Jordan held the corn snake as I applied hydrogen peroxide to the snake’s mouth with a Q-tip. The liquid fizzed along the snake’s jaw, dissolving the yellow scab that had seared her mouth shut. The snake’s name was Peppermint, and she had burnt herself on her heat lamp. Both Jordan and I kept our eyes on the snake, both because we didn’t want to be bitten, and because it was awkward for us to be together. We had just broken up.
Jordan and I worked together at a program that called itself “a school of experiential outdoor education,” where sixth-graders came for weeklong field trips to learn about nature. I had ended up in charge of our school’s five snakes — the only animals at the school — after Coconut the ball python suddenly died. I had worked at an exotic animal care center before, and I wrote up a plan to overhaul the snakes’ care. I demanded my boss take Walter, a red tailed boa, to the vet, and we found that Walter had pneumonia. I ordered thermometers for the cages, new heat pads and lamps. My boss bought a new snake to replace Coconut: a small sand boa, who was more worm than snake. Still, I thought of the sand boa as a kind of peace offering, and I was glad to finally have control of the snakes, whose upkeep I’d lobbied to take over since I’d first gotten the job at the school.
After Jordan and I cleaned Peppermint’s burns, she left her mouth gaping open like a hungry baby bird, but refused the dead mouse I offered. Her mouth would crust shut overnight, and Jordan and I would need to do this again.
“It doesn’t make us friends,” Jordan reminded me, every time she helped me with the snakes. She was the first woman I’d ever dated, and I had been hot and cold with her all year. And then a month before the school year ended, I’d gone ice-cold: I broke up with her and immediately slept with one of our coworkers — a lanky man named Luke. It is the worst thing I’ve ever done to someone I loved.
But I needed Jordan’s help caring for the snakes, since she was the one who’d helped me in the past, had helped me with my snake research, and was free during the required hours of the day. She agreed to do it. “Again, not because we’re friends.”
I put Peppermint back in her cage, and took out our king snake, red and black, about three feet long. I massaged the king snake’s jaw until it opened. I’d learned to do this to check for mouth rot. The inside of his mouth was a healthy bubblegum-pink.
I looked to the snakes for proof that I hadn’t gone entirely rotten, that I could still be a good person – someone caring and kind.
* * *
“Everyone who comes to work here is running away from something,” my boss said once, about our little makeshift school in the woods. The school was a rented-out summer camp in the middle of a national forest. The town we were in had a population of less than 200. There was one restaurant, and a post office. There was a small lake. It was so dry up there, nearly 7,000 feet in the high desert, that I got scaly skin on my back.
At the school of experiential outdoor education, we got a new batch of kids every week, sent on a five-day field trip. We were responsible for the kids around the clock; I would learn how many sixth-graders regularly pee the bed.
Our staff of instructors worked either the night shift or the day shift, or a double — day and night. We lived on the campground, whether the kids were there or not. The kids weren’t allowed in the lower camp, where we slept if we were on a day shift, and on the weekends. There were 30 of us on staff, most of us in our 20s. I was 22; it was my first job after college.
I was running from a bad break-up, the dissolution of a five-year relationship. He’d slept with a dozen women in the years we’d been together, but I’d cheated with someone too, and that had broken the camel’s back. I was also in love with the man I’d cheated with (I married him — but not until much, much later), and that was giving me a case of double-heartbreak. So I decided to move to the other side of the country, to California. I pictured palm trees. I found a job online and bought my plane ticket. There were palm trees at the airport, but none at my final destination. It was dry, dusty, covered in brown pine needles. It looked like the perfect place for a forest fire.
Five days a week, we took the kids on hikes. We taught them about the water cycle and let them throw rocks in the lake. At night, we put on skits, the same ones on rotation. Every week was the same as the last, a continuous loop. I was bored stiff by the first month, with eight more months of the job left to go. I was exhausted from sleeping on a plastic mattress. I was getting fat from eating tater tots for dinner in the dining hall, summer camp food served all year long.
There were cracks in the routine occasionally; once, on a hike, a coyote circled my group, perhaps looking for the smallest kid to pick off. I told all the kids to put their hands in the air, to look as big as possible, and the yellow coyote trotted off.
