The road purred beneath us. I sipped from the Styrofoam cup, the bitter coffee stinging my lip. We’d each taken a napkin full of baby muffins and packets of jelly from the continental breakfast buffet, a single cart with a maroon cloth in the motel lobby. The plan was to snack in the car, make it to the national park by ten and pack a picnic lunch from whatever was offered in the commissary.
I lay a hand on Heather’s bare knee. Her flesh was still warm from the shower and faintly swollen from being rubbed dry. She covered my hand gently with her fingers, like she’d caught a butterfly.
“You don’t think it’ll rain, do you?” she said.
Like many who migrate north of the Mason-Dixon, Heather had learned to shear away her native lilt. She’d felt it was a social liability, which it probably would have been. It was no secret that Americans, even southerners, slackened their speech to a drawl when impersonating morons and bigots. Rednecks were the last stereotype it was still politically correct to make fun of, Heather was fond of noting. But it was a double standard she bought into despite herself. It was only when she let her guard down that the inner belle rose to the surface. After a third drink, or when she raised her voice to be heard over a spotty cell phone reception, little slippages would betray a contour of that hidden cadence, a single violinist lagging slightly behind the rest of the orchestra. I relished them almost as orientalisms, hints of the foreign and ill-understood.
Another thing I exoticised but didn’t quite understand was the religious thing. Heather was a believer. She prayed nightly, attended church, read Bible stories to her son. I could never remember which denomination she subscribed to—something in the Jesus phylum—but since my secularism remained as incomprehensible to her as her faith was to me, our tacit agreement was to avoid the subject of religion altogether. This provided a dual function, both as an intellectual quarantine—a no-fly-zone for potential disputes—and an insulating element, ensuring a preserve of romantic mystique. Maybe every relationship requires safety measures of one form or another, police tape, decompression chambers. I don’t know.
We stopped at a broad, yellow and white gas station, surreally out of place in the barren plain. Heather ran in to pee while I nursed the rental car full of overpriced gas.
In all honesty, I hadn’t actually been looking forward to our day trip. The weekend away from home, absolutely; the unfettered access to Heather, the safety and neutrality of the locale—this I liked—not so much the actual bugs and backpacks and special shoes.
But then something clicked. I don’t know if it was the stench of the gasoline or the goofy, upbeat song that was pumping through the speakers or what, I just suddenly got into it. It made sense, the whole adventure. I was in alright shape for forty-eight, despite the girth of my midsection. And Heather, she looked at least a decade younger—almost a teenager!—with her little khaki shorts and her ponytail. In the distance you could see the hazy etch of mountains backlit by the eastern sun, a lusterless crumble of charcoal and ash, and I wanted to be there. Where that was, exactly, I couldn’t say. Gabriel Park supposedly spread through several states, each with a dozen-odd entrances, and once we got inside it wouldn’t much matter anyway. Utah, Wyoming, Idaho—it was all just West.
Heather came trotting back from the mart with two bottles of Vitamin Water.
“What are you smiling at,” she said.
“What,” I said.
She looked up at the lambent sky, a shiny, white tooth of light in each of her brown eyes.
I only know one other guy who’s had an affair, Don, a cardiologist. Or rather, only one guy who’s told me about having an affair. He said it was just like the movies: you fall madly in love with some nubile thing and just as madly out of love with your companion, until reality sets in and your erotic escapade drizzles into the untenable phantasm it always was.
For me it wasn’t like that. Half of it was the requisite debauchery, the room service, the small, ribboned boxes, the plucking of long strands of red hair from my lapels—all the accoutrement of infidelity—and half was the attendant self-recrimination, which paradoxically forced me to be a more attentive husband in other ways.
Heather and I met the previous summer when she’d brought her five year-old son in for a consultation. The kid had intermittent strabismus and had been put through the standard treatments—the patch, the drops, the prisms—all to no avail. She didn’t want him growing up cross-eyed, naturally, and her ex was a corporate lawyer with enough dough to cover the corrective surgery. (She’d even included “Esq.” after his name, rather gauchely, I thought, on the insurance form.) I goofed around a bit in the office, making faces and such—I’m not weirded out by kids the way other docs are—and each time her son giggled she would blush.
Weeks later, during the actual surgery, I made an unusual number of visits to lonely, lovely Heather in the waiting room. A fretful parent, she responded with something like servile gratitude each time I brought her tea and an optimistic update. It was irresistible. I could see myself becoming in her eyes everything the boy’s father wasn’t, and for a man some years past his prime (salty beard, loosened belt) to be mythologized this way, even as a mere symbol or placeholder, was enough to tap a dormant narcissism and anneal a wicked desire.
Lydia, my wife, was essentially anhedonic. She loved her family, our children. She loved her work, good books, the company of friends, but had never developed an appetite for the strictly sensual pleasures. It just wasn’t in her. Food was either edible or inedible. Music was something you put on if you were entertaining guests. Advil was a controlled substance. Sex was an activity you performed to get rid of the feeling of wanting to have sex. This had always been extraterrestrial to me, and my long-held hope that Lydia would learn to take pleasure in her body—and, by extension, mine—eventually calcified to a state of exhaustion and resentment. I came to feel like a graying submariner, who, after decades of combing the ocean’s depths for a sunken galleon or an exotic sea dweller, simply returns ashore thankful that at least he didn’t have to deal with traffic.
