In the evening, the rain had finally moved on, so we were about to make use of the grill and have a fireside dinner, but our yurt neighbor Jim called out to us, waving us over. The Colemans and another family of campers were circled round their already blazing fire. Gene and I exchanged a glance. The whole camping plan was to get away from friends, colleagues, work, and general urban chaos so we could relax together in the serenity of nature. Campfire stories with the neighboring travelers wasn’t part of the agenda. Being the more sociable one, I wasn’t surprised when Gene shrugged, raising his eyebrows in a why-not expression, and I sighed in surrender. Carrying over our folding chairs and tote of wine and food, we joined the two couples and their band of children despite the Dreaded Questions we knew they would barrage us with.
A round of introductions ensued with the names of so many, including the other couple’s four small children, that I was unable to remember any of them except Jim and Sarah’s. The seven children were scattered, riding tiny bicycles, playing with balls or sand buckets to amuse themselves while the boring adults chatted amongst themselves and prepped their dinner. It made me nervous the way the kids seemed to be all over the place unsupervised, but that was probably due to my overprotective tendencies even with young people who didn’t belong to me. I could barely focus on the adults because I was too busy trying to watch their children for them.
The other husband was a rotund and bearded man with long, scraggly brown hair. He was wearing a Metallica t-shirt that barely covered his round belly and had a hole about the size of a quarter near its hem, exposing a section of his white skin. He had a plaid long sleeve shirt over it that also served as a wipe for his endlessly runny red nose. The sight of him made me think of a cave man despite his modern apparel. The way he held up an entire, recently deceased fish speared by a metal skewer to inquire if we were interested in eating it, or one of its cousins, also contributed to his neanderthal nature.
Gene and I spoke and waved our hands almost simultaneously. “Oh, no thanks,” We said. “We’re vegetarians.”
The man looked at us as if we were inhuman and he blinked a few times, seeming unsure whether he should be insulted. Finally, he shrugged and put the hapless fish back with the others he had on ice. We reiterated our appreciation at his offering but added that we had our own meals. He tried a different tactic by holding up a beer that he dug out of the ice in another container, and although I refused that gesture as well, Gene was happy to oblige him. The Neanderthal’s wife was wearing a tie-dyed broom skirt with a boxy sweater over it, and she leaned around her husband commenting about men and their beer. I never minded Gene’s occasional beers, and, rarely, I even joined him with the odd craft beer, but I smiled at her and showed her the bottle of wine from our tote.
“Now you’re speaking my language,” she said.
“Here, let me,” Gene said, placing his bottle of beer on the ground. He popped the cork off the wine and poured us generous servings in our very non-fancy, not-made-for-wine cups.
The tie-dyed wife seemed impressed with my partner’s geniality because she opined, “I think you have yourself a keeper there.”
I smiled at her again, but I blushed, reminded of the emotional conversations earlier in the day, and I looked up at Gene. He glanced back at me with knowing eyes, then looked toward the woman as he tucked the bottle into the tote and said, “I’m doing everything I can to keep her.”
The other two couples both laughed and made remarks about his comment as he kissed my cheek, but I didn’t hear them because I was too busy watching him and realizing that that was why he always insisted on doing everything for me. All summer I’d fretted and kept things to myself because I was preoccupied with feeling anxious while he was busying himself with trying to be perfect so I wouldn’t run away. Instinctively, I put my hand on his knee, still trying to convey my emotions with my touch. He put his hand over mine and winked at me.
As we were talking with the other two couples, one of the unruly, roaming kids tumbled over on her tiny bike, alarming me, and I gripped the arms of my chair, ready to bolt out of it, but Jim jumped up and ran over to her. He got her back on her feet and when he put the bike upright, she raced off again before he could even check her for cuts and bruises. I sighed silently with relief and started to turn back to the adults, but I caught Gene’s sidelong glance over his beer bottle from the tot to me. He was a little tipsy, and the corner of his lips turned up as he moved the bottle away from his mouth and stared at me with that tiny smile, but he didn’t say anything despite my querying expression.
I felt slightly more at ease when all the kids gathered closer around the fire to eat their dinners and roast marshmallows. Metallica Man’s wife must have noticed my nervous observation of them as they’d run around like hooligans and she asked if Gene and I wanted to have kids of our own. Gene and I both laughed, exchanging knowing glances. Gene’s grey streaks were hidden under his cap, and the alien motifs on my hat probably made me look much younger than I was since the low firelight likely masked the slowly multiplying lines on my face. People who didn’t know us well often thought we were a young couple until they had a better look at us. Sometimes, we didn’t like to disabuse anyone of that idea, and we opted to play into that mystery with our neighboring campers as well by vaguely saying kids weren’t currently on the agenda. The reality was that I wouldn’t be bearing any miniature replications of us without costly and risky medical intervention. I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about that concept regardless of scientific advances. Plus, as much as I liked young people, I usually felt like I was too much of a kid myself to be responsible enough.