The warden tells me there are secrets in this dirt. Names buried and long-forgotten, rotting away syllable by syllable. Smartphones cracked on the edges, ice creeping underneath microchipped screens, texts left on ‘read’ forever. A pair of earrings, never worn. Apologies that never made their way to the victims’ ears, sealed whisper-tight in mason jars. All of these little miseries, planted under pine trees and snow cover.
“Misery”, the warden tells me, as he rocks back and forth in the stump that’s now become his chair, “that’s the only thing that grows in winter.”
“True.” I say, taking a sip of mulled cider and picking up my own stump-chair, setting it next to the campfire in a spot where the smoke’s not blowing. The warden pokes at the fire’s core with a stick thick as a fist. Each time he pokes them, shadows strobe across hot wood, little glass-like cracks echoing through our little camp.
I smile at the warden’s words, but inside, all I’ve been thinking is Jesus H. Tapdancing Christ, what is wrong with this place? Why would anyone live where there are no Safeways or Whole Foods for thirty miles and the nighttime drops to below freezing?
My eyes are watering from the smoke, and freezing from the cold at the same time. Lovely.
“It’s a lovely place you’ve got,” I tell the warden, “really close to nature. Must be beautiful in the summer. All the pine trees and squirrels running around.”
“Nothing runs here, not even in summer.” The warden says back.
I take a few sips of the cider, then just let the half-full cup sit on my lips. It would be stupid to get buzzed tonight. Those country roads would be the end of me and the car, and Ayshe would kill me for wrecking her ride. Ayshe. Her name is scratching the inside of my head today. While I was driving down here, I kept rehearsing the lines I should have said to her the other day. And the things she should have said to me. We were so perfect there, in my head. We were that couple everyone’s jealous of, the pair of lovers who have sex all the time and compliment everything the other person says. But that’s just some stupid fantasy.
I buzz my lips, count a few pine needles on the ground, and whisper “nevermind this.” Our fire’s died out enough that I can only really see the light reflected in my host’s eyes, and the lit end of his cigarette. Good. I think. Faces are too much for me to handle right now. It’s better if my host just stays there as an anonymous bundle of clothing sitting in the dark, something I can just throw words at like pasta and a wall. Just a ragged part of the scenery that can never repeat a word to my boss, my friend, or my wife. It is all there on the paper I signed. We both walk away from this forgetting we ever met each other.
“I’ve never said this to anyone before,” I say, staring out at a tree still carrying snow on its branches, “so this stays between us. Right? That’s how your contract goes?”
The warden grunts.
“Sorry, but is that a yes or a no?” I ask, shivering a bit.
“It’s a yes.”
He’s just saying that to appease me. He’s going to laugh about me with his friends when they go watch Nascar games and drink shitty beer. Wait. Does Nascar even play in the winter? Hockey, then.
I let out a heavy breath. “Well, I-. Hmm. Where do I start? It’s a lot I’ve been thinking about”
The warden shrugs, and I catch what must be a scowl in those eyes. The hatred I sensed on him the moment we first shook hands. Why am I even bothering with this guy? I don’t need someone to vent to. I need someone who is six foot five, with shoulders wide as a door frame, and carrying a big gun at his side. I drove too many miles for some idiot with a knife to drop by our little gathering here and steal my car keys.
“Actually. Could we just move on?” I ask, “It was dumb of me to say anything. I’m sure you have enough on your plate already. Keeping things running around here and all that.”
The warden spits a dark-colored liquid out of the corner of his mouth. He does not bother to make any other noise.
Over the next few minutes, our fire turns from a low-crackling burn to a bed of charcoal. I glance between the warden and the fire, clear my throat. I try to make a show of standing up to my full five feet. A terrible number, and I’m lucky that Ayshe doesn’t care about it. Are we finally finished? I think, Is that our timer, the fire? God, I would kill someone to make this man talk.
