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The wind came toward her, surprisingly, as she turned to cross the river in her Alden rowing shell. She pushed forward using the strength of her back and feet, the long oars angled, widening, transmitting her energy. She was a machine, as she pointed the bow of the Alden into the current. ”Strong-on-the-left, strong-on-the-left,” she chanted, coaching, to hold the wind. The water had turned choppy, churning, was surpassing her stroke. She knew not to tense, to keep her hands relaxed, elbows up on the recovery, energy flowing up, riding the seat’s slide, squaring the blade at the finish. She was stroking hard trying to get out from under the sudden cast of the wind, over to the east side of the river. She repeated her mantra “on-the-left, on-the-left,” her weight steady, all she could will, down on the drive, caught in a cross-tide and alone on the river.
She might be pushed back to the railroad bridge, might hit against the rocks, might be turned, might spin helplessly. Early in the spring she had lost control rowing up river through the first arch when the river was high and squirrelly. She resisted being frightened now, held the oars out firm, blade just above the water, flat for stability, pushing the sliding seat back, fully extending her legs; she would let the current take her. At first the Alden raced toward the river’s center, then went down river, not far, unsteady, tippy, but purposeful, on what seemed a course, then abruptly, like an intervention, the current calmed.
A heron on the riverbank flew up behind her. She felt the stir, turned to catch a glimpse of its flight. The golden trees, white ash, formed a bright crescent on the river’s east side. The sun was brilliant; she pulled her cap low over her forehead to shield her eyes, and took up her stroke again. She was nearing the far end of a small river island or isthmus, adjacent to an old landfill. She was out of the wind here, the water calmed, fallen leaves floated openly on the surface, each stoke was like a child’s run through autumn leaves, a moment’s happiness.
When she could see the bottom of the river she stopped rowing, rested the oars and lifted herself off the sliding seat, swung her right leg into the water, leveraged her butt and her left leg after it until she was standing thigh-deep in the river on her bare feet. The river bottom was sandy here, yielding and warmish. She pushed the Alden through the water then dragged it up onto the narrow beach. The rowing shell looked startlingly white. She pushed it part way under some scrub brush. The other rowers were well up the river by now, crossing some invisible state line, going under the Bissell Bridge in doubles and eights. She never had their speed or made their distance and would not be missed. Some shore birds scattered, rose up, regrouped, flew northeast, a fine cloud.
When he was dying, those last days, she had administered the morphine drops. The room was silent and still. She sat near him. He was no longer in their shared bed, but in the hospital bed she and the beautiful dark nurse had set up for him. He groaned when he was turned. He ate very little, then none at all. She talked to him of their trips together, gave him sips of ginger ale through a bent straw. She did not know what else to do. They had taken long walks in Wales and Scotland; these he remembered and gave her something of a smile. He all but laughed, an attempt, when she recounted the fiasco of the White Mountains. They had gone with a guide, stayed in the huts. It rained every day, and the trail was brutal, long and rocky. She only told the funny side of this story. He had taken it hard that they hadn’t kept up with the others. He had berated her for being slow. She talked to him of the train trip through Austria, asked if he remembered how they lost their way coming down from the hills near Kahlberg, stumbled across the Italian cafe in a somber, rain soaked town, seeing the green and pink neon lights of the cafe. ”We were so utterly dripping wet, so utterly turned around.” He had smiled, a bit of a smile.
She thought of how it had been, the choosing of pastries from the lighted glass cases, their wet jackets hung on chair backs to dry. She saw them well pleased with themselves, merry, hands around a hot teapot. She had been all smiles and love, pouring tea into glass cups. Who was he? Who had he been? And she? Her memory was split in two; the sense of her own past had been invaded by this other new reality. It was terrible work to try to put it together.
She caught sight of her right ankle looking bruised, a nascent purple, which might swell. She had banged it beaching the Alden. “Damn,” she said to nobody. In the hold of the rowing shell were his papers — notes and photos — rolled up together and dressed with an indigo bandana. She thought her rough-made doll looked like a poppet, as if made for sorcery and witchcraft. She had stashed the poppet in the compartment that might have held a picnic lunch in happier days in the semi-darkness of the boathouse before her shell had been carried down to the dock. She took it out. Some water had seeped into the hold around the rubberized liner, the papers were dampish at the ends, but the bandana was dry. She transferred a big Zippo lighter from her life jacket to the pocket of her khaki shorts before stowing the life jacket in the rowing shell. She was one of the few rowers who wore a life jacket, felt self-conscious about it, but she had promised him to always wear it. She scouted out the strip of beach for some pathway to take across. It was a child’s island, or a vagrant’s. A cluster of oak and maple trees centered the island, the brush growing dense beneath them.
The affairs, had they been brief? She tried not to make a history and geography of his assignations, dating his encounters, but his infidelities had taken a place in what had been their life together. She had never looked at the file again after that first opening and the shock of discovery after his death. His too delicious secrets in a stiff office file marked private! personal! like a schoolboy with a Sharpie pen.
