I spent election night in the woods in a swing state, digging at the edge of a swamp for bottles from a sunken sixty-year-old Coke machine with Finn, whom I’ve known since 2002.
Finn and I had gone to seventh grade together and we’d stayed close until I switched schools a year later. After that, I’d run into him once getting coffee in our hometown and he’d seemed hazy and distant, his throaty laugh absent, his face obscured by a scythe blade of teenaged hair. Then he moved away and we remained well-wishers on social media. I liked his Facebook statuses, retweeted promotions for his small business, faved Instagram photos of his newborn daughter.
In early 2016 I learned Finn was living in Cleveland, which happens to be where significant portions of my novel take place. By late 2016, I’d sold the novel and was planning a research trip to his city. I wrote to tell him I’d be there and he responded instantly, bright and enthusiastic and full of apology for his “distance.” I asked him what he meant and he explained that he’d suffered a brain injury, the result of being severely beaten by a group of kids at a concert nine years ago. It had been a little under nine years since I saw him at that coffee shop, and I realized he must have been in the throes of it then: He said he’d been “ramming his head against a wall” for a long time since the incident and adolescence hadn’t exactly made it easier. In his Facebook photos, his adult face was longer and more somber than the one he’d had as a kid. He squinted into the camera in his older selfies, working hard against whatever force was trying to shutter the light in his eyes.
His official diagnosis was Traumatic Brain Injury, received two years after the fact. His entire body had felt numb, and the discs in the top two vertebrae of his neck swelled where he’d been hit directly. His addled brain blocked his teenaged personality from cohering as he entered adulthood, enveloping him in formless depression and intrusive thoughts. He described the injury as “parasitic”: He was it and it was him, and the effect was like trying to make a life inside a shattered tibia.
He said he could understand how a different person in his situation might have given up and committed suicide. He’d managed to work on healing, and in the past half year the effects were becoming noticeable for the first time. He exercised as much as possible and ate high-calorie meals. He kept detailed notes on his mental states as they emerged. He’d finally gotten his first glimpse of who he was unencumbered by injury.
My stay in Cleveland was planned for November 3-10. We didn’t meet until the fifth day, when I was dirty and shouldering a large backpack in the lobby of an East Cleveland hotel swarming with Dallas Cowboys fans. A few of the fans had mistakenly been given keys to our room and had intruded on my girlfriend and me watching Fast and Furious at least four times between 10 p.m. and 12 a.m. When Finn saw me for the first time in eight years, I was bent over the concierge’s laminate countertop in a staring contest with the manager, who was insisting that he had no proof of the break-ins and could refund me none of the pittance I’d paid for the night. It was not a good look, but Finn didn’t seem to notice: He hugged me right through it. Then he released me from the hug and smiled, pulling at his beard, saying I looked the same but different. The manager shook his head and walked away.
I saw myself as Finn must have seen me: a girl lugging her girlfriend’s suitcase, her sexuality undebatable. He hadn’t borne witness to my many failed hetero relationships, didn’t know about the straight girl who’d broken my heart in college, hadn’t watched me perform bisexuality that manifested as submission to the patriarchy by day and covert hookups with skittish baby queers by night. Now all that was over and the woman I hoped to spend my life with was shaking Finn’s hand and loading our bags into the back of his car, making small talk with him about Pokémon and Cleveland’s famous West Town Market. They shared a boisterous laugh and interests in axes and woodsy survivalism. He made knives as part of his small business and soon she was suggesting blade manufacturers to him.
