I know: it sounds absurd. How does a normal, run-of-the-mill straight white guy suddenly find himself preparing to go down on Jack the Chicken Man?
(Alright, kind of white. Technically, I’m Jewish.)
I was asking myself the same question. Asked it for days, actually. That wasn’t why I was walking. I didn’t want a spiritual journey. I just wanted… you know… to Tell A Story About The Universal Similarities Between People. And, in the process, get my girlfriend back.
What can I say? I’m a child of the 80s, raised on romanitc comedies. I still believed in things like soulmates. I still believed that Nice Guys can finish first.
(Interesting that I believed in soulmates but not in fate. Don’t ask me to explain: I couldn’t have.)
What did you say? You want to know what happened with Sally? Not yet. We have some time.
Let’s pause and watch the sun drop behind the mountains. That’s stunning. Look at the light. Just remember: we are so lucky to be here together.
OK, Sally: what happened with Sally?
At this point in the Story, I was still trying to figure that out.
near lincoln city, oregon
DAY 39. 1,380 MI. TO GO
The bells over the door jingled, and a woman walked in out of the rain. My eyes followed her as she strolled across the checkerboard floor, approaching the lazy-eyed clerk in a tie-dyed t-shirt behind the counter.
“One mushroom slice!” he shouted back to the guy working the ovens.
This was the first time I ever saw Mushroom Sam.
The pizza joint was called the Humble Pie. It was exactly what I was after. The Humble Pie was a squat concrete block building that was right next to the main street: a slow-moving version of coastal Highway 101. It had a checkerboard floor and cheddar-colored walls that were scrawled in hand-written messages of the HI MOM and JOHN WAS HERE variety.
There were just a couple booths next to the window, and Mushroom Sam slid into the one next to me. She faced me with her back. I took it personally.
The Beatles were on the jukebox. The lazy-eyed clerk was crooning along: “All my loving, I will send to youuuuu.” I looked out the window at the cars sliding through the mist to try to keep myself from caressing Sam’s neck with eyes.
Her blonde hairs were wispy and downy beneath the ponytail tucked into her black ballcap. She looked in her late-twenties; we looked about the same age. I hoped she was single.
I didn’t get the vibe that she was open to a conversation. But I was desperate for something, anything—a lover, a friend. Held up by the rain, I’d spent the whole day in the Lincoln City Public Library, reading through every self-help book on the shelf, but I couldn’t find anything about cocks and pulsing. I also couldn’t stop thinking about Jack. Stupidly, I’d given him my business card. There weren’t many places to hide; there’s just one road down the coast. I worried what would happen if he tried to find me.
Suddenly, there was a commotion in the Humble Pie. The only other patrons in the restaurant were a father and his toddler-aged daughter. The daughter was throwing a fit because she didn’t want to eat her crust; her dad was responding quite diplomatically, I thought, whose entire bald skull was covered with a tattoo of a spider. The fight escalated quickly. Mushroom Sam turned to look when the daughter began to scream, and we shared the practiced look of adults without children.
When Spiderman scooped her up like a football and charged out the door, I turned to Sam and said, “that’s one way to parent.”
It got us talking, even if it wasn’t my best-ever pickup line.
Sam’s interest was piqued the moment that I told her that I was walking from Canada to Mexico. This was novel; I hadn’t yet understood that this would turn out to be my best-ever pickup line. I was still hung up on the past, in more ways than one. Serendipitously, Sam had also spent plenty of time living in her tent. That past summer, she explained, she’d attended a tracking school run by an Apache hunter in the forests of New Jersey. She’d lived in the woods for five months.
“Wait a second,” I said, trying to make a joke. “There’s so many parts of that sentence I don’t understand. New Jersey has forests?”
Sam looked at me in a way that sent chills down my spine.
I swallowed. “Tracking? Like animal tracking?” She nodded, and I puffed out my chest. “What’s one thing about animal tracking you can teach a guy like me who’s, um, walking across the country?“
Immediately, Mushroom Sam shut her eyes.
It struck me as a strange gesture. At first, I wondered whether I had offended her. It took me a moment to realize that she had taken my question seriously—she was really thinking.
A moment went by. Then another. I took her in like facial recognition software; my eyes danced from brow to cheeks to neck to chin to ears to lips to eyelids to breasts to…
Her eyes snapped open. “Every step has an intention,” she said.