“The goods?” The warden asks me, as if he heard me complain-thinking about him. He doesn’t bother to stand, and instead points at my car with his poking stick.
“Yup, I brought them.” I say, a smile touching my face. Finally.
In my car’s glove compartment I find them. Hand warmers, each packaged in little plastic pillows that tear apart easily. Two empty glass jars that make funny suction sounds when I open or close their lids. And a packet of teriyaki-flavored beef jerky. All these the warden and I split between each other evenly, fumbling here and there with our mitted hands. Even with the rest of the warden’s face lit by the little overhead light in my car, all I can focus on are his eyes. Bright blue, hooded. They flit between the packets, narrow when I split the last piece of beef jerky. And he doesn’t look away from me when I look at him. He just holds my gaze and taps a flashlight against his belt as he chews, intermittently kicking snow onto the campfire.
I stuff my gloves with warmers and my pockets with food. It’s time to go, and I’m not hungry anymore. I press the ‘lock’ button on my car keys way too many times as I navigate the snow, and make sure to place my next steps in the warden’s wider footprints so that I don’t pitch down waist-deep into snow. The warden is the only one with a flashlight, and he holds it steady as we trample the twinkling specks below us into impressions of ourselves, the only marks for miles around, save for little tracks from foxes and deer, all of the animals I would rather see rifling through trash, surrounded by neon lights, outnumbered thousand-to-one by humans like me. Instead the animals have their home turf advantage, a complete, unpolluted darkness that is somehow cold, nipping through my boots at my toes anytime I let the warden get more than a couple steps ahead of me.
I sigh, run a hand through my hair, a little bit of air escaping out my nose. Why is my brain always going haywire with these stupid thoughts? Ayshe was right about me being too sensitive. I have to stay positive, focus on reality.
I bite at my lower lip and taste the crust of dried skin forming there as I stare out into the dark, and swear that I see something scurry between trees. The creature must have been the size of a dog, at least. If there’s at least three of them hunting together I bet they could take me down. I shiver, suck air through my nose, and the cold of it stings. Can someone die of exposure to darkness? Lose their mind to this emptiness the way someone would lose fingers to the cold?
Agh, all this thinking! I yank my focus down to the scrunching sound my boots make against snow. Watch for the trees brushing against my face, the needles biting me and bringing my senses back to reality, a gruff voice reminding me to ‘watch out for that branch’ when I have obviously already run face first into ‘that branch’ by accident. I laugh to show the warden that I am unbothered, totally cool and collected. And if I focus hard enough, I can fix my thoughts before he would ever notice. Stop the constant, unrelenting anxiety bearing down on me that makes me less worthy. Ayshe knows that I’m like this, but she’s one of the few people that would ever put up with it.
The warden and I have come to a clearing. There are raised mounds of snow ahead of us, to our left and right, behind us, and my eyes look for a pattern in their placement. They must be at least five feet tall each. Too many sandwiched in between the outer and inner rings to be a perfect orbital. Orbital – that’s a shape, right? I might not be the bravest, the wisest, or the kindest, but at least I know some big words.
The warden fishes out a loose match from his coat pocket, brings the tip to his face, sucks air through gritted teeth, sparks the match off a canine. In a few heartbeats he is sucking smoke out of a fresh cigarette and looking at me with ember-lit eyes like some demon from a video game poster. I can feel my brows furrowing. Why can I not be more like that? Just. Cool. Free from anxiety.
“What are you standing around for?” The warden’s voice cuts in.
“Oh, I was only just thinking.”
“Well, stop.” He says, handing me one of the two jars we packed, “this one, you tell it all the bad stuff.”
“Bad stuff? You mean like, trash talking her?” I ask, already fiddling the lid off, “is this really how I’m supposed to forget?”
“Just say everything that pisses you off about your wife. That simple.”
“You married?” I ask, “you seem to know a thing or two about getting pissed off by wives.”
The warden shakes his head.
“What about your family?” I ask, “they bother you? I mean, I don’t mean to ask too much, if you don’t want to talk about it.”
