The car skips and bounces down the road. Gravel kicks up in streaks of dust behind the wheels. I look out the window and lean my head against the glass.
“Well?” Amy asks. She’s driving. I’m in the backseat, stretched out, my legs pressing against one window and my head against the other. I look at my toes. Each of the nails is bruised. The one on my big toe is cracked in two different places. I wiggle them. I’m sure they stink, but I can’t smell it anymore and Amy is nice enough not to complain.
“Well?” Amy repeats. She glances at me through the rear-view mirror, smiling. Waiting. Wanting something from me.
“Well what?” I ask.
“How was it?”
She laughs. “That’s not all you’re going to say, is it?”
“It was hard, too.” I smile back. “Sorry, It’s just…” my voice trails off.
“Well, what was your favorite state, at least.”
“Had the prettiest mountains.”
“Did it help?”
“Did what help?”
I turn my head and watch the forest slide past outside the window. The road we’re on stretches nearly parallel to the trail. It’s odd, because in the last half hour we’ve travelled what took me three days to walk. It doesn’t feel like just travelling, it feels like the car is erasing the trail, eating it up, turning it into a green blur barely perceived through a window.
“No,” I say. “It didn’t help.”
“Do you want to talk about it?” Amy asks. Her face is a mask of sympathy, tinted dark by the shade of the mirror.
“No,” I say. “Just thinking.”
“You can sleep if you want. We can talk later.”
I lean back and close my eyes but I don’t sleep. I think about this picture I saw of a man at the end of the Appalachian Trail. He’s on Mt. Katahdin, on his knees, and he’s gripping the summit marker with both hands, pressing his head against the wood. Sobbing. The picture doesn’t move but I can see his shoulders heaving.
I thought it would be like that when I got to the top, to the end. But it wasn’t. I don’t know. I looked at the view, which was nice, but I had seen better, and then I walked down to the parking lot and waited for Amy to come get me, drive me home. I thought it would mean something.
Home is back in Connecticut for us, which means the drive is nearly ten hours. We take a pit stop at a convenience store outside of Portland. It’s dark now. We’re the only car in the parking lot. Neon signs say proudly that the gas is only $2.95, the light from inside the store is almost painful to look at compared to the rich dark of the clouded sky. The car’s headlights sweep across the asphalt and Amy cuts the motor.
I get out of the car and stretch. The lights of Portland turn the sky orange in the distance. Even if there weren’t clouds, there wouldn’t be any stars.
“I’ll get gas,” Amy says.
“I’m gonna piss,” I say.
My boots don’t fit linoleum tiles. They’re so scuffed around the edges that they look almost fuzzy. What used to be grey and blue has turned almost black with caked mud. The tiles are sharp and edged. They have the usual crumbs and dust and scratches, the store owner in the corner is busy sweeping the residue under the counter.
“Hey,” I say. “Got a bathroom?”
The inside of the bathroom is covered with funny quotes about alcohol. I’ve had one beer too many, but I can’t tell if it was the eleventh, or the twelfth. Beer makes you feel the way you ought to feel without beer. I chuckle at a good one about Winston Churchill.
I’m so used to pissing on trees that I nearly forget to flush. It’s funny. I thought I might change. I thought I was supposed to change. But I didn’t mean change as in, I forget to flush. I meant change, as in, I cried when I held the sign on Mt. Katahdin.
At the counter I toss a bag of Cheez-Its to the store owner, who scans them and tosses them back and then I toss him some coins, a game of catch. He looks me up and down.
“Hiker?” he asks.
“What gave it away?”
“The beard,” he says. I scratch at it thoughtfully. I haven’t shaved in six months.
“Let me guess,” the store owner says. “Baxter State Park?”
“For a little,” I say. “I was a through hiker.”
“My son was a through hiker.” He gives me the receipt. “See any bears?”
“A few,” I say. “When I was in the White Mountains, I saw one trying to reach for my bear bag. I hadn’t hung it in the trees properly and it was too close to one of the trunks, and this bear had climbed all the way up it and was reaching its paw for the bag. As I watched, the branch it was on broke. Real awkward thing, too. Paws flailing everywhere. It stood up and looked around like it was embarrassed, scratched its ear, and walked away as if nothing had happened.”
The store owner laughs. “I’ll tell my son.”
“I had a son, too,” I say.
“How old is he?”
“Would have turned fifteen in a month.”
When I get back to the car, Amy is sitting in the driver’s seat. The lights are off, so the only thing illuminating her face is pink neon, her expression bathed and washed and bleached. I get into the back seat. She doesn’t start the car, we just look at each other through the rear view mirror.
