The house the party was in was big, but not as big as the Beverly Hills mansion I’d imagined. It had a Spanish look to it, with sandy-colored stucco walls and burnt orange roof tiles. The grounds were lavishly landscaped with palm trees, eucalyptuses and cedars, with jasmine and hibiscus in the gardens, tastefully arranged.
When we got to the party, Laurel introduced me to a few people, but that was about the last time I spent with her. She pretty much ditched me for some gorilla who looked like a refugee from Beach Blanket Bingo. He had a Mr. Universe build, a tan as dark as milk chocolate, and a face that looked like it had been carved out of granite. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt that was unbuttoned almost as far down as Laurel’s, and had thick blonde hair that was early Beatles in length and style. His eyes had a vacant look, though, and from listening to him talk, I estimated that he had an I.Q. of 70.
The whole time I was at the party I felt uncomfortable. I spent most of my time sitting in an ornately carved green velvet chair drinking Rob Roys, listening to the tinkling of glass and ice and the talk that was occasionally witty but usually inane and that got more inane the more people drank. Everyone seemed to know each other, and there was a lot of movie and TV talk. No stars were there that I recognized, but I think Cameron Mitchell was there. I got to talking to one woman, but when she found out I wasn’t anybody she lost interest. A couple of other women looked at me like they were intrigued, but I didn’t make an effort to get to know them. The main person I talked to besides that one woman was the Mexican bartender, and I only talked to him as long as it took him to fix me a drink. Occasionally, Laurel would come over to talk to me, or say she was annoyed that I wasn’t trying harder to mix with the crowd, but it was clear her main interest now lay elsewhere. I vaguely got the impression she was hoping I’d pick up or be picked up by some other woman so that it would be easier for her to run off with her beach boy. But I wasn’t about to stand in her way. I should have left right away. I didn’t belong there, but I felt a pretty heavy inertia, almost like I was glued to my green velvet chair, or like I was fascinated with what might happen at the party.
After a few hours, though, the wildest thing that had happened was that a couple of women got thrown into the swimming pool, and I decided to leave. I stood up and looked completely around the room once before I left, at the crowd dressed in the bright colors of summer, at the light gleaming on the elegant punch bowl beside the bartender dressed in a red dinner jacket, at Laurel hanging all over her beach boy, or whatever he was.
I felt better as soon as I was out the door. The night air, with the scents of jasmine and orange blossoms, and the wind stirring softly through the palm fronds, felt good. But I didn’t have any idea where I would go.
I ended up at the hotel bar where Laurel and I were staying, drinking more Rob Roys until I almost passed out and listening to a chemical salesman talk about the NCAA basketball tournament. Laurel never came back.
I assumed the cops also talked to Ed, but they didn’t tell me and I never talked to him about it. You’d think they would at least be a little more suspicious of him because he’d been seen in the area of the murder at the time it occurred, and because of his record and him spending a year in juvee. But he wouldn’t talk to me after the murder. It was like he thought if he even said one word to me the whole story of the murder would come out. I tried calling him but when he heard my voice he hung up. I never knew what happened when he went home that night or if his mother said anything about the fact he didn’t have the same clothes on that he had on when he’d left the house. He acted like if he pretended he didn’t know me that somehow the murder would go away or it would be like he did it alone, and no one would ever be able to tell the cops. So I had no idea what he was thinking about guy he killed or the investigation. I kept checking the newspapers every day. In fact, for years after the murder I still looked for stories about it in the news, even after it seemed like the case was completely dead and buried. Eventually I found out that most murders are never solved and that in the case of a guy like Milton Jaszkowski, maybe the cops didn’t care that much anyway if they ever solved it.
Standing with a pad in my hand, I watched an old woman put her hand to her mouth and tell me in a very tentative way that she wanted to order fried chicken, and then, a moment later say, “No, young man. I think I’ll have the chef’s salad. I’ve got to watch my bowel movements like a hawk, you know,” and laugh. A man and a woman at her table who I’d gathered were her son-in-law and daughter looked at her like I they were a little shocked and then at me with an expression that seemed to say, “We’re sorry, but she’d getting old, you know.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “And what kind of dressing would you like on it? We have French, Thousand Islands, creamy Italian—and bleu cheese.”
