All the old tales are timely again.
Edification – Newsletter #106 – May 5, 2022
Happy Sunday, and happy Mother’s Day to all who celebrate it.
Today I share a lengthier creative nonfiction piece called “Lost In the Woods,” originally published by Hive Avenue Literary. A content warning: this piece does talk about abortion, as well as mentioning suicide.
It’s not the first piece I’ve written on this time in my life, nor will it be my last. But given the news of the Supreme Court’s planned overturning of Roe v. Wade, I’ve found myself thinking so much about it in the last week that I thought I should share something with you now. Deep breath…
Lost In the Woods
The first argument of my first marriage unfolded in an illegal dump site we found after getting lost for hours in the woods. Josh led the way along a limestone creekbed like a conquistador, as confident as he was delusional. I followed along dutifully, hoping the creek would lead us to a slab bridge on the road that ran alongside our newly rented house. Instead, we happened into a mound of still-stinking garbage. The argument exploded when I stooped to inspect the trash and discovered spectacular fossils spilling out of the limestone. I can still hear Josh gasp. “Are you trying to get us shot?” This was private property, not like the vast tracts of national forest we’d left behind in Eastern Kentucky. Out here we were trespassing.
It was a moment so freighted with of all the elements that would sour our marriage that when I recall it now, two decades later, I text Josh to ask about it. “Remember arguing in that dump?”
He responds within the minute, seemingly just as headstrong as ever: “I have no idea how that happened, lol,” he writes. “I very rarely get lost.”
It was a landslide spring. Josh and I were finishing up our undergrad programs and had just gotten engaged. Everything was going well until his mother Mary committed suicide. She died the first week of May in 2000 and it was as if our new world collapsed around us.
Josh was inconsolable, but I tried to console him anyway. We skipped final exams together, camped on the fishy mud beside a lake in the Daniel Boone National Forest. We drank heavily, made desperate love, played guitar all night. We lost our jobs and friends almost like we forgot about them. He spent hours picking the shoreline clean to perfect his cartoonishly exaggerated rock-skipping technique. In the midst of it all, I got pregnant.
So Josh and I did what many young people in Eastern Kentucky do when troubles come: we ran away. Or: we ran as far as we could get on the money we had, which was two hours to the north.
We rented a converted garage outside Burlington, Kentucky, a tiny town minutes from the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport near the Ohio River. We lied to the religious landlady and said we were already married, and I signed the lease with my future name. It wasn’t lying, it was time travel. We dropped by a pawn shop that same afternoon and bought a pair of wedding bands with a history of God knew what. The gleam of the rings on our entwined fingers both exhilarated and scared me.
My mother cried when we tethered my mattress to the top of Josh’s station wagon. She followed us to the driveway and hugged me helplessly. When she hugged Josh, too, he burst into great shuddering sobs. It was the closest to a mother’s hug he would ever have again. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” she said, smiling through her own tears at the two of us. Then she pressed a Betty Crocker cookbook into my hands and, leaning in conspiratorially, whispered that her dumpling recipe was tucked into the back. We were on our way.
The following week we returned to finish the move and my mother convinced her Baptist preacher to open his church for us the morning of his own wedding anniversary. We were married with my mother standing as bridesmaid and Josh’s father, Roger – in a flannel shirt and steel-toed work boots – our best man on the shortest of notice. I recited the standard Baptist vows just as they were dictated to me, my face burning at “to honor and obey.” The preacher’s wife cried in the front pew. After our brief ceremony I gave her the irises my mother cut from the yard and wished her happy thirtieth anniversary. “Harold never does this,” she told me. “I’ve got a good feeling about you two.” Although I wasn’t religious, I took the unearned optimism of these Baptists as a kind of parting mountain blessing.
We skidded into married life. Josh pawned his video games to buy a suit for job interviews. A sharp computer science grad, he soon landed a night job working at a technology company in downtown Cincinnati.
I found myself spending a lot of time alone, contending with a most unwelcome morning sickness. I had no idea how far along I was when I finally realized I was pregnant, since I’d never had regular periods. I was painfully aware of my bumpkin ignorance as I took the first pregnancy test of my life. I stared in disbelief as the blue line appeared, even I knew all along that it would.
Realization sinks in spinning, skipped across a lake like a rock that’s not quite ready to drop when it slices through the water’s surface. Never quite ready for the drop. If Josh’s mother hadn’t died, this wouldn’t have happened. If I’d been less reckless, more responsible, healthier. If I’d listened to my mother and finished up my school work instead of camping, instead of indulging my boyfriend’s incendiary grief, or guilt, or mental breakdown. If Josh had maintained a better relationship with his mother, checked in with her more, gotten her the meds she needed. So many ifs, spinning that rock into the murk.