“Did you get gas?” I ask.
“I want to know why,” Amy says.
“Are you crying?” I ask.
“You were gone for six months.”
I don’t say anything.
“You were gone for six months and you just left me.”
“Can we talk about this when we get home?”
It’s a silent car ride back.
We sleep in the same bed. It’s the first time I’ve slept next to someone since I began the hike. She sleeps facing away from me. Morning light already fills the room with grey fuzz. I look at my hand, eyes open. Every part of me is aware of my wife, the weight of her in the bed, the warmth of her in the room, the sound of her breath and the smell of what she washed her hair with. All of the sensations are too much, I can’t handle the proximity, the constant reminder of another consciousness unable to sleep because the same grief is in both our hearts, I don’t want to feel her emotions as well as mine, so I get out of bed and I go for a walk down the street, in the same jacket I wore while hiking, barefoot, the concrete leeches warmth from my soles.
In the morning I have the same breakfast that I had on the trail. Oatmeal, brown sugar, powdered milk. I eat it at the kitchen counter, hunched over the food, too bleary eyed to focus on much of anything.
Amy sits down across from me, wearing pajamas, her hair erratic.
“Where’d you go this morning?”
“Just for a walk.” I pick up my bowl of oatmeal and wash it in the sink. The flakes stick to the side of the bowl and it takes a couple passes with the sponge to clean it out.
“I thought you’d have had enough walking.” She smiles, it’s a joke, but it really doesn’t feel like it.
“I want you to tell me about it. Tell me a story.”
The bowl is clean by now but I keep scrubbing at it.
“You didn’t call,” Amy says.
“Once a week, to let me know you were safe, like we agreed.”
“Did you want me to call?”
“You could have, you know. I would have answered.”
“Look at me,” she says.
I put the bowl down. I look at her. She reaches out and takes my hands which hang limp at my sides and holds them between us. Her thumb plays over the dirt on the back of my hand — a half hour long shower couldn’t scrub it clean — plays over the ridge of tendons and muscle I didn’t used to have.
“I missed you,” she says. “I needed you.”
“I needed to do something,” I say.
“I know you did.”
“You said it was fine. I asked and I asked and I asked if it was alright for me to go and you said you would be fine.”
“I didn’t want to control you.”
“I just… I needed my life to change.”
“Haven’t our lives changed enough?” Her voice chokes mid-sentence.
“I got up each morning and I sat on the bus to go to work and all around me, everybody was living their lives, moving, you know, and there I was, pretending nothing was different, moving along with them, pretending like nothing had happened, and I couldn’t do that.”
“And on the trail? Did you stop needing to pretend when you were on the trail?”
I look away.
“Look at me,” she says.
“I kept pretending,” I say.
“And for us?” she says. “Are we going to keep pretending, too? That nothing is different, that you didn’t abandon me, that our son didn’t–”
“That our son didn’t die?”
“We could keep pretending.”
“I don’t want to. I want to walk with you. I want to feel everything I need to feel, and then I want it to be done, just done, however long it takes for the grief to go away. I want you to be there with me. ”
“I need to call work,” I say. “To tell them I’m back. See if I still have a job.”
“Okay,” Amy says. She turns away from me. “Okay.”
I reach out a hand to touch her shaking back but I don’t, my fingers hover and then I draw them away.
At the top of Mt. Katahdin I stand in front of the sign that the hiker from the photo held. I turn from the sign, look out at the view. Clouds curl about themselves in little wisps. Slopes and rocks and trees and cliffs and ridges all around in a jumble.
I try to wrap my head around just how large the trail is. How large it is and I walked the whole thing, all two thousand two hundred miles of it. I can’t do it. I can’t hold the image all together. I can grab hold to a scrap here, a fragment there, but it is like a cup that has shattered. The shards of ceramic lie scattered in my mind. I pick up a shard and the rain patters against the walls of my tent, yet I am warm inside, wrapped in a sleeping bag, my headlamp reflects off the pages of my book. I pick up a shard and Amy and I are eating lunch while watching tv, I steal a potato chip from her plate and she steals half my sandwich and I steal her glass of milk and she steals a kiss. I pick up a shard and it is my son’s fifth birthday, I hold him up on my shoulders and run like a donkey around the yard while he smears his face with pink cake. Every time I pick up a shard I am forced to put down the one I was holding, no matter how many shards I grab I can never make the cup whole again, I can never contain the entirety of my son in the breadth of my imagination.
So I don’t try.