Hiking Without Mountains by Matthew Di Paoli
My friend told me once that I was like an exposed nerve just waiting for someone to touch me. We were knocking back whiskeys and eating chicken wings, and I was telling her about Simple Kimpson.
“The problem with you is that you live life like it’s a Japanese movie,” she said.
“What with water monsters and dirty panty machines?”
“How else should I be living it?”
“I don’t know. Like the rest of us. Like it still needs to be edited.”
This story isn’t really about me. It’s not about Simple either, because she doesn’t exist anymore. That’s what I tell myself when a girl disappears, and she becomes a photograph that I’ll stumble across one day unexpectedly and make a face like someone squeezed lemon juice into my nipple hole. I guess we’re all someone else’s photographic citrusy nipple holes.
Simple and I started off one day drinking hot coffees in the summer. Later, we ate falafel and drank wine by the river.
“Come back with me,” I said.
“Ok, but I won’t fuck you tonight,” said Simple.
“Maybe I won’t fuck you.”
I kept my promise; she didn’t. I couldn’t sleep all night with her body next to me. Her hands roamed around my skin, and in the morning she draped her legs over me and we drank hot coffee on the fire escape until the sun came up and over us and my hands sweated like I was young and she was old. But it wasn’t that way at all.
“When I was young, I used to walk into the mountains and get lost, and I’d climb and climb until I found my way out,” she said. “I don’t think that’s how mountains work,” I said.
“It was in Prague.”
She slunk her body over me and back through the window inside. Her black cotton dress hugged her body. I noticed stains in the morning sun.
“Are you saying Czech mountains are different than other mountains?” I asked.
“I have been to many other mountains, and they are not like Czech mountains.”
I came back inside, too, casting my thick legs over the sill. I plopped back onto my blue couch, jangling the ornaments on my miniature Christmas tree as I tumbled.
“Don’t you want to know why I still have a Christmas tree in June?” I said.
“Not really. You will come to hike with me, yes?”
We hiked on the red trail that split into the black trail and then followed the black and white trail until we stopped by a grove of trees that hung over a slate of rocks. We ate ham and cheese and cream cheese sandwiches with Czech bread that didn’t have a name.
It tasted tough, like it had been fighting to be considered bread for years. We ate weird sandwiches surrounded by smiling Asian hikers, outfitted with helmets and ski poles serving as walking sticks.
“Do you want an apple?” asked Simple Kimpson.
“I will never want an apple.”
“You do not like apples?”
“Yeah, I like them fine. I’ll just never want one.”
We hiked for a while. I didn’t really know the end game. I just followed her and sometimes she followed me, and we ended up at a lake surrounded by snakes the color of tar. The sun bellied low against the water, and the clouds glowed like old music. Simple stripped off her shirt and bra. I looked around to make sure no one was watching, just the snakes tasting the air. They lashed their pink, forked tongues at the water and the moon and the onset of darkness. This was what they call civil twilight, also known as dusk, when the brightest stars are visible under normal atmospheric conditions.
“Turn around,” she said. “The boobs are ok…”
“But the rest will be ok later?” I said, not turning away.
She slipped down her shorts and jumped into the lake. “It’s cold!”
I watched her tan body in the water. I watched the snakes in the trees like long, fibrous coals. Her dark corn silk hair clung to her back.
The sun dipped a little further into the water. She turned to shadow, ripples in the dark lake. I couldn’t see the snakes anymore, but I knew they were there. This was what they call nautical twilight, vague outlines of ground objects may be distinguishable, but details are not likely.
“I guess we live here now,” she said.
I liked how calmly she said it. She floated along the water. I waited for her to come out, naked, dripping, cold. And she did, but I wasn’t even looking by then. I watched as the sun dipped below the horizon and a dim orange hue settled over the dragonflies and the smooth rock and the haze just above the land. Astronomical twilight: there is no color in the sky.
She shivered against me for warmth. I took her into my arms against the banks of the river. I remember there being a flame, the scent of wet, dead wood, but for the life of me I can’t remember how. Maybe it sprung from the land. She nestled her head into my chest.
“You smell like my grandmother,” she said.
“Should I take that as a compliment?”
I put my hairy forearm up to my nostrils and took a big whiff. I shrugged. “You talk like a character I want to write.”
“That really came out of the blue.”
All night, the snakes wriggled against fire-warmed rock and the wash of the lake and the blue starlight towered over our bodies.
“So you stayed there all night?” asks my friend, tearing into a chicken wing.
I remove the lime from my whiskey and stick the two red straws in it like a pincushion.
“Waitresses love that, you know,” she says. “So?”
“The thing about mountains is that if you keep climbing, eventually you find your way out.”
When we got back to my place, she didn’t shower even though she stunk of sweat and creamy lake water. I pulled off her clothes and then my own, and we slid our salty bodies over the cold black sheets. Her breasts tasted like pistachio shells. Afterwards, she brushed her teeth for an abnormally long time.
“Are you still brushing your teeth?
“Mm-hmm,” Simple hummed.
“I singsong in my head,” she said with a mouthful of minty paste.
“It must be a very long song.”
I never saw her again after that. She just kind of extinguished.
“Wait what?” says my friend. “That was it?” She puts down her drink, displeased with the ending.
“Well did you try?” She licks buffalo sauce off her fingernails.
“I lied. There was one last exchange.”
She teetered at the edge of the steps. I stuck my head out of my apartment and strained to see her down the metal stairwell.
“Do you know why I always seek out mountains?” she said. Her voice echoed metallic, and the yellow hall light streaked in shadows along the paint-chipped walls.
“Oh,” said Simple, “that’s funny. I thought maybe you’d be the one to know.”
Matthew Di Paoli received his BA at Boston College where he won the Dever Fellowship and the Cardinal Cushing Award for Creative Writing. He was nominated for the 2015 and 2016 Pushcart Prize, finalist for the Indiana Review Collection Prize, won the Wilbur & Niso Smith Adventure Writing Prize, the Prism Review, Silver Needle, 2 Elizabeth’s, and Momaya Review Short Story Contests and was featured in “Best of the Net” by The Great American Lit Mag. Matthew earned his MFA in Fiction at Columbia University. He has been published in Fjords, The Stockholm Review, Post Road, Cleaver, and Gigantic literary magazines among others. He is the author of Killstanbul with El Balazo Press and teaches English to at risk high school students in New York City.