Ever since they dragged you back from the woods, you haven’t been able to live inside. You dig your hands into the earth in the backyard and close your eyes. The feeling, the smell—you can’t escape it. And oh in the months since, how you’ve tried. You feel the warm ground seep underneath your fingernails, the memories rushing back as if the dirt is a window into your mind. You’ve stopped trying to hide from them. You realize you need the memories to hold on to some semblance of reality.
Four months ago you were left, abandoned, by a man who maybe once cared but then no longer did. You supposed he decided you weren’t right for him after all. We all know the story—nerd likes jock, jock hints at interest but is too embarrassed to show any until nerd takes off her glasses (and then her clothes). He spent so long defending his choice to marry you to all the preppy, rich assholes in the neighborhood that maybe he was just sick of it. Or of you. Probably of you.
At first, the anger bubbled and boiled inside, but you knew enough not to let it seep out—everyone in the neighborhood was already on his side. He was like them. You never were. Trendy, Trader-Joe’s-shopping housewife was something you weren’t cut out to be. They knew how hard you had to try to fit in, so their judgmental thoughts would just be validated if you went crazy when he left. You were stuck, gave it all up for him. No way out. No way out.
No way out, you thought, as you walked through the woods on the trail the day after he left. You don’t know what came over you. All you knew was that you had to get out of that stupid house, that stupid room, that stupid bed with the scent of stupid him still on the pillow next to you. You packed a tiny bag with water and a granola bar and headed outdoors, a place you had always wanted to get to know better but never got the chance.
The trail you choose wound and curved through the California woods—deeper and deeper you went—but no matter how far you disappeared, you still couldn’t get away. His scent was like a cloud following you—no way out, couldn’t breathe—and so you started to run. You ran through the brush, the creeks, the thorns. You started to realize that water was beading off your face, and somewhere in the back of your mind you understood that you were crying. There were a million emotions flooding through you, and it was more the overwhelming nature of it all than the fact that you felt a certain one in particular. Hate, despair, longing. All of those things stabbed you like the cramps forming in your side from running for so long. You forgot everything after a while. It got cloudy and cold and you tripped and cried and lay on the ground and stared up at the sky. And that’s when you realized you were lost.
You dig and you dig, into the backyard, and you realize how stupid you must look to your neighbors. Hell, they’ve always thought you were stupid. There was that one time when Bethany, “the cookie mom,” was with her children at the neighborhood pool. You walked onto the patio and immediately she whispered something to the kids, as if you were a child molester or something. Maybe because you shouldn’t have been wearing such a small bikini or God forbid, have a tiny tattoo on your ankle. And now without the protection of your “cool” husband, those kinds of things have stopped being so discrete.
The PTA president at the nearby school lives next door, and she walks out every morning with her heels and straightened hair, perfect kid in tow. Together they get into their Escalade and drive off like they own the world. You always wonder if she thinks that is what life is supposed to be like, if she even knows another form of it. Sometimes you feel as if you’re the one who owns the world—after all, you sort of conquered it.
On that first day in the woods, it took you a long time to get up off the ground. You remembered telling yourself during your walk that you would get lost if you kept going, that you had to be careful. Had to, had to, had to. Evidently you didn’t listen. You didn’t know how much time had passed since you tripped over whatever you tripped over, but after a while you closed your eyes and felt almost calm. Too calm. You began to wonder why you stopped thinking about him and why suddenly, the air in your lungs and the ground beneath you made you felt more alive than you ever had.
You sit cross-legged in the garden of your house, looking blankly at the dirt. You see your dog Pepper’s paw prints form as she runs across the yard in front of you and stare. You watch as she continues to run and ends up getting stuck in the small hole in your white-picket fence. Great, you have to go get her out again. But your memories are taking over and you can’t muster up the strength to move.
You finally got up when you heard something. Maybe a howl. The sun was just beginning to fall beneath the tree line, and you looked up to the point where the tips of the leaves met the sky. The sharp contrast between the sky and the green had always calmed you, and you remembered back to the playground in your old neighborhood, swinging and hanging backwards, head towards the sky.
You heard the howl again. Your body felt like it could move, but you had been laying there for so long that you weren’t too sure. You tested out your fingertips, ran them through the grass and pulled them into a fist. Slowly, you moved your toes in your boots—working them, testing them—feeling the blood rush back all at once. Moving each body part was a struggle, and it took a while to get on your feet again. The howling grew closer, but you tried to push the fear out of your head. You told yourself you could do this, that you could run if need be, but you also knew you should wait there until someone came to find you. You couldn’t decide which part of your brain to listen to, but you didn’t need to because all at once the howling grew to an ear-splitting volume and flight or fight kicked in and it didn’t matter anymore. Your heart beating, you ran once again.
The stupid dog is barking at the tiny puff ball of a “dog” next-door, as she continues to be stuck in the fence that so desperately needs fixing. You begrudgingly get up, wiping the dirt from your hands into your jeans, and walk over, sighing. If he were still here the fence would be fixed. You fixate on that.
