INTO THE WOODS
We were six teenagers crammed into a parent’s small late model Japanese car, speeding away from school on an early autumn afternoon, but before you form any romantic associations of free youth and time impossible to waste, know that I sat among this group, withdrawn and afraid, smashed into a backseat and wanting to scream. I was positioned directly behind the driver’s seat, which meant I was behind James, who was still wearing his football uniform, solidifying his already overtly masculine frame into a cinder block of hormonal stupendousness. I could smell him, we all could, the palpable sweat of the boyish heroics not so much as lingering but spreading through the air like a virus, like a drug. Of course the only problem with that olfactory realism was that Paolo sat next to me, adorned in his dripping uniform as well, but infinitely less regal, a throbbing stick of revolting testosterone, all instinct and no brain, grunting and wheezing like a featureless genital nightmare. Every few seconds he would shift his ignorant bulk just so he could rub it against me. It was horror, like he was trying to claim me, rub his scent onto me, spraying me with his sickening sex. I had to distract myself from castration fantasies and concentrate on the God in front of me, his polar opposite, James, who conducted the drive with utmost confidence and compliance, poised perfectly as a young man both virile and humble to his world. Though engaged as I had become in my afternoon of wanderings through the mysteries afforded by my new literary discovery of Ms. Dickinson, I had not forgotten my goal, nestled in the memory of the morning, pondering the potentials of spells and Vodou, before the frog scared me off. Still, the rituals had allure, if only to satisfy a need for action, and besides, on the car floor in front of me was a dirty gym sock, brown and crusty, and I figured it had to be James’. So out of sight of everyone in the car, Chloe, Tyler, Clarissa, Paolo and James himself, when the time was exactly right and Paolo was leaning his revolting frame away from me on a bend in the road, I snatched that crunchy old gym sock and slipped it into my school bag. The clandestine nature of this successful mission gave me a moment of pleasant respite from the general terror of the drive, what with Chloe fawning inappropriately over “her” James, Tyler and Clarissa surely groping somehow even though not seated adjacently, and Paolo, dear Lord, I’ve already said enough about him, please God just let him die.
James pulled the car into some wooded area car park. I didn’t have the faintest idea where we were. It wasn’t my nature to explore so soon my new home, I figured it would happen all in good time anyway, so what was the rush. It all rather depressed me anyhow. I remember thinking then how our whole move from California reeked of familial defeat. You would think I would prefer southeastern Ohio to Malibu’s plastic shores, and you may be right, but the timing wasn’t there for me yet, and I was still in that clumsy stage where everything was wrong and out of place and I was an alien on this Earth. Not that I wanted any sense of belonging, but I would always be an alien anyway, so why be an alien-times-two. One can have too much of a good thing, as they say.
I digress to delay my own horror, the genesis of which will soon become apparent. But for the moment, the events betrayed my destiny, as six teenagers myself included spilled from the car into the Indian summer air of the southeastern Ohio woods.
James (O if every sentence could begin this way!) stood in the clearing by the parked car, and for a moment, precious silence graced our group. James turned and in some ecstasy of nature summoned his Emersonian longings that had been buried somewhere within him long ago. He spoke in a reverie, to me never forced.
“Ah, the native woods. Full of danger and mystery.”
Of course the others thought this a joke. I knew otherwise. Tyler and Clarissa wasted no time with the “see ya’s” and scurried off to some unholy hidden tryst. I was glad to see them leave my space, though it occurred to me that this wasn’t the first drive to the woods for this gang, that this was indeed some sort of hedonistic ritual practiced with some regularity. While I was watching those two bunnies recede pleasurably from my sight, I sensed quite correctly the return of the revolting presence next to me, most probably revealed by his stink, the smell of rotting sweat, the smell of Paolo. I think he longed for the car ride, so determined he was to affix himself to me. I didn’t dare acknowledge his being, not for a second — but Chloe was staring at the two of us, and basking in no small amount of glee. I of course was watching James discreetly, but soon he was at Chloe’s side. Chloe in an instant best knew how to torture me.
