Tim called it a men’s retreat, a way of reacquainting ourselves with our collective masculine spirit. He and Andy and Paul had already taken part in several. “I think you might really get something out of it, Josh,” he told me in that earnest way he had, like an evangelist trying to save your soul, “given your state of affairs, I mean.” And while the image that first came to mind was of a bunch of jowly, middle-aged stock brokers prancing around a bonfire in loincloths, their potbellies jiggling, I had to admit that there was something strangely appealing about the phrase. Our collective masculine spirit. It was like being invited into some secret society.
A camping trip, one night, the five of us: Tim, Andy, Paul, myself, and Dwayne who, at twenty-eight, was the youngest member of our group, younger than me by five years. He was a master’s candidate in the history department where I worked as an adjunct instructor while completing my doctoral dissertation, an exposition of the black American soldiers who had defected to the Philippines during the Spanish-American War.
It was late May, and classes had ended the previous week. The four of us met up at Tim’s house and took his truck out to Troutville. He had a friend who owned a few hundred acres of land and had agreed to let us use it for the retreat. From Route 11, we took a small single-lane gravel service road over a series of grassy hills populated by massive tank-sized cows, until we came to a wall of pine trees. A rusty red cattle gate blocked the entrance to a thin hunting trail. Tim parked the truck off to the side of the road and then we grabbed our gear and, skirting the gate, headed off into the woods.
The state of affairs to which Tim had been referring when he invited me on the retreat was the breakup with my girlfriend Christine four months prior, or more precisely, the cataclysmic depression I’d been slogging through ever since. She and I had been together for just over two years at the time, though admittedly I had not been as invested as I should have been over those last six months or so. This was largely a result of the dissertation, which was nowhere near complete, despite the fact that my four-year academic stipend had already run out and I’d had to pay for the fifth year out-of-pocket. When I wasn’t teaching, I was either writing or pouring over moldy yellow hardbacks, scribbling notes for what I had once imagined would be a revolutionary commentary on the racial politics of nineteenth-century combat.
Christine, however, began to take my work ethic personally. “I think you use that goddamn paper as an excuse,” she’d told me once after I had backed out of movie plans to catch a History Channel documentary about the Buffalo Soldiers.
“An excuse for what?” I tried not bristle at her referring to it as a “paper.”
“To not have to deal with the world, with us.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“My point exactly.”
And so it should have come as no surprise the evening that, out in the parking lot of my apartment complex, she informed me that it was over. “We just want different things right now,” she said with a calculated calmness. I begged her to reconsider, and to her credit she did cry, though the tears were strictly ceremonial, the pretense of a difficult decision.
Over the next couple weeks, I managed to convince myself that all Christine needed was space, an opportunity to step back and recognize how vital I was to her happiness. And so I threw myself into my work in order to get my mind off of her; I spent long hours at the school library, haunting the carrels, badgering the surly student workers for more toner. We were just taking a breather, I told myself. That was all.
In that time she began seeing someone else, a sheriff’s deputy named Clint whom she had met months prior after her car had been broken into downtown. He was tall and broad-shouldered with a face like something out of a catalogue—not like me, doughy and edging on short, with my weak chin and receding hairline. (I did a little internet snooping and found that he had served in Iraq and, a few years after joining the sheriff’s department, had once rescued a teenage girl from a burning apartment building; the city had presented him with a medal).
“So that’s it?” I said to her over the phone. “You’re just over me? Just like that?”
“Well Christ, Josh, it’s not like you gave me much incentive to stick around.”
Since then I’d been unable to crawl out of my head—at night in the cruel dark quiet of my bedroom I would torment myself with images of Christine and Clint having sex: Clint bending her over the edge of a massive four-post oak bed that looked like something out of a Victorian period film; Christine weeping with delight as one monstrous orgasm after another wracked her shapely, glistening body. My appetite had all but vanished, as had my interest in regular bathing. Why did I do this to myself? Perhaps I believed I deserved it, that my misery was a product of my own doing, and as such I was obligated to endure it. Also, maybe on some level I believed that my willingness to do so might somehow redeem me, make me worthy of Christine’s affections once more.
