map The Way It Isn’t

by Walter Cummins

Published in Issue No. 148 ~ September, 2009

Alone on the screened porch, gazing up at the barren mountains that surrounded the lake, Carter had no idea why he was there, the real reason Valerie had invited Lydia and him to spend the weekend. They had been at this cabin two years ago, before Valerie left Les, before he and Lydia had their separation, before he and Valerie had their fling as lovers. Now he was Valerie’s guest, newly reunited with his wife, the two of them trying to reclaim their marriage, tentative, as if negotiating a contract.

Lydia had accepted immediately when Valerie called with the invitation, looking forward to the days in the woods and the chance to see Valerie again after so long. The last time they had gone to dinner with her and Les. “You don’t see her any more now that she’s taken a new job,” she had told Carter. He had shaken his head, unable to think of a way to get out of it, not sure he wanted to.

Now Valerie was with Douglas, a man Carter couldn’t make himself like. He saw why Valerie was attracted to him – tall, athletic, thick graying curls, but with stooped shoulders and an irritating metallic laugh. Mainly, he suspected, she could manipulate Douglas, just as she did most of the men who hovered around her, seeming eager for their advice, pretending helplessness. He had told her that once, in bed in a strange motel, legs intertwined in a love-making lull. “You’re so wrong,” she had pleaded, but he could sense annoyance, even though she had urged him to reveal all his thoughts, to hold back nothing. She had promised to be just as honest. When it was over, as loudly as she had screamed his name in anonymous rooms, as much as she had murmured words of love, he came to understand that for her it was only an affair. But she hadn’t revealed that secret, and he hadn’t admitted he knew.

The others were still sleeping. Carter had lain awake till he heard bird twitters and threw on sweats to sip coffee and watch the birds swoop across the sunrise. He tried to convince himself how relaxing this all was but, as still as he sat, couldn’t stop churning.

In the middle of the night, stepping out from the second-floor bathroom, he had met Valerie in the hallway wearing only a pajama top. She just nodded with a thin smile as they maneuvered past each other, their arms brushing. He felt the heat of her, saw erect nipples pressing the cloth. Me or Douglas, he almost asked, the way he would have when they could say anything to each other. But all he did was mutter “Sorry,” not sure she heard him.

Lydia came out to the porch before the others and pecked his cheek. “I didn’t know what happened to you.”

“Couldn’t sleep. But you looked deep into it.”

“It’s this mountain air. Thanks for making coffee.”

Carter shrugged. “I wanted some too.”

Lydia pulled a chair next to his and leaned close to whisper. “It feels a bit odd being here. I mean, Valerie not with Les. Everything else feels so familiar.”

“I don’t miss Les.”

“That’s not what I meant.” She gestured toward the cabin with a twist of her head. “What do you think of him?”

“Too soon to know.”

“He seems to be trying very hard. Maybe it’s because he knows we knew Les.”

“That could be it.” Carter wondered what else Douglas knew, unsure how he would react to a confrontation.

Lydia had her hand on Carter’s arm when the door slammed back and Valerie and Douglas stepped onto the porch. “Hey, cut that out, you two.” Douglas gave one of his laughs. Carter looked to Valerie for a reaction, but she was staring at the water.

“It’s going to be a very pretty day,” Lydia said.

“That’s why Doug and I made our plan.” Valerie turned back to the others. She was wearing shorts, her taut legs deeply tanned.

“What plan?” Carter didn’t like the sound of it.

“It’s been a while since Valerie and I have had a chance for a long talk,” Lydia said. “We’re going to treat ourselves to a picnic, and you and Doug will have a male-bonding day.”

“How so?”

“A hike in the mountains, buddy.” Douglas laughed and touched a fist into Carter’s shoulder. “We’ll climb high and look down at the world.”

“I’m out of shape,” Carter protested, upset that Valerie had conspired behind his back, suspecting something. He didn’t want Lydia alone with her, but Lydia was smiling and nodding, and he didn’t know how to stop them.

“Hey, I’ll take it easy on you.” Douglas winked at the women. “It’s just a stroll, not a competition.”

