No? Well here, I wrote you this story. (Oh, and don’t forget to nominate me for best lesbian personal blog– every day until the 9th. Remember to confirm each vote through yr email, or it doesn’t count!)
Did you ever just want to go north? There’s a lot up there, you know. Jagged, lonely mountains, and rivers and lakes and fields of blowing grass. Small, strange towns. And people. People who live in log cabins. That they built. Out of logs. Nailed all over with NO TRESPASSING signs. Old abandoned resorts, their empty buildings filled with sunlight and broken glass, at crossroads 100 miles from anything.
I hadn’t seen a northern forest in a long, long time. Boreal Forest. Boreal means north. We were in Whitehorse, in the Yukon Territory of Canada, and the sky was a dirty gray quilt of clouds. And poking the bottom of the quilt were hundreds of sharp black needles. Boreal forest. The silhouette of the boreal forest. I made a deep sigh. It was the skyline of my childhood, different than anywhere else. Like a magical land, that you had to travel for days just to reach. The forest silhouette of this magic land looked so sharp and pointed because it was Black spruce and White spruce, which only grew way up here. Spindly, dense, and leaning. White spruce on the south slopes, Black spruce on the north slopes.
I was twenty years old. I had forgotten about this forest. I hadn’t been in Alaska for six years, since I was a freshman in high school, and had left this heartbreakingly beautiful place to live in the desert with my grandparents.
Now I was back in the north. I’d hitchhiked from Portland, with my boyfriend. My boyfriend hadn’t wanted to come. I’d pressured him into it. I was an evil, manipulative girlfriend. It was nice of him to come with me. It was a long trip, a long trip to a far-away land.
It was summer, and it was hot. Hot in the north, record heat. We both had burnt faces, and the sun had made me crabby and determined. North! I had said. Farther north! We kept going, pushing into the land, but the heat just wouldn’t stop. Summers in the interior are hot, but not this hot!
In the beginning, just past Vancouver, BC, my boyfriend had gotten sick. Really sick. Pneumonia maybe, or SARS, one doctor had told us. This was when people were getting SARS. We had camped outside Whistler, next to a river that frothed deafeningly. I had let him have his big fever, grumbling. I stuffed him in the tent with his shirt off, took his temperature. If it got too high I made him sit in the river. The water was so cold he cried.
After eight days he was better. He tried to be cheerful for me, but I could tell he just wanted to go home, away from this far-away place, back to somewhere familiar.
“We’re going to Alaska,” I said.
I had a little slip of paper in my pocket, and it had my dad’s address on it. I’d gotten the address off the internet, for three dollars and fifty cents. My dad, apparently, was living in Anchorage, the town where I had grown up. I hadn’t seen him since I was three years old. For all I’d known, he was dead or in jail. But then I had found his address on the internet, and now I was going north to find him. I was planning on showing up on his doorstep and introducing myself, and on the way up, spending some days and nights in the fantastical land I had so deeply missed. But I hadn’t wanted to hitch-hike alone, so I’d pressured my boyfriend into going.
Hitchhiking alone is dangerous, no matter what your gender. The creepiest hitchhiking stories I’ve heard are all from my male assigned, male identified friends. They think they’re safer, less likely to become victims, so they hitch alone. And creepy things happen. Nothing really terrible, they mostly just get propositioned a lot. By lonely truck drivers and whatnot. Pretty normal people, actually. Folks you might see every day. Yep, there aren’t any monsters out there. Just us.
So we were hitchhiking to Alaska, my boyfriend and I, to find my dad, and one problem was that we were vegan. When you are very far north, in a far-away land, there is not much for a vegan to eat. There are only dusty bags of potato chips that sit, stale, on the shelves of little log stores crammed with taxidermy, stores peopled with hostile men who wear gently sloping mustaches. Because of this, my blood sugar was often very low. We ate a lot of bread, too, in addition to potato chips, and I didn’t yet know that I had a gluten allergy. My head was always foggy and dull, and I had about as much energy as a bag of rocks.
The other problem was that when Joe had been sick, I’d run out of reading material, and I’d found myself in the safeway in Whistler, BC, which was also made of logs, staring blankly at the glossy bookshelves, running my fingers over tales of tragic turn-of-the-century arctic expeditions, flipping through books on heroic young white women homesteaders in the far north, who had to sleep on piles of spruce boughs and learn to bakes cakes in a woodstove, and glancing at thick books of “old time” northern recipes that tell you how to make Eskimo ice cream (traditionally seal fat whipped with berries) out of canned tuna in oil and pink cake frosting. I finally settled on the only thing worth shoplifting- a big hefty volume of bear attack stories. I stole them, took them back to our campspot beside the loudly frothing river, and I read them. Oh boy did I read them- and when I was done with that volume there were more, and I read those too. There were stories of tree-planters stalked and treed by black bears, stories of loggers attacked by surprised grizzlies, stories of menstruating campers with tents full of snickers bars and what happens in the dead of night when they are sleeping- and of course the newlyweds who go back-country backpacking on their honeymoon. She is attacked, he runs for help- he finds another hiker after a few miles or so and by the time they return with the helicopter, she’s long dead and her remains have been half-buried in a hole by the tidy bear. I realized later that these books are mostly published by pro-hunting fanatics who work to perpetuate the bear’s image as an unpredictable sort of beast in order to justify their careless slaughter, but at the time I believed all of the stories, and didn’t give a thought to what sort of things might be happening in my brain, as I read them. And by the time I realized what I had done, it was too late.