In this sense, Heather was the best thing to happen to my marriage in years. I was no longer punishing Lydia for my frustration. Whatever guilt I endured (or feigned to endure) over my mistress ricocheted into tenderness for my wife by way of atonement, enabling me, yes, to rediscover everything I’d been spitefully neglecting. So call it a vicious cycle, but it worked okay, so long as Lydia never found an incriminating receipt in the laundry and Heather never asked me to get a divorce.
Colors were popping out like Kodachrome as we ascended the long, rocky slope. The surrounding earth was barnacled with a crush of volcanic shale, rusty and flecked with silver.
We reached the perimeter slightly later than we’d hoped, and Heather was antsy, legs jiggling. I liked this about her, her propensity for excitement as well as frustration. Proof she was alive. The booth was manned by a diminutive park ranger, no older than twenty-three, in what looked like a cub scout uniform, olive green fedora, slate grey button-down.
“Welcome to Gabriel,” he said as we pulled up to the entrance. His neck was blistery with shaving scars. “Where you headed?”
“We were hoping to make it to the chasm. Think we can make it there and back in a day?”
The gate before us was a single wooden rod. It creaked wearily in the wind.
“Depends. You’d have to take the direct trail, which is more strenuous, goes down steep and fast, not the ones that loop around.”
I looked to Heather, who nodded back to me.
“You could do it,” the ranger added, almost conspiratorially. “Lemme show you.”
The ranger produced a shiny pocket map and unfolded it for us. Sunlight fell brightly on certain panels, leaving the others in shadow like a checkerboard. “We’re here,” he said, indicating a white circle on the bottom right. “The chasm, that’s up here.” He tapped a spot towards the center, a brownish blob dotted with little symbols, triangles and such. A single blue line, Gabriel River, crawled down from the north and spidered out into gnarls, some pooling into larger, darker blobs. “What you want to do is drive along this road until it feeds you into the southeast lodge, park there, and follow the path marked with a purple diamond.”
“Right,” I said.
Heather fluttered her fingers. “Purple diamond,” she said with an accent that wasn’t any particular accent. “Follow the purple diamond.”
The road narrowed to a sort of trough, a recessed bed of reddish dirt banked by withering sedges. Clouds were just above us, clotted furls of white. How high were we above sea level?
“It says not to approach the bison,” said Heather, leafing through the guide book.
“Good to know.”
As the path leveled out over the hill you could see, beneath us and to the west, a massive stretch of charred land. I remembered reading about this a while back, a fire that had ravaged something like 400 acres of forestry. The earth was crusted with soot, the trees nothing more than blackened stems.
“It says that if we see a hyena or a jackal,” Heather continued, “the best thing to do is make a lot of noise and throw stuff at it.”
“Throw stuff at it.”
Once we’d found the lodge, we stuffed our backpacks with nuts and fruit and gallons of Poland Spring from the adjoining commissary. The water was heavy. I could feel it glugging and splashing against my spine with each step. Other hikers meandered about in distinct groups—Germans in pastel windbreakers, flushed Midwesterners with fanny packs. I basked in the anonymity: were we not just one more couple in a flux of travelers? No one here knew me as a fancy-pants ophthalmologist, the leading eye surgeon at Mass General, former policy advisor to Clinton’s public health initiative. No one would see me with Heather and presume I was cheating on my wife back home. In allowing ourselves to be perceived, we became invisible.
Outside, an aluminum rail sectioned off the gravel parking lot. There were several lookout points marked with wooden signs indicating the direction of each trail below. We followed the appropriate arrows along the ledge to a cleft, beyond which the dioramic expanse of Gabriel Valley hung like an apparition. You couldn’t take it in at once: every angle filled the eye. The sprawling shelf of rock before us slid down to a nest of succeeding plateaus, each a shade darker and redder, the furthest of which broke off into a cramped, woodsy slope before vanishing behind another cliff. In the distance, miles of beige grass laced the terrain, swaying in waves.
In very little time at all, my ankles were sore. I’d forgotten how taxing a downwards hike could be; you had to constantly angle your feet to resist the body’s inclination to go with gravity. My white socks were already chalked with rust-colored dirt. Heather offered me a slice of her orange. I declined.
The unmistakable scent of rotten eggs wafted diffusely into the air. It was incongruous with the other smells, dust, crushed grass, the tang of drying mule shit.
“What is that?”
“Probably one of the geysers,” said Heather. She pulled out the guide from her hip pocket and scanned the symbols. “Yup, there’s supposed to be one up ahead. Wanna see?”
Distant voices, or traces of them, split across the ravine in blunted monosyllables.
“What is it, exactly?”
“Like a hot spring. Like a rip in the earth with all this underground gook shooting out.”
“Do we have time?”
“We’re practically there,” she said.
As the path unspooled around a hillock, more voices became audible. A scattered crowd stood about in a sandy clearing. Bitten into the earth was a gaping, blue-green cleft dusted with rime. It looked positively demonic. White steam plumed from its foamy mouth, hissing and sizzling. The sulfuric stench was this close to unbearable.
