He doesn’t love me. He never loved me. And he isn’t looking for me – so I damn well better survive the night on my own.
No food, no tent, no map. No one to blame but myself. Too bad burning hot shame isn’t a heat source.
Moonlight traces a craggy ridgeline up around me. The sparse lodgepole pines give way to barren rock, which means 12,000ft elevation. Thin air breeds spartan creatures – mountain lions, king snakes, bighorn sheep. Not soft-fingered writers.
My body curls into the fetal position inside the soggy sleeping bag. The hard earth refuses to yield an inch to the curve of my hip.
I lay my spine flat and look up – I haven’t seen a star in nine years. The Perseid meteor shower should peak tonight.
Hey, if I don’t make it, at least I’ll get a good show, right? But nothing falls.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” writes Joan Didion. “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
My compulsion started around the time my father surprised everyone by dying. I’d just been dumped by the first person I’d ever kissed. Then I’d blown out my knee in a basketball game and torpedoed my collegiate career. I craved control over an uncontrollable world.
So I began to write. When I’m overwhelmed, I imagine I’m inside a movie of my own design. Nothing can hurt the omniscient narrator.
Of course, it’s a trap.
This is a love story. More specifically, it’s a story about how I froze the phantasmagoria into a false map and got terribly lost. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, unless they end up killing us.
I met Mountain Man at a boarding school in Ojai, California – my first job out of college. The faculty led mandatory backpacking trips, often to a camp under Mount Langley in the Sierras.
He arrived my second year at the school – the hirsute love child of Ryan Gosling and Bear Grylls. His eyes were the blue of alpine lakes. He took jobs when he felt like it and lived off the grid when he didn’t. He caught trout with his bare hands and had once lived in the Sierras for 40 days and nights alone. How Biblical.
I saw him for the first time at an outdoor school assembly. I stepped out of the air-conditioned admission office wearing a Laura Ashley knockoff from the Tall Girl Shop. Mountain Man strode in from the horse department – sweat-stained in jeans and leather. Blades of grass leaned toward him, hoping for the crush of his boot.
He introduced himself to the student body and began a tutorial on how to light a fire by rubbing sticks together.
This guy is such a cliche, I thought.
But I was charmed, which made me a worse cliche – Girl Who Didn’t Stand a Chance. I was a 24-year-old Harvard-educated virgin with a signed copy of The Elements of Style. I hadn’t successfully dated anyone, let alone Field & Stream’s cover boy.
Yet still! My storytelling brain sensed an opportunity of Hughesian proportions. Sexiest guy in school falls for intriguing, overlooked assistant admission officer.
The secret to elevating my dating game lay in the heart of my favorite teen romcoms: Don’t be yourself. I pictured him with a SoCal Lara Croft – half assassin, half sun-bunny. You know, a cool girl.
Adorkable overachiever was my brand. Cool was not.
Nonetheless, I had minor superpowers. I understood narrative. I knew how to play a part.
How hard could it be to write myself into this story?
A month later, I was assigned to chaperone a holiday school dance. I’d seen Mountain Man’s name on the list too. However, it was midnight and all of the students had left, with no sign of him. He was probably out birthing a foal or eating a volcano.
I danced, sweated and didn’t care how I looked. A tap on my shoulder – I turned. It was him. His cerulean eyes locked with mine. “Trust me,” he said, and put his forearm against the small of my back.
I leapt up and back as he flipped all 76 inches of me 360 degrees. Adrenaline surged through my veins as I stuck the landing. Cheering friends circled around.
The lights came up and the music stopped. I gave him an awkward high-five and bolted for home, like a Cinderella who knew tonight’s ration of magic was up.
I lay awake in bed. After the school year, I’d be moving to New York City to accept a fellowship in public affairs. Time was running out.
The following week, my basketball team won a big game on a heart-stopping buzzer beater. Mountain Man and I celebrated by playing pool in the back room of a local dive bar. It was the first time we’d been alone together. I matched him point for point until his final turn.
Channeling Cool Girl, I perched against the table, blocked his approach and said, “Take your best shot.” He stepped between my legs, took my face in his hands and kissed me hard.
All the fireworks fired.
We drove to my little house. The sex was great, but what really blew my mind was the story. To be desired by the Most Desirable, I must be exceptional.
As our romance progressed, he confided that he was drawn to a solitary life in nature. “I’m bad at relationships,” he said.
I’ve never been in one.
“Me too,” I answered.
I doubled down on Cool Girl. I drank whiskey without flinching, hustled darts with my opposite hand, and wore low-cut tops with black bras when we played pool. He suggested we try dating long-distance. I was elated. Coup of the century!
My sister Sarah, a design student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, moved in with me in the Big Apple. We caught five mice in our decrepit apartment in the first week. Yet as long as Sarah was there, I was home.
Mountain Man sent me handwritten missives and pencil sketches of my face. In between pages, he pressed columbine and Indian paintbrush. New York City was kicking my ass, but my belief in our epic love story buoyed me.
