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Day eight of our trip is spent in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. We spent the whole day yesterday at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. It was a beautiful day, full of sunshine and puffy clouds passing overhead. The breeze yesterday was cool, but light enough that Cj wore her hoodie and didn’t complain too much about being cold.

Her favorite part of the zoo was the penguins. She imitated them all afternoon and generally annoyed the hell out of me by squawking and pretending to waddle, even though she already has one with her prosthetic. I didn’t tell her that though. She still looked pretty cute, even if she did get on my nerves.

We left for Cuyahoga this morning around eight in the morning, arriving in Cuyahoga at just about ten thirty. It’s already just about three in the afternoon, and Cj’s been snapping pictures on her phone the whole morning. Right now, she’s not very happy about having to delete some because her phone’s memory is full.

“Goddamnit. I should have gone with the 64gb memory,” she scowls, furiously clicking through and deleting precious photos.

“It’s not that big of a deal. Tomorrow we can stop by a Wally World and print off some of them so you can delete them.”

“But I want them on my phone.”

“Why?”

“It’s easier to just pull out my phone to show someone than it is to bring a fucking stack of pictures with me.”

“Yeah, because having something tangible would be the end of the world.”

“Shut up Tuck.”

“Good one.”

She flips me off, continuing to play on her phone. Sighing, I reach over and pluck it from her fingertips, stuffing it in the back pocket of my jeans.

“If you think I won’t grab it out of your pocket, you are sorely mistaken.”

“I don’t doubt that you will. But hear me out. You don’t have to take a picture of everything that you see. When you show someone, they won’t understand the beauty of being here. Pictures won’t do it justice. In the end, all you’ll have is a handful of memories no one else will be able to relate to.”

“Fine,” she grumbles, rolling ahead of me in her chair.

A leaf spirals down and lands in her hair, a burst of emerald against a fiery backdrop. She plucks it out of her hair and stares at it before letting it fall to the ground.

“It’s only September. The leaves shouldn’t be falling yet.”

I snort, walking by her side. “Doesn’t mean they’re all going to drop right at Halloween.”

“I wish they would. Halloween’s my favorite holiday.”

“Why is that?”

“It’s fun pretending to be someone you’re not. And all of the free candy. I trick or treated until I was a senior in high school. Now I sit at home alone and mow down on chocolate and watch the Saw series every year. Stewie even gets into the festivities. He wears a pumpkin suit.”

I kick a stick out of my way, satisfied with the way that it snaps when I step on it a few seconds later. “That actually sounds super depressing.”

She shrugs, rolling down the trail. “I guess it is, but it’s a tradition now.”

“Maybe this year we could start you a new tradition.”

“Like what?”

“For one, not watching crappy horror movies and stuffing your face with candy by yourself.”

Continuing on our way into the park, we follow the trail down to what appears to be an observation deck, which looks over Brandywine Falls. Looking over at Cj, I see her stick her bottom lip out, the way she does when she’s about to pout about something.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m not gonna be able to get down there. I wish my residual limb didn’t hurt like hell and that I had my leg. I’d love to go down there.”

“You can.”

She looks over at me, her eyes meeting mine. She’s got a puzzled expression on her face. It’s hard to hear her over the sound of rushing water.

“How?” She yells over to me.

“Like this.”

I scoop her up from her chair and begin descending the stairs, her hollering the entire way down. It sounds like “Put me down asshole,” but once again, it’s difficult to hear her.

Once we make it down to the deck, I set her down, leaning her up against the wooden railing. Wobbling as she tries to balance, she takes the opportunity to flip me the bird again. I’m on a roll. That’s twice now in the course of half an hour.

A couple gawks at us, the blonde woman frozen with a camera in her hands. Her boyfriend or husband wears a similar expression of shock on his face. His shaggy black hair flaps in the wind produced from the rushing wind. I nudge Cj with my elbow to get her attention.

Cj looks over and sees them staring. “Take a fucking picture. It’ll last longer,” she snaps, still clutching the railing like it’s a life or death situation. She pulls out her pack of Camels from the breast pocket of her flannel with her free hand and puts it up to her lips, grabbing a cigarette out with her teeth. Putting it back, she retrieves her lighter and lights it. She blows the smoke in the direction of the couple.

The woman turns bright red, grabbing her partner’s hand and tugging him up the stairs. They stumble all the way to the top, eager to escape Cj’s wrath. Leaning on my elbows against the railing, I gaze over at her. She catches my eye and scowls, blowing smoke in my direction too. “Do you need to take a picture too?”

“Was that really necessary?”

“What? Bitching at them for staring at me like I had two heads? Of course it was.”

“They were probably looking because of the situation. It’s not everyday you see someone being fireman carried down a flight of stairs.”

“Of all the things that weren’t necessary, that was the biggest one.”

