Drew yanked the price tag off the tent he had picked up that morning at the Walmart Supercenter in Fayetteville. He and Kelly, his girlfriend, were camping at Devil’s Den. Kelly’s friend from work, Ashley, and her husband, Jeremy, had invited them. Drew had moved into Kelly’s house a few months previous, when it was still summer. Now that the temperatures had cooled slightly, the idea of sleeping in a tent seemed tolerable. When Kelly had presented the camping invitation to Drew, she had used catchphrases like “free spirit” and “primitive side,” which Drew took as exciting innuendoes.
Images of skinny dipping, sleeping naked, and smoking pot around a campfire danced in Drew’s head like a trio of sugarplum fairies. Drew thought the wooded hills and valleys of northeastern Arkansas were a tight backdrop for a weekend of debauchery, which was just enough motivation to get him off the couch and away from FIFA Soccer 12 and the Xbox 360 for a weekend. What’s more, the recent months of cohabitation had grown monotonous. It was her house and her rules, even in bed, especially in bed. Monotony.
At the campsite, Drew had hoped for a more secluded spot, but the girls wanted to be within walking distance of a toilet. It seemed, however, that no one else would be camping nearby, so it was no big deal. Not that Drew really cared about privacy, but tent neighbors could be inconvenient if there were little kids or old people. The parents of young children and the elderly were always the first to make complaints about noise, drunkenness, or behavior frowned on by buzz killers with too much power.
“We’re going to check out the trails,” Kelly said to Drew, “while you guys set up camp.”
“All right. Now you girls be safe,” he said, putting his hands on his hips like his mom would do. “And do some gathering while you’re at it,” he grunted.
Kelly rolled her eyes, but Ashley laughed and said, “Oh! You are too funny!”
Drew compared the girls’ figures as they walked away. Kelly’s legs were longer, but Ashley’s were more toned with the popping swell of a firm calf muscle, and she had larger breasts. He thought for a minute about the pot he had picked up earlier that week, his reward for an entire year of abstinence. The question was, could he tempt his fellow campers to partake?
He had met Kelly around the time he quit getting high. It had come up in discussion that she had never tried anything, not even pot, and she was unaware that he ever had either. “I’m what you call a straight arrow,” he had told her. But if he could talk her into it, then anything could happen. He thought about Ashley’s tits again. They seemed perkier than Kelly’s, firm beneath that white halter top.
“Want a hand with your tent?” Jeremy offered.
“Yeah. Thanks, man,” Drew said. “It’s been awhile since I’ve used one of these. I mean ¾ shit. I haven’t been camping since like ¾ I don’t know ¾ junior high.”
Jeremy took the tent parts from their carrying case and started snapping rods into place. “Ashley and I just started camping a couple years ago when we moved down here. Camping’s not really something we had much opportunity for in Pittsburgh. But here it’s like a given.”
“For sure, man. Arkansas’s beautiful. ‘The Natural State’ and all that.”
“You’re from here, right?”
“Yeah. The central part of the state. Little Rock. But I came up here to go to school.”
“Doing a graduate program?”
“Nah. Still finishing up undergrad. Doing a double science major, biology and chemistry.” Drew shrugged. “Honestly, I should have been done by now. I did my first semester up here at U of A, but I kinda had a little too much fun, so I went back home for a while, took some classes at UALR, and worked part time. I didn’t know what I wanted to study, you know? I started as a business major. But then I broke my hand and had to see an orthopedist. Then it just hit me. I knew I wanted to go to medical school. So I kept going to school part time and started working for Dr. Chadwick at the Central Arkansas Orthopedic Clinic.”
“That’s how you met Kelly?” Jeremy asked, running the rods through the tent.
“Yeah. She was still working in Little Rock, obviously, and finishing her nursing degree. So we worked together for like eight months. Then she said she was moving up to Fayetteville, and I decided that I needed to quit fooling around with only going to school part time, so I transferred back up here.”
Drew liked to make it sound easy, despite the hurdles. The university had stipulated he would have to pass a drug test and see a psychologist before reenrolling. That was their policy.
