By Dave Stalling
Originally published on Advocate.com January 22 2014 6:00 AM ET
My son wants to go walk in the woods. “The forest,” he calls it. He wants to get off trail and “bushwhack” like Daddy does. Instead, I take him to Barnes & Noble (“Barnes & Nibble,” as he likes to call it). I urge him to sit in the kids' section and read. It’s good for him, I tell myself. But really, I just want to keep him busy, distracted, so I can nurse a hangover and browse through XY magazine.
“Are you tired?” he often asks.
“You should sleep more, Daddy.”
“Yes, I should.”
He says he wants to go swimming. He wants to hike in the forest. I tell him if he finds a good book he likes, I’ll buy it for him. I get another cup of coffee and browse some more. I think of “Cat’s in the Cradle,” and I think of my father. He took me fishing a lot, and camping and hiking. I loved him. I still do. I miss him.
I text Erik: “What’s up?”
My ex-wife calls. “I need a break,” she says. “Can you watch Cory tonight?” My brother calls: “Want to go mountain biking?” Paul calls: “Want to go backpacking?” Chad calls: “Want to hang out?” Jason calls: “Let’s go fishing.”
Why don’t they leave me alone?
I text Erik: “What are you doing tonight?”
We cook a nice dinner, smoke a bowl, drink merlot. We head for Al & Vics, then the Silver Dollar. We drink Raspberry Stolis, doubles, and slam a few Vegas Bombs and shots of Jaeger. After “last call,” we hurry to the store before 2 a.m. so we can buy more wine and some champagne. We go back to my house, or sometimes his apartment, smoke another bowl, talk, smoke cigarettes, drink wine, maybe play chess or Trivial Pursuit, watch South Park, listen to and download music. Maybe a run to Taco Bell, or cook more food, or jump in the shower, or have sex, or fight, or pass out, or some of it, or all of it. In the morning, or afternoon, we cook bacon and eggs, or go to the Shack, drink Mimosas, or Bloody Marys, have sex again, or fight again, or both. It’s often unpredictable.
I walk on shells, careful of what I might say, lest I set him off. If I mention my Marine Corps past, or my ex-wife or son, he might call me a “murderer,” a “liar,” tell me how I fooled and deceived a woman and “ruined her life.” He calls me a “pathetic loser” or “piece of shit.” Guilt and shame overcome me. Perhaps I deserve this? Maybe he’s right?
Sometimes, when I’m alone, I stop and listen to the wind, or the rustling of leaves, or the cackling of a raven, or listen to water running over rocks in nearby Rattlesnake Creek on its tumultuous journey from high-country snowmelt to the Clark Fork toward the Columbia and Pacific. I think of the salmon and steelhead and bull trout that struggle the other way, upstream. Seems a lot of work. I look up toward the mountains, the sky, the sun, the stars, the moon; it all speaks to me.
One crisp October night the full moon cast an eerie light on the large silver maple across the street from my home. The neighborhood monarch! Shaped like an elm, it was dressed in brilliant crimson leaves for Halloween. It was beyond beautiful: it was magical, spectacular, calming. It spoke to me. I told Erik about it once.
His reply: “It’s just a tree.”
Maybe he’s right.
I’ve always been drawn toward things wild and free. I am intrigued by grizzlies. They are fascinating, powerful, magnificent, and beautiful — particularly when their coarse, silver-tipped hair shines in the sun. They kill to eat, or scavenge off the dead to eat, like we all do, but mostly they keep to themselves. I wonder if they are consciously aware of a mad world closing in on them, robbing them of their place in this world. Probably not. They just go on living, the best they know how. They are neither ferocious nor mystical, as we like to think; they are what they are, focused on their day-to-day needs. In spite of it all, they remain full of spirit, full of life. I think they are happy.
Once, when my son was 3, we sat on a ridge and watched a big boar feasting a few hundred yards below us, oblivious to our presence.
“What’s he eating?” Cory asked.
“Elk,” I replied.
“That’s what we eat!” he said.
“Can we go down there?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. “They can be dangerous. We should give him his space.”
He listened. Now, when he sees a bear or fresh tracks, he reminds me. “Daddy, we should be careful,” he says. “They need space.”
But sometimes, when I am alone, I like to see how close I can get. I want to hear them. I want to smell them. I want to touch them. But I don’t — I know better. I respect them, and I love them too much to do that. I give them their space.
My ex-wife calls. “I need a break,” she says. “Can you watch Cory tonight?” Cory says he wants to go swimming. He wants to hike in the forest. My brother calls: “Want to go mountain biking?” Paul calls: “Want to go backpacking?” Chad calls: “Want to hang out?” Jason calls: “Let’s go fishing.”
Why don’t they leave me alone?
I text Erik: “What are you doing tonight?”
Erik often gets angry with me and says I don’t listen. Maybe he’s right. Things seem to go in one ear and out the other, swirling through the gray matter in-between, swept up by the tornado in my head, diluted by weed and booze and nicotine and young, lean bodies and Erik. He fills my head, abruptly shoving aside all other thoughts. He consumes me.
I want to lay next to him. I want to feel his lean, warm body tight against mine. I want to smell him and run my hand through his sandy blond hair. I want to caress his back, touch his lips, kiss his neck, listen to him breath. Sometimes, I actually think I want to be him.
A large dark scorpion tattoo adorns his right shoulder. Late at night, when he is sleeping beside me, I sometimes run my finger over it and just think. I am intrigued by scorpions. They are fascinating, fierce and beautiful. But they can be dangerous. They need space.
I often sit on my front porch, smoke cigarettes, and look up toward the mountains to the north. I once threw on my backpack and walked from this very porch all the way to Canada. It took me eight weeks, hiking mostly off trail, “bushwhacking,” through some of the most remote, wild country left in the United States — the last remnants of the “real world,” the last vestiges of sanity. I only crossed three roads. Though I was by myself, I rarely felt alone. There were grizzlies, wolves, mountain lions, cutthroats, eagles, pine martens, wolverines, red squirrels, elk, mountain goats, ponderosa pines, lodge poles, white bark pines, larches and all manner of other life to keep me company. By the end of that journey I felt free, I felt happy, I felt alive.
Erik says I did it for attention, to brag about it, to boost my ego. Maybe he’s right.
I miss Erik. I think of him all the time. I wonder what he’s doing. I want to touch him, feel him, smell him. I want to hear his voice. Until recently, I called him every day.
I also look at a picture of my son every day. His eyes are bright and happy. His smile is like a brilliant, gold glacier lily blooming, beaming, even before the long winter snows completely melt away. He is filled with energy, hope, life and love.
He says he wants to go swimming. He wants to hike in the forest. He wants to go skiing and go to the hot springs. He wants to be with his daddy.
Erik often gets mad at me and says I don’t listen. Maybe he’s right.
DAVE STALLING is a writer and advocate living in Missoula, Mont. To see more of his work, check out his blogs, My Gay Agenda and From the Wild Side.