smile and headed toward the gate, back to his mistress.
I took a taxi home, depleted and confused. Was he even a real person?
Life got harder in New York. My mother, living alone in Syracuse, was hospitalized with a perforated bowel. I had just worked up my courage on a phone call to tell him how scared I was to lose her, when his surf buddy knocked on his door.
Please don’t go. Choose me.
“Of course,” I said. “Have fun!”
I craved his support but wouldn’t break out of my role. Needs? Cool Girl didn’t have needs. Gross.
He called once a week from a landline. He didn’t believe in cell phones. I held my cell all February 14th, certain he’d call any minute. He didn’t. Later he remarked, “Hallmark holidays are such bullshit, right?”
But you’re my first Valentine.
“Total bullshit,” Cool Girl agreed.
Sarah saw through my story. “You’re not happy with him,” she said. “Stop being an idiot.”
[Sarah addresses camera.]
More like, “Stop being a fucking
I couldn’t explain how being his girlfriend made me exceptional. It sounded pathetic. There but for the grace of God, go I to the lacrosse practice.
A year into dating, I visited him in Ojai. We returned to the dive bar where we’d had our first kiss. He loaded up “Sweet Melissa” on the jukebox but was out back having a cigarette with strangers when it came on. I felt like a hollowed-out piñata.
A woman at the bar advertised palm readings for five dollars. I didn’t hesitate.
“Let’s see what we can see,” she said.
I placed my clammy, open-faced hand into hers.
“Hmm.” Her brows knit together as she traced a ridgeline.
“Is it bad?”
“You’ve got the Jupiter Mate Selector,” she whispered, like it was a tumor.
“You know, Jupiter, Roman god of the sky. Zeus to the Greeks.”
“You fall for powerful men. You put them up on a pedestal and keep yourself down low.”
“Is it terminal?” I joked.
Stone-faced, she folded my sweaty hand and gave it back to me.
“If you don’t believe that you’re just as powerful as the man you’re with, then you’ll be alone forever.”
My Cool Girl act proved that I didn’t feel like his equal. So I could either get real quick or break up with him. I chose the latter. Maybe I didn’t think he’d like my true neurotic self. Or I valued the preservation of my fairy tale over the actual relationship. Or I was just damn exhausted.
We went on one last backpacking trip in the Sierras. Distance was a perfect excuse. Nobody’s fault. “A good run.” I exited the union the way I’d entered, by suppressing my emotions and calling it strength. He told me how amazing I was, but I knew the truth. I didn’t cry until I was alone. What a fraud.
I consoled myself by expanding the story. I wasn’t another notch on his lipstick case — he was in pain too. No girl had broken up with him before! He’d start calling me The One That Got Away and flirt with me into our 80s. I’d smile and shrug — cool till the end.
He started dating someone a nanosecond later.
“I’m sure she’s great,” I told our mutual math teacher friend through a stiff smile.
Yet, his claim of wanting to stay friends seemed genuine. He set up times to talk on the phone during his brief interludes down from the Sierras that summer. Then he flaked every time. WTF? The dull ache in my chest tightened into something sharp.
Autumn came, still I waited, hating myself for it. I worked insane hours for low wages at an environmental nonprofit run by a sociopath. I hadn’t had sex in four months and all my first dates had flopped.
One afternoon I got a voicemail from him. Finally! But it was a pocket dial. (Now he gets a cell phone?!) A week later I rode the tide of commuters up from the Union Square subway station, buoyed and beaming. He’d left another message, surely a real one this time.
Nope. Another pocket dial. In it I heard Mountain Man coaching his lacrosse team. He sounded so happy and I was so miserable. The final indignity.
The dam that had held back my messy self for so long burst. I’m getting tossed out like yesterday’s trash? Hell no. NOBODY DOES COOL GIRL LIKE THIS!!
I scream-shouted my own voicemail, “Learn to use a fucking phone and delete my number!!” I hung up and put a hand over my mouth to block the sobs. The gray-black river of indistinguishable New Yorkers streamed past me on the sidewalk. I wasn’t exceptional anymore.
Nine years passed in New York. I wrote stories for money. Got rejected. Wrote more. My mom’s health worsened. Then improved. Then worsened again. I dated a police officer, a tech entrepreneur, a newspaper man. Sarah and I upgraded to a “garden-level” apartment. I had pigeons in an air shaft outside my bedroom and Sarah had a dumpster full of mice outside hers. At least the vermin were outside now.
