Nothing Ever Goes Back Quite Right
Jenna Dart was a displaced person in the truest sense. She never quite fit in – not in grade school with the girls that wore leg warmers that were scrunched just so, nor in high school with the girls who wore their flannels and jeans ripped just so, nor even as a young mother who held their precious children just so. Not even now, among other women like her, women on the cusp of being not so young anymore and not quite old, women who still managed to wear their hair and their faces just so.
She was tall and handsome. She had that at least. Her husband, Harrison, was even taller and more handsome, in a rough-hewn way. Together, they were a striking addition to the faculty of Greyson College. She was a big woman; her husband, even bigger, as was expected. But Jenna did not like feeling so small next to him. It was discomfiting, even after all of these years.
They bucked generational convention - the dismally named Generation X - and married while they were still in college, at the meaty ages of twenty and twenty-one. A year later, with little effort, she gave birth to their first child, a girl. Two more girls followed in the next two years. After that, a breather; consumed as they were by the exhaustion of having three children in as many years, they invested in birth control. By the age of thirty, though, she’d had two more children. Boys this time. Five kids for an academic family – not Catholic, not Quiverful, nothing but free-spirited and oversexed – gave them a dubious distinction among their colleagues. Why would anyone have that many kids just because? As if they should start a family band or a sports team to have a reason.
Now she was forty-three and her youngest child, a sweet fair haired boy named Jed, had just started high school. Jenna was unmoored. Her three beautiful and interchangeable daughters were all away at college – paid for by student loans and work study – and she was relegated to being a bit player in their lives. (She would never admit to any of them – not one, ever – that she did not have one distinct memory of any of them from their babyhood, so muddled they all were in sameness for her). Her daughters did call infrequently and text her a bit more often. They were all adults now, young and weary with constant anticipation.
Then there were the two boys, Jed and Jeremy, his older brother by fifteen months. They were so nonchalant and non-particular about everything. It might have been any woman who had nursed them and kissed them on their way out the door and now reminded them of band practice and baseball practice and play practice. They loved her, she thought, but maybe it was just her own love they reflected back to her like a sunbeam that was too bright and too hot. Maybe they were just protecting themselves. Were sons ever really their mother’s children? she often wondered as they grew.
It all came to this: Jenna Dart, loving mother of five, faithful wife of one decided to take a trip. By herself. She would be missed by Harrison, she knew, but he had his work, teaching geography to a plummy handful of undergraduates. Jenna was not needed at her job for a good while. She directed small plays for the college and once a year for the community theater, but she was in between seasons. The college job was a bonus, anyway, just one trick in a bag of many the school had used to catch Harrison: And a job for your wife too! What a deal!
It was not for lack of merit on Jenna’s part. In a burst of remarkable creativity, after Jed had gone to pre-school, she’d written a one-act play entitled Still Life with Boys. The characters were patched together from pieces of each of her own children. She worried it until it shone like old copper, until it was time to release it. She won a small but prestigious contest in New Orleans, where it was performed at a summer festival. That was several years ago now, when all of her children were still living with her. But the play made them some much-needed money (they had five children!) and had garnered her some attention at the time, but not too much. Unlike producing children, which she was obviously adept at, she’d never written another one. Not yet.
Jenna decided, for her little trip, as Harrison unconsciously put it that morning at breakfast, she would go camping. She had enjoyed it as a child, sharing a tent with her loving but broke parents and her younger brother. Besides, they had all of the equipment left over in the garage from her sons’ foray into Boy Scouts.
She left on a Sunday, when no one was home. Not even Harrison - he had left to go on a hike with the Geography Club (although he had kissed her and rubbed up against her like a big bear that early morning, telling her that he would miss her, but that she should have fun). She told the boys both three times each that she would not be there for the next few days, but she knew when they came downstairs tomorrow morning, bleary eyed from too little sleep and too much PS4 and saw Harrison making the French toast they both secretly hated, the first thing they would ask would be Where’s Mom? Of this, she was sure.
