An Unwanted Guest
Vela / September 2013
I didn’t see the jellyfish, but I felt it—a searing pain at my ankle that shot up through my leg, bringing me, in a matter of seconds, to my knees in the sand.
I looked down and saw its limp, blue body floating away from me down the rivulet I’d stumbled into when the sand along its border collapsed under my step. The creature had gripped me with its tentacles for just an instant before letting go, leaving a ribbon of angry red burn blisters wound around my ankle and lower leg. I didn’t know what kind of jellyfish it was, but our guide had told us to stay away from them, and the pain was so excruciating that tears welled up involuntarily, stinging my eyes. I could almost feel the poison moving through me, my chest growing tight, my heart beating hard and fast as though it wanted out.
“Simone?” I heard my boyfriend’s voice behind me.
He knelt down to my level, saw my leg, and then glimpsed the departing jellyfish. He breathed in sharply.
“Can you stand up?” he asked, reaching for my hand.
I took it, but he practically had to drag me the first few feet before picking me up and setting me down several yards away from shore.
“Is it really painful?”
I nodded, my mouth clenched into a tiny fist.
“It’s OK,” he said. “Just don’t panic.”
But I couldn’t help it. The pain was traveling at an incredible speed—up to my thighs, to my groin, and now, my hips. I looked out at the expanse of Indian Ocean and the hard, blunt realness of our situation: Guides didn’t carry radios in Indonesia. And even if they did, where could one get us? The tiny, dusty village of Tamanjaya at the entry point of the Ujung Kulon rain forest didn’t have a fruit stand, let alone a hospital. This national park on the westernmost edge of Java saw few visitors because of its location – starting from Jakarta, we had spent eight hours on two different sweltering bus rides, two hours on a motorbike down a deeply-rutted road, and three hours on a boat out to the island of Panaitan, where we finally began our hike. My father, an expat in Indonesia, was at least a couple of plane rides away from us. After four months of traveling through the country, this was the most remote and alone we’d been. The horizon had never looked so unreachable, and the familiar had never felt so far away.
Andrew took the pocket-sized health guide we’d brought with us out of his pack and scanned the images of jellyfish, little black and white drawings on the page I couldn’t make out from where I sat.
“Is it a man-o’-war?” I asked, straining to see what he was reading.
I recognized these symptoms, remembered reading about their progression when I’d briefly glimpsed a write-up about Portuguese man-o’-war, which are, technically, not jellyfish at all but siphonophores—a colony of multiple organisms. A sting started on the skin as a scalding burn but could travel to the lymph nodes, causing heart palpitations and shortness of breath. The most extreme cases led to shock and cardiac arrest.
“Is it?” I asked again, my voice shaking with effort. It was becoming increasingly difficult to breathe.
Andrew looked up, shifting his eyes towards our guide, who was laying out our dinner on plastic plates.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s not.”
He returned to the book, a tough, tired sorrow in his face. I knew, instinctively, that he was lying—he was a terrible liar—but I also knew that, if only to calm myself, I should try to believe him. Andrew closed the book and shoved it into his back pocket as he combed his fingers through his dirty hair, his whole body a knot of tension. I could feel his frustration like a third presence around us, sucking all of the oxygen out of the ocean air.
“Jesus, Simone, how could you have let this happen?” he yelled.
I looked up at him, a little stunned. Andrew was a natural caretaker, someone you could count on to remain calm in crisis. But over the past couple of weeks, I had watched as his patience had worn away, revealing something hard and heavily guarded, a barricade that made him impossible to reach. We spent every waking moment together, but I had never felt so far away from him.
We hadn’t slept well since we’d gotten to the rainforest, and we were both worried about how we’d make it through Jakarta when we got there with just nine dollars and fifty cents between us. And then, of course, soon we’d be back in Maryland, where we had no jobs, no savings accounts, no car, and no apartment, our belongings packed tightly away in a small storage space. But we were both accustomed to living like this; his new remove was about something more than that.