Sometimes, especially in summer, I’d squint my eyes and see Mountain Man on the poster of Mount Langley above my bed, climbing the ridgeline. So small, only I could see him. While I never opened his box of letters and pressed flowers under my bed, I didn’t throw it away either. My longing, in a pocket for you.
I spent my life’s savings to create a film that sold to Showtime. For once I hadn’t sought anyone else’s permission. I’d leaned back, jumped into a flip, and stuck the landing on my own. I decided to move to Los Angeles, though leaving Sarah was like leaving behind a limb.
I hadn’t spoken to Mountain Man in almost a decade. Missing him and missing the mountains felt the same — a tug to abandon acceptable society and get dirty. I considered reaching out to him. I’d done hard things. I was stronger now — his equal, right? Maybe it could work?
I’ll be my 100 percent true self this time.
I believed it, too.
[Orchestral music swells. A narrator speaks.]
The lovers reunite in the wilderness.
Older. Wiser. Only now can they truly —
“Aren’t there like, other mountains in California?” Sarah interrupted my reverie, eating peanut butter out of the jar. She’d never bought into Mountain Man’s charms.
Mountain Man answered my email with a warmth that made my entire body blush. He welcomed me for a weekend at the school’s camp in the Sierras. I knew the location under Mount Langley well; I’d led student trips there. We’d rendezvous at the parking lot trailhead in three weeks. I’d join a group of alumni who were vacationing at the school’s camp. Their burro train would be easy to spot with Mountain Man at the helm.
I let Sarah keep all of our furniture, and she helped me pack my books and wardrobe into Goldmember, my secondhand Subaru. “If I catch you wearing Birks,” she warned, “I’m bringing you back.”
I drove alone from New York to Los Angeles in a daze of possibility. I was about to start telling stories for a living in the City of Angels. Who knew what might spark between Mountain Man and me under the stars? I wandered through story castles in my mind as miles of Midwestern corn flew past my window.
I awoke on a bright August morning in Silver Lake. My friend Adam was letting me crash in his converted garage until I found my new home in L.A. Today was the day. Butterflies danced up my thighs but Cool Girl was back and took charge. I pulled on new Patagonia shorts I couldn’t afford, laid down in the garden and rolled around in the dirt.
“Whatcha doing?” Adam asked from the kitchen window, bleary-eyed in boxers, coffee in hand.
“Gotta rough ’em up,” I explained. “Can’t look too new.”
He cocked an eyebrow.
I debated the merits of cowboy hat versus baseball cap in the bathroom mirror for 20 minutes. Then I painstakingly applied no-makeup makeup: professional grade mascara, concealer, tinted SPF and bronzer — camouflage to the untrained male eye. Why, Cool Girl hadn’t aged a day.
I hit the road late. No matter, I could make up the time on the five-hour drive. Goldmember bombed through the scorching Mojave Desert, past Joshua trees, Death Valley, and the dried-up salt of Owen’s Lake — grim tribute to the unnatural thirst of Los Angeles — into the Inyo National Forest. I climbed the precarious switchbacks, well-known to wilderness junkies and location scouts, into the mighty Sierras, youngest mountain range in the United States. Impossibly young, like me.
I shout-sang to the radio until it fuzzed out. My ears popped as I dodged fallen rocks with one hand and called Mountain Man with the other. There were no guardrails and the road narrowed to a blind turn, above a thousand-foot drop-off.
It went to voicemail. “It’s me,” I said, buzzing with adrenaline, “I’m a little late. No need to wait — I’ll walk myself into camp!” Cool Girl knew the way.
I arrived at the sprawling parking area, dotted with dozens of trailheads. Goldmember quickly found the right one. Mountain Man and the alumni had departed. Fresh burro tracks crowded the trail. Fair enough, I was 20 minutes late.
The midafternoon sky was hard and bright as a marble. I reapplied no-makeup mascara and started down the trail, recognizing trees and streams as I passed. Cocky about my sense of direction, I stopped to meditate on a felled trunk, freebasing sunshine and alpine air.
I’ll catch up to them in 30 minutes, tops.
Hours later, I climbed a grueling series of switchbacks as sunlight narrowed to a thin ribbon over the saddle. My mascara had fallen into racoon eyes. I distracted myself from my gnawing hunger by rehearsing my opening line to Mountain Man.