“You wanted to come down here. I presented a solution to the problem. Just shut up and enjoy it.”

The water rushes down the falls all around us, the noise even louder down here than it was at the top of the stairs. The scent of smoke from Cj’s cigarette is the most powerful smell, but otherwise the air smells clean and crisp, almost like fresh linen. It’s mixed with a damp, earthy smell from the surrounding soil and trees. Everything is bright green in the forest, the white water the only exception.

I watch Cj lean towards me, resting against me as she takes another drag from her cigarette. It’s not until I feel her hand on my ass that I whip around, almost knocking her to the deck. “What the hell are you doing?”

She grins, triumphantly waving and displaying her phone in the air, cigarette hanging out of her mouth, the other hand still clutching the railing. Gingerly setting it down on the wooden surface, she punches in her passcode before picking it back up and snapping pictures with the volume buttons.

Scowling, I take the cigarette from her mouth and take a puff, placing it back once I’m finished. “You could have just asked for it back, you know.”

“You’re right. I could have, but I’d have to stand and listen to another lecture from you. I didn’t want to.”

“It would have been easier than trying to cop a feel.”

“Probably.”

We stand at the bottom of the observation deck for another ten minutes, long enough for Cj to have another cigarette. Then she’s ready to head back up. This time when I pick her up, she doesn’t fight me. Instead, she wraps her arms around my neck and rests her head on my chest. Her hair tangles with my beard, smelling of fresh rain and green apples. I’m not gonna lie, it’s harder to come back up than it was to come down here. I’m out of breath by the time I set her back in her chair.

“I wish your residual didn’t hurt so bad. I wanted to do some hiking today on the Virginia Kendall Ledges,” I manage to pant out, hands on my knees.

“You gonna make it there?”

“Yeah. I’ll be fine. You’re not even that heavy. It’s just a lot of stairs. I’m just fat and out of shape right now.”

“What are the Virginia Kendall Ledges?”

Standing up straight, I swat a mosquito out of my face and run a hand through my sweaty hair. I shouldn’t have worn a flannel today.

“It’s a series of trails that takes you around some cliffs, caves, and massive boulders. It’s just over two miles long.”

“Unfortunately, my leg wasn’t ready to cooperate today. Sorry Tuck.”

“It’s okay. You’ve been on it quite a bit lately. I’d be more concerned if it didn’t hurt.”

“It’s also my fault for not using it more. It wouldn’t hurt so much if I used it everyday. The wheelchair’s just easier to use. Much easier for getting around. Plus, the prosthetic is a pain in the ass to put on.”

“I’m surprised you don’t get phantom pain.”

Pushing herself forward with the wheels of her chair, she runs over a large stick, almost getting it caught in the spokes of the tire. “I did after I initially had surgery on it. It was this horrible, shooting, throbbing pain where my foot should have been. My physical therapist had me sit on the floor and use a mirror to create an illusion that my leg was still there. I used it for months. It eventually went away, but it still flares up now and then, especially when I’m tired,” she mumbles quietly.

“I used to have a buddy that did that. He said it worked pretty well. I also saw it once on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.”

“Don’t ruin it for me. I’m only on season four.”

“You’ve got a lot of catching up to do. There’s fourteen seasons right now.”

“Are you all caught up on it?”

I kick a rock out of my way, sticking my hands in my pockets. “Yeah. It used to be one of my favorite shows. Along with Sons of Anarchy and American Horror Story.”

She snickers, pulling out her ever present pack of cigarettes. “American Horror Story is my favorite. Murder House was the best season.”

“You’re wrong, Colonel Sanders. Coven is.”

“Shut up, Bobby. Stop cross referencing. Coven’s okay. I couldn’t get into Asylum.”

“Asylum was a little out there, but it was better than Hotel.”

“I’ll agree with you there. Murder House was still the best though,” she replies, blowing smoke.

We pass underneath a large canopy of trees on our left, a huge cliff face on our right. Soft green light filters through the trees. The sides of the cliff are mossy and smooth to the touch. She slowly rolls through, staring up into the branches and leaving a hazy trail of smoke for me to follow. In the light, she looks like an ethereal goddess, especially with her flaming auburn hair.

“I wish I could stay here. It’s so serene. But we should probably hit the road. It’s almost four,” she sighs, picking another leaf off of her lap.

“That’s fine with me. I don’t know why, but I’m ready for a nap.”

“I can drive. Where’s our next destination?”

“Niagara Falls, on the New York side.”

“Well, no shit Sherlock. I don’t have a passport.”

“What? You don’t want to visit Canada?”

“Not particularly. I like the US just fine.”

By the time we get on our way to Niagara Falls, it’s already almost five. I took a short nap in the truck on the way over, oblivious to the road flying past. After I woke up, I booked us a room at a Super 8, with free wifi and continental breakfast. Just the way I like it. Cj always rolls her eyes when I jump for the free breakfast, but for complaining so much, she sure likes the Belgian waffles a hell of a lot.

