Issue 207, Winter 2013
My parents kept a small cabin in the mountains. It was a simple thing, just four walls, and very dark inside. A heavy felt curtain blotted out whatever light made it through the canopy of huge pines and down into the cabin’s only window. There was a queen-size bed in there, an armchair, and a wood-burning stove. It wasn’t an old cabin. I think my parents built it in the seventies from a kit. In a few spots the wood beams were branded with the word home-rite. But the spirit of the place made me think of simpler times, olden days, yore, or whenever it was that people rarely spoke except to say there was a storm coming or the berries were poisonous or whatnot, the bare essentials. It was deadly quiet up there. You could hear your own heart beating if you listened. I loved it, or at least I thought I ought to love it—I’ve never been very clear on that distinction. I retreated to the cabin that weekend in early spring after a fight with my wife. She was pregnant at the time, and I suppose she felt entitled to treat me terribly. So I went up there to spite her, yes, and in hopes that she would come to appreciate me in my absence, but also to have one last weekend to myself before the baby was born and my life as I’d known it was forever ruined.
The drive to the cabin is easy to imagine. It was a drive like any drive to any cabin. It was up a dark and winding road. The last half mile or so was badly paved. With snow on the ground, I would have had to park in a clearing and walk the rest on foot. But the snow had melted by the time I got there. This was April. It was still cold, but everything had thawed. Everything was beautiful and dark and powerful the way nature is. I brought all my favorite things to eat and ate them almost immediately upon arrival: cornichons, smoked trout, rye crackers, sheep feta, cured olives, dried cherries, coconut-covered dates, Toblerone. I also brought up a nice bottle of Château Cheval Blanc, a wedding gift I’d hidden and saved for three years. But I found no corkscrew, so I resorted to the remnants of a bottle of cheap Scotch which I was surprised and relieved to discover on a shelf in the closet next to a dried-out roll of fly tape. Later, after dozing in the armchair for quite a while, I went outside in search of firewood and kindling. Night had fallen by then and I had no flashlight, hadn’t even thought to bring one, so I sort of grappled around for sticks in the glare from my headlights. My efforts amounted to a very brief but effective little fire.
I’ve never been outdoorsy. My parents rarely brought us up to the cabin as children. There was barely room enough for a young couple, let alone bickering parents and two bickering sons. My brother was younger than me by just three years, but those three years seemed to stretch to a wide chasm of estrangement the older we got. Sometimes I wondered if my mother had strayed, we were that different. It wouldn’t be fair to call me a snob and my brother trash, but it wouldn’t be far from accurate. He called himself MJ, and I went by Charles. As a child I played clarinet, chess. Our parents bought MJ a drum set, but he wasn’t interested. He played video games, made messes. At recess I’d watch him throw fake punches at the smaller kids and wipe his snot on his sleeve. We didn’t sit together on the bus. In seventh grade I won a scholarship to an elite private high school, started wearing ties, played rugby, read newspapers, and spent all my time at home in my room with my books. I turned out successful, but nothing special. I became a real estate lawyer, married my law-school girlfriend, bought a pricey condo in Murray Hill, nothing close to what I hoped I’d do.
MJ was a different type of man. He had zero ambition. His friends lived in actual trailer parks. He dropped out of the public high school his junior year, shot dope, got a job in the warehouse of an outlet store, I think, unpacking boxes all day. I’m not quite sure how or if he makes a living now. He used to show up at Christmases unshowered in a ratty hooded sweatshirt, would pass out on the couch, wake up and eat like a wild boar, burping and laughing, then disappear at night. He was talented physically, could easily lift me up and spin me around, which he did often just to taunt me when we were teenagers. He had terrible cystic acne in high school— big red boils of pus that he squished mindlessly in front of the television. He didn’t care how he looked. He was a real guy’s guy. And I was always more my mother’s type. We shared a certain refinement which I’m sure was annoying to my brother, since he called me a faggot every chance he got. In any case, I hadn’t seen him in several years, since my wedding, and I hadn’t been up to the cabin since my wife and I first started dating. We’d spent an awkward night up there together one spring, a lifetime ago, but that’s not a very interesting story.
