The Land Rover is making an awful grinding sound because Dave took a bump on the beach too fast while staring at his reflection in the rearview mirror. I hear a splat and look behind to see we’ve run over another jellyfish and Dave’s back staring at his reflection again.
“I look good don’t I?”
His face is gaunt and hollow with bags under his eyes from a sleepless night in the tent; his hair is greasy, unkempt, and longer than I’ve ever seen it; he is unshaven with the patchiest beard I thought possible; but he is tanned, I’ll give him that.
“This Australian sun is doing wonders for me. They should really do something about the ozone layer back home.”
“How are you feeling?”
He looks back to the beach which acts as our road and nods. “Better.”
He is looking slightly better than the previous night when he informed me his shit was green.
“You mean like a brownish green?”
“No bright green. It’s like I swallowed a highlighter.”
His complexion had also looked fairly green that evening, but after taking the recommended dosage of a shit-ton of Pepto Bismol, he looks improved today.
I consult the map of the desert island we are driving along. Another fifty kilometers before we turn off the beach and head inland. Fraser island is the largest desert island in the world home to venomous spiders, venomous snakes, a great white shark breeding ground, and we had the brilliant idea to rent a car and go camping on it.
Dave has the same amount of off-road experience as I do, which is nothing, but has more driving experience which is why he’s behind the wheel and I’m navigator/DJ. He also assures me he plays lots of off-road maps in Mario Kart so I guess that counts for something.
I fiddle with the radio so Dave can focus on the treacherous off-road driving he seems so flippant about. The only station I had found in range played country music but has now turned to static.
“Try pressing scan again.” Dave says glancing at the radio and reaching for the knob.
“Watch the road.” I hit his hand away and the entire car jumps as we crash over a sand bank Dave hit at speed. Instantly responding to the jerking car, the radio comes back to life and blares country music at full volume.
We both laugh and I secretly wonder about the integrity of the suspension. It was my credit card, not Dave’s the rental shop had on file. If he drives this damn thing into the ocean it’ll be on my shoulders, not his.
Overall, this trip has been good for Dave. He’s the only guy I know that would fly across the world to come visit because he ‘just felt like it’ but I know the full story. His depression had gotten worse and he had taken a leave from work. Looking at him now I’d never suspect a breakdown but he wears the mask well.
We pass a dingo, Dave slows the Land Rover, leans out the window, howls and the dingo howls back. Dave giggles and we continue on our way.
He wears it very well.
I knew he was prone to mood swings but the breakdown took me by surprise. His ex explained that he had refused antidepressants because he didn’t want to be ‘fuzzy’. Dave of course hasn’t told me any of this but I’m assuming he’s assuming that I know it all because his ex told me everything – which she did.
I look past Dave in the driver’s seat to see a dark outline in the ocean close to the shore. Only a car length from where we are driving, a great white shark is lurking in the abruptly deep ocean. I should probably tell Dave to look to his right and share the moment, but I would rather he focus on the road.
“Turn up ahead.” I say.
Dave nods and makes the turn to take us inland. I glance at his face as he drives and notice something he didn’t want me to see. The expression was only there for an instant – a troubling recollection, a sudden wave of despair, a listless longing – I don’t know what caused it but the flash is gone.
Dave notices I’m staring and glances at me. I mumble something about his shitty beard, he mumbles something about me fucking off, and we’re good.
Ten kilometers later, we slow and stop at a sign that cautions treacherous conditions ahead and warns for only experienced drivers to continue. As of right this moment, Dave’s off-road experience is driving on the beach for five hours.
He grins, I start to shake my head, and the Land Rover moves down the sandy hill. We are committed now.
I brace myself with both hands and hear the camping equipment in the back crash up against the roof and fall back down into a heap as we go soaring over a ditch. Dave is either impervious or simply choosing to ignore the bumps: gripping the steering wheel with both hands and sporting a grin so wide I can see where he got his wisdom teeth removed.
We start to slide, Dave swears, I swear at Dave, Dave laughs, we come out of the slide, and I swear some more.
I beg him to slow down, but Dave is adamant we’ll get stuck in the sand if we don’t maintain sufficient momentum and starts babbling about our mass times velocity. I stop listening and come to terms with whatever happens will happen.
The eventual lookout is underwhelming and not worth the ulcers caused by the journey. After checking the map we decide to take a quick hike to some sand dunes that are nearby. As Dave walks in front of me, I notice his shoulders are bright red.
“You should really put on some sunscreen.”
“I’m not putting that shit on.”
“You look like a gay vampire.”
I sigh. We had accidentally bought a bottle of sunscreen with glitter infused in the lotion. Not only am I protected from harmful UV rays, but now my skin sparkles in the sunlight – needless to say I know I look fabulous.
“Oh fuck.” Dave stops walking.
I take a few more steps before looking up and stopping. A five foot reptile is laying in the sun in the middle of our path. I don’t know if it’s an Iguana or Kimono Dragon or Godzilla’s offspring, but I know we’re in Australia and it can probably kill us.
