There are three ways this story could begin. But as of today, when I’m writing this, there is only one ending.
When Zola turned to me that evening, it was as if the bear within him was gone. Finally, we had come down from the mountain and I saw a scrap of sanity in his left eye. It wasn’t until much too late that I realized just how wrong I was. But in that moment, I allowed myself to hope, as I never had hoped before. We’d been six days in the backcountry by then, and maybe we should have waited until morning to hike out. My relief was so palpable, though, that Buggy couldn’t be calmed, and he barked and barked and whined until finally we struck camp and headed down the lower ridge in the lavender gloom.
Zola’s headlamp had gotten smashed the fifth day, in an attempt to fell logs for the cabin. No amount of Walden rereads could have prepared him for the reality of a forty-foot alder tipping the wrong way. In the mad dash to remove himself from its path, he was lucky enough to have only gotten whipped in the face by one of the branches, which shattered the lamp’s bulb. A tiny shard of the glass lodged itself in his right eye; it had been irritated and swollen almost-shut since. So, with both Zola’s light and vision compromised, I led the way.
We barely spoke for the next eleven hours. We stopped once, for fifteen minutes, to eat some deer jerky and canned peaches, and to feed Buggy. At six AM, when we emerged at the Lake Angeles trailhead parking lot, Zola turned to me at last. His face was covered in a patchy, springy beard, and he was too skinny. I probably looked worse.
“Oh, jeez. Oh, Mar, I’m…I mean…I’m.” Zola shook his head. I paused a second, then took pity. I’d realized, with some surprise, that there was no more anger in my heart. And anyway, I deserved punishment.
“It’s okay, babe,” I said.
“No, let me apologize,” Zola pursued. “It was a fucking disaster.”
I wiped pine needles and a parking citation off the cracked windshield of the Subaru. I just wanted to take a hot shower. But before Zola would let me and Buggy get into the car he made me agree that it had, in fact, been a fucking disaster. So I agreed, and we drove into Port Angeles as the sun strengthened and leaked all over the strait, and the town woke up to another soggy March morning. It wasn’t until Zola was asleep in my parents’ spare bedroom and I was in the bath that I realized Zola had never actually said the words I’m sorry.
I met him sophomore fall, in Introduction to Early Roman History. By the college’s standards, it was a huge lecture, about fifty hungover undergrads cramped together on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, in one of Carpenter Hall’s underground lecture rooms. When I’d arrived in Hanover the week before, I told myself that this year wouldn’t be like the last. I’d attend every lecture and take notes, go to office hours, try to keep my GPA above a three-point-oh.
It’d been freshman winter, while listening to another student, Alexis, hold forth for twenty minutes on the subtle differences between ‘their’ and ‘they’re’ in Writing 005 that I realized it wasn’t that I was stupider than them, it was that I lacked the confidence to ever truly belong. It seemed to be woven into the waxed threads of their Barbour jackets. They all played field hockey, or cross-country skiied, or sailed. They strode around campus wearing Exeter and Choate Hall pinnies, and laughed very loudly in the dining halls and spoke familiarly with the professors. Having been faced with such a glittering array of eager personalities and perfectly white teeth during Orientation week, I took to getting my dinner boxed up, and eating in my room. By June, I’d made no friends, which was fine. It would have been embarrassing to explain to them that I was going back home to waitress so my family could make it through the winter.
So that September morning, when a thin boy about my height sat down right next to me without asking, I didn’t know how to react. I glanced over, and he nodded once at me. By the time I gathered myself to nod back, he’d already turned his attention to pulling books and a laptop out of his backpack. I opened my notebook and doodled at the margins, a stick figure with a hole punch for a head. A very tall man on the younger side of forty walked into the room and up to the lecture podium.
“Good morning, all. I’m Professor Gelber. I’m sending around this sign-in sheet, which I’ll do at the beginning of each class. Please sign in only yourself,” the man said. In the silence that followed, he looked around with a gaze that would have been mild, if his eyes hadn’t been an odd, pale shade of gray. The color made me feel hollow. The sheet came around, and I printed my name and passed it to the boy. He sucked his teeth. I looked at him a second time. He grinned.
