Welcome back, Dear Reader! If you’ve read Excerpt 1, feel free to skip this preamble to the meat a few paragraphs down. If you haven’t, well, thanks for joining me!
These are exciting times for your ol’ pal Jerry – after talking about it for most of my life, I finally put the proverbial money and mouth together and started my first novel, Of Dreams & Angels, in the fall of 2019. It’s still in the first draft, but I thought it would be fun to start putting pieces of it (and thereby my entire f***ing soul, don’t you know!) out into the universe. Maybe you’ll get caught up in the intrigue and start following along too.
The synopsis – well, before we get to that, Stephen King, in his memoir On Writing, wrote that many of his stories can be expressed as a What-if question, and after reading that, my imagination (as it pertained to story ideas) started framing situations that way. Of Dreams is this question: What if a man started dreaming about a woman he’d never met, but who actually exists; falls in love with her based on what he sees in the dreams and sets out to find her?
Don’t ask me where it came from, and believe me when I say I’m just as shocked as you are that my first idea for a novel – ok maybe not the first idea in the grand scope of my life, but the first one to make it to fruition – was a fantastical love story. But as soon as I thought of it, *I* wanted to know what would happen, which made me think others might want to, too.
At all rates, here you have it, Dear Reader (also a not-so-subtle borrow from Mr. King, who as you may know refers to us as “Constant Reader”) – another excerpt from Of Dreams & Angels. We find our protagonist Joe, an alone-but-not-lonely bachelor-type on a hike in the mountains, meditating on life, love, and possibilities. Enjoy.
And for Joe, he left those same relationships more disillusioned than before, viewing couple-hood as nothing more than two people trying to indulge their biological and emotional needs for a time, but in the end, ultimately compromising one another. There were too many layers, too much complexity. Most of it seemed to amount to little more than a protracted game of who could compel vulnerability from their partner without acceding too much of their own heart. A disillusioned friend once said “The person who cares less in a relationship is ultimately the one with the power,” and Joe had experienced little evidence in his own dalliances to suggest this wasn’t true. One person always fell harder than the other, and that was the person who inevitably got hurt. It was dangerous to be that person. Vulnerability was a trap.
All at once he hated that this was where his mind went when it came to relationships; he knew some part of his encased and fortified heart longed to believe it wasn’t true. But just as he had followed the path of “Decide what you want to do, go to school, become that thing, wait for your raises and promotions,” he had briefly walked a similar path when it came to “love” as well. “Decide who you want to be with, date, move in together, propose, marry, have children,” having just stopped short of the latter two. Rachel had been a good girl – sweet, trusting, honorable – but even at 23 she carried enough pain and patterning and paradigms (they both did) to make Joe realize (thankfully, he thought now) that one is never really dating just the one human being. We’re in relationship with everyone who has ever held sway over that person. We’re not just dating the woman (or man), he’d think, we’re dating their mother and father, brothers and sisters, and every single person who has held their heart – for better or worse – up to that point. Rachel had been beautiful, wickedly intelligent, studious and ambitious, but in their mutual inexperience of knowing (if anyone ever could) the necessary ingredients and recipe for a successful relationship, they had done untold damage to one another’s hearts. Rachel had long ago moved on – literally, had moved across the country – but Joe’s heart had not.
Not in the sense of yearning for her, but in the scars that remained. After their slowly dissolving relationship made its final death gasp in the form of Rachel’s announcement she was going to pursue her graduate degree at McGill – which might as well been half the world away in the universe of a young relationship – and due to her scholarships would “Need to focus on nothing but school; can’t have any distractions these next couple of years,” Joe had taken his mortally wounded heart and dealt with it as an animal deals with illness or injury. Alone. He wasn’t about to fight for someone who viewed his heart and love as a “distraction”, though cognitively – and certainly later on with the benefit of wisdom that is only ever extracted from looking back – he knew that’s not what she meant, or at least entirely.
She was hurting too, and likely under the coded language of “needing to focus” and “can’t have distractions” she was really saying “You and I, in all our fallibility, occupy all my thoughts and emotions. I want us to work but I can’t carry this pain at the same time I’m trying to build my life.” On that last day he had seen her off at the airport along with her parents, and after his ne’er-to-be in-laws stepped away, she handed him back the engagement ring adorned with the tiny rock he had scrimped for with the serving jobs squeezed in after his own undergraduate hours. When she quietly whispered in his ear “I know you loved me, and please know I truly loved you, but maybe love is having the courage to do the hard thing when things are impossibly hard,” Joe had taken his pain and gone underground. In doing so he vowed he would never be that open again, he would never be the one who cared more or who had shown his cards first.
Joe was certain that a therapist would have a field day if (should he ever require therapy that the mountains and trails couldn’t offer) he ever coughed up that information. He knew in that pivotal moment of donning that particular armor he had likely sacrificed untold gifts and emotions and growth and connection. But he also knew he had successfully never been hurt like that again. Not even close. He had resolved then and there to build his life without compromise, without pain, without that maddening dance of wondering who should go first or who was more involved or who was feeling what or who was doing who. If the cost was the occasional ruminating on “missed connections”, then that was a cost Joe could bear. What he couldn’t bear ever again was a heart shattered as it had been that rainy morning on the departures level. No reward was worth that price.