“Don’t have much of a family.” The warden says, and I swear I can hear the period at the end of his sentence, cutting off my prying.
“I’m sorry about that. You deserve people who care about you.”
“Just get on with it.” The warden says.
The warden points to the jar in my left hand, and I am opening it before I can ask him another stupid question, my ridiculous attempt to therapeutize a man who has only heard the words ‘mental health’ on Dr. Phil.
The jar. I remember that all I have to do is talk into the jar, now. The warden and I have already discussed the steps of this ritual over Whatsapp, and I have rehearsed my words at least a dozen times, run over the lines with my mind’s red pen. While I mentally run through the list of points I want to say in my soliloquy, I suddenly realize that I am hurting, and I look down to see a thin line of marked, but unbroken skin where my fingers were squeezing car keys tight enough to hurt. I don’t care. I need to be perfect when I talk into this jar, and I don’t have time to hurt.
“All the bad stuff,” I say, “okay. I am going to do it now.”
The jar stays there, clutched against my stomach. Trying to raise the bundle to my mouth is like dragging my arm through concrete. Bad things. Saying bad things about Ayshe. Is that really where I’ve stooped too, now? I’m just like my parents. Yelling and screaming and calling people names when I could be reasonable. Pressure starts to build on the top right corner of my head, and my heartbeat pounds exclamation marks into my brain quicker than it can deliver blood. My illness always steals something from me, and this time grabs all the colors out of my vision, and runs off with them. First it takes the dark green of pine needles, then the yellow of the warden’s flashlight, and mashes them together into one unfocused shade.
“Okay. H-here goes,” I say, “feeling good about this.”
The warden snorts.
“Could you please…Just…Turn around and cover your ears.” I say, “sorry. You don’t have to.”
The warden’s figure is just an unfocused, colorless silhouette to me now, but even in this panic attack, or whatever it is, I can see that he’s turned around, hands on his ears. The flashlight he didn’t bother to give me shines up into the night sky, where it can’t cast itself onto my face, revealing my scared features. Quick, before he changes his mind and eavesdrops! I start counting trees to relax my breath, but my eyes can’t seem to stay on one spot more than a few seconds. Failing that attempt, I raise the jar to my lips and speak, my breath a smoke of quiet words.
“Ayshe. Hello. I, uh-. Damn it, I-,” I say, my eyebrows clenching, “I really did not like it when you said you wanted to fix me. I know you just want to help, but I do not need fixing. And maybe you were just joking, like you said you were, but people don’t joke when they are arguing. You know? They tell the truth, even if it is in a package that looks like a joke. You should always try be respectful to me, no, fuck, that sounds sexist – I mean, you should, sorry – we should always be acting with respect to each other. Don’t you know that? God, I was so angry with you. Am so angry with you! You were perfect, the first year we were together. An angel. You listened to every single thing I told you and cared. I could see it on your face that you felt the same way I did, when I broke down all scared about whether we would work out. What happened to that person? The one who cared? Did someone kill you in your sleep and put your skin on before we moved in together?”
I swallow, hard. Those were definitely not the words I practiced in the car. I had meant to speak with more kindness, grace. The shit they teach you in church. Ayshe is my partner, and everyone is supposed to unconditionally accept their partner. That’s what love is. But look! I said a few words, and my breathing is coming easier. I can see some colors again, even if it’s just the ugly, mottled gray-and-black wool of my gloves, I’m somehow seeing better, feeling like I could plant my foot anywhere in the world and it would land in just the right spot.
“You stopped having sex with me, too.” I continue saying into the jar, “first we had it less, and then you started teasing me whenever I sent you nudes. And then, bam. Sex ban. You didn’t even seem to care when we stopped. Fuck, I should have known you were sleeping with other guys.”
Just ahead of me I can start to make out the dark green of the pine needles again, backlit by a flashlight. I see a man standing near me, but his hands are on his ears, so I do not bother to stop talking. In fact, I start to yell, my breath coming out in punches of steam.