I made a face. Every step has an intention? It sounded like something from the self-help books; it sounded like one of the New Age slogans that could come out of Paul. (For as long as I had known Paul, his email signature read: Nothing changes until you do.)
“Sure,” said Sam. “It’s good science. It’s how biologists understand the woods.”
“Are you a biologist?”
“I’m doing my Master’s at Oregon State.”
“It’s the study of fungi.”
“So you’re into mushrooms?” I asked leadingly.
Sam nodded stoically. “I’m a scientist who studies mushrooms.”
I thought she missed the joke.
Sam explained that, at its core, animal tracking was the study of intention. “When you examine a track,” she said, assuming a professorial tone, “what you’re really asking is: where was this animal going and why.” Step one is to collect data. “How old is the track, what other tracks are around, where’s the food, where’s the water, where’s the nest. You take all that stuff and compare it with what you already know about the animal.”
“You make it sound so simple.”
“It gets easier with time. Most animals are after the same kinds of things. Food, water, play, protection for their young, safety.” Her blue eyes flicked up to meet mine. “Sex.”
I swallowed nervously. “Every step has an intention,” I repeated, looking away. “That makes sense.”
Behind us, the lazy-eyed clerk had moved on to Sgt. Pepper’s.
“But it gets a little… I don’t know. More esoteric than that.”
She seemed to hesitate. “I can get down with esoteric.” I pulled Paul’s crystal out of my pocket. “You may not be able to tell I’m a hippie beneath this six-weeks long beard.”
She nodded. For an instant, I thought I saw something dance in her eyes. “Okay, it’s not all scientific.”
“Don’t tell that to your advisors at Oregon State.”
“Do you always try to make jokes when you feel uncomfortable?”
I looked at my hands. “No,” I lied.
When I looked up, Sam’s gaze seemed softer. “You know, I spent my first couple weeks out there pretending that I was a scientist. All I was doing was going into the forest to make observations. Then, suddenly, I had this revelation. The forest was responding to me. I wasn’t a neutral observer. That threw me for a loop”
“The ol’ Schroedinger’s forest problem.” I shuddered. “Sorry.”
She leaned a little closer. “Can I tell you something that might sound a little intimate?“
I swallowed nervously and nodded as I leaned in towards her.
“You spend all that time in the forest thinking about other creatures’ intentions, you can’t help thinking about your own. I used to spend days out there alone asking myself, What’s the intention in this step? How about this one? How about this one? I was shocked by some of the things that I found.”
My voice was raspy. “What did you find?”
She smiled warmly. It felt like the first time she’d truly let down her defenses. “Sometimes, I’d be walking on a forest trail, and I’d suddenly notice that all the branches and the ferns and the whole forest seemed to be reaching out like it was trying to touch me. Then I’d realize that my intention was love.”
I felt nervous, outside the Humble Pie, when Sam asked me if I wanted to get a drink. For one thing, I had committed myself to sobriety as a penance for what I’d done to Sally, and I was embarrassed to admit it to her for fear that I might seem weak. But all day long, I’d been reading self-help books about co-dependency, and I summoned the courage to be bold.
“I’m not drinking right now, but you can buy me a water.”
I felt relieved when she smiled. “My car’s around the corner. You do get in cars, right?”
“I get in cars as long as I get dropped off where I got picked up. I need to tell people that I walked every step of the journey.”
Mushroom Sam smirked but didn’t say anything. We rounded the corner in silence.
The other reason I felt nervous was because my brain was suddenly screaming out
and this, after everything, was a foreboding proposition.
I’d had sex exactly twice since Sally left her note on our kitchen table, on the summer solstice. Both times had ended poorly. The first time, with a girl I’d met while stoned on a nudist beach in Vancouver, had involved a little deception: I’d told the girl I was into S&M, and I was lying through my teeth. Our safe word was piano, and later that evening, I found myself screaming, “PIANO, PIANO”. That incident ended in tears.
The second time had occurred just a week earlier, on the Oregon Coast, with a girl who told me that I was rougher than she wanted.
I felt incapacitated—like I was a virgin again. I didn’t want to be an asshole. I just wanted to do it right. I just wanted someone to show me how.
Sam approached a beat-up GMC Jimmy with California plates and swung open the passenger side door. Inside, on the passenger seat, an elderly dog waved its tail weakly. “This is Pop,” she said, as she helped the medium-sized dog to the asphalt, bending down to remove its diaper. Pop tinkled a few weak drops onto the moss-encrusted curb. Overhead, I could see a light mist radiating in the beam of the streetlight.