“How hard is it to get people to say your name right? Marinét?” He pronounced it correctly, the silent t a bare whisp on the tail of the word.
I frowned. “No one calls me that. Not even my mother.”
“So what do they call you?”
“Mar,” I said. I added hair around the stick figure’s face, a bristle of curls. The boy was still watching me. After a pause that was slightly too long, I looked at him. “You?”
“Zolomon Reed. Zola.” He winked.
Zola sat next to me every day, and the leaves died, and we pulled out our parkas from storage, and I learned that Zola was born in a refugee camp in Sudan, and we both learned that pretty much every major event in Roman history involved murder, or rape, or rebellion, or betrayal. I spent all my time that term studying in the library’s stacks, and sometimes Zola would bring me coffee and a donut late at night, and we’d sit there watching YouTube videos of dogs on skateboards and alien sightings in Taos.
“I want to watch every video on YouTube,” Zola said. “I wonder how long it’d take.”
“I don’t think it’s possible,” I said.
“I’d try anyway,” he shrugged. “Just so I could say I did.”
I did start going to office hours that term, at least once a week, and there was something so nice about sitting in Professor Gelber’s office, listening to him talk about numismatics and the Parthian empire, even though he didn’t ever draw me into his monologue, just spoke on and on, and paused every couple of minutes to look at me with those strange, light eyes. Sometimes he would get up to check on the plants perched on the scarred bookshelves and the empty fireplace, or to pace around the room. In a way, he reminded me of one of the Taos aliens, a creature sent to earth, who had been instructed by his superiors on how to act like a human, but hadn’t quite gotten the hang of it. It was strangely enthralling, and probably the reason why, when he stopped behind me one day in November and put his hands lightly on my shoulders, I felt warm and triumphant inside.
I’d heard about stuff like this happening with professors, but could hardly believe it was happening to me. I replayed each minute progression — his casual compliment of my new sweater; the day I held on a little longer than necessary after a handshake; one lecture where, it seemed, he barely took his eyes off me — in my head every night before I went to sleep. At the end of the term, I went to his office to give him a Christmas present, a bromeliad in a delicate glass vase that I’d bought from the flower store in town. Gelber gestured for me to sit down, and he peered at the plant for a minute or two, then poked around on a bookshelf to make room for it.
“Funny that you chose this one,” he said. “I call them the Nero plant. They’re a matricidal species, you know.” It wasn’t a question, and I didn’t attempt to respond. “Yes, when the mother plant blooms, it produces little plantlets that feed off of it until they are old enough to survive on their own. Then,” he made a slicing motion at his throat, and chuckled. There was a knock on the door and the department secretary poked her head inside.
“Professor, Niels is waiting for you out here.”
Amir — by this point, I was calling him by his first name in my head — frowned lightly, then turned to me. “Afraid we have to cut this short. Thanks for the plant, Mar.”
And I wound my scarf around my neck, and muttered something in return as the secretary looked on, opaquely. Leaving the Classics building, I felt foolish enough to need reassurance, so I called Zola. We went to the underground pub that didn’t card unless you were buying mixed drinks, and got pretty tipsy.
“So there we were, all ten of us in the discussion section, and Alice just wouldn’t shut up about her dumb internship. It was hilarious. She turns to me,” and Zola turned to me, and pinched up his face, like he was trying to make it look like Alice’s, “and she goes, ‘Don’t you know who Landon Jones is?’ And I’m like, ‘Nah.’” He rolled his eyes. This made me giggle, and Zola grinned.
“And so she’s like, ‘Landon Jones? The senator?’ And I’m like, ‘Am I supposed to know who this guy is?’” Zola looked around the room, as if searching for someone to answer his question. My head felt fuzzy, and I sunk into the warm, hilarious feeling of the moment.
“And she’s like,” Zola clicked his tongue, “She’s like, ‘Uh, the guy who authored that wastewater bill, he-llo!’” He could barely get the end of the sentence out, we were both laughing so hard, heads bumping together, slapping the sticky bar. Poor Alice, she had probably been in earnest.