Naturally, all of this made me an excellent candidate for Tim’s men’s group. Joined by a fear that our failed relationships had stripped us of some integral component of our emotional machinery, the five of us had come to question our masculinity, what sorts of men were we and what made us so. Tim was at the tail end of a nasty divorce that had dragged on for a year and a half; his wife Kathryn, forty-one, had left him for a thirty-two-year-old tattoo artist. There was still the lingering custody issue of their fifteen-year-old son, who currently lived with her. Andy’s ex-wife had recently remarried to a bicycle shop owner who did improv comedy on weekends. Paul’s wife left him to go harvest beets on a Zen farm in California. As for Dwayne, he had recently broken up with his girlfriend of three years, a pharmacy technician named Jill who had a passion for eye glitter and cutoffs and who, for his birthday the previous year, had had a star named after him through one of those ads you find in the backs of science magazines.
Needless to say we were a little enamored with Tim. He had an air of rugged intellectualism about him—women would have called him “mysterious,” the beard and those dark eyes, the measured way he spoke, as though everything he said had been planned out in advance. I had come to know him through Andy and Paul, both of whom I had gone to college with over a decade earlier and were now junior partners in an architecture firm downtown. Tim was a senior partner at the firm, specializing in medical and health design. Already there were over a dozen clinics and hospitals throughout the state that he had helped to draft. Since his divorce he had become a fanatical advocate of the men’s liberation movement, which I had never even heard of before meeting him, and so I was fascinated the first time I heard his lengthy harangue about reverse gender discrimination and the guilt that this had ingrained into the minds of all American men, the result, he claimed, of the vilification of masculinity. “Think about the Bible,” he’d say with a smug scholarly inflection. “The devil. He’s a man. In every major religion, evil is masculine. I mean, you’ve got she-devils in other cultures, sure, but even that term—‘she-devil’—that implies a female version of what we already take to be a male concept. So you tell me, how is that fair?” His philosophy was engineered in such a way as to assuage our feelings of inadequacy for not having lived up to the standards of the women we loved. It didn’t occur to us at the time that this confusion we felt about ourselves, this shame, had very little to do with these women but rather with all the emotional garbage that everybody carries.
What I mean is this: sure, we were flawed men, but by Tim’s reasoning we could convince ourselves that these flaws were someone else’s fault.
“What do you do out there?” I once asked Paul about the retreats.
“Depends. We talk, we listen. It’s all about opening up, know what I mean?”
“Well, it’s not exactly easy, Josh. It goes against our societal training.”
Now, as the five of us tromped through the woods, huffing under the weight of our packs and swatting at clusters of gnats, I imagined how unsuited for the outdoors we would have appeared to anyone looking on. Andy and Paul were stocky in a way that made them almost indistinguishable. Carrying Paul’s grimy red ice chest between them, they moved with the ungainliness of men who have not yet gotten accustomed to the extra weight that middle age had bestowed upon them. Dwayne was short and wiry enough to have been mistaken for a teenager, were it not for the pink patch of scalp visible through his prematurely thin blond hair and the cigarette dangling from his lip as he stalked clumsily through the brush.
In fact, of the five of us, Tim was the only one who appeared even moderately fit for such an endeavor. With his well-tended beard and his crisp red flannel—L.L. Bean I guessed, judging from the pattern—he looked like a lankier version of Bob Vila.
Presently, we exited the woods into a massive stretch of knee-high yellow grass. It was late afternoon, and the air was unseasonably crisp, strong gusts of wind sweeping through the field with a low hiss, making waves in the grass. Out in the distance near the center of the field stood a large oak tree, its trunk bowed sharply. Standing there alone amidst all that empty space, it looked like a single whisker on an otherwise freshly shaven face. Tim guided us through the sparse trail he and Andy and Paul had made over their previous trips. “There it is,” he said, gesturing to a patch of dark ash encircled by large rocks—remnants of the fire pit. To me and Dwayne, he said, “We usually set up about a dozen yards from the tree. Good shade, but also you don’t have to worry about branches coming down on you while you’re sleeping.”
We began by tramping down sections of the tall grass in order to cushion us from the knobby network of tree roots in the ground, and then we got to work setting up our tents. As I spread mine out on the flattened section of grass, I watched out of the corner of my eye as Tim, twenty or so feet away from me, pitched his small blue pup tent with an expediency that I found both impressive and a little irritating. I could picture him working through trials in his back yard, setting the thing up and then taking it down, over and over again, trying hard to affect the appearance of a seasoned outdoorsman.
Dwayne and I exchanged self-conscious smirks as we fumbled with the collapsible poles of our tents as though trying to solve a puzzle.