I cursed myself for taking on too much yet again. A month earlier in the trip, Andrew and another guide had had to push me up the side of a volcano for the last steep half mile of a difficult hike. What made me think I could do this? I had been sick for years, and when I’d tripped into that stream, I was bleary with exhaustion. It wouldn’t have happened to a healthy person, I told myself; it wouldn’t have happened to Andrew. Beneath the waves of pain, I felt something else surging through me: anger with myself for trying and failing to be the person I wanted to be. I wondered, as I studied the hard clench of Andrew’s jaw, if he was feeling the same about himself.
Three years before that evening in the rainforest, I’d been diagnosed with Interstitial Cystitis, an autoimmune condition that affects the bladder but can also cause pain throughout the body. It’s a condition that tends to take years to diagnose: I was twenty-one when I finally found out what had been plaguing me since I was seventeen. As my condition degenerated during that time period, my whole body became a crucible of pain, a trail of fire making its way to my thighs, legs, and lower back. Symptoms of related autoimmune conditions compounded this pain, too: swollen joints, fevers and aches that would come and go, a brain so foggy it was sometimes impossible to hold onto a single thought for more than a moment. And I often experienced a symptom that is common to almost all IC patients—pain during sex, like sandpaper tearing at my insides. Afterwards, I sometimes felt as though I’d been punched in the gut, and the pain would stay with me for days.
The story of my illness and the story of Andrew and me are, in some ways, inextricable. After I was diagnosed, I left New York City and returned to the Bay Area where I’d grown up, sharing a bedroom with my mother in the condo of an old family friend. Andrew and I had been childhood friends, intermittently in touch across states and continents during the previous four years. There were missed connections: a love letter he wrote me from a bunk bed in Beijing that never arrived at my Brooklyn apartment; an aborted kiss when I saw him one summer night I was visiting California but was with an older man I didn’t love; a chance encounter at a café where he worked, his eyes glimmering beautifully in the sun, his heart jumping, “she’s here!”
He had, apparently, been willing me to reappear ever since I’d left for New York at 17. He was in a short-lived, destined-to-fail relationship at the time that I returned, and even though the undercurrent of romantic tension was strong, there was something comforting about building a friendship first. I’d take the bus from Marin County to San Francisco, and we’d sit on the wharf, drinking coffee and watching the ferry unload and reload, feeding stale bagels to seagulls, birds that were, for him, the sound of home. I didn’t know where my home was, but sharing that bench with Andrew, our thighs barely touching, I didn’t feel the need to search for one.
One night that winter, we drove out to the coastal back roads of Mill Valley with a six-pack. Sitting on the hood of his car, a universe of stars above us, we came within an inch of kissing, but Andrew stopped us.
“I should do this right,” he said. I was touched by this. Later, after he had broken up with his girlfriend, we kissed just as we were getting off a MUNI bus in the middle of the night, our mouths and bodies coming together almost by accident, or instinct—later, he would say I’d kissed him, and I’d say that he kissed me. Our audience was a homeless man drinking out of a paper bag. “Now, that’s love,” he’d said.
A week later, we stumbled drunkenly along Market Street to his studio, kissing in doorways, the world a blur of lights and color. We passed out in his loft bed before we could do much beyond kissing, folded into each other, limp as the sheets tangled around our warm bodies. We were just kids, 21 and 22.
In the morning, the sun streaming in through the blinds, we attempted to have sex, but instead of “oh, yes,” there was a lot of “oh no, ow, stop, sorry.” It lasted maybe ten minutes. He didn’t come. My pelvis was on fire. I rolled on my side into fetal position, wanting to disappear.
Frustrated men had told me that it was my fault. Some of them I had loved. One jerk decreed that I was not a real woman—as if there were a second category of women all together, the false, make-believe ones—and another left me curled up on my futon after the first and only time we had sex, because he figured I “wanted to be alone” with my pain. Instead, I ended up in the emergency room, surrounded by patients. He called to check on me; I never called him back.
But Andrew did something then that would tie him to me forever. He held me to his chest and said, “You’re going to get better, Simone. I’ll help you.” I didn’t believe it was possible—every doctor I’d seen had told me that I’d only be able to manage my condition for the rest of my life—but it meant something to know that he did.