Zola walked me back to my dorm later, and we stood outside in the frigid twilight, and I let him kiss me. It was nice, actually. His lips were soft, gentler even than the snowflakes that fell all around, slowly at first, and then more insistently, until I could no longer see his slender face through the whiteness that enveloped us.
He went home and I went to bed. And I suppose it’s important to note that, though I fell asleep that night thinking about Amir, I dreamed of Zola.
We dated through sophomore, junior, and senior years, which seems like nothing, a blink of an eye now. But for college kids, relationships are counted in dog years. So by senior winter, we’d fallen into the comfortable pattern of nagging, inside jokes, routine sex, and genuine love for one another. It almost certainly would have continued this way if I hadn’t done what I did. That is to say, we would have graduated, and Zola would have proposed eventually, and we’d have had a couple kids, and life would have gone on, comfortably, routinely, naggingly, genuinely.
I finished my coursework ahead of schedule, at the end of senior fall, and graduated two terms early. I stayed in Hanover, to keep Zola company, and because the thought of going back home alone filled me with dread. Before winter break, Zola asked me to spend the holidays with his family in the Bay Area. He’d watched a YouTube video about Gaviotas, the Colombian eco village, and had heard about a similar village north of Mill Valley.
“We can go check them out, and who knows!” he said.
“Who knows what?” I said, knowing exactly both ‘who’ and ‘what.’
“They’re doing cool shit with solar tech. I bet I could learn enough to do it myself, between them and YouTube.” He looked at me, brown eyes hopeful, like a puppy. The hopefulness annoyed me.
“You think you could figure it out on your own?” I said, skeptical.
“Well, I’d have you to help, wouldn’t I?”
It also annoyed me, how he ignored my barbs, determined to avoid an argument. He pulled me in for a hug. In the end, I begged the week for myself, and he went to Oakland alone.
Hanover had emptied itself of all human life forms. The library was deserted. I sat on a couch with Rilke and let the silence press into my ears. That was where Gelber found me. He sat down next to me, and said, “‘But if you make your dark house light/ To look on strangers in your room/ You must reflect — on whom.’”
It wasn’t the volume I was reading, but I surprised myself with a single moment of self-awareness, and responded, “‘And they always say ‘I’ and ‘I’;/ and mean — they know not whom.’”
Gelber laughed a puff of air through his nostrils. “Smart girl.”
I shrugged, then blushed.
“Why are you rattling around here on Christmas Eve?” he asked.
“Why are you?” I countered.
“I don’t like home, and I don’t like the holidays,” Gelber said. That clear gaze felt like cold, pure water trickling down my spine. “My sister will ask me why I haven’t settled down, and my mother will give me presents I don’t need.”
“Oh. It must be hard to be a privileged man,” I said.
He paused. I could literally see his eyes widen degree by tiny degree, and I stammered wordlessly for a moment. He was, after all, a professor.
“I’m sorry, Professor Gelber –” I started.
“I forgot that about you,” Gelber said, finally, smiling. “You’re quite funny. No. Call me Amir.”
Somehow he knew that I’d graduated early, and somehow we ended up at the Canoe Club, drinking merlot, and somehow, when I found myself in his bed, I wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t much of anything.
He made a lot of noise, and I was silent, except for when he bit my tongue too hard, and I yelped. I don’t think I even said anything when I realized the condom broke.
Of course, I decided to keep it from Zola. I was afraid of hurting him. Of course, I ended up telling him, in mid-January. The thing was that he wouldn’t shut up about the eco village, and also, I’d been vomiting in the mornings. We sat facing each other on our white duvet, our dog Buggy dreaming between us, as I stammered and sweated and watched Zola fight the gradual understanding of what I was saying.
“I obviously take full responsibility for this. I get if you don’t want to be with me anymore.”
“Are you seriously breaking up with me now, on top of everything else?” Zola looked crazed, his dark curls standing up on end where he’d raked his hands through them.
“I’m just saying, I’d understand if you want to break up.”
“How can you be so cold? That’s so selfish, Mar,” he cried out.
“I’m selfish, I know! That’s what I’m saying,” I wailed. “I wanted things between us to be the way I wanted them to be, but I don’t know if there’s room for me in your life anymore. At least not the room I need.”