She thought about the question he had posed to her about her sexual life.
“But aren’t you curious about other people’s sexuality, don’t you wonder what they might be like?” he had asked her.
“I don’t really,” she had told him.
“No curiosity, none at all?”
How had she answered him? She was sitting on the sofa, had set her wine glass down on the Noguchi table. She had heard that question, or one similar before, his voice with something of an edge on. She told him about her lovers, the ones before him. And that her curiosity had been satisfied. Why had she not asked him about his curiosity? Not probed? It was a Friday night, back when they had Friday nights set aside, just for themselves, talked openly or she thought they had.
His explorations, records, every scrap of it, would burn, as she intended, in the old landfill. Now.
She had rowed past this island, if that’s what it was, many times. It seemed less benign now, less innocent, unknown and might surprise her. Perhaps it would not be so easy to cross, to ford the brackish water, to reach the dump, a wasteland — it smoldered in her imagination. She would burn the whole thing and have her revenge, if that’s what it was. Or, was it sorrow and betrayal she thought to turn to ash?
His body had been cremated. She had gone at dusk to scatter the ashes in the churchyard, secret and solitary, sowing them into the garden beds that had been turned for spring. The ashes fell like shell and bone from her hands. At last there was only dust, dust to dust, and she threw the dust into the wind, watching as it traveled from west to east. The dust glittered like rain. She had done this in the days before she had learned of the betrayals, in those days in which she had so much tenderness for him. Still, she could not have done otherwise. There are long shadows over life and death.
She was surprised by the boy coming along the river path. He was slight and dark, startling, all but soundless. His hair rose in a pouf like an oversized beret, looked coppery in the light. She stopped breathing for a moment. Squatters. She had seen a tent or makeshift shelter or two hidden in the woods as she rowed up river from time to time.
She startled him too. They stood stopped, an older woman and a very young man, regarding one another. His face was lovely, nearly angelic, the eyes an awesome gray, but there was bright red blood flowing alarmingly from his forearm.
Her seventh grade first aid book with the soft blue cover opened in her mind, a manila page, a tourniquet drawn there, near the elbow, the gush of blood. She used the indigo bandana; loosening it easily to press against the wound. The rolled up pages, the poppet’s innards, fell. The ground was spongy; she braced herself, feet firm.
He didn’t speak, neither did she. The sun came down on them through the canopy of leaves, elm and oak, the amber light encircling. She placed her fingers above his elbow on the arm’s tender inside, finding the groove between the muscle and pressed gently in. The bleeding, bright red, not dark, not life-threatening, less severe than she first thought, slowed. But the gash, whatever the cause, she didn’t ask, was deep.
“You need to go to the ER.” It was only a twenty-minute walk through the woods to the boathouse, to the riverfront park rangers.
He shook his head.
“It’s essential. Get stitched up. Make sure there’s no infection.”
He only looked at her.
“I’ll take you. My car’s parked at the boathouse.” He might have been one of the kids she’d worked with in the summer. She moved, motioning him to go down the path.
“No, police, no hospital,” he said, turned from her and then back. “I have my little brother.”
“Shelter? Water?” she asked. Might he have been in the group being protected in the North Street Church? Endlessly waiting, wearying, needing to break out?
“My brother is alone. I need to get back to him.”
She wanted to explain this was a sanctuary city. But she wasn’t sure what that really meant, not in the long run, for two brothers, one underage, on the lam.
He took her hand. It was such a brief moment, a flutter, wings. It might not have happened at all, but it has. He bent his head toward her, raised her hand to his lips, an old world gesture, the kiss. She felt embraced, the bodily warmth of the other.
She handed him the Zippo lighter that she intended to use to burn the papers. It was an instinct. He slid it into a pocket, nodded, and acknowledged the transaction. He kept the blue indigo bandana, moving the wrapping lower over the wound. She watched him go, up the path, a limp string bag on his back, heading to a tent or lean-to somewhere in that no man’s land of woods along the Connecticut River. She sometimes walked here, at least this far, in winter, when the trees were bare. The path wasn’t marked, and it wasn’t well used from this point, so far up from the boathouse. She had never gone further. Not into the scrubby interior, not alone. She was scared off by the thought of some homeless camper, someone rough, not of her world, startling her. She had not imagined this slight and appealing young man. Had she helped him? Over reacted? The bleeding would clot. It was enough.
The unbound papers and photos lay on the ground. She gathered them up in an awkward way, as if not caring, and dumped them into the scummy backwater. They lay somewhat on the surface, not weighty enough to sink, so she stepped on them with her foot, and watched the broad scrawl of his clumsy comments wash out and submerge into the backwater. The photos of those unknown others, she watched them blur too, and, more slowly, go under. She saw the one she did know, the one who had sent her a pert note after his death, alluding to a flirtation, riding to work on the back of his Harley-Davidson. She saw her fuzzy hair and foxy little teeth, a studio portrait with a studio smile, that too, at the last, she watched, let it submerge, and went back to claim the Alden.
