During the phone conversation with my brother, I’d heard a few clicks on the line. I took it as a sign that someone else had tried calling the number while I was talking, probably Harry. I’d hidden my car behind the barn on my arrival at my friend’s house, hoping that Harry would assume I wasn’t here if he drove by. Now, however, he’d suspect I was here and it was plausible to think he would drive around the back of the barn looking for my car. In his anger, he would stop at nothing. If he came here looking for me, I’d have no choice but to call the police. I didn’t want a showdown at this house. I didn’t want to cause problems for my friends. It would be best for everyone concerned if I just left. I’d hoped Tracy and Jim would come home so I could explain my sudden disappearance to them, but now I realized I was out of time.
In the kitchen, I put away my cup and left a short note by the phone, then set the burglar alarm and left the house. The Croner residence was a huge home with horses, barns and two gated entrances. I left by the back gate which had a coded lock and was used less, hopefully reducing my chance of running into Harry. Once on the country lane, I headed in the direction Harry was least likely to travel. Now what? Where on earth should I go and what the heck am I going to do? I considered visiting Mary and Roy as they had always provided a safe haven for me in the past. Then I would be putting them in the same jeopardy as Tracy and Jim if Harry found me at their home. Harry would already be pestering Mary and Roy with endless calls, and would no doubt drive by their home at some point, possibly even knocking on the door and gaining entry by force. I feared the scene that would occur should he find me there and the trouble it would cause my dearest friends. Had I not learned from the past? Was I going to repeat the same mistakes? No! not this time. This time I’ll do something he’ll never even think of. This time I won’t seek refuge with my friends, nor will I stay at a motel where he might spot my car. This time I’ll leave town, and—and—camp. Yes, I’ll head to Potato Creek State Park and camp, he’ll never dream of looking for me there. I felt sure Harry would never expect me to camp alone as I’d never camped alone before. It was a good plan.
So I drove west, away from the industrial town of Elkhart, toward South Bend and the campground we had visited the previous summer. As far as I knew, Potato Creek State Park was the only campground in the area, yet still, far enough away he might not think of it. I felt heartened now I had a plan. The confusion about what to do was gone and the decision felt right, a totally different plan than the previous times I’d left him. This decision was a huge step for me, I was finally breaking away from my self-destructive pattern and it felt good.
During the drive, the song “It’s a Wild World” by Cat Stevens, came on the radio and I started thinking about my decision to go-it-alone. Okay dear, so you think you can do it alone, well it’s a wild world out there so you’d better protect yourself. It dawned on me that everything I owned in the world was circled around me, encompassed in this vessel made of metal, plastic, and rubber. This car and its contents were all I had and I couldn’t risk losing it.
At the next Wal-Mart store, I bought some plastic cutlery realizing I’d forgotten to grab any in my haste to get out of the house. Next, I bought a steering wheel lock and a sturdy black plastic box with a lock and chain that could be fastened to something solid to prevent theft. With these last two purchases, I could secure my vehicle and my important paperwork and jewelry. Although this wasn’t a 100% guarantee against theft, at least it might thwart a casual thief. I secured the box to the hinges in the trunk of my car and strung a spare car key around my neck. Now I couldn’t get locked out of my car. I can do this. It just takes a little thinking out. You’re on the right track girl, screw Harry. You don’t need him. You can manage on your own.
During the rest of the drive to the State Park, I played my favorite tape, Borderlands, a collection of beautiful music from around the world by V. Keith Mason. Its haunting music left my heart feeling heavy. There was drama in this music, a tragic sureness. It fell in harmony with my feelings, the dramatic overtures filling the empty part of my heart with a finality that could not be reversed. The lilting tones lifted my feelings and made me feel hopeful. The roller-coaster of music rose and fell in perfect sync with my own erratic emotions. I knew there was no turning back, my body tingled with this knowledge. My future was a mystery yet to be revealed, and it began right here in this park, as I faced my first-night camping alone.