“You said it was because you were oh-so tired from work, but I saw the dating apps on your phone, even if you put them in folders. Did the other men fuck you better than I did? What did I do wrong, huh? God, you never give me any answers, just stare at me with that condescending look on your face, like someone looking at a homeless person and waiting for them to die, or to at least stop smelling all over them.”
A smile starts to form on the edge of my lips, even though I do not feel like smiling at all. I am finally starting to see clearly again, and the last thing I want to do is feel good about it. Seeing my world in its full, naked reality is not beautiful. It is not everything I wanted. It is just the truth.
“So fuck you, Ayshe. I deserve better.”
Warmth spreads across my hands and my head tingles, like someone is running the tips of their fingers across my scalp. All the while I clutch my jar to my stomach, cradling its lid as if supporting a baby’s head. I squeeze my eyes shut, because if anyone sees me crying I’m going to look like a fucking asshole.
A hand taps me on the shoulder. I shrug it off.
“Come on, now,” someone says, “the next jar.”
“What?! The next…” I trail, blinking my eyes open, “the next what? Where are we?”
I blink six times, and that uncontrollable organ in my chest starts racing, beating to its own count. And of course. The fear comes right back again. I thought I was free of it – how silly of me.
I have to study the man standing before me before I recognize his shaggy beard, the lit cigarette perched inside all that hair, and his southern drawl that always makes me think of Nascar drivers, or black-and-white cowboy films. Memories rush back as I look at him, cocking my head, and I remember crisp apple and bitter alcohol, the drink he and I shared over a campfire. The warden. How could I have forgotten his face? It’s insane where my mind runs off to sometimes. I wince at that realization, and remember that this is just further proof that I am so far away from deserving love. There it is – my wife’s face flashing across my mind, smiling, triumphant at this weakness she always knew was there.
“You’re here to do what I say.” Says the warden.
His hands snatch away the bundle I had been holding, and press something new and equally-sized into my fingers. In the other man’s grip, the jar I had spoken into is glowing, now, with a milky-white light, disappearing into his winter jacket. Is that hunger in his cigarette-lit eyes? I want to run, to forget this place and pretend I never came across it, but something primal in me knows that I wouldn’t make it to the car. All I am left with is the next empty glass vessel that the warden has stuffed into my hands. Frost coiled around its rim. Am I really about to do this? Speak empty, kind words about my wife, a person I now realize that I hate? Is it not better to die than to be that kind of human being, someone who lies to themselves?
“I’m done,” I tell the warden, my head aching, my thoughts flowing back to me. “No more, please. This was…what I needed. But thank you. This was exactly what I needed, actually.”
There is a quick draw of motion as the waden reaches behind him, bringing an object forward. My eyes catch the shine of metal, and I stuff my hands in the air, still clenching the jar with shivering fingers. I have watched enough Die Hard movies to know what the warden has pointed at me, now.
“You seem to be thinking this is some kind of therapy session,” the warden says, “let me set something straight. It’s not. Open the jar.”
I follow his instructions, first being careful to lower my arms slowly. His twin barrels stare at me with their hollow, metal eyes. First I want to shout for help. Then, I have to bite my tongue to keep from laughing. It’s stupid. All I would have to do is yell and the warden would blow my brains out. Keep my mouth shut, do what he says, and he will probably let me live. Right in this moment when I think I am so powerless, I’m the one who gets to decide whether I live or die.
“Now say it,” the warden says, and I swear I see the light in his eyes grow, “say what you loved about her. Your wife.”
The bastard. He wants me to ramble now about how much I love her. This stupid sick game of his. Why are you doing this? Do you really want to do this? I want to ask. But I am out in the middle of god-knows-where, and asking questions out here is the quickest way to become part of the scenery.