[Cool Girl, dressed in trench coat and fedora, addresses camera.]
(as Humphrey Bogart)
Say, what’s a girl gotta do to
get a drink around here?
I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. No problem, I’d see Mount Langley from the top of the pass and the camp beneath it. There’d be a full spread waiting.
S-I-S-U, S-I-S-U … I repeated the old mantra on a loop in my head.
Sweat-drenched and huffing, I made it to the saddle and looked out upon the long-shadowed wilderness. No Langley.
The trusty burro tracks were still there. I scurried down the opposite slope into the gloaming. Raindrops pinged my bare arms but there was a lake up ahead that I recognized. Just a little farther.
Night ambushed me. Total blackness. My instinct was to yell, “Not funny, guys!” as if that might bring up the house lights. I balanced my pack on a rock, hands trembling as I fumbled with an ancient headlamp mummified by duct tape. I didn’t notice that the sleeping bag at the bottom of my pack was getting soused in a puddle. Was I shaking because of the cold or my nerves? The rain intensified. Just a little farther.
Tharump-tharump-tharump! A mountain lion pounded down the ridgeline behind me, jumped with jaws wide, ready to rip into my flesh — I whipped around, hiking poles braced. Nothing. It was only the sound of my own heart, trying to beat its way out of my ears.
Nausea washed over me. I knew the hypothermia risk of sleeping out in precipitation. I was at the tree line, 12,000-foot elevation, which meant near freezing temperatures, even in August.
Is this a joke? Donner, party of one? I wandered aimlessly now. Just a little farther.
My story mind grew emboldened. A voice spoke up like my personal HAL 9000, “DON’T PANIC … DON’T PANIC … PANIC … PANIC … ”
“Stop that!” I hissed, sounding like the homeless man who used to wander around my block.
Maybe Mountain Man can hear me from here. I released a high-pitched cry into the wild dark.
“YOOO-UUUU!! … YOOO-UUUU!!”
Up and down the ridgeline I paced, redoubling my ragged cries.
Then I heard it — a faint, deep voice across the lake. I shouted Mountain Man’s name from the deepest place inside me.
“HEY!” the voice rang back. Relief, pure and sweet, dropped through me. I was already in that warm cabin, laughing it off—
“SHUT UP!” the voice said. Not. Mountain. Man.
Should I shout again? What if he’s a serial mountain rapist ready to cast me in a gritty reboot of Deliverance?
Weary, I hunkered down with my wet sleeping bag and used my dirty sneaker as a pillow. Dankness soaked into my bones. My knee throbbed. I couldn’t stop shaking. I began sit-ups to generate body heat as hail pummeled my face.
If I die, I’m gonna haunt Serial Mountain Rapist’s ass for eternity.
[A movie trailer voice-over interjects.]
She’s a vigilante specter with nothing
to lose. He’s the dick across the lake
who couldn’t be bothered. GHOST JUSTICE,
coming to CBS this fall.
I closed my eyes for short, drowsy intervals, and opened them mechanically, as if triggered by the slow, audible click of a lever behind my ear. The view changed a little bit each time. Hazy, no stars. Then a low, drippy moon. Then faint white pinpricks everywhere.
Click. I opened my eyes again to find a clear-eyed moon bearing down on me like an interrogation lamp. I threw myself upon its mercy.
I confess. I’m here because I took too long putting on my Cool Girl bullshit costume. I was trying to impress an asshole who couldn’t wait 20 fucking minutes after TEN YEARS. I understand the story now. It’s a cautionary tale. Let me survive this and I’ll drop Cool Girl forever. Please.
Click. I opened my eyes wide to take in thousands of stars, a dusting of cosmic sugar that extended beyond my periphery, brilliant and twinkling.
There was something new — bright white lines drawn around constellations, like the poster on my sister’s childhood bedroom door. HAL narrated, “ANDROMEDA, THE BEAR, CASSIOPEIA … ”
I didn’t know that I knew the names of these constellations — sweet!
HAL continued, “PEGASUS, SAGITTARIUS … ” It was a movie screen in the sky.
Wait a second.
Revelation punctured my woozy delight. What I was seeing wasn’t real. I shook myself upright and pinched my arm. Snap out of it, Johnson! But the shapes didn’t go anywhere.
I squeezed my eyes shut and laid back down.
