I can still remember the first time I went hiking there. It was fall—November to be exact--the smell of soon-to-fall snow thick in the air, the wet leaves sticking to my shoes and filling my nostrils with the delicious scent of autumn. The woods were radiant reds, dazzling yellows, glittering oranges, with just a touch of the earthy green left over from summer. I could see deer tracks patterned intricately into the mud of the trail as I stepped over them, careful not to disturb an inch of their complexity. Every once in a while a blue-black butterfly floated by, not caring that winter was on its way and that the air would soon turn cruelly cold, but instead intent on finding the next sweet flower on which to feast.
It was my favorite place on earth. I hiked those woods all summer the next year, finding new paths what wound up into the hills, exploring them to my heart’s content. I loved the serenity of being surrounded by nature, the peaceful loneliness that I could wrap my being around, and the almost eerie silence that invaded my mind and pushed out my thoughts. It was here, and only here, that I could truly be alone.
There was a stream running through the woods. During rainy season, I suppose it could become more of a river, but it’s best when it’s a stream. The clean, fresh smell of renewal possessed me here, making me whole and giving me the energy to face another day. I could see the tiny minnows swimming around, trying in vain to trap a waterbug for dinner. The birds, so many birds, peering out from their hiding places in the trees, waited for me to pass so they could have their shot at the minnows. Rocks of all shapes and sizes, green with moss, laid undisturbed as the water slowly meandered over and around, hurrying for nothing. The occasional rustle in the trees, probably some small animal climbing or jumping, was the only thing that broke the solitude I felt.
I took him there, many times. My best friend—some would say my first true love—shared this place with me. We were quite a pair, the two of us. I was almost obnoxious with my character, always the life of the party. He was just the opposite. He was quiet, and at first glance one would think he was shy. He always said that he didn’t have much to say, and if he did, he would speak. He didn’t feel the need to litter the world with meaningless words when there were plenty of people to do that for him. He changed when he was with me, though. We were always laughing, joking, truly enjoying the company of each other. Any silence that threatened to loom over our time together was quickly broken with a rush of words, spilling out of both our mouths as we found a new topic to discuss. That lasted until we walked into those woods. Then we fell silent, each of us content to be alone with our own thoughts. I always went barefoot, loving the feel of the cool, almost cold, water trickling over my feet, the slippery rocks as my steps. He wore shoes, and walked on the bank, chastising me relentlessly for being stupid, what if I fell? I would laugh, tell him that it wouldn’t be a big deal, so I’d get a little wet. He would shake his head, his shaggy brown hair falling back into its place, and continue to pick his way cautiously around the overgrown wildflowers and dirty rocks. Every once in a while I would pretend to stumble, looking mischievously at him as jumped to keep me from falling, and then chuckle to myself as he realized that I was poking fun at his overly cautious way of doing things.
So the two of us would walk, not talking, just smoking cigarettes stolen from my mother’s drawer, sometimes holding hands. Every once in a while I would glance at the rings of smoke as they climbed towards the clouds, wrinkling my nose as the smoke’s pungent tang tickled my nostrils. But then I’d feel his hand slip into mine, never sweaty, just cool and soothing. My heart would beat so fast when he held my hand. It was such a gesture of innocence, not meant to be romantic—but somehow, as I look back, it was quite possibly the most romantic thing ever. Two kids, barely eighteen, enjoying the comfortable silence that many pairs never reach. Two kids, content to just be with each other, not talking or laughing or joking around, but just walking and thinking. To this day, I don’t know what he thought of, nor do I care. All I know is that my thoughts flowed freely, the evils of teenage life escaped my mind for a few moments, and I could truly experience a taste of Heaven.
We brought a camera one time. I wanted a picture of the greatest place on earth, to hold near me when I slept, so that maybe my dreams wouldn’t be so strange. He wanted a picture of me. I sat on a log, right at the side of the stream, my bare feet splashing in the water and my jeans dirty, and he took my picture. He must have used an entire roll of film on me sitting on that stupid log, and I loved every second of it. Then, suddenly, the water had somewhere to be. It rushed over my feet, shocking me with its newfound energy, and I laughed. I felt something oddly cold on my back, then a rush of water came down the hill, toward my log, toward me. I didn’t move as it rushed over my back, my lap, my hair, soaking me. I simply laughed. He stood there, taking pictures, telling me that I was beautiful, that he’d never seen anything like it, or known anyone like me. He walked into the water, not caring that his worn black shoes were soaking through to his socks, that the water was creeping up his jeans, that we were a mess. He wanted a better picture. He wanted a picture of my laughter, my almost child-like delight, at the fact that I was completely soaked and without a towel.
I don’t know what it was about that place. It was in this place that we shared a stolen kiss, murmurs of devotion, a perfect friendship blooming into more. It was in this place that he touched my soul with his charm, stole my heart and made it his. In this place, everything was beautiful, everything was perfect, as it should be. I’m convinced that it is the memories of this place that made me want to love him when we left.
I still go, sometimes, if I’m feeling too crowded. I go to try and catch that solitude again, so I can gather my thoughts and be whole. I try to catch the perfection, if just for a fleeting instant, of my past. All I see now, though, is the dirty, rotting leaves littering the ground, lying still where they fell years before, untouched by anyone who cared. I see the bare branches of winter trees, lonesome and ghoulish as they sway in yet another cold burst of wind. The air, no longer clean and crisp, is tainted by the smoke from my lonesome cigarette as its acrid exhalation combines to make an off-key melody with the distasteful rotting of the logs and the stench of dead minnows floating downstream. I feel like those minnows, damning those ever evasive waterbugs that skim the surface but never touch down long enough to catch.
I know that I’ll never recapture those times. It was a fluke, a flaw in nature’s pattern, that allowed two kids to experience the depth of communication that he and I did. The communication that only happens when two souls truly meet, converse, and return, knowing that all is well. It was a blemish in plan, to allow me to fall in love with him in this place. For outside of this place, where the world was gray and cold, stinking and nauseating, perfection is impossible. No matter how perfect he was in this place, in the outside world he was just as gray, just as boring, just as normal. Sometimes there is a fatal flaw in perfection. Sometimes, things are too good to last. Because when I expected the perfection to last, the meeting of souls to be an every day occurrence, I was disappointed. I allowed myself to be disappointed in him, in us, in what I thought it was that we had. We didn’t have anything, once we left this place. The surreal experiences that we had there can never be matched, and we will forever be chasing waterbugs.