There is still a label stuck to the bottom of this jar that I read upside down, one dollar ninety-nine cents. A bargain! It must be one of the plastic labels for how it hasn’t peeled in the wet snow. I focus on it, this time keeping my eyes open as I speak, because if I close them, the twin eyes of the warden’s gun are waiting for me, staring at me in my mind. I shiver. The cold has worked its way from my extremities to the shoulders, the neck, squeezing me with numbness.
Say something nice about her. I think. Where to even start, when I know she was sleeping around? I would rather scream and cuss her out, break this jar against a rock. That’s all the nice things I have to say about her. But of course, her face flashes across my mind, her body, naked and backlit by orange candlelight when we have sex. How she always finds a way to say kind things about her coworkers even when she has had the worst of days. The way she covers her mouth and nose when she laughs at my jokes. And then the words catch in my throat, the venom I had meant to spit out over the memory of her face gets swallowed again, where it sinks to churn in my gut. When I open my mouth to speak into the jar, there is hardly anything left wetting my mouth, and I cough out my first syllables.
“Ayshe,” I say, pausing to tuck my mouth into my sleeve, “you’re the best person I’ve ever been with. I mean that. You’re gorgeous. Inside and out. Do you remember our trip to the aquarium? You had a bowtie in your hair and it was so fucking cute. You were amazing with those stranger’s kids, too. Played with them like they were yours. I could picture us having some together, you know, you being the best kind of mom. You’re so damn organized! The way you always have the car seats warmed up for me when I climb into the car. How you reach out and grab my hand when we’re not touching. I miss that whenever I’m not around you. The organization. Everything is so…structured, with you, and I love that.”
“Well, maybe not all structured…” I add, my mind jumping to that memory. How I had taken her out to dinner to ease her mind off work, and right before the check arrived, I saw the little Tinder app flame pop up on her phone.
“…but most of the time, you’re exactly who I expect you to be. Stable. Good with children, even though we don’t have any. Yet. Good with my friends. They love you, you know. They think you are the coolest person in the world.”
My fingertips are screaming where they touch the jar. How does this hurt? All I am doing is saying kind things. All I want to do is let go and curse her name, rid myself of this, sprint to the car, dodge and weave between bullets. My eyebrows clench. No.
“I…ow, my God. My hands,” I say, “Ayshe. Please. I swear, all I want is for us to be together. I really just want this to work out between us. I would do anything for that. We can work through this. Being honest, I can understand why you did it. I’ve been distant lately. And not vulnerable, like you deserve. I’m weak, too. Sometimes I think of doing it with other women. So, in a way, I understand you.”
I droop my head. “Please, just stay with me. I would do anything. Will do anything.”
This time, the warden takes the jar from me right away, but I catch sight of a dim, blood-red glow inside the glass. I do not struggle or fight back against my captor. Instead I stick my hands deep into my armpits and wince as the leftover heat starts to burn at my fingers so hard I swear it is eating away my fingerprints. My car. Where is my car? God, and I am cold. The hand warmers are not enough to keep the woods’ cold out. This is why people who live outdoors are lunatics. Out here, it’s dark, cold, and too far away from a Whole Foods or Safeway.
I look around, recognizing the man I’m with, but why? Why would I ever come out here? Was it because Ayshe wanted to scout out campsites? The warden is hunched over, standing only about half his height, which still somehow seems taller than me. Yes, someone like this would be a good person to scout campsites with. Big and burly and not a single uncalloused part of skin left on him, probably. In his hands are two lamps – one red, and one white. Together the lamps cast a sort of venn diagram about him, red and white on either sides of his face, and pink in the diagram’s middle, giving those sharp canines an oddly feminine glare. Sir, you really should not be staring at light like that. You’re gonna go blind.
“Hey, uh, why are we out here?”
The warden turns to face me. Strangely, he is smiling. I don’t remember much about him, but I do remember that he isn’t much for smiling.
“We were checking out campsites, remember?” He says.
