In the weeks leading up to the end of our five-year relationship, my boyfriend and I spent all our time together watching Alone. The show—a History Channel original—follows ten contestants as they self-document their attempts to survive alone in the wilderness. The winner is the last person left standing. They call it tapping out, but really what that means is that the contestant presses a button on their emergency satellite phone and the rescue crews swoop in.
We didn’t know it was the end then, but in those final weeks my boyfriend, Jamie, and I sat on opposite ends of the couch together, watching in the dark of our small house as, one by one, each of the contestants reached their breaking point and went home.
The contestants, for their part, were all experts in their fields. They were former Army Rangers and survival training guides and botanists skilled at distinguishing between plants that will sustain you and plants that will leave you for dead. Each of the men and women who auditioned were chosen specifically because they possessed the skills you’d think a person would need to survive in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, entirely on their own.
So when each of them tapped out, week after week, I was always surprised by what finally forced them to call it quits.
I was surprised, and I never got it right.
“She’s going to make it,” I said to Jamie one night about the woman who reacted to the bears sniffing around her tent the same way that I would a kitten rubbing against my leg.
But she didn’t.
Over and over again, we watched as the contestants cracked in half.
One woman was splitting kindling, talking into a camera she had propped up on a log and not paying attention. Her hatchet slipped. She nearly lost her thumb.
The woman who lived harmoniously with the bears? She tapped out after yelling at two cubs outside her tent. She was inconsolable almost immediately, looking into the night vision camera and wiping her tears with her hand holding tight to her air horn.
A young guy in his twenties lasted weeks on nothing but algae that he licked off trees and flattened mice that he trapped between rocks. But then, one week, the show cut to him sitting in the middle of his shelter, satellite phone in hand, saying he missed his mother.
Another man spent twenty-one days building things out of wood. His strategy, he said, was to make his life in the wilderness as similar to his life at home. He built a table where he ate every night. He whittled himself a pair of dice. He hung a gallon jug from a tree and used it as a makeshift shower. But three weeks in, he turned to the camera and said, “I can’t do it anymore. I miss my wife.”
I think it was then that I realized Jamie and I were watching two different versions of the same show, because, after it cut to a commercial break, he pushed the button to fast forward through the advertisements and said, “That was dumb. He could have seen his wife plenty once he won the prize.”
A few months earlier, Jamie and I had started therapy, and I had had a similar realization. Before we met with our therapist we had to fill out paperwork on various aspects of our relationship: how we communicated, how we fought, how we showed affection toward each other. We answered all the questions on our own, and I’ll admit it: I filled out my paperwork with pride. Look how much I know about my partner! I thought. Look how much I love this man! Look how solid our relationship is!
But as we sat next to each other on our counselor’s cramped loveseat, listening to her read our answers back to us, I realized that Jamie and I were watching two different versions of the same relationship. Where I was happy, he was unhappy. Where I felt confident, he felt unsure. Where I thought we were the strongest, he thought we were weak.
What relationship is he in? I remember thinking as the counselor confirmed just how miserable he was.
So when Jamie sat beside me as we watched Alone and commented on how he would have chosen the fishing net over the rope, or that he would have dried his boots differently after falling in the freezing water, I remember thinking, What show is he watching?
Was he watching as the contestants survived bear attacks and shelter-devastating storms? Broken ankles and ripped fishing nets? Landslides and near-hypothermia? Was he watching as they pushed past all those obstacles—all those obstacles that you’d think would be the thing to break a person—only to see them tap out after a long night of thinking about the sound their kids made when they got up in the morning, only to see them call it quits after an hour of remembering the way their wife’s hair felt against their face? Didn’t he see what I saw: how a person could survive the unthinkable and still be broken by something as soft and uncertain as loneliness?
“That’s a terrible place to put that fishing net,” he said when a contestant stopped crying about missing her daughter long enough to put hers in the same place a den of bears had been eating salmon by the fistfuls. “She should put it out in open water.”
After our diagnostic session, our therapist told us that people come to counseling for one of three reasons: to make their already solid relationship stronger, to fix their relationship after some sort of betrayal, or as a last-ditch effort before they bailed for good.
Even in our reasons for therapy, Jamie and I didn’t agree. I thought we were in the second category. But Jamie, it turned out, put us in the third. He had his hand wrapped around that satellite phone. He had already started wondering how long it would take for the boats to arrive. He had been thinking about tapping out for months, maybe years, and I never even knew it.
One night, early in the season, I asked Jamie how long he thought I could last.
“Out there,” I said, gesturing toward the TV. “Alone.”
He was quiet for a minute, thinking it through. I wondered what he was weighing in his mind: how long I could go without eating, how much I remembered from my childhood summers spent fishing on Lake Champlain, the three nights I slept under a slanted tarp in Vermont, all the times we had gone camping and I had made him walk half a mile into the woods to hang our food from a tree.
“Three days,” he said and turned back to the TV.
“Really?” I asked. He shrugged. He hit play.
I remember sitting on that couch and thinking three days was incredibly generous. Because, honestly, I don’t think I would have lasted an hour. And that’s not because I couldn’t. It’s because I wouldn’t have signed up for it in the first place. I didn’t want to be alone. I didn’t need fifty-six days in the wilderness to realize what I loved about my life. I didn’t need starvation and endless nights spent shivering in a sleeping bag to miss Jamie: his tired body slippering into the kitchen each morning, his hairs like thin snakes coiling around the tub drain, his heavy head that he would lean on my shoulder just for a second while we watched TV, even in those final weeks, before picking it up again.
Jamie never asked me what I thought of his hypothetical fate. He didn’t ask me how long I thought he would last out there, but that was probably because he thought he didn’t have to. I could tell from the way he sat up straighter when the commercial break ended that he thought he’d be fine. I could tell from the way he hit pause and then rolled his eyes when I started to say, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I lasted longer than you?” that he thought he’d be fine forever.
Rumpus original art by L.T. Horowitz.