“I haven’t done this since Boy Scouts,” I said.
“I never made it past Weblos,” he sniggered.
There was a kind of kinship between me and him, mostly because we worked together and therefore spent more time with each other than we did with the other three. But there was also a shared skepticism about the whole endeavor. It was only after I had pleaded with him that he agreed to come along. “At the very least, it will be good for a laugh,” I’d said, though really I just didn’t want to be the only tenderfoot among the group.
Once the tents were up, we collected branches from the woods nearby for the fire. “Be sure to get the ones on top of the undergrowth,” Paul said, echoing what Tim had told us an hour earlier on the drive out here, as we crunched through the stubborn scrub. “The ones on the bottom are too wet.”
“Good to know, Paul.”
“I’m just saying.”
Tim built a small teepee-shaped structure out of a couple of the larger branches and then stuffed it with smaller pieces and the balled-up pages of a newspaper he’d brought along. Andy and Paul and I stood nearby, hoping to be needed in some way, while Dwayne sat on one of the logs, smoking. “And there you go,” Tim said after a few moments as the fire quickly began to grow. He stood and put his hands on his hips. “Yeah, that maple burns real good, doesn’t it?” We nodded dutifully.
After a dinner of burgers and beers, during which we jabbered hollowly about jobs and movies—the kind of banter used to prolong entry into a much weightier issue—the conversation began to die down, and Tim suggested we get started. Clearing his throat, he said, “We all know why we’re here. We’ve been hurt in some way, each of us, but we’ve been conditioned to believe that we’re not supposed to feel that way, that it’s our responsibility to just accept the pain as part of our role in society. Men don’t feel—isn’t what our culture tells us?”
Solemn nods all around.
He continued: “But we do feel. We have feelings. We shouldn’t have to keep them to ourselves. Real men know how to talk to each other openly. They know how to accept blame and reject it when it’s placed on them unfairly. And I think we would all agree that we’ve been treated unfairly.”
I had been dreading the prospect of Tim guiding us through a checklist of flighty new age exercises, trust falls and heart chakras and whatnot, but to my relief he had nothing like that in mind. His plan more or less was for us to sit around the fire and deconstruct, in great detail, the actions of the women who had hurt us. Purging, he called this. We stowed our cellphones and Blackberries in our tents, in accordance with Tim’s singular rule (“Make sure they’re turned off, fellas,” he’d instructed), and then we went clockwise around the fire, beginning with Andy, seated on one of the logs a few feet away from me, his considerable gut slumping over his thighs like a sleeping animal. He had a wide panlike face and the sad beginnings of a ginger-colored beard. He described the dissolution of his marriage—the months spent sleeping in separate beds, the divorce proceedings. “Even now, I keep asking myself, ‘What could I have done to prevent any of it?’ And I know there’s really nothing I could have done, but the feeling’s still there, you know? Like, this nagging sensation that I did something wrong or missed something or whatever.”
Tim said, “Where do you think those feelings come from, that you did something wrong?” He was sitting on the ground with his back against one of the logs, a small city of empty bottles at his side.
Andy shrugged and took the last sip of his beer and then set the empty bottle in the dirt next to his feet. “I think I was just conditioned to believe that any time something went wrong—with me and Susan, I mean—I think I naturally just assumed it was my fault. Or maybe I just figured it was easier to, you know, accept the blame and apologize instead of trying to get her to recognize her role or whatever, you know? I figured, sure, I’ll take responsibility for all this crap if it means we can just move on from it.”
Paul, who had a black combover and sprigs of hair protruding from beneath his collar, rehashed the story of his divorce, craftily glossing over the part about the Applebees’ waitress with whom he’d spent a couple weeks trading dirty text messages—“It was a stupid thing to do, I admit, but it’s not like I fucked the girl”—and languishing over his then-wife Connie’s refusal to go to marriage counseling—“I did everything I could to salvage it, the marriage, I made it clear to her that I wanted it to work, but she wouldn’t even try.” By the time he reached the point in the story in which he’d relocated to the cramped loft downtown sans his plasma screen television and his Honda motorcycle (Connie had taken those in the divorce), he was sniveling like a child. We sipped our beers and listened and then offered up our syrupy platitudes, how it wasn’t his fault, she just hadn’t been receptive to his needs. The fact that these were the very same reassurances we so desperately wanted to hear from others lent them a disingenuous ring, but it still seemed to make Paul feel better, and that was all that mattered.
