Before We Begin, A Question for You:
Have you ever fallen for someone because they reminded you of someone else?
October 9. Lincoln City, OR.
A dancing leaf
“should we go somewhere to get naked?” said Jordan. His voice cracked. His fingertips were like popsicles, but his palms were sweaty. It was as if his hands had a split personality.
Sam took a half-step backward and leaned against the wet boulder, reaching down to button up her jeans. “Give me a second,” she said. She closed her eyes and stood perfectly still.
Jordan fidgeted. He couldn’t tell if she was thinking it over or simply waiting for an answer to arrive.
He couldn’t tell which answer he preferred.
The wind was howling down the wide flat beach, so strong that the only other person out braving the night was leaning into it at a forty-five-degree angle. The boulder offered shelter from the wind, but not the chill. Jordan blew in his hands. A moment passed, then another. There was no moon. No stars. The blackness off the coastline seemed to stretch forever. Jordan felt like he was standing at the edge of the known world.
Sam’s blue eyes flashed open. Her expression sent Jordan into a panic. Whatever answer she had arrived at, he was sure it was the wrong one. But then her features softened, and she started to laugh.
“Look,” she said, pointing over his shoulder.
He turned and looked. Out beyond the boulder, a solitary leaf was cartwheeling end over end over end over end. It looked like a ballet dancer, twirling on the sand.
“My higher self told me to look for a sign,” she smiled. “I think I just got one.” She leaned forward to kiss him gently on the lips.
“Okay. Let’s go someplace a little more intimate.”
a few hours earlier, Jordan was lying atop his sleeping bag, breaking Rule Number Three (Abridged): No Social Media (While You’re In Your Tent). He was at one of the only urban campgrounds on the Oregon Coast—Devils Lake in Lincoln City. The communal hiker-biker campsite was so close to the houses across the street that he could pick up an open wifi.
As rain beat down above his head, he scrolled through Sally’s Facebook profile pictures.
It’d been four days since he left Jack the Chicken Man and Jordan felt like he was still running. He’d still be running if he hadn’t been halted by the downpour. The weather report suggested that the storm would be short-lived, but the bleak weather seemed like a harbinger. It was already October. More lonely nights in his tent were ahead.
Finally, Jordan tossed the phone angrily at the foot of his tent. It ricocheted back at him off the mesh walls. He lay there, one hand on his forehead, the other on the edge of his underwear, feeling besieged, trying to decide whether he should masturbate again. He decided against it. He’d already come twice that morning, and he spent most of the wet afternoon in the public library, reading every self-help book on the shelf.
He desperately needed a distraction.
Slinging his camera bag over his shoulder, he zipped the tent closed and wandered out of Devils Lake toward town.
Maybe it was his attitude, maybe it was the rain. But Jordan was convinced that Lincoln City was the ugliest place he’d visited since arriving in Oregon. The town was like the Los Angeles of the Oregon Coast—sprawled out along a stretch of flat beach that wasn’t nearly as attractive as the rugged headlands to the north. Lincoln City was an artificial construction—a marriage of convenience out of five smaller towns that had been connected by the coastal highway.
Jordan threw up his hood and shivered. It was an hour before sunset, but the clouds overhead had turned the sky as dark as night.
Lincoln City’s most famous tourist attraction was equally ugly and artificial. When the coastal highway was completed, back in the late thirties, the local Chamber of Commerce had searched for a way to draw tourist attention from the prettier destinations along the coast. They focused their efforts on a short waterbody that flowed a few hundred feet from Devils Lake to the Pacific. The locals had a handful of nicknames for this yet-unnamed geographical feature: “the mouth of Devils Lake,” “the channel to Devils Lake,” Devil’s Creek and, most evocatively, “the outlet.”
Town officials commissioned an official measurement. The outlet was measured at 440 feet long, 30 feet wide and no more than 3 feet deep. In their minds, this qualified the outlet to be designated the World’s Shortest River.
But how could one possibly measure every river on the planet? And what distinguishes a creek, a brook, a river and a stream? Town leaders saw no reason to quibble about these existential questions. The authority lay with a government body called the U.S. Geodetic-Geographic Board. After holding a naming competition—the winner was the appropriately brief “D”—the town submitted an application to the Board. The designation was certified. The Mighty D was officially the World’s Shortest River.
A highway sign was erected. The tourists stopped. The D was even listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. The D became an important part of Lincoln City’s identity. But existential questions can only be put off for so long. (The howling wind made Jordan tuck his hands into his pocket.)
At some point, we all must eat our dose of Humble Pie.
For Lincoln City, the reckoning came in 1987, when a fifth-grade class from Great Falls, Montana, determined that their local river, the Roe, was just 200 feet long—and therefore more deserving of the World’s Shortest title.
The kids commenced a fervent letter-writing campaign. They dispatched their town’s lone celebrity—a punter who played a grand total of six games in the NFL—to plead their case on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Public pressure pushed Guinness to re-consider the listing.
The next year, the D was, erm, D-feated. Now, the Roe was officially the World’s Shortest River. Case closed, right?
Not so fast. The Oregonians refused to be out-cuted. Lincoln City responded by commissioning a new measurement—this one timed with an “extreme high tide event.” This completely impartial study, paid for by the Devils Lake Water Improvement District and conducted by an engineer whose office was on West Devils Lake Road, showed that the D had—gasp!—been mismeasured. The actual length of the D River was just 120 feet, not including what the locals called “the D River estuary. Or maybe the D River tidal plain.”
