By Jennifer McGaha
One sunny, crisp, fall day, my husband and I set out hiking on a five-mile loop in the Pisgah National Forest near Pink Beds picnic area. The sky was Colorado blue, the forest floor blanketed with yellow. About halfway along the trail, we stopped to rest on a log near the river. We sipped water, ate a couple of protein bars, then, warmed from the walk, I took off my down vest and shed a couple of the layers beneath—an oversized gray sweatshirt, a plush purple jacket. I put the clothes in my backpack along with my phone, I then slipped my vest back on.
“I’m going to take a trail break,” I said as I stood.
David nodded, picked up my pack, and went to wait by the trail. It was late afternoon, the forest mainly deserted, so I was considering just peeing out in the open when a woman walked briskly down the trail. Like me, she wore a red vest, and she had short, gray hair. We’re twins, I had time to think. And then she was gone.
Venturing farther into the woods, I found a spot, did my business, then walked back to meet David. When I got to the trail, however, he was nowhere in sight. The woods were eerily silent, the only sounds the rustling leaves and the gurgling river nearby. I began calling for David, calmly at first, then louder, more insistently. Where could he have gone? Just beyond the spot where I expected we would meet, a path veered to the left off the main trail. An orange blaze on a tree across from the path indicated the correct way, but David was colorblind and couldn’t see the blazes. Could he have walked a little ahead and taken a wrong turn?
“It’s a good thing you have me with you,” I often joked when he walked right past a blaze we were supposed to be following.
Now, I considered following the other route for a while just to see if David had taken a wrong turn, but what if he came back here while I was gone? I reached into my vest pocket for my phone, but just as quickly, I remembered my phone was in my backpack—with David—a fact that was largely irrelevant since we likely didn’t have cell service out here anyway. My next thought was that I should simply head back toward the parking lot, but I didn’t have a trail map, and there were a few turns I was fuzzy on. What if I, too, got lost?
This was not a rational thought. One way or the other, all the trails eventually led back to the parking lot. Still, what would I do when I got there if David wasn’t there? He had the car keys, and it would take hours to walk down to the ranger station where I might find more people, and it would be dark by then. And then I worried that David was somewhere worrying about me. Had I somehow misunderstood the plan? Up until now, I had been assuming that he was the one who was lost, but what if the opposite were true? What if I had gotten lost from him? It was also possible that David had gotten annoyed by how long I had taken and gone ahead. This seemed unlikely. He always waited on me. Always. But had I been gone longer than I realized?
Jennifer, the Worrier, my best friend called me, and now I was so panicked I could not think straight. None of this made any sense. I needed to talk to someone, to see if someone else could help me reason through this, but other than the solitary woman and a group of three hikers who had passed us earlier, I had seen no one. Now, I tried to remember if the three hikers had seemed normal, sane, not serial killer-y. They had been young, in their twenties, and they had not been dressed like hikers but more like hunters – camo jackets, blue jeans. Glassy-eyed and boisterous, they had been decidedly unhikerlike.
“Let’s put some distance between us,” I had said to David when they passed us.
At the time, I had assumed they were harmless in a let’s-go-out-in-the-woods-and-get-blazed sort of way, but now, in retrospect, they seemed menacing. What if they had backtracked and found David alone? What if they had knocked him over the head and thrown him into the river where he had been attacked by one of the dozens of beavers living there? A couple of summers before, a rabid beaver had attacked a paddle boarder in an Asheville lake, so it wasn’t completely unheard of. It was possible—not likely, but possible, and, at the moment, it seemed about as likely as anything else. Already, I could hear myself telling the cops when I finally alerted them, “I just stepped off the trail for a minute, and when I came back, he had vanished.” In any case, it was now clear to me that I had two choices—stay in place and hope that David returned or head on toward the parking lot.
If I stayed in place, he would likely come back here to find me when he could—if he could. However, it was late afternoon, and if I lingered too long, it would be dark before I could make it back to the car. Deciding that the best course of action would be to continue, I walked slowly. Every few feet, I called for David, and, finally, after I had gone about a half mile, I saw him—Carhartt pants, a long-sleeved gray t-shirt, green L. L. Bean pack. A mirage. He leaned against an oak tree, facing me, facing the way we had come. Clutching my stomach with one hand, I placed my palm against my breastbone with the other.
“Where have you been?” I asked when I could finally speak.
The sight of him was so unexpected, the whole situation so surreal that I half expected him to say he had been held at gunpoint, then dropped off at this exact tree. Instead, when he spoke, his voice was a smooth river stone.
“Where have you been?” he said.
His beard twitched gently—a smile.
“I was scared,” I said. A reprimand.
“I thought you were with me,” he said. An explanation.
Gradually, the story unfolded. While he had waited for me on the path, he had heard someone approach. Without looking back to confirm that this person was, in fact, me, he had simply continued walking.
“That brook sure is babbling,” he said to “me.”
“It sure is,” “I” had said.
It was not until “I” had asked him if he had encountered any wildlife along the trail that anything had struck him as strange. He had stopped and turned to say, “Not any wildlife that you haven’t seen,” but before he could speak, he realized his mistake.
“My wife!” he had screamed.