“‘The underground water channels are heated to a boiling point by currents of magma,'” Heather recited, “‘and the resulting pressure causes the superheated water to erupt from the column.'”
Waves of subterranean heat gusted over us with startling force. The spectators gazed silently, camcorders whirring, as if the geyser itself were some sort of performer. Tripods were adjusted, cellphones held at arms length. A kid stomped, splay-footed in circles, grunting—as good a place as any to be a dinosaur.
I looked out past the clearing into the rift below, where a thin river flickered in the sun. There was still a shakiness to my vision. As a surgeon, I spent a good deal of my life concentrating on the very small, peeling away silky membranes and stitching gummy flaps of tissue; my eyes were now having trouble adapting to the width and depth of things. I could feel my visual cortex searching for its footing in this new terrain, approximating relative distances, discerning occlusions, parsing out information in tiny electrical spurts. I kept mistaking near for far, as one does with picture-book illusions, distant cliffs for rocky overhangs ten feet away.
“Did you know they have geysers on other planets?” said Heather, still absorbed in the guide.
“We should keep moving,” I said.
“Nitrogen deposits on Neptune.”
Downwards, downwards, steep and fast, like the ranger said. I sipped from my long tube of water, which was by now pretty warm. The midday light fell across the gorge in a peculiar distended fashion, drooping down like it had its own shape, its own thing going on. Every time you looked up something would be different, a new dent in the shadows, another morphological flexion. The sheer range of hues, again, was almost too much for the eye to swallow. Ruddy flesh tones sweeping into the meteoric violet. Flakes of chrome sediment crusted to the blister-pink scarp. Following the tangled contours made me dizzy, so I mostly kept my eyes fixed on the ground in front of me.
At least an hour passed before we came to the fork. The trail split in two, one continuing into the scorched valley, the other disappearing into the chasm proper. Another wooden sign indicated the corresponding symbols, as if there could be any doubt as to which was the more difficult. A swift shiver of boyish nervousness came over me as I peered over the lip. It felt as if I were standing at the edge of a tall, wobbly diving board, psyching myself up for the plunge.
“Last chance,” I said. Evidently, the strategy was to pretend to be the adventurous one, assume the posture of stoicism to countermand my cowardice. If she believed it, maybe I would, too.
Heather led the descent.
The purple diamond trail was narrower, more unkempt than the last. It cut down the chasm in zigzags, clever slashes in the tectonic bulk. Corners had to be approached by sidestep; balance was of singular importance.
“Feel that in your calves?” said Heather.
“And my knees and my back,” I said.
The air was noticeably cooler, though the tall sunlight stung the flesh. I didn’t think to bring lotion. I never did. Total commitment to a plan had always been a problem for me; I was an incurable dabbler, a dipper of feet. It was a quality I shared with Lydia, a Sunday morning type of gal, a real homebody. Part of the attraction to Heather was that she was, by contrast, super gung-ho about stuff. She was, as I say, a believer: she went into things all the way or not at all. The world fit her, and she it. Our trip to St. Thomas, for instance, had her in full snorkeling regalia, not at all self-conscious in her giant flippers and goggles, combing the reefs wide-eyed and giddy. The bedroom she treated with the same euphoric abandon she did her other escapes, a huntress on the scent, and knowing this I couldn’t help but read a sliver of naughtiness into her every otherwise innocent display of pleasure. The way she’d moan almost imperceptibly as she savored the taste of a roasted beet, the way her eyes glittered at the suggestion of a clandestine sojourn or a second bottle of wine.
A group of upward bound backpackers huffed past us, hardcore travelers who’d undoubtedly camped out the previous night. One of them, a fifteen-year-old girl with a red bandana, cast what could only be described as an incriminating glance my way. I knew that look. It was the same expression my daughter would make if she thought I was bluffing at cards. The half-raised eyebrow, the shrewdly pinched bottom lip. How did she know?
Eventually, my appetite got the better of me, and I suggested we find a spot to eat. Down beyond a wide patch of knee-high bushes, roughly fifty yards off the trail, was a protruding boulder with a smooth, rounded top like a whale’s head. We followed a winding deer path, a slender impression in the dirt, across the incline. It was more difficult than it looked. We held hands to keep our balance; each step was a potential sprained ankle.
“Into the boosh,” said Heather in girlish sing-song, stepping over lumps of sedges. “Deep, deep in the boosh.”
The smells seemed amplified here, the olfactory equivalent of putting on reading glasses. Cooked earth, straw, truffles. Something faintly brackish that drifted in and out of focus, probably the river. The combination of scents reminded me instantly of childhood, not of any particular scene, just a wash of summer and wind and dust and running.
We climbed the boulder and set up our picnic. The sun was back behind the cliff, allowing us an ample margin of shade. Having been on the move for hours, it was only now that I could assess my own fatigue, something you lose sight of when you’re caught in the rhythms of a hike. I felt vaguely motion-sick.
“It’s like After Apple-Picking,” I said. “That Frost poem.”
“Hmm?” Heather sat cross-legged, pinching a packet of vinaigrette onto her salad.
“The one where he describes going to sleep and remembering the day he’d spent picking apples, the ladder creaking under his feet, et cetera.”