The Montana schoolkids cried foul. Guinness decided to play peacemaker. Both rivers would share the title. The Roe would be the World’s Shortest River most of the time, while the D was the World’s Shortest occasionally.
As always, urgent quarrels forced existential questions to the side. And like most compromises, this one satisfied no one.
In the end, Guinness simply dropped the category altogether.
Up ahead, there was a pizzeria in a squat, cement block building on the side of the coastal highway. It was called the Humble Pie.
That’s exactly what I need.
The bells over the door jingled as Jordan entered the restaurant.
The Café Rendez Vous
about three weeks into his third trip to India, Jordan found himself in a humid office in the tropical south of the country. A heavyset man sat with his feet up on a teak desk, chewing on the end of a cigar, blowing smoke rings up toward the overworked ceiling fan.
An open brochure lay on the desk in front of Jordan. Each page depicted a sensational boutique hotel in a different tropical landscape. An estate on a coffee plantation. A colonial mansion surrounded by rubber palms, a modern houseboat on the verdant Keralan Backwaters. Each of the hotels was stunning.
The heavyset man ran a travel business. He tapped out an ash and wiped his forehead with a handkerchief.
“As you know, we have a bit of a situation.”
That was an understatement. Earlier that week, India had been rocked by its most horrific terrorist attack in recent memory. Ten Islamist Pakistanis had arrived in the country by boat and set siege to Bombay, targeting tourist attractions and the local train station By the time the siege was over, more than 160 people were dead and over 300 had been injured. The most dramatic part of the attack had occurred at the Taj Palace, one of the most famous colonial hotels in Asia. A pair of terrorists had held hostages inside the hotel for nearly three days as the international news media watched in horror. With American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, it didn’t take much imagination to think of the attacks as India’s 9/11. Finally, the attack ended with a dramatic rescue by a team of Indian commandos, who killed the last terrorists and set the hostages free.
Though Jordan wasn’t in Bombay at the time, he’d been peripherally affected by the attack. After five months spent living in slums, trying to change the world through Ultimate Frisbee, Jordan was back in India for a third time on a completely opposite trajectory. He’d been hired by a Canadian high-end travel agency who’d dispatched him to India as a researcher. His responsibilities included:
- Developing relationships with sales managers.
- Assessing the current state of the properties.
- Searching for new regions to explore.
- Writing reviews that the agency could share with its clients.
It was Jordan’s dream job.
The Mumbai attacks began on a Wednesday. That Friday, Jordan had an appointment to visit the Taj Palace. With the whole world in panic and his parents urging him to come home, Jordan rescheduled his plans to fly south, to the state of Kerala, twelve hundred miles and a world away from the terror. He arrived in a breezy harbor city with pastel Portuguese churches and cobblestone streets. But in his first meeting with his local fixer, he learned that the impacts of the attack were still reverberating through the travel industry.
“A monsoon of cancellations,” said the heavyset man. “No bookings for December. All my hotels are empty until the New Year!” He chewed on the end of his cigar and fixed Jordan in his gaze. “Maybe we can help each other. You’ll put in a good word with your boss, na?”
Jordan reached across the desk and shook his sweaty hand.
Jordan burst out of the fixer’s office like an Indian commando, ready to save the hostages from the terrorists. Except that wasn’t what he intended to do at all. His plan had been to spend a few days in Kerala, zipping through a half-dozen honeymoon-quality hotels. Because all the hotels had been fully booked, Jordan had planned to stay in budget accommodations instead. He had pictured a long journey over bumpy roads to see all the properties, which were scattered throughout the mountainous region. But the terrorist attacks had won him a Pyrrhic victory. The fixer had arranged for him to spend the night at all six hotels. All expenses paid.
Jordan was convinced he’d stumbled into the best pickup line of his life.
His hired car and driver left the following morning. Jordan had just a few hours to find the woman who would be willing to be cast into the role of his Fake Wife. He took off running through the tourist district.
He peeked into cyber cafes. He rushed past every chai stall. He hurried down the boardwalk near the Chinese fishing nets where the fishmongers were grilling that day’s catch.
There were plenty of backpackers about. But how would he know when he found Her?
As the sun dropped toward the Arabian Sea. Jordan’s standards began dropping with it.
By then, it had been two years since Jordan’s break-up with his first girlfriend. Since then, he’d accrued a fair number of notches on his backpack. He’d even had a relationship with a beautiful young woman that was fun and healing. But the woman was based in Toronto and Jordan’s heart was in India.
His five months as a volunteer Frisbee coach had been transcendent. The experience had put him face-to-face with issues like poverty, sexism and the class system. He’d learn to see India with much more nuance than the first time around, when it all seemed so shiny and colorful through the lens of his camera. Getting to know its underbelly had only made Jordan love India more.
As night fell, Jordan was still searching desperately. Sure, he was looking for a good time. But after two years of regret and commitments to being different, what he really wanted was a second chance. He’d been fantasizing about a beautiful foreign girl who loved to travel and knew India the way that he did.
In restaurant after restaurant after restaurant after restaurant, he still hadn’t found Her. He’d searched for hours. His resolve was weakening. It was getting late, and he was starving.
