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Wishes of River: Runner-up of the Ninth Annual Short Story Contest

Written by eastern writer on Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Sara felt like an intruder when she came home at the end of the day. She stood at the door in her swimsuit, hair as damp and tangled as seaweed. Even from outside she could hear the opera announcer introducing the evening's program. She knew Nat wasn't listening but had put on the radio to hear the news preceding the opera. Though she couldn't see it, she knew that his chair, draped with a necktie, was pulled out from the table and before it lay the wreckage of the day's mail. His watch was lying by the radio. His sleeves were loosely folded back and on his left wrist was a round indentation where the watch had been. Dara turned her key and Queen, Nat's brown-and-white spaniel, leapt up from her place under the kitchen table, nails clicking on the wood floor. Nat, curly hair and strong neck, met her in the hall, drying his hands on a dishtowel. Warm and woozy from her swim, Dara hid her face in him as if he were her favorite chair. It had been almost a year since Dara had moved in.

It was March, already spring, when the pool re-opened. Dara had noticed the improvements since last summer: lane lines painted crisp and black, a dead tree reduced to a stump, a large new clock hanging on a pole. The coldness of the water entered her all at once and lay against her bones. While other swimmers slapped their arms into the water and beat their legs, Dara hovered beneath, blowing strings of bubbles from her lips, making figure-eights with her palms.

When she surfaced, something brushed across her arm, a yellow heart-shaped leaf with serrated edges. Dara thought she would not mind if she swam into a whole group of floating leaves and they ran aground on the back of her neck. She took a breath and pushed off, making her body into an arrow in the water. She was so smooth that if there had been fish they wouldn't have noticed her. Then she fell into the rhythm of the stroke. By the time she finished her second lap, her hips had recalled their swivel, her thighs the sudden kick. It was as if all the months of fall and winter when she ran with Nat and Queen beside the misty lake, racing rowers in their slim white boats, breathing air as sharp as blades, she had never stopped swimming.

When she got out, the sky was violet. The lifeguards were folding up their red umbrellas. At home, Nat was chopping vegetables: coins of yellow squash, sliced tomatoes like roses, carrots wet and trimmed as sharp as teeth.

Before Nat, Dara lived like an island. She read and smoked and took long baths. She planned busy weekends with her single friends. She noticed men doing ordinary things like laundry or shopping but rarely spoke to them. She spent time alone. She tried rock-climbing and bought a mountain bike. Occasionally she gave herself over to someone for a night or a weekend. Lying among the sheets half-submerged, amphibian, she watched him dress, then fade away into the fog.

And then there was Jules. Jules was disaster: the wave given a name, sighted out at sea three days before hitting land. He leaned in the doorway of her hotel room with his unique brown braid tucked inside his suit coat. The cloth looked black from across the room, but when she rested her cheek against the weave, she saw it was composed of threads of blue, lavender, red, and gray. The coat and tie and baggy wool pants he hung on the back of the chair by the window. His skin against hers was soft as dust. Holding her to him, Jules described their love like a poet, citing the lost cities of Atlantis and Pompeii: Atlantis, he said, because you and I, we are a perfectly contained community hidden from the world like a dream. And Pompeii, he said, because when I am with you I am frozen to the spot, in need of rescue that will never come. Then he put on his beautiful clothes and went home to the woman he lived with.

Afterwards, Dara lay in the bed in the strange city where they met, like the sleeping dog imprinted in the lava of Pompeii.

Jules, with his stories and his silences, his small teeth. She could no longer remember if he knew how to swim, or liked the water, if his tapered fingers would have served well as fins. As for Nat, he swam like a girl, with his back arched and his head in the air.

* * *

Summer days fell into brilliant cloudless rows, as they always do. The pool was filled every morning and the umbrellas were brought down from the pool house. In the shallow part of the pool children learned how not to be afraid and in the deep part swimmers checked their watches and counted the laps of a mile. Dara's hair was to her shoulders, the longest it had ever been, and she was learning all the things she could do with it. She painted her toenails and shaved in lots of places. In the morning she attended classes at the university's geology department. In the afternoon she worked as a research assistant in the lab. Sometimes it seemed all those things were just obstacles to getting back to the pool.

Standing beside the water, stretching, she exchanged glances with the other swimmers whose faces she knew from previous summers. Some were just stepping from their shoes; others were already finished, dripping and out of breath, warming themselves on the stone half-wall. The water flashed and sparkled and Dara pulled on her cap, spit into her goggles, and sat down at the edge. The cool water hung on her ankles like someone holding on. It lapped at her ribs like a man kissing his way up her body. Now it took her in, threading its long fingers through her hair.

Each night before she fell asleep Nat drew a finger up the buttons of her spine. In the morning he turned off her alarm and woke her by lifting her face up to his like a mirror. In between, they slept their separate sleep. Some nights she dreamt she was lying beneath a blanket as heavy as a rock. She couldn't lift it away. Half awake, she brushed her hair from her eyes and recalled when her hair was as short as a boy's and the long strands belonged to Jules.

Deeper than sleep lies the sea. Far beneath the green billows holding up ships and whales, crisp mountains rise and tumble across the ocean floor. Beneath them, deeper still, are the plates of the earth's crust, lurching as if on uncertain conveyor belts. They ease forward, cram together, and stall. The heat finally finds its release and liquid seeks out new seams, bubbling free. Over time, plump red pillows of lava converge, and from the green sheet of the sea a warm mist rises, followed by the brave nose of a new island.

This was Dara's study, geodynamics: the convergence of forces that drive the plates of the earth's crust to nudge each other, crush, then draw innocently away. She examined rows of numbered rocks in the lab, unfolded accordion maps across the length of a table, compared narrow columns of figures representing the chemical composition and magnetism of a mountain face in India. She counted slowly, in millions of years.

Back and forth through the turquoise water, Dara considered the many theories. It is a fitful, restless energy, dissatisfied with the way things are, that causes the earth's surface to move the way it does. People construct houses and bridges, believing that the land and water will stay put. But the earth is still deciding what it wants to be.

Evenings, Nat and Dara ate salads and wedges of fruit and drank iced herb tea with mint leaves. When the dishes were put away, they shared a cool shower. In bed, Dara propped a geology text beneath her bare breasts and Nat lay on his back stroking Queen's long freckled muzzle. Dara recited for him the current theories of plate tectonics and he told her about the latest big project at work. Then he might mention that he saw the governor and her bodyguard running by the lake that morning. And then maybe she would shut her book and turn toward him and ask if he ever—it's natural to, you know—thought of his old girlfriend, the one who married that guy and moved to California. He would appear engrossed in scratching Queen's throat but after a few minutes, answer: No. She would reach across to smooth the dog's satiny ears and then he'd suddenly continue: But sometimes I dream about her. And then they would turn out the lights and fall asleep to the hum of the air conditioner.

Swimming, she sometimes got lost inside the circle of a thought. One afternoon she felt something tickling her toes and looked back. A swimmer had come up from behind, bubbles riding on his fingers. She pulled further, deeper, faster, but he smoothly skimmed up beside her to pass. For a moment he lay next to her, suspended, his bare shoulder as freckled as an egg. His ribs brushed hers, and in a stroke he rolled away. His touch, careless and strange, made her think of Jules in his city far away.

Several laps later she was swimming as if the water were a length of rope she could effortlessly climb. Suddenly the same man passed beneath her, skimming the bottom of the pool. His torso was long, the backs of his thighs tight and rounded. All over his body short hairs glittered like minnows. His skin was bluish through the water and from the edges of his bathing cap flowed long girlish hair.

She recalled the last time she'd spoken to Jules, just two years ago. He'd punctured a dream she was having while she napped—with a phone call to say he couldn't see her again. There had been no warning, just the tears she had cried each time they said good-bye. She imagined his life hadn't changed at all since then: he wore the same clothes and went to work at the same time. But during the hours he used to spend with her on the phone scheming visits and talking sex, he was catching up on his sleep.

Her final lap, the man reappeared in the cloudy distance. His cheek was smooth, his ear as intricate as a seashell. As he passed, he caught her cupped hand and pressed something in. With her fist closed she swam to the wall, but there was nothing thereƜjust her hand, faintly blue, with tiny bubbles clinging to it. Though she looked for him, all the swimmers with their dark-wet hair cutting rhythmically through the choppy water looked more or less alike.

When she got home, Nat was reading the newspaper in the kitchen. Hey, I thought you drowned! he said, playfully catching her by the strap of her swimsuit. He drew her shoulder to his mouth and kissed her with his teeth. She slipped away and perched on the other chair. Combing her hair, she flicked droplets on the floor while she told him about the walrus father bobbing in the lapping waves of the deep end who called after his two fat boys: No further, hear? How they swam from him, shiny as porpoises. She told him about the row of girls in rainbow bathing suits, beads of water slipping down their legs, daring each other to dive, and of the lifeguard seated above them, swinging his whistle like a six-shooter.

After dinner, while Nat cleaned up, she went upstairs. The room where they slept together and made love was filled with the day's deep-blue light. She opened a drawer and reached far into it to retrieve the box in which she kept the things Jules had sent her.

With her eyes shut she could remember his voice, but could not imitate it. She could recall the texture of his tongue on her fingers, but could not suck them herself and find pleasure. The stories he told to make her sleep, if she tried, she could remember. There was a dog, there was the moon, there was a century-old turtle. She thought of the wooden Indian on his horse she gave him at Christmas and the big sweaters he wore. She remembered braiding his hair after they showered because he couldn't re-braid it himself. She had to do it exactly the way he said, so that it would look the same as his other girlfriend had done it that morning. But she couldn't imagine in what positions they had slept, or how they got from one place to another.

Nat didn't tell her stories that weren't true. He wanted her to be like the girls at water's edge, serious and filled with purpose. He wanted her to hold out her hand in the dark and touch him without needing to see. He would tell her that they were a continent of plains, barely split by an ambling green river. It was a beautiful picture, with gazelles leaping to and fro. But she knew the wishes of the river: to find its way to the wide ocean, and to divide.

When she opened the cigar box everything was familiar: the miniature New York Times illustrated with the first photograph of Earth taken from outer space, the water-filled shake toy of the Minneapolis skyline, the cowboys, the Indians, a silver spoon with the handle shaped like Balanced Rock, and the Amelia Earhart stamp canceled in Atchison, Kansas. She laid them out on the window sill. The evening light made the objects look like they belonged in a museum.

Just then Nat walked into the room. When she turned, he was looking at her like a child does when he discovers something the adults wanted to keep secret. He quickly retreated, as if he'd meant to go to another room all along.

Swimming alone in the far lane near the trees, she wondered how it would be in the dark of forty sea-going nights to slip beneath the surface and keep on slipping, past the blue-black water into the black-black, the cord attached to the boat falling from her waist. She imagined enough space for a whale and the school of invisible krill that would swim blindly into the cave of his mouth. Above an undersea mountain range she glided, close enough to scrape her stomach on the peaks. She dove into the valley past the crevices where the horrible heat lives. She lingered at the opening of caves where the cold swooshes out. Then suddenly she fell down a rumbling tunnel, like a nightmare, like Alice in the murky mirror, past up-rooted trees and complete sets of china—when she felt someone's arms catch her. Up she rose, cheek against his chest, to the part of the water that is cool blue, striated with wiggling white lines that mean the sunlight is strong and warm and not too far away. She swam a little to let him know she was no longer afraid. Looking down through the shiny surface of the water, all she could see was the crisp broken lines of her own legs.

