The bags are packed when I come through the door and Lily is nowhere in sight. My stomach starts going over on itself, pushing out against my organs like a morning after drinking. She got everything. I feel the spidery frame of the Whisperlite beneath the nylon lid, check the straps on the sleeping bags and around the tent bag. She’s even found my boots. The effort is off-putting. As I flex the stiff leather in my hands Lily comes charging from the bedroom. “I thought we’d go hiking,” she says. She’s got shorts on, a Dri-Fit. Her hair’s up in a bandana. “Why not?” She’s talking fast. “Let’s go tonight.”
Before I’m out of my tie and slacks she’s already loading the car parked out front in the spot it took me twenty minutes to find. It’s too late to head out, I’d like to say, the forecast is calling for rain, but it’d be little use with her in this state. “Can I ask where?” I say.
“What?” she says. She disappears out the door hauling the last of the gear. I catch her by the shoulders on the way back.
“Lily,” I say. She looks me in the eyes for the first time. “Where are we going?”
I count the houses along Boathouse Row as we drive against the shore traffic, trying to remember how long Lily and I have been together as we pass the exit to my parents’ old place. Lily starts out mapping the hike she’s planned—up into Kittatinny Ridge to Mount Tammany then along the Appalachian Trail to Sunfish Pond—but by the time we reach Bethlehem, she’s quiet, focused on the nascent headlights in the waning light. I look over at her with the glow of the setting sun peeking over the rise of her nose. She has dark skin and mahogany eyes. Her wavy black hair has a presence of its own, less so since she’s cut it. It used to envelope us as we kissed. We’d stay that way for hours, the smell of her, where she’d been that day, what had clung, the only scent between us.
“What’s the rush all of sudden?” I say.
She keeps her eyes on the road. “I had to get away from the city. There’s too much going on. I need to get some clarity.”
“Are you okay?”
“Fine, fine.” She nods jerkily. “I’m just happy to get out of there.”
We met one summer when we were both working at a sleep-away camp in Upstate New York. She was from Burlington then, I was living in Boston. I first saw her through a bonfire on the beach beside the camp’s lake. I’d crossed to her side and asked if I could sit. She handed me a beer. “You’ll need this,” she said. We watched as the crackling red logs crumbled under the weight of each other. Stayed until there was only smoldering earth. I could still taste the sun on her shoulders that first night. She’d ran her fingers slowly over my face like she was a surveyor of imaginary lands, and we’d slept outside before the cold and the dew woke us.
Crunch of gravel, fog lights off. A blue haze cloaks us as we reach the trailhead and a sparse rain begins to fall. Lily throws me a pack and jerks the other onto her own back. “Ready?” she asks, as I’m still clipping in.
She starts up the steep incline and stops before long to toss me a headlamp as the rain falls harder. The two cones of light in front of our eyes become the only visibility—rocks, roots, and mud below, a cage of trees on either side. “You sure we shouldn’t head back?” I say. She’s bounding up the path already, head down, out of ear shot or ignoring me. Through my obscured beam, I watch as she pulls further ahead. “Lily,” I yell, and she stops. “Let’s turn back.”
The rain is streaking down her face. She has to squint. “It’s not far,” she yells. “Let’s keep going.”
She continues on at a brisk pace and I try to stay close, hoping not to break an ankle or worse in the spot she’s put me in. Just when I’ve hit my rhythm, a flash of lightning fissures the sky and I slip and scrap my knee. Lily’s off ahead, a specter skipping from rock to rock in the distance. As she crests a ridge, an explosion of thunder reverberates through the trees; another flash illuminates the forest and all the darkness turns to space.
At the top, Lily’s already setting up the tent. Two other tents share the grounds. “Kids from a summer camp,” she yells over the rain. “Counselor said he doesn’t mind if we stay.”
When we get the tent up, soaked through to the bottom, we lie down and I curl around her. She’s shivering. I should be mad—I have the right under the circumstances—but her shivering shuts up all those feelings in me. I want to ask her what this clarity talk is about, what I can do to help. I know she’ll say it’s not that simple or else dance around the issue. I decide to save us both the trouble. I pull the hair away from her ear, “Hell of an idea,” I say, and bite it softly.
“We should get out before the kids wake up tomorrow,” she says. Her teeth are chattering. “They were here before us.”
After that summer I moved up to Burlington. Lily waited tables at a sushi joint and I bartended on Church Street. On our off days we canoed on the lake or drove out to the surrounding mountains for hikes. When we could afford it, we’d take a week and go down the Appalachian, live off jerky and iodized water. We’d swim naked, sleep on cliffs or by water’s edge, sip cheap whiskey and make love with the moving night sounds around us. Back then, we lived another way. Now we look like weekenders, hipsters up from the city for a jaunt in the woods.
