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How to Get Lost in America

Seeking rescue from a mountain in the midst of a divorce.

photo by Ronaldo de Oliveira on Unsplash

Note: This story also appeared on P.S. I Love You at Medium.

A few weeks after my separation, I got stuck in the snow at the top of a mountain.

I’d fled the gut-punch of my husband’s rejection and the ritual monthly sacrifice of $4k that San Francisco now demanded for a one-bedroom apartment. I’d lived there for 18 years, the only place that had ever felt like home. Exiled by the gods of marriage and money, with no real plan.

My prospects were dim. I’d recently kicked over a few childhood rocks to confront for the first time the things crawling around there in the dark. Which had led to cold sweat, family fall-outs, tearful rebukes, and a dogged strain of PTSD, a word one or two doctors had jotted down on my health chart.

I’d kinda lost my mind.

The sickness had gotten strange, skewed, it had spread through my body — I’d begun to cower not from old memories, not from a single villain, not from my perp, but from everyone, from the world outside my bedroom.

I’d lost trust in the benevolence of friends, let alone strangers. I’d bought a combat knife online, black anodized steel with a locking blade, delivered to me free of charge within two business days, and I’d carried it with me on the train, because I still had to go to work. I’d avoided phone calls and emails and texts and consoled myself with marathon stretches of true crime TV, since I’d also lost the stomach for laugh tracks and loyal families sticking it out through boilerplate hardships.

I’d lost my gym-won muscles. I’d lost interest in listening to constructive criticism. I’d lost interest in sex. My husband had grown tired of this new, combined deficit. Tired of coming home to find me in the bedroom with the blinds drawn, watching reruns of Homicide Hunter: Lt. Frank Kenda, unwilling to leave my bunker, sunk down in the brutal fog that veiled those final months of my marriage. I hadn’t known that they were the final months. I hadn’t known that I could get so scared. Me, a grown man. I hadn’t known much of anything, and then my husband kicked me out.

So I packed up a rental truck and grabbed the long-haired chihuahua named Agnes who my husband had brought home and who’d fastened to me since day one, and I left the other dog, a terrier that had always favored my husband. I tried and failed not to think of either of them over the coming weeks and months.

I drove north up the coast to crash with a cousin I barely knew, in a little town in Oregon, to plot my next move.

I didn’t know where the fuck to go. Portland? Eugene? Some small cabin way up in the mossy woods? Where would I work?

My cousin’s little town struggled, broken by the decline of the timber industry. When I arrived it was trying to resurrect itself as a destination for antiques, but the stores were closed more days than not. Deer grazed at dusk in the backyard.

I bought an old 4Runner with a check engine light that stayed lit even after the intervention of a couple of mechanics, a metaphor for something that I’d never discern.

I’d grown too attached to the dog. Thinking about leaving her at home while I worked for eight hours kept me up at night, but registering her as some kind of therapy pet would feel fraudulent. I wasn’t that bad, right? Still, I took her everywhere, smuggling her in a backpack if needed.

Paralyzing fear of the greater world or not, I was running out of cash and needed a job. Thinking I could maybe make this small town work for me, I applied to a bunch of forestry jobs and landed an interview at a state park on the other side of the Cascade Mountains, which rose to the east of my cousin’s place.

I set out on a cool summer’s day with Agnes, riding shotgun in her little elevated seat, taking a road that skirted the mountains, listening to the radio, singing a few lyrics in falsetto, which always made her tail wag.

An hour later I stopped in the shade of a tree overlooking a park station, cracked the windows, told Agnes to wish me luck, and went inside, weightless and awkward in my khakis and dress shoes. My interviewers wore inscrutable masks as I tried to persuade them that my past office jobs fully prepared me for working in the woods (they’d offer the job to someone else).

I shook their hands as I left, exhaled in the driver’s seat of the 4Runner, the rest of the afternoon empty and waiting. I scratched Agnes’ ears, and told myself not to be afraid. You can drive. Just drive. You can spend another hour in the world outside your bedroom. Just put your foot on the gas. I set off with a vague plan to explore Mt. Bailey, in the Umpqua National Forest, back near my cousin’s place.

I took roads that twisted through the thick and shaded woods, cruising alongside a glassy lake and over creeks running fast from snowmelt, glancing now and then at my phone’s GPS, which grew erratic.

