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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Bigger Than Ourselves
We were in the woods and we were high the first time we heard the wolves. Before the wolves, we were in my living room, drinking Mexican Cokes with the windows open. It was the first warm day of spring, the pavement wet from all it was losing, and the curtains blew wild above the empty hardwood, simple white cotton with pink polka dots. I imagined them unfurling and piling up, small moments made large upon accumulation, the way a whole life can be lived, the way millions of people will live them. They reminded me of the flowers found on license plates—the ones with the Eastern Goldfinch—and that’s when Jason said it. He said, “It’s like you were made to live in this state.”
I think he meant because of the landscape—that must’ve been what it was. The pastoral scenes evoking significance, and how I’d embodied them even in my home décor. Everything I owned exerted a Terrence Malick-like ambience: photographs of trees with despondent branches, birds diving shallow and swooping smooth, the lavender linen shower curtain that steam enveloped every evening I bathed. Still, it made me think about “The Bigger Picture”—if maybe things were happening in one particular way and not another for a certain reason. And then, naturally, came this: What is meant to happen next?
We’d met a few months earlier, Jason and I, on the outdoor patio of a landmark bar. He was sipping a tallboy of domestic beer, his hair still wet and dark from a day spent by the pool, reading novels and watching women as they lowered themselves into tepid water. I liked him for no good reason, and liked him even more when I figured this out—liked how I could be in control of so many things, but not my feelings, not the person who stirred them. I wanted to do all of the dumbest of things: smoke beside him on bridges, watch the floodwaters rise. My allegiance, it seemed to me, was going to lie wherever it wanted to lie, and this, too, was sort of attractive. I was a person in control of so many things.
Still, it took us weeks to determine that we shared both a common origin and this particular narrative moment, both of us loading our Pennsylvanian lives into a vehicle and driving a thousand miles west because we were twenty-two and lonely, in need of something new. And a landscape was like a wardrobe: you adjusted as you moved.
That first night, he propped his elbows on the grated table until it left an imprint across his skin. “It’s like we’re living the same story,” he said. “Quick, what’s the place you most want to go?”
“Austin,” I said.
“Dallas,” he said.
“Close enough,” I said.
In some way, I think I needed it to be true: that in some small way, I was meant to be in that moment, proof that I could be significant to somebody who was not me.
In the woods, there was no wind. Everything was still. The grass was wet marsh, the weeds growing horizontal from months packed under Midwestern snow. Jason stood beside me, our shared friend just beside him, and while I could feel their static presence, hear their shallow breathing and mud-stuck boots, I had this idea, in the back of my mind, that I was the only one left alive. Like I was the last woman to inhabit the Earth.
“It looks like footage from a movie,” I said, implying the power lines and woods, inviting like in a poem.
“Like a drama,” Jason agreed. “Predictable characters,” then, “predictable plots.”
“Predictable romances,” I said. “Predictable endings. Scenes above love filmed dizzily across a beach.”
The mutual friend was of shared interest: her purple pants and big, empty house. She reminded us of a librarian and she spoke like a dictionary, like a foreign language translation site, coupling the things I knew so well in patterns I had to think about to understand. Her house was a series of rooms with yellow shag, planters drooping low from vintage barstools, their leaves so big and flat the cat would chew on them until he hacked. I liked her for her strangeness, her unpainted nails and simple hair, and when I was high or was not high, I wanted to know if I could be like her.
I’d met an edge of adoration, and wanted to see how far it stretched beyond.
From time to time, she spoke to us about existence as one of many simulations, our world a blinking cosmic hard drive, and I liked most to consider that concept. It made me terrifyingly ecstatic, how bad it could get if the plug got pulled.
But in the woods, I thought of my jeans—how they were wet and full of gravel, and what was the purpose of such a small detail if indeed we were living within a simulation? It demanded an unnatural level of attentiveness, and it was this more than anything that made me uncomfortable in the woods, in the world.
Dusk was fast approaching. The weed had been strong and hallucinatory, but there was no mistaking them once I heard them. “Those are wolves,” I said, “we’re hearing.”
I scanned the slim horizon, its gnarled forest, the trees twisting upwards towards the sky. Individually, I could trace their paths, but in their plentitude I got confused. Beneath our feet, I knew, their roots knotted deep into complex networks, and exactly like the wolves, just because we could not see them didn’t mean they weren’t there.
Our friend pulled a cattail from the soil, held it up, lithe, to the scarred blue sky. “They’re dogs,” she said, “just dogs.”
“I don’t think they’re wolves,” Jason said, but his subtle movements suggested otherwise. They were little things I was noticing: his backwards lean, his hesitation to turn. His boot—brown, well worn-in leather—sinking slow into the mud.
He was realizing for the first time, I think, that we were in no position to fight—wolves or dogs or otherwise, we were not invincible, or enough alone, and there would later be many things, including wolves, that would prove bigger than ourselves.
Whether or not it was wolves seems to me now arbitrary. Years passed, and of course we lived, but that’s not what really matters. What matters, I think, is this: it was fear I felt in those woods in the same way it would be fear for years to come. I’d been warned of this before I left, reminded that halfway across the country might as well be halfway across the world for all it mattered. When you’re alone, you are alone, and no amount of self-assurance or delusional thinking about parallelism is going to make the facts of your life all line up.
Simulation or no simulation, you are alone in your moment of terror.
“I’ll find someone,” I’d said, but in truth, I had no intention. The scaring was part of it, no, the scaring was all of it. If a plug was going to be pulled, I wanted to be in control of the movement that pulled it.
Months later, away from those woods, I read of a local woman who disappeared after setting out by herself. Her neighbors heard a chorus of distant, frenzied barking, later found her jacket, torn up, in the snow. So what does it matter, the choices we make? The lives we may or may not be living?
Regardless of whether our acts are or are not of our volition, let me be in love and in love with losing. Let me see how small I feel.
Amy Butcher is an essayist and short fiction writer whose work appears in The Paris Review, Salon, The Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, The North American Review, The Indiana Review, Fourth Genre, Vela and Brevity, among others. She earned her MFA from the University of Iowa and is the recipient of scholarships and awards from the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, the University of Iowa, Word Riot Inc., the Stanley Foundation for International Research, the Academy of American Poets, and Colgate University’s 2012-2013 Olive B. O’Connor Creative Writing Fellowship. More at amyebutcher.com.
Copyright © 2014 by Amy Butcher.