The surface of the water looked purposely dimpled like the surface of that odd sculpture in the museum. She and her friend had been exiting the Great Court last winter when they saw the new installation in the marble lobby, massive; it’s intent to startle. They struggled in their responses, staggered.
“I don’t know what to make of this.”
“Nor do I. Should we?”
They had walked around it slowly. The surface seemed impervious to the change of light from the clearstory windows, was stolid, even ugly, dared they say this?
“It’s amusing,” her friend finally said. She leaned over to read the plate. “It’s not a permanent acquisition.”
They walked around it again, going in opposite directions.
“I’ll have to think about it.”
“Perhaps not think about it,” her friend said.
They went on to the American modernists, secure, forms, colors, the genius that had once disconcerted but were now familiar expressions, and into the cafe. It was afternoon. The light from the courtyard was entering the cafe, turning it sunny. She could see a large square of sky, a circle of doves, each a mark, like leaves in a wreath, rise over the courtyard and disappear. They ordered the crab cake, a glass of Pinot Grigio. They always ordered the same.
Her friend was telling her how she’d seen the charge on the AMEX account, the receipt from Bloomingdales left in a jacket pocket, she’d emptied it in front of the dry cleaner. The receipt was for two pairs of women’s leather tights, one a size eight, one a size six. Her friend was wearing the eight’s. She looked fabulous. The sleek leather, a bulky white sweater, the elongated silver earrings shimmering.
“The six’s were for his current liaison.”
“Are you sure?”
“Same gift. He doesn’t lack for imagination, but he’s too lazy for two.”
“You don’t care?”
“Not much. Monogamy’s dull.” Her friend regarded her. “Are you frightened?”
“I would be devastated.” It would be only months until her husband would so unexpectedly die, only months until she discovered the secret record of his infidelities. She would feel a disbelieving howl rise inward and implode her heart.
“I do resent the too frequent charges for Spiff-for-Men.”
“It’s the go-to grooming club in mid-town. I pay the credit card. He was always fastidious, more so on the prowl.”
“What will you do?”
“Suffer in silence?”
“I don’t suffer. One can’t love only one person. That’s so unimaginative.”
“No,” she said, thinking it through, “but flings, one night stands, being on the prowl, as you put it, demeans you.”
“It’s not about me. ”
She had wanted to reach out, touch her friend’s hand, but knew it was not wanted. Her friend was cool, almost as if she were telling a joke on herself, marriage, sex, Spiff-for-Men.
She had not been unfaithful. She had thought faithfulness an ideal. Was it easier for women? Or was her renunciation a kind of magic charm over her husband that she’d believed he would feel compelled to match?
With her right leg in the dimpled water, she pushed off from the island, took her oars up, marked her course, squinting into the sun, headed toward the second arch under the railroad bridge, looking back every fifth stroke to keep its stone abutments in sight. In her forward view were the tall trees at the island’s center and she used them as a guide. The tide was with her now. She was one with the rowing, felt joy now, her body a machine. Just past the boathouse she turned to come in and a young rower she did not know took the starboard oar as she came in and held the boat while she slid from the seat, lifting over the rim of the dock butt first, unorthodox, lacking the agility required for the graceful step out.
“Good row?” The young rower asked. His hair was haloed in the light. She thought of the young man she had encountered in the woods.
“It was great. The water’s wonderful.” She was grateful as always to have been on the river. Grateful too, to be safely in. She hoped for the young man on the lam, she hoped he would come safely in.
The dock was busy. The other singles were coming in too.
“Athletes,” the coaches were calling, “take your boats up.”
The singles went into the slings, were first scrubbed, the river could be scummy at this time of year, then hosed down. Her Alden looked clean. It was precious to her.
Athletes, they were all athletes. That’s what the coaches called them. She was an independent rower, did not think of herself as an athlete, too bookish. She hadn’t started to row until middle age and now wore a silver oar for twenty-five years of rowing, but athlete she had never been. She might reconsider. She might reconsider the course of the betrayals, see them in a longer light, the elusive dusk perhaps, that hour, not yet gone, but in dissolve, as in film.
The photographs, the adolescent notes, they embarrassed her, even his handwriting had looked like the scrawl of a schoolboy. She’d thought to destroy the lot of them by fire, a ceremony in the wasteland to grieve the past and punish the dead. But submerging them in a backwater seemed right. She didn’t feel anger or sorrow now. She felt strong, her true self, the body informing the mind. She washed down the Alden, put her oars in the cage, spun the lock. She wasn’t over, whatever she was, there were still possibilities, life at a turn, a river, tidal.
There would be light in the sky for another good hour or so. She could drive up into the hills, go to Woodland Farms, get apples from the barn on the honor system, catch the sunset.
|© 2021, Louise Blalock||Go to top