We had no itinerary that day other than to drop our things at his mom’s house in Shaker Heights. Finn and I had grown up—much unlike my girlfriend, I remembered as we drove past rows of multi-bedroom houses with spacious front lawns—insulated by middle-class whiteness. And while we maintained its unearned protections, its lazy, de facto respectability, we’d failed to follow its exacting script. We both suffered debilitating, dyssynchronous mood-reactions—his from the injury, mine just from being born—we’d both lost the gamble on long-term hetero normalcy, and neither of us had chosen professions that promised stable or regular income. He’d moved out of the house he’d been living in with his ex and lived at home—I’d done the same and had only moved back out a year prior. He saw his daughter, Sophie, for a few days every week; in the photos he showed me she was preschool-aged, blonde and purple-lipped with jam or juice. I told him he had a beautiful kid and he laughed and said she had Viking genes.
The half of Finn’s room not occupied by his bed was stacked full of boxes packed with inventory. He gave us each a Swiss army multi-tool, the kind of thing that was more my girlfriend’s bailiwick than mine.
Soon we were in the woods, Finn shouldering a camo backpack full of supplies that would have allowed him to get lost for days without dying. My girlfriend helped me scramble over craggy divots and loose mud. Finn led us to a tree with a thick beard of chaga mushroom fungus, which I learned is medicinal and can fetch up to forty dollars per pound.
My girlfriend pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose and craned her neck toward the chaga, which clung to the trunk about fifteen feet from the ground. She peeled a swatch of bark from the tree’s base, revealing a flaky, bone-white interior. “This tree’s dead,” she said.
Finn picked at the bark with his index finger. “Poor tree.”
“It’s been dead for a little while,” my girlfriend said. I was impressed that she knew these kinds of things as a native New Yorker but said nothing about it, watched instead as she dug at the tree’s guts with a penknife. “It’s rotted from the inside out.”
We came to the consensus that the tree needed to be chopped down for its chaga and for the health of the forest. Finn had a handsaw and an axe in his bag, and he and my girlfriend took turns making dents in the trunk while I sat watching. He had stayed wiry and muscular, still the product of his mother’s disciplined fitness regimen and three square meals of organic food per day. My girlfriend, by contrast, had grown up in a cramped Queens apartment with a violently alcoholic stepfather and a mother who once told her she’d rather see her dead than disabled. She was as muscular as Finn but stockier, her axe swings smaller in circumference and louder on impact. Every time she hit the tree, she’d take a step back and readjust her glasses. Once she paused to smile at me, the late-afternoon sunlight making electric white bolts of the gray streaks in her ponytail.
“Do you want a go at it?” she asked.
I took the axe from her and hacked into the dent she and Finn had made. I’d never chopped wood before, and I hadn’t expected it to be this easy. My swings were smaller, my elbows nearly touching, but my progress was noticeable. Wood chips flew, collecting at my boots. I muttered to myself about how much I needed the tree to just give in, give up, fall down. My girlfriend pulled out her phone to take a video of me, joking to Finn that she had no idea she’d been dating a lumberjane. He laughed a mid-century gangster-sounding laugh that would not have been out of place in a room full of cigar smoke.
Before long I couldn’t hear either of them, or anything really aside from the thwack of the axe blade into the divot-wound we’d made in the tree. I don’t know how long I chopped before the tree tremored and Finn yelled to stand back. It fell, making a sound like several smaller trees cracking and falling at once, and I remembered that what we were doing was both very loud and very illegal.
The only way to get the chaga off was by extricating the bearded section with Finn’s hand saw: We would saw at the trunk on either side until only the chaga chunk remained. Finn and I sat facing each other with our feet pressed against the tree, yanking the saw back and forth. I used muscles I didn’t know I had, my chest hot and spiky with exhaustion, my strength flagging and then returning. We had snapped the tree at one end of the chaga chunk and were hard at work on the other end when two white guys in vests and popped polos emerged from behind a cluster of bushes.
The first one dug his hands into his pockets, surveying us. “You guys can’t do this, you know,” he said. “We heard the tree fall from the trail.”
“Yeah,” the second one said, shorter and more emphatic than his friend. “You better leave before the rangers come.”
Finn bolted, abandoning the hand saw wedged just below the chaga beard. My girlfriend and I followed suit, virtually jumping into his car as he drove off.
