Rebecca prefers outgoing men, which is why she married an introvert. Her reasoning is that if she likes a certain type of man, the type must be wrong for her. It gets complicated, for outwardly Rebecca is all shiny surfaces and confidence.
Rebecca feels in synch with the universe. On our third and last night tenting together, I asked what it felt like to be her. Her answer was the above. When I reminded her that the universe runs on strict rules and in an orderly fashion and she doesn't, she rejected my view as insufficiently nuanced.
I met Rebecca on a camping trip for couples and singles. Neither of us is a camper. I am a thirty-three year old single woman, she is three years younger than I and married. Before she met Raymond, she ran through relationships at a lightning clip, according to a male colleague of mine who remains smitten with her to this day even though they were lovers for only a month. Her secret? She treated each man as if there had never been any other, not only in her life but in the history of the planet. Each lover was her Adam. I would like to be one of Rebecca's men long enough to experience her degree of intensity, although I imagine it would be exhausting. We bonded when our tent ripped as we set it up to get out of the rain.
The rain tamed her wild hair. "You take the dry side first. We'll switch when I'm waterlogged."
I had only known her for the eight hours it took to hike in. "You sure?"
Her hair hung limply, the oval shape of her face revealed. She looked both pissed and elated. "I hadn't realized the depth of my love for motels until now," she said. "I only signed up for this friggin' trip because Raymond hates camping."
"Explain that to me."
We were blowing up the air mattresses. Rebecca's cheeks bellowed and exhaled. "Raymond's very stubborn," she wheezed.
"How long have you two been married?"
She blew another lungful of air into the mattress. "Ten months." She tested the mattress' firmness, then tied the plastic blowtube into a knot. "What's your story?"
Rebecca lowered her mattress onto the soggy ground and lay down with her hands behind her head. "So I gathered. Do you like it?"
"I envy you. I love Raymond but it gives me chills to think of being hooked to one man for life." She lay still, and I could hear the drip-dripping of the rain. "Do you often do this? Get away? In tents?"
"Never," I answered.
"Me neither, I just did it to show Raymond up."
Both of our mattresses were now on the ground, and I sat down on mine. The air in the tent was so full of water it almost dripped, and that's not counting the actual drip from the torn ceiling. The dampness and the closeness to Rebecca made for claustrophobia. I needed to know this person I was sharing a tent with. Her manic energy unnerved me.
"May I ask you a personal question? If you feel the need to get away after ten months, what does that say about your marriage?"
She answered without hesitation or umbrage. "Oh, I'll settle down. I'm just practicing my three-point turns. Working on my parallel parking."
"How does Raymond feel about your trip?"
"He's a dear. A peach."
She laughed a stiletto laugh, akin to a yelp. "He sees right through me, and for whatever reason, still adores me."
The rain pelted down. We listened in unison. I took Rebecca to be saying that Raymond didn't want to go camping but didn't mind if she went without him -- which torpedoed her desire to show him up by going, it seemed to me. I was to learn that what mattered to Rebecca was acting on her impulses, not achieving a result. After a few minutes, she asked, "What do you think of our companions on this adventure?"
"I would have hiked alone if I had more courage. I feel awkward, doing something I don't usually do, with people I don't know." My answer embarrassed me. It revealed too much to a stranger.
"You're good looking. You could find a man to hike with without any trouble."
"That's not the point. I've had men but I'd rather be by myself than to be with a man for the sake of being with a man."
"How long has it been?"
"A year, maybe a little more. Please don't feel sorry for me, please."
She noticed my abrupt hardening of tone and quickly moved to repair the damage. "Listen, until I met Raymond I shuttled between men like a harried commuter. As long as I kept moving, I felt safe. I wasn't kidding when I said I envy you. I've never had the tranquility you have."
I knew she was humoring me, but I didn't mind. "Thank you. I'll get tired of it, but for now, being alone has merit."
Sometime during the night, the rain must have stopped. The incessant drip was gone when I woke up. Rebecca was sound asleep on her side, one arm flung over her head. Given the wet conditions, I was amazed either of us had slept.
I slipped into a dry T-shirt and shorts and crept outside. I was eating breakfast with the others when she emerged from the tent. Her eyes showed the effects of deep sleep. She barely glanced at me.
