Updated: Apr 17
I hate camping. Bugs creep me out. There’s almost never a comfortable spot to sit or lay down. The smoke from the campfire seeks me out mercilessly until I choke and my eyes water. And the worst part…there’s no modern plumbing. So why do I keep going? Probably because if I didn’t my boyfriend would think I was up to something. It didn’t used to be that way but the sad part is that now he’s probably justified in worrying.
We were on our way to Vinefield Campground. Josh had set up another camping event with friends and I was coming along. Truthfully they were all people from work. The random assortment of teenagers and barely 21 year olds had all bonded over working at the computer store. They all felt superior being able to fix something that many people seemed to be confused about. I played at enjoying it. I didn’t like having to tear down computers that smelled of week old curry to find cockroaches packed into the corners. I didn’t like the way my hands would have scratches and cuts on them from the sharp metal edges and how my allergies would flare up from the dust caked inside the computer fans. But I didn’t have much choice so I learned how to fix computers and I did a damn good job of selling people what they needed, if not necessarily what they wanted.
How did I end up here? I seem to ask myself this question a lot, especially on the long car rides, when Josh is content to talk at me. I have mastered the art of nodding and making random sounds of affirmation. It pleases him when I agree with him. He can’t stand to be wrong and it’s not a great idea for me to be the source of his discontent. I swear he gets pleasure out of humiliating me in public. So I try not to give him any chances to do it.
He was telling me his latest scheme to make a fortune. Something about buying shitty broken down houses and instead of paying someone to fix them, renting them out for super cheap to whoever needed a roof with the contractual obligation that they also had to fix the place.
“Sounds great,” I said as I thought of a half dozen reasons why it would never work, least of which being his lack of drive to finish anything. He was a high school drop-out and I, in my infinite wisdom, had forgone attending any of the four universities that had offered me a scholarship to go to a community college part time while I helped him with his start up business.
I checked the pocket of my cargo pants to make sure I had a lighter for the fire. It was there. Just as it had been the last four times I checked. I knew it would be but I felt an odd compulsion to check on things like that. What if I had missed a hole in my pocket and it had slipped out or what if I imagined that I had grabbed the lighter? It didn’t hurt anything to check just to be safe.
Josh was going on about the houses still. He had seen some for under 20 thousand in a questionable neighborhood and he was going over all the money he could make by flipping the house once it was fixed up.
“What about the people living there?” I asked without thinking.
“What about them?” There was a hint of irritation threatening to turn nasty in his tone.
“Well…” I trailed off not wanting to push it. The night was early. Best not to risk it. We were about half way to our destination and I didn’t want him pulling over and threatening to make me walk home. At my silence he gave me a mean side glance and continued as if I hadn’t spoken. Why was I still here? Another good question. I rolled down the window to let in a little air feeling trapped and stifled. Sometimes it felt hard to breathe and it wasn’t just the stuffy little blue Camaro.
About 30 minutes later we arrived at the little Christian campground with its houses crowded far too close and its makeshift stop signs trying desperately to be officious but failing miserably at only waist height. The place gave me the creeps. As the blue Camaro inched down the one lane gravel roads I sank down into the bucket seat feeling for the lighter in my pocket again. It was still there.
We were quickly through the small campground and the tabernacle loomed silent and dark, the last structure before the empty activities fields that separated the development from the expanse of farmers’ fields beyond. The two large windows seemed to stare down at me, black unfeeling holes that tried to suck me in. I had a moment to try and think that I really wanted to look away but couldn’t and then we were past.
The too wide tires were moving over soft grass now instead of gravel. Josh hit the gas with unnecessary force and the sports car lurched forward. I gripped the door handle but he did this enough that I was ready for it. We careened towards the twenty foot hill that led to the fields below and I cringed as he turned the wheel and sent clumps of grass and dirt sideways with a high pitched laugh. God it was annoying. It really grated on my nerves.