“They can’t recognize my handprints on the saw, right?” he asked, and we reassured him that the authorities probably wouldn’t expend the time or effort.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m really sorry. I just don’t need any trouble from the cops.”
“You won’t get any, I don’t think,” my girlfriend said.
“I just hope you can go back and get the chaga,” I said. “We were like ninety-five percent done with the job.”
I watched Finn as he drove, trying not to think of him as a thirteen-year-old kid. We’d last spent time together as students at an alternative junior high where we did farm work, the two weirdest kids in a grade of five. We had once been tasked with carrying a bag of freshly ground chicken bones to a wheelbarrow in the middle of a field. The powder would be used to fertilize rows of freshly sown snap peas. To this day I wonder why we were given this job, why our teacher told us not to open the bag because “inhaling bones can give you cancer.” I was twitching with hypochondriac nerves as we heaved and panted from the farm shed to the dirt’s edge, where Finn suggested we set the bag down and come up with a game plan.
“There’s no way we’re gonna get it to the middle in time if we walk around the edge,” he’d said. “We should just cut through the rows.”
We were each other’s provocateur back then, trying to see who was most willing to bend the rules and by how much. We would be trampling all kinds of snap pea seedlings walking across the field, but we’d get to the wheelbarrow faster. It wasn’t a particularly fun rule to break. Neither of us got a kick out of destroying nature, though Finn was far more vigilant about it than I was—he’d once nearly tackled me to keep me from absently pulling the leaves off a tree. Eager to finish the job, I agreed anyway. We hoisted the bag up and began jumping across the rows of snap peas, my Keds making uneasy contact with the fallow soil. Then I tripped over myself, yanking Finn down with me.
My corner of the bag burst open in my face. I looked up and saw the same had happened to Finn, and an updraft of wind was trailing ground chicken bones through the air like gunpowder. Finn looked like a ghost with a bad taste in its mouth. He spit the powder out and when I remembered about the cancer I did, too.
“We fucked up bad,” I said, laughing, and that got him laughing too. My voice was so squeaky back then that I must’ve sounded like a foul-mouthed chipmunk. We laid on the ground and watched the wind steal inches of powder from the bag until we heard our teacher screaming our names.
Back home from the woods, a rattled Finn put on Spaceballs but passed out before we could finish it. I offered my girlfriend the take that every Mel Brooks film is an escalating series of dad jokes. She nodded absently, looking from Finn to me and back again.
“When you guys were sawing that tree, I could see right into your past,” she said. “Like how you were as little kids, you know?”
I nodded. I didn’t know what to say, so I played with the zipper of her hoodie. In the short time I’d known her, she’d developed the uncanny ability to read my thoughts back to me. I’d never met someone with such an unselfish interest in my mind and life. I’d never been so unselfishly interested in another person’s mind and life. Both of us had logged off our news feeds for the week, determined to spare ourselves further hand-wringing election coverage. She had to return to Chicago for work on Monday, so we’d be spending election night apart. But we were confident we’d wake up on November 9th into a business-as-usual capitalist democracy, address the grievances we’d always had via protest and petition, advocate as best we could for ourselves and other marginalized Americans. We’d just met each other, and it wouldn’t make sense for things to turn out any differently: She worked a design job she loved, I’d just sold my novel, Finn’s brain was finally healing. Things were on an upswing. Things would have to stay on a permanent upswing—to believe otherwise was to give in to darkness and stasis, self-hatred and doubt. It was getting easier to be us. It was getting easier for everyone to be themselves.
