Just past dawn on a Sunday morning. I ate about a dozen spiders on the trails out to the creek, their overnight works unseen as I walked, the first hiker of the day accidentally ending both arachnid lives and perfect architecture.
I loved every moment of my ten-mile hike, a veritable pig in the pokeberries, but I really came to just wallow away in the mud.
Even the leeches that fed off my legs, the ones who were probably left drunk from a holiday weekend's worth of Jello Shots and Irish Car Bombs and Cuervo, were tolerated.
The mushy mush at the bottom of the creek, at least, washes away easily, and won't require a long shower afterwards, just to get the stink of its perfume out of my nostrils.
No laptop. No cell phone. No MySpace or Facebook profile messages to sweat.
No text messages or voicemails or IMs.
And no weird looks from guys I don't know, no looks from strange drunk women who think they know me, or from younger women who read me, who thought I was something that I'm not...
Just me, baby. Just me.
* * * *
I must've been smiling. I don't smile much, but I think I felt those muscles a-twitchin' and strainin', the laugh-lines filling in the crow's feet.
I hate my smile, think its one of my least charming features. I only smile, usually when nobody else is around, when I can get away with it. And I usually smile the most when I can get away from everyone but myself.
There's just something seductive about solitude in a wilderness that makes trudging through the mud just so much fun.
* * * *I crank out two hundred push-ups, four sets of 50, as Captain Marvel and Superman battle above Metropolis, as the pair fought over Lex Luthor's supposed turn into a legitimate presidential candidate.
It's 5:07 a.m. on a Sunday, and I'm watching Justice League Unlimited Season 1 DVDs while I sweat and groan and stretch.
The scene hits at Push-up No. 74. One of the greatest battles in the history of animated comic book adaptations.
Captain Marvel, the World's Mightiest Mortal. Once more popular than the Man of Steel himself, back in the 1940s, the Captain gets suckered by Big Blue, chumped in anticlimactic fashion, reverted to Billy Batson with one of Marvel's own mystical lightning bolts.
"Dude, Supes is vulnerable to magic, " I say out loud. "Marvel's a kid empowered by magic."
"That's so... unrealistic."
I flip over on my back as the episode credits roll and the theme music plays. I start my crunches, slow and painful, the ol' groin strained once more from one worthless night of sex - with someone I don't even like.
"I'm either the world's nerdiest chach, or the chachiest nerd," a stray thought bellows. "I re-pulled my groin in a spite fuck, and now I'm watching cartoons and thinking about the Power of Shazam!"
* * * *I start laughing, distracted by another singular thought bouncing around my mind like a supervillian from the Dark Knight's fist. It involves The Question, an old Charlton Comics character sucked up by DC when it acquired the line back in the 1980s.
Comics legend Steve Ditko may be best known as the co-creator of the Spider-Man mythos, but The Question has always been a personal favorite of mine. Alan Moore supposedly based his Rorschach character, in the classic Watchmen limited series, off of Ditko's Question.
"Rors-CHACH. Heh. Now that's fucking funny. Never noticed that."
I stop at Crunch No. 42, get up, put on another episode of JLU, one of my favorites. I start laughing again, hit the deck, and start another set of crunches, as the Jeffrey Combs - voiced version of the Question spins conspiracy theories to another character, the Huntress.
A different sort of question pops into my mind, an ancient question that carries my brain back to Moore's limited series, back into ancient Rome, back into...
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
"Fuck, dude. Who really does watch the watchmen?
"Hell, I don't think Mrs. Perfect would know Alan Moore from Mandy Moore...
"What the fuck was I thinking?"
The same guys, I assume, who do crunches as the asscrack of dawn while watching superhero cartoons, thinking about bad sex and Alan Moore and Captain Marvel's decline into obscurity since the 1940s.
The same guys, I assume, who like to get up before sunrise just to hump like Jarhead Infantry through a nature reserve, who take a digital camera to snap photos of flora and fauna, who're just looking to get all down and dirty in a creek.
Hell. Four Mile Creek's been better to me than most of the women I've been involved with.
* * * *Yep.
I'm a strange one.
A social butterfly of a loner, a hermit who loves disappearing into crowds of people, who occasionally has to remind himself that humanity does indeed have some worth as a species beyond the abstract.
When I was a kid, I used to hate the way my mind works - I always felt ashamed that my brain, with its supposedly High IQ and damned - near - photographic long-term recall, made me a freak of nature.
Growing up in virtual isolation on a Virginia farm, with grandparents whose library collection included hundreds of foreign language dictionaries, NATO manuals, and UN and State Dept. publications, probably didn't help that feeling much.
But now I embrace my eccentricity like a warm blanket on a cold night. I'm constantly fascinated by how my own thought processes work, how my neurons fire inside of my skull, and by the way those abstract visions interact with my surroundings.
As I waded through the muddy water of Four Mile Creek, I suddenly remembered what it was like, for example, to do the same thing when I was a kid, how simple of a pleasure playing in dirty water is, how much energy crackles up from dark water.
I found a deep spot in the creek, and, fully clothed, fell back into the murky depths, the water sucking me down into its bosom, the guppies and tadpoles parting to accept my body into their commune.
As I fell, I noticed that I had an audience.
I caught a glimpse of a woman clad in a black micro-mini and white knee-high stockings ducking behind a tree as I hit the water. My heart raced, and only instinct reminded me to close my eyes or risk losing yet another pair of pricey, disposable contact lenses.
"Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? The goddamn mosquitoes and some emo chick. Who the fuck goes hiking in a skirt and knee-highs?"
I sank to the bottom and thought about DJ Shadow's "Midnight in a Perfect World [VIDEO]," a song off of his Endtroducing... album, for some reason.
Don't ask me. No clue where that one came from. Probably something about the flow of the beats he sampled and the feel of the water and the sight of a scenester - looking chick hiding behind a tree.
I think about the weirdest shit sometimes.
Think. It's what I do best, really.
And sometimes, I even scare myself.
* * * *
One of the most intriguing things I've ever been told, by anybody, occurred a dozen or so months ago, just a few miles from my mud hole along Four Mile Creek, during a full moon.
A woman and I were sprawled out on a blanket, mostly covered by this ratty comforter I used to carry in the back of my pickup. We'd just finished off a bottle of iced tea, a midnight picnic of vegan eggplant wraps and roasted squash.
I smelled like, well, one would expect a librarian to smell like after spending all day moving dozens of pallets of steel shelving back and forth across a construction site.
But my fellow moonwatcher smelled perfect.
She smelled of every mile of air she'd just traveled, smelled of the rental SUV, smelled of JFK International in New York and a connection in Reagan National in Washington and of leather luggage...
And the smell of squash and eggplant was on her breath, too, rich in onions and fresh basil and citrus aromas.
I'd looked up at the moon and told her that she smelled wonderful.
There is no way to describe the face she made. Even the moon seemed to read disgust in her face, disappearing behind black clouds to hide from an outburst from a very passionate woman.
"Man, you're just fucking insane sometimes. Man of fucking mystery."
And then she told me to never change. And all was good with the world. Hadn't really figured on hooking up with a friend that night. That's what we were - just friends. Just happened.
Sometimes, knowing how to cook for a vegan can get a guy into trouble.
Now, every time I smell squash and eggplant together, I think about being naked, beneath a full moon, covered in a ratty comforter that fell apart three months ago.
And every time I see or hear a reference to Ditko's The Question, one of my favorite men of fucking mystery, I think of feature dancers and showgirls and burlesque performers.
If there are bigger comic nerds to be found outside of librarianship, they'll almost certainly be found taking their clothes off inside of strip clubs.
* * * *
As I came back up from my impromptu bath in the creek, memories of her face that night mingled with the lingering beats of DJ Shadow, the visions of Captain Marvel and Superman duking it out, and the taste of polluted creek water.
I took a deep breath and kept on grinning my normally hidden smile.
Ain't nothing wrong with being a Man of Fucking Mystery. Just ask anybody who grew up reading comic books. I felt just like The Question Sunday morning, hidden behind a faceless mask, clad in matching blue fedora and trench coat.
The woman in the black mini had come from behind the tree, was hollering something from the bank and pointing at the ground.
After pounding the water from my ear canals, I learned that she was trying to tell me that my cell phone had been vibrating, that she'd stopped it from slipping off of the rock and into the water, and that she wanted to know if she could bum one of my Marlboro Mediums.
Yes, I'm a chain smoker. And I hike ten miles, bring along my cell even when there's barely a signal. Do push-ups and chin-ups and sometimes dig homemade vegan food.
I'm weird, a Man of Fucking Mystery, even to myself.
I wade back to the young woman, the Watcher's watcher. She perches herself on a stump, facing me, knees drawn up to her chin.
I offered her a cigarette, introduced myself, lit the cigarette for her. I told her that she didn't have to hide behind trees or fee bad for just watching.
She smiled and blew smoke from her nose, down across her knees. Said she hadn't meant to watch, but, well, the sight of some random guy falling backwards into a creek reminded her of something from a movie.
It was weird. So she watched. My phone rang and she saw smokes on the shore. Gave her an opportunity to say something, to spark a conversation.
And then she told me her story.
* * * *
A second-year undergrad, 20-years-old, hung over from drinking in her dorm room with another second-year undergrad. The guy had wanted to fuck - hence the free jug of wine he'd brought to her room. Not really that attracted to the guy, she blew him instead, spit the semen into her roommate's empty bottom bunk.
She blew the guy to get him to leave her alone, to simply get him to leave her space and to never come back. She'd only asked him over out of boredom - and nothing screams boredom to a 20-year-old dorm rat like a Labor Day Weekend with no money to travel.
She tells me that she came out to the nature reserve to think, to recover. She'd been drinking bottles of Fiji to get the taste out of her mouth. She didn't know if she should feel bad or not. She'd blown guys in high school, gone down on frat boys at parties, but she'd never blown a guy just to get him to go away.
She stopped, looked at me.
I have no clue why I'm telling you this. I don't even know you.
To ease her embarrassment, I tell her a story. I tell her about The Man of Fucking Mystery legend, the hook-up with Mrs. Perfect who was anything but, of watching Justice League Unlimited and doing 200 push-ups.
"You're weird. Weirder than me."
She clarified - I was kinda creepy weird and kinda intriguing weird, a good mix that often inspires her to walk up to random people and strike up conversations.
She took off her little backpack, opened it up, and pulled out two big plastic containers of overpriced mineral water. And I drank one to wash away the taste of dirty creek water. She drank the other to wash away the semen taste.
Ritual cleansing sometimes requires strange conversations, where answers sometimes involve a different sort of Question.
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