I rolled a joint in my car with the lights on and smoked it sitting in the armchair, in the dark. There was no cell-phone service up there, which made me nervous. I don’t know why I continued to smoke marijuana as long as I did. It almost always sent me into an existential panic. When I smoked with my wife, I had to feign complete exhaustion just to excuse myself from going out for a walk, which she liked to do. I was so paranoid, so deeply anxious. When I got high I felt as though a dark curtain had been pulled across the world and I was left there alone to waver in its cold, dark shadows. I never dared to smoke by myself at home, lest I throw myself from our twelfth-story window. But when I smoked that night at the cabin, I felt fine. I whistled some songs, tapped my feet. I whistled one difficult tune in particular, a Stevie Wonder song which is melodically complicated, and after a few rounds I could really whistle it beautifully. I remembered what it was like to practice and get good at something. I thought of how great a dad I would be. “Practice makes perfect,” I’d tell my child, a truism, maybe, but it now seemed suddenly endowed with great depth and wisdom. And so I felt wonderful about myself, forgetting the strange world outside. I even thought that after my child was born, I’d still come up to the cabin once or twice a month, just to keep the secret of how great I am. I whistled some more.
Around nine o’clock, I pulled my sleeping bag out and unrolled it on the bed which was covered in old blankets and dust and mouse poop, and slept with no trouble at all. In the morning I guzzled a liter of mineral water and drove on the dark and winding road back to Route 11, where there was a Burger King. I ate breakfast there. In addition to my breakfast sandwich and coffee, I purchased several Whoppers which I figured I could heat on the wood-burning stove for lunch and dinner, should I decide to stay another night. I also bought a six-pack of beer, a family-size bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, and a pound of Twizzlers from the gas station. And I bought the local newspapers and a magazine called Fly Tyer to stare at while I chewed. On my cell phone I found one missed call from my wife. I happily ignored it.
Back at the cabin I shook the dust off the blankets covering the bed because I wanted to lie down in the light from the window and read Fly Tyer and eat Twizzlers. Something flesh colored caught my eye amid the blankets. At first I thought what I’d seen was my wife’s old diaphragm—a Band-Aid colored thing which I’d always hated looking at. Then I thought it might be an old prosthetic arm, or a doll. But when I pulled another blanket back, I saw it was a dildo. A large, curved, Band-Aid–colored, rubber dildo. My first instinct of course was to pick it up and smell it, which I did. It only smelled faintly of rubber, anonymous. I set it on the sill of the window and went outside to collect more firewood. I was determined to start a real fire. Was I perturbed to find the dildo? It only peeved me the way one is peeved when one hears his neighbors banging pots through the walls. And it seemed at the time more like vandalism than evidence of any kind of sexual activity. It seemed like a prank. Outside I was happily surprised to find a large store of dry logs in the crawl space under the cabin.
Once I’d gotten the fire roaring, I sat down and cursed myself for having forgotten to buy a corkscrew from the gas station, since late morning by the fire seemed like the perfect time to sip my wine. I swore aloud. The friend who had given me that bottle was an old college classmate. I’d slept with his girlfriend one weekend senior year while he was visiting his parents, and I never told him. His girlfriend’s name was Cindy and she was half Pakistani and liked poppers and farted in her sleep. She was the last girl I slept with before my wife. So that bottle to me meant more than good wine. There was no way I was sharing it with my wife. I considered driving back down to the gas station, but there was no guarantee they’d have a corkscrew. Plus I was too scared to leave the fire burning unattended. There was no fire extinguisher, and the plumbing was shot. Not being able to wash my hands was the only real drawback to the place. I relieved myself outdoors, watching the smoke tuft out of the metal chimney like a choo-choo train. Afterward I used sanitizing gel on my hands and sat in the armchair again.