“Isn’t their saliva poisonous or something?” Dave asks.
That sounds familiar.
The reptile has seen us, turns its head, and begins flicking its long thin tongue.
Dave swears and takes another step back – I follow. The reptile continues to slowly advance on us – tongue flicking and tail swinging back and forth, carving a zigzag pattern in the sand.
The reptile pauses at a patch of shade and probes the air with its tongue.
“I think we’re ok,” I say.
I turn and see Dave is already two hundred meters back up the trail. We agree that the sand dunes probably aren’t worth seeing after all, and head back to where we left the Land Rover. We continue on the short drive that will take us to where we plan to camp for the night.
It is the quiet moments when he thinks I won’t notice that the mask slips and I glimpse the misery he carries. I have debated asking him about it and telling Dave I’m here if he needs me, but I worry that might ruin the mood of our trip. He came here to get away from that darkness and the last thing he would want is for me to call it back.
I return from the outhouse and realize Dave is missing.
I see his outline on top of the Land Rover silhouetted against the Milky Way above.
“Wanted to look at the stars. Didn’t trust lying on the ground. Too many things that could kill me.”
I crane my neck upwards and look at the foreign heavens of the southern hemisphere. The constellations have never looked more vibrant in my life.
I hear a camera shutter click followed by Dave swearing.
“I suck at long exposure shots.”
Later that night we sit in the darkness and complain about the fire ban on the island. Dave suggests lighting ‘just a little bit of fire’ but I say it’s out of the question. I don’t want to be the idiots responsible for burning down an entire national park.
“Do you ever wonder what you’re doing with yourself?”
I study Dave for a moment in the darkness before replying. There is a noticeable change in the atmosphere. I can’t see Dave’s face in the shadows but know he is frowning.
Dave scoffs and I hear him take a bite from a granola bar.
“It’s just work… I don’t know. The idea of sitting behind a desk doing some menial task for eight hours just makes me feel sick. What’s the point? So I can earn enough to afford the apartment I can’t fall asleep in? It just seems wrong… This is what it’s all about.” Dave moves his arms to indicate the campsite. “Surviving and living in the moment. Not that other bullshit.”
I try to think of something meaningful to add but can’t find the words. After a silent beat Dave gets up and crawls into the tent. I sit in silence and crane my neck up at the stars, mulling over Dave’s thoughts.
The next morning Dave sleeps in and I set up the grill for breakfast. Twenty minutes later the water is boiled, coffee is made, and I’m warming beans on the stove. Dave takes a sip of his coffee, swears, and starts complaining about a burnt tongue; I smile and nod, and continue to blow on my own.
“Huh. That’s not good.” Dave says as he calmly sips his coffee and looks at the stove.
I turn my head and see a flame has spread to a hole in the gas line – the entire grill is seconds from exploding if the fire reaches the propane tank. I jump to my feet and frantically turn off the propane. The fire disappears and a horrific death is avoided.
Dave nods in approval and takes another sip of the instant coffee.
The drive back to the ferry is quiet and uneventful – well, as uneventful as off road driving can get. We’re both tired and don’t have much to say. Dave has mastered driving on sand and we reach the ferry in ample time.
When we leave the island Dave is sunburnt, dehydrated, has lost ten pounds, and is complaining that a spider might have bitten his dick.
“What do you mean might have?”
“I kinda felt a sharp sting but didn’t really see anything.”
“Is there a bite mark?”
“Don’t think so.”
“Well I’m not sucking the venom out if there is.”
I on the other hand have barely tanned, grown a beard, stayed sufficiently hydrated, and avoided any sort of venomous bites.
We have been gone for three days.
The Land Rover is returned at night, no damage is noted, and my credit card is in the clear.
We had stupidly booked the 1AM Greyhound back, thinking we could save the cost of a night at a hostel and just spend the time in a bar getting plastered.
Dave orders a double gin and tonic, and when the bill comes with the drink it costs seventeen Australian dollars.
“Jesus. That’s like twenty back home?”
I nod and sip the domestic pint I had ordered. Honestly served him right ordering a highball at a place like this. I can see in his face he knows this too and is embarrassed by his mistake.
We realize that we are poor and can’t afford to get drunk in a depressing pub, so instead we kill the three hours in McDonalds where they have free Wi-Fi and affordable choices. McDonalds closes at midnight and leaves us an hour to wait outside at the bus stop.
Despite being left waiting in the almost-rain, Dave is grinning ear to ear. I ask him what’s up and he says he’s just remembering the trip. I nod, and wonder what details he will embellish when he tells this story to all our friends back home.
He seems good now. I hope he left the mask on that island and what he wears now is the genuine Dave, but there’s no way to tell. All I can do is wait and see. If the mask slips back on, or if he falls again, I’ll be there for him. He knows that, but like I said, he seems good now.
Banner Image: By Paxson Woelber (Flickr: Camping in Death Valley) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons