The sun glistens on Mark's wide back with a patient eroticism.
“What are the odds of us being stranded on a river?” He snickers arched over the boat like a prying gargoyle.
I want to tell him the odds are high if the oars are underwater. Tell him they are high if help is equidistant to looming clouds. That his brief descent into anger over a torn childhood life jacket launched the oars into the river and lends to those high odds. Perhaps those looming clouds swallow that glimmer and force him to zero in on the odds. Perhaps I can huddle my knees beneath my chin and pretend he does not discount our predicament with a reckless dive into the river.
“The water is crystal, Chris,” he howls into the air as if someone will discover hair trademark gruffness and attempts to shove the boat forward.
The boat budges and we gasp. Mark’s brute force approach is helpful for a change but that is not why he gasps. He fumbles light bulbs and loose pipe fixes often despite what his physique may suggest. Not once is his brain at the forefront of a “bright idea” until now.
“Come help me push.”
Of course I jinx it. Of course he does not recall the times he rescued me from the ocean’s depths at the beach. Or during a foolish cannonball into an Olympic-sized hotel pool. Not one of those times could I perform a backstroke much less doggy-paddle or float. Nothing has changed but that knowledge escapes his well-intentioned smile.
“I can't swim, Mark,” I sigh in breathy regret toward the sluggish and deliberate darkness above us. “Remember?”
I hope he realizes this darkness snakes over us for a reason. That a dip in this river can result in my last few fights for oxygen unless Mark rescues me again. That the incoming raindrops could harden into welts on my body. I hyperventilate and shake until I collapse into the river with an anvil’s heft.
“Chris,” I hear as faint as the world that surrounds us becomes.
My arms flail in the rough precipitation. Thus begins my last few fights for oxygen until Mark dolphin-dives for me. Some Mark-like blob spirals toward me while my now-weightless body sinks. The trees and mountains refuse to sink with me because their resolve is robust.
“Stay with me.”
The Mark-like blob grows formless in this increased distance. I am going to drown. What a horrific sentiment. What a shame I can't chuckle or make a wisecrack about it when I lose consciousness.
“Hang in there.”
Now I wonder if he ever wants a savior complex or if it is some inadvertent role I attach to him? He rescued me out of love the last handful of times and another attempt would be inspired by the same reason. My brain transports me to alleged “savior complex” moments where he interrupted unwanted advances or neighborhood solicitors. The same brain that identifies my blurry vision as the end of a charmed life.
I remember our rainy day scramble to the river. I recall a light drizzle and pointless conversations about a revolving door of wildlife conservation rangers there. I recall Mark’s shirtless parade around the house for life vests.
“Do you know where the life vests are, Chris?” he calls from the top of the stairs in a frenetic back-and-forth march.
“I have no clue. Your frantic search makes me anxious by the way.”
“It wouldn't be frantic if one of us knew where the life vests are or were or whatever.”
“Maybe my mom has them.”
I remember his hulking mass stampede downstairs with a horrified face. My mom lives three or four days away from us on the west coast. She props miscellaneous items around our place for “mandatory photoshoots” and vanishes home with them as if we borrowed them for too long. My running theory is she has a treasure trove of items from our house scattered around hers. We can forget the life vests.
“We can forget the life vests, Mark.”
Oh Chris, if you only knew.
“Fine but if you fall into the water…”
“It won't get that far.”
Of course it would not get that far. Not as if the river we choose to visit is one rumored to swallow anyone who falls in over the past eight years. It did not earn the appropriate nickname “Bone River” because there are more drowning victims than employees in that general area. Someone who cannot swim such as myself would not be in that same precarious situation because Mark will rescue me.
“You would rescue me if I was about to drown anyway.”
“I would hope someone risks life and limb to rescue their significant other from a sticky predicament.”
“His significant other in this case but it won't happen.”
“You said that with the hotel pool.”
He is not wrong about that. No cannonballs this time.
“No cannonballs this time.”
“And you said it wouldn't happen at the beach.”
This winding road of towering trees and rain-soaked leaves feels longer the further this conversation extends.
“I leap before I look sometimes. Sue me for being human.”
We recognize the curvy river absorbing raindrops through the blurry trees. It is wider than the gap between Mark and I and emptier as well. Everyone else must eat up those rumors but my eyes sail across the river. We are going to rent a boat for that serene spot in the middle. We will reconnect these flimsy ties because I will drown.
Not yet though.
“Mark, I'm sorry.”
I cannot face him to apologize. I cannot drag my eyes from the river. He has to focus on the road anyway. Our eyes cannot so much as interlock for a split second. But he whistles a tune into a parking spot by the boat rental area.
“That sounds ominous.”
“It's from a river song.”
Our eyes click together at last. They stay trained on each other when we row the rental boat toward the middle. That is when he sings in a dulcet tone:
Pretty and wide
Don't you take me under
I need to be
Drifting and free
Away from your bottomless wonder
If you do bury me
In your beautiful depths
River oh river
Cradle me by my last breath”