Don’t give up! She’s out there! Fight through the pain. Don’t be weak, you pussy!
Jordan egged himself to look down just one more street. And then just one more street after that.
Finally, he rounded a corner. His eyes settled on a hand-painted sign that hung half-illuminated by the street light. The sign read, Café Rendez Vous.
He got shivers. Slowly, Jordan trudged up the stairs to the second-floor patio. The butterflies in his belly were going wild.
The Humble Pie Pizzaria
collecting his greasy pizza slices, Jordan slid heavily into one of the booths by the window. He looked out the window at the cars slushing by on the wet street. The rain had slowed to a mist.
The Humble Pie had all the charm of a bar bathroom. The walls were painted a worn cheddar and covered with handwritten messages: limericks and I WAS HERE notes from past patrons. There was a worn pool table in the corner, and the checkerboard floors seemed to be begging for a good mop. Tie-dyed t-shirts hung for sale over the display counters, where the slices looked cold and uninspired. But the lazy-eyed clerk was also wearing tie-dye, and he sang along with the Beatles on the jukebox.
Compared to the gloom outside—and inside Jordan’s head—the Humble Pie seemed practically joyous.
The only other patrons in the restaurant were sitting in the booth right beside Jordan. The father was a stocky tattooed man. His daughter was an unhappy five-year-old.
“Eat your crust, Jessica.”
“Noooooooo! I don’t waaaaaaaannnnnna.”
“Jessica. I’m tryin’ to be patient here. Eat your crust. Please.”
Jordan watched them out of the corner of his eye.
This guy’s handling the situation pretty well for a man with a tarantula tattooed on the top of his skull.
The bells over the door jingled, and a woman walked in out of the rain. She flipped down her black hood, revealing a tight blonde ponytail protruding from the back of her black ball cap.
Immediately, Jordan stiffened.
Wow. Pretty. Very, very pretty.
What he meant was that she looked just like his ex-girlfriend, Sally.
The blonde woman was around Jordan’s age. She was dressed in baggy jeans, skate shoes and a puffy down vest. She brushed off the precipitation and approached the counter slowly, waiting patiently for the lazy-eyed clerk to notice her.
“Mushroom slice!” the clerk called to the teenager back by the ovens.
With her slice in hand, the woman turned and made eye contact with Jordan for the first time. He grinned at her eagerly. She broke his eye contact, glancing at the only other unoccupied booth in the Humble Pie. It was on the opposite side of Jordan from what was quickly becoming the War over the World’s Smallest Crust.
“Nooooooo. I’m not huuunnnnnngry.”
“Goddamn it, Jessica. There’s kids starving in Africa who would shoot each other for this crust.”
Jordan didn’t think that this was true, but he decided to let it pass without comment. He remembered something he had read that afternoon in the self-help books:
A major sign of codependency is when you feel like you have to take care of everyone all the time. This typically comes from childhood, when the caretaker learns there may be terrible consequences from failing to take care of a parent’s needs.
The blonde woman slid into the unoccupied booth, turning her back to Jordan. His eyes combed through the downy blonde hairs at the back of her neck.
The War was escalating. “Nooooooooo! I wannnnna play with the toys!” The toys were in the dirty corner over by the pool table.
“Honey, you gotta finish your dinner. Listen to your father.”
Daddy Tarantula picked up the crust and jammed it against Jessica’s lips. The young girl squeezed them tightly. He pushed and prodded again, trying to find a way to worm the crust through. Jessica squealed angrily. The moment her father relented, Jessica sensed the opportunity to escape. She slid beneath the table and bee-lined across the checkerboard floor toward the toys.
“Goddamn it, Jessica.” The father smashed his fist against the table. “When are you going to learn to obey your father?”
The commotion had caught the blonde woman’s attention. She glanced at Jordan. They made the kind of eye contact that can only happen between adults who don’t have children.
They turned back to screaming Jessica. Her father had scooped her like a football and was carting her out of the Humble Pie. The bells over the door jingled. They passed by Jordan’s window. The last thing he saw was Jessica’s little legs kicking wildly.
When the door latched shut, the inside of the Humble Pie was mercifully quiet, besides the clerk still singing along with the jukebox.
“That’s one way to parent,” Jordan said to the blonde woman.
The blonde woman eyed him warily. “There are many ways to parent.” She noticeably twisted her body away from him.
Immediately, Jordan was on damage control. “I’ve… I’ve been thinking about that all day,” he said, a little too urgently. “Parenting, I mean. About how the things that happen to us when we’re young affect our…” The blonde woman was staring right through him. He could tell she was waiting for him to shut up.
He pushed on anyway. “I’ve been wondering because… because I’m walking from Canada to Mexico and…”
Abracadabra! Jordan had found the password.
The blonde woman twisted her entire body around so that she was leaning on the divider between the booths. He swallowed, trying to pick up the thread of his thought.
“Just thinking a lot about the forces that… our parents… you know, the strange Stories that…” He looked at his hands. “Sorry. I’m not normally this awkward.”
“Did you say you’re walking from Canada to Mexico?”
“That’s right.” He tried to sound upbeat. “Today’s Day Thirty-Nine!”
The blonde woman stuck out her hand. “Pleased to meet you. My name’s Sam.”
