Nick and I leave at night, in the cold, with a thermos of over-steeped tea dripping onto the porch. We leave in our woolen hats, me in my mittens and downy winter coat, he in his flannel shirt and the tattered blue jeans that fall just a bit too short, ankles exposed. He calls his flannel a jacket because he grew up in Maine where blood runs thick, and sweat is saltier and does not freeze. We walk cautiously and hold hands, feeling in the dark for cracks in the wooden porch and the heavy, cumbrous ice slicks that settle over the steps. We are leaving like thieves in the night, vulpine and furtive, through a cloud of hot breath and steamy chamomile. We just had sex on the living room floor, and for once I didn’t cry as I came, didn’t glimpse that small death just over the precipice.
I am going away, again, I am excited, and he is going back, but we are going, and this is what matters. I like going, leaving, moving. Only yesterday, I returned from abroad, returned to the empty apartment and abandoned college town. The roommates were still at parents’ places, in slippers, feasting on holiday leftovers, on fatty ham sandwiches and twice-baked potatoes. Nick picked me up at the airport in Manchester, and we drove the two hours back to Durham in near silence. We were groggy and disoriented from the sudden evaporation of distance, of the two months spent apart, unlearning the body. But it was not an uncomfortable silence, and I watched cows mill around the mud-slicked barns outside the window and he occasionally played with my hair. I stuck my finger in his ear and twice shoved a hand down his pants.
At the bottom of the steps, I hear the shuffling of the caged raccoon. He is tucked beneath the porch and looks out at us with raging yellow eyes, neon blinkers from deep in a black hole. His warm body heaves steadily inside the metal cage. A shackled creature, those terrible eyes like portals to some ghostly landscape where we might all quietly go mad, where I could placidly shed my clothes and roll in shit and chew on the cheeks of rodents.
The trap was rigged up this morning by Animal Services and baited with chicken bones. The raccoon had been spotted several times in daylight and the neighbors feared rabies. Six traps were set up around my block, under eaves and in the dusty forgotten corners of garages.
Somehow, I knew he would end up with me, rattling all day. I listened from the kitchen window, afraid to go outside.
“I’m putting him in the car,” Nick says. “We’ll drop him off somewhere far away.” He tugs his gloves on tighter, like a man in a boxing ring. He looks excited, skittish, like he has an urge to wrestle the wild forces of nature. This look makes me nervous, for the raccoon and for myself.
“The hell you are. Animal Services is coming to get him in the morning. They’ll do the dropping.” The raccoon begins to scramble inside his cage. The rickety contraption begins to rock violently. I fear it is going to topple over and set him free. “Please,” I say, “can we just go?” I toss my bag inside the trunk and wait. Nick hesitates, watching the raccoon struggle. It hurts him to see any animal committed like that, the mental head-beating, the stunning confusion, that pure-white and splitting fear. Nick grew up in Maine and as a kid spent too much time alone in the woods. I suspect that this is part of the reason he is so sensitive with animals, and entirely distrusting of other human beings. When we go fishing, he does not let me keep any of the fat bass that we collect in the bucket, instead insisting we return them to the lake at the end of the day. I watch them longingly while I can, wishing I could fillet each one down its pretty bones, and cook the pearly flesh with lemon and sea grass.
Nick is not an only child, but his half-brother is nine years older, and was married and out of the house by the time Nick was eight. The nearest potential playmate lived seven miles away. Nick built himself a little cabin just beyond the brush at the edge of his parents’ property where he stuffed his Highlights magazines into the makeshift mailbox at night. He was invariably delighted to find them there in the morning. He occupied himself with long solitary walks, tipping over dead or dying trees, and fishing at David Pond where his parents own a cabin only slightly sturdier than the pine construct Nick made himself. The cabin is twenty miles north of the family home and they spent every summer there since the year Nick turned six. His parents bought two used kayaks and taught both sons how to paddle, and then to glide silently into the lily pads and cast their fishing lines into the shade. They didn’t see Nick much after that. He left early in the mornings and only returned after dark, every fish carefully released back into the pond.
Nobody goes to the cabin much anymore, but Nick wants to take me there on our way up north into moose country. We are going to journey from New Hampshire to northern Maine, where I will see my first moose. He has assured me of this. It was a great surprise and he told me quickly and in whispers as we lay on the floor, my unpacked bags tossed in a heap in the living room. I am all smiles, my body jittery with anticipation. He made plans for us to stay at a little bed-and-breakfast in Oquossoc, Maine. But first to the cabin, which is on our way, where there’s a broken window that needs fixing, and Nick can finally clean out the gutters. He can’t stop talking about it.
The first time Nick took me home to the house he grew up in, I was shocked by the desolation of the town. I felt safe, though, and out of the way, as if I were stepping outside the current of time and watching my real life speed by without me – free to fall, free to smash into rocks. However it pleased. By August the pastures are cleared, the hills rusted orange at their edges, as if by the proximity to the sun. The only neighbors are a family of farmers who live across the street. They raise turkeys that wander into his parents’ yard, poking their prehistoric faces into the bathroom window, which is low to the ground. Turkeys are very curious, unlike the chickens that huddle in tight congregations and squawk obscenities when I pass, no doubt sensing my urban beginnings – the particularly hurried gait. No, I am not interested in chickens, nor in raccoons. What I really want to see is a moose, to feel dwarfed by its immensity, to feel powerless and inconsequential, like Nick when he first came to Philadelphia and spent an entire afternoon gazing up at the skyscrapers.
I remember once reading a Cree legend about a grandmother who is also a moose. She gives her own two shinbones to her human grandson to use as ice picks during his travels, so that he can climb mountains. I think Nick would hand over his shin bones, too, but I’ll never ask. And maybe that is why I’ve come so far from home, from the scarred cement streets of Philadelphia, to this quiet university in New Hampshire. Because the people I love keep dying, or else they are drowning in grief, and there is too much responsibility in all that grieving. It is selfish, I know, but I am learning to forgive myself. I left the place where people need me, and I need them, and I’m climbing mountains in this new relationship with a solid, healthy man from Maine. We are only a year old together, all animal instinct, and he still handles me like I am of a rare and reckless breed, like something that might take off running with the next rustle in the trees. And, truly, I might. This new consistency can be unnerving.
“Yeah, we can go,” Nick says, still staring at the raccoon.