“What’s like that.”
“Just, you know, the residual motion, how you can feel it in your legs after you’ve stopped moving. That downward pull.”
“Mm-hm.” She wasn’t really listening.
I bit into my chicken sandwich, studied the fractal weft of creases and ridges along the bank. Mineral deposits dribbled out of the crevices, whitish crystalline bulbs. Rolls of rock ebbed from a gouge like sand pleated by the receding tide: geological history collapsed to a single layer.
Heather’s face was again buried in the guidebook.
“Put that away,” I said.
“What,” she said.
“It just tells you that we’re here, and we know that.”
“Something in particular,” I spat, “or just the novelty of reading?”
Heather slapped the booklet down and glared at me. “You think I’m a kid,” she said, standing up abruptly. I reached for her hand but she yanked it away.
She bent down and began shoveling the spoils of her lunch into her backpack.
“Heather.” I lightened my tone. “I just wanted your attention. Come on, I didn’t mean anything.”
I got up to approach her.
“That’s how you get my attention? By insulting me?”
I put a hand on her shoulder, which stiffened at my touch. “Heather.” In the shade, her skin was unusually warm. I dropped my hand down to her back and traced slow figure-eights with my fingers, a thing I do. I felt her chest swell as she breathed in, releasing deeply. “Forgive an old goat.”
She shook her head, a sign of ironic pity. I stepped closer, placed my other hand on her hip. She gave an indignant huff, but it was clear she was softening. I dropped my forehead against her shoulder blade and nodded. I breathed in the signature Heather smell, the almonds and nectarines. She turned to face me, her lips oily with salad dressing. I put a thumb to her mouth and rubbed it clean.
What Heather feared was true: I did think of her as a kid. Of course I did. It was impossible not to. Her world was a queue of gratifications, each to be satisfied and subsequently forgotten. To some degree, this was a desirable quality in a lover—you could simply deliver these things or choose to withhold; either way, you knew the score, you knew what you were getting into. And there was a comfort to be found in keeping a hand on the rudder, guiding a person towards various satiations without having to worry about the larger voyage. But the flip side was that providing structure—whether through indulgence or manipulation—prolonged and encouraged her dependence, in effect sanctioning the behavior that most exasperated me. The machinery had a devilish logic. And at times I worried it might negate itself, collapsing inward, and I’d go down with the ship.
Soon we were in the cool grass. She lay prone over me, her weight roughly the force of a strong hug. Her breaths rose and fell in narrowing increments as my lips browsed the rim of her collarbone. An arid breeze eddied through the brush, in no particular direction.
Heather arched her spine as she reached to unclasp her bra. I tugged one strap down to the elbow, and she spilled out from her cup, a single pale breast like a gift unwrapped. Her loveliness in the drowsy shadows overwhelmed me, the way she sloped into form like the stem and bowl of a wine glass. I slid my hand down beneath her pelvic bone and watched as her lips parted, silently, and her eyes shut.
But then—rtrtrtrtrtrtrt-shkshkshkshk!—an abrasive grinding crackle sputtered from the weeds. Heather shrieked, rolling off of me. I scrambled to my feet to see a long, brown-splotched snake poised in a defensive position not two feet away, its head floating above the grass, jaws wide. My stomach froze. The pearl-colored rattle at the end of its tail stood erect and twitching. Ssshhhh-rtrtrttrtrt-shkskshk! Heather yelped again, scampering away in a twist of dust. My immediate instinct was to kill the thing, stomp on its neck and smash its skull with a rock; this was promptly quashed by a second impulse to act with extreme slowness and step back.
“It’s okay,” I whispered to Heather. “Sweetheart, baby, it’s okay. Just don’t make any sudden moves.” My heart thundered, I could feel my ribs shaking from the pressure.
“What the fuck, what the fuck…”
“It’s okay, sweetie, it doesn’t want to hurt us.” I extended my hand to Heather while keeping my eyes fixed on the rattlesnake’s. She reached to me, slowly, her breath tight. I hoisted her up; she was as light as my daughter.
The rush of adrenaline pulled the world into hyper-focus. Objects seemed embossed.
“We’re okay,” I said again, though it was more a question than a statement, and Heather nodded.
Keeping my eyes fixed on the snake, I walked Heather to a bank of trees not far away, her hand moist and trembling. I let out an audible breath and felt her fingers go limp.
“That was an adventure,” I said. My voice felt reassuringly strong, my heart rich with oxygenated blood.
The terror was still in me, a liquid springiness. In the moment, thoughts had stepped aside, nimble as a bullfighter, to allow my senses direct access to what was in front of me. But the strange spell began to bottom out as we stood in the sandy dell, regaining our composure. The acidic aftermath of shock seethed in my gut. My limbs felt leaden. Heather, half-naked and breathless, looked ridiculous. No one was around, at least to our knowledge, but I was embarrassed all the same, embarrassed for both of us—my waning erection pinched under the elastic of my underwear, Heather’s white tit flopping around as she brushed the dirt from her knees. It felt as though we were children caught in a verboten sexual curiosity, mortified with shame and guilt, only it was our own adult selves who had discovered us.
She nodded feebly, her head down as she buttoned her shirt.
