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Hills Like Tan Lions

It’s Friday, and we leave work early and drive from Oakland and stop in Boonville, which is a town known for nothing, where it’s 110 degrees after 65 in the city. We throw our jackets in the back of the car and go for ice cream. I’m the idiot who orders a brownie at the ice cream place and then feels sorry for myself when it’s not as good as the ice cream.

We sit outside, and the air is hot but dry. There is dust on our ankles, and the tiny purple flowers in the wine barrel planters are whole colonies of beautiful things that I have to look away from so I don’t cry.

He says, “The hills are like tan lions around here.”

It’s a stupid thing to say, pretentious, but I can tell he thinks it’s a test for me, so I say, “Thanks, Ernest. Are you going to run with the bulls next?” and he gives me a look like, Okay, well, maybe, yes, maybe you, and I give him a look like, Fuck that shit, because he has a wife and a baby but under that look is also this: I need you to look at me like that again.

“So, lions,” I say. My shirt is 20% brownie crumbs that I want to pick off one by one and eat, but I don’t want to be disgusting, so instead I sweep them off with my hand in a way that I hope is both graceful and dramatic but that is probably just awkward. “Anyway,” I say, “did you know that 2,000 years ago there were probably a million lions, and now it’s maybe 30,000?” He says, “You’re doing that thing where you talk about animal animals instead of humans. Is it because you’re uncomfortable with this?”

First, I think, which this are you talking about? The affair this? The pregnancy this? But then I get mad and think, in what universe do you get to tell me how I should respond to anything? And then I think, oh yes, of course, in this universe, this 2019 America universe.

I pick the largest brownie crumb directly off the concrete and put it into my mouth. Fuck all concerns about being disgusting. I want to be that bold for a second at least.  On the car ride up, I heard a pediatrician on NPR recommending all babies lick the floor of a NYC subway car for immunity. Hyperbole? Maybe.

Have I told you this, I want to say. I am a worrier. I worry. It’s an unshakable pastime. And I don’t just mean in the way of, it’s going to rain, I forgot an umbrella, or, am I going to be late for the bus and thus late to work. No, more in the way of: the loose rocks on that hillside will tumble and pulverize my skull while you are watching. Or a rogue snake will wind itself around my ankle right here next to the lobelias, and my entire foot will be gone in an hour and in some body parts bucket in the closest emergency room. Healdsburg? Santa Rosa? And this, I want to say, is why I can’t have children. Whatever it is right now in my uterus (collection of cells, zygote, fetus), whatever it is tumbles around and surely somehow, brainless but still, thinks: I do not want this woman as my mother.

Except maybe I am wrong, so instead of speaking I look up at the mountains, which are sheathed in a burned-out yellowy grass, all of it kindling really, and say, “Yes, they do look like tan lions. I’ll give you that.”

People have these defining stories about themselves that they tell and retell for decades (“I worked as a camp counselor at a survivalist camp” or “I was a touring musician in a shitty van for a summer” or “I left someone at the altar” or “I slept in a tent for a year,”), and I wonder how the ones that get to be the ones emerge from the fray and then stick. Will this one be mine?

When he finishes his ice cream (some kind of sorbet because “I’m being good,” he said, a thing I hated because why should goodness and badness be in any way associated with what we choose to ingest, for fuck’s sake?), he nods to the car, and the gist of that is that we are both supposed to get up and walk to the car and keep driving toward our destination, which is the ocean for an overnight we’ve taken pains to arrange so that we can pretend for 24 hours. But instead I first walk and then run in the opposite direction, away from the ice cream store and the main street and through tall tan grass that is sharper than it looks and cuts my legs in places, and up toward the lion-like hills until I find a tree that is broad and knobby and looks like some kind of tree for the ages.

I stay under the tree until it’s dark. No human comes for me. A bear will come. A coyote. Who the fuck knows what animals live in these hills? Or a mountain lion will sink its epic mountain lion teeth into my neck and the blood will be assertive and unbelievable in the way of a horror movie. Or maybe it will just be a domestic cat that will lick the dust off my ankles and tangle into me for warmth later when it’s cold and the sky is black. Maybe that will be my story, and his, too: we all save ourselves. I want that. I do.