It’s OK — just a little stress hallucination. Deep cleansing breath. I’ll open my eyes and the shapes will be gone.
I reopened one millimeter at a time.
Nope. Still there.
I locked my eyes shut. A frantic sparrow was trapped inside my head, flying room to room, bloodying itself against every window — looking for the way out.
It was a long sleepless wait before I dared to open my eyes again. The stars were gone now, and I watched the sky change from black to indigo to pink, like a bruise healing. I rose, quaking as a colt. Everything hurt. The muscles around my knee spasmed. My lungs worked for every breath in the oxygen-depleted air.
On the far side of the lake I spied campers packing for departure. I shuffle-ran toward them, legs screaming, desperate to make it before they left. They were just below me when I realized this must be Serial Mountain Rapist and friends.
Just be as polite as possible.
“Beg your pardon!” It came out in a British accent. That’s weird. My survival instincts had turned thespian. Six grave, bearded mugs turned to face me in unison. Bloody ’ell.
“I appear to be in a bit of a pickle. Might you have a map?”
They were a group of fathers and sons from San Diego and were horrified to hear that I’d spent the night exposed to the hail and rain. I inhaled three bags of their M&Ms and two Nature Valley bars. They were hiking out today and encouraged me to join them.
Their map showed that I was nine miles and 2,000 feet up in the wrong direction. I’d confused the Cottonwood Pass Trail with the Cottonwood Lakes Trail and recognized landmarks because I’d taken trips of students out on this route. I’d been wrong from the first step.
I toed the back of the line with the eldest father. We settled into a meditative cadence. The others got farther ahead.
“You know that camp I was headed to?”
“Yes?” the father said.
“It’s run by my ex-boyfriend. Haven’t seen him in 10 years.”
“That’s a long time.”
“Yeah.” I paused. “The good part is, bet he hasn’t noticed that I haven’t arrived yet. Or he thinks I’m coming tomorrow, or whatever.” I forced a laugh.
“Maybe,” the father said, “or maybe he’s really worried about you.”
“No,” I said, “not this guy.”
Fathers aren’t big on tears in my experience. I’d never seen my dad cry. Misty-eyed once, when his sister died. But never cry. He’d requested two things for his eulogy, which we both knew I’d be writing. First say, “Not bad for a poor Finnish boy from Quincy, Mass.,” and second, “Don’t go crying and carrying on.” He was the original Jupiter. While Sarah and my older sister, Toby, fell apart next to me at the lectern, and my mom sobbed in her pew, I held steady. My tribute. Don’t show your feelings. Be cool.
I was glad to be ahead of this father, single-file, so he couldn’t see my wet face.
The day was late back at the trailhead parking lot. I slumped in Goldmember’s hatchback, sorting through wet clothes. Hair ratty, makeup frightful, I was downwind from the public toilets and too spent to move. Portrait of The Uncool.
A school van rolled towards me.
“Melissa Johnson,” a serious voice said, “everyone is looking for you.”
Bearded, older, but those unmistakable eyes. Mountain Man.
He sounded pissed — his voice, low and even. I’d never seen him like this. Then I realized — I’d scared him. The unflappable guy, flapped.
“I got lost,” I said in a soft voice. He got out of the van. We embraced.
He had waited for me at the correct trailhead, five minutes away, until nightfall. Then he’d sent out the call. State troopers were looking for me on the highways; park rangers were searching in the mountains; student workers from the camp were scouring the trails — a full-scale search-and-rescue operation. His backpack held an emergency oxygen tank.
He’d used his satellite phone to track down our math teacher friend who had, in turn, called the headmaster on vacation in Wyoming, my friend Adam in Silver Lake, my former boss in Oakland — and Sarah.
We drove to a nearby vista so I could call Sarah. She screamed to the point of squeaking.
“You are an ASSHOLE! I thought you were DEAD!”
My tongue was thick with shame. This was the worst thing I’d ever done, to the person who loved me the most. She’d been on her way to tell Mom that there had been no sign of me for 24 hours. It was worse than the search for me in the White Mountains, because she knew I was alone.
“Enjoy this trip because YOU ARE NEVER GOING CAMPING AGAIN, ASSHOLE!”
To this day when this story comes up, Sarah leaves the room.
Mountain Man and I walked to the camp from the correct trailhead. It took 45 minutes. I looked up at Mount Langley — eternal and unchangeable to a small human.
