It was the last full day of our honeymoon. We spent the morning trail riding through the Smoky Mountains. The weather was perfect, as it had been all week, 75 degrees and not a single cloud to mar the robin’s egg color of the Tennessee sky. This was our second day in Cades Cove and we’d only seen a single wild turkey during our ride. We made occasional small talk, a few chuckles at my vain attempts to urge my lazy nag into a trot to keep from being run over by a much larger stallion on the way down a very steep decline. For the most part we basked in the listening silence of the primordial forest, broken only by the flick of a tail, the twitch of a mane, and the crackle of the dry, fall leaves under our beasts’ heavy hooves.
We ate sandwiches out of the car, pulled over by a steep ravine. We talked of how we could have ridden all day. My inner thighs were sore and I was still getting my land legs back. Li got out to smoke a cigarette and I took a few pictures with my ancient Cannon. Lacking the immediacy of a digital camera, I still thrill to the surprise of picking up my photos at the drugstore, holding them in my hands. Tactile things, memories that I can place in an actual book to peruse on rainy days for years to come.
We returned to the 11 mile loop of Cades Cove, bypassing the buildings we’d stopped at earlier in the week. It was Saturday and the tourists were out in droves. We crept along at a snail’s pace. Bumper to bumper. I opened my window and slid in a CD of southern hymns played on the hammer dulcimer that we’d picked up at the Craftsman’s Fair the day before. Strains of Wayfarin’ Stranger echoed from our old Subaru and out into the early afternoon as we inched forward through the checkerboard. Light. Shadow. Light. Shadow.
It wasn’t long before we came across a huge field, empty save for one large fallen tree. It was long dead and stripped bare of its bark. The limbs were gnarled and created amazing shapes that criss-crossed one another. It begged to be photographed and Li stopped the car at the next pull-away. We both got out and started across the field. She was ahead of me as I stopped to take some shots of the breathtaking mountains flanking the fields all around us. They cradled us and I felt intense peace and happiness. Until I heard barking. Barking made by humans. Boys. Not young boys. Older boys. Young men.
I froze. I couldn’t turn around. I didn’t know which of us this abhorrent sign of disrespect was directed at but I was no longer standing in two feet of grass in a Tennessee field on a perfect day celebrating the culmination of the best two weeks of my life. I was 12 years old. I was walking down the hall of my elementary school. Lockers on one side, classroom doors open on the other. A water fountain. A group of boys. Faceless. Nameless. I am in that horrible awkward pre-teen phase of life. Large, thick glasses adorn my thin face with its mouth full of metal braces, I wear a plaid skirt that just skims my bruised and knobby knees, I remember knee socks white with blue stripes and feet clad in something we called earth shoes. Whatever I wore on top doesn’t matter. I was flat-chested, late in life to bloom. All angles, greasy hair, desperately unhappy, and…being barked at on my way to my next class.
The idyll was broken. Shattered. I forced myself to walk toward Li. Mechanically, I lifted the camera to my face. I framed a photo of the downed tree. Snapped a few shots. We spoke little. I looked at her in her cowboy hat and riding boots. No hips or breasts to speak of. Broad shoulders and wiry musculature. Certainly, they could not have, without hearing her voice, perceived her as female. No one ever does. So, was it me? Self-doubt and humiliation flew all over me. A lump settled somewhere between my stomach and my throat. I fled back to the car and rolled up the window. I wouldn’t look her way. I couldn’t. Hot tears flowed down my face. My breath hitched raggedly. Li gripped my hand. She was angered in ways she couldn’t express. In a single instant everything felt ruined. We had gone from being surrounded by an enormous amount of love and acceptance to…this.
Eventually cars pulled away and we caught up to those boys with only two cars between us. My focus became nothing but those boys. Teenage rednecks sprawled foolishly atop a compact car. Three boys and one girl with long black tresses, leaning back, laughing, kissing her boyfriend. I felt the hate as it bubbled up within me. I willed them to pull over so I could get out and get it out of my system. I needed to speak to them. I first thought of all of the hurtful, angry things I could say to them. Then I thought of all the witty things I could say, those things that would go right over their heads, lost on them but gratifying to me at least. Those things I could gloat about later. Laugh about with my friends.
I was solely focused on that car. Those boys. I stopped looking around me. The day was waning. Late afternoon and I had let those boys live rent free in my head for the better part of the last day of my honeymoon. They never did pull over. At one point a black bear crossed the road directly in front of their car and I inwardly chastised myself for hoping that it would drag one of them off into the woods by his sneaker clad ankle. I often say that hate is a wasted emotion and when it wells up in me I am reminded of why that is. It is a bitter black bile that hurts to swallow. That day…that day that should have been a perfect day…was marred by a little catcalling by some teenage boys who probably never gave it another thought. Boys who had no idea that their actions carried with them the weight of 34 years of emotional scars. Boys who, I hope, will someday learn that their silly little games and hoots, hollers, and barking, actually do hurt people and , perhaps someday, they may be on the receiving end of that hurt and may think twice before they do unto others.
We processed the events of that day together. And alone. I am still working out my issues surrounding those events. I suspect Li is as well. Her story may be quite a different one. I hope she tells it.