On days when you miss him, you go to a place in the forest called Kishenehn and touch yourself.
You stand on the Montana side of the river and watch the water rush past the closed-down border station. No one takes the long, dusty backwoods route into Alberta anymore.
Nearby, there’s an abandoned patrol cabin where a ranger shot himself in the head after too many winter nights alone in the cold, blue forest.
You look at the border swath, that jagged gash in the flesh of the forest that marks the divide between America and Canada. You watch the shadows of trout on the river bed. Your daddy once told you, as he dipped a lobster headfirst into a bubbling pot of water, that you would need to learn to crush the heads of fish and boil lobsters alive.
You can still remember the sound of the lobster’s shell buckling under the pressure of the steam.
“It’s not a scream,” your daddy said.
It sure had sounded like one. How the noise had thrilled you.
You met Jacob on one of those miraculous July nights where the sky stayed light until 10pm. The bar was the only one in town. It had a hand painted sign outside that said BEER in all caps like a fat, drunk bald man with angry eyes was belching the word.
Jacob was a newcomer. Easy prey. Your felt pin pricks on your skin, watching his excuse me is this seat taken thing at the bar. He asked what beers were on draft and was handed a warm can of Budweiser. He took out his credit card and the stone faced bartender blinked at him like he had never seen a piece of plastic before in his life. It was then that you saw your way in. You took your time approaching the bar, all cowboy boots and tumbling hair, and when you got there you looked up through the thick dark lashes that your mama gave you—the only thing she ever gave you—and said, “I got it.”
You pulled a few dollars out of the back pocket of your jeans—the tight ones with the rhinestones that made your ass look like a dream—slid the dirty bills across the bar and turned to him, “I’ve never seen you before.”
There was something about the way he cuffed his jeans, the way his brown hair looked just a little bit red that turned you on. He sat speechless like he’d never seen tits before. Finally, he found his words and said, “I’m here for the summer doing a wildlife survey.”
“Well good,” you said, peering at his boyish face in the neon light. “We can have some fun.”
The jukebox was broken. The only music was the sound of a fight breaking out in the parking lot.
“Last week someone got pummeled with a baseball bat,” you told him. “I’m Penelope, by the way.”
His top lip quivered, just enough so you could tell that you were making him nervous.
You took Jacob to the room you rented above the gas station. Outside, free range cattle lowed on the empty highway. You removed your clothes, one article at a time until you were standing naked in the glow from the Exxon sign that never stopped buzzing. He sat clothed on your mattress on the floor, trying not to look at you.
“I want to be polite,” he said. You’d never heard that before.
You sashayed over to the countertop where you kept the bottle of whiskey.
“See these indentations on my lower back?” you asked. “They’re called dimples of Venus.”
A line cook from the cafe had told you the term in his trailer after work. He’d touched you like he was claiming your body, like he was the one calling the shots. How you’d relished taking off the rest of your clothes and showing him that all along it was you.
You took a grimy glass from the sink and filled it with whiskey. When you turned back, Jacob was standing, headed for the door.
“No thank you,” he said.
You narrowed your eyes.
“No thank you to what? The drink or the pussy?”
You leaned back against the counter and took a sip of the whiskey, ran your free hand down your body, keeping your eyes fixed on him. You put your fingers between your legs. You were warm and wet. Jacob’s eyes were hypnotized like the glossy doll eyes of the deer you’d hit last summer. You’d dragged its body into the bed of your truck and driven it to Kishenehn so that it could die beside the river. You’d sat beside it all night as it gasped and wheezed until finally it was still.
You set down the whiskey and moved towards him, pushed him against the door and pressed your body against his. You could feel him hardening beneath his jeans.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “But I’m a virgin.”
You hadn’t realized that his hand was on the doorknob. Before you could stop him, he turned it. The door opened and he was gone.
You were stunned. Every man you’d met before Jacob had been desperate, panting, pathetic. You stayed awake all night, pacing and smoking by the window. In the morning you got dressed and drove to Kishenehn.
It was easy to follow Jacob; he had the only car in town without Montana plates. You trailed him to the lake the next day and waded in. The rounded stones pressed into your heels, making the soles of your feet ache.
Jacob stood on the shoreline with binoculars, scanning the mountains for wildlife.