He vaguely recalled bright fluorescents passing over him, then voices, maybe, then waking up in the middle of the night and realizing that he was in a hospital room but, thankfully, still in his own clothes. He pulled the IV out and the wires off and walked out the front doors of the emergency clinic. He couldn’t remember where he had been when he blacked out, but he didn’t care as long as nothing came back to bite him in the ass. A day later, however, and to his dismay, his inbox had emails from university officials. Meetings followed. Then, in a formal letter, he was asked not to return the following semester. Not only was he failing the majority of his classes, but the University of Arkansas takes alcohol and drug abuse very seriously. He had been carted off on a gurney from his own dorm room after his roommate had discovered him face down in a pool of vomit. Drug abuse, he thought. He hadn’t even tried cocaine until after he got sent home. He blamed the U of A for the depression that caused him to go down that dark alley, the one his parents yanked him out of when they started taking him to support groups.
“Tent’s ready,” Jeremy said.
“Thanks, man. So you’re in sales, right?” Drew felt a surge of superiority when he asked. Sure he hadn’t finished school yet, but he wasn’t just going to be a salesman. People were going to respect him because of two little letters: M.D.
“Yep.” Jeremy said, taking a lighter and some cotton balls from a plastic bag. “I’m a regional sales rep for Rubbermaid.” He squatted over a preformed fire pit left by a previous camper. “Have you ever seen this? It’s a great trick. You soak cotton balls in Vaseline to make a fire starter.”
“How’s that supposed to work?” Drew asked, crossing his arms.
“The cotton is like a wick, and the Vaseline is like wax, so it burns long enough to get the fire going.”
“I’ll remember that little trick.” Drew thought about the pot. “Speaking of burning, you ever smoke?”
“Like what? Cigarettes?”
“No. I’m talking about something a little more medicinal. You know what I mean?”
“Oh! No, man.”
Drew was more frustrated than disappointed with this response.
“Not since I was in high school,” Jeremy added.
Opportunity after all, Drew thought. “Yeah, me either, man. But I have this friend who just like gave me some. I was like, ‘Dude, I don’t do that. I’m trying to get into medical school.’ But then I thought that since we were camping and all, it might not be such a bad idea. Kelly said she wanted to let loose this weekend. Could be fun.” Drew watched Jeremy’s face, searching for the wavering expression of someone who might cave to peer pressure.
“I really don’t want to do something that could piss my wife off.”
“All right, man. No pressure. But she could be chill about it?”
“Yeah. We’ll see about that. They’ve got to take periodic drug tests at work, I think.”
Drew didn’t want to push too hard too fast. He saw the large cooler full of Miller Highlife Jeremy had brought and knew he was dealing with someone who, at the very least, wasn’t a total douche. Drew remained confident in his party-starting abilities.
At their return, the girls announced they had found some nice trails.
“Would you guys rather see the waterfall or the covered bridge?” Ashley asked.
“Is there a place to swim?” Drew asked.
“There’s a pond under the waterfall, but it’s not very deep,” Kelly said.
“But we could still wade in it,” Ashley added.
“Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner,” Drew said, successfully catching a grin from Ashley. Nice teeth, he thought.
The couples each went to their cars for hiking supplies. Drew saw Jeremy loading his cargo pockets with beer. Game on. He put a fifth of vodka in his own backpack.
“I certainly hope you put some water bottles in there too,” Kelly said, arms crossed, head cocked.
“Don’t you worry, baby,” he said. “I’ll keep you hydrated.”
“Come on, baby,” he said, putting his arms around her. “What’s the matter, K-Y Jelly?”
“Shh! Would you not call me that in public?”
“What! Nobody heard. Come on, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” She sighed. “I don’t know. I’m just not in a good mood.”
“I can tell.” He held her an arm’s length away and lowered his face to her eyelevel. “Is this about somebody’s big three-O coming up?”
“Maybe. But you don’t have to be silly about it. Not everything has to be a joke.”
“I don’t think everything’s a joke.”
Jeremy and Ashley walked up to them. “You two ready?” Jeremy asked.
They walked without speaking for a while, listening only to the sounds of birds chirping and the crunch of trail gravel beneath their feet.
Last week, Kelly had said, “I can’t believe I’m about to turn thirty. I always used to think that by the time I was thirty I’d be married with two kids.”
