The Wilderness Trail
Grace Rodgers (The Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand)
I met her at the Occidental the same day I meet Hokitika, a long, sprawling year later. She had ordered a plum cider and shaken out her eveningwear, sitting in an oriole glow. It had been raining. That December drag of white, moody skies that made her cheeks faint and weathered. Mine are weathered now too. Only I’m not in Auckland anymore. I’m perched at Hokitika, ready to ride the wilderness, and there is a vast strangeness about that dated anniversary, and about this strange land.
The man at the bike-post thinks I’m an idiot. If he knew I was cycling a hundred miles to bury a bad relationship, perhaps he’d be less crass. Perhaps not. Perhaps I’m just an idiot.
“Got your rego, there?” he grumbles, all tall and smart and lean.
“Here,” I point, “at the pedals.”
“Onya,” he grumbles again. Now he’s peering. Perhaps I’m a scientific object. Has he actually seen a live woman in the last ten years? If he knew I was a lesbian, he’d ogle all the more.
It takes half an hour before I’m out on track, and I can still feel those eyes burning against my thighs. The haunches of waves are white-capped and foaming, jeering out from the jutting coastal crags. I stand on my heels and puff and sail and dream to let all of it go.
“Charon loves his job,” she had said, knocking back her fourth glass of strega. “That’s why he Styx with it.”
We had written each other’s numbers on a pleated napkin and kissed goodbye at the Civic.
“Don’t forget,” she called, beautiful and waving. “It’s Friday at ten!”
When Friday came, we smoked Marlboro whites in the back of my papa’s van. When it was past twelve she inched forward a little, crooning her neck back, to titillate.
“Can we just …kiss?” she whispered.
The stingy nicotine stained the seats. Papa smelt it. I was grounded for the rest of the week.
My first night on the trail is windy and fraught, to the point where the tent won’t stay down. I torch the fly so I can pull it upright, and the pins lift out of the ground. For God’s sake. They won’t stay down.
We used to cook together, that was one of our things. On the first of February we made crêpes Suzette, garnished with a few sprigs of mint and cream. We made love on my parent’s couch, as the half-dim flicker of a movie faded on and off. It was raised on a metal bracket, to a wide and greying screen.
Her breath on my neck, teeth at my ears, sent me whirling endlessly up, to the point I didn’t want to come back down again.
By the time I reach the halfway mark, my legs are fogged and aching. A dull pain ensconces the calves, which have plumped to the size of rimu trunks. What am I doing, I think. Just what the hell am I doing out here? In the rugged, scant and coiled West Coast, cycling the lane between Miltown and Ross. What the hell am I doing. The tent is better the second night. I pay the groundskeeper in ten-cent bits and cash the rest out on dough; chips and sauce, wet and sticky. I still feel cold and alone.
According to Invisible Wounds, the first sign of control is detachment. Lock your partner away from other friends, and later on, from their family and home.
“Don’t go and meet them,” she would say. “Remember that time they didn’t confirm? Remember that time they wouldn’t pay you back, remember when it hurt?”
You didn’t notice. You were too in love, silly, to notice what was going wrong.
The third day on the beaten track, I start to cry and wail. The tears slip beneath my goggles and zip towards the Tasman Sea. It’s ailing and wild and wet out there. I miss her. I want her so uselessly bad.
“You fucking bitch,” she said to me once, when I told her I was meeting up with a friend. “I can’t believe you’d do this to me. I told you we need time to pack!”
I wasn’t allowed to see anybody. No friends, certainly no family. She didn’t like my family. Isolate like the Kawhaka forest, full of dripping sap.
“We’re leaving, I’ll get the money. I promise I’ll get the money.” I wanted to stay and she wanted to run, run far away from home. I love her, I love her, so. I love her when she goes to the bathroom and draws blood from her leg, because I told her I wanted my friends.
On the fourth day I jump in Lake Kaniere, and consider drowning myself. It’s an ineffective method, and a poor way to go, struggling against the laden frost and cold. There’s no point; my head bounces up. My legs are too frigid, like buoys. I lie in a rough-hewn, mottled backstitch of grass, which is falling apart at the seams. I shred the whet between my hands and watch all the little seedlings split, enjoying them wither, enjoying them die.
“I don’t want to make you choose,” I remember she said to me, before saying “You love them more than me,” moments later. And then, ‘you don’t give a shit about me. You cunt, you harpy, you bitch.’
The track widens as my body thins, shedding unnecessary weight. In kilos and kilometres, heartbeats and palpitations, I scorn the wreckage she brought on. I cross the bridge at Kumara junction, admiring the lapping river. Taramkaeu; it’s clear, happy and taut. The water curls in leaps and bounds. I cycle close to its skin, then on up to quiet Paroa, where the heartbeats peel back in soft servitudes.
“It’s you I love. It’s them I hate.”
How am I supposed to win? It’s a game that won’t end, and she won’t stop playing, and I miss the days we spent in together.
Once, during one of our haughty three-hour arguments (which occurred on a tri-weekly basis), I had to bite my hand and knuckle it back to stop me from punching her tête. Later, over chai tea and soy latté, my Aunt tells me she has experienced this.
“He threatened the baby, and laid down in front of the car. He made it so we couldn’t leave.” She shakes her head and rolls her eyes, “I came this close to running over him. I swear.”
It’s not the blood I want on my hands. I used to hold her, shaking, wet between my legs. I think about what she meant. Everything, she was everything to me and everything I could have been.
“I’ll kill myself if you leave me,” she said “I can’t live without you. I can’t.” I don’t want the blood on my hands. And because she’s cut herself before, and blamed it on me, it’s hardly an empty threat.
She called me about a hundred times, sent me an Iliad of violent messages. So I cut the fibre-optic with scissors. I didn’t miss having broadband. Words like power, a wheel of control, were passed in front of me, while I cried. Signs of emotional abuse, the vacant printout read. I was sat on the couch, handed tea, and squeezed into an impromptu intervention by my aunts, who had a lot to say about destructive relationships, and told me, “woman’s refuge will help.”
“It’s in the past now,” my mother had said, squaring her hands on my hips. She gave me a wink, and a gentle, porous nudge. “You’ve been through so much. It’s going to take a while to recover. It’s going to take a while to repair.”
At last I arrive at tiny Greymouth, and the storm caterwauls the wind. I stand on the cusp of the flaking cliff and gaze longingly at the fizz.
“Fuck you,” I shout, to no one in particular. “Fuck you the fucking most.”
I’m feeling it at last. That undrained clog of feeling that wouldn’t budge or rinse or dissolve.
I’m feeling it drown. And hopefully, this time, it will last.
Grace Rodgers is a New Zealand writer. She performed at the 2016 LGBTQI Same Same But Different Festival. She is currently studying a Masters of Creative Writing at the Institute of Modern Letters.