You untied the string on your bikini top and stood in the fog, the white flesh of your tits exposed.
Finally, he saw you.
He lowered his binoculars. You waited. And just like that, he turned to the trail that led back to the road. You heard his engine rumble and then it was silent again. A loon’s mournful song echoed.
You weren’t finished.
Some afternoons you would put on your cut-off jean shorts and wait by his car, leaning against it and feeling the hot metal on the back of your legs.
Some nights you would dance in the slow light of the doorway while he sat dazed on a barstool, watching you.
Some mornings, you would rest your head against the windowpane in your room, watching people come and go from the gas station until nightfall, making yourself come again and again.
When the sun went down behind the mountains you closed your eyes and stretched out naked on the mattress with the door unlocked, waiting.
He showed up one night, drunk, wearing the t-shirt he always wore with the logo of the band you’d never heard of. You were curled up on the armchair, listening to static on the radio. He knocked on the door even though you had told him it was always open. Outside, a storm was rumbling in the mountains, but it wasn’t raining yet.
You opened the door and his green eyes were watery. He was one of those people whose skin got rosy when he drank.
You didn’t always find weakness becoming. Several months earlier, you’d pushed a bare-chested wrangler down on your bed and ridden him so hard you felt like he might break. You’d wrapped your hands around his neck and looked right at him.
“You like that, don’t you?” You’d hissed as his eyes bulged.
“Stop,” he’d begged.
But you are the kind of girl who kept going.
Jacob was different. He was ernest, somber. You didn’t recognize his behavior. You still wanted to fuck him, but there was something else too.
The rain began to fall, leaking in through the holes in your ceiling, gathering in puddles on the floor. You tried to wait for him to make the first move. He trembled as he unbuttoned your blouse, as he pulled down your white panties. He fumbled with his belt and looked up at you and asked, “Is this okay?”
You leaned forward and bit his shoulder, hard enough that you could taste blood. And then you held him down and fucked him, his first time. You tried to be gentle; you really did.
After he fell asleep, you put on a cotton shift and went outside and stood on the stairs. It was cold and you could feel his semen dripping down your legs. You lit a cigarette and looked north to Kishenehn.
It was a feeling you’d never had before. You were as warm as the mountains in the pink glow of morning. You called it summer love, because you’d heard that phrase in songs on the radio.
Jacob appeared at your door one afternoon with an honest-to-god picnic basket and a sheepish smile. When he kissed you, a jolt ran through your body. You wanted to bite his lower lip until it bled.
“I’ll drive,” you said.
You took him over the pass that cut into the jagged peaks. Ghostly mountain goats stood frozen on cliffsides, the breeze lifting their wispy white fur as their black eyes watched you. The valley floor hung below you like a net waiting to catch your fall. There was no guardrail. You put your hand on Jacob’s thigh. The denim was soft and worn. How hard would you have to press to feel the blood rushing through his femoral artery? You put your hand in his instead.
You brought him to a place that other people called beautiful. A gentle lake that sparkled turquoise when the sun touched it. A field dotted with puffy white stalks of beargrass.
When he laid down the picnic blanket, you turned to him, the straps on your dress already untied, and said, “I don’t want to eat.”
You tried to do it soft and slow, with him on top moving in and out with the hesitation of someone treading lightly through wilderness. His lips brushing your collarbone, his voice in your ear whispering, “Does this hurt?”
Nothing hurts me, you wanted to say.
“No,” you said. “Keep going.”
It took everything you had not to push your fingernails into his shoulder blades until you hit bone. He pushed harder into you. His eyes squeezed shut. You put your hand on his throat.
You didn’t want to hurt him.
Your fingers closed in on his neck.
Stop this, you told yourself, squeezing harder.
Jacob gasped, his eyes opening back up. They were hazel in the sun. You dropped your hand.
After it was over, you put your head on his chest and listened to his heartbeat, the sound thumping in your ear like a warning.
You should stay away from me, you wanted to tell him.
But you were greedy and naked. You climbed on top of him and said nothing.
Each night you slid on your leather sandals and walked down the side of the empty highway and up the hill to his cabin. It was September and after months of walking barefoot by the lake you had what your daddy had called “summer feet.” Each June, he’d taken away your shoes and made you walk through the forest until the soles of your feet were calloused and hard.
