“When I smile at you,” said Randolph, kneeling beside the fire-pit and awakening his fingers on Cassidy’s silken bangs, “I only want you to smile back if that’s how you feel.”
She shrugged and lightly pressed his hand away, conscious of the perspiration layering her forehead. “I just don’t like to leave you hanging,” she said.
“You leave me hanging anyway,” Randolph replied, “while I try to figure out what you’re really thinking.”
“I’m thinking my eyes hurt,” Cassidy said. She stood up from beside the desperate flames and thought of tossing in yet another chunk of wet wood, whether to stoke the flames or choke them, she wasn’t sure. But she and Randolph had been working at this hearth for over an hour and these paltry orange licks were all they had to show for it.
What more was there to do? The sky was turning black; dingy clouds just obscured the net of stars hanging between man and heaven. A clear view of it, at least, would be nice.
The drive lasted five hours, and deposited them on the chin of this verdant mountain, tired and hungry. But a just-add-water dinner, or a sandwich, wouldn’t suffice. They took this journey, in part, to watch their protein-rich food sizzle over an open fire, burning in a hand-dug pit in front of them. So tonight, by god, they would have fire.
“When I smile,” Randolph began, “I just want you to know that I’m here, and that I love you and I want to take care of you.”
“I know,” Cassidy said, placing the log above the aspiring heat, to help some of the moisture evaporate. “I just don’t want to talk about it.”
“I’m not asking you to talk.”
“If I don’t smile, you’ll know something’s wrong, and then you will.”
Her predetermination fascinated him while he found it quietly infuriating. In her green eyes he saw all of the resolve of one wishing for distance.
“I know something’s wrong anyway, sweetie, I always do. You don’t have to talk to me about it, just don’t smile if you don’t feel like smiling.”
“No, you’ll ask me to talk about it.”
“It’s hard to know something’s bothering you and to not…”
“Shh,” she interjected. “Do you hear that?”
He exhaled the rest of his thought. “What?”
“I think it’s a raccoon.”
“Sorry,” Cassidy said, standing up and flipping the suspended log to its other side.
“Anyway, I was saying it’s hard to know something’s bothering you and be unable to say or do anything about it.”
“Exactly,” Cassidy said. She flicked a daddy-longlegs from her shoulder without a flinch. Randolph remembered last year, when, at first, she trembled at the mere mention.
“Right, but I don’t have to ask you to talk about it. I could just leave it alone, if you’d prefer. But I still don’t want to see you smiling at me if it’s not how you really feel. If you don’t feel like a smile inside, don’t smile.”
“But,” she said. She collapsed into the folding chair and began to twirl her curls into themselves.
“But if I don’t smile, I’ll be admitting… look, I can’t think about what’s bothering me, I don’t want to think about it because it just makes me sad. I have to act like nothing’s wrong as much as possible. That’s the only way I’ll have a good time on this trip. I really…babe, I really don’t want to get depressed on this trip; I just want to have a normal time, that’s all.”
“If you smile, you’re not being yourself, you’re not being normal, you’re being weird.”
“Look, baby.” He dropped the book of matches into the fire, watched it briefly flare up and die down into ash. “I know you, and all I’m asking is that you don’t bullshit me. Don’t fake a smile, it doesn’t work on me, and the more you do it the worse I know you’re doing. Then, you know what I’ll do?”
“What?” Cassidy was standing again, bent over him, her hands on her hips and even the tiniest of the tiny flames burned in her eyes like real anger.
“I’ll ask you what’s wrong.”
“And I’ll say nothing.”
He turned back to the fire, fanning the flames again and again with his broad-brimmed hat, trying to persuade them towards a stronger form of life. Soon, his hat became limp.
“Should’ve brought some damn firestarter,” he said.
“Yeah,” said Cassidy. “Look, I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
“Babe, it’s just that you have to understand how I feel when you can’t share this shit with me and how am I supposed to act when I know…”
She raised her hand, silenced him.
“What?” he said.
“Listen,” she replied. “Robins, all the way out here?”
“Must be lost,” Randolph muttered. Again, he exhaled a resignation of his thought.
“Sorry,” she said. “What were you saying?”
“Nothing,” he said. “If you don’t want to talk about it, we won’t talk about it.” He grabbed the log above the fire, the one she’d been trying to dry out, and dropped it directly into the dull orange maw. Soon, the last of the orange crinkled away, leaving smoke and steam and a modicum of heat.
“Babe!” she said. “I was trying to dry that one out.”
“Well, it’s dry. It’s completely dry now.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean forget it. I’m making a sandwich. Want one?”
“It would be really nice to cook something but I’m just getting sick of fucking around.”
“Actually, babe, let me have a try at it, before you make your sandwich.”
He paused by the cooler, opening and closing the lid just for fun.
Cassidy took a new book of matches from his hand and knelt down by the fire pit. She started building a pyramid of tinder. With fresh lungs, she blew a breeze, and with a single matchs, lighted the structure at both ends.
Cassidy was determined to make it work for her and Randolph, to disprove the belief in the backs of their minds that there was no point, that this was all a waste of time.