I’d gotten lucky the night before, but after I smoked that joint that morning and saw my fire burning, heart still banging with fury about the impenetrable wine, Cindy’s brown legs hanging off the bed, I knew I was in trouble. My thoughts turned to the primitive longings of early man, and I searched in my heart for some remnant of primal wantonness, and since I was looking, I found it. I rolled another joint and smoked it and removed my shirt and fed the fire apprehensively and sat on the bare floor of the cabin and growled and rocked like a baby and crawled around on my hands and knees. But the floor of the cabin was filthy. I found a broom and swept. Whoever was going up there and doing the dildoing had no regard for cleanliness, I thought to myself. I cleaned until I was hungry, and fed the fire again and put one of the Whoppers on the iron stove. The special sauce melted and the bun burned on the bottom, but when I bit into it, it was all just chewy and lukewarm and reminded me of my elementary-school cafeteria and that low-quality food that I so desperately wanted to comfort me, but didn’t.
The cabin hardly looked any cleaner after all that sweeping. In fact, I probably stirred up more dust than I swept out the door. I sneezed and drank a few beers and relieved myself again and used more hand-sanitizing gel and sat in the armchair. I smoked another joint. That last one was a mistake, since after just a few minutes I was picturing my unborn son crying over my grave fifty years into the future, and I felt the gravity of his woe and resentment toward me, and I despised him. Then I imagined everything bad he’d say about me to his own children after my death. I imagined my grandchildren’s bitchy faces. I hated them for not worshipping me. Had they no idea of my sacrifice? There I was, perfectly wonderful, and nobody would see that. I looked up and saw a bat hanging from the rafters. I went to a very dark place. The oceanic emptiness in my gut churned. I pictured my old body rotting in my coffin. I pictured my skin wrinkling and turning black and falling off my bones. I pictured my rotting genitals. I pictured my pubic hair filling with larvae. And after all that, there was infinite darkness. There was nothing.
Just as I considered hanging myself with my belt, there was a knock on the door of the cabin, and a girl’s voice called out, “MJ?”
The only girlfriend of MJ’s I’d ever met had the odd name of Carrie Mary. I always thought Carrie Mary must have been slightly retarded because she had that kind of fat double chin and weak smile and the sort of waddle that some retarded people have, and she wore her hair in small pigtails all over her head, fixed with childish bows. I think my parents were too polite to question the relationship, but when MJ brought her home one Thanksgiving, I confronted him. “Are you taking advantage of Carrie Mary because she’s mentally disabled?” My brother did not answer me. He simply took the log of goat cheese I was spreading on Melba toast and threw it at the floor and stepped in it with his dirty tennis shoe. He tracked that goat cheese all around the house, and later that night I heard my brother fucking Carrie Mary. He sounded like a growling bear when he fucked her. I’d never heard anyone grunt like that before. It was so authentic. It scared me. I couldn’t look him in the eye for days.
But the woman at the door was not Carrie Mary. I composed myself and received her in a manner I thought was perfectly casual. “How do you do? I’m Charles.” I was very high. Shirtless, I folded my arms across my belly like a straightjacket.
“He here?” she asked, seeming to notice neither my greatness nor awkwardness. She was a local—long, dyed, purplish hair, big gray sweatshirt, tight jeans, dark lipstick, no coat on. She looked like the kind of girl who works at a Store 24 or some pizza parlor or bowling alley, takes a lot of flak from the patrons, eleventh-grade education. “Is MJ around?” she asked, sniffling from the cold. A chilling perfume, like vodka and honey, cut through the air. I thought I’d die.
“No,” I said. It seemed imperative that I come off casual. “Haven’t seen him.”
She bit her lips in disappointment, rubbed her hands together. I could see she was wearing a full face of makeup. Chalky powder caked over her cheeks, rouge, blue eye shadow. She looked young, twenty maybe. I tried to ask for her name.
“And to whom do I have the pleasure?” is what I said, and immediately I heard my voice echo through the trees like some nervous pervert or dweeb, like someone who’s never had a conversation before.
“Is he coming back soon?” she asked. “MJ?”