Andrew saw both me and the world with a kind of X-ray vision. His green eyes, flecked with gold, made the world feel small and close around me, and it terrified me to be seen so clearly. I was accustomed to men who found it difficult to see much past their own reflection. I was accustomed to remaining hidden.
It took me a month to call him back after that humiliating morning. I receded into my life across the Golden Gate in Sausalito, where I worked early morning shifts as a barista at an Italian restaurant and shared an apartment with my father, who was back from Indonesia for the year. I ignored Andrew’s calls and tried dating a straightedge vegan guy from Italy who possessed an innocent and all around wrong vision of who I was. It died a quick, quiet death. I walked along the bay after work. I sent away for Ayurvedic herbs and saw specialists at the UCSF Medical Center. I tried a slew of medications, different forms of yoga, quit drinking alcohol and coffee, and cut out all the foods that can exacerbate Interstitial Cystitis—a litany as long as a week’s grocery list. I smoked high-grade medical marijuana, and did so with a little too much enthusiasm. Still, I felt stuck.
How, at 21, had my existence become so small? Debilitating pain had interrupted the narrative of my life, and I didn’t know how to write the pages that would move it forward and give me momentum; I was frozen, without climax or resolution, the same dull scene on repeat. And what are we without our own stories? It seems trite, but I learned that year that they do, in fact, mean everything.
The narrative of me and Andrew did continue to move forward, though in stops and starts, shot through with bursts of beauty: He moved to Maryland for a late go at college; I returned to New York, found work as a technical writer, and proceeded to plunge into a deep underwater depression, profoundly out of sync with my old friends who were still drinking in bars until four am, snorting coke off of their apartment keys in grungy bathroom stalls. Andrew and I wrote each other letters—handwritten and snail-mailed—and when I came up for air, I’d shoot straight to him, taking the train to Maryland on gorgeous fall weekends, ending up warm in his bed, safe from both the outside world and the interior one in which I struggled to stay afloat. He came to see me in the city on snowy weekends, in wool mittens and a thick sailor’s coat, holding my hand on the ice skating rink at Central Park, where I fumbled to mirror his graceful steps. On one desperate night, I called him at midnight and asked him to come, and he did, no questions asked, boarding a 1 am train because I needed him, the dark streets of Brooklyn covered in snow.
That morning in his San Francisco studio, Andrew had gone straight to my soft spot, the place I’d tried to hide in the crook of my body as I curled up against his stomach. Shame. A disease of its own proportions, it had grown quietly inside me over the past four years, and he had been the only one in my life to see it up close for what it was. I’d continue to apologize for sex that wasn’t always successful, and he would delicately admonish me: “There’s no need to apologize, Simone.” And just hearing him say my name drove out my shame like an evil spirit.
Andrew came to New York when his first year of college ended, bartending to save up money. We stayed up late on work nights, lying on the wooden floor of his sublet in Harlem and talking into the night, forgetting ourselves to the point that we’d neglect to turn on the light until well after the sun fell. We drove up to Bear Mountain, lying in the summer sun sharing Haagen-Dazs and reading books to each other. We argued fiercely about politics, raising our voices in Polish cafes in Greenpoint. We walked miles through Brooklyn on “Expedition Sundays,” discovering new corners of the borough. One afternoon I went to a concert with a friend and returned to a bedroom of books shelved in a new bookshelf, flowers and a note on my bed. I’d been meaning to get one for months, and he’d carried the eight-foot-tall bookcase up Greenpoint’s Manhattan Avenue in the brutal summer heat.
But at the end of August, I couldn’t find it in myself to go back to Maryland with him, though I had nothing keeping me in New York. I had seen the summer’s end as an expiration date, a built-in ending that had allowed me to relax into being with Andrew. In his airy sublet, we lay that last evening on a stranger’s futon side by side, untouching.
“Separation is always painful,” he’d said. “But this just doesn’t feel right.”
He was right, but I was employing every defense mechanism I possessed not to acknowledge it. It felt so wrong, so against whatever grain I should be going, yet the leap felt utterly impossible to make. I lay mute, feeling queasy, everything sharp-edged and wrong, refusing the tears that wanted to come.