All I knew was I weighed barely a hundred pounds, couldn’t keep food down, and I was afraid of what all that drinking and crying had done to the baby. I was disappearing. I needed more time. Grief took up all our time and space.
Along with my morning sickness, the third shift grind exerted a new stress. If Josh wasn’t working, he was sleeping. I went from a house full of siblings and playing guitar in a band to spending my days barely speaking. At all hours, the rumble of jumbo jets shook the house as if to remind me of a busy world out there, moving on without me.
We had no phone, no internet, just a television that picked up the Cincinnati stations. Network TV was new to me, having come from a hilljack town with precisely two channels: PBS and the local public access station. The television began keeping me company while I ate crackers and vomited them right back out and into a bucket.
Gradually, gradually, gradually, it dawned on me: I didn’t have to have this baby. We were living far from home. No one even knew. There would be no witnesses.
I stopped Josh at the door on his way to the car one evening. If we were going to have a child, let us do it consciously, I said. Let us try again later, when we’re in a better situation. Relief flashed over his face, but then he said we’d have talk about it more and he had to get to work. “Whatever you want to do,” he told me over his shoulder. He didn’t want to weigh in on the decision. He wanted it to be mine. I felt less empowered than isolated with an awful responsibility.
The next day, we went to the library to access the internet. Since there were no abortion providers in the eastern half of Kentucky, we researched providers in Ohio. At a payphone outside a Dollar General, Josh dialed the number for a Cincinnati abortion clinic. A woman answered and, in a gruff voice, told him to hand the phone to me and get out earshot.
“Are you alone?” the woman asked me.
I turned away from Josh’s insulted expression. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Are you talking of your own free will?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said again, and made an appointment for a preliminary visit.
Exactly one week later, Josh and I pulled up to a tiny wood-shingled building that resembled a dentist’s office in a residential Cincinnati neighborhood. A group of religious protesters bearing brimstone signs began praying loudly over me and trying to touch my stomach. “Don’t do it!” a woman cried, her voice cracking.
We clambered up the steps and pressed a button beside a reinforced door. A slot slid open and I was asked my appointment number like it was a secret password. A series of deadbolts chunked and we were ushered in. Josh asked, “Can’t you call the cops?”
“Don’t acknowledge them,” a woman scowled, addressing me instead of him. Josh crossed his arms and huffed into a metal folding chair by the door.
I filled out paperwork, then submitted to legally mandated psychological counseling. “Religious beliefs? Do you have a support system? Are you being abused or neglected? Any thoughts of self-harm?” The questions were more difficult to answer than I anticipated. My new husband was not beside me to tell me the right things to say.
Afterward, I had an ultrasound on a stretcher in a hallway. “I have to offer to show you this,” the clinician apologized, her hand hesitating on the monitor. “Would you like to see?” When I nodded, she turned the grainy screen toward me. It was difficult to make out anything resembling a baby.
“Can you tell if it’s a boy or girl?” I asked, naïve about fetal development.
“It’s too early to tell that. You’re only nine or ten weeks,” she said. With a flicker of a smile, she added, “Good timing for you.” I did the math, backdating conception to one of our wild whisky nights at the lake. Our poor baby, not yet a boy or girl – just a heart bubbling away on the monitor like an air pocket in brackish water.
We were to return the next day for the procedure. At the front desk, we were issued a handwritten bill for $589 with no description of the services being provided. Costs were out-of-pocket, though we had no health insurance anyway. Josh pulled out his Discover card and the woman shook her head. “Bring a check or cash tomorrow,” she said. That night we pawned our guitars.
The second visit moved more swiftly under the weight of a decision made. We pushed through the religious zealots, sat with several other patients whose eyes flicked pityingly, questioningly over my face – I was the only woman accompanied by a man – and then I went alone into a gynecological exam room for the procedure. An elderly male doctor introduced himself. He briefly explained what he was going to do with a small tube that he swiveled between his thumb and forefinger. Then he inserted a speculum into my vagina and cranked me open. The pain was brief, a moment to forget.
“You have a yeast infection,” he informed me as he helped me sit up.
“I’m sorry,” I said, ashamed.
“It’s common if you eat a lot of candy or drink a lot of alcohol, you understand.” He raised his eyebrows over his glasses and spoke slowly, the way people tended to do once they heard my hillbilly drawl. “I’ll write you a prescription for that along with the birth control, but please take care of yourself and don’t ignore a fever or bad bleeding. Listen to your body. You will be feeling a lot better soon.” I nodded, feeling every bit as meek and ignorant as I must have appeared to him.