“Yes, MJ,” I said before I could even understand her question.
“Cool if I wait for him? My brother can’t pick me up till four.”
I nodded. She stepped closer to me, and for a moment I thought she wanted me to embrace her, so I lifted my arms awkwardly, then put them down. She was generous not to stare at my gut, my nipples.
“Can I come inside?” she asked.
“Sorry,” I said, and turned to give her room to walk through the doorway.
I don’t know why I kept up the lie about MJ. I certainly wasn’t in the mood to entertain this young woman, whose name I soon learned was Michelle, but spelled somehow with an x because, as she put it, her family was European. Perhaps somewhere in me I felt that keeping her company would be a further affront to my wife, which was the entire point of my trip, after all. I admit I was grateful to have something come in and disturb the journey of my thinking. The first thing she did was light a cigarette and pace around and point to the dildo and blow a ring of smoke and say to me, as though she were asking me the time of day, “You a fag?”
“No,” I replied, disgusted. And then for some reason—maybe I wanted to school her, blow her mind—I said, “I’m not a fag—I’m a homosexual.” I pronounced the word very carefully, elongating the vowels and punctuating the u, which I thought was a pretension quite in keeping with my statement.
“For real?” she said, flicking her cigarette and gazing down at my crotch. “How do you know MJ?” she asked. I put my shirt back on.
“A friend,” I said.
“What kind of friend?” she asked.
“A very dear friend,” I replied. The words just came out of me. I sat in the armchair and crossed my legs. Michelle seemed to read my mind and offered me a cigarette. She looked at me suspiciously. I smoked as faggily as I could, bringing the cigarette to my puckered lips, sucking my cheeks in, then flinging my arm out, hyperextending the elbow as I exhaled to the side. I had her fooled, I knew. I was like a purring cat.
“You come up here a lot?” she asked. “To see MJ?”
“From time to time,” I replied, swinging my foot. “When we can both get away.”
The girl kept sniffling. She threw her cigarette out the open door and closed it, went and knelt by the fire, warmed her hands.
“Where’d he go?” she asked. She was uneasy, but she wasn’t the type of girl to get offended. I was familiar with girls like her—tough, blue-collar teenagers. They were around when I was an undergrad, off campus. There was one like Michelle who worked as a bartender in a small pool hall my friends and I went to because we thought it was quaint. That girl was beautiful, could have been a movie star if she’d wanted to, but she just chewed gum and had dead eyes and seemed immune to all manner of flattery or abuse. That’s what Michelle was like. She seemed immune. And for that reason, I felt impelled to hurt her.
“He went out,” I said, “to buy a corkscrew.” I pointed to the Château Cheval Blanc on the floor next to my overnight bag.
She picked up the bottle, smeared her nose on her sleeve. She was pretty. A cold face with small features like a child’s, no wrinkles, no expression. She held the bottle by its neck and swung it around, squinted at the label. “You like wine?” she asked. She was being polite, making conversation. I was afraid she’d drop the bottle and break it. I tried to sound relaxed.
“I love wine. Red, white,” I said, “rosé.” I tried another word. “Blush.”
“MJ didn’t tell me you were going to be here,” she said, putting the wine down. “We’d had a time set and everything,” she shrugged, flipped her hair.
“He’ll be back,” I said. “We’ll sort it out.”
She nodded and sniffed and crossed her arms and looked down.
“Are you hungry?” I asked her. The second Whopper was still in the bag on the counter by the sink. I pointed.
“No thanks,” she said.
“I’m a vegetarian myself,” I said. “MJ likes that kind of food.” I was feeling very clever, very bold. “That’s what I love about him—childish tastes.” With this statement I felt I had surpassed a misrepresentation and graduated to fraud, from novice to expert. “He just likes to play. Play and play. I suppose that’s what you two do together?”
She sat on the bed, folded her legs up Indian style. “We smoke,” she said. “Crystal?” She pulled a small glass pipe from her pocket, a crumpled ball of foil, displayed them to me on the palm of her hand like a fortune teller or a blackjack dealer, then laid them on the blanket beside her.