And then there was Jordan.
* * *
I had sworn off men for that year post-college, which may be how I ended up with Jordan — although I like to think it was more organic than that. Jordan and I started kissing sometime during the school’s holiday party. I loved her blonde hair, the same color as the hair on the American Girl Doll I’d had growing up. I hoped that being with her would quell my loneliness, which had grown like an invasive species in the months I’d been there. I’d never lived so far away from my parents, my brothers, my friends.
Everyone at the school liked Jordan. She was tanned and smiley, and from North Carolina so she had just a touch of Southern drawl. She’d been in a sorority in college, which I often made fun of her for. She wore lots of silver rings on her fingers and had a hoop in her nose.
I wanted to love Jordan. I read her poetry. I cuddled with her. She wrote me songs and played them to me on her guitar. She loved yoga, and she wrote all her emails in lowercase letters. I talked with her about how I wanted to be a writer, and she listened, and she said she believed I would do it. She made me feel like I could do anything. She built me up. I had been building up the boys I’d dated for years, telling them how smart they were, what geniuses, what hunks, and now it was my turn to feel like a king.
And then I broke up with Jordan, out of the blue. I don’t think I’m cut out for dating women, I told her. She was a little angry because I’d led her on, had told her one thing and then another, but it was mostly okay.
Shortly after that breakup, Jordan won a trip for two on a weeklong lesbian cruise. I told her it was karma — that she never would have won if I hadn’t been a jerk. “Do not take credit for this,” Jordan said, but there was a smile breaking through.
And then, while she was away on the cruise with our friend Sue, I decided I wanted to be together again. I emailed her. When she asked me why she should trust me again, I didn’t know what to say. I just wanted to be with her, near her again. So instead of a reason to trust me, I sent her a poem, and hoped that would be good enough.
A guy I’d known in college told me that there is someone in the relationship who always has the upper hand.
“I don’t think that’s true in my relationship,” I’d huffed, about my then-boyfriend.
“If you don’t know who has it,” he said, “you don’t have it.”
I knew I had it this time with Jordan — the upper hand. I felt powerful for the first time in a romantic relationship.
When she was back from the cruise, Jordan agreed to give things another shot.
* * *
The surprising thing about a non-venomous snakebite is that it doesn’t really hurt. Snakes’ teeth aren’t intended to tear flesh, but to hold prey still as the constrictor strangles it. The hugging pressure causes death by cardiac arrest more often than by asphyxiation.
Still, it was scary when one of the snakes, a Burmese python, bit one of the kids. The six-foot snake was wrapped around my waist, and a kid named Michael reached out and poked the snake right in the face. A moment later, the snake was wrapped around the boy’s arm, was no longer around my body at all. Snakes do not have great eyesight, and poor Maddie must have thought the boy’s hand was a rat — the only thing I’d ever dangled in front of her nose.
Here is another thing I am ashamed of: After the snake bit the kid, was trying to swallow his arm as if it were the frozen rat I fed her once a week, I threw my hands up in the air in the universal sign for That’s not my problem.
Jordan swept in, ushered the kid into the office, where a team of people managed to coax the python’s jaw lose. The boy barely needed a Band-Aid. One of the teacher chaperones asked me if the snake was now going to be put to sleep.
“Yes,” I told her, because I thought maybe that would prevent angry parents from calling us later. But Maddie just got a week off, and then she was back in rotation with the kids.
Jordan and I were back in rotation too, and it was really good for a while. We had fun together. She helped me at work, with the snakes and with my campers. We would sleep in the same bed on weekends. When we went on a weekend road-trip to Vegas together, I joked we should get married. She told me it wasn’t legal yet, as if I didn’t know. It was a safe joke to make, on a few levels. I knew I didn’t plan on marrying a woman, but I still wanted to date Jordan. Dating didn’t really mean that I wanted to kiss her, just that I wanted some kind of claim on her. I’ve always wanted more from my girlfriends, always wanted to declare “best friends,” instead of the lukewarm “close friends.” With Jordan, there was an option to be more than best friends, so I wanted that. As for the sex piece of it, I was cautious, and Jordan was patient. She also said she knew I’d go back to dating men once we broke up, so she wasn’t all that starry-eyed either.