As was the usual effect of hiking, Joe realized he had been musing these things for the better part of hours as the endless shades of green, orange and red of the fall foliage passed by with every step. Though the breeze already carried traces of the bitter cold that would envelop this part of the world in the coming months, this was his favorite time of the year to hike. Snow had begun to cap the highest peaks again, returning the mountains to that bit of majesty the warm air and summer meltdown somehow robbed of them, and the trees that blanketed their ascents looked like an ocean on gentle fire. Metaphors danced in Joe’s head about the passing of the seasons; how life can be at its most beautiful during times of endings. That in order to rebuild, for a time life must go dark, cold, and quiet.
Joe reached his destination for the night; a beautiful treed-in stretch along a slow moving but talkative river. He would always walk as far as needed until he could find that perfect backdrop, although fifteen minutes into the mountains that was almost anywhere. A place he could raise his tent along water, whether one of the emerald-looking glacial lakes found at these elevations (always making the sweating, burning-legs, out-of-breath feeling to find them more than worth it), or one of the freezing but incomparably beautiful rivers Joe sensed were somehow more alive than other moving bodies of water. Streams teeming with life, carrying endless stories of nature’s secrets, of a world untouched by man, of life unfettered by obligation, desire or heartbreak. Life at its purest, simplicity in survival.
To Joe there were few things closer to perfection than opening a tent flap to watch and listen to the narration of a flowing river set against mountainside in every direction. What kind of stories existed in those hills? What kind of eyes might be on him now, as he sat beside his obscenely-colored tent and gear? Part of the joy was knowing he would never know. Part of the bliss was knowing out here he was just a temporary part of the backdrop, of a wild community where his stature was somehow reduced. Far from being just a man among men, he was a creature among many, and certainly no longer the most powerful. These brief, but frequent sojourns did more to charge Joe’s batteries than any project, promotion, or certainly any dalliance ever had, nor could he imagine ever would.
Joe built his fire and went to that most sublime of places – being active in performing tasks necessary for survival. He wasn’t about to freeze or starve anytime soon, but nonetheless knowing that if he wanted heat, he had to create it himself. If he wanted a warm dinner, that constructive action would follow this one. Sure, he had a stove to heat one of his dehydrated meals if needed, but that somehow cheapened the experience of relying on the elements, and his own abilities. Action, combined with the soundtrack nature provided – the consistent, indiscernible-yet-somehow-entirely-understandable language of the water and the woods. The discussion of leaves in the trees as the wind began to nudge them toward fulfilling the denouement of their short lives, and their resistance in trying to stay aloft for a day or a week longer. Fallen branches that occasionally snapped from the footfalls of animals Joe knew he couldn’t see. Stifled and random discussion from the squirrels and chipmunks fighting over wares needed to last them the frozen months ahead. A few birds offering last-minute travel tips to their companions as they squeezed out the final habitable Canadian autumn moments, just as Joe had. This was perfection. This was life at its essence. Whatever else mattered between 9 a.m. Monday morning and Friday at 5 always faded out of existence and importance here. No matter how pressing anything ever seemed in that fabricated hamster-wheel of being always evaporated in these woods and these hills. There were no deadlines to meet, no traffic to contend with, no Black Friday deals to queue for, no Must-See screen moments, no broken hearts to mend. There was just this – food, heat, shelter, the elements, the animals, and peace in his thoughts. Peace in his heart.
As he leaned back in his portable chair with a steaming cup of freeze dried chicken teriyaki in his hands and the fire at his feet and a book in his lap, he watched as the last lines of sun slowly crept down to the tops of the west-facing peaks, and satin-suede drapes of stars began to reveal themselves. In his city condo Joe rarely saw stars from his balcony; as cities do, his had expanded at a restless pace since his youth and the light-pollution, particularly in the inner-city, made stargazing next to impossible. Not here. It was like having a nightly view of an entirely random but intentionally beautiful Christmas display. The stars and moon created a natural night light – mixed with an interminable and pure blackness – that the city and its LED light-stands every 25 feet could never come close to duplicating. Even the moon- and starlight was somehow restorative, in counterbalance to the way the artificial city-light was draining.
It was only around 7 p.m. but “campers midnight” was setting in – Joe read until he could no longer discern the words on the page, then tilted his head back to fully rejuvenate at the sight of his private, celestial backdrop. He sat in quiet meditation on nothing, and everything. Every concern had faded away now; any stream of thought lingering through his mind merged with the blackened but undeniable stream beyond his feet, the dancing of the orange and red flames framed by his hiking boots, the sway of the shadow-cloaked trees that encircled him, and the silhouetted mountaintops blanketed by an ocean of stars. When the fire had finally burned down to its final slow-dancing waves of blue heat, he finally – and very reluctantly – covered them with the forest floor and retreated to his tent. Breathing in the cool and pure mountain air, Joe fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.