Michigan, United States
“I thought you were the great outdoorsman.” I blew into my trembling fingers. If it helped at all, my hands were too numb to tell the difference.
“The wood’s too wet,” Josh said and sat beside me on the log. “And I never said anything about being an outdoorsman. You bestowed that honorific upon me yesterday when I got the fire going after an hour of failure.”
“We should go to the ranger’s station,” I said around chattering teeth.
Josh looked up at the moonless sky and back to me. I could barely see where his beard ended and the rest of his face started in the starlight. Neither of us needed to say it. Without a flashlight, we’d never make it three miles through the woods to the ranger station. We were woefully unprepared for camping at all, much less with a cold snap gripping the island.
“Maybe we’d be better in the tent. At least it would trap some heat.” Josh nodded his chin toward the canvas mess I spent hours erecting yesterday while he built a fire.
Josh stood and slipped his hand into mine as he did. It felt like fire against my frigid digits. He pulled aside the main flap and entered just behind me into complete darkness. We blindly maneuvered in the tight space, finding our own sleeping bags and pulling off our heavy boots. My toes were as numb as my fingers, but rubbing them restored some sense of life. After a moment, I realized my wool socks were damp, and I pulled those off as well.
“I almost don’t want to get into the sleeping bag,” Josh chuckled. I could hear the tremble in his voice so close to me. “No wonder I’m freezing. Everything is wet.” His overcoat rustled as he worked his way out of it. “Where did we put the spare clothes?”
“Remember we were worried about bears? Our packs are out there, hanging in a tree somewhere.” I fumbled at the zipper of my coat. I don’t know what noise of frustration I made, but Josh touched my jacket a moment later, feeling for the zipper, and undoing it for me. “Thank you,” I mumbled and realized how large Josh’s presence felt in the tent. Without light, he could be anywhere beside me, and my mind filled every crevice with him. Every inhale brought with it the mix of our unwashed bodies overshadowed by a lingering hint of Josh’s beard oil. My thermals were damp from a day hiking on the humid island. It clung to my skin as I pulled it over my head, and the chill air immediately attacked the bare skin. Despite that, I hadn’t realized how uncomfortable the moist fabric had been until I was free of it.
Josh shuffled beside me, grazing his back against my arm. “Can’t find the top of my damn bag,” he mumbled as much to himself as to me.
“You’re not sleeping in wet jeans, are you?” I asked and focused on the button of mine. After that, there was a zipper, and I prayed I wouldn’t need Josh’s help there. Since undergrad, we hadn’t spent more than a week apart and had gotten into more trouble than I wanted to remember. Someone with two doctorates and a mountain of published works doesn’t need someone else’s help getting out their own pants. I realized how that sounded even as I thought it. I loved Josh. He was the only man I ever loved. But not like that. Why did helping me when my hands were too frozen have to mean anything? Why was I making this weird? We’ve seen each other undressed plenty of times, mostly by accident, a few times not. We’ve helped each other out of our pants plenty of times over the years. Maybe it was the complete darkness baffling my mind.
“My goddamn thermals are all soaked too,” Josh grumbled and rustled beside me.
I finally managed my own jeans’ button and made a mental note to not wear denim camping again. It soaked up every drop of dew I brushed past and would never dry. The heat generated by our struggles to disrobe in the tight space helped cut the dread chill as I shoved my wet things into a corner, and my hands slid over what I assumed was Josh’s bare thigh as I groped for the head of my sleeping bag.
“Jesus fuck!” Josh grunted a moment later. “It’s a fucking glacier in this thing.”
I slipped a leg into my bag and repeated his curse.
“Get your ass in here with me,” Josh said.
I laughed around my shiver. “There’s barely enough room for one of us.”
“You’re the engineer. Can’t we zipper these together?”
I nodded, though he couldn’t see it. “You’re as smart as you are bearded.”
We played an awkward game of Twister, not that any game of Twister isn’t awkward, for minutes in the complete dark, trying to unzip the bags and merge them. Josh was everywhere in the tent, his bare skin burning under mine every time we grazed against each other. By the time he declared success, the tent was almost comfortable.
I pushed into the double sleeping bag, cocooning myself in cold cotton. My body heat leeched into the fabric as Josh slid in to my left. We lay there a moment in silence, shoulders and thighs touching in the tight space while our bodies regained something like life.
For the first time in hours, I felt like my life wasn’t about to end that night. I sighed to the canvas a few feet overhead and noticed the shivers slowing. “If I’m going to freeze to death tonight, I’m glad to be doing it next to you.”
“Yeah, me too.” He laughed and floundered for my hand, giving it a squeeze. “If the ranger has to find my blue corpse next to any other blue corpse, at least it’ll be yours.”
Josh still held my left hand when I lurched, rolling in place to face him with my right hand resting against his shoulder. I could see nothing but imagined the creases at the corners of his dark eyes and dimples when he smiled.
“I have an idea,” Josh said and let go of my left hand. He took my right and lurch-rolled away from me before pressing his back against me, squeezing my arm into his whorls of chest hair. I adjusted myself to maximize skin contact. I may not be a thermal engineer, but I knew enough to minimize heat loss.
“Was this your idea? Being the little spoon?” My nose was close to the nape of Josh’s neck.
“Yeah, but also, let’s never go camping again.” He chuckled and raised my hand to kiss it. “In case we do die, know that I love you.”
I bit back my grin, pushed my forehead against him, and kissed the back of his neck. “I love you too, Beards.” Cold snaps forgotten, the sleeping bag felt as warm as summer when I squeezed him in a single-armed hug.
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