Jenna took a few clothes. She would probably just wear the same ones; there was no one to impress on a camping trip. She’d picked a campground only two-and-a-half hours from home, far enough away to avoid running into an acquaintance or someone associated with the college. This trip wasn’t illicit, but she didn’t want anyone knowing about it either. She packed all of her provisions into the back of their road-weary minivan and set off.
She pulled into the campground a few hours later. She drove through it in its entirety, a slow crawl of discovery. There was a small lake off to one side, a few boats dotting the shore. There were plenty of RVs near the water, shiny behemoths conjuring primordial memories of sleeping dragons, all bright scales and shuttered eyes. There were only a smattering of tents, though, in the primitive area, lonely outposts in the wild. She drove slowly, noting two families, one with more kids than even she had, and three other sites with tents but no people. Probably men who just slept there, camping only so they could fish on the lake. She picked a site that was farthest away from the entrance and the glossy dragons, but still in plain sight of the other tents.
She slid out of her van to view the area. A couple of small burr oaks anchored the entrance to the site with two soft maples shading the spot. She was satisfied with her choice. She pulled her chair from the back end and sat down to listen to the steady wind.
She had been sitting for only a few minutes, no more than ten, when she heard the burping of a small engine and saw a golf cart with only one working headlight kicking up small puffs of dust as it rode near the edge of the gravel road.
It stopped in front of the squat oaks and a man with shoulder length hair, neither young nor old, like herself climbed out. The side of his cart said Host Camper in blocky, authoritative lettering. Jenna was uneasy. Maybe she had broken some rule.
“You gonna camp here?” His voice was surprisingly gravelly, rough like hand-sawn wood.
“Sure,” she said, and then added, “If that’s okay.”
“Fine with me,” he said, shrugging. He spied her one chair. “You here by yourself?” She nodded. An appraising smile appeared.
“All right. We don’t get many women alone. Camping.” He was pleased, which Jenna thought odd. “I’ll need your driver’s license." She was surprised until he pulled the ticket booklet from the pocket of his loose jeans. Like everything, she must show proof of who she was. As she stepped over to the van to get her billfold out, she knew he was watching her. She didn’t mind.
His hair glinted in the sunlight that snuck through the tree. He was not handsome, she noted as he took down her information. He handed back her drivers’ license. Now he had her address and name. No matter what privacy you clung to, you were never truly anonymous. Somebody, somewhere knew who you were.
“Are you married?” he asked.
“Yes. Twenty-three years.”
“Of course. Five. Mostly grown.”
He whistled between his crooked teeth. “You must not have had many hobbies.”
He was right. It had been a good one (still was, she insisted to herself), her private life with her husband. It kept boredom at bay, boredom that tore into most couples with its crooked teeth and ripped them apart with its terrible claws. There had been no dry spells either that she could recall, just more of a subtle disinterest from either her or Harrison, And then one day that too would end either by her climbing on top of him in his worn professor chair, or by him pulling her pajama bottoms down as she was getting dressed, bending her forward quickly and furtively over their bed, her hands kneading the disintegrating quilt like rising dough.
It was her turn to shrug. “When you’re young and broke, you have lots of free time.”
He cocked his head. He was not as tall as her and this secretly pleased her. Though she was not short, both of her sons and two of her daughters had passed her up in height. Only her oldest daughter was shorter, but she had a much different, much slighter build. More delicate, more fragile. Jenna was not fragile in the slightest.
“Are you married?” His ring finger was naked. Not that that meant anything – she herself hadn’t worn one for years.
“Was,” he said, and began to tell her his story. It was a narrative about a man who had had cancer three times and whose wife had left him because she did not want to talk about white blood cells or the benefits of chemotherapy versus radiation anymore.
His voice was full of stops and starts. Not like Harrison, Jenna mused, whose voice had mellowed and smoothed and deepened over a thousand or two thousand lectures, telling his stories about other people and their places in the world. Always so sure of himself and of what he knew.
“And that’s my story. Not much of one, but it’s all mine.” His ropy forearms twitched as he finished writing out her ticket. She must slip it into the metal pocket on the post at the front of the campsite, facing the road. She must stake her claim.
