Published in Cholla Needles

RIVER

by

Tamara K. Adelman

It’s cold, but the river has no ice and the sun is out. We bundle ourselves as best we can with the wrong clothes we brought, plus the life jackets they gave us. A toasty jacket, hat, and some gloves would have been helpful but we don’t have these essentials—in our family we are big on doing and light on planning. We’re staying at a hotel where we left my still sleeping younger brother. In our one hydrogen plus two oxygen families, my dad and I have to do something just to do nothing. We aren’t sure what we’ll find on the river, but we’ve already accomplished something by getting there.

On this final day of the rafting season on the Snake River, our guides hope we don’t get stuck. The guide from the other raft has already found an excuse to chat me up by feigning an interest in my sunglasses. He’s a downhill ski racer when he’s not the  master of the river rapids he says, flexing his muscles and bringing civilization to the dock in an alpha male kind of way.

I get on my raft. Grabbing the big oars, our refreshingly guide-like leader, whose name is Dan, steers into the current. We depend on him to show us this world in time for lunch.

There are five others in our raft, including my dad, and we quietly take in the shimmer of the river in the mountain valley below the Grand Tetons. Sometimes doing a touristy thing is the best way to see a place, even if you’re out of your element, which we are. Thankfully, we don’t have to trust their paddling abilities—we have none ourselves but we do have one previously escorted rafting trip under our belts which took place in Costa Rica about ten years ago, if that counts for anything. It doesn’t, but we feel outdoorsy, and this is gratifying enough. The world around us makes up for any shortcomings we have. Dan says not to worry, you can’t mess up unless I tell you to do something and you don’t do it. We plan to follow orders.

The Grand Tetons are massive heaps of stone regurgitated by Wyoming long before humans were around with words like Teton. Jackson Hole is an expert skier’s destination, but Grand Teton itself is not at all skiable, except in the case of Bill Briggs who scaled it on skis and sent a helicopter back to find his tracks, thereby proving that he had done the impossible and inspiring me to dream a little bigger about what can be accomplished if conditions are right and you take advantage of your opportunities. And you have a helicopter.

Chill gives clarity to the day, and trees along the riverbank cordon us from winds powered by the miles of flat and empty that make Wyoming, Wyoming. Elks bugle during the fall rut, and our timing is perfect. They posture, antler wrestle, and scream to attract females, and I’m pretty sure I heard one tell a female that he liked her sunglasses.

The Snake River is energy from earth and sky, encapsulated between molecules of water. Each bend gives it a bounce, proving that the fastest way of getting somewhere is not always the straightest route.

Our trip becomes a safari as we keep our eyes peeled in hopes of being the first to spot life secreted in grass that slaps like a caribou’s tail. My ears become bionic. MMMMy consciousness cracks open and the safari is internal. I can hear my heart beat into the rhythm of the world. I can hear my own thoughts.

The other raft is getting too close, so we pull back to let them pass. We aren’t in a hurry so we’re afforded the luxury of presence in the moment, there’s nothing else to do.

Nature sharpens my senses and I see yellows and blues more clearly than I could an hour ago. Anomalies in the water’s surface gesture to me, and I can spot a log in our path before it is recognizable.

* * *

I think of him as someone who is different than he appeared on the surface. My grandmother knew he could not be trusted, and in her own way of controlling things, would never seat us near each other when he came into town and showed up for family dinners. I was relieved when she died so she would never have to find out.

After I moved to LA, he invites me to dinner—just the two of us. We go to Hal’s, in Venice. What do you think of old guys like me? Having recently turned fifty, he notices all the other young women in the restaurant. He’s still good looking. My grandmother used to say, he’s as pretty as a magazine cover, and about as deep.

He’s never seen my new place, so I invite him up; he is related to me, however distantly. What’s the danger? He says he likes the windows. After using the bathroom, he needs to sit down for a few minutes to let some of the alcohol wear off before the drive. I’m pretty drunk too, but I can’t go to bed while there’s company, so I turn on the TV and sit next to him on the couch. His hand rests on the small of my back in a nice way as he dozes off, and I am afraid to move should I wake him and make him feel embarrassed that this is what it’s like to hang out with an old guy whose starchy shirt is wrinkled. I can’t tell if he’s passed out or just sleeping, until his hand comes to life in a way that cannot be mistaken.

He leans over to kiss me, pressing onto me. I feel weak and powerful at the same time. He stands up and undoes his belt and pants with conviction.

I don’t remember taking my clothes off, but his skin feels thin, like it could flake off. I get the feeling that he is in familiar territory. When we’re done I ask him, can this be your birthday present? I’ve never slept with a married man before. Are we twisted?

No one is infallible, he says. Want to form a secret society? I’m gonna go home and dream about you.

When did you decide you were going to do it?

I don’t know.

Now that it’s midnight, maybe you should go home.

I am sober now, and if he wasn’t still there, I wouldn’t believe it. I feel like it is in my blood, chipping away at my emotional immunity like an infection, an infection of guilt.

***

The movement of the river carries us along. My dad―who never goes anywhere without coffee, a newspaper, and a bathroom―is calm as he inhales. The accordion of his rib basket finds a basement that previously did not exist. This trip is in homage to his mother, who never used the word, “saint,” until she described him in his sixties. He lived up to his reputation, and gave me his sweater earlier, and leans against me now for warmth. I wish I could talk to him about what happened, how it feels, and why I hate it when the man comes to family events. But I can’t tell my dad. He cannot protect me from the cold of this secret. It would hurt him, and I don’t want to allow this man to damage anyone else in my family.

Abandoned houses now owned by the parks are on our right as we approach a landing. The raft is a safe place with my dad as the ballast, there for stability. Dan offers his hand to help me step off the raft. Watch yourself, he says, nodding his head toward a bull moose standing in a thicket about ten feet away. The other guide comes over, takes my hand, and asks, what are you doing later? His hand is hot from having just touched the oar, and mine is freezing. His touch stings. I’m going to eat lunch with my family, I say, and retrieve my hand. My cheeks burn, as I run toward the parking lot.

THE END