Her Sally-like skin felt soft against Jordan’s palm.
when he entered the Café Rendez Vous, Jordan had immediately spotted Sally on the far side of the room. She was sitting with a local man who, it turned out, she’d only met that afternoon. The local man was busily persuading her to come home and meet his mother. Sally wasn’t saying yes, but she wasn’t saying no either.
Jordan strode across the room trying to project a confidence that he’d only seen in the movies. Now that the opportunity to use the best pickup line of his life was at hand, his confidence was faltering. Jordan only tended to meet girls when he was drunk or high. He’d had a boatload of one-night stands, but just a handful of second dates.
Settling into a formed plastic chair at the next table over, he’d confidently ordered from the menu. When the waiter left, he’d reached into his backpack and pulled out a thumbnail-sized piece of hash. He began the ritual of breaking the hash into pinhead-sized balls, mixing them with tobacco and rolling the mixture into a spliff. He was lighting the joint when he made eye contact with Sally for the first time. As he exhaled, he extended the spliff toward her.
Electricity leaped between their fingers. Sally took it with a smile.
The connection was immediate. Sally and Jordan had talked for hours. He was amazed by how much they had in common. Sally loved India just as much as him. She was in the country for the fourth time since graduating from Cambridge. On this most recent trip, she’d spent the last four months volunteering as an English teacher, living in a village in the scrubby desert. The experience had been transcendent.
“So why are you going home?”
“I’m going to celebrate Christmas with my family,” she said. “But I’m open to better offers.”
Besides her Sally-like skin, her Sally-like smile and her very Sally-like figure, the first thing Jordan noticed about Sam was her very un-Sally-like self-confidence. Sam spoke slowly, in a deeply considered way. Every word she spoke seemed to echo. She held her hands on the table without twitching or fidgeting. And she held Jordan’s eye contact tenderly.
Is she being flirty or just generous? There’s something about this girl. I just can’t find the word to describe her.
The word he was looking for was present.
Sam joined Jordan at his table. She explained that she was studying for her Master’s at a college town two hours inland from Lincoln City. Her friends had rented a beach house for the weekend. “It’s a get-to-know-you thing. But I’m a bit of an introvert,” she admitted. “I needed some time alone.”
Jordan had both hands on the table too. Underneath it, his legs were shaking.
She told him that her Master’s was in mycology. “That’s the study of fungi.”
“Oh,” Jordan said with a smirk. “I get it. You’re studying mushrooms.”
Sam didn’t crack a smile. “That’s right. I’m studying mushrooms.”
“Do you get to do… mushrooms when you’re studying mushrooms?”
Sam didn’t flinch. “Do you always make Dad jokes?”
Jordan looked at his hands. He was trying to project confidence, but he still couldn’t shake the dark clouds that had been hanging over him all day. He could hardly bear how badly he wanted to kiss her.
“How’d you get into studying, um… mushrooms?”
“It’s a bit of a story, actually.” Sam took a bite of her pizza.
Jordan thought about grabbing for his phone but hesitated.
No. Jack the Chicken Man put me out of the love story business.
Sam explained that her motivation to study mushrooms had come over the summer. She was living in her tent in the forest in New Jersey, studying tracking at a school run by an Apache Indian hunter when…
“Wait a second. New Jersey has forests?“
Sam looked him in the eyes without flinching. “Yes.”
Shudders rolled through his body. He swallowed nervously. “Tracking? Like, animal tracking?“
“What’s something about animal tracking that you can teach someone like me?” Jordan puffed his chest. “Someone who’s walking from Canada to Mexico?”
Sam hesitated. Then she closed her eyes and went still. A moment passed. Another moment. Jordan wondered where she’d gone. He glanced over at the lazy-eyed clerk to see if he’d noticed, but the clerk was spinning dough above his head. He turned back to Sam. Her eyes were still closed. He couldn’t tell if she was thinking or just waiting for an answer to arrive.
His eyes darted across her body. They caressed her cheek. They plunged down her neckline, trying to see through her puffy down vest to whatever was hidden underneath.
Her Sam’s eyes popped open, catching him looking at her chest. He froze. Fuck.
Sam smiled and said, “Every step has an intention.”
He made a face. “Every step has an intention?” It sounded like something that he had read in the self-help books. “Isn’t that a little… woo-woo?”
“No, it’s actually good science. The goal of animal tracking is to assess intention. That’s what you’re determining. Where the animal was going and why.” She shifted easily into a professorial tone. Placing her Sally-like hand atop the table, she pressed down firmly as if she was leaving a handprint on the countertop. “Say you’re looking at a track. The first thing you do is collect data. How old is the track? What’s the weather? Where’s the water source? Where’s the nest? What time of day is it? What other tracks are nearby?”
“That sounds really complicated.”
Sam grinned. “It’s complex, but it’s not that complicated. It gets easier with a little practice. Next, you take all that data and compare it to what you already know about the animal. That gets easier too. Animals mostly want the same kinds of things.” She listed them out on her Sally-like fingers. “Food. Water. Play. Protection from predators. Protection for their young.” She paused and looked Jordan in the eye. “Sex.”
He shuddered. “Every step has an intention. That makes a lot of sense. I think I get it now.”