But I felt unsteady when I drove my girlfriend to the Greyhound station that night. I’d borrowed Finn’s manual with the sticky transmission and the bolas of nerves in my stomach kept me hunched forward in the driver’s seat, upshifting so quickly the car jumped off the road. I felt unsteady when I kissed her goodbye. She told me we’d FaceTime as the results came in. I almost told her I loved her and then stopped myself. Not here, not in front of the Cleveland Greyhound station at midnight. Not until I’d finished my research and returned home and the election was over. It’d long been hammered into my head that it was weird to fall in love this quickly—that was for cishet movie protagonists with bleached teeth and good lighting. It was bad luck to talk about love before all the terrifying alternatives could be ruled out. If I told her now, she could not love me back. Clinton could lose the election. My friends and loved ones could be deported. Queer people could be given conversion therapy. Climate change or a nuclear apocalypse could obliterate us before we became financially solvent enough to raise kids and travel. If I waited to tell her, maybe these possibilities would eliminate themselves.
When I woke up the next morning, Election Day, the bolas in my stomach had grown and hardened. It hurt to sit up and it hurt to eat breakfast. I had a detailed itinerary for my day of research, and Finn had blocked off time to drive me around his city. I sat across the kitchen table from him while he ate a banana and his grandma harangued Family Feud contestants in the next room. He didn’t look as wrecked as I felt, but then he was still warm in the glow of recovery. His energy put me in mind of a blind person who’d regained his sight. He said he didn’t know how to explain it and I offered the clouds-parting-after-a-depressive-episode metaphor. He nodded politely but said it was something different, like having been given a torn-apart photo of his healed self without knowing how the pieces fit together until recently. Every day he slid a new piece into place and the final image became clearer. It was overwhelming and wonderful. It was all he could think about.
All the years I’d spent toying with various combinations of drugs, sexual partners, social and work obligations, he’d spent straitjacketed by his own mind. He finessed the sticky transmission west on the 422 in the direction of Cleveland, describing how he’d become reacquainted with himself after almost a decade of estrangement. He’d spent most of his time focused on healing, on organizing his own thoughts—how he moved through space, how he received compliments and criticisms, why he was sad or scared or angry—that the world outside him had become secondary. Things had changed so much since he’d last paid attention to them that he felt like he’d just awakened from a coma. His entire being was like a freshly healed limb removed from its cast, wobbly and liberated and new.
He’d made the giddy discovery that he understood things he probably wouldn’t have without the injury. For so long he’d been scared that he had a propensity to violence, but he realized now that he was just scared of other people’s violence, especially men’s. He used to be certain that he’d lost too much of his life to this injury, but now he saw that life had its long and short parts, that a lot could happen in a little time and vice versa. He was once worried that he’d become a failure but now he knew that measuring someone’s “success” or “failure” meant ignoring their guaranteed-from-birth value as human beings. Self-love was more important than anything, he’d learned. That was how you made sure you could love others.
Sometimes he’d produce the chalky outlines of a realization and I’d fill it in for him, supply him with as many words as I could think of until he slapped the steering wheel in recognition and shouted, “Yes! Yes! Exactly!” I began to understand the enormity of what had been done to him. I surprised myself with the rage I felt towards his attackers. I wanted to hurt them as badly as they’d hurt him. I wanted them to spend at least one tenth of the time he’d spent suspended in mental amber, frozen from self-confidence and ambition.
Instead I asked him when he was going back to get the chaga.
“Well, I have Sophie for a few days after you leave,” he said. “So probably after that.”
“Those guys were the kind of people who’d perform a citizen’s arrest,” I said. “We were practically done and they made it their business to interrupt our progress. Like, just be cool and walk away.”
Finn shrugged. “I mean, they probably thought they had our backs. The whole don’t let the rangers see you doing that thing.”
“What I don’t get,”—I hadn’t heard him and could already feel my blood rising—“what I don’t fucking get is why people need to get in other people’s way. Not to help them, but to hurt them. Honestly, why? You expend a helluva lot of energy destroying another life and for what kind of sadistic benefit?”
We were both silent for what felt like a long time. The transmission purred. My cheeks were hot. Then Finn looked sideways at me.
“She’s the one, isn’t she?” he said.
Startled, I tried to play it off. “I mean, you’re not wrong.”
“Have you told her you love her yet?”