“Maybe it just wanted to play,” I said. Heather shrugged, a tepid acknowledgment of my attempt to lighten the load. “What do you think? Should we go back and make up?” She sniffled this time, an almost-laugh. “You did say you wanted a pet.”
This was one of those times I appreciated her pliability; she was easily consoled.
We headed back towards the trail. The scalped hills looked leathery in the deepening shadows. Every few seconds I’d look over my shoulder. I couldn’t rid myself of the nightmarish feeling that the snake was still there, slithering silently behind us, catching up. What if one of us had been bitten? How would that have looked? How would we have gotten back? My mind shuffled through the possibilities, each of which fortified into bleaker and bleaker outcomes.
“Wait,” said Heather, stopping in her tracks.
“Is this the same path we took to the boulder?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know, as in you actually don’t know, or as in you think we’re going the wrong way?”
She looked over her shoulder, then up at the cliff, then back to me.
“We got turned around,” she said.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, this is definitely the wrong way.” Her accent was growing steadily more pronounced.
She could easily have been right. Everything was sort of a blur after the encounter with the rattlesnake. We began retracing our steps, but after ten minutes the landscape looked no more or less familiar than anything else. Where was the boulder? Where was the glade of trees? Could we have taken two wrong turns?
“This feels weird. I’m getting that weird lost feeling.”
I looked around, mentally redrawing the route we’d taken. Earlier, the sun had been directly above us as we followed the trail downwards, and now it was narrowing towards the cliffs, our ten o’ clock. Which meant that left and up faced westward, right and down faced eastward, and straight ahead, across the incline, pointed due north—exactly the direction we did not want to go.
“Give me the guide.”
“Now you want the guide.”
Heather rummaged for the book in her backpack and handed it to me. The pages were sticky and sandy. I looked up the purple diamond trail in the index, flipped to the corresponding page, and followed the route to the closest determinable point on the grid, the fork above the chasm.
The trail was above us. It had to be. The river was now to our right, maybe sixty feet below, a glinting, reddish-brown blur. Up and to our left was a rocky overhang, gnarled with shrubbery and moss and stray roots. The only sure-fire way of getting back to the purple diamond, apparently, was to climb.
“Too steep?” I said. She looked up, then back at me, her forehead scrunched in disbelief. “It doesn’t look that bad,” I added.
“Look, this way we’re bound to hit the trail. Otherwise we could loop around all afternoon.”
“Forget it, that’s crazy.”
Ignoring her, I grabbed a cluster of roots and hoisted myself onto a wedge in the stone, both feet supported by a tuft of moss.
“Are you serious? You’re not serious.”
“We can do it,” I said, using my doctor’s voice, a firm yet patient tone I rarely got to use outside the office. I held my free hand out to her.
“What do I do? Where—?”
“One foot there, then I help you up and you grab that branch.”
“Heather, we climb.”
I liked being the leader. It was affirming to step into the skin of a more masculine fellow. Someone like my dad, the unimpeachable confidence, the stalwart stride.
We ascended, inexpertly. A scabby root bit into my palm as I yanked myself up towards the second ledge. My knee ached from grinding against the rock. Little fleeting pains here and there presented themselves like ideas.
“I can’t do this,” said Heather, matter-of-factly. “I can’t do it.”
“Sure, you can.”
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been in such an awkward physical position, limbs prostrate like a gecko, but it felt unexpectedly natural. My body seemed to know something I didn’t—it had unique access to some long-buried storehouse of boyhood contortions the rest of me had forgotten. Who knew that deep in the musculature lay a whole repository of once-familiar elasticities, all the undigested meat of memory?
“I’m telling you, I can’t make it up there,” Heather continued, between whimpers. “I don’t have the upper body strength.”
“I’ll help you, come on.”
“Are you hearing what I’m saying?” Her voice had an asthmatic hoarseness. A little stagy, it seemed to me.
“Take my hand.”
“I can’t reach.”
“I’m right here.”
“No, I mean I can’t. I pulled something. My rotator cuff is all fucky.” She demonstrated with a roll of her shoulder and a grimace.
“We’re almost at the ledge. Then it evens out and we can walk back up to the trail.”
“Aaaiiee,” she moaned, sucking in a breath through her teeth.
I was convinced this was an act.
“I’m getting down,” she said.
“Nope. Can’t do it.” She stepped herself back down and dropped to the knoll with a defeated sigh.
Her frailty and incompetence enraged me. I felt like a parent at wits end. For a moment I considered continuing upwards and letting Heather fend for herself.
“Ben, aren’t you coming?”
This far up, it was not easy scaling back down. I paddled my feet along a wall of dirt before finding another secure stone to support me. From there, I was able to lower myself into position while maintaining my balance with a sturdy branch. I swung my leg outwards and planted my weight onto a hard stump of some sort, then bent my knees to a squat, facing forward.
“Out of the way,” I said to Heather.
“You’re going to jump from there?”
“Move,” I barked, and tossed down my backpack.
She stepped to the side, squinting up at me. The grunt of an aging man escaped my lungs as I leaped to the grass below—it was mildly shocking to contend with the full mass of my body from an incline, to heave it into the air like a corpse off the dock. I landed squarely on the ground, one solid, dusty thud. My ankles and sacrum thrummed with fluid.