Just then the Escalade pulls back into the driveway, the soccer mom inside getting out and making her way towards you. Oh no.
She always calls you by your first and middle name. Because God hates you, that’s why.
“What are you doing on this beautiful day?”
You don’t answer at first and watch as she stands on her tiptoes—even in those heels—and peers down at you over the fence with a condescending look in her eye. You suddenly feel so entirely self-conscious about the dirt caking your knuckles, the sweat dripping down your brow. You used to fantasize about being like her one day: kids and stay-at-home mom and haircuts and manicures and carpooling. Hell, you tried to be like her for so long after the move into this stupid neighborhood. But right now her foundation-caked face is making you sick.
“Oh, just doing some gardening,” you reply with a forced smile.
You can tell Linda doesn’t believe you, as her glance moves to the dug-up flower bed—your doing, of course. She smiles awkwardly and backs away, grabbing her puff ball on the way. You pull Pepper out of the fence and sit with her in your lap, letting your head fall onto her back as she licks your knee.
You never saw the animal you so desperately and embarrassingly ran from. Maybe it was a hallucination. You ended up in the middle of a small valley, staring at a small blue pond. You weren’t sure how your legs made it there without entirely breaking, as every rock you stepped on stabbed the bottom of your shoes. Adrenalin is a weird thing, something you had never experienced too much of before. So even though you stopped crying for a bit, it all came back once your breathing calmed. You sobbed again, loud and obnoxiously. The impending darkness, the loneliness, the inability to defend yourself…where was your phone? Thoughts poured themselves into your head and stayed there until they grew and grew and created a cloud which rained out through your eyes and didn’t stop. But did you find yourself thinking of him? No.
You’re bored. You’re sick of this neighborhood, this house, this fence, these chores, these memories, these endless days of nothing. As Pepper licks the dirt off your leg, you look up into the sky. You see the point where the trees reach the blue, where the leaves are perfectly outlined against the clouds.
Your throat suddenly dried up all at once, the water bottle and granola ingested long before you were lost. You couldn’t tell if the pond in front of you was runoff or a pond that was always there, and you knew enough from reality survival shows that rainwater was automatically safer to drink. Of course you had no way to tell, but you figured if you could make some sort of fire you would be okay. Good thing you never listened to your older brother when he tried to teach you how to build a fire all those years ago.
So, you taught yourself. Rubbing two sticks together until your hands bled and your wrists cramped. Crying out in frustration until you cried out of happiness once the embers formed. The joy of finding a rusty pot behind a tree; the breaking through of the pond’s surface with a bare hand; the relief of that first sip of water.
A few hours later and you were watching the sun tip-toe its way down under the trees, breathing in the crisp California air, feeling hopeful. You knew you were going to have to find food, but you tried not to think about that. All you could think of was the fact that your mind was finally clear and everything around you was so full of life.
You woke up and didn’t remember falling asleep. You remember thinking you could have died in the night—killed by some animal—but you didn’t. You were totally fine, not a scratch, laying in the grass. You were probably covered in bugs, but the way your heart was beating outweighed any fear. It felt good.
How did you end up killing that squirrel? You don’t quite remember. You do remember feeling sad for a moment, but then the power you felt took over. You had just conquered nature in your own tiny way. The first of many inexplicable wins over the next two weeks.
You know you shouldn’t have had the luck you ended up having there in the woods, but you did. Someone was on your side.
You remember being found two weeks later, covered in animal blood and entirely unrecognizable.
A paramedic, along with three policemen, dragged you back into reality. You remember feeling odd, screaming in your head. You were sad about leaving the place that made you feel so alive. You felt guilty too, guilty that you weren’t happy to be saved. You knew those thoughts were wrong—people live in civilization, not the woods. So you pushed them out, you pushed them so far out of your head that you ended up here now, back to living the life you did with him. Maybe you stupidly thought it would bring him back to you. That if you went back to the way everything was, he would come running back. All you have to do is fix yourself, Tess.
You are still sitting outside when Linda’s husband comes back home from work. He pulls up in his Mercedes and she comes running out to him, her smile as wide as her Botox can manage. You watch as they embrace and kiss for a solid five minutes before their kid comes out to break it up with a loud, “Ewww!” You begin to feel a different kind of alone than the one from the woods. This one feels like a punch in the stomach with each touch between the couple, a stab in the back with each smile towards each other. You can no longer push the memories of the woods out anymore. It’s pointless. Go back, Tess. Go back.
This is the day you finally decide to listen. And suddenly you’re in the car, speeding away from the peeling white picket-fence and the fading yellow shutters and the perpetually squeaking rocking chairs on the front porch. From him, from everything that reminds you of him. The woods are all you miss now. You make it to the trail and don’t remember the drive, throwing the car into park and standing at the opening of the path.
You thought you could go back to the life you lived with him. You thought you could forget the woods, the place that made you feel alive. But you know better now. You don’t belong in a house surrounded by a white picket fence. You belong under the outlines of the trees against the sky.
The sun shines down the trail, and you follow it.