After I drag all of our stuff to our room, Cj crawls onto a bed and collapses on her stomach. Pushing up with her arms, she bends her back towards her foot.

“What are you doing?”

“Trying to crack my back. I have one spot that just won’t crack for me. It hasn’t for a couple of months now.”

“It looks more like gymnastics to me.”

“Shut up Tucker.”

The bottom of her black tank top rides up, exposing a small strip of skin just above her hip bones. There’s what looks like a black and grey dragon tattoo sliding across the the flat of her stomach, the head disappearing somewhere by her breasts and the tail continuing downward towards her hips. I didn’t notice it the other day when she surprised me by the bathroom door, but it definitely has my attention now.

Rolling onto her back, she sits up, stripping off her green flannel and tossing it onto the floor by the bed before settling back onto her stomach and trying to arch her back again. Her breasts almost pop out of the bra she’s wearing today, the red lacy one I picked up for her at Walmart. A strip of red lace peeks out of her shorts, and it’s all I can do not to moan in front of her. I’ve gotta get out of here.

Feeling the heat flood towards my face, I grab the truck and hotel keys off of the entertainment center and head for the door. Unfortunately, she sees me trying to leave.

“Hey. Where are you going? I thought you wanted to grab dinner.”

Flinging open the hotel door, I turn my head fractionally before heading out. “Forgot something in the truck. Be back in a bit.”

Unlocking the truck, I swing into the driver’s seat and grab Cj’s unopened pack of cigarettes, tearing the cellophane off and popping it in my mouth. I roll down the window, leaning my head back and exhaling the smoke. I try to think of anything but Cj, but it’s hard to with the smell of her vanilla perfume in the truck. My rock hard erection apparently isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

The clock on the dash says that it’s almost nine thirty, and there’s no sight of the stars anywhere in the sky due to all of the light pollution in the city. For a second, I’m homesick for Virginia.

Colt and I used to lay out in the backyard and watch the stars come up before Ma would call us in to get ready for bed, back before the drugs ruined his life. Colt was always interested in astrology. He’d point out all of the constellations in the late summer skies, everything from the easily identifiable Big Dipper to the harder ones, like Andromeda or Pegasus. He always used to  tease me for not being able to tell what was what.

Taking another drag, I flick the ash out of the window, reflecting back on my brother. He’d love to be on this trip with Cj and I. His favorite thing to do was to drive around town on Friday and Saturday nights, seeing what everyone was up to. Sometimes, he’d take me along with him. We’d bum on the backroads and listen to Hank Williams and Marty Robbins. Colt would always talk about being out on the open road on those nights, how he wanted to get the hell out of town and never come back. He’d reach over and ruffle my hair, smiling to himself.

God, I miss those nights now. I’d give anything to have him back.

Finishing the cigarette, I stub it out on the top of an empty Coke can and head back inside. Now that I’m thinking with the right head, I notice that it’s warm and humid in the hallways. There must be a pool somewhere.

Unlocking the door to our room, it’s noticeably cooler once I step inside. Cj’s currently in her chair, trying to consolidate all of our bags in one corner of the room. Hearing the door shut, she turns to face me. She’s got her flannel back on, rolled at the elbows. The bra I bought must have been a push up bra, because her breasts look about the size of cantaloupes. Not that I’m complaining.

“What’d you forget in the truck?”

“My wallet.”

“You were out there for an awfully long time.”

“Couldn’t find it.”

“You smell like smoke and you’re a shitty liar.”

“I really couldn’t find my wallet. Decided to have a cigarette while I was out there.”

“Mhmmmm.”

Cj decides on TGI Friday’s for supper within two minutes of me asking, which is a small miracle in itself. Normally, it takes her about twenty minutes to figure out what she wants to eat. I’m not picky myself, but she is. So far, I’ve found out she won’t eat cottage cheese, olives, tomatoes, cotto salami, bologna, avocados, scallops, oysters, broccoli, carrots, or liver.

She orders an appetizer right off the bat, going for onion rings. After that, she decides on the sirloin and shrimp while I order the New York Strip for myself. There’s almost no one else in the restaurant, so we have the whole place to ourselves. In the dim atmosphere, light glints off of a nose ring I never noticed before.

“When did you get that done?”

“What?”

“Your nose pierced.”

She leans back in the booth, twirling a lock of her hair around a finger. “I was seventeen. I’d been begging my ma for months to get it done. She’s a super conservative Christian, so it was a no go for a long time. The Madrigals, the singing group I was a part of, were down in Eau Claire to sing at the Oakwood Mall in December, right before Christmas. Ma had come down to watch the performance. My birthday’s in January, so she surprised me by taking me to a piercing place to get it done after we were finished singing.”