At the State Park, I paid for two nights of camping with electricity. When Harry and I camped we always got a spot with electricity. We would plug-in a fan to help ease the hot, humid, summer nights in Indiana, and in the morning set up the coffee pot for freshly brewed coffee, far more preferable than the instant kind. It did not occur to me now that I had no fan or coffee pot, and could have saved money by getting a primitive site. However, the words “primitive camping” were far from my vocabulary. The people who camped in those spots were a world away from the type of camping Harry and I had always done, and I did not understand them. Those people kept to themselves in their secluded little corner of the campground, never venturing into the livelier, noisier and brighter areas. When we went for walks after dark it felt like we were intruding when we approached the primitive camp spots, so we always stayed in the cheerier areas, with people piling wood on huge fires, radios blaring and lights chasing darkness from all corners.
Our camping experiences were for fun. We ate a lot, played the radio and Harry got drunk around the fire, while I got a little tipsy. When camping with friends, guitars, fiddles, and spoons often appeared as if by magic and familiar songs resonated to the stars. Funny cigarettes passed around and sometimes, in the earlier years, harder drugs were snorted in the shadows of the trees. I had always enjoyed the camping experience, with the exception of the drugs and smoking, which I never participated in. The camping trips that involved drugs had not been fun for me and thinking of them made me shiver. I tried hard to shoo the images from my mind, but they persisted as I looked for my designated camp spot.
Harry would get weird when he did drugs. He’d want me to have sex in the bushes, just feet away from someone else’s tent. When I refused he’d call me a prissy, and tell me I was useless and no fun. One time he tried to force me and I barely got away, but he made up for it in the tent. No, those particular camping trips were not fun, I spent most of them walking on pins, every word I uttered and every step I took was carefully calculated to avoid triggering his anger. But it was hard to guess what might set him off. It could be something as simple as glancing at a couple who were walking by and he’d accuse me of flirting with the man. From that point on, the whole trip would be ruined.
Pitching the tent proved to be pretty simple, as this had always been my task on camping trips. I had pitched this tent with no help on dark rainy nights, in the heat of the afternoon while killer-sized mosquitoes fed on my flesh, and during snowfalls in the winter. We’d purchased the two-person, four-season Spalding tent at K-Mart about four years ago. It had served us well and was still in pretty good shape. Now the pieces came together easily, and soon I was hammering stakes into the ground to secure my temporary home.
Realizing I had an electrical outlet at my disposal, I decided to make use of my computer. I felt rather silly as I hauled the monolithic beast from the back seat of my car. This computer had been a gift from Shelby, a dear friend of mine who lived by computers. This one was about two years old, ran entirely off DOS, and was already considered a dinosaur. By the time I had it set up in my tent, along with a dot-matrix printer, it took up half the floor, and the back seat of my car was half empty. With the computer purring in front of my crossed legs, I typed a letter to Harry. Below is a shortened version of the original letter:
Tuesday, September 24, 1996
You know why I left, you know what you did, and the drinking isn’t the only reason. There were many other problems in our marriage. I tried to talk to you, but you wouldn’t listen.
I only took what is mine. I left the kitchen utilities, the furniture, decorations, washer/dryer etc. I only took what I needed and a few things that were important to me. I took the $1,200 that was in the bank in exchange for all the household items. I have a lot more invested in them than that. As for the credit card balance, I think all the time I put into fixing this house up, along with the beautiful garden, is a fair exchange. You will benefit from all the work I invested. You will own this home one day, and its value has increased because of all our hard work.
You drove me away Harry, and I want a divorce at your expense. You have a secure, well-paying job now, mainly because of my support and encouragement. I have been there for you through the worst of it. I helped you build a new life. But I can’t take it anymore. When we got married you promised you’d give me a divorce if you started drinking again, but when you started drinking again, I stuck with you instead. I went through the drinking and rehab stages with you again and again, and I don’t think you considered once how hard it was for me to stand by your side through all that. Sometime ago you asked what was bothering me, and I told you I was concerned about your drinking again. To this, you scoffed in my face, and rolled your eyes as if to say “here we go again.” At that moment something inside me died. The little bit of love I had left for you flew out the window, and that is why I haven’t been very loving recently.