“Don’t worry,” Drew had said. “There’s still plenty of time for that later on. Besides, you don’t want to marry just anyone. That’s why you’re with me, right? And don’t you think it would be a good idea for me to start medical school before we start thinking about the M-word?” Marriage was a commitment he felt was at least a decade away.
“That seems like such a long time to wait,” she said.
“I only have three semesters left to go of undergrad,” he assured her. “Don’t worry.”
But that was just before he decided to double major, hoping that would help compensate for his less than impressive grade point average. Now he would be in school an additional two semesters. With two and a half years left in his undergraduate career, he decided to put off taking the MCAT. When Kelly objected he had said, “How can I expect you to be supportive while I’m in medical school, if you can’t even deal with what I have to do to get in?” She had been quiet about it after that.
At the sound of rushing water, Drew quickened his pace. He threw Kelly over his shoulder and started running for the pool beneath the cascade. “Put me down!” she squealed with delight. He knew how to fix her mood. Attention is to females as catnip is to felines. He glanced in Ashley’s direction to see if she was watching.
Drew cradled Kelly in his arms and spun around and around in the shallows of the pond until he plopped down on his ass. He continued to hold her and tickle her until she yelled, “If you don’t stop, I’m going to pee on you!” Her cheeks pinked above an uncontrollable smile. Sweet success.
Jeremy distributed a round of beers. When the Highlife was gone, Drew opened the vodka and threw the cap into the woods. “Now we have to finish it,” he said. “How ‘bout a game of Never Have I Ever to make it go faster?”
It looked like Jeremy was about to object, but Ashley said, “I guess we could play a few rounds. But just a few. Otherwise, we’ll be too drunk to make it back to camp.” She laughed. “Though Kelly can be our DG—designated guide.”
Kelly frowned. Drew wished she’d lighten up.
“Why don’t you do the honors.” Drew passed the bottle to Ashley with a wink.
“Okay… Never have I ever ¾ forgotten my own phone number!” She took a drink. Everyone laughed, but none of the others drank. “Guess I’m the only one,” she said.
“I’ll go,” Jeremy said. “Never have I ever gotten kicked out of a bar.” He took a pull. The bottle went around. Drew drank, but neither of the girls did.
Kelly took the bottle. “Never have I ever given out a fake phone number.” Everyone drank.
Drew took his turn. “Never have I ever gone skinny dipping.” Everyone drank, again. Drew kept the bottle. “Never have I ever cheated on a significant other.” No one made any admissions here. “Okay then, never have I ever been high.” Drew took a sip, then he handed the bottle to Jeremy, who drank, as did Ashley. Kelly didn’t. “Seriously?” Drew asked her. “Not even once, like in high school even?”
“Seriously,” she said. “We’ve talked about this before, and I thought you said you’d never done any drugs.”
“Pot’s not really a drug.”
“Not in California,” he said, imitating a surfer dude. Ashley let out a howl and even Jeremy chortled. “You know what,” Drew continued, “I think you should try it.” He pulled a small Ziploc bag and a pipe from his backpack.
Kelly’s expression suddenly reminded him of the look his mother gave him on rare occasions, like the time he got caught cheating on a test in the fifth grade and had to have a conference with the principal, or like the time in junior high he got caught shoplifting with his friends in a swanky department story, or when he got sent home from college.
Kelly started marching back up the path. Drew followed her until they were alone. Kelly was not his mother. She would ultimately give him what he wanted. He was sure of it.
“What the hell?” she said. “Are you trying to embarrass me? You’re like a fucking teenager!”
“No. I’m like a college student trying to have a little fun with his girlfriend. Why do you have to be so pissy?” He watched her lips press into a thin line and regretted the question. He could swear she was about to breathe fire.
“Why am I pissy? My live-in boyfriend who’s about to turn twenty-five and still has two and a half years of college to finish wants to know why I’m pissy? This is the same guy I met a year ago who said he’d never done drugs and had me convinced that he had his life together. This is the same guy that lives with me free of charge and spends his extra time playing video games and drinking too much. I mean, you don’t even have a fucking part-time job!”
Drew held his hands up. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s just calm down a minute. Now, we’ve talked about some of this before.”
“I’m done talking.”