The sun was fading but I still felt calm, guessing at which roads to take, which only got me farther away from my cousin’s, farther up towards the peak, where snow still clung to the ground beneath the trees.

An hour after leaving the interview, I came to a spot where the trees thinned out, the GPS went blank and my phone’s four bars had long ago faded. I hadn’t passed another car in a good chunk of time.

Up here at the beginning of June the air was cold and crisp and I steered around a curve which led to a large patch of road covered in snow. I eased the car to a stop and considered the snow, trying to gauge its depth, thinking it looked passable; I’d grown up in Minnesota, after all. I was a pro. All I had to do was hit the gas and barrel thr –

I got stuck halfway through the patch.

Adrenaline flooded me as the tires spun, throwing snow and mud in the air. The truck worked itself deeper into the snow that had looked so thin from a few yards back. I went nowhere. I threw the car in four-wheel drive for the first time ever, but they spun without purchase, getting me good and wedged at the peak of a mountain that now felt as ominous as an alien planet.

I took my foot off the gas, sweating and cursing as Agnes cowered beside me. I rocked the car back and forth. Nothing. I climbed out into the fading light, found a few pine branches, and threw them under the wheels. I shoveled snow with my hands. Still I got nowhere.

Panic throbbed in my blood. I sucked big gulps of cold air and leaned, light-headed, against the truck. Old ghosts drifted through my brain.

Just tell me, I’d told my husband¸ if you don’t want to be with me.

I don’t want to be with you, he’d said.

The friends I’d abandoned. My credit card debt.

Me, nine years old and friendless, crying at the edge of the woods at soccer camp.

Waking from sleep that same summer to the sight of my father, walking across my dark bedroom, naked. Closing my eyes at his approach. Pretending to sleep.

My breath billowed out and drifted up in the clear dusk. I climbed back into the truck and rubbed the chihuahua’s soft fur. Everything’s okay, Daddy’s mad at the snow, not you. I held her till she stopped trembling. My breathing evened out. “Little Girl,” I told her, “we’re going nowhere.”

I had no map of the mountain. My phone was useless. The radio full of static.

In a few short seconds my brain had indexed the 500 reasons I was unprepared for the real world.

I sighed. A few days ago, I’d tossed a sleeping bag and a heavy wool shirt in the back of the truck. So at least there was that.

In the morning we’d walk for help, but tonight we were stuck.

I shared cold French fries with Agnes that I‘d picked up earlier that day, which she took from my hand with tiny and precise teeth. I let her pee at the edge of the road. Overhead, distant stars and one mute satellite.

I picked her up and crawled into the back of the truck, where I kicked off my dress shoes (who the fuck wears dress shoes to a forestry job?), pulled on the wool shirt, and crawled into the sleeping bag. With the back seats down, I just barely fit. Agnes curled up at my chest and I told her how good she was and how I’d try to get us out of this, knowing that in the morning I’d have to do the hardest thing imaginable: break out of my bunker of delusional self-reliance, and ask a stranger for help.

The night came on cold and fitful. Every hour I climbed back in the driver’s seat and let the engine warm the car, trying to conserve the last quarter tank of gas. Agnes burrowed deeper into the sleeping bag. A few minutes of sleep here and there. I imagined my voicemail filling with my cousin’s calls. At that moment, nobody in the world knew where we were.

Maybe I’ll get us through this. Probably. This is America — I’ll find cell coverage a hundred feet down the road.

I shifted in the sleeping bag as wind howled against the car. Every night, as I hovered an inch above sleep, the things my father did to me as a kid would shove me awake. I’d lie there thinking how, thirty years later, he’d written a series of stories about the things he did to me as a kid, packaging them as some kind of sexual “awakening” or moment of true father-son “connection”, and then he’d posted the stories to an online site devoted to amateur erotica.

For hundreds of thousands of readers, whom I pictured reading with one hand wrapped around their junk; he’d received thousands of emails (fan mail, he’d called them, with no trace of irony).

He’d cornered me in his immaculate, two-car garage in the Carson Valley of Nevada during a Thanksgiving visit to tell me about the stories, which he was sure I’d appreciate because I was a writer; and the utter wrongness of this divulgement had seemed entirely lost on him.