“Ooo, Sweetie, you okay?”
I nodded dismissively, wiped the sweat from my brow. It was when I reached down to pick up my backpack that the exhaustion took hold.
“Did you hurt yourself?”
Heather’s sympathy irked me. It wasn’t that she was being disingenuous, it was that she seemed to be using her concern as a sort of paltry reparation for having thwarted my heroic strategy.
“What do we do now?” she said.
“We go down.” I heard a taut, forthright quality in my tone that, again, reminded me of my father.
“What, all the way down?”
“The only other option was to climb up to the path, but we’re not doing that, are we. So we have to follow the river downstream.”
“Ben, what will that even do?”
“Look. The sun is there and it’s not even five.” I pointed towards the hills, through which rays of light protracted and split. “We have about two hours before it starts to get dark. Now, if we were on the trail, we could make it back before nightfall, but we’re not, so we have to do the next best thing, which is to hug the river until it meets up with one of the other paths. If we’re lucky, we might run into some hikers along the way, and they can direct us to the nearest route.”
Heather peered down towards the water below. Wind raked across its surface, a shiver of bluish gold.
We continued down the final grade, scanning the land before us with neurotic attention. With my gaze focused at the ground before me, a vision of home impinged itself on the backs of my eyes. It had occurred to me that if Heather and I didn’t make it to the motel tonight, we wouldn’t be able to fly back till Tuesday; lacking a cell phone connection, I’d have to invent another convoluted excuse as to why I wasn’t able to call in advance. The more I thought about it, the more panicked I became.
I imagined my wife glassy-eyed on the edge of our bed as I came clean and explained it all, how innocently it began with Heather—the budding friendship, the one fateful mistake—and even here, in the safety of confabulation, I was backpedaling, glossing over, condensing, omitting. It was fiction, I was writing fiction. The true, unexpurgated narrative was indefensible, the magnitude of my selfishness—not only the illicit intimacies themselves but the diabolic delight I’d taken in allowing myself to skirt the rules. It was part of the fetish. These criminal pleasures hinged on a presumption of expectation; without great responsibilities and allegiances, there was little satisfaction to be gained from violating them. Without marriage, there was no adultery. And with that paradigm of civility now imperiled, hovering dreamily beyond the cliffs, the whole adventure that was Heather whittled to a foamy glut, like medicine swirling down the drain.
The brush of thistles gave way to a tough shell, and the shell to a resilient alluvial cake. My equilibrium was slow to return as the floor leveled out beneath us; dimensions were still warped and leaning. Gabriel River trickled southward, just out of sight behind the rushes. We approached it with a curious sense of relief, as if it represented a finish line, which of course it didn’t.
“Thank God,” said Heather.
“What’s he got to do with it,” I grumbled.
But indeed the discovery seemed like a godsend. That we’d made it all the way down here without killing ourselves—or each other. The springy scent of the river bloused out over the embankment, a mesh of sweetness and sharpness. I could feel the coolness coming off the water as we reached its edge. Heather bent down and dipped her hand in, retracting it quickly like something had nipped her.
“Ooo—cold!” she yelped.
Such a primitive image, these two primates roaming the wilderness. Off and on, I felt I could sense my entire phylogenetic history coursing in my blood, the reptilian swamp-dweller, the omnivorous vertebrate, the carver of stone tools—the full continuum of adaptation.
“Did you feel that?” said Heather.
“Thought I felt a speckle of rain.”
“We checked, remember? The forecast said it wasn’t going to rain today.”
The darkening sky, however, told a different story. Within minutes, gunmetal clouds were frothing overhead, their broad shadows rolling over the earth like a carpet.
“Fuck,” said Heather. “Fuck, it can’t rain. How can it rain!?”
“Let’s stay positive,” I said, blandly.
I squinted into the distance, this way, that way. No one was around. There was no sign of a trail or a campsite or anything indicating a clear means of escape.
“Yup, that was definitely a raindrop,” she said. “And another.”
A light dust of moisture had gathered on my shoulders.
“You can see it, look.” She pointed down the river where a bough of mist seemed to connect the water to the sky. “It’s coming right through the chasm.”
I wondered whether I should shout for help. Had it come to that? If this was an impending flash flood, wouldn’t it have to come to that at some point? It wasn’t clear how frightened I should be. Something told me there was little to lose by overestimating the danger, but I couldn’t bring myself to make any display of vulnerability.
“A storm,” said Heather, deadpan. “We’re gonna be stuck in the chasm in a storm.”
My instinct was to ask her what she wanted me to do about it, but I said nothing.
“What the hell,” she said.
And that was the last intelligible sound I heard.
The grey maw approached with spectacular speed and force; in moments it was upon us, enveloping everything. It was as if we’d stepped into another world. Water was lacerating the earth by the ton; a thousand gallons in the blink of an eye. It snapped through the air and banged against the twin shelves of rock.
Heather screamed. It was a peculiar howl, not of shock or fright so much as incredulity. What is this terrible force? How did it spring on so suddenly?
I’d read somewhere that during the LA quake, a woman awoke to the shattering glass and insane rumbling and instantly assumed it was the apocalypse. She’d never believed in such things, but could think of no other possibility in those first harrowing seconds: this is the end of the world.