“Mar, what the fuck do you mean? What does that mean? You fucked our professor. And now you might be pregnant? Jesus Christ.”
In the end, we didn’t break up. Zola went with me to Planned Parenthood, where they gave me two pills that took care of everything. The rest of the term passed in staccato moments, where I was a stranger even to myself, and certainly to Zola. There was a touchy moment in March, when we ran into Amir as we walked across the muddy Green. We all froze. Amir and Zola stared at each other. I might as well have not been present. There they were, A to Z — and me, somewhere in between.
Zola graduated with high honors, and we moved together across the country, not to the eco village, but to Seattle, where Zola had gotten a job with Microsoft, and I with The Stranger. The only thing that I remember from that time was a feeling. A hollowness inside that I thought could never be filled. That I’d terminated the whisper of a baby I wasn’t sure I even wanted, that wasn’t the saddest part. The saddest part was that I was so afraid to talk to anyone about it — Zola, my mom, even the therapist I eventually got. I didn’t talk about it when I bled for months, and I didn’t talk about it when I finally stopped bleeding right before graduation in June. I buried it, deep deep deep beneath the shame of hurting Zola, and of accidentally getting pregnant in the first place.
After we moved to Seattle, I was more or less okay — happy even! — in most moments. Except late at night, when I came home tipsy from a bar, or walked into the kitchen to get some water and caught sight of the delicate bones in my hand as I reached for a glass. And realized that, in some alternate universe, under some different set of stars, I was someone’s mother.
The camping trip had been my idea. After almost a year of living in Seattle, we hadn’t left the city, and I thought that maybe getting out into the woods would spark some excitement in Zola, remind him of Gaviotas. We drove up to Port Angeles on a Friday afternoon, spent the night with my parents, and left early Saturday morning. We’d planned on being gone overnight Saturday and coming back on Sunday, but once we emerged in the Seven Lakes Basin, Zola announced his intention to stay in the woods forever. No matter how I begged and pleaded, threatened and coaxed, or pretended to turn back without him, he wouldn’t budge.
Which was how I found myself dodging wood chips as Zola attempted to hack down a tree to build us a hardier shelter from the freezing spring rains. He was possessed. He chopped and chopped, faster and faster, until he was a blur through the sheets of water.
“Maybe take a break, babe?” I yelled. “Let’s just sleep in the tent tonight.”
He didn’t stop, not until the headlamp shattered and scratched his eye. Even then, he sat inside the tent, jumpy and moody.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Nada,” he said.
“Come on, ZZ,” I said. He cracked a smile.
“Really, M&M,” he said, and looked at me for the first time in days. He laughed, then, “This was a dumb idea.”
My eyes teared up in relief. “Does that mean you’re ready to go home?” I said.
“Yeah,” said Zola.
One heavy night in White River Junction, not long after the bleeding stopped, we walked down the street to Jody’s Diner to get a curry. He walked so fast I had to take two hopping steps to keep time with each of his long strides. Our conversations had lately veered to the existential, had taken on a fine, dark edge.
“If someone came to me right now, with a gun, or, no — a switchblade. And he said, I’m going to kill you, I wouldn’t be afraid. So if I’m not afraid to die, what am I afraid of?” he said.
I didn’t have an answer. I was too full of my own fear and my own past to see clearly.
He kept talking. “I think I’m afraid of not creating something worthwhile. My dad built this whole life for my mom, after they came to the States. Sometimes I’m scared I don’t have it in me.”
Later that night, full of saag paneer, we napped together onto the futon couch in our living room. He fell asleep first, and then I did too, for half a moment. But then his heart skipped a beat, and it startled me out of the dream I was in, and I looked up at the underside of his chin, its elegant curve, the pulse throbbing through his five-o-clock shadow. I’d thought for so long, during the last of those dog years, that love was the rush of beginnings, of infatuation, and was thus doomed to die. And I’d convinced myself that it had died, between us at least.
Eventually we did go our separate ways. It was never meant to last forever. But I’ll never forget that night, not ever. Lying on the couch, tangled around each other, half asleep and blinking as Citizen Cope played in the background, my eyes suddenly widening as I stared at the underside of his chin, understanding, finally.