From New Hampshire to Oregon, nature gives and takes. Nick Pappadopoulos learned in a way no one should ever have to.
An island off the coast of Rye, New Hampshire. The hotel kitchen. Six of us cook a thousand meals a day. I chop potatoes for hours, slice up a hundred grapefruit, grill two hundred eggs. Today I work with raw steaks packaged in plastic. I try not to get blood on my hands, but it’s pointless, and soon my arms are slick to the elbows. Music is playing, heavy on the bass and loud. I cut open a bag of meat and drain the blood into a pan. Moving my head with the music as I grab a bag and cut, drain, toss, cut, drain, autopilot. The blood is flecked with bits of muscle. Not crimson but carmine. I lift the pan with both hands and turn towards the floor drain. I glance down and see my own face in the blood. It takes a second before I realize that this is not normal and my nerves overcompensate. I become aware of how the room ticks and feel my lungs expanding to their limit. I hear the silences between music beats, feel the tendons in my hands, mark the pressure in my knees. My toes shift to balance. A cook’s knife bites into peppers, and sunshine refracts through windows. I keep moving and pour the blood onto the tile. It will end up in the ocean. An hour later I’m still in a butcher’s apron watching the water from the back deck. On the bench in the sun working my fingernails under bits of dried blood. Lillian sits next to me, and I tell her about my reflection. She lights up a cigarette and sips my coffee.
Manzanita, Oregon. I pull off the 101, and I’m a quarter mile inland standing outside a coffee shop in the drizzle. It feels familiar. I wonder if I’ve ever been anywhere else but here. I worry that I’ll be unable to leave this place, to retrace my steps and find home. The streets will fold back on themselves when I try to leave, all of them with their similar names and dead ends. I feel the adrenaline seep and spike for a moment. I can never leave this place. I calm myself down and step into the shop. I’m meeting my friend Dave nearby, but first I’ll have a look around town. And then I have to find him, actually. I’m not sure where he is, we’ve been out of touch for awhile. Out on the beach maybe. I get a coffee and look at the map on the wall for a few minutes. The town, the forest, the ocean.
Eight at night. I push open the kitchen doors. Now clean and quiet but the frenzy is still hanging in the dark corners of the room, the taste of sweat and lemon. I can smell the bleach but still see traces of red as I pass over the drain. I run my hand along the countertop. The long thin strips of wood sanded smooth, a former bowling lane turned butcher block. I cross to the cold storage locker and pull open the heavy door. The air-conditioning blows into my shirt collar as I step inside, out of the night’s heat. The hinges pull the door shut as the girl standing in front of me turns around. Melissa, the baker, in a black winter overcoat. She rushes towards me and buries her face into the soft flesh of my shoulder at the edge of my collarbone. Her hands are cold. She starts crying so hard she’s shaking.
It’s okay, everything is okay.
No, it’s not. It shouldn’t just end like this. We all come out here and become a part of each other, and suddenly it’s August, and it ends. Tomorrow is the last storm of the summer, I know it. Why is it like this?
I try to answer. I think of a hundred kids from a shuffle of New England towns finding each other. Poems in red paint on hallway walls. Lettuce fights and lobster racing. The ocean chop. Running and diving off the pier in the rain. After a minute she stops crying. The door opens behind me. I hear a foot scuff and a soft inhale as if someone, a girl, is about to speak. But there are no words, no footsteps. The door’s still open. She must be standing there whoever she is, hand still on the latch, muscles taut working against the mechanism of the door’s hinges. I don’t turn around. Five seconds later the door latches closed again, gently.
Oregon, standing on the beach now. Coffee, acidic residue. I watch the waves come in and out but they don’t, not really. It’s just one wave, the same wave, cresting and breaking and folding back on itself. The same water, however many billions of gallons, the repetition. It’s a trick, ten seconds of my life skipping perfectly in loop. Garbled audio and dull visual. Every time the wave crests I turn my head to look up the coast. But I can only begin to turn my gaze before suddenly I’m looking back at the same wave cresting, and breaking. I turn my head to look up the coast but the wave is cresting, breaking.
