Matches

Green signs loom over I-80, beckoning us towards Omaha; it’s difficult not to exit downtown to the Courtyard Marriott, tell them we want our old room so we could pretend we’re still new at this. I could still get butterflies when he emerges from the bathroom in a shirt and tie, flash-forwarding to the man this boyfriend might become; I could take a shower, examining the suck-marks on my sore body with ecstasy, the proof of a desire I believe is permanent; he could take me to The French Café where I’d purr like a raccoon, us drinking cappuccinos by the fireplace, sneaking our hands under the table and between each other’s legs; we could be nineteen and so new in love we can’t stop looking at each other and grinning.

We scoop up and over hills, loping and bounding westward past clusters of farmhouses that make me remember a life I once thought I wanted.

But we’re older now, bound for the grit and grub of a campground, turning off the interstate and driving down small Nebraska roads. We scoop up and over hills, loping and bounding westward past clusters of farmhouses that make me remember a life I once thought I wanted. I get a little panicky that this road is map-colored the gray of gravel and isolation as we turn into the state park where we’ll camp.

We drive past a series of algae-clogged manmade lakes named 1, 1A, 2, 2A, 3. The grandma who took my $15 at the head of the campground promised nothing more offensive than a skunk or a deer, but I can’t shake the fear that a bear has rambled its way across the state, is hiding in the thin patches of trees marking the edges of the campground, so I pick a site near the center of the grounds, making sure other tents will barricade us, just in case.

We brought no firewood or matches, so we drive to the gas station and I refuse to go inside, preferring the air-conditioned car, watching the Dodge-driving high-school football player pull up next to our Saturn, sidle into the gas station, come back clutching a Dasani, and back his truck down the road before my angry boyfriend bursts out with a cord of firewood and a whole paper-covered box of Winston matches. “I had to buy this fucking thing,” he storms, tossing the box of two hundred matchbooks onto my lap. $2.19 is outrageous for something we could have gotten for free, I argue, because he totally should have just gotten a single matchbook up at the register. We yell the whole way back through the campground, the windows rolled up: he says there weren’t any single matchbooks, I contend that we could have borrowed two fucking matches from someone else at the campground, he snarls that he’s sure I would have asked someone to borrow matches when he’s never even seen me call a pizza place in the two years we’ve been dating, that’s fine, whatever, I’m sure we need two hundred fucking books of matches.

We promised the grandma we wouldn’t drink alcohol on the premises, but as the sun starts to set and he runs to the river to take pink-and-orange-scarred photographs, I uncap a Rolling Rock and camouflage the green bottle behind the green gas burner as I pat a hamburger, trying to wipe away the unbudging fat with one of the three napkins we scrounged from the glovebox. I wait for him to come back and fry the burgers, bees crawling in the burger-blood no matter how worriedly I flap at them.

In the gloaming, a flashlight trained on our napkin-plates, I build prairie dreams, remarking how skillfully I’d picked a good campsite, how we’re eating a great dinner of chips, Oreos, and homemade burgers, dreams rapidly dissipating when we can’t even build a campfire, and I snidely poke at him, trying to give advice that wouldn’t be useful even if he’d let me get it out. I sulk in a lawn chair, watching the stars poetically as he swears and snorts until a little plume of smoke gets started and I remind him that the fire probably wouldn’t have started without the twigs and branches that I collected, but that’s okay, whatever, it’s finally working, right.

But the kindling refuses to take off, and we bicker around the charred firewood that’s haphazardly towering inside our fire pit; the family to our north roasts marshmallows and the kids run around with burning branches, excited; angry, we unstick all the burrs from our fur and hurl them at each other, remember when we used to be in love, remember when we didn’t use to fight all the time, we are in love!, don’t you know why we’re fighting, and I start crying, pull my hood over my eyes and crawl into the tent, I’m going to sleep.

We break camp by the Platte, the brilliant oranges in the sky reflecting in the shallow riverbed, little mudlets choking the flowing water, morning coffee on the gas burner and our soft sighs of comfort as we reconcile inside the zippered double sleeping bag, spooning like two raccoons.

I turn on my side and refuse to touch him when he finally enters the tent after enough time has elapsed to show me he isn’t caving. I have a dream that makes my stomach drop out, even in my sleep, and it scares me so much that even when I wake up to him ripping open the tent zipper to piss right outside the tent, I don’t yell at him for peeing somewhere I’m going to have to step in the morning; it is a bite on my tongue I can sustain.

We break camp by the Platte, the brilliant oranges in the sky reflecting in the shallow riverbed, little mudlets choking the flowing water, morning coffee on the gas burner and our soft sighs of comfort as we reconcile inside the zippered double sleeping bag, spooning like two raccoons. We disassemble the tent, the morning air breathing humidly under my hair, the slot-machine shower flushing hot and cold, and I walk in my wet clothes hand-in-hand with him, the rest of the world waking up while we drive out of the campground, sputtering past last night’s roadkill, speeding past the signs for downtown Omaha in the rearview, one hundred and ninety-nine books of matches in the glovebox.

 

Kristine Langley Mahler has recently published nonfiction (or has work forthcoming) in Quarter After Eight, Sweet: A Literary Confection, The Bitter Southerner, the Brevity nonfiction blog, and Crab Orchard Review, where her work was awarded the 2016 Rafael Torch Literary Nonfiction Award. She is a nonfiction editor at Pithead Chapel, an assistant editor at Profane Journal, and a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.