We sipped tequila that night in his cabin.
“After we broke up, I missed you so bad. Thought we’d be friends. All this hard stuff was happening. I couldn’t understand why you just … dropped me. You were a real shit.”
My body trembled. I’d never been so forthright.
“What?” His face fell. “You told me to delete your number. You didn’t want to have anything to do with me. Why didn’t you tell me?!”
Why didn’t I tell him?
Turns out, I’m the hero of this story and also the villain. In my search for a romantic lead, I’d replaced him with a totem. Mountain Man neither possessed nor could tolerate weakness. But his real name was Gabe. He wasn’t a god out of Roman mythology. He was born in Reno with a clubfoot to parents who got divorced. He’d failed to graduate college and went back years later. He was self-conscious about his hairy back. Clean arcs resist messy details.
“The way you live your life apart, I realized you don’t need people,” I insisted.
“That’s not true. I absolutely need people.”
No, he didn’t need people! It was a pillar of my story. But then he opened up about his own bone-crushing loneliness after his last breakup. It had been drawn out, ugly, emotional — an altogether human affair. I felt the hurt radiating off his body. I couldn’t hide from the deeper, more painful truth —
You didn’t need me.
The words sat heavy in my mouth. I ached to say them, to drop the Cool Girl mask for good. Vulnerability is death. Yet lack of vulnerability is also death. What a rotten trap! I wanted to shout back at the voice in the wilderness that had told me to shut up. I wanted to sob at the lectern. I wanted to be messy and real and loved for it all.
But I choked. I filled my mouth with tequila instead.
“I would have gone up every trail,” he said, “followed the road all the way back to Los Angeles to find you.” My heart split in two and fell to the ground.
All my stories had been wrong.
I’d picked the wrong map, gone down the wrong trail and reassured myself with misinterpreted data points that I was going the right way. I’d been wrong from the first step.
Later that evening, I lay snug in the open meadow under bountiful stars. No white lines tonight, only Gabe’s red laser pointer naming constellations. Middle-aged alums had returned to see the stars they’d known as kids, to feel young again in the seeing.
Andromeda was about to be eaten by a sea monster. Callisto was transformed into The Bear so Zeus could hide her from his wife. Virgo, daughter of Demeter, was stolen by Hades. Ancient poets and wandering minstrels flung these stories about women upon flaming balls of hydrogen and helium — so they could feel less alone in the dark night.
We hope our stories will protect us from sailing off the edge of the earth, or the unpredictability of the harvest, or loving someone who doesn’t love us back. Our toy swords against the dragon.
The rest of the weekend was full of hikes, hammocks, and music around the campfire. I reminded Gabe of that first fire he’d made at the school assembly.
“God, that was so embarrassing,” he confessed, “when I couldn’t get it to light.”
What? I stared at him. Exactly how different had our stories been over the years?
What if neither of us was right? What if both of us were right? What if all the stories were true and untrue? What if we could experience the multitude of competing narratives at once — and enter the Spider-verse like a god, like Jupiter?
[Characters address camera in montage format.]
It was like watching two superheroes
He was a garden-variety dilettante with
an REI card. And his beard was gross.
HIS COLLEGE GIRLFRIEND
Have you seen him play lacrosse?
I mean, I’m a happily married woman —
but for a chance with her … ?
(whistles through teeth)
VANILLA ICE CREAM CONE
I never met a mouth I liked more.
I predicted the whole thing.
I’m the one who insisted that he start
the search party.
She came back to see the mountains.
She didn’t come back to see me.
When the time came for me to return to L.A., Gabe invited me to join a river rafting trip with him and two ranger buddies deeper into the wild. They were bringing homebrew and a yeti costume.
“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” he said.
Indeed, it was. Manbrosia flooded my senses.
“So?” he shrugged with a devilish smile. All creatures in his gravitational orbit bent toward him. I felt the pull and leaned away.
He is the guy. He’s not the guy. He’ll always be the guy. He never was the guy.
I could hold all of the stories at once, devour them in a mouthful. They swirled together in my magnificent round belly. There was no past and no future here. Nowhere else to be. I felt my life force expanding in a primordial storm. I was the descendant of supernovas.
“What’s it gonna be?” he asked.
I had thought that becoming his equal would mean that we’d be together. I was wrong.
I have a life to go build.
“I have a life to go build.”