Read, don't read. Don't feel obligated, especially not to make me feel better. I'm over it. If you want to make a comment, that's cool. If not, same deal.
Now that the throat-clearing has been neurotically executed, here is the unpublished short story. Wait, one more, remember, it's fiction.
The Steep Ravine Trail winds up the canyon, cutting into Mt. Tamalpais in jagged switchbacks lined with broken granite and dry manzanita. My ex-boyfriend trudges up in front of me, his calves large and round as toy footballs. He hikes more often than I, but even he is gasping for air as we climb higher. Childishly, I step everywhere he doesn’t. If he chooses the right side of the trail to avoid a rut, I walk down the middle of it. If he grabs a limb for support on a slippery gravel patch, I kneel down low and crabwalk across. These maneuvers have cost me some skin – my palm and left knee -- but it’s what I’m doing to concentrate climbing out of this canyon, and ending this day. On our next water stop, he eyes my knee. Trail dust has turned the trickle of blood a dusty brick brown. He unzips his pack. I know he’s looking for the first aid kit. When he looks up, I shake my head no and continue guzzling water, not caring that it’s seeping out the corners of my mouth and forming clean trails towards my throat. He says nothing and drops the kit into his pack.
“Ready?” I say to the ground.
“Yup.” He goes on ahead and I can tell he’s getting tired by the way he pushes off his thighs with his hands and grunts a little.
My body feels as though it belongs to someone else. A person I don’t know but have seen around. Someone I could almost empathize with, if only I’d stop and get to know her. My separate self would rather lie down, or drink cheap Chardonnay, or call all her friends with a gloomy recitation of the details.
“I didn’t plan to do this today, you know,” he said, after we’d reached the bottom of the canyon, during our rest and stop for lunch. He thought it would be clever to hike down first, then back up. “It just sort of came out. I’m sorry,” he said, lamely. But all break-up speeches sound lame, flabby pieces of nothing you recall later to try to understand. All the worn platitudes, every one plucked from TV shows and romantic comedies. He didn’t even meet my eye as he spilled his hackneyed guts. He fiddled with the laces on his hiking boots, fingered the nylon straps of his pack as I fired questions at him. Some of his answers were shrugs, like a shrug a child might give when asked why he shoved his little sister down the front steps.
The higher we climb it seems we are racing the sun. The light grows softer, casting lavender shadows of the mountain over us like a blanket. I hit the light button on my watch. We have not spoken for forty-five minutes. On past hikes, even when we were trail-worn and sore we used to talk: philosophize, plan, speculate. About our lives, our pasts, about other people who we didn’t even know. If we played that game now, I’d think we were talking about us.
I hear his boots bite into the gravel as he stops. There’s a fork in the trail. The one to the left continues up steeply and the one to the right spikes low, down around a granite boulder and disappears.
He sips from his BPA-free water bottle and tilts it thoughtfully, gauging how much is left. I used to think this gesture nerdy and little obsessive in a cute way, but now it pisses me off. It seems prissy and contrived.
“Continue up this way?” He juts his chin to the left, his choice, the most obvious one, surely leading back to the parking lot at the top. I look at him, making eye contact this time and it seems to startle him. He looks tired.
“Do what you want,” I say in a low voice and walk down, taking the trail to the right. The boulder provides a dark gray canopy and blocks out the remaining summer evening light, like an artificial sunset.
“I doubt that goes where you think it does.”
I snap my head around, expecting him to be behind me. He isn’t. I remember a hike last year with friends in this canyon when we discovered that the bowl-like effect created a perfect conduit for our voices, as though we were being followed with a boom mike for miles and carrying on a conversation with people we could no longer see.
“You don’t know,” came my reply. I disappoint myself. What kind of come-back was that? It reminds me of “I know you are but what am I?” from grammar school. In a way that’s how I feel. A fourth grader separated from her best friend during a field trip because of a petty spat. In reality, I was a grown woman getting herself lost out of spite. I imagine a rescue helicopter searching for me.
These thoughts of reason bounce through my mind, but my body, my separate self, trudges on. Am I walking alone? Has he stopped? I paused, holding my breath in the still air, which smells of dust and pine needles. I hear silence, and my own breath.
I walk on. The cool evening air makes my nose run. I always bring a handkerchief hiking, but I blot my wet nose on my shoulder instead. My regression to pure rabid adolescent is complete.
“Hey, are you still on that trail?” Again the closeness of his voice is jolting. I think of freezing him out, but his words feel oddly comforting. I weaken.
“Yes.” I stop again and stand on a rock to give myself a better view. I see a patch of his lime fleece jacket among the dense dark green brush.
“Do you want help?” Help? I tense when I realize he thinks I am distraught and lost, my choice a petulant and now regrettable one.
I reach for the ground with my right foot and feel it slide as though my hiking boots were rolling across ball bearings. My left knee buckles and I contort in what must look like a finish to a gymnastic routine. Sharp pebbles dig into my already scuffed knee.
“You OK?” In his voice, an edge of irritation forms around his concern like mold on a wedge of hard cheese.
“Yeah.” I start climbing up again, picking up my pace. I remember something he used to say on hikes when one of us had taken a fall, “That’s gonna hurt come winter!” His resigned old man voice could make me laugh and forget about the fall. Now though, my separate self only registers another injury but there is no pain. Come winter, indeed.
Mercifully, the trail starts to flatten and the heavy pull of gravity eases up on my back. I roll my shoulders back and hear pops and the shifting of gristle. I stop to finish my water and hear footsteps too close to be his. But they have to be, there is no one else here. I stare hard at the darkening trail behind me, but see only the seam of black trail below meeting the dark blue of the horizon.
Shit! Shit! I think suddenly. These trails are joining up again. This isn’t an alternate route. I have to beat him. On this one thing, I have to beat him. He has the keys to the car, I know, but I have to, need to, be there first.
The trail is flat now and I break into a tidy jog. The tin of mints, the plastic bowl of carrot sticks, and the trail mix pouch in my pack add percussion, a rhythm to my steps. I am almost running now. The trees and low brush suddenly halt and I see our lone car, the old Subaru wagon, hulking in the dark parking lot. We bought it together a year ago for a thousand bucks. Will I keep it? Will he? My legs vibrate with fatigue, but I run toward the car, in a childlike, fearless sprint. I land my chest on its hood and spread my arms across the still-warm metal.
“I’m here. I did it.” I whisper.
After I catch my breath, I look up and see him emerge from the clearing. His pack is slung over his left arm and the keys jingle in his right hand. I stand to face him and, in this moment, finally understand what those shrugs mean. He opens his mouth to speak and manages “We need…” before the parking lot lights snap on, creating a lightning effect, temporarily illuminating our creased, upturned faces. Five feet away he stops and we stand there, looking at each other, bathed in the artificial light at the top of the mountain.