He left on his golf cart with the damaged headlight, peeling away quickly. She pulled her leather portfolio out and started scribbling. A rising excitement, a push/pull she could use to tell the story, a clear antagonist and protagonist that would lend themselves to great drama on the page. She was eager, thinking about exchanges already half-formed in her mind. She tried to round up the encounter with a short vignette which she could then transform into a crackling dialogue, but it eluded her, the scene, spiraling away from her like dust. She gave up, snapping her leather portfolio shut with a mild disgust.
The wind kept the trees in constant play, a restless sort of motion. She couldn’t sit either so she got up to gather sticks for a fire later. Then she began putting up the tent. It had been so long she was unsure of where to start. The directions were long gone, so she sat there until a vague remembrance gave her a starting point - Harrison on his knees, showing Jed, maybe Jeremy, the right way to slide the poles through the channels so that they braced the tent properly. The rest came fairly easily. When she was done, she stood back to admire it, but it was not quite right. The poles were slightly warped and misshapen, giving it a drunken list. Nothing to be done about it, so she anchored it into the ground with the tent stakes (they still had hardened mud on them from a long ago campout). She had forgotten a hammer to pound them in, so she stepped on them, driving them in with her weight. A few of them would not go all of the way in, so she left them sticking out in the unyielding ground.
She sat and tried to read one of the books that she had brought but she couldn’t break into it, even though it was an old favorite that usually soothed her. The wind was still wild, flattening her generally unruly hair into a semblance of order. She needed to move, so she took a walk around to the lake.
She took the long way around, cleaving to the road. Even though most of the tent campsites were unoccupied, she didn’t wish to barge through them. Bad camping etiquette, her ghostly father once told her. Halfway around the circle, near a stand of withered pines, she met a little girl. She had stringy blond hair, cut in a page-boy. She rode a white bike with a pink horn she squeezed as she came towards Jenna. Jenna smiled. She wasn’t beautiful - not like her own daughters, with their nut-brown hair and their light almond colored eyes - or even cute, like most little girls are in some particular way. The girl did not smile back, but kept squeezing her pink horn as she rode on by.
Jenna made it down to the lake, walking what she figured was a mile and a half to get there. She felt good and strong from her walk as she sat down on the dock, blood pumping, and she wondered if Host Camper ever felt like this anymore. Or if he only felt betrayed by his bad blood. Leukemia, he’d told her. It wasn’t a question to be asked of strangers, but still,
The water flowed smoothly with the wind, and there were two people fishing off of a point directly in front of her, only about fifty yards away. One of them was wearing a red shirt and was gesturing comically with his hand but when Jenna raised her arm and waved at them they did not wave back. Slightly embarrassed, she turned to her left, to the east.
Geese clustered together there on the dock. Jenna was afraid of geese. The last college Harrison had taught at – located in a gray and dusty part of Iowa – had been overrun with them. They were beautiful and majestic from a distance, until you got closer and they began hissing at you for invading their territory. They had even chased one of the girls’ (but which one?) when she was little, moving in a group towards her, unquiet assassins. They left their shitty messes everywhere and were terrifically noisy, always announcing their presence. Jenna never felt sorry for eating pate at faculty parties. Survival of the biggest, she reasoned.
These geese were not hissing or honking. Most were sitting, a few standing, still as stone, looking out to the lake. Watching. They might have been decoys, if not for a slight twitch of a wing or a tiny movement of a webbed foot. They watched the waves that the wind made on the water as Jenna watched them watch the water. She was transfixed for a long time; she was quieted, but the wind was not.
On her way back, she called Harrison at his office, knowing that she would get his voicemail. He was either in a class or in a meeting, but he was never in his office. She left him a cheery message telling him she had made it. There was no use trying to text him on his cell; even if it was on (which she doubted), cell phone service was very unreliable because the campus sat in a small valley where the towers couldn’t reach. Instead, Jenna texted her sons to tell them that she had made it and she was still alive (smiley face emojis). From Jed, an unsurprising response: What? Where are u? From Jeremy, radio silence. Just like his father.
(She didn't text any of her daughters. She had not told them she was taking this trip and she did not want to have to explain it all again to each of them. She imagined all of the texts pinging in, a mad chirping, demanding answers).