He even came to visit me in Babylon, as he called it, for New Year’s. He strained to put on a good face despite obvious irritation with the concrete canyons, $14 gin and tonics, and affected hipsters. I joked about the local wildlife (pigeons, rats in the subway, my asshole mice roommates), but it was plain that he was lost without his true love. I could never compete.
“So great to see you killing it out here,” he said.
This city is crushing my soul.
“You know me,” I said.
He called once a week from a landline. He didn’t believe in cellphones. I held my cell all February 14th, certain he’d call any minute. He didn’t. Later he remarked, “Hallmark holidays are such bullshit, right?”
But you’re my first Valentine.
“Total bullshit,” Cool Girl agreed.
Sarah saw through my story. “You’re not happy with him,” she said. “Stop being an idiot.”
A year into dating, I visited him in Ojai. We returned to the dive bar where we’d had our first kiss. He loaded up Sweet Melissa on the jukebox but was out back having a cigarette with strangers when it came on. I felt like a hollowed-out piñata.
A woman at the bar advertised palm readings for five dollars. I didn’t hesitate.
“You’ve got the Jupiter Mate Selector,” she whispered, like it was a tumor.
“You fall for powerful men. You put them up on a pedestal and keep yourself down low.”
“If you don’t believe that you’re just as powerful as the man you’re with, then you’ll be alone for ever.”
My Cool Girl act proved that I didn’t feel like his equal. So I could either get real quick or break up with him. I chose the latter.
We went on one last backpacking trip in the Sierras. Distance was a perfect excuse. Nobody’s fault. “A good run.” I exited the union the way I’d entered, by suppressing my emotions and calling it strength. I didn’t cry until I was alone.
He started dating someone a nanosecond later. I wasn’t exceptional any more.
Nine years passed in New York. I wrote stories for money. Got rejected. Wrote more. My mom’s health worsened. I dated a police officer, a tech entrepreneur, a newspaper man.
I spent my life’s savings to create a film that sold to Showtime. For once I hadn’t sought anyone else’s permission. I’d leaned back, jumped into a flip, and stuck the landing on my own. I decided to move to Los Angeles, though leaving Sarah was like leaving behind a limb.
I hadn’t spoken to Mountain Man in almost a decade. Missing him and missing the mountains felt the same – a tug to abandon acceptable society and get dirty. I considered reaching out to him. I’d done hard things. I was stronger now – his equal, right?
I’ll be my 100% true self this time.
I believed it, too.
Mountain Man answered my email with a warmth that made my entire body blush. He welcomed me for a weekend at the school’s camp in the Sierras. We’d rendezvous at the parking lot trailhead in three weeks with a group of alumni.
I drove alone from New York to Los Angeles in a daze of possibility. I was about to start telling stories for a living in the City of Angels. Who knew what might spark between Mountain Man and me under the stars?
I awoke on a bright August morning in Silver Lake and hit the road late because I had to rough up my new shorts in the garden and apply no-makeup makeup. My car bombed through the scorching Mojave Desert, past Joshua trees, Death Valley. My ears popped as I dodged fallen rocks with one hand and called Mountain Man with the other.
It went to voicemail. “It’s me,” I said, buzzing with adrenaline, “I’m a little late. No need to wait – I’ll walk myself into camp!” Cool Girl knew the way.
I arrived at the sprawling parking area, dotted with dozens of trailheads. Mountain Man and the alumni had departed. Fresh burro tracks crowded the trail.
The midafternoon sky was hard and bright as a marble. I reapplied no-makeup mascara and started down the trail, recognizing trees and streams as I passed. Cocky about my sense of direction, I stopped to meditate on a felled trunk, freebasing sunshine and alpine air.
I’ll catch up to them in 30 minutes, tops.
Hours later, I climbed a grueling series of switchbacks as sunlight narrowed to a thin ribbon.
I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. No problem, I’d see Mount Langley from the top of the pass and the camp beneath it. There’d be a full spread waiting.
Sweat-drenched and huffing, I made it to the saddle and looked out upon the long-shadowed wilderness. No Langley.
The trusty burro tracks were still there. I scurried down the opposite slope into the gloaming. Raindrops pinged my bare arms but there was a lake up ahead that I recognized. Just a little farther.
Night ambushed me. Total blackness. I balanced my pack on a rock, hands trembling as I fumbled with an ancient headlamp mummified by duct tape.
Tharump-tharump-tharump! A mountain lion pounded down the ridgeline behind me, jumped with jaws wide, ready to rip into my flesh – I whipped around. Nothing. It was only the sound of my own heart, trying to beat its way out of my ears.
Nausea washed over me. I knew the hypothermia risk of sleeping out in precipitation. I was at the tree line, which meant near freezing temperatures.
Is this a joke? Donner, party of one?
Weary, I hunkered down with my wet sleeping bag. Dankness soaked into my bones. I couldn’t stop shaking.
I closed my eyes for short, drowsy intervals, and opened them mechanically, as if triggered by the slow, audible click of a lever behind my ear. The view changed a little bit each time. Hazy, no stars. Then a low, drippy moon. Then faint white pinpricks everywhere.
Click. I opened my eyes again to find a clear-eyed moon bearing down on me like an interrogation lamp. I threw myself upon its mercy.