“Don’t rush me now! I need some time to think. This old bird doesn’t think as fast as she used to.”
I had to wait on more than my share of fussy people my first night as a waiter at Nicole’s Place in L.A. After five days of sitting around like a zombie in my hotel room, drinking and smoking and watching TV with the curtains drawn and no idea about where I was going to go or what I was going to do next, boredom overcame my inertia and I left the hotel. I skipped out without paying. I didn’t even know if I was expected to pay. I’d had room service bring me my meals, but they’d never asked for any money, like Laurel was so rich they knew it would never be a problem. All I had to do was keep signing my name. As each day went by I got more nervous about it, and that’s one reason I finally left, though later I really regretted it. But I was getting visions of being presented with a huge bill I never could never have paid by a haughty bell captain, and ending up in the can. I had to laugh later when I wondered how long I could have gone on mooching off the hotel without being handed a bill.
It felt good to be out in the sun again. Because I’d used most of what little money I had left giving tips to room service waiters, my first order of business had to be finding a job. So I bought an L.A. Times and turned to the classified ads and read them right on the street. The street was crowded but the people going by didn’t seem cold or hostile the way they’re supposed to in a strange city. As they walked by and saw me scanning the help wanted ads, a few even smiled. They probably saw something like that every day from people who streamed into town trying to get into the movies.
For the next two days I drove all over L.A. applying for jobs, sleeping in my car, and was on the verge of robbing a gas station to keep from starving before I got a job as a waiter. I had to lie to get it and say that I’d worked as a waiter in two classy restaurants in Detroit. But the job was perfect. I got free meals and made enough money in tips to keep me going until I got my first check. And it was really no problem faking that I’d been a waiter before. I just had to concentrate so I wouldn’t forget anything.
During my dinner break the first night, I sat alone in the back room of the restaurant eating a hamburger and drinking a coke. Some of the other employees who were on break or done working were sitting together joking and telling stories about some of the customers who’d been in that night—I remember catching one about a woman who’d sent her steak back to the kitchen three times because she didn’t like the way it was done and demanded to see the manager, but who’d stormed angrily out of the restaurant anyway. Everybody got a big laugh out of that. It seemed like they were having fun, but I had no desire to join them. Finally, though, a waitress who’d apparently just finished working got a glass of wine and came over and sat across from me.
“Hi, I’m Heather,” she said.
She had long sandy hair that hung straight down and two small braids just above her forehead. With bright, brilliant blue eyes, she had a look so serious that at first I couldn’t imagine her laughing. And she seemed shy—that had been my impression seeing her around the restaurant—so I was surprised she just sat down and started talking to me.
“You look kind of lost,” she said. “You probably feel pretty bummed out, just like I did my first night here. Believe me, it won’t get any better.” She smiled, which made her look much prettier. “But at least you can make some decent bread here.”
“That’s all I really expected.”
“You aren’t from around here, are you? I can always tell.”
“No. I’m from Michigan.”
“In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you just got here today.”
“I’ve been here about a week and a half.”
“Well, you’ve probably been here as long as half the people in L.A. then. I hope you didn’t come out here to try to get into movies.”
“Not exactly, no,” thinking of Laurel’s screen test.
“You’d probably make it, with your face. You could play the roles where they need a sensitive young man who’s alienated from society. And you’d be perfect playing the guy who’s seduced by his father’s best friend’s wife,” referring, I supposed, to The Graduate. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I was just kidding.”
“Actually, I’ve never even thought about being an actor.”
“Where did you end up staying?”
“I stayed at a hotel for a few days, but I ran out of money, so I’ve slept in my car the past two nights.”
“I’ve heard that story before.” She got a look on her face that made me think she was considering something. “You can crash at my place tonight if you want,” in a way that I knew wasn’t a come on. “The L.A. pigs’ll arrest you if they catch you sleeping in your car, or trying to sleep on the beach or anything harmless like that. If you want to go over to Vietnam and kill babies, though, they’ll give you a medal. Nothing’s free in this town.”
