by Debora Black
I waited. Completely stilled. In the afternoon shadows. In the quiet of my living room. Anything good I felt about myself emptied out. I began trembling. Even my living room was changed. There was no comfort. No shelter. I tried to think. My phone rang.
Liam’s voice was vibrant—spring sun. Spring. Melting the ski mountain. Filling the Yampa. I held onto his voice.
“We’re putting in at Trafalgar at six. Are you boating?”
Kayaking. I dropped the mail in a pile on the floor. Stared at the fine linen envelope. I was suddenly unprepared. It was the envelope itself. It was too white. It was glaring. Obtrusive. It knotted my stomach. It embarrassed me. There were three names in fancy black script. Those names didn’t know me or my longings or my efforts. Powerful names. Looking so pristine. Undoing my marriage on that white white linen.
“Yeah. I’m coming.” It was easy to decide between a river raging at high water and those papers.
“Good. See you down there.”
“Liam!” My complaints had vanished. I wanted only to efface my own failures. I could see all the ways I had hurt Derek. I could see him struggling to be right for me. I could see his eyes. Green. And sad. And endless.
“Liam! Will I be okay? Do you think I can manage?”
“Yeah. Use your brace. You’ve got to paddle like you mean it. If you swim, the water will carry you for a while. The river is really hauling. But I’ll get to you and tow you to shore. Just don’t let go of your boat. If you lose your boat, we’ll never find it.”
“Maybe it’s too big for me.”
“It’ll be good for you. You need to start pushing it.”
* * *
“I’m really tippy.” I was tense. Completely intimidated. Feeling the water. The speed. The solid mass of it.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got ya.” Liam said this as though it would be an easy thing to fish me and my flooded boat out of a river running at three thousand cubic feet per second.
“I remember feeling that way.”
Except he didn’t.
There had been so much. Like our bungalow. The covered porch. The thick green grass. How the old windows rattled in the wind. Brittle. Tympanic. At night the light glowed through them. Calm and radiant. And I waited outside on the concrete steps for Derek’s Lexus. Ten o’clock. Ten thirty. He’d look beat up. I’d say It’s just us. And pressed back the world. And we’d be okay.
“It takes getting some miles under your belt,” Liam said. “And you’ve got to get your roll. You won’t have any real confidence until you can roll. Remember what Gary told you?”
“If you can’t roll, you’re completely at the mercy of the river."
“Right. And brace and ferry. Sculling. You need your strokes.”
Liam practiced bracing. I held my breath. Watched him bring his boat onto its edge. Stretch his body over the water. Watched the motion of the paddle blade against the river keep him from flipping.
I dipped my hips from side to side. I could feel how relentless the water would be. I imagined the river taking me under. Pinning me to a rock. Tangling me in debris. A young Aspen tree raced by. Leafless. Gray.
“Jesus,” Liam said. I thought he might say the conditions were too dangerous. But he said, “Let me see you brace.”
“There’s no way.”
“Just get your paddle moving in big figure eights.”
I pushed figure eights through the water. Felt the river grab. Tightened my grip.
“You need a more active paddle. Now ease over your hip and lay your head down until your ear touches the water.”
I dropped my right hip. My boat followed.
“Work the paddle harder. Get your left elbow up.”
I intensified my stroke. Deepened my hip angle. Leaned toward that water. But the sound. The rush. I rolled back up.
“That’s it,” I said. “All I want to do is get down the river without flipping.”
“You’ll get more comfortable the more we paddle.”
The eddies were washed out. There was no place to rest. Or assess the river. Make a plan. Decide how to navigate a rapid. Or skirt a whirlpool while evading certain rocks. More than once I got off course. Ended up in the worst part of the river. Nearly ate it in a class three rapid.
“Stay in front of me! I need to follow you!” I shouted across the water. Heard everything in my voice.
“I have to be behind you in case you flip.”
“But I don’t know enough.”
I looked downstream. Watched the river reinvent itself.
Rocks zigzagged the river’s width. Some waist level. Some at eye level. They were tightly grouped. I would have to setup exactly. There was a drop. Under three feet. It felt like six. Paddle like you mean it, I told myself. I stretched up through my core. Pressed my knees more firmly against the walls of my boat. As I reached my paddle forward the water slowed, began to shift and twist. A huge hole opened. I looked across the river to Liam. His face was scared for me.
“Punch it, Debora!” he yelled.
I dug my paddle into the river. Made deep, strong strokes, blade to blade. I kept paddling as I descended the rolling wall of water. Kept paddling as I hit the bottom of the hole, hard. Kept paddling as the wave crashed over my head. As water like ice hit me full in the face. As the weight impacted with me. I broke through the wave. Knew the drop would be there. Saw the narrow breech. I lined-up my kayak. I needed every stroke to counter the current forcing me off course. If I missed, I would be pushed against the rocks. The current would flip me. The circulation would hold me under. Somehow, I had the opening. I entered the water piling up on itself. It tumbled viciously. I dropped. Scraped across rocks. Smacked against boulders. I steadied my kayak left, right. My boat shook roughly. A cross current hit me from the side. I braced. Overshot my hip snap. Threw my boat onto its right edge. I felt myself flipping. I braced again, late. Weak. My paddle blade dove deep into the river. Then I was submerged. Hanging upside down from my boat. Bounding through the current.
The water swirled white. It filled my ears. My nose. My mouth. I tried to roll. My sweep barely rocked me up. I swallowed water. Gulped a short breath. I went back under. The white closed in. White. More white. Swirling down the river. Fragile. A mystery. A generosity. I wanted it back. I believed in it, still. I was stuck. Mired down. I beat my arms against the crushing water. I struggled to free my legs. Fought against my convulsing throat. Then I stopped. The river took me farther down its course. My shoulder hit a rock. I lost air. My knuckles scraped bottom. I made myself think. I dropped my knees. Rolled them to center. Brought my feet under me. My skirt wouldn’t pop. I groped for the pull. Numb fingers fumbled around the lip of the cockpit. I needed to breathe. Finally I caught the pull. I tore my skirt loose. Grabbed the edges of my cockpit and pushed. My hip and thigh scraped against the sharp edge. But I was out. At the last second, I remembered. My paddle was gone. But I held onto my boat, yanking it against the current, and kicked to the surface.
I looked down the river. The light shone silver-white across the waves. There was nothing else. My shoulder ached. My knee throbbed. And the water was so cold. I heard Liam’s voice. His boat was there. I grabbed on. It was all I could do. He towed me shore. Like it was the easiest thing.
Debora Black lives in the mountains of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. She is the world’s worst kayaker, but she is a great skier and a pretty decent mountain biker. Debora is a blogger and a regular contributor to the website Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour, a literary gathering space for readers, writers, and everyone else. Debora’s writing has appeared in Change Seven and Straight Forward Poetry. She has been a finalist in the River Styx International Poetry Contest and a finalist in The Journal Alumni Prose Contest, and is at work on a collection of essays and a collection of poems. Debora holds the MA in Creative Writing from Antioch of Yellow Springs, Ohio.