Lane looked up from his book in the direction of Molly. He squinted his eyes with confusion and a slight irritation at her laughter.
If I Was a White Oak and You Were a Deer
It was the third time Molly’d asked tonight, and to avoid losing his shit, Lane decided not to respond. If she really didn’t have anything new to say about it, he didn’t think it worth pretending to be interested. He moved his feet back from the fire, where he rested them on cold nights like this. Molly watched and laughed to herself as she recognized him adjusting the bottoms of his sneaker soles toward his eyes to make sure they weren’t burning. She’d always told him that he’d smell the smell of burning rubber long before they caught on fire, but he still liked to check them every so often to make sure.
Lane looked up from his book in the direction of Molly. He squinted his eyes with confusion and a slight irritation at her laughter.
“Just you,” she remarked with rolled eyes, a smile and the subtle sign of disagreement within the motion of her head.
“Your feet . . . they aren’t going to catch on fire you’ll—”
“—smell them first, yeah, I know.”
He’d heard the quip a thousand times, something she was proud to have thought up one night in the same chairs they sat in now. He knew it wasn’t the most reasonable thing for him to worry on, but who’s to say what’s reasonable anyhow? Her? Lane looked back down at his book, a copy of The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff. Molly’s eyes could no longer reach his and were instead made content with the side of his cheek.
The pair sat together around a fire at the base of a hill covered in browned winter grass that crunched under their feet as they walked from the house at the top of the hill. An unspoken routine that was typically proceeded by dinner and a movie. Only tonight, there was no movie. The question Molly had asked Lane over dinner saw them down a rabbit hole as they rehashed worn sentiments and feelings about each other’s work, where they stand in relation to each other. It was long after the winter-sun had set when she followed Lane down to their chairs and asked him again.
Molly wasn’t sure where her dad had gotten the fire pit, only that it had been there since before she could remember, growing more charred and fire-worn over the two decades her life has covered. Lane had even noticed and remarked to Molly previously about the subtle aging in the three years he’d been coming. Not just the fire pit but everything else too. The wood of the back deck for instance, which turned dark and wet in the winters until it was dried out over the summer. “Nature ages things,” she told him.
They spent their first day at the cabin preparing for the January snowfall bound to come. The couple knew almost instinctively whose job was whose. While Lane carried the ladder from tree to tree retrieving bird feeders that they had learned two winters ago didn’t fare well in the snow, Molly resealed and refinished parts of the deck that were heat damaged from the late August sun. Lane retrieved the fire pit and the chairs from the shed in the early evening. Molly began to prepare dinner with the groceries they had purchased from town on the way in, enough pasta and snacks and wine to last most of the week they would be staying. It was cheaper that way. Molly got sick of pasta, but she decided to save her complaints and consequently, Lane’s pride.
He was still looking down at the open book in his hands. It had been given to him by Professor Taylor only a week or so earlier. As he’d stood up to leave her office, she stretched her arm out insisting he accept the somber-colored hardback in her hand with words on the front that said, The Night in Question. Lane figured she had noticed his habit of carrying around the same old books all the time and took pity on him, incorrectly assuming it was out of necessity that he read the same poetry over and over. He took it without so much as a word, just to appease the old woman. His acceptance meant more to her than it did to him, and he was fine with that. They half-smiled at each other and he left through the narrow doorway.
It turned out to be a suitable collection of short stories, the one titled “Bullet in the Brain” was his favorite. It was about this guy called Anders who gets himself shot during a bank robbery for being a smartass. Lane had read it over and over all winter break. Molly watched him, though her phone screen or over the top of her own book, the whole time. She was the only person around to point it out. And point it out she did. Molly’d become used to his many habits, his quirks. This particular quirk was brought up quite often; that he watched the same films, listened to the same records, read the same books, over and over. It’s something that used to bother Lane about himself. Molly had always found it oddly charming. If he were given control over her car’s Bluetooth, she knew she’d be listening to Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. The only two movies he had downloaded to his laptop were Fantastic Mr. Fox and Kicking and Screaming (Noah Baumbach’s feature directorial debut, not the one with Will Ferrell), both of which he watched with a stable ebullience she couldn’t help but find endearing. Most of the time, she picked the music and movies and he never objected. It was not that he had an aversion to trying new things. Rather, he knew what he liked and when given the chance, he chose it. He carried around Keats’s Poetical Works and a first-edition copy of Dream Work by Mary Oliver that he had purchased as a Christmas present for himself a year ago. This being said, it still confused her sometimes. The same confusion she felt as she watched him eat pasta with the same fervor every night, never in need of change.
Eventually this re-consumptive inclination manifested itself in a kind of re-creation too. It became a way to get a rise out of the people in his poetry workshops. Week after week, he would bring in poems dealing with the same subjects. Joyce would have called it an investigation of sorts, a parallax. One semester he brought around seven poems concerning a dream, sprinkled within them all was this image of a bull running from a band of Spaniards. Lane silently enjoyed watching his contemporaries and professors in the writing program struggle to conceive of new ways to politely encourage him to choose new subject matter. He’d given up some time ago on appeasing any of them.
