A telescope was the only thing of value I took when I walked out of my life. Aged thirty years and fifty-nine days, I boarded a bus and rode it through three states to a small town in the Catskills. I could have driven a car. I could have flown in one of those tiny-engined planes. I could have taken a bus route with one connection, four hours’ travel time, instead of the eight-connection, twenty-eight-hour journey I’d chosen. Any other mode of transport would have been quicker, more convenient and much more comfortable than this bus.
But this bus would be the hardest route for Claude, or the police, to track.
I watched grey freeway after grey interstate pass by the window, and two hours into my journey, my brain went through a panic cycle. I regretted every decision I’d ever made.
I should go home. I can still make it back before Claude even realises I am gone.
No way I’m going back. See that smug look on Claude’s face I know so well?
Couldn’t make it a day on your own, Iris, what were you thinking?
But after a few minutes of indignation, the panic started again.
I settled down into my window seat in the mostly empty bus. Midweek, mid morning, not many long-haul travellers hoboing it on the NYC–Philly line. I had my pick of seats, so I went two from the back, my childhood bus position. A minor but satisfying fuck-you to front-seat Claude.
Beside me, a small daypack filled with essentials – magazines, snacks, a sweater, bus timetables. Below my seat, in the luggage compartment, the telescope, a tent, a sleeping bag, enough freeze-dried meals to stock the International Space Station for a year, and all the brand-new hiking gear I’d bought on my flight from the city. I’d stuffed everything into Claude’s Harvard duffel. She loved that bag. So I took it.
That morning, I’d withdrawn every cent in my account in crisp greens, slid the thin wad into a pouch and wrapped it round my waist. I could have emptied the joint saver and lived like a queen, but I wouldn’t take another penny from her. I tightened the straps on the pouch too much so they’d dig in and I’d remember it was there.
Another hour on the bus. The sound of a radio floated up the aisle. A passenger near the front, no thought to headphones or common courtesy, cranked up the volume as the bus picked up speed. Crackly headlines matched the rhythm of the engine: the president did something stupid, a terrorist incident in Europe, a selfless hero saved a dog stranded on the freeway, a three-point-five earthquake recorded in the Adirondacks, seismologists baffled, and on and on until the headlines began to repeat and the listener switched off the radio.
I was drifting in and out of sickly travel sleep when:
I nearly jumped out of my skin.
Nobody talks on buses. Klaxons and wide eyes.
A man across the aisle was offering me a Golden Delicious. He had a bag of them on the seat beside him.
I took it. Smiled my best ‘this is weird but I’m going with it’ smile and held the fruit like it was a grenade. The man nodded, seemed happy to help out a destitute-looking lone female, and went back to his own company. A moment later, a thunderous apple crunch and the man smiled at me again.
I stared at the gift. Can’t roofie an apple, can you? But still, I waited for the man to disembark before I ate it.
Trust no one. If I’d learnt anything these last six years, it was that. I wasn’t going to get anywhere in the forest by relying on the kindness and good nature of strangers. I’d seen Deliverance.
I’d chosen the forest because my wife would never expect it. I’d asked myself, where is the last place Claude would think to look? Iris hates dirt. That’s what she’d think. Iris doesn’t have a practical bone in her body. Iris can’t take care of herself even with a fully working kitchen and stocked refrigerator. There is no alcohol in the forest, why would Iris go there?
After a few days and no sign of me, she’d report me missing, call my mother and my sister. They’d look for me in motels and hotels, quaint B&Bs, then the houses of my one ex and my one old friend, even in my office, under my desk, wrapped in a nest of shredded paper and coffee filters.
But they would never find me.
As the city tapered away to small towns and longer stretches of countryside, I imagined my family poring over the last few months of my life, my financial records – one credit card, a checking account teetering on red, the joint account that was all Claude and no me. They’d find a recent statement, within it a clue, a golden nugget, something I’d kept from the woman I was meant to love. Here, look, Miss, Mrs, Ms? She spent two hundred bucks on a tent, was she planning a trip? And they’d look confused because, a tent? Iris in a tent? There must be some mistake. I thought of them digging into my life and finding all those secrets you only find after someone dies. Was it the same as death, to abandon life?