“That’s right!” I say, fully not remember ever committing to something like that, “well, I should be getting home. It’s getting dark out. And really freaking cold,” I say, and raise my voice as I notice the snow muffling me, “hey! Can I – well, is there anything that we need to do, before I go? Or are we done? Is my car this way?”
The warden does not answer.
“Do you mind if I leave? We’re good, right? I paid you earlier. Also, do you think you could give me one of those lamps so I can find my car? It’s dark as hell out now.”
It seems the warden does mind. He tucks the lamps into a couple pockets in his jacket and stares at me with those cigarette-lit eyes. And though the fabric of his jacket must be some dark brown or black from the way it blends to the night, I can see faint lights shining through the jacket’s chest, giving him the appearance of having two glowing hearts. As if he could ever have even one.
“I just need something to see with,” I protest, “I could slip, you know. Fall on a rock. Bonk. And then you would have to bury a body. That would be a real big inconvenience. I might be small, but I’m a nasty amount of dead weight.”
“Best you be getting home,” the warden replies, “now.”
There it is. The unmistakable glint of steel, twin barrels of a gun. I am quickly remembering that my friend isn’t one to hold a debate tournament with.
“Jesus! You know what, you are absolutely right,” I say, my words coming out faster than usual, “it sure is late out. My wife is going to be absolutely worried sick, and that is why you are absolutely right. Thank you for your help. Now, where should I be running off to and promptly driving away from? I did bring my car, right?”
The warden nods at a spot to my left.
I find the trail back to my car through footprints in the snow, and I press the keys again, catching the sight of red tail lights blinking through branches. I count my steps back, huffing and puffing with my gloved hands pressed against my face to warm them. Why did I come to this place, again?
It only takes two clicks on the keys to make my car doors unlock, but I press them six times anyways. Unnecessary, really. But here’s something to fix my ugly mood, the sweet relief of centralized heat blasting through the car’s vents, warmed upholstery kneading feeling back into my thighs, a thin trickle of sweat on my forehead for all the bundles of clothing I have packed on, suddenly switched from what feels like the Arctic to my own self-contained box of Fiji on four wheels. I strip the outermost jacket off, then the second, until I’m just in a T-shirt and my two layers of fleece pants. What was it I was jogging away from again? I shrug and strip off another layer of pants, until it’s just jeans left. The windows fog with my relief.
Because I am too curious for my own good, I can’t help but wipe away some of the windows’ condensation and look at the spots my headlights illuminate. There is a campfire, or what is left of one, mostly filled with powder snow now. A few cups half-buried. Are there people camped here already?
I smile and shake my head. It would be crazy to go camping out here, at this time of the year. You would freeze your ass off. Well, it’s crazy to go camping at all, but Ayshe does love getting outdoors, and so that means I love it too, even if I loathe the idea of peeing in the woods in the middle of the night. Or scouting out a campsite in the middle of winter.
Time to go! I buckle my seatbelt and check my mirrors too many times, adjusting them so they catch my blind spot at just the right angle. My eyes catch on something, bright colors standing out on this tundra color gradient. Is that-
-a light? No, two lights. Outlining the features of a man chewing on a cigarette. Between puffs he reaches down to the container that is glowing red and brings the bright liquid to his lips. As I try to avert my eyes he wipes his mouth, inclines his head at me in that way men try to greet each other with. He’s smiling. I shrink into my shoulders and raise a hand back at him, starting my engine, not wanting to start a conversation.
Camping, and glowing red drinks in the middle of winter, I think, as the man becomes a thin silhouette in my rear view mirror. Campers are psychopaths with more expensive gear. I set my eyes back on the road as I count the branches slapping against my roof, whispering the words I plan to say to Ayshe when I get home, the little affirmations that keep our marriage fresh and alive. I exhale and find a reason to smile.
I enjoy this, honestly. It’s just like a hard day’s work. Satisfying. Because that’s what you do in love. You sacrifice your energy for the person you care about.
Photo Credit: https://unsplash.com/@simon_moog