A dozen people were on the trip. Two couples, the rest singles. "Mornin'," they chorused.
Steam rose off the forest floor and filtered through the trees.
Chorus: "Sleep well?"
"Perfectly," Rebecca said. "Any left?" She eyed the eggs in the skillet.
Rebecca filled her plate and sat down on the opposite side of the circle from me. That hurt my feelings for some reason. If I had done something wrong, I wanted to know what it was. Don't be ridiculous, self, I said. You barely know each other. She owes you nothing.
We started an upward climb after breakfast, a steady, gentle, but eventually taxing climb. I lagged behind Rebecca. My mind wandered, as it does when given half a chance. Like a bee, it circles the stamen of an idea before alighting. The more obvious the idea, the longer I circle. The idea: I envied Rebecca's marriage, as bizarre as it sounded.
I envision myself the dependable kind. The opposite of Rebecca. So why would I envy anything she had? Asked and answered: I resented the fact that the flakes of the world attract and marry men, while the reliable ones like me hike alone. My resentment appalled me. I abhor whining.
The morning's climb ended on a rocky ridge overlooking a sweeping valley. Sweat darkened the V-neck of my T-shirt. To catch my breath, I sat and pulled my knees towards me, lowered my head between my knees, and breathed deeply. Rebecca sat down beside me. I knew it was her before I looked.
"Great climb," she said. If she was winded, you wouldn't know it.
I raised my head from between my knees. The Rebecca of the night before was back, the wonder, confusion and fatalism of her.
"May I ask you something?" I said.
"You always ask permission before you ask a question. Are you aware of that?"
"Actually, I'm not. My question is, were you angry at me at breakfast?"
She laughed a pleasant laugh, not a dismissive one. "Of course not. Why would you think that? What had you done that would make me angry?"
"That's what I couldn't figure out. I confess you confuse me, and confusion makes me uncomfortable."
She put her arms around me and gave my shoulders a reassuring squeeze. "Relax, I'm an open book."
For the rest of the three days we were fast friends, as if there had not been a slight hitch, as if we had known each other forever and were the kind of pals who could fall out of touch for years, then resume the friendship as if no time had passed. That kind of friend.
I knew it couldn't last. I am not built for that kind of friendship. I deal well with closeness only in short doses or in open spaces. As for Rebecca, Rebecca is the kind of person who doesn't conform to any pattern, whose rhythm can't be tracked, who alights on the pistil, not the stamen. We texted each other when we got back to the city, but no combination of emoticons can convey Rebecca, and over the next few weeks, the texts trailed off. At first I missed Rebecca's intensity, but gradually I remembered the pleasures of solitude.
Three months after our camping trip, we arranged to see each other again for what turned out to be the first and last time. We got together at a crowded Brooklyn bar where everyone was in the heightened state of anticipation that is the flip side of loneliness. Rebecca didn't seem to recognize me at first. We hugged, and it was good to see her. I met Raymond, her husband, Mr. Anti-Cool -- thick-framed glasses, hair falling over his forehead, an expression so earnest it made me ache -- someone I could fall in love with if I weren't so reticent. To break through my reticence I probably need a man with Rebecca's temperament, although I wouldn't respect such a man. Anyway, Raymond and I hit it off, albeit silently. At the high point of the evening, Rebecca was whisked away to share a drink at the bar with women friends, leaving Raymond and me alone. He smiled the same chagrined, help-me smile I get when I'm left alone with someone I like but hardly know. Then Rebecca returned, buzzing, circling, alighting.
A collection of Tony Rogers' stories won the Writer's Voice Capricorn Prize. He was first runner-up in the Texas Review Press novella contest, and a semi-finalist in the Quarterly West novella contest. A film of his short story "The Universe Has It In For Harry" (FlashFictionOnLine, February, 2009) will be shot in Prague next spring by an award-winning American filmmaker, Jesse Baldwin. His fiction has appeared in Pleiades, North Dakota Quarterly, Painted Hills Review (honorable mention in their fiction contest), Thema, Outerbridge, Worcester Review, The Teacher's Voice, and many others. His non-fiction has appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine. He has been a Wall Street lawyer, a professional jazz musician, and the head of a veterans' hospital.