I’d later found the stories online, one night at the office, late, after everyone else had gone home, and my body had shook and grown slick with sweat while reading them, and weird, animal noises had rattled in my throat.

In the coming days I’d begun to wonder who out there had read those stories. Where were they, these masked men all over the world, jerking off to my rape?

How many of them did I blindly run across every day?

I’d begun to fear leaving the house, and bought the combat knife online, and Agnes shifted at the bottom of the sleeping bag and I came back to a car stuck in the snow at the top of a mountain in the dead of night.

Please let me sleep, I said.

Morning came. The snow at the peak looked blue and the trees gray in the heavy mist that clung to the mountain’s peak. I found a small trickle of stream and we both drank.

I thought back over my entire life, and couldn’t remember having ever sipped from running natural water. I was a man of indoor plumbing.

We set off down the mountain, sticking to the road. I figured we’d hike an hour, maybe a little more, till we crossed paths with some smug ranger who’d save the inept city boy and his lap dog from the mess of his own making.

We descended at a slow gait. My feet slipped in the dress shoes, and my heels blistered in a few short minutes. I was bound for pain. Every step a reminder of bad decisions.

Agnes trotted jauntily along, sniffing the air, as if we’d set off on some well-mapped, fully-hydrated adventure. She scooted ahead of me, following her little nose.

The thing about dogs is that you have to protect them from the world. They run ahead following a scent, all fur and slobber and immediacy, and you have to call them back. You know what they don’t. You know what could come around a corner.

I called her back. The sky was cloudless, the air clean. Ahead of me, a small stretch of curving road, and to the side, miles of white peaks and dark forests. Hawks spun in the air.

We passed an overlook where yesterday I’d picked up Agnes and snapped a selfie, planning to post it to Facebook so my husband could see with a bitter pang how brave and content I looked. Fully geared for a new life.

We crossed below the snowline as the sun climbed in the sky. Thin-skinned and weary from no sleep, I peered over cliffs to see the road switchbacking down the mountain, vanishing into thick lines of trees. No cars. No cabins. No cell signal.

The glint of a creek, hundreds of feet below. My stomach flipped from vertigo.

The wind gusted, crows sparred in the trees overhead, and I thought about throwing myself from this very great height.

That thought and many thoughts like it had taken up a back room of my brain. For months I could hear them fighting, fucking, thumping across the floors. They’d grown louder and more urgent over the weeks. Closer. Passed out on my front stoop.

Agnes sneezed, and I snapped back to attention. I studied her for a moment — the curl of her tail, the silky hair of her ears, her little front paws that turned out like a ballerina, She squinted in the wind. I scrutinized the chihuahua because that’s what I did when those thoughts knocked drunkenly on my door.

She glanced up at me, her tail wagged, and I stepped back onto the road.

My feet burned but we kept moving. An hour stretched into two. I pulled out the phone to no avail. How far down the mountain till the bars come back? How about one? One bar. I limped along the road, wondering how the fuck could you still get lost in the woods of America. So many horror flicks opened with scenes like this. City folk in the woods like cows to slaughter.

Where was everyone? No sounds save for the wind through the trees, a demented squirrel chittering in the underbrush, and the scrape of my shoes on the pavement. My stomach grumbled. Maybe the apocalypse had come in the night.

And wouldn’t that be easier? My biggest problem would be which store or home or field to loot. First stop: food and water for me and the chihuahua. Then band aids and hiking boots.

Easier — a life without other humans, and the complications they dragged behind them.

A pine cone fell and knocked through the branches of a tree onto the road, where it rolled to a stop. Agnes hurried over to sniff it with suspicion. The wind picked up.

I remembered sitting in restaurants with my husband, in awkward silence, fidgeting with chopsticks or forks, waiting for the food, waiting for him to ask me about my day, as I’d asked about his. Maybe that was the problem. I should have just told him about my day. But I’d wanted him to ask. I’d wanted him to wonder.

Five hours. Agnes and I drank from another stream and she sat and gave me the look when I tried to coax her back on the road. My feet hurt so badly that I feared that if I stopped, I’d never get up again. So I slipped her into my backpack, where she huddled in accustomed and agreeable silence.

Trees and more trees. Streams. Thick beds of pine needles in the shade. Cracks in the asphalt. Forcing each step, moving, trying to get off the godforsaken mountain. I could only guess at the miles we’d covered. Ten? Twelve? It felt like 50.