Back at the campsite, she did not try to work on the narrative from before; instead, she spent the evening reading until the sun went down and eating from her well-packed cooler. She also spent an inordinate amount of time trying to start a fire. She had remembered a lighter and some newspaper but because of the wind she could not get one going. The men at the campsite nearest hers - there were three of them but no one was wearing a red shirt - came back just before dusk. Unwilling to look silly in their presence, she gave up after several tries. She retired into the tent and laid down as the moon rose high, a fingernail-like sliver in the purple sky.
A sleeping pad and a thick sleeping bag could not keep her from feeling the rocks beneath her back. She wished she had brought a cot with her. Her neighbors’ firelight flickered and glowed weakly through the thin wall of her tent. She busied herself imagining their conversation. It was not about her, not about how they could rape or kill her quietly, or maybe only degrade her in a thousand terrible ways so that no one else would hear them. Jenna did not even think in those terms. She was not that kind of a woman. Instead, she was sure they were discussing the fish, or lack thereof, or one of their assholes of a boss. Maybe they were coworkers commiserating about a planned layoff. Or brothers - the youngest’s wife was having a baby in six weeks and the older two were regaling him with stories of their own fatherhood, both joyful and sorrowful.
Jenna fell asleep as the moon was rising, with a thousand different dialogues running at once in her head.
Very few people in their lives now knew there had been a sixth child beget of Harrison and Jenna Dart. Between the three girls and the two boys. Another girl, born prematurely, so unlike her three older sisters in that she was so, so small. She lived only four days on ventilators, with wires attached to her tiny body. She died very soon after they were taken away. A genetic abnormality, a chromosomal mutation, she and Harrison were told by doctors - so many of them! - many men and one woman, all with kind eyes and soft voices. Jenna’s heart was shattered; to busy herself, she picked up all of the little pieces and put them in a tiny bag, a bag of sorrows she carried inside of her, under her heart but between her lungs so she had to constantly breathe through it. Neither her three living girls nor Harrison could touch it - and neither thieves could steal it nor rust or moths could destroy it. She kept it there without comment.
Harrison told people she was stoic, a fortress impenetrable, but she had capsized. To bring her back right side up, he did the only thing he knew how to do: he gave her two more babies. Sons.
With time, Harrison forgot. Now, only Jenna remembered. She dreamed of her that night, a tiny daughter named Summer, born in the squall of a bitter Midwest winter.
She wakes early. The chill in the air makes her glad she’d worn a sweatshirt to bed. Her back is stiff but otherwise she feels fine. The three men have already broken camp and pulled out. Only the wisps from their campfire remain. Leave no trace, the first order of a good Boy Scout. No one else is awake yet.
She opens her cooler, finding some fruit and yogurt she had thrown in. She is unsure what to do about the coffee situation. At home, Harrison usually makes it, as he is up before anyone else in the house, usually to peruse the internet in peace. She brought an old fashioned percolator to use on the grate of the fire ring, but since she could not get a fire going last night, she did not have a bed of coals to bank up this morning.
She drives to the front of the campground where she’d seen the Host Camper sign. Parking behind the one-eyed cart, she steps to the door of a well-appointed camper. Sleek and well-fed, fat with newness, like all of the others. What the hell, she thinks and knocks.
He opens the door, smiling with his crippled teeth. He has an old, faded towel slung across his shoulder. He looks down on her from the doorway.
“Good morning, sunshine,” he says.
“Uh, good morning. I was wondering about coffee?”
“Yeah, what about it?” His smile deepens.
“Well, where’s the closest place to get some?” She is uncomfortable. There is no one about. Not one of the dragons breathes so much as a wisp of smoke.
“Right here.” He opens the door wide.
“Oh, oh no. Seriously. I was just going to run to the nearest gas station.”
“The nearest gas station’s ten miles up the road. You’re bound to go into caffeine withdrawal by the time you get there. Besides, it’s fuckin’ terrible.”
Jenna is used to swearing. She uses it herself, albeit infrequently, and catches her kids using it plenty, passing it back and forth like a newly pumped up basketball. Still, she is shocked when people just drop it into casual conversation. It is so cheap.
“C’mon,” he says.