A savage wind slung the downpour one way, jerked it back another. The rain was not falling but being shoved down, purged from the sky. It mashed the dirt to a sludge. The pummeled surface of the river rose up like it was sizzling with steam. Soon, there was no differentiating the noise. I yelled to Heather to stay close, to keep holding my hand, but my voice was mostly lost in the rush of wind and rain.
She was shaking her head, eyes wide. I knew exactly what she was thinking. It was no exaggeration to say that things did not feel quite like reality. I’d been in altered states before, but this was different. All I could think to compare it to was the moment of waking from a dream—that inchoate slug of awareness in the mind—only drawn out, pushed further into the negative space.
Our visibility dissolved in tandem, or rather, transformed. It didn’t help that my glasses were fogged and speckled. Whatever existed beyond a dozen feet in front of us was a smear of platinum and pink. It was like we’d been dropped by plane into a contaminated area—a nuclear test site, an infected colony—the threat was all around, yet impossible to pinpoint.
I wiped my glasses. How quickly it had all happened! The few plinks of rain, the advancing fog, the mad enclosure. And here we were, out of bounds, steadying ourselves in the roiling wind.
It got stranger as we trudged forward, hands clasped, trying our best to follow the river as it slid into the murkiness. Nothing was what it was supposed to be. I looked up. The sky was a torn thing, a towering sheet of ruddled light. Heather shook her head again, this time with a curious half-grin, like the whole thing was too absurd to take seriously. Perhaps I was imagining it, that momentary sign of comic detachment, but it felt just right, the only correct response.
My fingers were losing their feeling. My shirt felt laminated to my chest.
Without so much as a thought, my previous concerns unplugged. What had been a mounting intolerance of Heather swiftly became an unconditional responsibility to care for her. My shame, my self-loathing, was not so much muted as irrelevant. There was the two of us and the great violent world and nothing else.
A slash of lightning tore through the fog, a split second of pure daylight. The thunder that followed a heartbeat later was so outrageous I thought I’d shit myself. Heather gasped, tightening her slippery grip. A redolence of ozone filled the air—a scent somewhere between damp morning soil and freshly printed paper from a copier. The luminous discharge left an after-burn in my vision, and when I blinked it reappeared again and again, a branching fortification like cracks in an ice cube. But for that one moment I’d glimpsed a sizable cleft wedged into the sheet of stone just across the river.
“Did you see that?” I shouted.
She pointed towards the spot to confirm. We stepped into the river, whose temperature was less arctic than we’d expected. Our ankles and feet had been numb for some time, and the river water was just a more thorough version of the frigid rain that had already soaked through our socks. The shock came when the water rode up to our calves; each lick and splash prompted another yelp from one of us, another falsetto obscenity. The river was shallow, however, and we were able to make it to the other end without sinking beneath our knees.
From there we jogged to the crevice, a wide, shoulder-height gouge. It was a good cover. It looked like it was crafted for this very purpose. We ducked into the shallow little cave which was luxuriously dry, untouched by the storm. The rounded walls had the texture of something scooped-out, as if from a fresh box of ice-cream. We kicked off our shoes, peeled off our socks. I felt the urge to make a joke of some sort. There was clearly humor in this. I just couldn’t pull my wits together to coax it out.
In the relative calm we felt disembodied. The clamor rang in our ears. Aches sprang up across our tight thighs and calves, but they were more like premonitions of the burn we’d surely feel the next day than pains-in-themselves. The shale was pleasantly warm, perhaps from the water channels below, various frictions and ventings. There was a tincture of that eggy smell we’d encountered hours earlier at the geyser, only muffled.
We stripped to our underwear and spread out our sopping clothes across the inclined wall. Bodiless and mismatched, they looked like petroglyphs, broken dancing figures incised into the slate.
We lay against the cramped walls opposite one another. I took Heather’s foot in my hand and rubbed her heel. A saggy smile appeared on her face.
I picked up the guidebook, which was now damp and blotted. It reminded me of the toys I’d play with at my next door neighbor’s house as a kid, how those action figures always seemed so much more authentically battle-worn than my own, their joints limp from use, their lacquer faded and scratched, whereas mine were shiny and twee like something a girl would own.
“We’ve got to be close to the blue circle,” I said. “Or the orange triangle. Both of those hit the river before it empties into the reservoir, so we’re bound to meet up with them before too long.”
“We’re not going out again tonight, though,” said Heather.
I hadn’t considered actually spending the night in the cave until just then, but her tone suggested a resolute unwillingness to simply wait out the storm and hike back up once it passed.
“You’re okay with sleeping here?”
“What choice do we have,” she said.
In time, the rain slackened to a fizz. Sudden squalls batted the rock, then settled.
We set up a makeshift bed with the contents of our backpacks: beach towels as a mattress and sheet, water bottles wrapped with sweatshirts for pillows. I set my glasses in the nook beside me; Heather put her contacts in a vial of solution. It wasn’t too bad. With our bodies spooned, it took very little time for the flesh to warm and the pulse to settle. We squirmed to find an acceptable constellation of flat spots for our backs, and the initial crudity began to cede to a sort of ascetic comfort.