Agnes got restless and pawed at the backpack, and I scooped her out and lowered her to the ground.

I remembered my lonesomeness, and the deal I’d made with myself. I’d settled for the goods. The house and the car and the future in Palm Springs. The gas bills paid in full every month. The vanishing debt.

I could sit in silence in restaurants for the rest of my life, right? In exchange for that?

Agnes trotted beside me, taking a dozen little steps for each of mine. She’d been scooped from the mean streets of central California by animal control, and brought by a rescue group to San Francisco, and eventually to me, and now to here. Agnes of Bakersfield. Her unflagging optimism. Her dutiful companionship. Her implicit trust in me, which at the moment felt so misplaced that it nearly made me cry.

My husband would always tell the dogs, “We’re going to take care of you forever and ever,” and I said this to her now. I pledged to myself that I’d never disappoint her. Not like I’d disappointed everyone else. Not like the others I’d abandoned.

I’d protect this little dog, this four-legged trooper who’d, in the coming months and years, stick by my side. We’d sleep in the car and motel rooms and spare rooms in basements. We’d cross the country near-broke, and I’d stop and take selfies with her all along the way. As we pinballed from state to state I swore to myself that no matter how many hard turns life threw at us, I’d be her rock.

Agnes, aka Little Girl

I’d keep breathing for her sake.

Forever and ever, he’d said.

The dress shoes dug into my blisters. I wanted to cut my feet off. I wanted to eat a squirrel. I wanted to throw the fucking phone into the woods. We’d been walking now for eight straight hours.

My heart skipped at the sight of yellow lines appearing on the road. That meant civilization. I prayed for a ranger station or a stalwart hiker. I prayed as we covered more miles, wincing with each step, my stomach now singing a full chorus.

When I heard the car behind us on the road I turned, but suddenly got embarrassed — the old fear of strangers and small talk and hidden motives rose up alongside the shame of my predicament, and I froze in place. A moment later I grabbed Agnes and waved my free hand, locking eyes with the woman riding shotgun in the Mustang. They zoomed past. My hand dropped in humiliation and I muttered at the tail lights.

We kept walking till we came to a sign: Oakridge, 24 miles.

24 fucking miles? I’d thought I was near town. Tears sprang to my eyes. The afternoon was fading. The sun would slide behind the mountains.

I checked my phone again. Nothing.

I heard the truck before I saw it, coming up fast behind us. I held Agnes and turned and before I could even raise my hand, the rusted pick-up slowed and the window lowered and a young man behind the wheel asked if I was okay.

“No,” I said. “I’m not.” I told him about my car and the long trek to town.

“Hop in,” he said. “I’ll take you.”

A cool, clear relief flooded me, and I climbed in beside him. I set Agnes on my lap, but she immediately scooted across the bench seat into his lap, put her paws on his chest, and licked his cheek.

“Sorry,” I said. “She always gets right up in your face. Agnes­ — 

“All good.” He pet her head.

I rested my burning feet on the floorboard, and we set off for Oakridge.

He told me his name was Jeff, and he was shirtless and beautiful in that way that young men with scrawny mustaches driving trucks in small towns can be. He told me about growing up in the Cascades, and all about his favorite places to camp and to fish and to four wheel. He offered me his Dr. Pepper and I was too thirsty to turn it down.

“How’d you end up at the tip top of Bailey in a pair of church shoes?” he asked.

I laughed without joy. Where to start? My cousin’s place? The interview? We had 24 miles to cover, so I went way back.

I mentioned the break-up, and the move, and the job search, and I refrained from saying the word “husband,” because I didn’t want to scare the shirtless and beautifully unguarded boy. He confessed to me that he’d just been dumped by his girlfriend. “It’s awful,” he said.

“The worst,” I said.

“I’ll tell you,” he said, then glanced over at me. “My head sometimes goes to dark places.” His abrupt confidence should have felt strange. But he was our literal savior, a shimmering angel in an old Chevy, and instead it felt preordained.

We were fated, the chihuahua and I, to catch this ride.

“I know dark places,” I said, which sounded corny, so I let it just sit there. There were too many things I couldn’t say to him. I thought about the man I’d slept with behind my husband’s back. The man my husband found out about, because that’s what husbands do. How much of my predicament — how much of my life — was my fault? Likely all of it.