And in fact, we all seemed to feel better as the conversation progressed, at least more so than we had over the past few months—even Dwayne who, after some coaxing, recounted his last few days with Jill and even allowed himself to get a little choked up when he described the pain of having lost someone who had become such an integral part of his daily routine that he had had to relearn how to be alone. “It hurts not having her around anymore,” he said, swallowing back a sob, “but there’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t keep living in the past.”
Of course the alcohol made the whole thing easier too, all the talking and sharing, all that openness, so that by the time my turn came around, I found myself wonderfully alight with the spirit of the evening, drunk on brandy and beer and a rich sense of catharsis as I relayed to the other four men what had happened between Christine and me, a story we were all familiar with—we had all but memorized one another’s tales of woe by this point—but which, as I spoke into the heat of the crackling fire, felt new and crisp in my memory, as though it had happened just recently.
“I realize it’s not really even about her,” I said, the words slurred in a way that made them sound more dramatic than intended. “It’s about me, like, the way I see myself, this fear of, like, I don’t know how to say it, of, like, just not being good enough. For anyone, not just Christine.”
“You feel like you were replaced,” Paul drawled, popping the cap of a fresh beer. It foamed over onto his hand, and he sucked his fingers.
“Yes! That’s totally it! Because you’d think it would take longer for her to go and start screwing someone else. And it makes me wonder if maybe I’m the one with the problem here, like, I should be moving on the way she did and I should be out screwing around or whatever. I don’t understand how I’m sitting here obsessing, and she’s totally over me like that.” I snapped my fingers.
“It’s just a rebound, dude,” Andy reassured me.
Dwayne added “Or maybe she just wants to piss you off.”
“Doesn’t matter what the reason is,” Tim interjected with a note of reproach. “Clearly, she’s acting under this belief that men don’t have the same feelings that women have, that we shouldn’t feel things in the same way.” He phrased this last part as a statement rather than a question, and we all looked at him, anxious to see how he would follow it up. In a sharp professorial tone, he said, “Seems we’ve all been conditioned to feel this way, in one way or another. We are fixers, the doers. We’re not supposed to feel, not the way they are. So, when something goes wrong, it’s on us to take the blame, isn’t it? It’s the role we’ve carved for ourselves.”
I wasn’t sure how he had arrived at this understanding, but I didn’t want to sabotage the momentum of the discussion by contradicting him.
“I’m sorry, but that seems a little reductive,” Dwayne said. Andy and Paul glowered at him as though he’d spoken out of turn, and I couldn’t help but feel a small pang of defensiveness on his behalf. He continued: “I’m not saying it’s, like, wrong or anything. I just think that you can’t place all the blame on women. I mean, no offense to anyone here or anything, but I don’t know—it takes two people to make a relationship. It doesn’t seem healthy to assume that it’s all on their shoulders.”
Quickly, I looked back at Tim to see whether or not he would let this throw him off balance. Instead, he simply nodded and scratched his temple, regarding Dwayne as if he were a child who had just said something adorable. “Well, I hear what you’re saying, and I agree, it would be reductive to place all the blame on women. But see, it’s not just an issue of blame. I’m not claiming that they, women I mean, are somehow to blame for all this—whatever.” He emphasized this last part with a flutter of his fingers. “All I’m saying is that we’ve been conditioned to believe that the fault inherently lies with us, and by that rationale, the reductivism—if that’s what you want to call it—it falls on them.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Paul and Andy exchange a victorious smirk.
Dwayne scratched his head and reached for his cigarettes on the ground. “Yeah, I guess that makes sense,” he said, though I could tell he wasn’t buying it entirely.
It went on like this for some time, the talking and the drinking, our voices echoing across the field, until eventually the conversation deteriorated into teary proclamations of brotherly affection, the five of us raising our bottles in a toast around the fire. “You guys are my family,” Paul sputtered, “like, you don’t even know. I love you guys so much.” Andy tried to get us all going on a chorus of “Let It Be,” but no one could remember all the words.
Tim must have felt that his having moderated the discussion precluded him from the purging process, because in all of the drunken revelry, nobody thought to ask him to tell his story. Instead, he sat there against his log, his head bobbing from the booze, grinning like a doting parent. After a while, when nobody else had brought it up, I decided it best to let it go, mostly because I didn’t want to spoil the moment, but also because something told me he had orchestrated things to play out this way.