Jacob’s door didn’t lock, so you invited yourself inside whenever you wanted, which was all the time.
You’d never taken a man’s virginity before.
At 13 you’d lost yours in a gas station bathroom. The stranger had pushed you against the sink and bent you over. You remember seeing your own eyes in the mirror through the mess of blonde hair falling over your face. You winked at your reflection and said no, it wasn’t going to go down like this. You turned and got down on your knees. The man’s mouth popped open in surprise, thinking he was in for a treat. You bared your teeth and bit down.
You left that bathroom charged as a strike of lightning.
Sometimes when you stepped inside Jacob’s cabin, he was already asleep in his bed. You’d slide on top of him and begin. Other times he was sitting by the fire, a few beers in, looking nervous but ready.
After the sex, you’d curl yourself around him and trace the cuts on his back, the ones you’d made. When the sun came up, you could see the blood crusted under your nails. You closed your eyes and put your fingers in your mouth, tasting him all over again.
On some nights after he fell asleep, you’d slip down to the bar in your tight jeans and eye the crowd, looking for new faces. Occasionally you’d see a roughneck with the kind of soft cotton shirt you could imagine tearing with your hands and you’d find yourself wondering what his skin tasted like, wondering what it would be like to kiss him deeply and bite off his tongue.
The hair rose on the nape of your neck and your pulse quickened, just thinking about it.
It was the end of September when you finally went too far.
“I’m so in love with you,” you said, as you washed him clean in the shower, watching the rivulets of blood circle the drain.
He was raw, bruised, scratched and speechless.
You dried him off and laid him down in your bed, the kindest you’d ever been to anyone.
“I’ll get you a glass of whiskey,” you said.
He shook his head.
You laid down next to him.
“The only reason I’m not going home is because I’m too weak to walk,” he said.
He was crying. You tried to hold him.
“Don’t fucking touch me, Penelope.”
His eyes were wet, betrayed. You are an animal.
Beneath the light from the Exxon sign, you slept soundly and dreamt of men. Of the line cook with the trailer in the woods who you’d kicked until he’d vomited, the trucker in the gas station who’d ran across the parking lot clutching his bloody crotch, the baby-faced wrangler with the bruises you put on his neck, the rich tourist whose blood had tasted earthy like a garden from a place you’d never been to, the hitchhiker who’d wept, stumbling to the forest when it was over, vowing to call the cops. But he hadn’t been fast enough.
None of them had.
After the last time you made love to him, you told him the story of the ranger at Kishenehn who’d shot himself in the head on that snowy winter day.
Jacob was still inside of you. The last of the embers from the fire in his cabin were dying. The first snow of the season fell on the ground outside.
You’d barely hurt him that time, but you could still tell he thought you were a monster.
“Have you ever been?” you asked, touching his face.
“No,” he said, turning his head away.
You rested your head on his chest and closed your eyes. You wanted to remember this moment in this little cabin on the hill in northern Montana with the snow falling outside.
“Go to sleep,” you said. “In the morning I’ll take you there.”
Nowadays, on those Sunday afternoons at the riverbank, you stand in America and look over the border to Canada.
You’ll never love anyone like that again.
You close your eyes and touch yourself, thinking of his green eyes, his flushed skin. The way the marks on his back healed and scarred and looked like roads on a map, a map that you could keep beside you in the passenger seat of your truck and follow all the way, past skeletal forests, past crumbling mountains, past deep black lakes and into oblivion.
You think of that ranger, deep in the woods of winter with only a shotgun for company.
You think back to when you were a child and your daddy held your new dog in his arms, a scruffy yellow thing with a look of confusion fixed on its face.
“You should always stare a dog in the eyes,” he had said. “Stare at it until it looks away. That’s how you show it who’s boss.”
You remember the puppy’s pink belly bulging with each frightened breath, how it had squirmed in your daddy’s lap and looked at you for help. How you had offered it none.
You think of nights on your mattress above the gas station, nights in his bed in the cabin on the hill.
On your last night together, just after he’d fallen asleep, you’d whispered, “I’m going to miss you so much.”
You only wish you could remember where you’d buried his body.