Lane’s eyes floated through letters that made up the word “Capiche.” He liked the way the word felt on his eyes, familiar. Like each consecutive letter was supposed to come after the one before it. Like it always had come after the word before it and the word was a part of the alphabet, extracted and given its own separate meaning.
“Like song lyrics or lines of a poem,” he said one time trying to explain the feeling to Molly, a fiction writer not that well-versed in poetry. “One that you don’t think you’ve ever heard before, but it all feels so right that you just can’t be sure one way or another. Each new word, each refrain, each line break coming exactly where your heart told you it was going to come before you even knew it was there.” She feigned interest when he talked about poetry and he loved her for that.
Lane shifted his weight and retrieved a black notebook from his back pocket, one that Molly decorated with colorful stickers of local shops, bars, to keep him from being “a cliché” . . . or so she said. He placed it in the open arms of The Night in Question and watched the notebook fall open where the ribbon directed it, about three-quarters of the way through. Ought to order a new one, he thought and scribbled the word “capiche” into the blank page.
Molly interrupted by leaning over to kiss his cheek. The kiss annoyed him, particularly how her lips were both cold and warm at the same time. Then he felt annoyed at himself for feeling annoyed, he knew she was trying . . . who she was trying for didn’t really matter.
Lane watched his feet return to the edge of the fire pit and hoped that Molly would comment on his latest bravery. Embers were still hot, though the flame had died down quite a bit. I should put another log on, he thought, but I’m always the one to do it. He looked over at Molly. Her neck was craned back, and she was looking up toward the stars. He wondered what she might be thinking about. She can get up if she wants, he thought, for he’d arrived at his favorite part of the story, “It is worth noting what Anders did not remember, given what he did remember . . .”
Lane began to wonder what he would remember. That is, if he was shot in the head. Which memories, places, smells, words, people? Would he think about this place or this person? Probably. He loved the cabin and he loved her, and he was content with that. What would she remember?
“Well, I think I’m going to head inside,” Molly said. “I’m getting cold and the fire is dying.”
“Okay,” said Lane.
She figured it best to leave him alone. Nothing she could say would matter much to him right now. She had started to notice that recently. Where her advice and their conversations that lasted into the wee hours used to be, there was a sudden vacancy that reflected the distance she felt between them and it made her stomach upset. She meant most of what she said tonight. Like how she was tired of Lane saying that he was proud of her. She wanted him to be proud because she wrote something that he loved, not because it got accepted to some half-wit publication.
As Molly sat up, Lane thought to himself about how there was supposed to be an accusation here, one that would launch the two of them into an argument of sorts and would eventually end in the both of them feeling better, even if it hurt to get there. Lane knew she felt the same but needed her to be the one to acknowledge it. The way he saw it, she had brought them to this mental space, and it was her responsibility to get them out. Her actively neglecting that responsibility felt an awful lot to Lane like the end of his last relationship. No, no. That thought scared him.
Molly got up, scratched the top of his head tenderly and made her way back up the hill to the cabin. They’d only be here another night before they returned to their separate schools and separate MFA programs in separate states. The thought made Lane’s heart sink low in his stomach and brought the anticipation of tears to his eyes. Molly’s shoes rasped up the wooden stairs to the back deck where they would have their coffee in what felt like only a few hours. The morning light peeking between the low mountains on the horizon, the reservoir slowly becoming visible in the distance through the dense pine trees between which the morning mist rose like smoke signals, Lane’s and Molly’s legs intertwined under a rough knitted blanket that they shared, jokingly pulling it more dramatically in their own direction and away from the other every so often.
With his legs in her arms, she’d tell him about the different kinds of pine trees. She would explain to him how to tell an Eastern white from a table mountain, the same way her father had once told her. With the soft light on her face, she’d explain to Lane for the millionth time the way that the white oaks don’t lose their leaves until late autumn and how the white-tailed deer will return to the same white oak in the early winter months in hope the last leaves drop for them to make shelter. “If I was a white oak and you were a deer,” Molly told him, “you would sit in my leaves and never get up to make shelter,” and she’d start to laugh, real hard. It made him laugh. Then she’d go on about the birds, when they’d return and when the forest would start to see the first signs of spring. Depending on how harsh the winter, it could be anywhere from March to May before the forest really began to feel heavy with the sounds and smells of reawakening.
But it was pitch-black out now and as he heard the door swing shut, Lane’s chest sunk lower. He turned around, hoping to see Molly making her way back down, but she wasn’t there. He swung his head back around, wanting to finish the story again by the light of the ever-dwindling fire. As the night had gone on though, as he’d read the story over and over, as the circle of light that the fire casted on the soft earth shrunk little by little, he felt like he understood less and less of what was going on. Anders didn’t seem like such a bad guy, Lane thought. Yeah, he was a dick to the two older women, but he was funny about it, comical in a way that was really only for himself. That is, unless you’re a character in a story . . . which . . . he is. Lane thought for a while and decided he would like to be a character in a story sometime, maybe his own. Although that might be weird, but I guess every story is at least semi-autobiographical.