Ten at night. Sun’s down, but it’s dead summer, and the heat’s still here. Lillian and I are on the wooden deck built on the rocks behind Oceanic. A place for the staff where the guests cannot see us. Where we drink and laugh and razz Jill for kissing Jack and stare out at the black infinity of ocean. Lillian says to me Nick, I thought about what you said all day, your reflection in blood, I can’t get it out of my head. Indelible. I open two more bottles of beer. The smell of hops and lemon. I know, me too, I say, my eyes reflected so darkly. I glance at the scar on my finger from opening a bottle last summer. I took the whole neck of the bottle off. I can remember my confusion as I held the glass in my bloody hand. Lillian talks about the fall. I tell her I’m going to work in the Rockies for a year. I open more bottles. We have work off tomorrow; we won’t set alarms. Music is playing, heavy on the bass and loud. We finish our bottles. My palms are wet with condensation, just enough to improve my grip. A break in the music between songs. I take a discus thrower’s two-step and cast my bottle up and away into the darkness. Towards the ocean, over the rocks. Lillian’s bottle follows close behind, and now I can’t see them anymore. But it’s not the visual, it’s the audio. Rock n’ Roll, we both shout, brows beading. Everyone stops talking and waits for it. The glass breaks and the shards dart into the water. The party cheers and the next song comes on.
I’m back outside the coffee shop; it’s starting to rain. I step inside, and there are people I’ve never seen. I worry that I’ll see Dave, but he’s not here. I go to the counter and ask the girl if I can borrow a few trash bags. My car window is stuck and I’d like to cover it up; I’m on my way back to Portland, and that’s all I need to say before she smiles and hands me two black bags. It’s not true, what I said, but I don’t want to tell her that I’m going hiking alone in a storm. In the rain and wind. But I’m not there yet. Thank you for the bags. Drive safe! Will do. And she smiles. It’s the smile of every girl I’ve ever met, and I want to cry because I can’t wake up next to her tomorrow and every day after that. But I’d only need one morning to make it every morning, to have that memory pulse inside me.
After the bottles shatter, a dozen of us hike to the far end of the island to swim. We’re drunk and playing on the rocks. My sober self isn’t keeping an eye on me. I slip on a slick rock, and there I am, back flat and sliding fast and not a chance I’ll stop. Rock becomes water. The seaweed fingers at me under the surface. I feel stinging lines up my back. There’s diesel in the salt water. Maybe just extra salt. I slid, I realize, over a hundred barnacles that scored lines into my back. I come up jaw-clenched and laughing. I say something stupid like, Wow. I’m back on the rocks, straining my neck to look. Is it bad? I say. No, the response, it’s pinstripes. We all laugh. Soon we’re distracted by a point of light on the dark horizon. Night fisherman, who knows. I’m looking down at the barnacles now. I wonder if they can heal their own cuts. Maybe I could pry one off and press it against my back. Zipper up the slits. My sober self does not have bleeding cuts on his back. Why are they so sharp? Who is on that boat? My back burns in the wind.
Dusk in the pouring rain. I’m walking the mile stretch of highway 101 to the Neahkahnie Mountain trailhead. My wallet and phone are back in the car, and no one knows I’m here. The cars don’t slow down because they can’t see me. I step off the road and continue along in the gravel, against the tree line. The local headline starts romantic in my head: Boy Dies on Coast. More likely: 101 Fatality. Continue on page five: Stranger.
My grandmother and I are in her kitchen, I’m taking her to the hospital to visit my grandfather. This is years ago, when they were still alive. Before Oregon, before Star Island. She’s having trouble with her shoes. Gives up and leans back in her chair with a sigh. I think James and I will be on Gorham Street soon, she says. I don’t understand. Later I ask my mother at the hospital and she thinks a minute. It’s a street in Lowell, she says, there’s a cemetery. I bring my grandmother home late in the afternoon and help her with her shoes. Nick, she says, don’t get old.