Kidney surgery, Sam explained. She’d drained her bank account to keep him alive. “All the vets thought I was crazy. They told me it would only buy him a few months. But it’s been a year and he’s still here.” She reaffixed the diaper and helped Pop back into the car. “What was I supposed to do? He’s my best friend. Was I just supposed to let him die?”
I let the question hang between us.
Inside, Sam’s Jimmy was packed with plastic storage tubs that were neatly stacked on the folded rear seats.
“Are you moving?” I asked naively.
She shook her head. “We live in here. After tuition and the surgery, there isn’t enough left to pay rent.”
I was shocked by how straightforward and direct she was. I wasn’t used to having conversations like that with women. Still, I hesitated as she walked around the hood and got in behind the driver’s wheel.
She lit a cigarette, then grabbed for an ancient iPod plugged to the stereo through the tape deck.
Finally, she said, “are you getting in?”
“Yes,” I squeaked. I got into the passenger seat and immediately did up my seatbelt. Sam was taking her time deciding on what song to play. She took a slow drag. Then another one. I could feel my heart pounding. I could feel that pulsing in my cock again.
Suddenly, a long, mournful note filled the inside of the car. “This is my favorite song,” she said, as she adjusted the stereo. It was a strange choice to be a favorite song. The music was resonant, mournful; it reminded me of a funeral dirge. The singer’s voice was a deep baritone, and he was singing in a foreign language. Sam put the car in gear and pulled up to the intersection with the coastal highway.
“Where should we go?”
I squeaked. “Wherever you want.”
When the light went green, we turned south.
Sam drove in silence, taking long, slow drags on her cigarette. I shuddered as I sat next to her; I was overwhelmed by the confusion about what I wanted. I glanced over; her face was suddenly illuminated in a pair of highbeams.
Just then, it clicked. The music! The language was Sanskrit; the song was kirtan, Hindu devotional music.
I felt butterflies. India! How did India find me when I needed her most?
Suddenly, I felt overwhelmed by a rush of memories from India. I remembered sitting on the stoop of the open door of a train carriage, watching the sun drop towards the yellow flowers of a mustard field. Sally was sitting beside me. I could viscerally feel her knee pushing to mine. I could see us waving at the shepherds, at the water-carrying women in bright saris, at the naked boys taking shits off the side of the railway berm and waving at us and laughing all the while.
Suddenly, I felt a rush of emotion, and for the first time, I realized that I was grieving. I was grieving the loss of the woman that I was sure was going to be my partner for the rest of my life.
“What do you think he’s singing about?” Sam asked suddenly.
“It’s a devotional song,” I exclaimed giddily. “It’s all about God!”
She glanced at me with a furrowed brow. “I always imagined that he was singing about some mystical, enchanted forest. But maybe that’s just the same thing.”
I was still lost in the music—I was thinking about Sally and Jack and everything that was and everything had never been. Sam drove silently as the road swerved back to follow the cliffs overlooking the coast. Up ahead, a sign advertised a bar inside of a hotel. She flipped on her indicator and turned into a parking lot, pulling into a stall just as the melody of the song was slowing.
Suddenly, the singer switched into an American-inflected English. Sam put the car into park, but she didn’t look at me as we listened in silence:
Calling out to hungry hearts
Everywhere through endless time
You who wander, you who thirst
I offer you this heart of mine.
Calling all you hungry spirits
Everywhere through endless time
Calling out to hungry hearts
All the lost and left behind
Gather round and share this meal
Your joy and your sorrow,
I make it mine.
There was one long, final mournful note. Same waited until it died before switching off the Jimmy.
The evening moved like it had an intention in mind. It had a flow. A momentum.
Later that night, we ended up at Devil’s Lake State Park campground—back in my tent.
To be clear, my tent is not the tent you’d choose if you were trying to host a party. My tent was barely wider than my shoulders and barely longer than my feet, and I’m nothing if not a completely medium-sized guy. But the rooms at the hotel were much beyond our budget, and my tent seemed to offer the requisite amout of privacy.
When we arrived at the campsite, I magnanimously held back the flap and welcomed Mushroom Sam into my home.