Panicked, I flung down the book I had been reading, and craned my ears to the world outside the tent. My boyfriend was on my right, sleeping deeply in his sleeping bag. Outside, the forest was lit with a grey light- the midnight sun. Everything was silent. Or was it? A twig snapped. Was that breathing I heard? My heart beat faster, images of manic black bears and panicked grizzlies stomping through the blueberry bushes of my mind, competing with the sound of the blood rushing in my ears. Harder I strained for sound, my body stiff, the crinkling of my sleeping bag like thunder.
There was, of course, no bear. One night there was a bear. We had camped right on its path, the path it used to get to and fro, dear thing, along the river looking for fish. It ran by our tent as fast as it possibly could, brushing its short black self against our little diamond-shaped plastic window. My boyfriend was reading me Rumi, and we paused, frozen, my eyes bugging out of my skull. I couldn’t sleep that night until he let me listen to John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things, over and over a few times, with his headphones on the mini-disc player he had brought.
I know now, of course, many years later, what a bear sounds like when it is crashing through the bushes. And I know where to pitch my tent so I am not in the middle of Mr. Bear’s nightly rounds. This is for the Bear’s peace of mind as well as mine, because I know, now, that the bear would rather have its skin peeled off and stuffed in a glass display case in the Anchorage airport than meet me on a forest path. I am the most horrible predator that has ever graced the face of this planet, and the bear is very, very afraid of me.
I have a friend in Anchorage, we grew up together. She has a baby now, and a husband who likes to drink beer and play video games. When I got to Anchorage that hot, dry summer, our ride dropped us off and this friend met us in the Sears parking lot. Surprise! I said. Can I stay with you?
“Well, no,” She said. She was staying with her boyfriend’s mom, and there wasn’t room for us. She would, however, lend us bikes, and so we camped in the woods next to goose lake- a lake I’d swum in a lot as a kid, down the road from a low-income apartment complex I’d lived in, a flat lake covered in ducks. We set up our tent in the woods next to the lake and slept, trying to pretend that there weren’t kids tromping about in the trees around us, playing the exact sorts of forest games I’d played when I was growing up in that neighborhood. After a day or two of gathering our strength, eating cans of beans and fingering the slip of paper in my pocket, I felt that it was Time, and we set off on our rusty bikes to find my father.
It had seemed like a good idea to hitchhike up to Alaska and meet my dad. It had seemed like a plucky and courageous thing to do. And I mean, why not? He was just some stranger, and I was curious about him, curious about that whole side of the family. There had to be something there, some little bit of spark or light or understanding, somewhere on his side of my family tree. It was the dark side of my tree, the half draped in shadow, a side I had never seen. Who knew what those people were like? I figured the odds were good. There had to be someone in my family who wasn’t a total zombie like the people on my mom’s side- who had the guts to feel a goddam emotion and be human, and maybe a wingnut or two, thrown in there, that I could relate to. But as of yet, I hadn’t met them. And I just hoped that if they were there, they would make themselves known- that they wouldn’t be invisible like me, floating around with some stupid nickname, fallen from a limb, forgotten.
He was just some dumb straight guy and I could see the fear in his eyes, shining there a little dull, and it made me want to punch him in the face. My dad the total stranger stood frozen in the door of his stupid, unremarkable townhouse, and smiled an unremarkable smile. He laughed a little and invited me in, faking warm and jovial, not betraying a bit of his fear. My boyfriend came it too. I had instructed him not to say anything. Not a word.
In my dad’s house there were fat leather couches and a big, big TV, and on the TV was a football game. There was a thin Pakistani woman leaning on the counter in the kitchen. His wife. She faked friendly as well. I did not shout. I did not ask him, So- where have you been all my life? I wondered, instead, if I was interrupting. I felt as if I was breaking and entering.
Joe and I sat on the couch. We probably smelled. I had weird short hair under a red mesh cap. On the front of the cap was a rat peeing, and it said Piss on it! and the brim was curled up. I had the cap on backwards, the way I liked to wear it. I was wearing cutoff camo cargo pants, and my legs were hairy. I’d put on a long sleeve shirt over the black tank top I wore, to cover my tattoos. I don’t remember what my boyfriend was wearing, but it was probably a tight polo shirt that showed his nipple rings, and women’s boot cut jeans. He had long blonde hair and a big nose ring, and tattoos on his forearms of fists punching through earth and strange people-symbols in a ring, sharing mind-waves.