Our separation lasted for a month–until I called sick into work one Friday morning, got on a Greyhound bus and showed up at his apartment in Maryland telling him that I wanted to leave my job and the city and move in with him. I’d been filled with regret since he’d left. For the first time, he had, with very good reason, been trying to forget me.
“You can’t come in and out of my life like this anymore,” he said, standing at the threshold of his front door. The bitter cold outside stung my cheeks.
Something tired in his voice made my heart break a little. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “I’m in.” He pulled me to his chest and kissed me on the head. And then, to my relief, he let me in and closed the door behind him.
The entire bus ride back to New York, I felt like I was vibrating with life and also like I might throw up all over my seat. This was living, wasn’t it? Making decisions, moving forward, unsticking my stuck life, allowing myself to love and be loved without a safety net?
But now, deep in the Javan rainforest, eight months after I’d made that terrifying move, I felt a new kind of fear. I wasn’t afraid that he’d stopped loving me—Andrew’s love for me had always seemed an incontrovertible fact of life, as consistently true as the light of the sun. I was worried, instead, that he’d buckled beneath the burden of my body, that he’d just plain burned out. I watched Andrew as he sunk the tent stakes into the hard sand. Despite his natural grace, he looked beaten-down, like something irreplaceable had been taken out of him, and he was too tired to care or even notice that it was gone.
Three years on, Andrew’s hopeful predictions had been wrong. I had not cured myself, and he—a young, idealistic man once so sure of his capabilities—most certainly had not cured me.
When we’d first reached the cove where I met my jellyfish misfortune, it had felt like the brink of the world: huge waves beating against the jagged faces of cliffs, expanses of dirt and grass around us as flat and lifeless as the moon, only a few strange trees reaching jagged branches into the startlingly close sky.
Since daybreak, we’d been marching through winding rainforest, dark and close and wet, stopping only briefly for lunch. It was a relief to be in the open air of the coast, the constant whirring and rustling of the rainforest gone, surrounded by a beauty that reminded me so stunningly of the California coast where Andrew and I had grown up that it pulled at something ancient and buried in me. The violence of the waves against the rocks—so much like the roiling Pacific below the cliffs of Big Sur—almost managed to dissolve the border between me and the landscape. I wasn’t just small and insignificant as I was beneath the tall trees of the rainforest—I was obliterated, the closest I’d ever get to being free of my body. A slight breeze snuck up under my soaked linen shirt, soothing my chafed hips and dirt-glazed skin. I eyed a swampy stream just at the edge of the cove with longing, but knew enough to avoid its dark waters. For now, this cool air would have to be enough.
I hadn’t anticipated the intense darkness of the rainforest, the constant sensation of something lurking nearby. I’d been on edge since the morning we’d entered it, my senses heightened to a point of near pain—I could practically hear the trees breathing, as alive as the long-tailed macaques swinging on their highest branches. Anytime we stepped into a moderate clearing, bits of sun peeking through the leaves, I felt as though someone had turned down the volume, and I relaxed in the relative silence. We walked in a line down the narrow trail – first the guide, then Andrew, then me, of course, dead last – but that line could split up in an instant, and had many times, Andrew disappearing around a sharp corner, and I, left to feel my way, calling after them to wait up.
There was a time that I would have savored being alone in the wilderness, a time when I’d hang back deliberately from a group to experience the trail on my own. But, at the ripe old age of twenty-four, I was lagging behind for new reasons, reasons that made me feel fragile and alone.
Andrew had never treated my illness as a burden or hardship, though it lived with us every day, an unwanted guest. For him, it had certainly required sacrifice—evenings out cut short, endless stops at public restrooms, weekends holed up inside the house, weeks and months of pained, cautious sex, days I disappeared inside myself, unable to do much beyond existing in a state of pain.