She took the last bite of her pizza crust, then dabbed her Sally-like lips with her napkin. “It’s a little more complicated than that. I used to think that animal movement was haphazard. A few months in the forest taught me better. There’s always an intention. Even if the animal isn’t conscious of it.” He couldn’t bear to look into Sam’s blue eyes. He could tell that she was studying him. He wished that he could disappear. “I spent five months living outside every day. I’d spend hours walking down forest trails, looking at the ground, thinking about other creatures’ intentions. At first, I thought like a scientist. I was out there as an impartial observer of the natural world. Then one day, I had a revelation. I wasn’t impartial. The forest was also responding to me. That really threw me for a loop.” She paused. “You must think about the same kinds of thing.”
“Oh yeah,” he lied. “Totally.”
Immediately, Sam leaned away from him and crossed her arms over her chest.
Jordan’s heart started racing. “Actually, I…” He softened his tone. “To tell you the truth…”
“What were you telling me before?”
He blushed. “That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking about for the last four days. Where I’m going and why. I just never thought to call it by that name.”
Sam relaxed. She leaned forward to put her elbows back on the table.
“You know, you spend enough time thinking about other creatures’ intentions and you can’t help but think about your own. Sometimes, I’d be out there walking and I’d ask myself: what’s the intention in this step? How about this one? How about that one? These… answers would pop in my head. The intention in this step is ‘courage’. The intention in this step is ‘healing’. That experience was really powerful for me. I didn’t think that I was impartial any more. I started to see how things were connected—on a much deeper level than what I knew.” For the first time since they’d started talking, Sam’s confidence faltered. She looked down at her hands. “Sorry. I don’t know why I told you that. I bet that sounds pretty strange.”
He leaned forward. “That doesn’t sound strange at all.”
She looked up at him. “So you know?”
“That there’s more“—she knocked on the table—”than this.”
He hung his head. “I know. Thought it really scares me to talk about it.”
When he looked up, Sam was smiling. “Can I share something else with you? Something that might sound a little intimate?”
“Yes,” he croaked. The butterflies were going wild.
“Sometimes, I’d look around and notice that all the trees, the ferns, the entire forest was reaching out. Almost like it was trying to touch me. And then, suddenly, I’d realize that my intention was love.”
“That’s beautiful,” he whispered.
“I think you are too.” She nodded her head to the door. “Can I buy you a drink?”
“I’m not drinking right now. But you can buy me a water.”
“That works. My car’s right around the corner.”
The bells over the door jingled when they left the Humble Pie, together.
This heart of mine
overhead, the streetlights illuminated the light mist. But they could scarcely feel the rain as they rounded the corner to Sam’s SUV: a turn-of-the-millennium GMC Jimmy with California plates. Sam opened the passenger door. Inside was an elderly dog that wagged its tail wearily. “This is Max,” she said. She hefted him down onto the pavement. Max was wearing a doggy diaper, and Sam bent over, opening the velcro strap so he could tinkle on the mossy curb.
“Kidney cancer,” she explained. “The vets thought I was crazy. Max is fifteen. They thought the surgery would only buy him a few weeks” She bent over, petting Max generously under the chin. “He’s my best friend. Was I just going to let him die? No. No. It took almost all the money I had in the world. But it’s been more than a year and he’s still here. That’s worth it. Right?”
Jordan didn’t answer. He was peering through the open door. The inside of the car was just as homey as a GMC Jimmy could be. On the dashboard was a neat arrangement of dried plants: some lavender and sweetgrass, a fist-sized lobster mushroom, a half-burned wand of sage. A dreamcatcher dangled from the rearview mirror.
Behind the captains’ chairs, the rear seats were folded flat. A half-dozen plastic storage tubs were stacked on top of them. They were transparent, and Jordan could see they were packed with clothes.
“That’s a lot of stuff for a weekend trip to the coast. Are you moving?”
Sam shook her head and swiftly reaffixed the velcro on Max’s diaper. “We live in here.”
“You… live in your car?”
“That’s right. After the surgery and tuition, there wasn’t much left over for rent. Hopefully, it’s only going to be for a few months.” She hefted Max back up into the vehicle and rearranged his bed so that the passenger seat was vacant.
“But… but…” Jordan had never met anyone who lived in their car. “But where do you shower?”
She shot him a look. “Where do you shower?”
“Us too. We’ve got a safe spot where we park not far from the student center. It’s intimate. I kind of like it.” She turned away, ending the conversation. Rounding the hood, she got into the driver’s seat. She lit a cigarette, then grabbed for an iPod that was connected to the stereo through the tape deck. As she scanned through her music library, Jordan stood frozen still on the asphalt.
She glanced at him through the open door. “You do get in cars, right?”
“Rule Number Six. You Can Get Into Cars As Long As Someone Drops You Off Right Where You Got Picked Up, So You Can Tell People That You Walked Every Step of the Way.”
She made a face. “Do you always talk in capital letters?”
“Capital letters? What do you mean?”
“Never mind.” She paused. Jordan stayed frozen. “Are you getting in?”
“Yes.” He hopped into the passenger seat and immediately buckled his seatbelt.
Jordan was having the experience of being in two places at once. As Sam took her time scrolling through her music library, Jordan remembered leaving the Café Rendez Vous with Sally that night. She’d told him that she had a Scrabble board in her guesthouse.
“Well,” he said. “Let’s go back to your guesthouse and ‘play Scrabble’.”