So Harry lets just get this over and done with. You promised me a divorce if you started drinking again, well it’s time to prove your word is good. Please hire a lawyer and file for divorce, have him contact Mary for my address. I don’t want anything else from you, you can keep it all. I don’t want to see you or speak to you again. I will hang around in this country until the divorce is finalized. Please get on with it, so we can both get on with our lives. And please don’t bother Mary and Roy, or Jim. I am not staying with them, I have left the State and I will not be back. Please let them be, they have enough to deal with as it is. You have accused me of being unfaithful, but I have never had an affair with anyone, I have been totally faithful. You blew it, Harry. It’s over.
My finger hesitated for the briefest moment before hitting the print button. The dot matrix sprang to life and my words appeared boldly on the crisp white paper. I WON’T BE BACK— DIVORCE —YOU PROMISED TO LET ME GO. This was it. By dropping this letter in the mail I would be ending it all. After it was printed, I realized the words might make him angry, but I shrugged it off. He’d get angry no matter what I wrote. If the words were gentle they would make him mad, if they were demanding, they would make him mad. There were no right or wrong words for this letter. Besides I was too tired to care anymore. I folded the paper into thirds and secured it in an envelope. In my tiny stationery kit, I found a stamp then set the envelope safely in my glove box. I would mail it tomorrow.
Back in the tent, I studied the computer. What the heck am I going to do with this thing on the road? It’s useless really. All I use it for is writing letters, it takes up so much room. I printed out another copy of the letter to Harry for my records and copied the few files I had onto a 6” floppy disk. Well, I may as well get rid of the darned thing, I can write letters by hand from here-on.
That decided, I removed the cables from the computer and put it outside the tent. Should I just put it in the trash? Could I sell it? I suppose it’s worth a try. I then proceeded to attack the pile of belongings in my car. I didn’t know where anything was, and I had to find something to sleep on. As I tugged at the heap of stuff, clothing, blankets and photo albums spilled out onto the grass, but soon I had a pile of blankets and a pillow inside the tent. I folded them neatly into thirds and piled them on top of each other, then lay on it. Not too bad, a little lumpy. I removed the stone from under the tent. Now I had a bed.
It was fun to tackle the rest of the rubble. I was amazed how easy it was to just toss things. Soon, I had several piles I wanted to keep on the picnic table, and a heap of stuff to toss away on the ground: Photo albums, picture frames, paperwork and some dresses that were too big for me. When I originally grabbed these items I wasn’t thinking, being in such a hurry to get out of there I’d just scooped things up rather than picking through them carefully. If I grabbed this much stuff I don’t need, I wonder what I left behind that I do need? I emptied the car-top carrier and reloaded it with the belongings I wanted to keep but would not need while camping: Wedgwood china, some heavy winter clothes, and boots, photographs I’d removed from the albums and frames to create more room and less weight while traveling. There was also a lovely quilt with matching shams I didn’t want to get dirty. On the back seat, my clothes and towels lay neatly folded. The trunk was almost empty except for a few camping supplies. This was where I would store my tent and bedding once I packed up camp. On the passenger seat sat the computer, the VCR and some clothes for the resale shop.
Several walkers had passed by my camp, peering over curiously, trying not to appear nosy. As I hauled the items I no longer wanted to the trash can, I noticed them watching me from various corners of the camp. Many of the items I was tossing were perfectly good. The photo albums were leather and like new, and the frames were oak so I set these on a rock near the trash can. On my second trip, I noticed they were already gone.