Getting sick when you’re young—or any time, really—can radically derail your life. For me, it felt like taking a wrong turn in the dark, the map flying out of my window as I lost my way. I’d never been much of a planner, but there was a basic road map and compass, a direction I thought I was heading, a vision of what I wanted my life to be. An integral part of that dream was travel; physical work; new, raw experience. But the illness had blurred that vision, and, over the course of those first years, I stopped being able to see where I was heading. This short, five-day backpacking trip – and the whole island-hopping trip through Indonesia—was, in part, an effort to get that sense back.
Though it had been some time since I tested myself, I’d figured five days would be manageable. But forty-eight hours into this expedition, it had already begun to feel interminable. Every part of me screamed in pain, my joints aching and inflamed as I walked shakily across logs situated precariously above crocodile-infested swamps. My bladder was sending me to the sidelines of the trail every thirty minutes to pee, crouching in the darkness, the weight of my pack threatening to tip me over. I was suffering, and not the good, holy kind of suffering that is earned through hard work; it was a far more desperate and pointless kind of suffering, a suffering that damages instead of restores. I felt like the youth had been worn out of me entirely.
But what about Andrew? Had this trip—my slow pace, my evident pain—brought him to his limit? I’d stopped mid-trudge on the trail earlier that day when this question occurred to me, the thought so scary and sad I could barely hold it in my mind. And yet it was clear that my needs and my fears were wearing him thin. The first day we were out in the forest, he’d stopped when I called to him. Now, he’d given up on waiting for me—he’d stopped replying to me in any way at all.
As we began unloading our packs, our guide Agus took the pots and pans out of his own bag to start cooking dinner, which was the same paltry meal as lunch and as dinner the night before – ramen soup, fried rice, and an egg fried in coconut oil to inedible toughness. Ignoring Lonely Planet’s instruction to come prepared, we’d figured we’d stock up on food when we reached the village at the entry point of Ujung Kulon, but there had been nothing there. Even the small, poor village where my father’s wife had grown up had a “pasar tradicional,” but this village felt like some Indonesian version of the wild west, dusty and empty, no sign of authority or government running the place. The man who operated the guesthouse for backpackers had the only “market” in town, and it couldn’t really be called that – it was an aluminum-sided stall with only these goods we were eating on offer. I was starving, but just the smell of the burning coconut oil made me nauseous.
“You wanna set up right here?” Andrew asked, plopping his bag down several yards from shore. He began to unpack our cozy little tent and I walked to the water’s edge and took off my galoshes and filthy wool socks, the air a sweet relief against my soggy, red, blistered toes, oozing and faintly yellow from the Betadine I’d applied to them that morning. I walked slowly into the very edge of the tide, the salty water first stinging then numbing my feet.
Andrew looked up. “Hey, remember to watch out for those –“
“The jellyfish. I know.”
The previous day we’d covered fifteen miles, twelve of it coastline, the equatorial sun relentless and unforgiving against our backs. The blue jellyfish had littered the beach, and many floated out in the ocean like tiny, incandescent buoys, their bodies without gravity or movement of their own, going wherever the current carried them. They were otherworldly, beautiful creatures; I’d never seen anything like them. Later, I’d learn that beaches in Australia close entirely when they wash up onto shore, en masse. Agus just told us to try not to step on them.
“Wait a second,” I said to Andrew as he started to unfold our tent. “Agus,” I yelled, “is it OK if we sleep down here?”
Our guide looked down at us not exactly blankly – he always looked like he was hiding something – but with a gaze as maddeningly impenetrable as ever. Agus spent more than half of his time out in the forest of Ujung Kulon, and seemed to be in closer communication with the trees than with either of us. It was his burden to guide curious, unprepared hikers like me through the rainforest, and, to a lesser extent, entertain their bizarre whims.
“Is it safe?” Andrew asked in Indonesian, pointing to where he was setting up camp.
In much of Indonesia, the dregs of society reside on the water’s edge, the poorest of the poor who live at the mercy of unpredictable weather and earthquakes, so our choice to sleep closer to it – instead of under the primitive manmade shelter where our guide had laid out his sleeping bag– probably seemed misguided and stupid.
He squinted his eyes as though doing so would help him to understand what it is we wanted, and why. He shrugged.
Yes,” he said, before returning to the boiling rice.
