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Staff illustration by Molly Quinn

Summer Stories: We Were So Lucky

| By Joseph Haeger

Thoreau didn’t say anything about toilet paper. He didn’t even say what leaves to use. That should have been on the first page, if anything. I didn’t want to use the shiny ones. Those could lead to itching – rashes, I assumed. Gloss didn’t seem like a real-world attribute; too fabricated. Size also played a major role. Too small and my hands would be filthy.

A maple. That was ideal.

Where were all the maples when I needed them? Sure, they rose over sidewalks and streets, dripping sap all over my car, resulting in an extra 30 minutes of scrubbing with the washcloth to keep the paint pristine. But now? Not a maple in sight. And I looked – off path. I went tromping through the brush, head held high in search.

Nothing but pines.

It’s as the sun set I realized my off-path excursion was a mistake. And I had no one to call out to for help.

Heidi was the one who thought ahead. The internet was the source to every meal and every trip. Then a checklist she wrote in a small notebook.

We were so lucky.

Our union happened so fast, and only in retrospect did I realize how easily she could have said “no” to my proposal. She didn’t need to go along with it, just because we were young and foolish and willing to take a risk that carried for the rest of our lives.

I used to say I was lucky it worked out. That we were compatible and adaptable enough. The perfect mixture of the two.

Now I can say reality finally kicked in.

“Read ‘Walden,’ ” my brother had said. “If you’re looking to simplify your life, give it a read and see where it takes you.”

Nowhere. That’s where it took me.

I couldn’t even finish – or begin, I should say.

Heidi said that all the time. She’d ask how a project was coming along and I’d let her know I wasn’t quite finished. “Have you quite begun?” she’d ask, the disdain dripping off each of the words.

I wonder if our marriage had ever begun.

“Walden” is 200 pages. A dense 200. Or I can imagine it all being dense. And I told my brother as much. I don’t think he even listened.

Trees shot upward. My feet shuffled along the dirt floor, careful not to trip. I watched where the tips of the pines speared the sky. They waved in the hard wind, craning back and forth. I thought they’d snap at any moment. I moved my tongue around my mouth trying to generate some saliva.

I found a rock to sit on – to catch my breath – and gazed up. I tried to count the trees to pass the time. The surrounding five were easy to count, but the moment I moved outside that circle I started double-counting certain trees, or missing them – either way, I’d get lost in the numbers.

There are 7 billion people on Earth. Talk about getting lost in the numbers. Heidi and I had the same outlook: There was no “one.”

Instead, there are equations and calculations, all leading to probability. Depending on how adaptable and compatible we are will determine who we’re able to spend the rest of our lives with. Though, this only works when each variable is honest about who they are.

I’d venture to say no one knows anyone. Even themselves. Honesty can be hard.

I know myself by certain projections I’ve overlaid on my life. Expectations for the kind of person I’d like myself to be. How I will potentially react in certain situations: with care.

That’s what I imagined.

I stood up from the rock. The sun grazed the tops of the trees, heading for the horizon. I needed to find the path.

Going down sent me in circles.

Going up would garner a better vantage point for an exit.

“What’s the end goal?” I held my cup of coffee with two hands.

“Think of it like you’re jump-starting the idea. It’s the manual to enjoying the small things.” My brother wasn’t even looking at me. He swiped his fingers across the face of his phone.

“Small things?” I blew the steam away. It was still too hot to take a mouthful.

“Nature,” he said. He squinted at his screen, reading something, then laughed to himself.

“Why do I need to read a book for that?”

He exhaled, moved his fingers around the screen, then pushed a button on the side of his phone and put it down.

“I guess you don’t. But, Ed,” he smiled, looking me in the eyes. “If we’re being honest here, a book might be as close to nature as you’ll get.”

“I can get close to nature,” I took too big a drink, but refused to spit the hot liquid out. I forced myself to swallow.

“Of course you can. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t –”

“Don’t placate me.” My tongue hurt. It felt like I scalded layers of skin away.

My brother breathed in. He held the air in his chest, letting it trickle out in a long exhale.

“I’m just trying to be helpful,” he said.

“I can get close to nature,” I made myself take another drink of the coffee.

I should have worn hiking boots. My Vans weren’t cutting it. It felt like my toe was going to pop out of the side of the canvas. I’d have to worry about getting new shoes once I got home. Back to my empty apartment where I already replaced half my stuff.

I got a page in.

He built a house, I think.

The issue was I read the words. All however many were scattered on the first page. But did I comprehend them? My mind wandered and dropped into oblivion. I got to the end of the page and thought, what did I just read? Instead of “Walden,” I was thinking of the work needing to be done. We’d picked up a new contract, but I wasn’t sure how we were going to complete the job on the budget I proposed.

I wonder how much Thoreau spent on his house.

Or shack.

Or whatever the hell he built.

Heidi said it was too late.

Our marriage was dead. It didn’t matter how much effort I put forth at that point. The damage was done and our relationship was in a state of rigor mortis.

“Sure,” she said. “Simplify as much as you want. That’s something you could pursue, but it’s nothing that will make me love you again.”

She wanted me to know: The choice to strip my life down was for my benefit.

Those were the words she said.

But when she said it – I saw a glimmer of that 19-year-old face. I’m not sure she remembers how we were at 19.

The sun sank beyond the tree line.

I pushed my way uphill, so I could look down and see the path to my car. The path to the small bottle of water on the passenger seat. I might get lucky and find my half-full canteen of coffee on the way down.

The sky took on a pink hue.

Like a Popsicle.

I wanted something cold to eat. Or drink. The water I’d left in the car was going to be warm by the time I got back to it.

I looked down at the wooded area behind me. Branches hung down low, and the bushes were thick. I had walked forward moments ago, but now couldn’t find the spot where I broke through. Wilderness all looked the same.

The sky was changing. The sun was gone, but the light tried to stay alive above me.

It tried without much effort, and without much effort it was going to fade into the darkness of night.

I needed to come to terms with the fact I was going to watch its metamorphosis. That I was going to be spending the night with the wild. Like Thoreau, I was going to be sleeping under the stars with the forest as my sole companion.

I found a pile of dead, dried leaves. Nothing too glossy. The brown leaves weren’t going to transfer any itchiness to my skin. Any harm they could have done died with their color. They weren’t going to give me anything other than a makeshift bed.

The sky faded further.

I rustled into the leaves, hugging my arms around my body. A breeze ran through the brush and skated over my exposed skin. The sweat chilled. Goosebumps sprouted across my arms and legs. I held myself tighter.

I hoped the moon would be bright.

And the stars gorgeous.

Lead photo credit: Staff illustration by Molly Quinn