When they got back to his guesthouse, they sat on the unmade bed and set up the board game. Alone, working on their third spliff of the evening, the electricity from earlier in the evening had suddenly dissipated.
Jordan didn’t yet know that Sally had a boyfriend. He was back in Europe, waiting for Sally to come home from India. They had a dog and plans to move to the Mediterranean in January, where they would continue on another teaching contract. Jordan was still deluded by the fantasy that Sally was his soulmate.
The tension in Sam’s Jimmy felt exactly the same. He stiffened his muscles to keep himself from fidgeting in the passenger seat. Finally, Sam replaced the iPod in the console and reached for the volume knob. “This is my favorite song.”
A long minor note filled the inside of the Jimmy. The song was steady and slow, with just one prominent instrument—a wheezy organ that reminded him of a sad accordion. It seemed like a strange choice to be someone’s favorite.
The vocals only added to his confusion. The singer’s voice was a deep baritone, singing in a language that, at first, Jordan couldn’t understand. The lyrics were in rhyming couplets. They sounded chanted. They vocals were accompanied by background voices and bells.
He cast a confused look at Sam, but she’d already put the car into gear. They quickly reached the junction with the coastal highway.
“Where should we go?”
Jordan suddenly realized that he was squeezing the door handle. “Anywhere you want.”
She flipped on her indicator and drove across the bridge over the World’s Shortest River.
In the middle of the Scrabble game, Sally had dropped a nine-letter-word: b-o-y-f-r-i-e-n-d. Jordan had been floored. He’d have said he was disappointed and hurt if he wasn’t too stoned to be in touch with his feelings. Instead, he felt humiliated. Tucking his tail between his legs, he’d grabbed his things and stumbled to the door. Sally met him there with a chaste hug. He was one step out of her room when he suddenly stopped and turned back to her. “Maybe you want to come along anyway? We could go just as friends. I know that you probably think that…”
“Okay,” Sally said suddenly. “I’ll come.”
Jordan remembered feeling overjoyed. In retrospect, he could see how empty that excitement felt now.
Sam took a long, thoughtful drag on her cigarette. Her attention was focused on the music. She seemed content to drive in silence. Jordan glanced over at her, just as oncoming headlights flashed across her face. He got chills as he took in her Sally-like profile.
Suddenly, something clicked. The language was Hindi. The song was Hindu devotional music.
Jordan was shocked.
India! How did India find me here?
He turned to Sam to try and say something. But the thought was stuck in his throat. Suddenly, he felt overwhelmed. Memories coursed viscerally through his body. There they were, sitting on the stoop of an open train carriage. The train was speeding through yellow mustard fields as the sun dropped on the horizon. They passed farmers with bullock carts, women in colorful saris balancing water on their heads, dark-skinned boys taking shits on the edge of the railway berm and smiling, shitting and smiling and waving at them. They waved back as they sped by. Sally’s thigh pressed into his. He could smell the jasmine flowers in her hair. He could feel her.
Then, in a poof, she was gone.
Other memories followed. There they were, in Varanasi, sipping chai while watching the funeral pyres. An image flashed in his mind, then poof.
There they were, clustered around a campfire, as an old Tibetan man passed them a bottle of whiskey and convincingly told them that he had once been the official cook for the Dalai Lama. A rush of laughter, of absurdity, of the excitement of their adventure. Then, snap. Nothing.
Jordan bit his lip to contain his emotion. For the very first time, he realized he was grieving.
I loved her. I loved her with everything I had. I tried my best to love her and it still wasn’t enough. Maybe I wasn’t enough, either.
“What do you think he’s singing about?” Sam said suddenly.
“It’s a devotional song,” he said exuberantly. “It’s all about God!”
She made a face that suggested she didn’t know what he was talking about. “I always imagined that he was singing about some enchanted forest.” She took a slow drag on her cigarette as she turned back to the road. “But maybe that’s the same thing.”
By then, they’d edged out of town, beyond the city lights. The coastal highway swooped inland before curving back west to run along the top of the sandstone cliffs. The blackness over the Pacific seemed to stretch forever. There was no moon. No stars. Jordan felt like he was right on the edge of the known world.
Sam pointed out the windshield. A sign advertised a hotel with a rooftop bar. Flipping on her signal, she slowed as she turned into the parking lot. The same song was still playing. At the same instant, it slowed too. The bells disappeared. The background voices went quiet. When the vocals came in again, they’d shifted into a deep, melodious English. The transition gave Jordan chills.
Sam pulled into a parking stall and cut the engine but not the stereo. Staring straight ahead, she closed her eyes and listened to the end of the song.
Calling out to hungry hearts
Everywhere through endless time
You who wander, you who thirst
I offer you this heart of mine
Calling out to hungry spirits
Everywhere through endless time
Calling out to hungry hearts
All the lost and the left behind
Gather round and share this meal
Your joy and your sorrow
I make it mine.
Sam waited until the sad accordion had wheezed out its last, long minor note before she finally switched off the Jimmy.
they sat in the hotel bar and flirted as college football highlights reflected on the windows. They took the elevator to the beach and sheltered behind a jagged boulder from the howling wind.
The evening was moving as if it already had a destination in mind. It had a flow. A momentum.