When I had finally cleaned up everything, I was stunned to realize how little I had. When the items on the passenger seat were gone, I’d have plenty of room in the car, having narrowed my belongings down to a handful of photos, two suitcases of clothing, some camping gear and a few family heirlooms. I expected to feel depressed at having given up so much. Instead, I felt invigorated, airy and light. Getting rid of these items had been like a cleansing, I didn’t need them to survive, they were just things. Tired though I was, there was still a spring in my step as I walked toward the showers for a much-deserved cleansing of a different type.
The hot water felt amazing as it pummeled my shoulders. Tension leaked from my pores and washed down the drain. As I worked the kinks out under the stream of hot water, I thought about all the stuff I’d gotten rid of. It dawned on me that I’d prepared my car for a long journey, rather than for finding a rental apartment nearby. When had I made the decision to hit the road? I wasn’t sure, but the idea was very appealing and it felt like the right thing to do.
It was now about 5:30 PM and some distant part of me remembered that it had only been 24 hours since Harry had opened his first beer. It almost seemed impossible. I struggled with the notion that this time yesterday I had a home with a real bed, a closet full of clothes, a bathroom, some cupboards full of food— and a kitchen sink. My stomach growled at the thought of food and brought me back to the present. I was starving!
Back at the tent, I found the only food I remembered grabbing: a can of baked beans. Uh oh, I forgot to grab a can opener. I improvised by resting the point of a kitchen knife on the top of the can and hitting it with a hammer which I always kept in my car. Instantly, the tip of the knife broke off. It took a while to punch holes all the way around with the knife now blunted, but once I’d peeled back the jagged top, the cold baked beans tasted heavenly.
The light of day was fading now and the coolness of dusk was creeping into camp, the shadows growing darker. I drove around the campsite inspecting each empty fire pit hoping to find some unburned wood, but all I could find were ashes. The other campers watched me from a distance, and I felt uncomfortable knowing that by now, all of them knew I was alone and had been through something serious that day. I was relieved that none of them stopped me to ask questions. My pursuit of firewood took me out of the park and along the highway. After about five miles I saw a sign advertising firewood for sale. In the farmyard, another sign said the wood was $4 a bundle, and a bundle comprised all you could hold in your arms. My load was so high my vision was impaired, as I tried to make up for my short arms. I put some free kindling on top of the pile heaped in the trunk, dropped my $4 in the slotted box, and returned to camp.
I was now looking forward to having a fire and searched around for paper. Rats, why didn’t I get some paper? Stupid girl! Now, what are you going to start the fire with? In desperation I looked through everything I had that might hold paper: The glove box, the doors, the trunk, and finally came up with my last two pieces of computer paper and the information brochures about the State Park. Luckily, I had remembered to grab matches in my hasty escape and now had the makings of a fire.
I’d never built a campfire before but had watched Harry many times. Harry had been the wood chopper and campfire cook. It was the only time he cooked and I was always happy to sit back and let him do it. I tried to remember the secrets of campfire building. With only a little paper I had to get it right the first time, otherwise, I was doomed to a dark and chilly evening.
Carefully, I scrunched up the paper into balls and put the driest, smallest pieces of kindling on top of the paper, placing larger pieces close by the fire pit. When the match hit the paper balls they sprang to life. Red tongues licked at the kindling, dancing wildly and casting a welcoming glow on the insides of the fire ring, but just as suddenly as they rose, the flames died down to tiny glowing eyes amidst a small pile of flurrying black paper.
“No, no, you can’t do that to me! Come back! No, no!” I panicked, shouting into the fire ring as though my urgent plea would bring the flames back to life. Quickly I got to my knees and blew on the paper, for a split second the flames rose, winked at me, and then vanished again. I stared at the fire pit helplessly. The kindling I’d so carefully laid across the paper was barely touched, a tiny edge of black the only evidence that fire had danced beneath it. “Shit,” I cursed. “Rats, now what? Toilet paper! The bathrooms, yes I’ll steal some toilet paper.
