Laila cannot sleep with her feet dirty, so she pulls on Nick’s favorite sweatshirt — frayed at the wrists, ripped to a V at the collar — and tiptoes outside the tent. He pitched it at the top of the Little Basin campsite, where the sloping ground briefly plateaus. Burly redwoods and peeling eucalyptus split the moonlight into shadows that boogie with the autumn breeze, trying to trick Laila into thinking they are more substantial than her. The scuttling, scampering things they hide, things more easily avoided in the daytime, have never been welcoming in the three years she has followed Nick here. Yet she grabs a folding chair and continues downhill undeterred, crunching leaves crisp and tan with age, beneath her boots. Her breath bursts free in ghost-white gusts as she slip-slides through a puddle, the same damn puddle responsible for muddying her hiking boots earlier. Off-balance, she nearly careens down the hill, and Nick would laugh at her if he were awake. You can’t expect cleanliness while communing with nature, he would say. But she cannot sleep with the grit rubbing between her toes like sandpaper, a grit allowed to grow unchecked for two days while the campsite shower — a doorless stall of cracked concrete and mold — remains out of order. So she steadies herself and marches to the spigot.
Nick inserted himself into her life three years ago atop another, much cleaner hill in the city. Laila was treating herself to afternoon tea at the Fairmont when Nick placed his business card on her table and pleaded for her to call his cellphone once he sat down. He wasn’t hitting on her, he said, but would pretend they were involved when she called. Granting him this favor, he said, would save his life. Before Laila could answer, he walked across the ballroom to a table beside the harpist, and sat facing a much younger woman. Only the woman’s profile could be glimpsed: a proud nose, a plush mouth, and an enviable daintiness. Nick looked more illustrious next to his date, like a jewel polished and pedestaled for maximum brilliance. She studied them awhile, the way the young woman reached out to him, tilting her head in adoration, as he leaned back in his chair, hiding his hands in his lap. His cellphone stood out like an ink spot on the white tablecloth; a guilty thrill pulsed through Laila. She called him: “Don’t break up with her. Finding someone who loves you is a rare thing. Believe me.” He hesitated, before replying: “You’re right. Love is a rarity, and my fiancée loves another man more than me. But she won’t admit it until she knows you’re real. Would you mind introducing yourself to her?” He extended the phone to his fiancée, who shrieked and poured her pot of tea over it. Despite the steam rising from his hand, he barely flinched, and Laila marveled at his strength.
Yet she stopped recounting the story of her first meeting Nick after her coworker — a recent divorcée — asked, “Have you ever wondered what happened to the woman he left so callously for you? Whether the accusations laid against her were true? Men do strange things when they don’t want to marry someone anymore.”
Laila imagines holding a steaming cup of Darjeeling in her hands — tingling toward cold-induced numbness — while untying a boot. Soon the mushroomy stench of damp wood overpowers any thought of warmth and her fingers curl protectively into crab claws. Claws, she learns, cannot pull stiff boots off easily; she breaks three crimson-lacquered nails in the struggle. Three nails, one for each year she’d loved Nick and been certain he loved her. But what about that other woman? Nick only mentioned her once, on Laila’s first trip to Little Basin, to say that his ex never went camping or hiking or did anything requiring too much exertion outside of a gym in all their seven years together. And now, because of love, Laila prepares to clean her dirty feet with what will be freezing water at the bottom of a hill in near darkness in Little Basin. As her stiff fingers attempt to retrieve a clean washcloth, somehow it catapults from her pocket and plops into a mud puddle around the spigot’s concrete base. The last two clean washcloths (there were five, but Nick used one for a flyswatter and the others for dishrags) are hidden inside her cosmetics bag. Retrieving another clean one would entail reshoeing her foot, trekking up the slick slope to the tent, battling to shed her boots (she cannot track dirt inside the tent — not that Nick could discern it from his own careless carryover), then reentering the wintry October night to repeat her journey down, down through the darkened wood, to the spigot. All under the pretense of not attracting more dirt along the way. She throws back her head and curses Little Basin.
She wore the boots only twice before, the last time on her third anniversary date with Nick. He had persuaded her to go on a nature walk beautified with spring wildflowers and appreciable views of the cities and rolling valley below. Not like the wooded trail he tricked her into laboring through two months before, where a sudden, chilling rain rendered her new athletic shoes a dingy, squishy mess and bestowed her with a flu-like cold. Not like the treacherous mountainside trail barely survived a few weeks later, which twisted her ankle horribly, despite the boots she wore. The nature walk, Nick promised, would be at a conversational pace with no ugly surprises. But their slow pace and the flowers did little to ameliorate what was really a death hike: 10 miles, most of it rocky uphill terrain, to Mount Diablo’s North Peak. When they set out in the early morning, she shivered from the wind rolling over her like an icy avalanche. By midday, only sweat shielded her from the glaring heat, a premature blast of summer. Startled by the close howl of a coyote, she almost stepped on a rattlesnake sunbathing beside the trail. She wanted to race down the mountain, but Nick pleaded with her to stay with him. The desperation in his eyes convinced her that a prize awaited her at the top. They continued hiking, and she began rubbing her left ring finger, imagining what he would say at the summit. Nick favored short, frank conversations over long, in-depth discussions, but perhaps a proposal would be different. He would extol her virtues, tease lovingly about her faults, and then say he knew she was his from the moment he saw her sipping tea. When they did reach the summit, he arranged an elaborate picnic over a blanket he laid on the ground. But that was the only surprise.