When Sam’s eyes flicked over his lips, Jordan couldn’t miss the signal. He leaned forward to kiss her. Her mouth tasted like an ashtray. They pawed at one another, and his popsicle fingers slipped down the edge of her jeans, poking beneath her elastic, feeling the brittle texture of the upward edge of her pubic hair.
“Give me a second,” she said. She closed her eyes and stood perfectly still.
Jordan fidgeted. He couldn’t tell which answer he preferred.
Back in the hotel lobby, they asked about a room, but it was Saturday night, and the rate was much more than either of them could afford. They got back in the Jimmy and tried another hotel, but this one was even more expensive. Sam was getting cold feet. “My friends are probably worried about me.”
Jordan was panicked. “How about my tent? It’s small but it would probably fit us if we…”
Once again, she closed her eyes. Once again, Jordan watched her in a panic.
“Okay,” she said finally. “Let’s go back to your tent.”
Back in the Jimmy again, they cruised north across the World’s Shortest River. They pulled into the Devils Lake parking lot. It was quiet and desolate. After taking Max for a short walk and securing him in the vehicle, they walked hand-in-hand to the hiker-biker campsite. A few other tents had mushroomed in the grass around his. Anonymous snores floated through the forest grove.
He unzipped his tent fly and stood back magnanimously. “Welcome to my home.”
Sam ducked her head and descended into his tiny shelter.
The one-man tent was barely two feet wide. There was no room to lay side-by-side but, by then, they both knew they weren’t there to be social. They kissed tenderly at first. But quickly, urgency took over. Everything about Sam felt so strangely familiar, and yet so utterly strange.
As his hands slipped beneath her shirt, opening buttons, fidgeting with her bra, he had the sense that this was an important moment for her also. But he didn’t have the presence of mind to ask why. He wanted her, and he was also scared to know her. The same thing had also been true about Sally.
On the first night of their “honeymoon”, he and Sally had slept chastely—fully clothed on opposite sides of the honeymoon bed. Each successive night they’d drifted closer. The chemistry was crackling. Later, when friends asked how they’d met, Sally would say that she’d only come on the vacation because she thought he was gay. But that wasn’t how he’d experienced it at the time. They had unveiled all their secrets. They had exchanged long, lingering glances. He wanted her. He was pretty sure she wanted him also.
He pulled off Sam’s bra. Both her nipples were pierced with metal rings that clinked against his teeth when he kissed down her chest to suck them. Her shoulders and back were well-defined. He unbuttoned her jeans cautiously, still expecting to get stopped. But Sam’s moans encouraged him further. His hand slid over her pubic mound as his fingers felt her wetness for the first time. Already, the tiny shelter was dense with her scent.
Sam kissed him eagerly as he worked his fingers into her. Her hips moved in tight circles. Her fingernails dug into her back. She pulled away and looked him in the eyes. “I want you to go down on me.”
Jordan was grateful to know exactly how she wanted to get pleased.
Kicking away the extra gear that was scattered at the foot of his sleeping bag, he positioned himself between Sam’s thighs. They were strong and muscled also. He leaned forward, brushing his beard against her skin gently. When he extended his tongue, he was thinking about Sally.
Sally hated it when I went down on her.
“Mmmmm,” said Sam. “A little to the left. Uh-huh. That’s nice. A little softer. Yeah. Just like that, just like that.”
There was just one night left in their “honeymoon” when Jordan and Sally arrived at the colonial mansion with the infinity pool outside of the honeymoon suite. He knew that she was leaving soon. He imagined he’d never see him again. Sitting on the edge of the pool, Jordan could see straight down Sally’s bikini top. He was titillated by the sight of her pink nipple.
Sally was just twenty-three. Her cheeks were still rosy. Her body was somewhere on the cusp of her womanhood. But Jordan had been raised to value younger women, barely legal teens. He drunk in her breast voraciously.
“Faster, faster,” said Sam. “Yes, yes. Just like that, just like that.”
Everything seemed to be in double.
Sam’s moans got louder. Her hips bucked toward Jordan’s face. He worked his fingers inside of her, curling them steadily upwards like he’d once read in one of his mother’s Cosmopolitans. “Oh, fuck, oh fuck! Just like that! Just like that!”
When Sam screamed out in orgasm, he felt even better to know that someone nearby might be listening.
Sam panted and then went still. Jordan lay frozen between her legs, waiting for the next instruction. She tapped him on the shoulder, and he climbed up her body, hesitating by her face. Her wetness was dripping from his five-week-long beard. But Sam’s lips met his hungrily. They traded in her liquids, devouring her scent.
A raccoon screeched somewhere out in the campground. Condensation was dripping down the inside of the tent. Jordan’s body tensed. He knew what was coming.
Sam put her hand gently on his chest, guiding him backward until he was lying with his head at the foot of the sleeping bag. She helped him out of his shirt, then unbuttoned his pants. He felt the desperate urge to grab for Paul’s crystal. As she ran her hand over top of his underwear, he sighed out loud. He was grateful to realize that he was hard. With Sally, it had always been a fifty-fifty proposition.
Sam slowly pulled down his boxer shorts and took him in her mouth.
As she did, he couldn’t help worrying whether her last lover was thicker, harder, better.
Squeezing his eyes shut, counting to a hundred in his head, Jordan remembered that fateful night when he kissed Sally for the first time. Drunk on two bottles of wine and the lingering memory of her nipple, he was elated when Sally’s tongue reached out and met his. Finally, the mystery of their honeymoon had been solved. She did want him more than Him!