Douglas rubbed a palm over the mouth of a wine bottle and offered it. Carter shook his head. Douglas pounded the cork down with a fist and slid the bottle back into his rucksack. “So you want a clear head for our trek.” He gestured toward the steep pathway of sharp grey rocks that led up into the trees above them. It was spring, but all around on both sides of the valley the highest mountains gleamed with snow at their peaks, ice crusted deep in the crevices.

Carter shivered even though his jacket was buttoned to his throat. Douglas wore only a short-sleeved shirt loose above faded jeans cut off at the knees. His heavy boots, wrapped in bright red laces, were scuffed raw at heel and toe. Carter glanced down at his own Reeboks, new for the weekend and bright white.

“Would you like to lead the way? Set the pace?” Douglas said.

“No, this is your territory. I’ll just follow along.”

Douglas moved quickly and surely, Carter tentative, wedging his foot tight before he shifted his weight. The path took a broad circle of steep inclines and sharp drops.

Douglas stopped on a ledge twenty feet ahead and turned to grin at Carter’s methodical steps. “Tell me if you get tired. No need to rush. We have all day.”

“I’m fine. Don’t let my pace hold you back.”

“We’re in this together, buddy.”

“Except that you know what you’re doing.”

“Don’t be too sure.” He hesitated, and Carter saw him swallow. “So tell me about Les.”

“What about him?”

“All I can get out of Valerie is that it wasn’t a happy marriage.”

“It certainly wasn’t.” Carter felt a satisfaction at knowing so much more. She had confided in him even before they were lovers, when they were just coworkers, meeting for lunch several times a week, occasionally socializing as couples. One day Valerie said I feel so comfortable with you and surprised him by weeping. From that moment, their lunches became a litany of Les’s misdeeds – his foul mouth, his abuse of their sons, the time he slapped her. Carter found himself covering her trembling hands with his, telling himself he was comforting a friend, a very good friend, but each morning awaiting the opportunity to touch her. “They were much too young when they married,” he told Douglas. “Incompatible.”

“I get the sense that he was a major asshole.”

“That too.”

Douglas stepped back on the path and led Carter though a cluster of pines. A space in the trees offered a glimpse of the lake below, the cluster of cabins at the far end. But Carter couldn’t tell which was Valerie’s. He tried to find a clearing where Lydia and Valerie could be having their picnic, wondering what he would say to Lydia if she confronted him with Valerie’s confession, what that would do to their reconciliation.

Distracted, he slipped on a frozen patch, almost fell backwards, glad Douglas hadn’t noticed. When he looked around, he saw loose boulders, deep plunges, dangers everywhere. For the first time he realized how far he could fall. But he wouldn’t turn back, wouldn’t spend the rest of the weekend with Douglas mocking his fear.

“Trouble ahead,” Douglas called to him. They were stepping through a thin sheet of water that flowed over a bed of stones. Ten yards beyond the stream rushed through jagged rocks. Douglas bounded across, hardly pausing as he moved from one surface to the other. Carter stood fixed on a boulder in the middle, the current swirling on both sides of him. If he slipped, he would plunge in icy water to his waist. He wasn’t sure which direction to take, which rock was in his stride, which offered a firm footing.

Douglas looked back. “Be careful.”

Carter brought both feet together and leaped to the bank, gripping a tree branch when he started to lose his balance. Douglas seized his wrist and pulled him up beside him. Carter wanted to twist away but feared falling.

The steep path narrowed and became slick with sodden leaves. Both men had to grip dank roots to drag themselves forward. Carter felt a film of perspiration under his shirt and unbuttoned his jacket. His Reeboks were caked with mud.

They came to a narrow wooden bridge, three logs lashed together with vines, the spaces between them packed with dirt and clumps of weeds. The width of a man, the bridge offered no railings, nothing to hold onto. The ravine below was a deep drop, hundreds of feet onto dark points of stone.

“One at a time,” Douglas cautioned, then stepped to the middle and waited until the logs stopped swaying. He moved off the bridge and stomped his boots on the path.

