“It’s just I’ve never seen any woman maneuver her salad dressing so expertly as to avoid it touching anything else on her plate.”
Tom sits adjacent Phoebe, gaping down upon her distinct portions of food – salad, jojos, plank salmon, and a thin slice of cheesecake – in wonder. The balsamic vinaigrette he’d applied to her greens rests at least a quarter inch from anything that isn’t romaine lettuce or an accessory thereof. His own heaping plate sits untouched, an observation Phoebe attributes to the outright unattractive growling sound she assumes his empty paunch is producing. It’s so obnoxious and loud that even the nearby tree line’s crows cease their cawing.
“Tom… Tom? Jesus, stop staring at my food.”
“I’m just – it’s incredible, that’s all.” He’s transfixed, clear blue eyes betraying an unawareness of all else but the delicate woman before him. Her wispy shoulders jut back in annoyance. The move pulls her tank top tight against her chest. Tom grins.
“You know I don’t like it when people watch me eat.” Phoebe’s tone forces his gaze to hers. They match quiet stares, a wind-swayed tablecloth’s gentle lapping keeps measure of the silence. She skewers an errant tomato with her fork, eyes never wavering from his. Tom blinks at the squelch: she may as well have punctured his heart.
“How come I’ve never noticed this precision of yours before?”
“Well, we’ve only known each other, what, three weeks?” She hopes it sounds casual, flippant even. Phoebe slips the tomato into her mouth, commences chewing in a careless manner. A fine dribble of seedy pulp runs from the crease between her lips. Tom may have hauled her all the way up here for the day, and he may have thought his orchestrated series of clumsy encounters was headed somewhere, but she’d conducted a serious powwow with her roommate before heading out. Today’s picnic was the end of the line for this guy. Period. “I mean, three weeks is, like, nothing. I’ve got milk in the fridge that’s been around longer.”
“Ouch, baby.” Tom smiles, an act that flushes his already rosy cheeks. Phoebe decides she’s never before hated Hawaiian floral patterning so much on a man. He must be the only guy in Oregon who dresses for California beaches when he’s headed to the woods, she thinks.
“Just saying.” Phoebe focuses on her food again. Don’t look at his face. Her fork bats a jojo into the salad dressing. It’s a reluctant maneuver, but necessary: she can’t have him thinking he knows her. Tom meanwhile moves his right hand from the table’s splintered surface, a sweat mark from his palm imprinted on a former outdoorsman’s hewn initials. He snakes his arm between himself and Phoebe, wipes the remaining dampness from his hand, and creeps it toward her denim thigh. Then he remembers the champagne. His fingers retreat in haste.
“I almost forgot! Gotta run back to the truck… pièce de résistance, you know.” Phoebe hears him say something like ‘peace resistance’ while he maneuvers his doughy bulk from her side. Then, he’s gone. As the lingering stench of his cologne dissipates, fragrant pine air suffuses Tom’s place at the bench. It’s a Godsend. She glances over her shoulder to make sure he’s really headed off, then scoots his own plate of food two feet further down the table.
“Who the fuck brings jojos and cheesecake on the same picnic?” she asks. Nothing responds, save for the indistinct humming of a nearby hornet’s nest. The sound recalls a mantra of her high school wilderness survival teacher: nature only provokes if you provoke nature, or some shit like that. Either way, she’s not afraid of stingers. Behind her, the shallow rhythm of Tom’s stuffy breath drifts all the way from the truck, soiling the cool afternoon breeze. Phoebe promises herself she’s never again going to come onto a man she meets in Albertson’s frozen dinner aisle. She thinks about how it hadn’t always been like this, how even a few years ago her need to get screwed hadn’t taken priority over basic standards and an actual connection with a man. Her lustrous black hair had been like a satin lure for a hot lay, back then.
A short bark of a scream gores the silence. Phoebe turns without thought, eyes drawn straight to Tom’s cherry red Ford F-350, which gleams with a surreal lucidity among the Deschutes Forest’s muted browns. She’s entered a dream. Tom stands, facing the picnic table, champagne in hand. A matted bundle of muscle and jaw is positioned between them. It’s a black bear, Phoebe knows, though something’s not right. This one’s snarling, contorting its face to maximize the presence of yellowed canines. Its shoulders strain with thick cords of muscle; the creature shudders in an ecstasy of unreleased rage.
Phoebe knew she hadn’t planned on what happened, that until her hand was actually clutching Tom’s oily hunk of plank salmon, until she was actually lobbing it at his face, she’d been focused only on the bear. It wasn’t until Tom had raised his own arm, arcing the champagne high above his head in defense, that the bottle’s punt caught a stray shaft of sunlight and sent a glaring pulse of white heat into her eyes. The moment was brief, but by the time she could see again she’d already cast her throw. Her next view was of the bear pivoting its head along the meat’s trajectory, then vaulting off its hind legs even before the salmon smacked, like a wet kiss, across Tom’s cheek.
Before his frame was overwhelmed by a fury of matted black fur, she observed a look of complete recognition twist at his face. Then, Tom was gone, his presence reduced to little more than a series of sloppy noises and violent spurts of crimson.
As it turned out, the bear was really only interested in his throat. When it had finished gorging, it turned to Phoebe, who still sat at her place on the bench. Running had occurred to her, but it no longer seemed necessary. At first, she was afraid to meet the creature’s stare, but something about its unwavering attention forced her to embrace its eyes. They were dark, the color and texture of ink, though she could see this muddy quality was only because of the sheer magnitude of life they contained. A fine dribble of pulpy matter ran from between the crease of its lips. After a time, the bear lumbered off, leaving Phoebe – who’d just realized she’d pissed herself – to her meal.