It was after midnight by the time we staggered off to our tents, leaving the fire to smolder into the night. I had intended to pick up a bottle of Tylenol PM on my way out to Tim’s house, but I was concerned that it would make me too groggy in the morning. However, as I squirmed around in my sleeping bag, the ridges of tree roots gouging me through the tent floor (the grass cushion did nothing) I wished I had. I checked my phone—a couple texts from friends, but nothing from Christine. And why would there be? It had been over two months since she’d called me at work to tell me she had slipped her copy of the key through my mail slot, and I hadn’t heard from her since. The rational part of me knew that she had moved on, that I was simply a part of her history now, and that this was the best course of action for both of us. But still I couldn’t help wondering where she was right then, what she was doing.
Probably she was fucking Clint. In my head, she was always fucking Clint. Every minute of every day. Was he better at it than me? I could see her making mental notes to herself as he ravaged her, of all the ways in which his skills exceeded mine. I missed our little rituals, the way that she and I used to pad out to the kitchen after sex, naked and slippery, and eat ice cream out of the container by the coppery glow of the stove light. Did she do this with him, too? Did they have their own rituals yet?
After a while I slipped on my shorts and a sweatshirt and battled my way out of the tent to go pee. The night was cool and rich with the trill of crickets and the low hum of the wind like ocean waves. A pale sliver of moon cowered behind a veil of blue clouds. Stumbling out past the oak tree, I urinated into the tall grass. Back in college, I could down a six-pack and go right to sleep; now, in my mid-thirties, even a single beer could warrant several trips to the bathroom.
As I was finishing up, I heard a dry cough from somewhere close behind me. I wheeled around to see Tim slumped against the base of the tree, his feet splayed and his hands resting on his belly. He appeared to be holding something, a photo of some sort judging from the shape of the object, but it was too dark to make out the image. I hadn’t bothered to grab a flashlight when leaving the tent, and had it not been for the white undershirt he was wearing, I might not have spotted him there in the shadows.
“Hey,” he said with a nervous laugh, raising a hand in greeting. “Did I scare you? Sorry.”
“It was a good discussion tonight, huh?” he said. The words were flat and jumbled together in a way that told me he was still smashed.
“Yeah. Really productive. Made me think a lot.”
He stood, tottering slightly, and walked to me, his body hunched, his arms limp at his sides. He seemed like a completely different person than the staid, self-possessed character who had guided us through the purging.
“You okay?” I said.
He nodded and ran the backs of his fingers along his furry jaw. “Just doing a little—what’s the word? Self-reflection. I guess.”
When he saw me looking at the photo, he handed it to me. “That’s my wife. Jessica. I mean my ex-wife. Probably can’t see it too good in the dark.”
Actually, the moon lent just enough light for me to make out the image: Tim and a black-haired woman with a bony nose sitting together in a bar booth, both of them smiling laughingly at the camera. He was wearing a blazer, she a spaghetti strap dress. The photo was rumpled and bent enough to suggest that he’d been carrying it around for some time.
“She’s pretty,” I said dumbly.
Nodding, he sighed. “Seventeen years I was married, man. It’s crazy, huh? Nights are really the hard part. That’s when it really hits you, the loneliness.”
“I know what you mean.”
“The guys at the firm, they’re all like, ‘You should go find somebody, get back out there, date around.’ All that crap. But it’s deeper than that, you know? It’s not about just going out and finding some woman.” He didn’t say the word so much as spit it out like an insect that had flown into his mouth. “I think one of the worst feelings in the world is knowing that you’re just something that’s happened to somebody. And I’m so tired of that.”
Something that’s happened to somebody—that was a good way to put it. How much sleep had I lost panicking over the idea that Christine’s ability to so readily move forward with her life spoke much less about her character than it did mine? How much of our lives do we waste worrying over whether the people who have affected us the most feel the same way about us?
“I know it’s kind of weird, all this emotional stuff,” he said, sweeping a hand through the air. “It’s hard to be open with each other. Guys, I mean.” There was a distant quality to his voice, as though he didn’t entirely believe what he was saying. Maybe it was the booze, but I couldn’t be certain.
“Yeah, kind of.”
“But I really appreciate you coming out here. And bringing Dwayne. Because, you know, we’re all hurting in some way, and we’d like to think that keeping it to ourselves is, like, the manly thing to do, you know? But we need to know that we can all turn to each other. That’s what this is about.”