My morning sickness vanished instantly. In fact, my appetite raged so hot that we stopped at a grocery store as soon as we crossed back into Kentucky. We bought ingredients for all the foods I had been missing from home. And although I barely knew how to cook, for the first time since the move I pulled out the cookbook my mother gave me, determined to make her special chicken and dumplings for dinner that night.
I wished I could talk to my mother, but we had a good two hours and a hard new secret between us. Now my family was my marriage, and home was a converted garage under the flight paths of jumbo jets.
The night of Josh’s mother’s memorial, I drank beer with his father in the church parking lot instead of comforting my future husband. Josh’s brother Doug had sneered at my presence since I’d only met their mother Mary a few times. Tomorrow they were going, without me, to scatter Mary’s ashes in the Daniel Boone National Forest. I may have been about to change my last name to his, but I didn’t know Doug’s family. I was not welcome. Josh pulled me aside and asked if I could wait out in the car for a bit. “Doug’s a mess because he’s mourning and he’s in withdrawal,” he said. It wasn’t personal. He got clean to say goodbye to his mother, and either one of those acts were hard enough on their own. I felt selfish, not empathetic.
Seeing my hurt, Roger offered to hang back with me. Roger knew how Doug could be. Josh’s dad seemed to me a benevolent, tragic figure. Mary had left him when her mental illness overcame her. She racked up catastrophic credit card debt, wrecked the car while battling the devil, told her sons wild tales of abuse. She accused Roger of cheating on her, which he’d always denied. He lost his wife to demons, as he put it.
Maybe Roger didn’t try hard enough to save Mary, as Josh had once insinuated. Or maybe he really had been unfaithful, as both of his sons believed. They’d been distant so long the hurt dulled into habit. Coming from a big close family into this dysfunction, I wanted Josh to reconcile.
Roger lived a monkish life. He worked his way out of the family’s bankruptcy in a highway construction job, then bought a little cabin in a holler outside of town. His only pleasures in life seemed to be baked potatoes and Budweiser. On warm evenings, Josh and I would bring some ground beef and grill out over a tiny charcoal-fired saucer on Roger’s porch. Then he’d take us fossil hunting in construction job roadcuts. He knew all about the geology of the hills, what was under them and why.
Roger enjoyed nurturing my obsession with fossils. Josh affected indifference and boredom during our roadcut adventures. I dug through the crumbling shale until my fingernails were ragged and my pockets were full. In my mother’s spider-plant pots back home, I had a sizeable collection of pristine brachiopod scallops and coral from when the region was the bed of a prehistoric ocean. Roger pulled out the best specimens and always handed them over to me, “for the lady and her mother.”
There was an old-fashioned simplicity to the man that I found charming, as if there wasn’t much to know about him beyond the smile lines on his work-tanned face. He was very like Josh in his physical appearance – which, I hoped, was a pleasant glimpse into my spousal future – but he lacked the temper, ego, and flights of fancy his son could sometimes manifest. I secretly allowed myself the thought that all the things I loved most about Josh had come from Roger, and all the negatives had come from Mary.
After my abortion, Josh wanted to celebrate our marriage, new home, his new job, all the good things that had come to pass since that horrible spring. I felt well again, could hold down a beverage, why not have a housewarming of some sort to mark our new chapter? He invited his brother up on a Saturday night. Doug showed up with a new girlfriend, Lori, and a grocery bag full of liquor.
Lori met him at the bar where Doug had gotten on as a bartender. She only drank clear alcohol, she told me, and stayed away from corn syrup. Although it was only three in the afternoon, I found myself nursing a gin and tonic. “For the malaria,” Doug said, elbowing Josh and foisting a drink into his hand, too.
Lori was a chatty, cross-wearing Catholic into astrology and the paranormal. She was so complimentary about our house that I wondered how she lived. I told her the place wasn’t that great with all the airport noise, and that being alone at night had made me jumpy. “Do you sometimes feel a presence?” she asked me.
“A presence?” I asked.
“Because maybe somebody died in here.” She cleaned rental units for a living, she said, and the first thing landlords did after a death was get new carpeting. She could smell the carpet as soon as she walked in here and knew it was brand new. “It happens more than you think.” She cast a glance over the living room floor. “Everybody’s got to die somewhere, you know.”
“Lori!” Doug yelled from the kitchen. I could tell he was already tired of her, but I imagined Roger would get a kick out of her company. He would take Lori out to the roadcuts and tell her stories about the ancient ocean. She would find miracles in the fossil deposits.