Carter paused at the edge, looked down, then rushed across the bridge, almost in a run. On the other side, he clung to a tree and felt his heart pounding. “You call this a stroll?”

“This is all new to me. Not what I expected at all.” Douglas wasn’t laughing.

Carter had a vision of the man tumbling off the bridge, plunging with a shriek that quivered the trees. When he told Valerie, she would collapse into his arms.

Douglas sat on a stump. “Time for a break.”

Carter slid down against the tree and folded his legs, kneading a cramp in his calf. With his other hand he gouged a twig into the damp earth, pressing until it snapped.

“So what was the problem with you and Lydia?” Douglas said. “If you don’t mind my asking.”

Carter minded but wouldn’t admit it. “The usual stuff.” He remembered his silences, at the dinner table, riding in the car, watching TV, unable to stop thinking of Valerie, the fantasy of her yielding to his embrace, afraid that if he spoke he would reveal it all. He hadn’t encouraged Valerie to leave Les but did nothing to change her mind, wanting her free even though he wasn’t. And when she was, Lydia was the one who asked him to go, telling him she couldn’t live with a man who ignored her. Moments after he carried suitcases into a motel, he called Valerie to tell her. She met him that evening, the two of them sitting across a table in the dark corner of a tavern, both weeping, she gripping his hands this time. In a week, they were lovers.

“How’s it going now?”

“Fine.” When Valerie told him it was over, she had urged him to call Lydia. “She’s the one for you, not me.”

Douglas shook his head. “I’d be crazy to try to reconcile with my ex. I was crazy to marry her in the first place.”

“It’s not like that with us,” Carter said. He began walking, unwilling to continue the conversation, Douglas scrambling behind him.

A thick sheet of grey ice covered the path ahead, slanting down over a lip of earth like a chute to the valley of tall spruces far below.

“Always prepared.” Douglas reached behind into his rucksack and pulled out a pair of steel cleats that he clamped to his boots. He crossed the ice sheet as if dancing, lifting his bulk in ballet leaps and landing with loud crunching. “I’ll throw you the cleats.”

Was this Valerie’s purpose, his humiliation by her new lover? Carter shook his head. “Never mind.” He looked about him and snapped off two branches from a tree that overhung the path, trimming twigs until each branch was shaped like a claw. Then he got down on hands and knees and plunged the branches into the crust, one after the other. When he reached the other side, he stood and tossed the branches down into the valley. Douglas gave him a strange look.

Carter looked upward. “Where the hell are we?”

Beyond them, the path disappeared at a wall of rock ten feet high. Douglas shook his head. He went first, digging and cramming toes into crevices to pull himself up. Carter followed, imitating him. The dark stone was very cold, coated with lichen that gave off a rank vegetable smell. Carter gasped openmouthed, a burning in his back he knew would take months to heal. He moved up six inches at a time, his hands scratched and numb, eyes fixed on the soles of Douglas’ boots, constantly afraid he would lose his grip and slide downward.

When he reached the top, he pitched forward and pressed his face into the earth. Douglas slumped against a tree. Carter dragged himself next to Douglas, exhausted, pain in his arms, his legs, the small of his back.

“We made it,” Carter said. “But for what?”

“I have no idea.” Douglas took a long gulp from the wine bottle.

Carter picked up a rock, shifting it from hand to hand, kneading it with his fingers. He stared down into the valley.

“What about Valerie?” Douglas said.

“How do you mean?”

“She tells me you two are very close.”

“I guess we are.”

Streaks of dirt ran down the sweat on Douglas’ face. He tried to wipe it away but ended up with smears on his cheeks and forehead. “I asked her if there had ever been sex.”

Carter squeezed the rock’s sharp edges into his palm. “And what did she say?”

“That it isn’t that way with you two.”

Carter flung the rock, watching it tumble down through the brush and then disappear.

“I suppose it isn’t.”

He pulled himself up and waved a greeting toward the gleam of the lake far below, imagining Valerie looking up and seeing nothing more than a shadow on the rock face.

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Walter Cummins is Editor Emeritus of The Literary Review and is a Core Faculty Member of the Fairleigh Dickinson University low residency MFA in Creative Writing program.