Andrew resumed setting up camp while I rested on a log watching him move with an ease I’d always envied. Andrew was everything I was not – capable, agile, physically resilient, an athlete from the time he could walk – but he often said that I was the strong one, fierce and independent and unwilling to take any shit. It was that fierceness that first attracted him to me, he said, but it was also what scared him. And that was where my strength bled into my central weakness, of course—the barrier I’d put up against the world that, since I’d first gotten sick, had become nearly immovable. But over a period of three years, Andrew had changed me, little by little, weakening my resistance with his inexplicable insistence on loving me.
Had other parts of me become weaker, too? I did not feel so fierce anymore. This summer had been harder on me than either of us had anticipated—it was the first truly long-term travel I’d done since I’d gotten sick, and we both wanted to believe, on some level, that more than six years of chronic pain hadn’t changed me, or at least had not defeated me. At home, my conditions and his abilities had, somewhat magically, never been at odds, but here, the difference seemed stark and divisive. He belonged to the land of the healthy, where people move easily, their arms and legs vehicles that get them where they want to go. And I was on another island entirely, a place that, no matter how many times I circled it, offered no way to get off.
The sting itself was some of the most acute pain I’d experienced in my life, but it got worse. A lot worse. The searing morphed into a deep, throbbing ache, digging deeper and deeper into me. My chest felt increasingly constricted, and my heart continued to thump so fast and hard it almost hurt.
Andrew had put his pack beneath my head so that I could recline, and was talking with the guide across the beach. I couldn’t hear what was being said, but I could see that Andrew was doing most of the talking. Finally, after what felt like an hour but may have only been five minutes, the guide approached me with a small plastic cup.
“Drink this,” he said, bringing it to my lips. I took the cup without glancing and tossed it back into my mouth, then choked, spitting up what was left of it.
“Good for you,” he said with certainty.
I looked up at him, wanting to get angry, but his face, which had been so difficult for me to read since we’d set out on this trip, was no longer suspiciously serene. There wasn’t exactly concern on his face—at least as I read it—but something looked like it had woken from its hibernation, something I recognized as familiar and comforting.
“Thank you,” I said and lay back down on my pack.
When Andrew and I started spending time together as adults in the Bay Area, we’d trade books. In the summer, he gave me Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a novel that I read in a single night, unable to look away from it. It was about a middle-aged man who was suddenly dying from something his doctors could not pin down—an experience far different from my own, and yet the story struck something deep within me, some chord that until that moment had been vibrating but silent. Death, fortunately, did not lie before me—at least beyond the extent that it lies before everybody—but his experience of loneliness described my inner landscape, the limbo of living between one world and the next. There is no lonelier place in the world than the island of invisible suffering, though its population is varied and huge.
Andrew, unlike anyone I had ever known, willingly met me in that world, slowed to my pace with such nuance and grace that I didn’t even notice he had. On the beach now, I felt like I was caught in that in-between place, except that this time, Andrew wasn’t there with me. He sat next to me, leafing absent-mindedly through Into the Wild, but he didn’t offer any comfort, in words or body language. His mind and heart were somewhere else. He was unyielding, a stone wall.
Every relationship has a point when it develops its first fissures, I knew; fissures that either heal and mend or continue inevitably toward breaking, an unfixed crack in a windshield. How and why those fissures develop is unique to every relationship, but even in the strongest ones, there are little betrayals, ways we quietly break each other’s hearts—or our own—without knowing it at the time.
I could already sense our first fissures, could feel them surrounding us in the dark clamminess of our tent later that night. The pain had begun to recede and I was pretty sure I was going to be fine, but I was unable to sleep. I took out my flashlight and my journal, something I only kept when I was traveling, a time when writing little missives to myself didn’t feel entirely absurd. This missive was mostly questions I didn’t have the answers to:
When had it begun? I scrawled. When we first stepped on the trail? When he pushed me up the side of that volcano? When we landed in Jakarta nearly four months ago, a new world of palm trees and rice fields coming at us as we plunged downward?
Or was it months and even years ago, all those times I had pushed him away? Was it all that time I could never get back? That last thought was so shattering I couldn’t bring myself to write it down. I watched him in his sleep, as free and vulnerable as he ever looked, and felt, for just a moment, the crushing weight of what it would be to not have him breathing beside me.