Still, the relationship felt more and more serious between us. We began to plan our end-of-the-year road trip; at the end of the school year, we were going to drive her white Volvo from California to Massachusetts. And when we left, we were going to steal one of the snakes. We knew our boss would assume the snake had escaped (snakes had escaped before), and he would eventually just buy a replacement from the pet store in Riverside.
We could just put the snake in a pillowcase and go. Snakes only need to be fed once a week, so we could stop for a frozen rat somewhere halfway across the country. We could thaw the rat out on the car’s hood.
* * *
My mom found out about Jordan — my brother told her after he’d visited me — and she asked me what the hell I was doing. “It would be different if you really liked women,” she snapped. “You’re just playing with other people’s emotions.”
My mom had always been one of my best friends, and this was the first thing I’d ever really hidden from her. I was shocked by her reaction. I wished I could chalk it up to my mom being homophobic, but that wasn’t it. Once she was done yelling at me, she said, quietly, “I didn’t realize you were that lonely out there, but what you’re doing isn’t fair.”
I broke up with Jordan later that night, putting all the blame on my mother. It was the right thing to do to break up with her, I thought for a moment, getting out before we got even more involved. I was sad, but relieved.
Then, the next day, my co-worker Luke showed up at my cabin with a bottle of Jack Daniels. Luke was tall, lanky. He wore Carhartt pants, but he looked more like a computer programmer than a woodsman. I liked him. We drank nearly the whole bottle of Jack Daniels, and I don’t remember who kissed whom, but I would bet it was my move, if I were the betting kind.
In the morning, I was mad when Luke wouldn’t drive me to Starbucks, which was all the way in Riverside. Jordan used to take me all the time.
“You can’t always have exactly what you want,” he said. Then he pretended to shoot me in the head, his pointer finger on my temple.
It was already clear who had the upper hand.
* * *
I got things out of the relationship with Jordan that I’d never experienced before in a romantic relationship: I made dirty jokes and didn’t worry about how they landed. I was comfortable being naked in front of her. I let her take care of me when I was sick. When I wanted something from her, I asked for it. I argued with her, something I’d never done with boyfriends; I had always let boyfriends argue at me.
I’d had similar relationships with my best friend in high school, then several college roommates. I’d already hopped from one close relationship with a woman to another, but I’d tried to take the intimacy to the next level with Jordan. I knew that was what she wanted, and I wanted to see if that skin would fit.
When we went on that trip to Vegas, the same trip when I joked that we should get married, Jason Mraz’s manager asked me to go back to his hotel room. I considered it for a moment, as Jordan watched from a few steps away. She glared at me. A real friend would let me go, I thought, but then I remembered she wasn’t just a friend. I’m sure she saw my hesitation before I said No, thank you. I couldn’t make Jordan angry that day; she was my ride out of the desert.
That was our biggest problem: I kept forgetting that Jordan and I weren’t friends, and she had to keep reminding me.
* * *
It’s been eight years, and Jordan and I are friends, I think, now. She emails me sometimes, checking in. She capitalizes her sentences. I invited her and her fiancé to my wedding, but they didn’t come.
She recently texted me a picture of Dolly Parton, someone she knows I love. We were going to stop at Dollywood on our way across the country. I still wish we’d gone on that end-of-the-year road trip, and that we’d finished our relationship that way, driven until the end of it. And I wish I’d behaved better, been more considerate.
When I tell people the story, they often dismiss my badness, say something about how we were all dumb, selfish and 22 once. And I learned a lot from that year: I learned how to be a better partner, that I needed someone to build me up, and that I should take time to build up my person in return. I learned not to confuse the intimacy of friendship with romance.
If Jordan and I had taken our road trip, maybe we would have even taken the Burmese python, if we’d had the guts. Our boss would have put out another half-hearted call to search for the missing snake. Or maybe he simply would have waited for one of the campers to find her, curled in one of the bunks or basking on the front porch of the dining hall, enjoying that famous California sunshine. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” he would write in one of his school-wide emails. “She doesn’t mean any harm.”