“Aha,” I said. I must have looked like a grandfather to her. She was perched on the bed there like a bird, hair flipping magically with a flick of the wrist in the quivering light from the small window. We passed a minute or two of long, dramatic silence. I felt I was in the presence of some great power. Then it suddenly occurred to me that MJ might show up.
“Maybe I should go,” I said. “Leave you two to it.” She didn’t try to stop me. I collected my things. I put my boots on. But I couldn’t leave the girl in there alone. This was my cabin, after all. I sat back down. She looked at her phone for a while.
“No reception,” she mumbled, biting her lips. She yawned.
There was one thing about my brother I loved. He was loyal. He would punch me, and he would insult me, but he would not betray me. Despite all our differences, I believe he understood me. When we were younger, seven and ten, I suppose, our mother worked at an after-school daycare at a church and would let us play in the backyard where there was a swing set and a sandbox and a bush with berries on it we were warned not to touch. But I liked to collect the berries. I filled my pockets with them and flushed them down the toilet when I got home. MJ and I barely spoke all afternoon. He was a little kid. He dug in the sand and pissed in it, spat, threw rocks at squirrels, shimmied up the posts of the swing set, threatened to throw a shoe at my head. I mostly sat on a swing or under a tree. I was too smart to play any games.
As the weeks passed, we got bored and started taking walks through the neighborhood. It was a wealthy suburb—pretty Dutch Colonials, some big Victorians. Those houses are worth in the millions now. We just strolled around, peering into windows. MJ liked to rifle through mailboxes, or ring doorbells, then run away, leaving me standing there with my hands in my pockets. But nobody ever came out of those houses. MJ must have known nobody would. He dared me to do things, stupid things, but I was a coward. “Pussy brains” is what MJ called me. I barely cared. He could say what he liked. He could do whatever he wanted to me. I knew, when the time was right, I would get back at him.
One afternoon we found an empty house and hoisted each other in through an open window. MJ went straight to the basement, but I just stood frozen in the kitchen, waiting, afraid to call out to him, heart tearing through my chest. When MJ came back up he had a hammer in his hands. “For squirrels,” he said. He opened the refrigerator. Inside it were the most delicious foods I’d ever seen. There was a roasted ham in there, an assortment of cheeses, and there was a pie—blueberry, I think. Something came over me in that moment. I pulled the poisonous berries from my pocket and smushed them inside the pie, up under the crust. MJ gave me the thumbs up. That was the first time we broke into a house together. I stole a chip of Roquefort that day. We went back the next day and I stole the rest of it. This went on, I think, for months until our mother enrolled us in the aftercare. I still have a Buffalo nickel that I stole from inside an old rolltop desk in one of those houses. Many other things we stole and threw away—scribbled notes, address books, a fork, a pack of cards, a toothbrush, things like that. Sometimes I’d sit at one woman’s vanity, smell all her perfumes and lotions, stare at my face in the mirror while MJ mucked around in the kid’s room. I’d douse my cheeks with a powder puff. I’d lie on the unwieldy water bed. I’d sniff things, lick things, put everything back in its place.
Twenty years later, I still felt that the good things, the things I wanted, belonged to somebody else. I watched the waning light play in Michelle’s somber eyes. She returned my gaze for a moment. It was clear the curtain had fallen for her, too. We shared a moment of recognition, I think, alone there in the darkening cabin.
“I don’t think MJ’s coming,” she said finally. She looked at me straight in the face, shrugging. “If he does come—” she began.
“We’ll say we couldn’t wait. We’ll say ‘you snooze you lose,’” I agreed, as she uncrinkled the foil.
We shared a wonderful afternoon together. We seemed to be playing our roles, the two scorned lovers. When she picked it up off the windowsill, I had the sense we were accomplishing great things. I let her do whatever she wanted to do to me that day in the cabin. It wasn’t painful, nor was it terrifying, but it was disgusting—just as I’d always hoped it to be.