“But do you love her?”
“Yeah. Of course I do.” I sighed and knit my fingers together. “More than anyone I’ve ever met in my life.”
“That’s how I felt about Sophie’s mom,” he said. “Hit me hard like pretty much every major thing that’s happened to me.” He squinted at a pocket of afternoon sun as it emerged from behind a knot of clouds. “Most people don’t realize that there are things that can change you without your permission.”
A text from my girlfriend appeared on my phone: I wish I was there with you. I considered texting her back I love you but stopped myself and wrote I miss you . . . scared about tonight instead.
By then Finn and I had seen everything we needed to see for the day, but I didn’t want to go back to his mom’s house. There was Wi-Fi there. And a TV. And Finn’s mom and stepdad and little sister sporting shirts and stickers from a Clinton rally where I’d heard both Jay-Z and Beyoncé had made appearances. There had to be somewhere we could go to forget that we were in a swing state.
We found ourselves in the woods again. Finn had been to this place a couple times before: a little swamp in the Chagrin Falls preserve that was an archaeological site of corporate refuse. Apparently vendors had been dumping old soda machines in the swamp since the early fifties and collectors had begun making pilgrimages there in search of antique bottles. As we parked the car and suited up for the hike to the swamp, Finn told me that the blue bottles were the rarest because they had cobalt in them, which manufacturers have since realized can leach from the glass and poison the soda within. Next were the green bottles and any clear bottles with brand names molded into the glass. After that it was pretty much anything goes: He’d seen some banal mid-eighties milk bottles, some plump little olive oil jars, some oxidized Sprite cans.
It wasn’t until halfway through the hike that I realized it had been raining. It was a delicate rain, one step up from mist, with droplets small enough to rest intact on the surface of my gloves. We climbed a little hill to get to the swamp and Finn helped me down the other side—as usual my shoes were ill-equipped for the task at hand. The top of an old Coke machine was visible through the yellow matte of leaves, its face dark with mud and moss. Finn squatted next to it and began pawing at the damp earth. Then he stood up, found a stick, and struck the ground with it so clumps of mud flew behind him. I followed suit.
The first few bottles we found were unremarkable. A squat bottle with what looked like a Maker’s Mark sticker label, a forty, a Dr Pepper can. We talked more about my anxieties, his revelations, the prospect of waking up the next morning to a changed world. Then we found a shard of blue and Finn rubbed his hands together.
“There’s cobalt in here,” he said.
We dug deeper. The sun set and Finn held his flashlight in his mouth. We found a fluted green bottle that might’ve held seltzer. We found a glass Coke bottle that looked just like the one my grandpa kept on his desk in the years before his death. We found a little jam jar whose surface had been molded to look like braided rope. I was digging with the same insensate determination I’d hacked at the chaga tree. Finn’s spit was dripping down his flashlight. The rain was coming down harder. We found eight bottles, then ten, then fourteen. There seemed no limit to what the swamp contained. Each one we unearthed made us want to find one more.
We stayed there digging as the results came in. My phone was warped with rainwater, so it wouldn’t be until later that I’d call my girlfriend crying and she’d tell me, “You know I love you, right?” It wouldn’t be until later that Finn and I would lie on his basement floor staring at the ceiling in fear-induced paralysis. It wouldn’t be until later that I’d return home and take to the streets in protest with thousands of other Chicagoans, that I’d make arrangements for undocumented friends to come live with me, that I’d lose nights of sleep scouring the internet for answers: How did Italy survive Berlusconi? Why did Weimar crumble and the Third Reich ascend? It wouldn’t be until much later that I’d resolve to use my meager influence in the fight to protect the human rights of the marginalized and disenfranchised, that I’d never defect from my country of origin with my tail between my legs.
But until then Finn and I were small among the giant trees, digging like kids in a sandbox. We’d just begun to see how we lived in a world knit together by love. And as far as we were concerned, that love was all there was.