It’s midnight now. We pull our clothes on. I leave my shirt off, thinking of blood stains. The wind gets stronger as we head back to Oceanic. We climb the fire escape together and drift into our rooms. I brush the dried salt off my forearms and breathe in the sea. I’m always a mix of sweat and steam and cut vegetables. But that’s all in the water now, and I’m clean again. Salty, gritty, clean. My roommate is asleep with his girlfriend. Sheets in a tangle at the bottom of the bed. Must have kicked them off in the heat. He’s a microbiologist, wants to work in a laboratory with anthrax and tularemia. Things that will leave your life unfinished. But look at the two of them breathing and dreaming. I want to ask about barnacles and bacteria and zippers. Let them sleep, Nick. I climb the frame to the upper bunk and feel my shoulder muscles tighten. Feel the skin stretch on my back, working apart the slits. Wish I could see it. I roll onto my back and feel good. I wake up when the door opens, feels like one in the morning. The girl I’m seeing is moving towards the bed. She pulls herself up the frame, and I see her shoulder muscles tighten. She rolls onto me, and I feel good. Cradles my neck with her fingers, palms on my cheeks in symmetry. She’s asleep in minutes. I watch her rise and fall as I inhale, exhale.
I’m hiking the trail. Dave was here before. He stepped over the same logs and leaned against the same trees. It means nothing. On the way up the hill it’s still raining. The trees become denser and the darkness strips the bark of its color. I see an old man in a raincoat turn the corner ahead of me, he’s heading down. Ten feet away now, he says Hello and asks Are you going over to the other side? I hesitate, startled, but recover. No, I say, not tonight.
On a fire escape facing the New Hampshire coastline. It’s the only place I get service. I spent most of my day off in bed. I turn my phone on here every few days to see if anyone’s tried to reach me who doesn’t know I’m unreachable. The sun is setting. There is rain coming, I remember, and try to feel it in the air. I hang up with my old girlfriend. Just before it dies my phone registers a missed call from Alex. We were never close, but we played in a trio with Dave in college. I set the phone down and watch the colors change over the lighthouse on White Island.
I’m on top of the hill now, the apex of the trail. Wind is rushing up the oceanside face and combing the grass down slick in the rain. The fog coats my hair and eyelashes. My jacket makes a slapping noise as it snaps back and forth in the wind, over and over, only two positions. And that’s my life. The grass moves left then right, now left again, and right. I stand there for five minutes, but maybe it was days, months.
I call Alex back from the lobby. There’s an old wooden phone booth with buckling glass doors where Lillian and I have secret meetings. We plot how to steal berries from the bakery fridge and decide where we’ll hide the cookie cutters. I ask the front desk if I could use their landline and laugh when they point at the booth. It actually works?
Hey, Alex, been awhile, how’s your summer?
Nick. I wish this weren’t true. Something awful happened.
And it’s so sudden and sharp and obvious. Why else would he call? I have less than a second in his pause to think of all the good things I’ve known. I have an impulse to interrupt him, to tell him it was good to hear from him and hang up. I could walk to the kitchen and flirt with the baker, watch the sunset color her hair. Orange and pink on auburn. The way it falls over her flour-powdered face and brushes her nose. Look at her eyes!
Dave Harris is dead. I wait for him to finish.
What do you mean? Now?
He was hiking yesterday in Oregon, on the coast. There was an accident. He broke his neck.
I think of wet wood and protruding bone. No, fight it, orange and pink on auburn. Blood. Cut, drain, toss. Please stop.
Nick. You there? Yes. Do you know what you just said?
I’m sorry, Nick. I don’t know anything else. How do you know he’s dead?
I spoke with his parents an hour ago. A park ranger found him this morning.
Wait. Stop. Please stop.
Nick, please. I’m sorry, you know I am. I have to go, more calls.
I sit in the phone booth for ten minutes staring at the dark wood. Dragging my fingers along the glass door. I call my brother, but I’m afraid I’m about to spread a rumor. I tell him, and we talk. After I kill the line I stay in the booth and cry. Rapping my knuckles on the wood and gripping my knees into my chest as hard as I can. And then I think of Superman running into a phone booth and sitting down to have a good cry. Suddenly I start laughing, tears still streaming. I must look unhinged. I can feel the slits in my back being pulled apart again as I shake. So easy to pull the cuts open again and again. But I can’t make them close.