I confess. I’m here because I took too long putting on my Cool Girl bullshit costume. I was trying to impress an asshole who couldn’t wait 20 fucking minutes after 10 YEARS. I understand the story now. It’s a cautionary tale. Let me survive this and I’ll drop Cool Girl for ever. Please.
It was a long sleepless wait before I dared to open my eyes again. The moon was gone now, and I watched the sky change from black to indigo to pink, like a bruise healing. I rose, quaking as a colt. Everything hurt. The muscles around my knee spasmed. My lungs worked for every breath in the oxygen-depleted air.
On the far side of the lake I spied campers packing for departure. I shuffle-ran toward them, legs screaming.
“Beg your pardon!” It came out in a British accent. That’s weird. My survival instincts had turned thespian.
They were a group of fathers and sons from San Diego and were horrified to hear that I’d spent the night exposed to the hail and rain. They were hiking out today and encouraged me to join them.
Their map showed that I was nine miles and 2,000ft up in the wrong direction. I’d been wrong from the first step.
The day was late back at the trailhead parking lot. I slumped in my hatchback, sorting through wet clothes. Hair ratty, makeup frightful, I was downwind from the public toilets and too spent to move. Portrait of the Uncool.
A school van rolled towards me.
“Melissa Johnson,” a serious voice said, “everyone is looking for you.”
Bearded, older, but those unmistakable eyes. Mountain Man.
He sounded pissed – his voice, low and even. I’d never seen him like this. Then I realized – I’d scared him. The unflappable guy, flapped.
“I got lost,” I said in a soft voice. He got out of the van. We embraced.
He had waited for me at the correct trailhead, five minutes away, until nightfall. Then he’d sent out the call. State troopers were looking for me on the highways; park rangers were searching in the mountains; student workers from the camp were scouring the trails – a full-scale search-and-rescue operation.
He’d used his satellite phone to track down our math teacher friend who had, in turn, called the headmaster on vacation in Wyoming, my friend Adam in Silver Lake, my former boss in Oakland – and Sarah.
We drove to a nearby vista so I could call Sarah. She screamed to the point of squeaking.
“You are an ASSHOLE! I thought you were DEAD!”
My tongue was thick with shame. This was the worst thing I’d ever done, to the person who loved me the most.
To this day when this story comes up, Sarah leaves the room.
Mountain Man and I walked to the camp from the correct trailhead. We sipped tequila that night in his cabin.
“After we broke up, I missed you so bad. Thought we’d be friends. All this hard stuff was happening. I couldn’t understand why you just … dropped me.”
My body trembled. I’d never been so forthright.
His face fell. “Why didn’t you tell me?!”
Why didn’t I tell him?
Turns out, I’m the hero of this story and also the villain. In my search for a romantic lead, I’d replaced him with a totem. Mountain Man neither possessed nor could tolerate weakness. But his real name was Gabe. He was born in Reno with a clubfoot to parents who got divorced. He was self-conscious about his hairy back. Clean arcs resist messy details.
“The way you live your life apart, I realized you don’t need people,” I insisted.
“That’s not true. I absolutely need people.”
No, he didn’t need people! It was a pillar of my story. But then he opened up about his own bone-crushing loneliness after his last breakup. It had been drawn out, ugly, emotional – an altogether human affair. I couldn’t hide from the deeper, more painful truth –
You didn’t need me.
The words sat heavy in my mouth. I ached to say them, to drop the Cool Girl mask for good. Vulnerability is death. Yet lack of vulnerability is also death. What a rotten trap! I wanted to be messy and real and loved for it all.
But I choked. I filled my mouth with tequila instead.
“I would have gone up every trail,” he said, “followed the road all the way back to Los Angeles to find you.” My heart split in two and fell to the ground.
All my stories had been wrong.
I’d picked the wrong map, gone down the wrong trail and reassured myself with misinterpreted data points that I was going the right way. I’d been wrong from the first step.
The rest of the weekend was full of hikes, hammocks, and music around the campfire. I reminded Gabe of that first fire he’d made at the school assembly.
“God, that was so embarrassing,” he confessed, “when I couldn’t get it to light.”
What? I stared at him. Exactly how different had our stories been over the years?
What if neither of us was right? What if both of us were right? What if all the stories were true and untrue? What if we could experience the multitude of competing narratives at once?
When the time came for me to return to LA, Gabe invited me to join a river rafting trip deeper into the wild.
“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” he said.
Indeed, it was. Manbrosia flooded my senses.
“So?” he shrugged with a devilish smile. All creatures in his gravitational orbit bent toward him. I felt the pull and leaned away.
He is the guy. He’s not the guy. He’ll always be the guy. He never was the guy.
I could hold all of the stories at once, devour them in a mouthful. They swirled together in my magnificent round belly. There was no past and no future here. Nowhere else to be. I felt my life force expanding in a primordial storm. I was the descendant of supernovas.
“What’s it gonna be?” he asked.
I had thought that becoming his equal would mean that we’d be together. I was wrong.
I have a life to go build.
“I have a life to go build.”