“Sure, I’d really appreciate it.” I really felt relieved. I’d hardly got any sleep in my car, and I thought if I slept there long enough I’d probably get arrested or some maniac would break in and try to knife me or something. And I hadn’t made enough in tips to afford a hotel room or an apartment.
There were so many plants in Heather’s apartment, on the tables and the floor, hanging from the ceiling and the walls, that I might have thought I was in an overcrowded greenhouse. The rugs had Navaho designs, and a large Buddha was on a table at one end of the living room. When we went in, Heather turned on a light, but only long enough so that she could light some candles. “I prefer natural light,” she said. We smoked some grass while we listened to Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, and I told her how I’d ended up in L.A., including the whole story about Charlotte and Laurel. Something about her, her sincerity, perhaps, made me want to talk to her, and maybe, too, because I was tired and my defenses were down, I told her more about myself than I usually tell anyone. I knew that Heather had invited me to stay with her strictly as a gesture of friendship, so I didn’t even think of putting a move on her. I was too tired anyway, after two nights in my car and the wild nights with Laurel, to think of it as anything else. We sat on the floor, and after a while I laid my head against a big cushion and closed my eyes. Bizarre images danced through my mind shaped by the “sounds of nature” album we were now listening to—waves rolling in on a shore, wolves howling, a rainstorm, and so forth—but I finally fell asleep. Sometime later I felt Heather’s hand behind my head. I got up in a daze and she led me to a bed.
The next day Heather invited me to stay with her until I had enough money to get a place of my own. But after two weeks, when I was ready to start looking for apartment, I told her and she said why not save myself the trouble and just live with her, since it was already working out so well.
“This fall I’m going to quit work and go hiking in the wilderness all over the West,” Heather said when we were sitting around her apartment one night after work. “Then I’m going to settle down at the place I like best and try to live like Thoreau did at Walden Pond. If I’m lucky, I’ll never see another smoke stack or traffic jam again. I want to live off the land, and not care if I never do anything more sophisticated than run through a field of wildflowers.”
“Sounds like a great plan,” I said, not really believing that. But she didn’t seem to hear me. She was looking at me intently.
“You know, I always imagined that I’d do it alone, but now—I want you to go with me. I know it may seem crazy and it may not be your bag at all. But you’re invited to come with me.”
I nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll definitely give it some thought. I might like to try it. You know, I really don’t have any other plans.”
Heather liked to meditate and do macramé, and we got along well enough. She was about the only friend I made in L.A. I avoided getting involved with the other people I worked with—most of them just bored me—and besides, an incident occurred that caused bad vibes between me and the other staff. I knew that it had been a hot item of gossip there that Heather had taken me home the first night I’d worked and that I’d been staying there ever since. Well, one night in the back room when Heather wasn’t working I overheard a busboy, a kid about fifteen or sixteen, make a snide remark about it, and the people he was talking to laughed. I got up and went over to him.
“What did you say, boy?”
“Nothing, with a little bit of a smirk. It was obvious he was scared, though, too.
As I went back to the table I’d been sitting at, I heard titters and people talking under their breath. After that I never felt real good around the restaurant again, even when the others seemed pretty friendly.
Heather and I took walks on the beach, went hiking in the mountains outside L.A., went to movies and concerts together. For a long time, we were just friends. But one night after I’d gone to bed, I got up and saw Heather sitting Indian style on the floor in the living room. She was dressed in just a T-shirt and panties, and looked pensive. A candle burned on the coffee table. She looked over at me.
“I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “I thought I’d come out here and meditate, but now I can’t get into it.”
“I was just going to get a drink of water.”
“Come and sit beside me.”
I did, and ran my hand along her hair down to her neck.
“I’ve really got the blues tonight, like I could cry for no reason at all,” she said. We looked into each other’s eyes, then hugged tightly. Heather kissed me on the neck. “I need you, you know. I wouldn’t be the same without you. I can’t just live in my own little world anymore.”