My dad looked at us sitting on the couch, a big tight grin plastered to his face. Then the three of us had some awkward small talk, as if this was just the most normal thing in the world, to show up on the doorstep of a parent you haven’t seen or heard from in eighteen years, and sit on their big leather couch and have small talk, the football game on mute, players still running around after the ball. His wife offered us some tea, and we said no. She offered us some juice, and we said no. She offered us juice again, and finally my boyfriend took some from her and then she never said another thing, just stood leaning against the kitchen counter, watching.
We talked, but really, we said nothing. Mostly my dad, he said nothing. He said so much nothing it filled the room with nothing, a big elephant nothing, and the elephant got fatter and fatter until it was crushing me, and rushing into my brain, and my mind went blank in the middle of a sentence and I just stared at him, unable to remember what we had been talking about or what the thought was that I had been vocalizing. Right in the middle of a sentence, the elephant had sat on my head and I couldn’t even finish the sentence. My dad stared at me and the elephant opened its big elephant mouth and screamed with all its elephant might, but it was an invisible elephant and invisible elephants scream invisible screams- it was a panic attack, pouring out of that elephant’s mouth. A great, big, nothing panic attack, because the elephant was really a million tiny ants, one ant for every long-ago day that I had wondered who my dad was, had wondered what he was like, where he was at, if he was in jail or dead, and why wasn’t he paying child support or supporting his children or giving us food. I was hungry and there was nothing to eat and in my world, there was no food, and there were no sheets or clean laundry or bottles of shampoo that smelled like strawberries. Suave. There was no one but me and my brother, staring into each others’ eyes, kicking our legs on opposite sides of the kitchen table, opening and re-opening the kitchen cabinets, hunger and malnutrition pinching at our insides and keeping us awake at night with leg cramps, making us steal other kids’ lunches at school and pick soggy oreos off the soccer field, desperate.
He looked at me and way back in his eyes, I could see it there. I could see what he was thinking. Everything had gone wrong and it was all his fault and now I was all fucked up and had come for him. I had come to make him pay. Emotionally, financially. Something. But actually I wasn’t even feeling too fucked up about the whole thing. I was feeling pretty well adjusted, in my own wingnut way. I wasn’t a junkie or a violent criminal. I was vegan at the time and I didn’t even drink. And I didn’t want to make him pay. I wanted him to be my friend. I wanted him to tell me about his life, and maybe tell me about any interesting relatives on his side that I might like to meet. I wanted him to tell me who he was. I wanted him to open up to me like the single men in pickup trucks that gave us rides north on the Alcan, who turned their bright eyes on us and let all their hopes and dreams spill out like a big vomit of crystallized sugar, used strong emotions, swept their arms across the horizon, declared their love for all of life and sweet regret for years that they had let pass by. One hundred miles the best of friends. Intimacy.
He didn’t want that. On his very longest list of things he absolutely did not want, way down at the very bottom, was that. He was like a rock inside of himself. Break it apart, you just find more rock. No way to get inside. I sat and looked at him, the rock. The big football rock. The silent, passive wife rock. The nice house rock. There was nothing. Even my dad himself- round but not tall, thick grey hair, freshly blow-dried. White teeth. A great big nothing.
I elbowed my boyfriend and we said Oh, Boy, Time to go! My dad-rock offered to drive us home. No, we said, a little awkwardly. We were sleeping in the woods, among the stunted spruce and the mosquitoes. I didn’t want him to see that we were camping. I wasn’t going to share any more of myself with this man, this man who wanted us in his living room like he wanted a natural disaster. So we left his house, pushing our way clumsily out of the elephant’s disorienting force-field, shaking our limbs to be free of it in the evening air, and walked to where we had locked our bikes. The light was cool and low, and as we walked along the street a young man pedaled towards us on a mountain bike, and in his left arm he cradled the most enormous king salmon, and his hoodie was splattered all over with blood. His right arm clutched a handlebar, and under that arm was his fishing pole. The kings were running, and he had been fishing at the creek at the end of the block, where a ribbon of forest ran through the neighborhood. We smiled and laughed at the magic of it all, and then I started to cry, big hot tears that made the world blurry, and since I couldn’t ride my bike because I was crying we just pushed them, and my boyfriend put his arm around me. Sob, sob, as I liquidated the elephant scream and pushed it out of my eyeballs. Sob, sob, quietly, my hand over my eyes, my lips pulled back in a horrible grimace, little gasping breaths. We were walking along a busy road, and the cars rushed by, blowing car-wind at us. One of the cars slowed and a man leaned out the window, waving his hand in the air.
“FAAAAAAAAAAGS!” he yelled, and sped away. I stopped crying and laughed, I dropped my bike and laughed. My boyfriend and I laughed and laughed, I leaned back my red splotchy face and laughed, the air hitting us cool and green, fresh even in the city, because it is Alaska.