“Do you have the parking pass?” I asked Em.
“Yeah, it’s right here.”
“Don’t you think we should put it in the windshield?”
“I will. I’m just changing my shoes.”
“I just don’t want to forget and get a ticket and have to pay even more.”
“I will, in a second.”
“I really don’t want to forget, though.”
“Here.” Em fished the parking pass from her pocket and tossed it to me. I missed, and the wind’s long fingers caught the pass and pulled it over our heads. It twisted in the air like it had been enchanted, or more likely possessed, and then it dropped, landing two meters away and then three.
I lunged and missed and lunged again, this time catching the corner with my toe.
“That was…” I didn’t finish, and Em didn’t say anything. She tied her shoes and climbed past me onto the bus.
I climbed in, too, but kept quiet, feeling like there was a string tied around my throat and that my skin was made of zippers.
We were supposed to be happy now. We’d made it to Parc National de la Jacques Cartier just outside of Quebec City, and we were supposed to go on hikes and swim in rivers and see green, green, green for as far as we could see, only there was still something wrong with us.
Em was a mouse trap and I was a mouse trap, and every time we got close to each other, both traps snapped.
We wanted to be nice to each other. We wanted to run soft fingers across soft skin and whisper promises to each other like we were young and in love and newly married with our whole lives before us, but the day before, we’d sat in our unairconditioned bus in 35°C weather. We’d taken wrong turn after wrong turn through downtown Montreal rush hour, sweating and stressing and sure we would crash. We’d spent an entire week’s budget on gas, and had failed at our first night of free wild camping in Quebec City.
Now, we’d just paid $60 to enter the park and sleep in the parking lot for the night. We were beginning to suspect that the trip we’d planned would be nothing like we thought it would be, and I was beginning to suspect that I wasn’t the person I thought I was, either.
I put the parking pass in the windshield, and Em drove us down a potholed road with everything we owned slamming around in the back of our bus. We still weren’t speaking to each other, and every time our bus slammed into a hole, both of us winced like the other had yelled.
Em pulled the bus into a parking space at a trailhead and got out. There was a river to one side, and we were at the base of an enormous mountain, the earth in folds around us, and Em and I too small to ever matter to anyone but ourselves.
I climbed out of the bus, too, to see green, green, green and sparkling water and Em standing there and the space between us that shouldn’t have been there.
We’d been married for less than four weeks by then, and maybe this was all a mistake, the trip, the marriage and every decision we’d ever made that had ever led up to this. Something had gone very wrong along the way, and this was my life now, and there was no way of getting out of it.
Em looked at the mountain instead of at me.
I studied the back of her neck and her perfect ear, so small you could keep it in your pocket and no one would know it was there, and I loved her. It was this aching sort of love like a meaty ball in the center of my chest, bloody and muscly and not always beautiful, but always there.
She wouldn’t look at me, and if she turned I knew I’d turn away, and I had no idea what we were doing there and how we’d turned into the sort of people who fought about when to put a parking pass on a dashboard.
I thought maybe there was no hope for anyone, that everyone is always unhappy no matter where they go or what they do, and then I saw a flash of white and Em reaching her hand to me. She was still looking at the mountain, but she pulled me forwards as she started to climb.
We stayed close together as we hiked, letting go of each other to gain our balance and then reaching out again. There were triangles of light on the path ahead, and we could smell the fresh scent of the forest that can never be recreated no matter how many candles you buy.
We walked in silence for a while and then we didn’t, one of us made a joke and the other added on. We almost felt like ourselves again, knowing each other and knowing we were there together, alive in the woods and part of everything like we were the trees and the trees were us, the plants breathing in what we breathed out, and up ahead we saw the deer.
The deer was frozen and we froze, too, then slowly moved forwards again.
Already, we’d never been so close to a deer before. We could see its chest moving as it breathed, and its black, intelligent eyes.
And then the deer moved, too, not to spring away from us, but to come forwards, cautious and curious like a child.
Em and I stilled again, but the deer kept coming. It walked until its nose was against Em’s leg and it was licking her knee.
Em stood there and I stood there, and we looked at each other for maybe the first time all day, and then we looked back down at this wild deer who seemed to be telling us something that we maybe already knew but had forgotten.
I held out my hand and the deer came and licked it, Em and me and the deer, the three of us in the forest, and this reminder that whatever happened, whatever unknown and uncomfortable experience was ahead of us, there would also be moments like this.
There would be sweat, and there would be tears, and there would be real-life deer in the forest, licking our hands and reminding us of what we’d forgotten, reminding us that every decision leads to every other decision, and wherever we are is special and important because it’s where we are.
There were an almost-infinite number of other ways our lives might have gone, but instead they went this way, a whole world out there and a whole lifetime of yeses and nos, and some of them were maybe wrong and some of them were definitely right, and somehow we ended up in the middle of a forest on top of a mountain with a deer licking our hands. We could have been anywhere but instead we were there, and from there, there was no turning back, Em and me and the deer, alive and ready for whatever might happen next.