We kissed, and from the almost frantic way Heather kissed and hugged me—unworthy me—it seemed like her feelings about me had built up for months, and she let them burst upon me all at once. After a while we got up and got in bed, and from that night on we slept together every night.
By September, we’d saved enough money so that we could quit working and go off into the wilderness. I wasn’t really into the idea that much, but since I didn’t have any important appointments for the next ten years or so, I thought, why not? In rare uncynical moments I even thought it might turn out to be what I was looking for. It was just the kind of life where no matter what happened about the murder, the cops would never be able to find me and I would never really have to sink down roots.
Kings Canyon National Park was the first place we went hiking. We hiked back into the wilderness through oak and chaparral, and as we climbed higher, through cedars and ponderosa pines, and finally, sequoias. For a long time we were beside a rocky river. Later we reached the alpine meadows that Heather loved, where wildflowers blew in the wind soft and careless as butterfly wings, and she picked out a bouquet of (so she told me, who hardly knew a dandelion from a thistle) mountain sorrels, red rock primroses, and saxifrage. From the meadows we could see clearly the sharp brown and gray peaks with glaciers in their valleys, but they fell behind us as we went over a ridge and back into the sequoias again. It was late afternoon our first day of hiking by the time we stopped to make camp. Because we wanted to be alone, we didn’t stop at a designated camping area. Instead we found a place just far enough from the trail so that no one going by could see us. We built a fire and made coffee to have with the sandwiches we’d brought. I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and Heather some ungodly thing with lettuce and alfalfa sprouts and who knows what else, on seven-grain bread. For dessert we each had a health food bar. Heather thought hers was heavenly, and I, when pushed, told her I thought mine was good, but I really thought it had a long way to go to match up to a Mars bar. After we ate, we put some more logs on the fire and sat by it. It was getting cold fast, and you didn’t have to be very far away from the fire to know it. We smoked a joint without saying much and threw the roach on the fire.
“Now isn’t this as good as I told you it would be?” Heather said.
“It’s pretty good,” I said. “You were right.”
“This is the only reality. Everything else is an illusion, or a distortion of the way people were meant to live.”
“It seemed very real to me when I was running around that goddamn restaurant.”
“It was just a bad dream, and you had to meet me before you could wake up,” smiling. “Like Thoreau said, ‘Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts, of life are not only dispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.’”
“But he wasn’t normal. He was neurotic, with an incredible fear of women.”
“So what if he was? That doesn’t make what he said any less true. He was the only person of his time who understood how important it is to live in harmony with nature. All the things he said about modern life are even more true today than they were when he said them, and more and more people are realizing it. Someday maybe the whole world will realize it.”
“No, it won’t. There’ll never be more than a handful of people willing to give up their color TVs and Pontiacs and go back to living off the land. What’s good for you, other people would hate.”
“Before every great change in history, there have been skeptics like you who said it could never happen. But they were wrong. Revolutions have occurred many times, and one can happen again. As Americans pile up more and more mountains of trash, and get more and more tired of the hassle and strain of city life, and the emptiness of possessions, they’ll come back to their roots in nature. And cynics like you will be left behind, sleeping in rusty Pontiacs that there won’t be anybody left to fix for them.”
“If you really believe there’s a perfect contentment in nature, what did we get high for?” only half seriously.
Heather looked disconcerted only for a moment.
“There’s nothing wrong with that. Marijuana grows naturally out of the ground. It’s much more natural than swilling down a martini, that’s for sure.”
“It’s still an escape. I’ll bet you money Thoreau never smoked dope.”
“If you really believe all that, why did you come out here with me?”
“I was just trying to keep the conversation interesting. I don’t really believe in anything. But I’m willing to try anything. That’s why I’m here. And so far I like it.”
“I should have known.”
“I was just playing devil’s advocate to keep things lively. You know how I am. I didn’t mean any of it. I actually hate Pontiacs.” I moved close to her. “You know I was just kidding, don’t you? Do I look like someone who likes to mow lawns and sit around watching the boob tube?” She shrugged her shoulders. “Let’s go in the tent and forget about all this. We wanted to get up early to watch the sun rise, remember?”