We were quiet for some time. The wind hummed and the crickets creaked all around us. For some reason, my thoughts drifted back to my dissertation, those disenfranchised soldiers shipped off to the Philippines to fight for a country that had never offered them any sense of belonging. JOIN US! proclaimed the pamphlets that the insurrectos would post conspicuously in the villages. YOUR MASTERS HAVE THROWN YOU INTO AN INIQUITOUS BATTLE! THE FILIPINOS ARE YOUR FRIENDS! Just because you love something, that doesn’t mean it has to love you back.
A breeze swept by, snapping at my sleeves and tousling my hair. Tim and I were standing only a few feet apart at this point, close enough for me to smell the smoke in his clothing. He put his hand on my shoulder as if to console me and began kneading the tender region between the joint and my neck. I chuckled, but not because I thought it was funny.
“I care about you, Josh. Seriously. I care about all you guys. I need you.”
I would like to say that what came next was a complete surprise, but I suppose that in some region of my mind I must have recognized the low, soft timbre of his voice for what it was, the pressure of his body so close to mine, and I understood that whatever was about to happen, I wasn’t going to stop it.
Without a word, he ran his hand up to my face and cupped my cheek and, taking an abrupt step forward, kissed me. It was a hard, sloppy maneuver, hurried, as if there were some chance of us getting caught. But who was there to catch us? Andy and Paul and Dwight, but they were all snoring in their tents a few yards away, and then, beyond that, just the lonely expanse of the field. This is what I was thinking as he cupped the back of my head and pulled me to him, how alone we were out here in the cool darkness, no one around to hear him groan as he piled his tongue into my mouth with an adolescent’s clumsy ardor, nobody to see the way he began working his jaw against mine as though he intended to devour me, or how I didn’t stop him, didn’t push him away, but instead sank greedily into the kiss, wrapping my arms around his shoulders and pulling myself to him.
Where did it come from, this sudden hunger for Tim’s mouth, for his body? It seemed to blossom out of some larger abstract need for validation, one that had less to do with Christine than it did with the way I perceived myself as a component of the world, and in an instant all of the self-pity and confusion and despair and doubt, those things that had accumulated in me like engine grime, they were forgotten, and when Tim, his gamey-smelling body pressed tightly against mine, ran his palm down my stomach and then between my legs, I didn’t stop him. Instead, I gave into it, the motion of his hand against my erection, his sour breath on my neck as I titled my head back in a moan. I angled my pelvis into his hand, I let it happen, I didn’t stop him, no, not until my I felt myself overcome by that familiar internal warmth, heavy and brilliant, and in a flash my mind went blank.
Then it was over. Less than a minute maybe. Tim’s hand lingered between my legs, but his groping had stopped. He was panting into my ear, his breath heavy and unsteady. I stepped back from him, my erection already softening and my brain already rebooting, and I looked him over, the long severe lines of his face, and I knew that what had just happened didn’t belong to either of us but existed only in a moment that would never be fully realized, and I felt cold and empty and dry, the same way I had felt after Christine had left. Tim was sort of swaying, his hands at his sides, palms out. He appeared frozen, like he was in shock. He felt it too, I could tell, that whatever we’d been reaching for was already gone, a bubble burst by the slightest touch, tenuous enough to make you wonder if it had ever really been there at all.
Finally, I took a breath and smoothed back my hair, and then without a word I shuffled past him toward my tent, leaving him there beneath the tree, a hunched figure in the dark. I realized after a few steps that I was still holding the photo, but something told me to just keep moving, so I just crammed it in my pocket for the time being and continued walking.
The sun was cresting above the tree line in the distance the next morning when I crawled out of my tent, and there was a smoky chill in the air. Birds twittered off in the distance. My head throbbed dully and my mouth was dry. The numbness at the base of my neck told me I had slept at a bad angle.
The events of the night before seemed faded and far-off, like remnants of a dream. I didn’t know what to make of what had happened. Too much alcohol, I wanted to tell myself, but that seemed too easy, a cheat.
Dwayne was already up, seated on one of the stumps by the fire in a pair of shorts and a hooded sweatshirt, his knees drawn up to his chest. A saucepan of water sat atop a few of the remaining embers.
“Morning,” I said, trying to sound as casual as possible.