But that’s not totally true. What Sally really wanted was to be wanted.
What Jordan really wanted was to be wanted, too.
Sam licked up the underside of his shaft and looked him in the eyes. “Do you have a condom?” she whispered.
“Uh… I think so. Yeah, I’ve got one in my pack.” Jordan rustled through his bag and then handed the package to Sam. He lay there, dumbly, feeling like a virgin, as Sam held him at the base of his shaft and rolled on the protection. She swung her leg across his body, straddling him, holding him at the outside of her lips. She rolled him around her entrance, spreading her wetness. He could feel it through the latex. He could feel it dripping down, drizzling over his balls. He hoped he wouldn’t disappoint her.
“Mmmmm,” she moaned, as she lowered herself onto him, burying her to the hilt. He started to thrust. He had just three modes: Hard. Harder. Hardest. Squeezing his eyes shut, he remembered falling into the honeymoon bed with Sally. Their clothes came off. Sally’s body felt so fragile. It was just moments before he was inside of her. He’d thrust once, twice, three times before he felt that familiar sensation rocketing up from his balls. He pulled out quickly, splattering his come on her breasts. When he looked up, Sally’s face had twisted into a scowl.
“Was that it?”
He gave her a sheepish look. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine.” She got up to retrieve a handtowel.
When she returned to the room, they lay silently next to each other, staring up as the ceiling fan spun over their honeymoon bed. He imagined that she was thinking about her boyfriend. He imagined that he’d lost her. He decided he was going to fight for her. He needed to redeem himself for not being enough of a man. He loved her. He wanted her.
He never asked her about what that night had been like for her.
At the end of their “honeymoon”, Sally flew home to Europe and broke up with her boyfriend. A few weeks later she was in India with Jordan again.
That first night in bed, they’d set something in motion that was bigger than either of them. In retrospect, it was the beginning, the end and the most intimate moment of their relationship all at the same time.
And after that, I really should have…
“Where did you go?”
He looked down. Sam’s hand was on his chest.
“Nowhere.” He shook away the cobwebs. “I’m here.”
“Slow down. Let yourself enjoy this.”
Let myself enjoy this? I don’t even know what that means.
He tried to slow down. But after one patient thrust, he was jackhammering like a rabbit again. Sam smiled. She leaned down and kissed him gently. Guiding him up to a seated position, she rested her forehead against his. Jordan thrust his hips forward, but Sam slid off of him, sandwiching his shaft between her lips.
“Shhhhh,” she whispered. “Slooooow.”
She took a long, deep breath, pressing her belly into his. Then she let out a long, deep exhale. Another breath. Jordan mimicked her behavior impatiently. It wasn’t that he wanted to race to his orgasm. It was that he wanted her to orgasm again.
But Sam was making it difficult. She was so slow. So present. When she slid him back inside of her, she stopped there, completely still.
“What’s the hurry?” She whispered. “Do you have somewhere else to be?”
He smiled. He was trying to keep his emotions inside of him.
Somewhere outside, a chipmunk screeched. He could hear the light wind in the trees. Sam started to move in tiny, microscopic motions, barely shifting her hips, stimulating him one molecule of skin at a time. It wasn’t the way he was used to having sex, but it still felt good. Really good. He imagined he could feel her a million different ways on the inside.
Sam held him gently, kissing him on the cheek, stroking his neck, whispering wonderful things in his ear. “You’re beautiful.” “You’re inspiring.” “You’re so brave.” “I love the way you feel inside of me.”
Sally never said any of those things to me.
When she touched his cheek, he was surprised to realize that he was crying.
Sam’s tempo was set on one mode: slooooooooooow. Unhurried, he could feel himself settling into his arousal. It was feeling better and better. Suddenly, there was a strange sensation inside his body. It was like Jack the Chicken Man, but different. Fucking awesome. Fireworks were erupting inside of his body. He was breathless. He was orgasming! But his dick was still hard, and he hadn’t ejaculated.
The orgasm moved in waves, egged on by Sam’s muscles. Clenching him. Holding him. Releasing him. Her insides moved like waves in the ocean.
“That was amazing,” he said, when he caught his breath. “How did you…? We weren’t even going…”
Sam put her finger on his lip. “How did we? See what happens when you let go of control?”
The pressure was gone. Their pace picked up. Skin slapped, hands gripped. Their bodies moved with abandon. From on top. On the bottom. From the front. From the back. “Harder, harder. Deeper, deeper!” Jordan plunged into her with a desperation that ran deeper than he’d ever been. “Oh, fuck. Oh, fuck! Yes, yes! Keep going, keep going!”
They were careening toward orgasm, and they screamed out when they arrived at their destination together.
Sam sighed. Jordan collapsed on her sweaty breast. As he drifted in and out of sleep, he felt like he laying was on the edge of the known world. The blackness on the horizon seemed to stretch forever.
The night had turned still. An owl hooted. A stranger snored. The mist dripped on the microfiber.
Suddenly, he remembered what Sam had told him earlier: every step has an intention.
Maple leaves fell softly outside the tent as Jordan lay there, shriveling inside of her.
Now, A Question for You:
Have you ever fallen for someone because they reminded you of someone else?