“Baby, that hurts. I let you finish your piece, let me say mine.” He took her silence as consent to continue. “I’m working my ass off in school, and I’m doing it for you. Do you think that double majoring is an easy thing? Because if you do, you’re mistaken, sorely mistaken. And about the pot, you’re the one who said you wanted to get in touch with your wild side or whatever. I was only thinking of you. And I didn’t go out of my way to get it. A guy I know from high school offered it to me for, like, helping him study.”
“Sure. Do you think I’m an idiot?”
“No. I think you’re really smart. I respect you. That’s why I’m with you.”
“I’m not lying! How can I make you see that I’m not lying? Listen. Just listen. I’ll get rid of the pot when we get back to camp, okay?”
Her face was like a stone.
“I promise,” he said, “I’ll get rid of it.”
So much for a good time in Devil’s Den.
* * *
Drew was on his best behavior for the next few days.
He decided the best course of action was to come clean with Kelly about his past. It had occurred to him that if she were to dump him, he wouldn’t have a place to stay in Fayetteville. His parents had made it clear they disapproved of his going back to the U of A when he could go to school in Little Rock, so they refused to give him money for living expenses. His only option would be to move back in with his parents.
Now, they’d have a talk. He thought it out ahead of time, the darkened room, tears in his eyes. Maybe make-up sex after?
He buried his face in his hands. “You know my life is chaotic. I’ve brought some of that on myself, but so much of it is because of this pressure I feel. A pressure to succeed. A pressure to live up to my family’s expectations. I mean, my brother is an attorney in D.C., and my sister is a veterinarian. I don’t want to be the one that screws up. I don’t want to be the joke at family reunions.
“And I promise you that I won’t be. I love you, and I want you to be proud of me, proud to have me in your life. And I know now more than ever that I need you because you challenge me to be a better person.” He pressed her hand to his chest. “Everything in here is for you. Can we work this out? Will you give me a chance to show you I’m serious about us and the future I want to build?”
“One last chance,” she said.
So Drew spent less time on the couch and made a point to study at the house in plain view with an impressive display of organic chemistry books spread out on the kitchen table. He started offering to do her laundry when he was doing his own. He even started cooking dinner a few nights a week. What fun it could be playing the role of Mr. Perfect. She’d get off her shift at the hospital and come home to a plate of pasta and a glass of red wine. And even when she was tired he could expect the possibility of sex because he was “just too wonderful.”
One night, some of his old high school friends came up to Fayetteville for a bachelor party. “I’ll only drink beer,” he said. “No drama. I promise. But I bet we’ll be out pretty late, so I’ll stay on Matt’s couch tonight. I don’t want to wake you up,” he said, kissing her on the head.
So all he drank was beer. He was sure of it. He was sure that all he had that night was beer. He was sure because it was the last thing he remembered drinking. He was sure of it when he woke up on the couch in Kelly’s living room. He was sure of it when he said, “Where’s my car?” after looking through the front window and not seeing it.
He was even sure of it when she said, “It’s in the backyard. You parked it there after managing to lose a side-view mirror and denting the passenger-side doors.”
“Shit. I don’t know what happened last night. I mean, I only drank beer. I swear.”
“What did you hit? A pole? A car? A human being?”
“I don’t know. I mean, I guess I could have sideswiped someone, or someone must have sideswiped me.”
“Probably the former.”
He studied her stony expression. He couldn’t detect the slightest look of sympathy or concern for him. It was a frighteningly stoic look.
He willed some tears. He really did feel like crying. “Kelly, come here.” He reached for her, but she stepped back. “I promise I’ll never do this again. I swear, baby. Just tell me, please tell me that we can move on from this.”
“Do you even care?”
“What do you mean? Of course I care. I let you down. I let myself down. I fucked up my car.”
“No. I mean do you care about the fact that you could have killed someone last night? Has checking the news for reports of a hit and run even occurred to you?”
“Hell! I just woke up. But I think if I had hit someone, I would remember.”
“No you wouldn’t. Because you don’t remember.”
His heart dropped like a rock to his stomach. He searched her face. Was she telling the truth or was she punishing him with a mind game? Surely he hadn’t actually hit someone. He probably hit a mailbox or something. He opened his mouth to speak, but she raised her hand to stop him.
He knew he’d be moving out soon. And if he had hit something, he hoped she wouldn’t tell anyone—that he could get out of it. It’s the least she could do for him, a guy with no place to go.