I’d protect the boy in the truck from my personal avalanche of batshit. I’d keep my mouth shut.

“I’m kind of lucky, though,” he said, “I’ve got Jesus Christ on my side. Do you believe in Jesus?”

Fuck, I thought. 19 more miles.

I sighed, looked out the window, shook my head. I told him the truth. “I don’t know what I believe,” I said, thinking about the higher power I’d lost faith in at some point in the recent past. Gone for good, I was pretty sure.

I held my breath, waiting for the sermon, the sales pitch, the promise of a protector that could never protect me.

I didn’t need Jesus. Just a ride down the road.

He seemed to consider me for a minute in silence. Then he let the subject drop, and he told me about the time he got stuck at the top of a different mountain, and the time he’d nearly drowned in the whitewater of a Washington river, and I relaxed and felt my feet throb as the miles passed.

We talked longer than I’d talked to anyone in months.

We coasted into town, and my phone vibrated with a half dozen voicemails from my cousin, each one escalating in fear, and I told Jeff he could drop me at the first restaurant, which turned out to be the same DQ I’d stopped at on my way up the mountain.

I slipped Agnes into the backpack, shook Jeff’s hand and thanked him as profusely as I could without embarrassing him. He nodded. “God bless,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “God bless.”

I watched him drive off, then ducked inside, where I ordered a massive amount of food before calling my cousin from the safety of a booth, over by the window, in an air conditioned, national fast food chain where bad things weren’t permitted through the door.

The next day, after a small band of second cousins towed my car out of the snow with a truck and a chain, I’d watch the numbers roll by on my dashboard as we drove back down the mountain.

Agnes and I’d walked together for 25 miles. Which must be 152 for chihuahuas.

But for now I stuffed my face and cooled my heels, slipping French fries into the hole in my backpack, and she took each one politely with her tiny teeth. I pushed a cup of cold water through the flaps and held it still while she sipped.

Maybe it was a mistake, her trust in me. I wasn’t cut out to rescue anyone, even a chihuahua. I’d only fail her.

But it was too late. There was no back door to this day. No return to San Francisco or the mean streets of Bakersfield. No re-dos on my many mistakes. Agnes was stuck with me. All I could do was keep her company, and watch for the things coming around the corner. Maybe that much I could manage.

The Night I Fed a Troll

What an online hater taught me about creativity.

Note: This story also appeared on The Startup at Medium .

The email popped in my inbox with the subject line: “Saw You Online and OMG!”

This was a few years ago, before those words had become a spammer’s ubiquitous tease. Before I’d learned that those words never lead you someplace good.

I took the bait and found my own face smirking back at me. My face and belly, annotated.

I didn’t recognize the email address. The pic was shot by some roaming photographer at the Folsom Street Fair, California’s third-largest single-day outdoor spectator event, which draws a quarter million “fetish enthusiasts.”

Though the street fair had grown in popularity and widened in its demographics, it’s rooted in the gay community, and anyone with a passing acquaintance of (a certain privileged segment of the) gay male culture knows that we’ll strip off our shirts with little hesitation at events for which straight people normally remain clothed. (Brunch? Check. Bowling? Check. Book club? I’m down.)

Anyway, I’d been drafted to sling beers for charity and had been to the gym that week, so I ended up shirtless on the internet (sorry, Lowe’s). When I stumbled across it, I promptly grabbed the pic for an online profile, which may have helped me land a date or two (thanks, Lowe’s).

Since half my life is online, I had no idea which site the troll had pulled it from. I had to Google “turistors” to confirm that they’re luggage. Baggage, bags, etc.

It stung.

With the help of Photoshop, he (I assumed it was a fellow gay dude) had zeroed in on the body parts that gave me shame (two of them, at least). The parts that made me hesitate when stripping off my shirt or posting a pic. Parts to filter. Parts to obscure.

Like he’d jimmied open the back door to my brain and shone a Maglite on the one dark corner where I stash my ego. I could speculate on his motives, but that’s a dull path to take.

I could call myself, with all sincerity, my own worst critic. I didn’t have to internalize the shame he meant to provoke — it had been there for years. The call was coming from inside the house.