It was like Heather had set up this perfect, fragile little world and all it took to upset it was one false word, like the one little stone that upsets the surface of a perfectly still pond. I didn’t know how much more of her moodiness I was going to be able to take. I got up and used a stick and some dirt to break up the fire and put it out. But Heather wouldn’t go in the tent with me.
“All right, stay out here and freeze then,” I said.
I went in alone, and it was a long time before she came in. We didn’t speak. I lay back and listened to the wind blow through the pines, to the rough flow of a river, to the howling of a wolf far away. Then I seemed to withdraw into myself and not hear anything. I felt the isolation of the blind and the deaf, and there was a coldness inside me that cut to the bone.
By morning all was forgotten, and we hiked on. We got along pretty well after that for quite a while. After we’d stayed in King’s Canyon for about a week, we moved on to Humboldt Redwoods State Park, Olympic National Park and North Cascades National Park in Washington; Glacier National Park in Montana, Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, and Bryce and Zion National Parks in Utah. We didn’t go to Yosemite or Yellowstone because Heather thought there would be too many people there.
We didn’t hike every day. That would have worn us out in a couple of weeks. Whenever we found a place on the trail that Heather particularly liked, we’d stay there a while, for however many days Heather wanted to. She was a wildflower buff and liked to search for rare and oddly shaped species that she’d never come across before. Often, she’d pick a flower and put it in her hair. Of civilization we hardly saw anything, except when we’d stop in some Western town between parks to pick up supplies. We never read a newspaper or listened to the news on the radio. Nixon could have been assassinated, and the Vietnam War could have ended, and we might not have known. Ed Carey could have been arrested for murdering Milton Jaszkowski, and I wouldn’t have had a clue. Heather wanted us to be completely cut off from the wars and madness and hatreds of the world. I never really believed that was possible, because I believed that the seed of those things exists in everyone, and that if you try to run away from them, you’ll just end up finding them in yourself, but I didn’t tell her that. She took arguments about such things much too seriously.
About our only dealing with the outside world were buying food and occasionally trying to score an ounce of marijuana. Believe me, it’s not easy to buy dope in a strange town, especially a small town in the West, without arousing a lot of suspicion. I had to laugh later when I thought of the strange looks we got from what I thought were hip looking kids when we asked them where we could buy some grass. Somehow we managed to pick up a couple of ounces along the way. We spent one night in a bar in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, but I had to practically drag Heather into it. She seemed to like it all right, though, once she’d had a couple of drinks. And the next day we were on the trail again in Grand Teton National Park. We got started late, though, and hiked only about three hours before we stopped to make camp. We set up near a stream, and then we lay by it looking up at the clouds and the trees, holding hands. We were on our backs and then Heather moved onto her side facing me.
“I don’t know why I let you drag me into that bar last night. I feel like hell today.”
“Because I felt like a drink, that’s why. And besides, you had a good time. Don’t you remember when you and that cowboy started dancing on a table?”
She laughed a little and punched me softly on the shoulder.
“Come off it. I know I wasn’t that drunk.”
“You had the whole place hooting and hollering.”
She looked amused and then thoughtful.
“You’re getting tired of doing this, aren’t you?”
“No more tired than I’d be if I were doing anything else.”
“We’re going to have to quit pretty soon anyway, because it’s going to be too cold to go most places. We’re going to have to decide on the place we like best and go live there. Have you thought about it much yet?”
“Not really. I just know I don’t want to live in that place that has all the rattlesnakes in it.”
“All right. I don’t want to either. But I wish you’d show more enthusiasm.”
“I never show much enthusiasm about anything. Or almost anything,” smiling.
She frowned. I put my arm around her and pulled her close to me.
“Look, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to be. I never stick very long at anything I don’t like. I’d be long gone if I wasn’t enjoying this.”
“All right. I suppose we’ve been over this enough times.”
She seemed to be studying me intently. “Come go swimming with me.” There was a pool along the stream beneath a waterfall.
“Are you kidding? That water must be as cold as the Arctic Sea. I’ll bet you couldn’t get a penguin to jump in there.”