She’s uneasy but steps in anyway, partly because of the siren smell of the coffee, partly to get off of the stairs before the dragons awake.
He is dressed in ill-fitting jeans and a t-shirt that is too small. It shows his concave stomach as he reaches up to get her a coffee cup. His face is all hollows and ridges this morning; it’s obvious to Jenna that he did not sleep well, but all he says to her was Black? pointing to the coffee mug. She nods, though she usually takes both cream and sugar. He hands her the hot mug, gesturing for her to sit down at one of the plush leather-like couches that are built in around the perimeter. She sinks into it helplessly. He takes a big gulp of his coffee, his Adam’s apple working comically as he swallows.
"Nice place,” she says, sipping her boiling coffee. It is rich and thick, not cheap, and god, it is hot.
“Thanks. I got it with the divorce money.”
“What did you do? For a living, I mean?”
“I was a contractor. Stick built homes. A really great business. But then I got sick. And I got sick again, and eventually had to file Chapter 11. That was it for the wife. Final nail in that coffin,” he says with humor, taking another long draw of the coffee.
“Ground zero. Divorce, I mean,” he continues. “Nothing makes it out alive. So we split up the money from the sale of our house and I got this.”
“It’s very nice,” she offers. The walls and ceiling glow with the canned light, soft and warm.
“Do you have any kids?”
“Not as many as you, but yeah. One. Jason. He’s twenty-six.” He hands her a picture from the shelf. The man in the photo is handsome, unreasonably so, with heavy lidded blue eyes, which prompts Jenna to say, Wow!
He laughs. “Most people have that reaction. He’s good-looking, that’s for damn sure. Takes after his mother. He’s a good kid at any rate. Never gave me one lick of problems. A real do-gooder. Works for a non-profit in Kenya. Digging wells for clean water. A good kid,” he repeats, setting the picture back down.
Jenna has no idea if any of this is true. She does not know him. He can’t quite keep himself from glancing at her loose breasts in the oversize sweatshirt she wears, one of Harrison’s cast-offs. She finishes quickly and stands, excusing herself with many thanks; the coffee, after it cooled, was very good.
“You’ll have company again tonight. Young couple. Probably fuck all night.” He laughs, holding the door as wide as it can go. She leaves. Someone leaves the camper next door at the same time, emerging like Jonah from the whale.
Jenna spends the morning hiking a few of the unkempt trails that trickle off of the campground like minor streams. The multiflora rose bushes that grow too close to the path pull and tug on her; she is tagged in the face by several spiderwebs, strung up like lace between small trees. It is not pleasant, but she sticks with it for a while, hoping around the next bend it might get better. It never does, so she finally retreats back to her campsite. She absently picks off beggar’s lice that cling to her sleeves and eats an entire canister of cheese flavored Pringles while reading an inane celebrity memoir from cover to cover. She does not try to pick up the writing again. There will be plenty of time for that at home.
Around three, she meets the young couple. They call to her - Hey there! - before they walk into her campsite. Camper’s etiquette. They introduce themselves as James and Jamie, saying it together with such happy smiles - so funny that we found each other! - she cannot help but be happy too. They look to be near the age of her oldest daughter, half-formed into adulthood. They ask her where they can get firewood and she tells them to ask the Host Camper. He’s very helpful, she says knowingly. They thank her and walk away, intertwined and impenetrable.
He shows up, unannounced, at dusk, with a case of Miller High Life, his own chair slung over his back. The crunch of his feet on the gravel sounds much like Harrison eating cereal straight out of the box, which he does every night without fail before coming to bed, an overgrown raccoon loosed in her kitchen, heading straight for the Cinnamon Toast Crunch.. She puts her book down - she had been re-reading 1984 - shuddering at the grating crunch, crunch, crunch.
Tony builds up a respectable fire, poking at it with a long, green branch he’d scavenged in the dark. They drink, chatting amicably, dancing around what might come next.
“What’s your husband like?” Tony asks, swigging his third beer.
“Tall. Very, actually. Fair. Handsome. Red-blooded.” She winces at her own callousness.
“Huh,” he says, finishing the beer. “Sounds perfect.”
Jenna doesn’t reply. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and belches loudly and without regret.