But seeing that critic’s thoughts (i.e., my own thoughts) scrawled over my face and body and concretely seconded by an anonymous observer (who may have known me in real life) was arguably worse.

Everyone knows the risks. Sad sacks haunt forums and chat rooms and comment sections, trailing poison with every keystroke. I’d been writing and blogging for years, and I knew the number one rule: DON’T FEED THE TROLLS.

They live off the bloodshed. They feed off the left hook/right hook of threaded comments and retaliatory emails. Faced with no response, they wither to bones, or sniff out the next sucker.

It was a rule I held to for years. I didn’t even read online comments, following one soul-debilitating presidential election cycle. But that night, wounded by the red scrawls staring at me from my inbox, I couldn’t help myself:

Sorry you’re such an unhappy person, I wrote. Good luck with your miserable life. You’ll need it.

Lame, in retrospect. I’ve never thought fast (or cutting) on my feet. Still, it was short, bitter, and to the point.

It didn’t make me feel better.

Two minutes later I got a new email with the subject line: Saw you online and again what the fuck??

Inside was another of my pics:

The bruise on my chest is a good story for another time.

He’d named this pic, “SheThinksShesAllThat.jpg” which, again, was remarkable in its precision cutting.

The thing is, I’d never in my entire life thought I was all that, about anything. At all. But I’d done something I was a little proud of. A lifetime ago, I’d arrived at college weighing 128 pounds. I’d been called Toothpick and Bones so often that if a genie had granted me three wishes, I’d easily blow the first to look “normal.”

Instead, over those many years I’d worked hard to build up to 185 pounds, and if I wasn’t all that (I wasn’t), maybe I was some of that? A slice of that? Enough to encourage moments in which beautiful strangers might want to make out with me in dive bars, Toyotas and shirtless bowling alleys?

Like I hadn’t learned my lesson. But I could taste blood. In 70 words-per-minute haste I shot back:

The image of you spending your days and nights photoshopping other people’s pictures is cracking me up. Fortunately you still have your mother to tuck you in at night, since you’re living in her basement. Please keep spending your time sending me pictures of myself. It’s flattering.

I waited, checking my email every few minutes as I made a dinner that I’d chew in glum righteousness. But that was the last I ever heard from the troll.

I didn’t feel as though I’d won. The emails had wounded me despite the deft construction of a sweet and affable personality. I’d long avoided any fusillade of criticism, forever scanning the horizon for threats, fashioning armor of helpfulness and self-deprecation, to keep me safe. I was nice to dogs and exes and I donated to charity.

And still it came for me.

Women fear being killed by men. Men fear being laughed at by women. I don’t know the top fear of white, privileged gay dudes, but having your shirtless internet pic annotated for laughs could rank high. I should add that including these pics here is the wound that keeps on bleeding. I don’t want you to see them.

As the hours passed, the sting faded, and I began to mull a fellow blogger’s tagline, which I will paraphrase: “If you post anything on the internet, expect criticism.” I have no love for this motto, though I get it.

It’s a stretch to draw parallels between beefcake pics and works of creativity that are posted with less selfish motives than future hook-ups. But that’s where my brain went on the Night of the Troll.

You make something and put it up — a blog post, a painting, a song, an idea — hoping for praise. Hoping, maybe, to connect.

You can labor on it for days, weeks, and longer, dogged by doubt and the multiple calls coming from inside the house. But to post it, to share it, to strip off your shirt — that jump takes guts.

Many never make that jump.

You run the risk of the Facebook take-down. A hundred hours of labor met with a single, Twittered, “Meh.” I’d written online for years, and every time my mouse had hovered over the “Post” button, I’d think:

This time you went too far. This time you said too much. Worse, you said it unskillfully. You’re a crap writer. You’re naked and ugly and they’re all gonna laugh at you, Toothpick.

But somehow I’d jump. Not because I had guts. Only because other writers and painters and musicians had made that jump before me, making me feel, through their best work, less alone with my flaws and faults. The luggage I’d rather hide.

I’m not all that, I don’t know much, but I’d rather exit this life having added one or two things to the world, than dwell in the basement of trolls.

Make it. Post it. Be naked and afraid. Connect with beautiful strangers when they stumble across your creation. Make them feel less alone with their deformities. Make out with them in their dark bedroom, their phone on the nightstand chirping as their inbox fills through the night.