“It’ll feel good. It’ll get rid of this damn hangover. We can build a fire when we come out, and I’ll make some coffee and cook the pork and beans. You’ll feel better.”
I waited a moment before replying. “All right. What the hell. The worst I can do is drown. I’ve probably got ice water in my veins anyway.”
“That’s for sure,” with a grudging laugh.
We ran down to the pool, took off our clothes, and dove into the coldest water I’ve ever been in in my life. I mean, if there had been chunks of ice floating in the pool it wouldn’t have surprised me. Heather came over and hugged me, laughing, but even that didn’t warm us up any. So we just ran back to our camp to build a fire. I helped Heather make the coffee and pork and beans, and everything must have seemed to her like it was A-OK.
It was dark and bitter cold when Heather got me up a couple of mornings later to go watch the sun rise. I mumbled some obscenities about what I thought of the idea, but I was too tired to put up much of a fight. So I got dressed, and feeling half dead, hiked with her to the top of an outcropping of rock. We hardly said a word to each other after we left the tent, so it seemed like a long time before we saw a rosy glow on the ice of the jagged peaks. Then in the clouds there was a pink and orange glow that softened into the ice blue of the sky, and finally the sun itself, glowing around the peaks and reflecting, like a myriad of tiny stars, on the pond below us, which looked like wrinkled glass. The coldness of the beauty pierced through me in a way that I wanted to be filled up with it, almost to become part of the ice and the rock, and I never wanted the feeling to end.
After hiking all over the West for a few months, we settled down in a cabin in northern Washington. We lived far away from anyone, and there were mountains all around us. We rented the place, and lived cheaply, but I brought in a little extra money by chopping wood and painting houses, and Heather by selling the rugs she weaved. Eventually she wanted us to make whatever little money we needed just by working at crafts, and to eliminate every kind of modern convenience, including electricity and running water. Although we had a big garden, we didn’t have enough cleared land to grow all the food we needed, and I told her there was no way she was ever going to get me to shoot a deer with a bow and arrow and then skin it and cut it up into steaks. Heather became more content than I’d ever seen her before. She seemed to love very aspect of living off the land: Making jam from wild strawberries and blueberries, tending the garden, even washing clothes in an old wooden tub. It wasn’t all work, though. There was time to watch the sun go down behind the fir trees, to lie together beneath the quilts Heather had sown and listen to the fire crackle and snap in the fireplace, to walk for hours in the wilderness that was everywhere. For a while even I was almost content. I liked being so far away from everything. I liked the silence. I liked the simplicity of our life. I even read the Bhagavad-Gita and Walden, and tried to meditate with her, but I never seemed to get much out of it. I had no great desire to leave, though, and couldn’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.
One day when we were out for a walk Heather tripped on a tree root and fell down hard. She winced and let out a sharp cry, and put her hands on her knee. I knelt down beside her.
“You going to live?” I said.
“I think I’ll make it. I feel better already.” She smiled softly, and put her arms around me. “You know, this is working out up here better than I thought it would. I never really thought I’d be able to get you to like it up here, to give up what you had to give up.”
“I never really thought I would, either. I like it a lot better than I ever thought I would,”
“The thing about TV and telephones and all that other junk, is that the longer you go without it, the less you miss it, until you realize you don’t miss it at all, that not having it is almost a kind of freedom. I wouldn’t care if I went without that crap forever now.”
“I wouldn’t care, I suppose, except that I’d really miss watching reruns of The Honeymooners.”
“I should have told you I was hurt too bad to walk, and made you carry me all the way back and put me to bed, then made you cook for me and wait on me hand and foot until I said I was better again.”
“That’s what you get for being honest.”
“I want to tell you I love you, but somehow the setting doesn’t seem quite right. Now if we were dancing in a ballroom in a 1930’s movie, it would be perfect.”
I sang the melody of “Cheek to Cheek,” and she laughed.
“You’re such a clown, but I’m absolutely mad about you. Sometimes I just don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“Maybe you’d look at the ground more when you walk, and wouldn’t trip and hurt yourself.”