“So, what’re you doing here then?”
“Oh, well, I…” She takes a deep breath, releasing it quickly. “I don’t have an answer for that.” She feels slightly drunk. It’s a warm feeling, a good feeling. She does not want to talk. She just wants to sit with the heat on her face and the cool air of the night on her back and enjoy them both. Really, that’s all she wants.
“I had a baby who died,” she blurts, surprising herself. Tony listens, silently stirring the fire as she tells the story of Harrison and their three living girls and the NICU in Iowa City. Even in the telling, it sounds small. A baby that never really was. Her own sorry heart. It isn’t much of a story, and it has no end.
He lets out his breath slowly when she is finished. He doesn’t say anything for a long while, but drinks another beer, his fifth or six.
“Life’s a bitch,” he says, tossing another log into the fire.
He is right; his words neatly tie up that bag of sorrows she’s been carrying around all of these years. Nothing means nothing. She gets up, telling him over her shoulder she has to pee. Instead of walking to the outhouses a few campsites down, she stumbles behind her tent and squats, the tent blotting out the sight of the fire and giving her a little privacy in the dark. Although he might be right behind her. She would not see him; he could watch her relieve herself if he is so inclined. If he is that kind of a man. The urine smokes as it hits the ground. She hears it splattering. Probably on her shoes, no doubt, but she doesn't care. It would dry or it would not dry, but it would only matter to her.
She moves around the tent and towards the fire, tearing her little toe against one of the raised stakes.
“Fuck!” she hisses. The pain is definite and real, and she is breathless with it. He stands by her chair, facing towards the fire, away from her. She hobbles up beside him. He does not look at her.
“Hey,” she says, touching his arm. It was electric, a live wire. She tells him what she has done to her toe. The Host Camper gets his first aid kit and, squatting down on his haunches, the fire to his back, he cleans and bandages her little toe, leaving it comically fat and white. It throbs with intention; his hand did not leave her calf. His eyes glitter, feverish in the half light of the fire. She is almost positive, at this moment, he has been lying to her about dying.
“I’d really like to fuck you now,” he says. His voice is no longer skittery, but smooth with the alcohol, mellow. Like Harrison’s. She is perfectly clear on what comes next. There will be no dialogue in this one-act play that follows, only plenty of action to keep the audience riveted.
Inside the tent with its thin walls and seams that were starting to let go, their clothes come off deliberately, awkwardly as they fumble with each other, like blind rabbits, until they are naked. She runs her hands up and down the sides of him, sees his sickness with her fingers and palms, gasps at his thinness, his shrunken flanks; she feels his ribcage protruding in several places. His arms from shoulder to fingertip are ropy with wasted muscle. Her hands move downward, down to his penis. It is incredibly thick and fat and long. She laughs; it is so sturdy and useful, so unlike the rest of him. She is silently thankful that she’s had five – no six – children and her anatomy has loosened somewhat. Nothing ever goes back quite right, dear - it is one of the truest pieces of advice her own mother ever imparted to her. She trembles with anticipation, for all that she does not know.
They move to the ground, kissing and pulling at each other with glad hands. He is very different from Harrison, who engulfs her like an oversized wool sweater. His lack of heft makes it easy for her to submit; it is odd and pleasant not to be crushed by the weight of him. He bites her shoulder as he slides inside of her tightly. It is fine. She is willing.
It comes rushing at her all at once, as she strains and grasps against him, this Host Camper: she is looking forward to going home tomorrow, eager to see her sons and her husband, eager to lay her head on each of their chests, eager to hear the beating hearts of each one of these men she has created. She will call each of her daughters, one at a time and listen, really listen, to them talk about their part-time jobs, their consuming romances, their fear of standing still. She will not even think about Summer.
The rhythm soon gets the better of her, that old push/pull dance. Jenna wraps her strong legs around him and holds on, smoke clinging to fire, as her swaddled toe throbs along. She closes her eyes. Lights flicker behind her eyelids and behind the lights are the geese she saw on the dock yesterday. A few of them mill about, waiting for their cue, but most just sit, wings tucked around them smoothly, immovable as stone. Ready, just waiting.