Josh gave them a tour of our garage-house, our new grill and patio table out back. I put on some steaks and Josh pointed a stereo speaker out the window. We were doing well for ourselves up here in Burlington. Josh turned up the music and spent a good hour arguing with his brother about the working class pedigree of country musicians and who was a better guitarist. Then Lori announced that she wanted to dance, so Doug retrieved an ‘80s love-song compilation from his car and we watched her sway, eyes closed, with a drink in her hand. She seemed to experience a spiritual ecstasy at these frothy songs, and I felt envious at her ability to let go. “Come dance,” she said between tracks, beckoning first at Doug, then me.
Although I was a musician I had never danced much in my life, a deficit I attributed to Baptist culture. But I imitated Lori’s languid writhing and Josh soon joined me with a hand on my waist.
After a few more drinks, Josh impulsively announced that we had a secret. My stomach turned when he paused the music. “It’s not good news,” he said. On my waist, his hand felt hot, tense. “We were expecting. But we miscarried.” We hadn’t told anyone because of the timing with Mary’s death, he said, and this had to stay between us. Doug wrapped him in a hug and sobbed.
Tears sprang into Lori’s eyes and she clasped my hand. She offered condolences with a battery of questions. How far along had I been? Was it a girl? Not far enough to know the sex of the baby? How had my morning sickness been? Mountain wisdom had it that bad morning sickness meant it was a girl, she told us. “Who knows, maybe it was Mary trying to reincarnate.” Josh’s face blanched like he’d seen a ghost.
Josh and I found ourselves the following afternoon alone, agitated and hung over, taking a walk into the parcel of woods owned by our landlady.
The walk had been my idea. I hadn’t been in the woods since we’d moved away from the national forest. The last time Josh had been for a hike was to scatter his mother’s ashes.
We hadn’t intended to go far, just get our blood moving and have some fresh air. But after passing through a narrow stand of trees, we came to a utility easement full of chamomile and decided to collect some blooms, maybe walk a while longer to clear our heads.
Almost like an arrow pointing us to a good view a gigantic plane shadow passed over us, mounted the hillside, and disappeared. We wondered if the airport, or possibly the Ohio River, was visible from the top of the ridge. I held my shirt bottom out like an apron and filled it with flower heads the way my mother used to do when she wanted some tea.
As we climbed the easement, the land seemed to lengthen and the sun intensified. We decided to cut into the shade of the woods and walk along at a diagonal instead. But we soon ran against brambles and had to reroute again. We walked down the slope, diverted around downed trees, washouts and sinkholes.
Never much of an outdoorsman, Josh postured as though he had a natural sense of direction in these unknown woods. Another jet roared over, glinting like a compass needle. I peered into the treetops without catching a another glimpse. “Trust me,” Josh said, offense creeping into his voice when he saw me searching the sky. He had been a pizza delivery driver in college; he knew how to get around without asking for directions. I desperately hoped he knew where he was going.
I nearly stepped on a fawn curled into a freckled ball in the ferns. When it leaped away, I smacked my face against a tree. Josh cackled. My face reddened with rage. “I could tell you weren’t really hurt. That’s the only reason I laughed,” he said. “Lighten up!” For a while, I pretended my nose did hurt because I wanted him to be sorry for laughing. But he walked in front of me and didn’t even look back at me for a long time. His confident, straight-shouldered posture seemed so intentionally antagonizing that I wished he would trip and fall.
After twenty years, it’s easier to see how inexperienced we both were when we married. Josh may have thought he had things all figured out, but he was barely an adult leading his newlywed bride around in the woods. I text him again a few days after my initial message. “Do you remember what we were fighting about?”
“In the dump.”
A minute goes by. “Remember the baby deer lol,” he texts.
“Yes,” I reply. “It startled me.”
“You needed glasses a long time before you caved in lol.”
“I don’t think glasses would have helped that day,” I type, then delete, think some more. I start again: “It was a crazy time.” The word crazy makes me feel bad, so I backtrack again. Finally, I just text “lol” and let the conversation go to seed. I realize how grasping it is for me to expect my ex-husband to reflect on this incident. Within three months, he lost his mother and a baby he may have wanted to keep, and I’m asking him to reconcile with me about a single unpleasant afternoon in the woods.
How we explained the fight away that night, when we knew we needed to make amends: We were overheating, dehydrated, and disoriented by the newness of our surroundings. All true. And for the duration of our marriage, we never again argued about those six full hours we spent wandering in the woods.