“Must you always be so romantic? Get your head out of the clouds, will you?” and we both laughed. “Would you mind helping me up?”
Winter came and went, and nothing between Heather and I changed much. Even when we had a snowstorm once that kept us inside for days, we got along without fighting or ever really getting on each other’s nerves. We just worked a huge jigsaw puzzle and talked and spent half of every day in bed while we waited for the storm to die down. A couple of nights I went into town without Heather and got drunk, but she didn’t get mad or say much about it. After all, I’d been a good boy for a long time. We got so good at living in the wild that we didn’t have to spend even half as much time on our chores as we did when we first came up and made all kinds of dumb mistakes. In the spring we planted a garden, with corn, radishes, beans, carrots, and some pumpkins and muskmelon, and took care of it with plenty of TLC. A tiny apple orchard was on our land, too, but worms got to the apples before we did. I grew a beard, and with the ragged clothes I wore looked like I might have lived in the wilderness all my life, or crossed the Cumberland Gap with Daniel Boone.
One day when we were both reading, Heather stopped reading and looked at me thoughtfully, like she was trying to figure out something about me. I could just see her out of the corner of my eye but pretended not to notice.
“I think, John—I think you dwell too much on the past.”
I put my book down and looked over at her, curious.
“What do you mean? I never talk about the past.”
“It’s not what you say. It’s the way you are. It’s what keeps you from ever really changing.”
“Yes. One reason we came up here was so we could leave all the garbage of our past and what we were molded to be behind us. You should leave the past behind every day, like you leave your dreams behind when you wake up in the morning.”
“But I don’t leave my dreams behind when I wake up in the morning. And I can’t forget about the past. That’s the difference between you and me. I couldn’t even if I wanted to.”
“You could if you’d meditate, if you’d believe in it the way I do.” She looked amused. “My poor melancholy baby.”
She put her hand in my hair and messed it up a little playfully, then put her hand behind my neck.
“You’ve got to start learning how to free your mind. Maybe I should start teaching you Zen.”
“You know I can never really take any of that stuff seriously.”
“You’re one of the most stubborn persons I’ve ever known. You never change your mind about anything. You’re just as set in your ways as my grandfather.”
“That’s not true. I change my mind all the time.”
“Like when I decided to try rhubarb after being sure for years I’d never be able to stand it. And I was right. I hated it.”
Heather laughed. “Of all the things you could have picked. Couldn’t you have thought of something a little more metaphysical?”
“That would have spoiled the joke, and besides, it got me off the hook.”
Heather ran her hand along my neck. The fire crackled fitfully in the background.
“I just don’t know what I’m going to do with you. I still can’t figure you out. I’ve never been able to get inside your head. After all this time I don’t really even know how you feel about me.”
“I think you’re great. We’ve had a lot of fun together.”
“Is that the best word you can think of, fun? Doesn’t anything ever mean any more to you than that? I suppose this is really just another fling to you, a toy, like your first roller coaster ride or the first time you got high.”
“Remember, don’t expect too much of me, because I’m almost sure to disappoint you, like I have everyone else. I told you that right from the beginning. I’m one of the most unreliable son of a bitches you’ll probably ever know.”
“Thanks for reminding me,” sarcastically. “I’d almost forgotten. If you’re lucky I’ll keep you around anyway, and we’ll just see what happens. It doesn’t matter to me if you leave, anyway. I can get by without you easily enough.”
I looked at her skeptically, because I didn’t believe she really felt that casual about whether I stayed with her or not. It hadn’t been that long since she’d told me she didn’t know what she’d do without me. And in a real pinch, I didn’t think the Vedas or Zen Buddhism would hold her up all that well. But how could I know what she was really thinking?
We stayed together, two solitary people, in a rut too well worn and comfortable to break out of easily. The vegetables came up in our garden, and we weeded and thinned it regularly, and what we ate now was often made from the herbs, fruit, and tubers that Heather gathered in the woods and fields and learned how to cook. I didn’t really like any of it much (there wasn’t any of it that tasted better to me than a Big Mac), but I didn’t mind it either and I didn’t let on. But slowly discontent grew inside me, until it almost burned. Heather’s mannerisms began to annoy me and her little faults became magnified in my mind, along with the realization that we couldn’t go on like we were forever, and I thought more and more about leaving. Still, I didn’t do anything about it.