There wasn’t enough room for us to lay side-by-side, but by then, we both were beyond pretenses. Sam’s shirt came off, and I marveled at how defined and muscular her shoulders felt. Her breasts were both topped by ringed piercings. The smooth metal clicked on the back of my teeth.
Our tongues danced together. Her mouth tasted like an ashtray. I felt deeply hungry, and yet each time I opened my eyes I did a double-take; in the dark, she looked like Sally. I remembered the first night I had gone to bed with Sally. It had been in India, a few nights after we’d met at a restaurant called, of all things, the Café Rendez Vous. Our romance had been perfect; our first kiss had been exquisite. When we fucked for the first time, I lasted no more than thirty seconds before rolling off of her, drunk, happy, ashamed, and lying together in the silence while realizing we were still strangers. We’d known each other for just five days; a few days later, Sally was on a plane back to England for Christmas. A few days after that, she wrote me on Facebook saying that she’d broke up with her boyfriend, and was my offer to be her new boyfriend still on the table?
Sam touched me on the shoulder. “Will you go down on me?”
I pulled off her jeans and underwear and tossed them to the side, kicking away my backpack and extra clothes, as I wriggled down between her thighs.
“Mmm,” she said. “That feels nice. Yes, yes. A little slower, a little slower. Now a little to the right. There. Just like that, just like that.”
I felt so relieved to know exactly how she wanted to be pleased. With Sally, it was always a mystery. That first night: was she sleeping with me because she liked me? Because she was angry at her boyfriend? Because she thought that I was the better man? I never knew then, and I still didn’t know—not nearly two years later, not after everything had happened. I was sure it was real, I wanted it to be real, was it ever real?
“Faster, faster. Just like that, just like that.”
I felt like I was seeing double.
My tent was situated in the communal campsite set aside for hikers and bikers and others traveling without a vehicle. I’d been alone when I left for the Humble Pie, but when we returned, there’d been a few other tents that had mushroomed int he grassy area near mine. I could hear a few anonymous snores just beyond Mushroom Sam’s moans, and it made me feel good to know that they might be listening.
“Yes, yes! Faster, faster! I’m coming, I’m coming!”
I was relieved when Sam came. Sally hated when I went down on her.
When I climbed up her body, Mushroom Sam greeted me eagerly with her tongue, even though her scent was all over my beard. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do next. “Do you have a condom?” she asked.
I nodded. I was supposed to do that.
Sam took off my pants, and I grimaced as she touched me for the first time, already certain that I knew exactly what she was thinking: not what I hoped for but it will have to do. She stroked me, she took me in her mouth, then she sheathed me in a condom. I stumbled further down the low tent and struggled to find my way into her. All I wanted was to give her another orgasm.
Our bodies started to move together. I thought about Sally—how she liked to move, how she felt. Was it different with her new boyfriend, was he thicker, harder, better? Did Sally like it better when he went down on her? Were they in love? Were they married? Were they pregnant? Or had their relationship soured, was she already with someone else, had time apart shifted her perspective?
“Where’d you go?”
I looked down. Sam’s hand was on my chest.
“Nowhere,” I lied. “I’m here.”
“Slow down. Let yourself enjoy this.”
“But I am enj…” I started. Then I realized I had no idea what she meant.
Sam seemed to understand. She turned me around until I was cross-legged and…. Slow, slow, slooooooooooow, so slow that I could feel every drop of her moisture running down the inside of my thigh. I tried to thrust; she parried. Slow, slow, slooooooooooow. “You’re beautiful,” she whispered. “Strong. Brave. This is a really important thing that you’re doing.”
When she touched my cheek, I suddenly realized that I was crying.
Slow, slow, slooooooooooow. Then a strange pulsing rush of energy. Was this it, was it already over, did I fuck it up again? No: strangely, there were suddenly fireworks exploding in the small of my back. It felt like an orgasm—but bigger, louder, different.
“That was amazing,” I said breathlessly. “How am I still har… How did you do that?”
Sam put her finger on my lips. “How did we do that. See what happens when you let go of control?”
It felt like someone hjad turned the pressure off. Our bodies moved, danced, spoke in a language that only trees could understand. Slow, slow, slooooooooooow. Then, faster, faster. Soon, the inside of the tent was dripping with our condensation. Yes, yes! Harder, harder! I’m coming, I’m coming! We were hurtling towards our destination, and we arrived in the station together.
I collapsed on her sweaty chest and lay there, for a long time, in silence, drifting in and out of sleep, shriveling inside of her.