In the morning Nat was the first slit of light she saw. He lifted the blankets like a cave for her to crawl into and she found that the place on his chest that was uncomfortable the night before fit against her cheek like a pillow. One arm and hand was lost beneath her body, but like a thirsty snake moving towards a stream she found him. There was no rush. Queen rested her nose on the edge of the bed and breathed deeply.

A few days later she was swimming by the diving area, watching the children fall like stones, unwrap themselves, and flutter to the ladder. As she passed a delta of cracks in the floor of the pool, she saw the swimming man, miles below, wafting like a leaf in the current. She knew everything he would want to do with her body, every way he would try to make it his. She took a deep breath and dove straight down.

Kissing his lips was like eating a hidden part of herself that had been forgotten. Following his tongue, she entered a cave with a thousand rooms. They traveled slick and cool through each one of them on their elbows and stomachs. She passed cracks leaking steam that fogged her way. Several times she almost lost him. Finally he stopped and turned back upon her, casting out the net of his hair. Unable to twist away from him, she snapped like a turtle at him, desiring a bite of the dripping fruit of his mouth, a taste of his marble neck. He passed something to her on his tongue and the coldness brought tears when she bit down. They kicked welts into each other's skin, then stroked as softly as a fringe of seaweed. Then they reached the room in the cave that was big enough for only one. And he went in.

In the middle of the night the vast parking lot was empty. Though the tall gate was locked, she had once seen a slim lifeguard slip beneath it. Dara lay on the cement and nudged herself under the hard silver bar. The pulse of crickets and locusts surrounded the pool and its yard. Yellow leaves fell from black limbs and floated on the water. The pool house lingered in the shadows, hoarding its strings of blunt-nosed buoys and mislaid goggles, dense with fog. Darkness lay upon the lawn where towels were usually arranged. Dara stepped down to the water's edge and undressed, leaving finally her thin underwear in a pile in the scratchy grass. Her eyes grew accustomed to the starlight and she spotted her own shadow lying on the surface. Taking in air as if her body were a deep empty tank, she threw her arms behind her and bent her knees. When her hands swung forward, her hips followed. Beneath the trees crouching dark around the pool, she flew.

She swam hard through the shadows, not knowing when she would scrape her hands against the walls. She pushed open the water as if she were sliding back a series of swollen doors.

When she pulled herself from the pool it immediately began to forget her, waves flattening, valleys stretching. When the surface was as still as the sky, she dove in again and stroked as far as she could on a single breath. Swimming past the ladder with its slender arms, she lifted herself out and waited at the edge until the water was smooth once more. Then she dove. Over and over she pulled herself from the quaking surface and flew back into it. Of course she couldn't find him. The water was empty.

The earth is restless down to its bones. The Himalayas, the highest mountain range in the world, still grow inches each year as India crunches relentlessly into Tibet. The wind and rain throw themselves onto the jagged edges, smoothing them down. But fast as fingernails growing long and white, the world shifts. One boulder squeezes free and bounces down the face; twenty others follow. The most solid of rock is fluid as tears.

From the doorway of their room, Dara watched Nat sleep, his chest rising over and over with hope. His body was a simple house built on the trust that the changes, though tremendous, would be slow. At the foot of the bed, Queen made soft barking noises in her throat and her legs twitched. The tiny clock was ticking.

In the shower, hot water fell down her shoulders and she cried. Like an ancient rock she still held the exact shape of Jules inside her. Years from now they might run into each other at a mid-western airport and although she would feel the old rush of desire and sadness for him, she would act like she hardly remembered.

When she got into bed, Nat took her into his arms without even opening his eyes. While they slept through the night the tap water would slide with her tears down smooth white pipes into larger and larger tunnels of darkness. Seeping through nights of charcoal, silt, and stone, it would finally splash from an iron spigot into cool morning light and the smooth blue bowl of a swimming pool. At that moment, Nat would be pouring coffee as Dara held two fragile cups. <


Robin Bradford's fiction received a 1995 O. Henry Award, and has recently been published in Quarterly West, Glimmer Train, Central Park, and Chelsea.

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