The woman had said nothing in response, simply stepped aside while he hurried back down the trail the way he had come.
This was his account. However, I took issue with a few of his points. For one, the word hurried did not seem entirely accurate.
“You were not hurrying,” I said. “You were leaning against a tree when I found you.”
“I saw you coming,” he said.
As we headed together toward the parking lot, I stuck close to him.
“I have to pee again,” I said, “but I’m just going to wait.”
We meandered through rhododendron thickets, past thick ferns and tall pines, over bogs covered with wooden walkways.
“You didn’t look at her at all?” I asked.
“You just went walking on without even checking to be sure it was me?”
“Who else is out here, Jennifer?”
Three highly suspicious acting millennials and a woman who looks just like me, I wanted to say. Twins, I had thought. He must have at least glanced out of the corner of his eye, somehow gotten the impression of me there on the trail before he had headed on. I pressed him on this.
“Maybe,” he finally said. “I could have.”
“I cannot believe you could just walk off with another woman,” I said.
I had made the point already, but it seemed worth underscoring. David and I had been married for close to thirty years, and most of the insecurities I had had early in our marriage—that he might one day run off with someone more attractive and more interesting or at least someone with better organizational skills and a more lucrative career—had faded. What frightened me more now was the idea that the things that made me me might one day cease to exist in the same way they once had, that I would become replaceable, that any generic, gray-haired lady wearing a red vest would be a suitable substitute for me. Close enough.
A number of years ago, my best friend, April, who was several years into a terminal cancer diagnosis, had gotten a facelift. As I drove her home from the surgeon’s office, I was so distraught by the sight of her bloated, bruised face, of the pus draining from the tubes on her forehead, that I had to pull over and put my head between my legs.
“Is it that bad?” April asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, it is.”
Under the circumstances, it also seemed unnecessary, frivolous, a waste of the precious time she had left. Of course, it wasn’t my place to say that, so I said nothing, but she felt my judgement nonetheless.
“You just don’t know what it’s like to be of the age when men no longer look at you,” she said.
I hadn’t known, not then, not yet. But perhaps now I did. When we finally reached our car, David wanted to discuss our dinner plans, but as we headed down the mountain, I was stuck back on the trail, at the intersection where my husband left with another woman, where the particulars of me no longer mattered, only the generalities. Twins, I had thought. Close enough.
I had known other couples, long-time lovers who eventually lost their passion for each other and moved to different bedrooms because one of them snored or to different houses because one of them was too messy or to different towns because one of them liked the coast and one of them liked the mountains. The very idea horrified me, made me want to bolt from the car and hook up with the first guy I encountered who didn’t think I was too old for hooking up. If I could have figured out in that moment where I might find such a guy, I would have. But my thoughts were sluggish, dulled from exercise and the warm air pulsing through the vents and the swaying of the car around the curves.
It was dark now, not in town where there would be another thirty minutes of daylight but here in the forest where the trees formed a canopy over the road, and something about the strangeness of the night—the stillness of the forest, the vacant, black sky—took me back to another night, in 1983, soon after I first met David.
It was my junior year of high school, and after school, my friend Mary Ann and I had filled two extra-large convenience store cups with Kahlua and half-and-half and headed for the forest. We rode in Mary Ann’s BMW with the windows down, the Styrofoam cups wedged between our thighs. A Virginia Slim menthol rested in Mary Ann’s right hand. Whenever she spoke, she took both hands off the wheel and turned completely to face me, her blond hair whipping her face. I held a joint between my front teeth, a Bic lighter in one hand. After several failed attempts, I finally managed to light it. I sucked in hard and held my breath. Mary Ann tossed her cigarette butt out the window, and as we passed the joint back and forth, Madonna’s “Borderline” blared on the tape deck. When we got to the part about the woman in the song losing her mind, Mary Ann floored the gas, and, just as the speedometer reached ninety, she cut the car lights.
It was such a small memory from so very long ago, but as David and I passed the ranger station near the forest entrance, it all returned to me—the sharp scent of the weed, the desolateness of the woods, the sound of our voices rising through the darkness. What did my husband see now when he looked at me? Did he remember the bold and reckless girl I had been, the girl who later that same night retrieved his spare house key, snuck inside, and slipped naked into bed beside him? Or did he see only the fuzzy remnants of her—gray hair, a swath of red fabric, the safer, more tempered version of the girl he had once known?
“I’m going to have nightmares,” I said.
“Because you got lost in the woods?”
“Because you left me,” I corrected him. “Because you find me replaceable. Because any similar woman will do.”
He paused for just a beat. Then he spoke.
“That’s ridiculous,” he said. “That’s just not true.”
But it was true. I saw that now. One day, one of us would fade and fade and fade until the other one was left alone, and then whoever was left would replace the other one, like April’s husband had replaced her just weeks after she died.
“I have a new hiking buddy,” her husband had told me. Gleeful. Giddy.
And I, still wracked with nightmares of April’s final moments, of the way I had rested my head on the bed beside her until her blood oozed through her body like sludge, and her perfectly smooth cheeks turned cool, had said, “I hope she is amazing.”
“She is,” he had said.
And I was back on that trail, stuck between where I had been and where I might go, remembering a girl who no longer existed, a woman I no longer knew.