Her hair tickled my neck. The moist breeze rose and fell through the oval window. It was soothing until it wasn’t—the wind was just strong enough to cause shivers if any body part was exposed for too long. The trick was to shift positions every so often to anticipate the chills, and to keep our hands and feet in motion, stroking and petting one another as much as possible.
I noticed Heather did not pray before falling asleep. This surprised me, as it seemed that if ever there were a time to thank a deity, it would be after having narrowly avoided catastrophe, when life seemed most valuable. Why would she refrain this one night?
The alternate narrative I’d imagined earlier, wherein one of us had been bitten by the snake, continued alongside me in counterpoint. I used to do the same with movies as a kid, wondering what might have happened had circumstances been different—the hero forced to confront his adversary without a weapon, or escape from his cell without waking the guard. I’d lull myself to sleep this way, weaving through alternate routes, fictions within fictions. A familiar character would lead me through an unfamiliar situation only to slip away, deep into the episode, leaving me standing in his place, safely enclosed in a dream.
But this night I lay awake. In my insomnia my thoughts jumped about haphazardly, one mundane item to the next. I thought of my daughter and how I liked her old haircut better, then of Don, the cardiologist, with his leopard-patterned SUV and his amphetamine addiction. I thought of fabric softeners, then of Keith Richards and how it was that he was still alive. I thought of vice presidents, then of defunct brands like Nuprin. Was it okay to feel nostalgia for Nuprin? I thought of the many quotidian objects I never really cared to think about, like the eye charts I used every day. As far as I knew, I’d never switched to another set. Was this a field with a high amount of competition? Was someone out there hard at work developing new eye charts? I thought of the tacky silkscreens in the motel lobby. I had to admit there was something comforting about them now, their quaint folksiness, their utter absence of cynicism or self-consciousness.
Then I saw something. It was hard to tell at this hour, in this state, where thoughts ended and dreams began, but at some point I was certain I was conscious and that what I was seeing was real. Through the jagged mouth of the cave a deep indigo lit the chasm. I didn’t know how to make sense of it. What was I looking at? The color was so richly saturated it was almost palpable. But it was also intangible, something one knows is not really there, like a holograph. Or maybe I was the holograph. It wasn’t clear.
If earlier I’d seen in my mind a primeval earth, a healthy and savage young planet hammered into being by cosmic dust, I now saw an aging one, withered and fallow. The inevitability of Earth’s eventual death startled me, probably for the first time since childhood. That the sun would one day swallow it in a gulf of nuclear heat, only to slowly cool and fade to a wisp, seemed celestially unjust. Who will mourn us? The solar system would condense to a vast whorl of luminous gases, and news of the catastrophe wouldn’t even leave the galaxy for a thousand centuries at the speed of light. The concept of years would vanish with us. All our terrestrial measures, flatly moot. Time itself would congeal to a band of photons, warped and battered by fields of force.
This was the view from the end of the world.
Everything that had once been ours lay above the lip of the chasm. We had names for everything up there. That was what we did; we named things. We pointed in one direction and said north. We identified shapes. We looked at trees and said oak, maple, spruce. We titled the stars. We cataloged qualities and actions. Strength, we said. Longing, love. We numbered elements, particles, we even numbered numbers. It was our way of being. Perhaps there was a language out there that got it just right, some lost dialect that took the bull by the horns and effed the ineffable. But lexicon was void here at the end of the world, like handing poker chips to a bank teller. Light would have the last word; it always did.
We awoke to a brisk morning wind. The storm clouds had vanished without a trace. The sun had cooked away a good deal of the moisture, leaving only a thawed, dewy taste in the air.
I was surprised to find my body in reliable shape. I’d been expecting the worst—emergency medical helicopters, amputations—and was grateful to have my machinery more or less intact. Nonetheless, Heather and I treated ourselves to a pair of painkillers, which we’d been saving for the flight back, partly a preventative measure, partly a reward.
“We sure took a wallop last night,” she said, glibly, straining a drip of water out of her sock.
Less than fifteen minutes downstream was the blue circle trail. Already we could spot travelers up the cliff; we could hear intermittent echoes of laughter. The opiate high arrived hedgingly, a timid ascent through the neural briers.
We felt appropriately rugged passing groups of virgin hikers on their way down. They eyed us top to bottom—the mud-crusted shoes, the damp and rumpled shirts, the sun-burnt faces and tousled hair—with something like amusement mixed with terror. We granted ourselves a certain pleasure in the polite gawking.
“Morning,” we said.
The air grew steadily warmer. Our socks lost their squishiness. We reached the rim where the land began to look like land again, with actual green grass and properly sized trees, the vanishing points aligned to a level plane.
“Miracle we found that cave when we did,” I said to Heather. “Don’t you think?”
She looked at me quizzically.
“Where are your glasses?” she said.
Alex Rose is a co-founding editor of Hotel St. George Press and the author of The Musical Illusionist and Other Tales. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Ploughshares, The Forward, The Believer, The Providence Journal, North American Review, The Reading Room, and on many web zines and popular blogs. His story, "Ostracon," will be included in the 2009 edition of Best American Short Stories. He became an associate editor of Killing the Buddha in 2009.