If you’d been with me in the caves today you’d have seen how the wet path opened into a great white cavern, like a temple. Stalactites and stalagmites—hard to remember which is which—reached at me from above and below like spikes in a medieval chamber, like teeth in a mouth at rest.
“Don’t touch!” said our guide, “We must leave the rock to its most natural processes
!” as she watched our greedy eyes. When she’d turned away, I ran my hand over a wet banded rock. Before, my husband would have scolded me; so different from him, you would have laughed, hoping to get me caught. I held my hand on the grooves, tasting metal in my mouth.
“This cave has been hollowed out by the river over thousands of years,” our guide turned around again to explain. “On this tour, I will show you how to recognize the patterns of time on the cave walls, like a geologist would! Follow me!” She waved us all forward. We exited the temple in her tow, the damp passage narrowing as we moved toward the steady sound of water.
When I left you, it was really you leaving me. That day I wore my red dress with the open back, my long hair down. I walked decidedly away from the last place I’d see you. The way I remember you is the way the silhouette of something sticks between my lids and eyeballs if I’ve stared at it too long: you on your loveseat, elbows resting on your ruddy knees, bare feet against the plywood, a smile. When the local boys honked and whistled at me, I uncoiled my long middle finger and held it out as far as it would go, my face white and wet like the limestone in the cave. They whooped and hollered at this. Fair enough. I stood out that day in your small town, all gussied up to be rid of you, and folks were bound to notice. Since then, other men have held me in that same dress and one traced my bare spine with the back of a fingernail. The dress is the only piece of clothing I have left from that time. I folded it nicely in my suitcase, now slipped under the twin bed in my hotel room that looks across the river gorge and teeters above the entrance to the cave. I may wear it to dinner tonight. I may huck it down the ravine.
As we walked on, the guide spoke against the volume of the approaching river. Hundreds of spelunkers had spent thousands of hours recording just how far the cave stretched. The tunnels loop over themselves, funnel inward and up and down, tie themselves into tunnel knots.
“So many miles of caverns yet to be explored!” enthused our guide. “But thanks to the hard working spelunkers, we’re already the sixth largest cave in the world
.” She beamed. “Measuring a cave is no simple task.” It was cold and my prickled shadow scraped against the cave wall and I remembered your outline, unadorned.
“Raise your hand if you’d ever consider spelunking?” our guide asked. I raised my hand alone.
“Well I’d think twice before you volunteer!” She said, coming at me. “I once lost a woman in here, you know.”
She hunched down toward us, pointing her index fingers around her as though to show us all the directions one could walk astray. The lost woman, from Norway, had left the group to explore on her own. “There are reasons
we stay on the path
,” our guide ordered, stamping her boot on the rock floor. Over twenty minutes passed before they realized the Norwegian woman was gone. It was her husband who first noticed. “How embarrassed he was!” laughed our guide. Expert spelunkers were called to excavate the caverns and find her. Mocking the husband, our guide held her stomach against her guts and whimpered. If only I’d noticed sooner!
Too often, she explained, the spelunkers mistook their own refracted voices for the woman’s faint call for help. Sometimes the other way around. They refilled their headlamps numerous times with batteries zipped into their fanny packs along with water bottles, I imagine, energy bars, rounds of rope. When they found her, it was thirty seven hours later. She was sopping, stuck in a narrow space, only one shoe, very close to where she’d gone missing. “Finding a missing person in a cave is not easy,” said our guide. You can imagine. “But it’s that easy to lose your way!”
Thirty-seven hours? I thought. One shoe! Then again, what must it have been like to be surrounded by all that rock, to touch it all she wanted? And they found her after all. I imagined the husband hugging her to him while holding even closer to the truth: it took him such a long while to notice her gone. It happens. You lose track. Like how I left my husband differently from the way I left you. I simply said goodbye, packed lightly, boarded the plane. I’m older now, my walk is less righteous, my hair less long; it’s easier to slip away.
“She learned her lesson,” our guide said, and then, “So you still reckon you want to go spelunking
?” She brought herself to my face when she said this and smiled at me as though to dare me, to make me a fool. I remembered my lovely red dress, pictured it against her grey green uniform, all its bags and pouches and buckles and pleats, my middle finger tugging at her belt. It’s possible she was left in a cavern like this by one of those spelunkers in a hard hat she loved, his light vanishing gradually with the sound of his slick pants against rock.