Laila substitutes Nick’s sweatshirt for the washcloth. After wetting the corner of a sleeve, she uses it to scour her right toes. With her knee tucked against her chest and her naked heel braced on the chair’s edge, she scrubs her foot red to counter the frigid water, tearing a hole in the fabric with her thumb. Her fingers enlarge the hole, yielding a pleasurable ripping sound, until her hand slips through. The light gray cotton has darkened with grime, so after reshoeing her clean foot, the other sleeve becomes the loofa sponge for her left foot. When she is finished, her feet throb as though they’ve endured a chemical peel and her arms shiver as the water leeches through the sweatshirt, which sports a second thumbhole. How will she explain the ruined sweatshirt to Nick, given her inability to explain little else to him? Not her hatred of the outdoors he relishes. Not her dismay at being the maid-of-honor at her last single girlfriend’s wedding next month. Not the dread at her upcoming birthday and dwindling childbearing years. Nor the fear she might have been married by now, had she ignored him at the Fairmont.
As she debates whether to fish the washcloth from the mud, a rattling catches her attention. Soft but insistent, the sound seems to encircle her, as if an earthquake is readying to split open the earth. Then the rattling escalates to a determined clang clang clang uphill, like her infant niece gaveling a cup on the table to demand more more more to eat. A loud sneeze — no; a wet snort, too deep to be Nick — interrupts the clanging. Her heart freezes. Laila looks uphill.
She recognizes the bear not by its physique, fur, or any other distinctive visual marker of its presence, but by the absence of anything else in its space. It is a hulking mass of darkness, like a living black hole, swallowing all the light around it. None of the bear facts Nick shared come to her mind except that the babies — no, cubs — stay with their mother for a few years. The possibility of a family mauling her, gutting her barren womb, feels so cruel, but there are no cubs nearby and the menacing size of it could only be carried by a “he.” And so he paws at the ground around the picnic table, wrangles with the food locker, then snorts in apparent frustration. Laila wonders desperately if her mind is playing tricks on her — raccoons grow big, don’ t they? — but the darkness turns its head — instinctively, she crouches, freezes, stifles a whimper — and his glowing amber eyes rove over her like searchlights. He snorts again and the air frosts like icy dragon fire around his large snout. Suddenly, his head lifts higher, then stills. He ambles toward the tent. Toward the stash of chocolate hiding in her cosmetics bag. Toward Nick.
Laila charges uphill — fighting the slick ground with her stubby left toes, shouting “No!” screaming “Nick!” then simply shrieking — but the bear throws her a trivial glance and refuses to stop. She slips, slams face-first into the dirt, grapples with the sludge, clambers toward Nick, but fails to rise fast enough. Halfway up, she remembers the boot clutched in her left hand and hurls it at the bear. It flies between the predator and the tent. Uselessly, she fears. Until the bear halts, shreds the ground, then raises onto his back legs. His eyes pinpoint her like lasers and he growls.
A long whistle issues from the tent, and Nick steps out, his long johns thinning down his lanky build to a worrisome vulnerability. Laila cries as he waves his outstretched arms crazily and calls to the bear looming ten feet away from him. Death drops to all fours, growling, and Nick flings something far into the woods. The bear lifts his head, snorts, then gallops after it.
Nick sprints downhill, jingling car keys, skiing over the slippery spots with his socks, to Laila. Hand-in-hand, they run past the spigot, down the trail leading to the bathroom, down the adjacent staircase two steps at a time, to the asphalt parking lot. As they race to the car, Nick unlocks it remotely, and when they jump inside Laila cannot remember being happier. They are alive. Cold and dirty, but alive.
“You only hide food with your makeup, right?” he asks.
His soft demeanor shames her though she knows he doesn’t intend to do so. Her face reddens as she nods. “Sorry for not taking your rules seriously.”
Nick grasps her and kisses her fiercely before starting the car, presumably to warm them. His face now wears the same forest floor sprinkling as hers. “We can sleep in here tonight. I’ll pack up the camp as soon as it gets light out.”
“We’ll go together.”
He glances at her feet, roars with laughter, then looks thoughtful. “I’ve got an extra pair of socks somewhere in here. Let me get them for you.” He reaches under the driver’s seat and retrieves a burgundy velvet box. Inside, mounted on a platinum band, is a tiny star.
Laila’s hand trembles as he slides the ring onto her mud-crusted finger. The longer she gazes at the brilliance, the greater it grows, bathing Nick in penumbral perfection, eclipsing the shadows of Little Basin with fervent light.