I take a drink of my Coke. “How many more do you have?”

“Piercings? I was up to nineteen at one point.”

“Holy hell. Where?”

“Well, I’ve got two in my nose, eight in one ear, five in the other, and my nipples pierced right now. I used to have my tongue and eyebrow pierced, but the eyebrow migrated too much and I forgot to put my tongue ring back in after a dentist appointment one time. Do you only have your lobes stretched?”

“Yeah. I started that after I got out of the Marines.”

“What possessed you to do that?”

I shrug, glancing around the restaurant. “Thought it looked cool.”

“What size are you at?”

“00g. What about you?”

“Same here. I didn’t want to go much bigger. I want them to be able to close shut if I ever don’t like them anymore.”

“Ahhhh. What made you want all of the rods and rings?”

Picking up a drink menu, she begins flipping through it. “Self confidence thing. I’ve always found the look attractive. Plus, I’m a sucker for pain. I’m a little weird like that.”

The waitress appears then, gently setting our meal down in front of us. She grabs my empty Coke glass and disappears behind the bar.

Selecting my fork and knife, I start cutting through my steak. It’s perfectly pink in the center, almost red. “We’re all a little weird in our own ways.”

She pokes at a shrimp before popping it in her mouth. “You called me sadistic a couple of days ago. I think I’m more masochistic than anything.”

“You derive sexual pleasure from pain?”

“I wouldn’t know. I’ve never had sex,” she mumbles into her plate.

“Oh. I’m surprised you know what that means then.”

Rolling her eyes, she begins cutting up her steak. “I might be a virgin, but that doesn’t mean I’m completely innocent. It’s not like I’ve never seen porn before. I’ve probably watched things that would make you blush down to your toes.”

“I don’t watch it. I wouldn’t know.”

She stops cutting, looking up at me. “Seriously? You’re a guy.”

“Yeah. A guy that doesn’t watch it.”

“Why?”

Shifting uncomfortably, I cut up the rest of my steak before I give her an answer. For the second time tonight, I’ve got a rock hard boner. Anymore, and this woman is going to give me blue balls.

“I don’t watch it because of a personal choice. I think it’s degrading and not a realistic expectation of how people… make love.”

“It’s not making love. It’s just fucking.”

“Yeah, and I don’t believe that’s how God wanted a relationship between a man and a woman. I’d watch it if I really wanted a cheap thrill, but I just don’t. I’ve been looking my whole life for one woman to love. She might be in my imagination, but she’s not going to be on a screen.”

“So what does the right woman look and act like in your mind?”

You flashes through my mind momentarily before I dismiss the thought. It’d be vastly inappropriate to tell her how I feel about her here, or anywhere else on the trip.

“Looks don’t matter that much to me. You can have a woman that looks like a ten, but’s dumber than a box of rocks or has an ugly personality. When I look for a woman, she’s gotta have a killer sense of humor. If you can’t laugh in life, it’s going to be dull. Intelligence runs a close second, followed by kindness, a sense of compassion, loyalty, and a set of values similar to my own.”

“So you basically want a lab or golden retriever?”

Crumpling up the wrapper to my straw, I flick it at her. It lands in her lemonade and she scowls at me, trying to fish it out. “I was hoping for an actual woman, but I might have to settle for a dog. They’re man’s best friend, right?”

“You can’t go through life just having a dog. I mean, I have Stewie, but he’s pretty self sufficient. I’m not gonna lie, before you came along three months ago, my life was pretty boring.”

“It couldn’t have been that bad.”

Finishing her meal, she puts the silverware on top of her plate, along with her napkin and other assorted garbage from the table. She takes a drink of her lemonade before she responds.

“It really was though. I woke up everyday, made a pot of coffee, smoked a cigarette, and read most of the morning before spending some time on my laptop or watching a movie. That was my routine, every single day. The only time someone would try to talk to me was if I visited Joe or if I had to grab something in town and I saw my mother. I don’t mind being alone, but I hate being lonely,” she whispers quietly to her plate.

My heart throbs dully in my chest. I wish I could reach across the table and take her hand without it seeming weird, but I feel like it would. This woman has been through so much crap in her life. Now I can add social isolation to the growing list of problems that she has going. How Cj hasn’t gone completely insane yet is beyond my comprehension.

“Well, you’re not alone now. You have me, if it’s any consolation.”

“I know, but I could be in a crowded room and still feel alone. It doesn’t matter how many people are by me. You make it slightly better.”

“That might be the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

She takes a last drink of her lemonade before sliding out of the booth and into her wheelchair. “I wouldn’t get too used to it if I was you. I’m not always nice.”

 


Submitted: July 10, 2018

© Copyright 2023 A. R. Currson. All rights reserved.

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