He put the book down into the chair in which Molly had been sitting. It was a rickety old chair, like one of the those you’d see by a pool at a run-down country club or water park, they both were. His-and-hers pool chairs. He smiled. The rubber belts that stretched between the plastic skeletons had once been yellow and white, but the dirt and smoke from fires over the years had turned them into a gray and orange, a change that reflected the shape the rubber was in. Lane tossed his phone down next to the book in the chair and it bounced up, sliding and falling between the rubber belts and onto the earth.
He took up and began to walk away from the fire toward the wall of trees. He’d never walked the trails without Molly and wanted to feel what it felt like to be the sole person in charge. His safe return to the fire, to the cabin, to Molly, to the world of the living would be entirely his own.
Flashlight. Lane turned, made his way around the fire to the chair and saw the glow of the phone screen in the dry grass. A text from Molly, his heart stopped. Maybe she’d started to feel guilty, maybe she couldn’t sleep. Maybe she does want to talk it out. He opened iMessage and next to her name: “make sure you lock all the doors when you come in.” Fuck. His fingers typed back “ok,” and he swiped up to turn on the flashlight as he made his way back in the direction of the trailhead. Lane could still see the ground by the light of the moon but under the cover of trees, it would be a whole other story without some light to guide him. The only other time he’d been on this trail at night was last summer, when Molly had gotten piss drunk and made up her mind to go skinny-dipping in the reservoir. Lane laughed a lot that night; finding himself quite drunk, he fell about five or so times. Tree roots seemed to jump up out of the ground, twisting around his bare feet and pulling him to the hard earth. Molly laughed a lot too, mostly at him. As Lane walked and thought about that night, he knew it would be something to think about if he was shot in the head. Then his mind began to wonder, his feet moved below him, following the path that was lit by the phone.
He thought about how beautiful his narrow line of sight was, and he thought about how his classmates wouldn’t think so. They loved the beat poets and writing about things like smoking cigarettes on fire escapes, politics, about being depressed, shit like that. They hadn’t taken too kindly to Lane’s presence and his unrelenting insistence that words and language from nature, from earth just felt better. Phonetically they just made sense to him in a way that things like fire escapes and politics never would. Moon, sun, tree, stars . . . c’mon. The kids who dismiss my work are the kind of people who bring their phones into the shower. Lane had always hated that, it felt so insincere. So fuck ’em anyway, right?
That’s what Molly had been telling him since the time when he called her on his way home from Tuesday night workshop with tears welling up in his eyes. He recalled to her how they suggested he choose new subject matter and talked down to him about Walt Whitman, e.e. Cummings, Mary Oliver, all the while making wide eyes at each other as Lane read his poems aloud. Lane had loved his teacher at first, he was excited to have her, but after the third week of class, he had told Molly whimpering about how she’d suggested he make a switch to fiction writing. The teacher had reasoned his work was not linguistically strong enough to exist in a purely poetic form. That was almost two years ago and Lane was still in the program, writing the same poems about the same things in the same language. Fuck ’em.
It still got to him sometimes, and as Lane began thinking about his and Molly’s conversation earlier that night, frustration began to course hot through his veins and he took to running, a light jog to shake off the jitters and try to clear his head. He wanted to be someone that she could be proud of. She deserved the attention that she received, but god-damn it seemed so easy for her. He hopped over a tree root, the light of his phone now bouncing as he jogged. Lane turned his thoughts off a second and just felt the words as he experienced them, “ground, soft, dirt, light, hop, breathe, mouth, nose, ears, cold, hop, step, light, step, light, dirt, ground, breathe . . .” He looked up toward where he knew the clearing would be.
The water looked nice tonight, undisturbed, like a sheet of glass reflecting the stars in the sky and the faint light over the horizon that silhouetted the pine trees and formed a mirror image. Lane made his way around the edge of the water toward a mini inlet made of rocks where Molly always sat. She had been coming to this spot since she was a kid, to think her thoughts. She told him one day how the place never changed through the years, and he believed her. Lane sat down and rested against the rock, Molly’s rock. Maybe this will give me some courage, he thought to himself half-hoping it would.
The coolness of the water had moved through the stone and it moved now into his bare hands, arms, neck. He opened his nostrils to take in the smell he knew would be there, the smells of open water, cold air, faint pine and how they intermingled with each other. It made him feel better for a second and he began to think how Anders didn’t have any control over what he thought about, and the final echoing line they is, they is, they is. Lane thought again how one day he’d like to write something great. Some combination of words that felt like it was extracted from the alphabet. He hoped for the words to do so, but for now all he could think was fuck ’em.