We woke in the middle of the night to the sound of waves crashing—against our tent.
“Shit,” Andrew said, bolting up. He unzipped the tent and stepped out, a cool rush of wind and spritz of salt water coming into our muggy little world before he zipped it back up.
“Simone. Give me the flashlight,” he said, his voice muffled by the sea and the tent between us. “But do not step out here.”
I looked down at my leg in the dark. Stepping pretty much anywhere was not something he needed to worry about. Some swelling and pain had gone down, but the blisters around my ankle were still throbbing and inflamed.
I fumbled for the flashlight next to my sleeping bag and unzipped a small opening in the tent, handing it to him as I stuck my head out. He shown it against the side of the tent, an eerie light revealing this tiny section of the world – it was covered in sand, bits of seaweed, and a countless number of the beautiful, terrifying washed-up blue bodies of jellyfish, clinging to the nylon.
“Holy shit,” I said. The ocean was up around Andrew’s ankles. Which meant those things—and lord knows what else—could also be around his ankles.
“We gotta move this thing now,” he said. “Be careful.” He didn’t seem too worried about himself, but I could practically feel him holding his breath as I hobbled out of the tent and onto dry sand, his body rigid and unmoving. The moon was so bright over the water that I didn’t even need the flashlight to see the ocean and the little uninhabited islands around us. Andrew picked up the tent and began to beat its sides with a dirty shirt, getting the jellyfish as far away as possible—even dead, they could deliver a serious sting. When he was finally done, he walked up beside me and looked out at the ocean.
“It’s beautiful,” I said. He nodded, the moon lighting his face too.
That winter in California when we’d first fallen in love on the wooded back roads of Marin County, he’d taken me out on a cold, steep five-mile hike that he used to go on by himself in high school. Rain was falling hard on us by the time we reached the top, and the mud was thick and slippery as we pulled ourselves up by roots and rocks to a small swimming hole he’d swam in many times before—but never in the winter.
“Time to jump in!” he said.
“Are you nuts? It’s January!”
But I jumped—maybe to prove that I was still the girl I envisioned myself being, the one who’d hiked the Sierras and jumped off cliffs and swam against the strong current of the American River. We peeled off our muddy clothes that were pasted to our bodies. My limbs went numb and immobile the moment I hit the icy water. I could barely speak it was so cold, and Andrew had to drag me out because my arms had stopped working. I shivered the whole way back, chilled to the bone but more alert and alive than I’d felt in a long time.
“Have you been able to sleep?” he asked me now after a few moments of silence.
“How’s the leg?”
“Better, I think. Tomorrow should be OK.”
There was silence for a moment, just the sound of the waves.
“You scared the shit out of me today,” he said.
I looked at him.
“Don’t ever do that again,” he said. But he was smiling.
“You were lying, weren’t you?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “It was very clearly a man-o’-war.”
“You know, I asked him if it would kill you.”
“What’d he say?”
We both laughed then, and he reached out for my hand. I took it, feeling the callous that had grown between us beginning to soften.
“It’s not your fault,” he said. “That sting could’ve happened to anyone. And this trek, it would be hard on anyone.” The statement felt like a peace offering.
I sat down on the sand to rest my leg and he joined me, putting the flashlight down in front of us. In its light, I could see his torn up, battered feet.
“Dude, your feet are worse than mine,” I said a little triumphantly.
“I know,” he said. “They hurt like hell.”
I got up and walked over to the tent, returning with our first-aid kit. I lay it out on the sand and got out some Betadine, staining his feet yellow as I applied it to his open blisters. Afterwards, I delicately swabbed the wounds with antibiotic ointment, protecting the sores on top of his feet and at his heels with small pads before wrapping both of them up in gauze.
“Thank you,” he said, peering down at me as I fastened the bandage with tape.
I looked up at him and smiled. His face looked young and alive in the glow of the moon.
“They’ll be on the mend soon,” I said. And then, I lightly kissed the toes on both of his wounded feet.