With a toilet paper roll in hand, I tried again, this time making the fire very small, and actually holding the match to some of the dryer kindling. Five matches later, I was rewarded with the tiniest crackling sound as the wood gave its final gift to mankind—heat. The tiny crackles and pops were music to my ears. Carefully I added more pieces of kindling until I had a small, cheery fire warming my hands.
Recently I’d favored books such as The Clan of the Cave Bear and other stories centered on Native American culture. In one such book, I’d read that Native Americans were able to build a cooking fire with only three pieces of wood, and they believed in having a small fire and sitting close to it, rather than building a large fire and sitting far away. With this in mind, I set three pieces of wood and a handful of kindling under my car for protection from the elements. September in Indiana could produce rain or snow with little warning.
I moved the picnic table close to the fire and sat with slumped shoulders. My thoughts drifted back to the warm home on Green Blvd., the new puppy I’d left in the backyard; even the bed I envisioned appeared welcoming. Fresh tears sprung to the corners of my eyes. My god girl, you’re sobbing over that bed! Shake it off. Have you forgotten the horrors that went on in that bedroom? The bed in this tent is a much safer place to be! Disgusted with myself, I swiped at the tears and jumped from the bench. I had not yet explored the area around my tent and set to this task now as though my life depended on it. I’d felt fine while staying busy, but now self-pity swamped over me, and I hated myself for it.
Behind the tent, away from the firelight, I listened to the noises of the night, trying to become accustomed to them before going to bed. There were the sounds of popping wood and car doors closing. Voices carried on the cool night air; laughter; the hiss of a beer can opening; someone flushing a toilet; a pair of birds called goodnight to each other across the empty lot next to mine, their eerie screeches piercing my soul. White breath clouded my vision as I exhaled, the nip in the air now biting at my flesh. Then my toe bumped something on the ground. It appeared to be a knife. By firelight, I was surprised to see it was a butterfly knife, the kind where the blade flicks out at the flip of a wrist. I flipped out the blade and quickly learned that its dirty condition had not affected its sharpness. Goodness, what a huge blade, it must be four inches long. Is it legal? but I could not recall the legal length of such a blade. I inspected it carefully for any signs of blood, my mind becoming fearful now that night was here. To my relief, it appeared clean.
For the next 35 minutes, I nursed the fire. It was small, as I only had a limited amount wood. I focused on the licking flames and hoped they would calm my restless mind, but the constant chatter inside my head almost drove me to screaming point. As the flames retreated into burning embers, my mind finally calmed, and I felt a sleepiness drift behind my eyes. An annoying spiral of smoke from the end of a burned-out log pestered me, and I finally dragged myself toward the tent.
Once under the covers, I arranged my few items. I put the flashlight by my side where it was easy to access with my left hand. My right hand lay casually on top of the butterfly knife, first closed, then opened, then closed. I could not decide which was the safest. Supposing I rolled over onto it during the night and cut myself, or worse, stabbed myself? But then what if someone came to the tent, would I be able to get it open in time? I practiced flipping the knife open a few times in the dark, but decided it was too dangerous and left it laying on the floor of the tent, open and ready for action.
What was that! I tensed, alert to the noise that came from the back of the tent but heard nothing more. Silly girl, it’s just a mouse or a bird settling for the night, quit spooking yourself and go to sleep. Harry hasn’t found you here yet and he won’t come looking during the night. Besides, he’d never think of looking for you here. The other campers though, they saw you set up camp alone, what if one of them came over? What if one was a man camping alone? And—and—Arrrrrrghhhhhhhh. “Stop it, shut up. Go to sleep!”
I reached for the foam earplugs I never slept without and inserted them in my ears. As the foam expanded, the popping of dying wood faded and the rustle of the bushes behind the tent vanished. With no sounds to keep my mind active, exhaustion finally took over and I drifted off to sleep. I’d turned myself into a nervous wreck with my last thoughts and the knife now lay on my chest, open, and ready for whatever may come in the night.
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