“Bet you can’t catch me!” she shrieked to James, before running off at full speed into the woods. I’d like to think that James gave me some sort of acknowledgment, some little glance before he chased after Chloe, but alas, he did not. It was as if some higher power had yanked his strings, and James the fallen puppet of the faction of cruel deities was wrenched away into bestial servitude. I really did hope Chloe ran fast, and that she got lost in some sensational survival scenario. But wishes are just that. I know an involuntary “James” sprang forth then in a whisper from my lips, and for the briefest of times he was with me, as only lovers can be, in a faraway place past the edges of what is known. This thought was shattered as soon as it came, for as much as I wanted to forget my life, I knew I was now alone with the monster, the dripping slab of foreskin Paolo, all slobber and intestinal fluid. A wave of unstoppable illness descended over me. Where Paolo got the gall to speak to me I will never know. He seemed to circle me as he spoke.
“Oh they’re gone, trust me.” (He fucking heard me! He heard me say “James!”) There was no rage in me at that time, only rejection and denial, like I had whisked Paolo away to some remote lake of fire. But he kept insisting his presence by opening his mealy little mouth. “That just leaves us,” he continued, “all alone.” I felt like his prey. I had to defend myself. The next time he circled, I had a plan. Of course it all happened in a split second. I finally turned to him (he must have liked that) and kicked him with all my might right in his ball sack (a grotesquerie like no others). It was a sacrifice on my part to contact him in such a way, but the payoff was sweet, as he buckled and screamed in a guttural spasm of pain, flailing to the ground, incapacitated at last. I didn’t stay to savor my kill. I fled, leaving him to the vultures.
I ran through the forest at a fairly rapid pace by my standards, though the mere act of running was awkward for me, and I’m sure to any observer I appeared gaunt and spindly. A praying mantis on ice skates leaps to mind. It wasn’t long before I reduced my rate of speed to a quick walk, which somehow only indicated indecision to me, but soon enough I was free of the Paolo situation, at least physically, so goal achieved. It was only then that I began to take notice of my surroundings. I was travelling down a wide well-trodden path, but it was growing more narrow as I walked, and the bush more thick. I knew enough from some past reading that I was in an Appalachian forest, in the western foothills of an ancient range, although the distinction between what was old and what was less old in geological terms was surely irrelevant to an infant as myself. Yet I still drunk in the romanticism of the idea, that these were indeed elder hills, beholden to what to me seemed timeless vagaries of glaciation, evolutions and extinctions, before humans in their boundless arrogance claimed to claim the land as if it was theirs to claim. But the woods won’t hold such secular ramblings for long (another lesson from Ms. Dickinson). One must succumb to the will of the land and the trees and the grasses and the vines. It was autumn, and the leaves were in varying states of change, greens were still apparent but were giving way to an abundancy of yellows and reds, little novas of glory before the ascendancy of the brown. I wished I could remember why the colors exploded so violently beautiful before their decay — it’s lazy again to ascribe our human romance to it, and perhaps comforting as well, but it is not so. Impermanence exists, and that is all. I remember wishing for some animal to appear then, some brief reminder of our status as guests in this sacred wooded place, but surely such animals would avoid my presence and appear the wiser for it. So alone I managed to take some solace in the quietude, the gentle sloping path beckoning me to find a higher elevation at which to ingest its full magnificence, so are our eyes the stimulator of our souls. But I knew I would not have time for such pleasures. I realized too soon that, much like I had imagined Chloe, I too might be in danger of getting lost, a prospect that brought forth images of search-and-rescue helicopters and hysterical news reportage, which inevitably would include tawdry accounts of my misanthropic personality, contemplations of my possible suicide or maybe kidnapping or perhaps cult indoctrination. Half of me at the time wanted to get lost, wanted to have the attention, wanted to be worried about. Was this my pathetic nadir? (Likely not.) Why did I have to befriend ambivalence so whole-heartedly? I didn’t want attention, surely! I was in the woods, finally alone, for Lord’s sake. I could make it my cathedral, be both alone and with the world. Maybe it was the influence of my self/other, this fleeting want of human sympathy, maybe that’s what drove Chloe to her zeal for popularity. Maybe there was a sadness in her that she was just trying to avoid. Maybe I had this weakness too.