To say I was ill prepared, impulsive, idiotic would be accurate. All words beginning with I. Like Iris.
Along with the hiking gear, tent and telescope, I’d brought a stack of notebooks to record all this. The insanity of it, the wonder, the secrets of life and happiness I hoped to find between the spruces. Or I’d starve to death or fall off a mountain and those notebooks would be the only thing left of me. In any case, keeping a journal can be cathartic, healing, blah blah blah. Maybe I’d send them to Claude, to explain everything I’d done and why. She told me everything, after all. Until she didn’t.
I took a notebook from my bag and opened it to a blank page. Anything I wrote would be muddled, broken up into memories of her and me, who I was and who I never wanted to be, the things I’d let her do, the person I’d let myself become. Was that a way to find peace? Was it a way to admit what had happened?
On an empty page, I dug the pen into the fibres and dragged the ink.
But the rest of the words wouldn’t come. I couldn’t write them. I couldn’t bring myself to see them there on the page in black and white. Then it would be real. Then it would all have been real.
I closed the book, shoved it in my bag and stared out the window, let the rhythms of the bus rock me to sleep.
Twenty-six hours after I left my apartment, I arrived in Albany and changed to a local service. The bus, which should have been decommissioned in the eighties, had hard seats, a misfiring engine, and few riders. An elderly man with a walking stick up front, a woman and her burbling baby in the middle, and in my spot, two from the back, a woman in a red hiking jacket, same brand as mine, hood pulled up, covering her face, slumped and snoring against the window. I took a seat behind the driver and tried to get comfortable.
A few more hours and I’d be at the edge of the forest, at an unmaintained trailhead. The trail petered out after eight or ten miles and the wilderness took over. I’d found it in one of those magazine lists of forgotten tourist attractions.
At this last leg, the reality of my situation finally sank in and I began to shake.
I should go home. God, she’ll be so angry. I should apologise. I should beg for her forgiveness.
Her forgiveness? What about yours?
She should be begging after all she did. You got out of there just in time, for both of you.
The panic eased, the defiance rose again.
I relaxed in my seat. I’d have to convince myself every day, and already I was exhausted.
I stepped off the bus in a small town near Catskill. Barely on the map. I hefted Claude’s duffel onto my back, walked to the trailhead, and stopped at the sight of the trees crowding over the narrow pathway, dripping lichen and broken branches, hiding darkness behind a bright, verdant mask.
The trail was still marked despite years of disuse. A blue and white plaque half swallowed in a hornbeam, the screws a permanent wound in the bark, easy to miss unless you were looking. In a few more years, the tree would win and all trace of this trail would be gone. The sight of nature taking over, disappearing evidence of human destruction just with sun, water and time, unrooted my legs, unclenched the knot in my stomach. I had plenty of wounds, like nails driven into my bark, still open and stinging, threatening to scar, but, like the trees, I finally had sun, water and the time to heal.
I hadn’t set foot in the forest since my father died. I’d tried, and I’d turned away from the memories, but this time was different. I wasn’t afraid. There were no giants barring my way. The forest welcomed me because I was ready now and the trees knew. They passed on the message, under rivers and over mountains. Iris is here, they said, she’s come home at last.
The smell of leaves and dirt enveloped me as I stepped into the wilderness. Sounds of civilisation hushed, replaced with the gentle rhythms of nature. The darkness receded to a thick green glow and the ground softened under my feet.
I’d come to the forest to rediscover the part of me I’d left there as a child. The girl I was on those trips with my father to camp and stargaze with no light pollution to dull the majesty. The person I was before he died and took all that wonder with him. The person I was before Claude.
It was New Age bullshit, really, finding myself, spoken in stretched, languorous vowels, in a private school, magazine-intern accent. Like some yoga retreat and colonic would fix me and my marriage.
The forest, the trees, the stars, the isolation, they might not fix me, but distance, perspective, remembering where I came from, who I was, they would. They had to.
I wanted pure connection to nobody but the earth, the past, the sky. I wanted to find the version of me I knew was in there somewhere, hiding in the mosses.
The universe certainly has a sense of humour.