It was no one’s fault. My mother got sick and we had to move to Philly to take care of her. Living costs more there. I caught on with an insurance company and Lily went back to school for her teaching certificate. She changed. She wore more, did less. She took to working with a fervor I didn’t think possible. I’m sure I changed too. It would’ve been unfair of me to think we’d live that way forever.
I’m woken by the sound of boys’ voices and clanking mess kits. Lily’s still asleep. When I grab her shoulder the first thing she says is, “Shit.”
When we emerge from the damp tent, a troop of eyes are on us. One boy catcalls Lily and the rest break out laughing. “Cut it out you little bastards,” a voice yells. Their counselor, a blond haired Aussie asks if we’d like to join them for breakfast. To my surprise, Lily accepts.
“What camp are you from?” she asks.
He says a Native American name then hands us each a bowl of oatmeal and a Pop-Tart.
“I’ve heard of it,” she says. “On Regis, right?”
“Right,” he says, his attention split between us and the campers.
“We met while working at a summer camp,” I say. “Years ago. Have been together since.”
“Six years now,” Lily says.
The counselor smiles. The streak of zinc on the bridge of his nose crinkles. “That’s great,” he says.
We descend Mount Tammany and follow the trail along Dunnfield Creek. “Do you remember…?” I say but she doesn’t acknowledge me. I decide to make a game of it. “Do you remember the seventy foot bridge we jumped near Chateaugay…Remember that time the bear got into our food sack and we lived on gorp for three days…That hiker with the three legged dog who said he’d been on the trail for a decade.”
“Yup,” she says. Yup, yup, yup. Doesn’t look back once.
I don’t know what’s wrong, but she can have her way. I don’t mind. The clouds have cleared and the sun is on my face, each wet leaf winks at me as I pass. There’s the smell of damp wood, laurel and magnolia, the sound of dripping and flowing water. I start kicking rocks and singing that old Eddy Arnold song at the top of my lungs: Do you remember when you loved me / Before the world took me astray? / If you do then forgive me / And make the world go away-a-a.
Lily turns. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she says.
“Nothin’ darlin’,” I say. “Just serenading you.”
“Serenading me?” she says, then mumbles to herself in Korean like her mother does on the rare occasion the three of us find ourselves together.
“Can’t trust him,” I say, wagging my finger, mimicking Mrs. Ko. “Brought up different.”
Lily shoots me a cutting stare and I put my hands up. “I should’ve listened to my mother,” she says.
She pauses. A breeze filters through the leaves and rustles her hair. “I mean that,” she says, and turns back up the trail.
I sing: I’m sorry if I hurt you/ I’ll make it up, one day. / Just say you love me like you used to / And make the world go away-a-a…
There’s the sound of splashing water and soon we’re by cascades then a small waterfall that empties into a deep pool. Lily grins. She drops her pack, slides her shorts down her narrow hips and throws her shirt at me. She enters the water as a blur of brown and white, and comes up a different creature. As she climbs out and walks toward me, a band of sunlight sashes across her breasts. Her skin is goose-bumped. She takes my hand. “Away-a-a,” she says.
The trail mellows. We leave behind the fallen trees and slick rocks, and come to a grove that bottlenecks then opens onto a large pond. Lily finds a flat area to set up camp and I collect firewood. Before long I’ve got a spark going, kindle lit at the base of a stick pyramid, and Lily’s boiling water on the stove. As she pulls our dinner out, rice and beans, and adds the cheese and hot sauce in increments, it feels like we’ve never left these trips, never become insurance agents or teachers or parkers of cars. “That was long overdue,” I say, when we’ve finished eating.
“Yeah,” she says. “It was.”
“Any other surprises?” I say.
She goes to her pack and pulls out a pint of whiskey. Takes a healthy sip that scrunches her nose then caps the bottle and passes it to me. “I’m glad you dragged me out here,” I say.
She smiles and looks out at the water. “We needed to get away,” she says. She puts her hand out for the whiskey. “Let’s just enjoy the time. Let’s not worry about anything.”
I throw more wood on the fire and she huddles into me. We look into the flames until our eyes hurt from the hot, and pass the bottle back and forth. Lily’s face goes red like it always does. I pull her legs onto my lap and kiss her neck. I say, “Remember when we first met? We were like this. Sitting by the fire, by the water. I knew we’d be together,” I whisper.
“I didn’t feel it so much,” she says. I can see the movement of the fire in her eyes. “Not that first night, I mean. I didn’t think we’d turn out the way we did.”
In the tent, her hair brushes over me. There’s the smell of smoke and sweat, the whiskey, sweet on both our breaths. Through the thin blue material, the moon’s light seeps in. “I love you,” she says.
“Why shouldn’t you?” I say.
She doesn’t answer.
I fall asleep, deep and dreamless. Morning comes. A cool breeze blows over me. A few birds chirp in distant and uninterested rhythms. I open my eyes and see the tent door writhing in the wind. Lily’s gone. I don’t look to see if her pack’s gone too. I lie back down and pull the sleeping bag around my head and wait to see if she’ll return.