One night I was sitting up alone after Heather had gone to bed. It must have been three or four in the morning, because I’d been sitting there for hours just thinking, and the fire was down to embers. I was cold. All of a sudden I got the bright idea of going back to college. I decided I was tired of living on the fringes of society and alienated from it. I’d become so bored with the way I was living and so tired of the uncertain kind of life I’d led the past few years, that I convinced myself of that. So many years had passed since the murder, I came to think that the cops didn’t care anymore and that the case would never be solved. I began to think I could actually lead a normal life. I was like a criminal who decides he wants to go straight even though there’s no realistic chance he’ll ever be able to do it, whose whole life and state of mind make it impossible he could do it, but who believes it for a while just the same. I decided I’d try to make good and have a career. I wouldn’t go back into English. That’s what you majored in if you just wanted to have a good time and march against the war. This time I’d be serious, and I settled on the career to pursue: Law. Man of law. I could already see myself in a Brooks Brothers suit mesmerizing a jury with my eloquence. As a lawyer, I’d really be able to study the Milton Jaszkowski case and understand it in a way that an outsider couldn’t. I managed to magnify the things about college that could make me want to go back, like taking interesting classes, going to parties, meeting so many women, and I managed to downplay or forget the things that had made me want to leave before: Pompous, egotistic professors, the absolute boredom I’d felt in so many of my classes, the feeling I’d had that I didn’t really fit in. Also, people go to college if they think they have a future, and for years I didn’t think I had any future worth preparing for. It didn’t occur to me at the time that good old MSU might not take me back because I’d flunked out, or that I might not be able to scrounge up the money to go back.
Anyway, in the morning I wrote a letter to MSU asking for an application, and in the afternoon went into town to mail it. I stayed in town after I went to the post office and got drunk at the Gaslight Bar, but Heather wasn’t mad when I got back real late that night. She just seemed to think it was funny, though there was a bit of mockery in her voice. She wasn’t about to let on that I could get to her that way. I didn’t tell her what my plans were, but she probably sensed that something was up, because she was always perceptive, always good at reading the little signals people give off that tell how they really feel. Still, she never asked me about it. We went on with our day to day lives the same as always.
With my application to MSU I wrote a sincere letter stating how I’d changed and grown up since I’d left school and that I was ready to come back and be a responsible, hardworking student. Whether the letter helped or not I’ll never know—the bureaucratic machinery at MSU was as faceless to me as it could be—but I was accepted back—on probation—and then the day came when I had to tell Heather I was leaving. She’d probably wondered if something weren’t up since we’d gone into town about a week before and she’d seen that I’d received a letter from MSU and been vague when she’d asked me about it. She really wanted to know how they knew where I was.
I worked hard the day I left Heather, because I wanted everything at the cabin to be in as good a shape as possible when I left. I split a big pile of logs and fixed the chinks between the logs of the cabin where the plaster had cracked and fallen out. I also tarred the roof in a couple of places where rain had been leaking in. It was a good thing, because it rained hard that night. It was after dinner before I told her, even though I’d been trying to find a good time to do it all day. We’d said only a few words to each other as we’d cleaned up after dinner, just what was necessary to get the job done. Then we sat down on the sofa, and Heather started working on a sweater she was knitting. But I didn’t do anything, and before long she stopped knitting and looked over at me.
“You’ve been acting strange all day and giving me strange looks,” she said. “What in the hell is going on?”
“I suppose there’s no sense in me fooling around about it anymore. I’m leaving. I’ve decided to go back to school.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “So that’s what that letter was all about. I don’t know why you didn’t just tell me before. I’m not going to beg you to stay. It’s up to you. I’ll get along fine by myself. It’ll be just like I thought it would be before I met you.” A trace of bitterness was in her words, but she had a look of triumph, as if to say, I’ll show you how much I don’t need you. She went back to her knitting and seemed to concentrate hard on it.