As the flames died to embers, he knew something had to change. He looked around the little rented cabin and his eyes met Emily’s. They had talked about having to move again, about needing a better job, about making something of life. But their words had slowly faded and then, for a time that seemed very long, they were silent. Her green eyes, now black in the semi-darkness, reflected the last glimmer of the fire. The soothing smell of burning wood still lingered in the air, a smell of childhood, of protection, of being safe and apart from a world of toil and grasping at straws, where one had to leave behind so much of one’s self, as if checking in a coat at the entrance to some theater.
It was the first vacation they had taken in a long while. She had to put in longer hours to keep up with a new project and his father had fallen ill. They had no time. They sometimes met in the hallway of their apartment, like trains changing tracks between trips. A mouth would open, a hand would reach, hair pulled from one’s eyes, a sliver of comfort and then out into the blizzard. Words unsaid, sighs unsighed, kisses unkissed. They had been busy doing their best, their not quite good enough best.
On the long car ride over they talked about the need to find new ways, to be better organised, to figure things out. They passed through the countryside, a speck inching forward in a great empty dome of sky. Everything was falling short. Car doors were slammed a bit too hard, too much money spent on knickknacks at the gas station store, a yawn, a tear quickly erased by a finger. Was he for her what she needed? Was she for him what he desired? All throughout the trip, it was as if some other force was moving them, controlling tongues and hands, manipulating hearts. Words were different once outside the chest and changed again once heard, clashing like two radio stations fighting for the same wavelength.
The cabin was smaller than they expected and the attendant was indifferent. They still felt as if they were sneaking into a life not meant for them, above their station, denied them for some ancient crime or mistake. They had failed somehow to be like other people. They had been too shy, perhaps too gentle with their grip on life. The gates would not budge easily for them.
They had arrived at dusk and the forest surrounding the cabin was silent, a silence that somehow felt to resonate the distance between them. The way they had been pushing at life, each in their corner, at their door. They were hardly facing each other these days, their thrust spent outwards, onto other worlds, each staring down their own impossibilities.
As instructed by the plaque beside the fireplace, they built a fire, brought together for a moment by this practical need. Then more words were said then silence was said. And now the fire had died down and something had to change.
“Maybe it’s just me”, said Michael, “maybe I’m just never happy”.
He looked at her. She was smart and kind, but not as pretty as he had hoped, not as assertive. She was not the brave new thing one was supposed to be in order to traverse this life.
She looked at him, finding very little in his face. His words coming as if from far away, a slight delay, and leaving a minor impression. He was a companion of sorts, a co-conspirator. But he had not moved her the way she had expected to be moved, had neither swept her off her feet or unsettled her. She didn’t think it was possible to remain the same, to be so untransformed by love. And so she began to reach the conclusion that this wasn’t love. It was only an attempt, a sketch – like she was taught in design school – a pale outline, devoid of the flesh and blood power to move the viewer to action. He was quickly becoming a failed attempt. And those restless parts of her—those parts that pushed her forward, out of herself and into something better, something that could dazzle and capture other people’s minds – were already beginning to move on, to mark new goals, a new, post-Michael her. They both recently Googled the average life expectancy of a romantic relationship for middle-class millenials.
It had been three years since they had met at the university cafeteria, joking about how old they were compared to the bursting, bubbling youth of the rest of their cohort. Both on second chances. Him, with his black t-shirts and sandy hair, rolling the boulder up business school after five years of trying to make it as a filmmaker. She, with her loud dresses and her hair always too short for other people’s taste, was stumbling down the big staircase of social work, after repeatedly trying to make it into clinical psychology. They talked about not missing their early twenties, about the calm and wisdom that approching thirty brought with it. They had smiles and tea, leaving unspoken the fidgetiness that came with aging out of track, outside a clear path for success and the fear, some nights, of having gone too far afield to now correct their course, the fear of being a failed experiment, nothing more than a warning to others, a cautionary meme.
They had tea and cheered each other up. There was something familiar about Michael and being with him had soft edges. He comforted those parts of her that she now thought of as weak, as too sensitive, too ill-equipped for the journey into the world. Theirs were the moments of smalldom, not greatness, moments of everyday pleasantness, no spotlights. She looked at him in the semi-darkness now, the man who had been for her a life raft of sorts, a safe footing. She could use him to stop from drifting away, to keep breathing, but climbing up was a different matter. They spent too many nights watching Netflix, clicking through various series, in desperate search for the feeling that something had actually happened, at least to someone, somewhere.
“Maybe it’s me”, she said, “maybe I’m just not good enough”.
Not good enough at love, she thought, not good enough to find a better man, to accept the one she’s got and drag him up beyond his station.
In both of them, the selfsame thoughts – the misery thoughts, the inadequacy thoughts, the indelible flaw thoughts – curled up like the smoke from the dying fire. They left each other in silence, prey to these vulture thoughts, circling in their minds.
The room was very still, the darkness thick as a blanket and draped over them. The earthy smell of the forest slowly crept back into the room. Slowly some motion began to emerge. A deeper breath, fingers brushing against cloth, tracing someone else’s features. Someone was crying and the other had joined. The silence shivered an ending, as if still reverberating some terrible cosmic gong that sent the failed contestants off stage. For a long time, they did not know how to begin. A voice in them which had been trying all along to speak now lingered, hesitant. Not one word that they knew was its own.
Then suddenly they were like children, who had their excited sleepover lights-out conversations, but with a sadness now, a sadness deeper than any childhood, underpinning them, like when lifting an innocent rock to find an entire writhing, throbbing, creeping world of life underneath. And as the rock can never reassume its innocence, neither could they, in thick darkness, avoid this sadness. This living, wriggling sadness, crude and flailing like a cornered animal.
“It’s just that I feel so small. And I thought one had to be big in order to love and be loved. I thought that was the purpose, that big round bigness, the pedestal, the podium, that moment of rest that only winning could afford. Now it’s like there’s too many people in the world, all competing for the same places, the same identities, all half-baked clay struggling to fit the mold.”
“It’s these dreams they put into us, you know, dangling them in front of us. I guarantee you, not one person we know has any idea of who and what they are beyond those pre-made dreams. And maybe we’re supposed to feel small. I mean, look at us, why do we need to be important? We’re all so disposable, so replacable and all we do is try to find people for whom we won’t be those things, people who could keep us and never replace us. But I think of myself and I keep getting this image of a plastic cup, this $5 Starbucks latte, just after someone’s thrown it in the garbage and it’s still mid-air, and it’s branded and there’s a million just like it and it’s empty and used, but now it’s free, it’s flying, it’s bent and stained and unsellable. And it’s not a fucking product anymore”.
At some point, night changed into morning. The one who woke up first realized that they had slept in each other’s arms. Long time since that’s happened. In a strange silence, they hurried through the morning tasks and, for no apparent reason, packed their bags. They still had another night, but something about the cabin was spent, was already rotting. The air outside still had the morning chill to it and crossing the doorstep felt like being hurled out of a busy subway car. They had an itch to them, a wish to go somewhere where nothing was bought or sold, where one could just be and not be on display or on a shelf or in an aisle. And they got into the car. And it was low on fuel. And all the gas stations had McDonald’s. And all the roads had numbers and were listed on Google Earth. And the app started spouting cheerful instructions: “Let’s Go”.