“Come on.” He put the car in park and jumped out with a big grin on his face. Forcing a smile I opened the door and stepped out of the car stretching. The air felt cool on my stomach as my shirt lifted and I looked back the way we had come. Lights twinkled in the small trailer and mobile homes beyond the tabernacle. So many people having the quiet evening I longed for. Turning away I reached into the trunk of the Camaro as Josh started sifting bags around.
He was looking for the beer. I saved the bag of food before he toppled it onto the ground and picked up one of the sleeping bags, shoving it under my arm and snagging the other in my free hand. He had found the beer and was busy searching for the bottle opener he had carelessly thrown back there as we were leaving.
Another pair of headlights was coming towards us. It must be some of the other guys. Not wanting to stand around as they chatted about computers I went towards the old campsite making my way down the side of the hill carefully. Without fail, the bramble bushes snagged my cargo pants but I reached the bottom relatively unscathed.
I deposited the items near the edge of the last campfire site. The moon was giving off enough light to see by and I set about making the fire. Collecting twigs and placing them in a neat little cone shape I took papers out of the bag where I had shoved them and twisting them, jabbed them beneath the twigs. I reached into my pocket and my fingers wrapped around the lighter. Still there.
As I heard voices starting to come down the hill behind me I lit the fire. The flames caught the paper easily and began to char the twigs. I watched for a half second to make sure it wouldn’t go out before turning and grabbing some logs from where I knew we had left them last time. By the time the boys had arrived the fire was well under way.
Josh dropped the case of beer a good distance from the fire as the other boys set down coolers and sleeping bags. I waved at them and they each gave a greeting.
The two shortest there, Jeff and Matt, were chatting about some upcoming paintball tournament. I had been once to “the Desert” with them, an old abandoned industrial park with a sprawling sandy lot behind it. The kids would gather to play paintball or ride dirt bikes. After getting more than enough painful welts to last me a lifetime I had decided it was not the sport for me. Thankfully Josh had gotten bored of it as well after taking a paintball to the face.
The only other person that was 21 there besides me was a very good looking Mexican guy named Julio. We’d made out a couple of times but nothing serious had ever happened. He didn’t approve of Josh and how he treated me. Small wonder. I don’t know why I stayed. Julio smiled at me in greeting and I returned the smile warmly.
As more people filtered down the hill the circle around the fire grew and we started to break out skewers for hotdogs and marshmallows. The beer was passed around, some cheap crap like Pabst, I think. I hardly looked at the label. I didn’t care for beer so I nursed a single bottle while the boys downed bottle after bottle.
Julio had brought a case of Tecate, a Mexican beer he claimed was quite popular, and I tried one to be polite but it wasn’t my favorite. As the moon rose higher into the night sky the antics began. Someone started to set things on fire and thankfully it was nothing overly destructive.
I watched the flames of the bigger campfire sending embers up into the night sky, mesmerized by the lights. The coals beneath the logs were an enchanting web of purple and red. They looked almost like a web of jewels strewn across a fine powder. I could have stared at it all night, lost in the calming glow and the gentle sway of the dancing flames.
A cheer went up to the right causing me to tear my gaze away. Julio was doing hand stands on a cinder block in a ring of fire. I tried not to be impressed but I was. Stupid me. It was mostly the fire. I found it fascinating. It didn’t help that every time he did a hand stand his shirt slid down to expose his abs and chest. He did look really good.
Just when I was about to risk being the stick in the mud and tell them that the display was probably not the safest idea, Julio stopped and jumped back with a little skip and a grin. Everyone clapped. Our eyes met across the flames and I was glad it was so dark. My face felt flushed and it wasn’t from sitting so close to the camp fire. The crinkling around his eyes that accompanied his confident smile made me feel like he somehow knew despite the darkness.
I tore my eyes back to the fire as my heart thumped in my chest. Why was I such a coward? I could leave if I wanted to couldn’t I? Where would you go? Asked a small voice in my head born of years of living in fear. You’re an embarrassment and a failure. I wrapped my arms around myself and stared intently into the fire willing everyone to do something else and leave me alone despite the fact that no one was even near me. Do you want people to know that you’re weak? Better to stick with what you know. Safer that way. The voice receded but the last few words echoed in my head. Safer. Is this what being safe felt like? My stomach clenched. It felt more like fear than safety to me. Why was I so scared to leave?