“Hey. Thought I’d go ahead and get coffee started.”
“How long have you been up?”
“About forty-five minutes, maybe an hour.” He leaned over and peered into the pan.
“Couldn’t sleep, or what?”
He smiled tightly, as if I had just told an off-color joke. Licking his lips, he reached into his pocket for his cigarettes. “Jill texted me last night,” he said as he lit up.
“Yeah. She texted me, and I texted back, and so then finally I just called her. We talked for like two hours.”
I waited a couple beats before saying, “And?”
He sighed. “She wants to get together and talk. You know, about us. Says she misses me.” He said this as though the words had a bad taste.
“What did you say?”
“I said that I would talk but that I couldn’t promise anything. I’m just not sure what the deal is.”
“Well, it’s a good sign, right?”
“See, that’s the thing. It’s like, yeah I miss her too, but what good would it do, getting back together? Would we really be better off?”
I mulled this over for a moment. “This doesn’t sound at all like the stuff you’ve said in the past.” I was trying not to sound disappointed. I had never heard Dwayne speak about Jill with such level-headedness. Where was all the dreary preteen sentiment, the desperation, the heartache? I couldn’t help feeling betrayed, as though he had broken some pact we had made to be miserable together.
Shrugging, he said, “It was something about last night, you know, all the talking around the fire. I started wondering, if me and Jill did get back together, would either one of us really be better off? Or are we just grasping at straws here?”
He had a point, I guess. It was something I’d batted around my mind countless times, whether I was better off with or without Christine. She’d been something to cling to, an anchor. She was someone, and I wanted to believe that this was reason enough to hold onto her. Because isn’t this what it always comes down to? Familiarity versus the unknown? Aren’t most of us just looking for a distraction from ourselves, from the latent understanding of how alone and defenseless we are?
“Look, do me a favor,” Dwayne said. He glanced over at the other three tents as if to make sure the others were still sleeping and then leaned in close to me. “Don’t get too sucked into this stuff.”
“All this men’s liberation crap. I know these guys are your friends, but you don’t need this. We’d like to think we’re victims here, but that’s not really true, and you know it. You’re not going to get anywhere by just being pissed off at women.”
“I’m not pissed off.”
“We’re all pissed off, Josh. And that’s fine. But this isn’t therapy. It’s a bunch of dudes sitting around the woods blaming women for all their problems. Tim? He’s an okay guy, but he’s just as screwed up as we are. Only difference is, he doesn’t see it. I’m only saying this because you’re my friend. You don’t need this.”
I looked out across the field toward the dark curtain of trees. Everyone else seemed to know what I needed. Why didn’t I?
“I think I’m going to go for a walk,” I mumbled. Suddenly I didn’t want to be there when the others woke up. Especially Tim.
Dwayne nodded sympathetically and turned his attention back to the pan.
Walking out into the field, I let the tall dewy grass swish against my bare legs. I was close to the tree line that marked the edge of the field when I remembered Tim’s photo in my pocket. I pulled it out and studied it. What was I looking for? A glimpse of some other version of him, someone happier, more sure of himself. There he was, smiling brightly at the camera, a man with things to look forward to. My guess was that the picture hadn’t been taken more than just a few years before, but still something about that smile and the way his hand was resting on his wife’s bare shoulder made him appear much younger, almost unrecognizable.
I was trying not to think about what would happen later on, after we had cleaned up the site and headed back into town. After we had returned to our glum little lives. I tried not to think about Tim, whether he and I would even speak again once all of this was over. It’s frustrating business, the future, all that waiting around to just get it over with.
And I guess it was this frustration that suddenly compelled me to crumple the photo up and then chuck it as hard as I could toward the trees, where it vanished into the brush with only a vague crackle. Somehow I knew that Tim wouldn’t come asking for it.
A couple minutes later I heard the muted din of voices echoing back to me. Looking back toward the campsite, I saw that the others were up. They sat around the fire pit, the four of them, sipping coffee and chatting. Tim looked over in my direction for a few moments. I couldn’t tell if he was looking directly at me or not, but I suspected that he was, and I knew that he was feeling something similar to how I was feeling, that the only progress we had made was realizing the scope of our desperation. I remembered what he had said the night before about becoming something that happened to somebody. Someone told a joke and they all laughed. From where I stood out in the field with my back to the woods, they were indistinct figures, blips of color against the horizon, small enough to have been mistaken for children.