At the bottom of a hill, we found a small creek. Let us, I suggested, follow this in the direction of the water’s flow to reach the slab bridge not far from our landlady’s road-front. I conjured the weather-beaten eyes of Roger in my mind, and appealed to his son with my best mountain logic. The water would lead us downhill and toward a larger creek. We knew that all the streams in the area served as tributaries to the Ohio River watershed. They would ultimately point us north, where we knew our road laid.
“The moss is growing on the side you think is north,” Josh countered. “That’s not possible.” The smart thing to do, he said, would be to walk the opposite direction. We were close to the easement, he could sense it. Hell, if I dropped my flower heads, we would probably start smelling the chamomile growing there.
I spilled the blooms from my shirt and watched them pirouette downstream. It felt almost like an act of faith.
For the next hour, we followed the creekbed without talking much. Josh led the way, bracing himself unnecessarily with a stick, and my gall rose every time I saw him stop to inspect the angle of the daylight or lichens on a tree trunk.
A stench alerted us to human activity before we saw its source. Josh turned back to make eye contact with me, and we rounded a bend to find a truckload of garbage clogging the stream. Car batteries and tires, wads of clothing, diapers, food waste, paint cans, waterlogged junk mail – some was bagged, some was loose on the ground. All of it was illegal to dump into the woods.
I plucked an envelope from the pile and read off the address for the next town over. “What are you doing?” Josh hissed.
“Seeing where we are.”
“Are you trying to get us shot? If anybody sees us messing around back here, we’re going to be in trouble.”
“We must be close to this town,” I said. He rolled his eyes and leaned to run his hand over the bark of a sycamore tree. I nearly lost it. “Josh, this isn’t the movies. You can’t orient by tree moss!” I half expected him to lick his finger and hold it in the air.
“You can,” he insisted. “And actually I’m surprised you don’t know how to navigate in the woods, coming from your family.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” I asked, knowing very well he meant my family were hilljacks. “You’ve been leading the way all day because you didn’t want to just turn around, and now we’re in a different zip code.”
“We’re not in a different zip code,” he said, and walked up a small hill to where the woods thinned. “Hey,” he called back. “There’s a corn field up here.”
I ignored him and kicked around at the trash like it would reveal some new way to humble him. It was then that I spotted a cache of immaculate fossils in the edge of the creek. They sat right out on the top of the limestone almost as if they’d flitted there with the dragonflies to get a drink. I began filling my shirt-apron with rocks.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Josh asked, stumbling back down the embankment.
“Collecting brachiopods,” I said, holding one up. “Look how huge! Roger would love these.”
“Roger has enough already,” he said, and knocked the bottom of my hand. The fossil popped out and splashed into the water.
“Don’t hit me!” I shrieked.
“Stop screaming, you idiot!” he snapped, mouth twisted into a grimace. “I didn’t hit you. Jesus.”
I could see, in the furrows of his frown, a strong resemblance to his mother. Gathering the all the spite I had in me, I hissed, “You’re just like your mother.”
He looked like I’d just slapped him. “Don’t you ever say one more word about my mother!” he bellowed, and stormed up the hill.
I watched his shoulder blades catch the evening sun and disappear off to the right, and then I stooped to collect a few more fossils and cry. Maybe I’d see if he had a bluff to call. Maybe he was as sorry as I was. Maybe I would sit right down here and die of dehydration, lost in a pile of garbage.
He didn’t come back. I sat on a protruding root of the sycamore tree, launching rocks into the creek.
When we were camping at the lake, Josh liked to show off by skipping rocks over the calm surface. He always overcounted the number of skips and inflated them even more in his retellings. But there was something about the way he told people about his rock-skipping skills – wide-eyed, sincere, as if he believed it himself – that kept it from looking like a brag. Who would brag about a rock on the water? I let him have it.
His personal record was seventeen skips, he told his father one evening over the grill. Roger let him have it, too.
Here in the creek the bits of shale and limestone were light as wafers; Josh could claim a good twenty skips. I threw the rocks blunt against the water. The rocks made violent splashes and I sobbed indulgently, bitterly.
I sat for perhaps another fifteen minutes after I was all cried out, then climbed up toward the corn field with my secret harvest of brachiopods. When I emerged from the underbrush, I stumbled into a gravel lane that led down to a farmhouse where the illegal dumpers lived.
Several strangers were sitting in the evening light on their porch waiting for me, their holdout trespasser. Josh was with them, drinking a glass of water. The triumphant smirk on his face made me wish I could turn to stone and sink directly into the ground. But I kept walking toward my new husband.
Into the gravel, I spilled my fossils.