I was jolted out of my own thoughts as a marshmallow thwacked into my shoulder. “Hey stupid are you deaf?” Josh was leering at me from a few feet away.
“What?” I asked confused. He must have said something that I missed and fear gripped my throat as my eyes darted around wondering what I was supposed to be doing.
“I said give me another beer. Jesus do I have to do everything?” Regardless of the fact that I had made him three hot dogs and brought him countless beers up until this point his words made me feel incredibly small as everyone turned their eyes on us with a mix of pity and something else. They had seen him do things like this before.
I always tried to salvage the situation by laughing it off or sticking up for him and saying he was just having a bad day for some reason or another. My words had begun to sound hollow even to myself and I could see in their faces that they didn’t believe me anymore but didn’t know how to help me.
The truth was that they couldn’t. I wasn’t ready to accept that I needed help. I thought I could fix it. That it was somehow my fault that this wasn’t working. If I just tried harder it would be good. I knew it would.
I scrambled to the cooler with a mumbled apology and got a beer for Josh, popping the top and handing it to him. Without a word of thanks he turned back to his conversation and picked up where he left off.
I saw Julio watching me with a crease in his brow and I looked away quickly. My gaze landed on Matt and Jeff. They were watching intently, their brows also furrowed. I was not going to cry. God I hated being embarrassed like this. I looked down at my hands willing the tears to stay back.
Just as I thought I would lose the fight another marshmallow came flying, this time from a different direction.
“En garde!” came the ridiculous battle cry. Matt was standing on a tree stump in a super hero pose. He was holding a bag of marshmallows menacingly and grinning devilishly. His brother shoved him off the log, stealing the bag of 'ammo' as Matt tried to keep from toppling to the ground. Startled I blinked, my previous embarrassment forgotten.
Jeff pulled out two marshmallows and let them fly with expert dexterity. The soft sweets pelted two people in the forehead and he continued mercilessly as they also picked up bags and took up the fight. I couldn’t help but smile as we got swept up in the childish game.
Soon we were pouring into the farmer’s field and more than marshmallows were flying. Thankfully this particular field was nothing more sinister than bell peppers. I was thoroughly enjoying myself as I ducked between the low plants laughing at the flying goodies and produce. It became a game to see who could peg the most people. I opted to stay low to the ground and avoid getting hit rather than hit more people and the strategy was working so far.
Then pain shot through my head as a bell pepper cracked open loudly as it hit my ear. The pain brought tears to my eyes and I bit my lip wincing, glad we were far enough from the fire that no one could see the tears welling in my eyes. The tears distorted my vision and I could see Josh standing maybe 20 feet away roaring with laughter.
He had hit me on purpose, not caring if it hurt me or not. He just wanted to win. Something snapped inside me as the tears finally spilled down my cheeks. I felt my hands form tight fists at my sides and a fierce scowl contorted my face in the darkness. He couldn’t see me, wasn’t paying attention, fully confident that he was in control of the situation.
He was wrong. I wanted to win. I desperately wanted to win. I just didn’t know what it was I wanted to win. But I sure as hell wasn’t going to back down tonight. Without taking my eyes off of him braying like a donkey I reached down and picked up a pepper. I moved as if in slow motion. All the fear and anger I had been pushing down for so long seemed to gather into a concentrated ball at the end of my arm, centered in that innocuous pepper clenched in my fingers like a grenade. As I snapped my arm forward everything came into stark focus, moving so fast I didn’t realize I had been holding my breath until I let it go.
The pepper flew through the air with a deadly accuracy and exploded in the center of Josh’s chest making him stagger from the force. When it hit him it shattered into pieces with a satisfying sound. A thin smile touched my lips and it widened, kindling something inside me as I watched his startled expression. He hadn’t expected that.
Good. For the first time in years I felt a sense of freedom. I was not nothing. The tiny voice that ridiculed me was gone. I could win. I was going to win. And nothing was going to stop me now.