DRIFTING, MAYBE CAUGHT by Carolyn Oliver
WHEN SHE FIRST SAW the body in the river as she peered over her shoulder, Jane thought it was a large branch downed in the night’s long storm. She’d glanced back in a routine check for other boats, distracted by her attempt to avoid thinking about the argument they’d had again the night before. She was wondering where she’d left the big hedge trimmers and whether the town collected garden clippings in October; the wisteria was crushing the wooden lattice propped against the side of the house, waiting for Monique’s heirloom roses to arrive in the spring.
She scooped the murky water clear over the blades of her oars, once, again, and then as she passed it, the glint of a gold ring broke her rhythm. The boat glided on with the current after she stopped rowing, until she had to squint to be sure of what she’d seen near the right bank.
Stunned, she took up the oars again but only briefly, until she came up on the place where the river curved south, the banks shrouded in birches and poplars, leaves trembling in the breeze that still carried the smell of rain, like creosote. Past this point the current strengthened and sent the river rushing toward the town a few miles further on. Here, one August day a dozen years ago, she and Monique had spread a Hudson blanket (red with a single black stripe, borrowed from Monique’s landlady) over the long parched grass. They laughed and looked for frogs in the slow water—it hadn’t rained in weeks—while they shared olives, bread, grapes, the first of the good black plums, sweet tea, and then, last, the demi bottle of champagne after Jane asked Monique to marry her. They were seniors in college, just twenty-two.
Now muscle memory turned her shell; she did not allow herself to think of the ring, of another spouse who might be waiting at home, scraping near-full breakfast dishes after a sleepless night. She controlled her thoughts with an iron discipline born from years of practice running stadiums, lifting weights, rowing so hard in icy weather that she’d wondered if her numb fingers would ever come back to life to brush across the skin of Monique’s back, or gather her myriad braids like a sheaf of wheat.
They’d met in 1998, at eighteen, dancing, when the flow of women in the club pushed them together. Jane had grown up in New York, bouncing between pinched-face relatives and a series of frightening foster homes; she’d arrived at their tiny New England college with one duffel bag and a running scholarship, but had just fallen in love with rowing. Going into Boston with a group of other students—a few girls from the crew team, more from her dorm—felt both exhilarating and distressing. She liked having out friends for the first time, and dancing, and a break from endless training, but the skyscrapers and crowds gave her an ugly feeling of being surrounded. On the water she was safe.
Monique was from Arizona, and growing up had never seen a body of water that wasn’t chlorinated. On their second date Jane took Monique down to the dock to stargaze. Listening to the water brush against the posts like tulle skirts sweeping in corridors, they kissed for the first time. That autumn Monique brought her to slam poetry readings at underground smoky bars lit red, to the nearby botanical garden, and to the only decent Mexican restaurant in a thirty-mile radius, tucked away in a strip mall next to a sporting-goods store. When Monique found out Jane planned to spend Christmas with one of the assistant crew coaches and her husband, she asked her boss at the library for extra shifts and surprised Jane with a ticket to Phoenix to meet her parents and grandmother and younger brothers. That was the first fight: Jane hated surprises, was afraid Monique’s family would disapprove, and had never been on a plane.
A week later she found herself gasping in dry Arizona air, tricked by the creosote into thinking she could train without water. Monique just shook her head when Jane reappeared from her run after just fifteen minutes, then fixed her a plate of bacon and eggs, which she ate after she fished Mr. Williams’s wedding ring out of the drain with her long, calloused fingers. Monique must have told her parents about Jane’s years in the foster system; they never asked about her parents or home or high school, instead talking books, movies, sports. During the next visit at spring break, she realized as she shaped balls of oats, peanut butter, chocolate chips, and almonds—the boys, Joe and Daniel, were teaching her how to assemble the no-bake cookies that they took baseball practice—that she wasn’t afraid of the men in this house, even when she was alone in a room with them. She helped Monique’s mother and father with their new email account, explaining bashfully that she’d decided to teach computer skills after she saw how many kids Monique tutored had trouble since they didn’t have computers at home. They were thrilled; less so about the early marriage, which wasn’t then legal, but the whole family turned out in force and finery when the day came.
What would her wife be doing now? Rustling under the covers for the last of their warmth—Jane had forgotten to find the down comforter in the attic like Monique had asked—or making coffee in that French press that was so damnably difficult to clean, maybe reaching for the first of the stack of papers on Hamlet she needed to grade this weekend. Calling her grandmother, source of the heirloom roses, as she often did on Saturday mornings. Worrying, most likely. Jane didn’t usually row after big storms. The water could be choppy, the currents swifter, debris treacherous under the surface. And it was technically too soon to be rowing after her shoulder surgery, but she scoffed at doctors’ pronouncements, which, Monique would point out, was why she had landed with the surgery in the first place. It was bad enough coaching from a launch—not being able to row on her own time had been a minor form of hell.
Jane’s breathing deepened, her back strained as she fought the current. It had always been like this—she preferred the hardest work when she turned for home. With her prep school girls it was different; most days they turned left from the boathouse, headed east, working against the current at first and letting it push the boat on the way back. When she started coaching, she hadn’t understood, had pressed them to fight harder for home, but they were girls who never doubted someone would come to save them if they couldn’t carry themselves.
Looking over her shoulder again as she drew closer, she could see the corpse was drifting, maybe caught in the long weeds by the bank, which was spiny with bushes and leaning trees, the rain-damp receding from their trunks. No place to beach the boat.
Jane wondered just what she was doing as she pulled at the oars, watching their riverbank roll away, just out of reach. That’s how Monique saw the baby they didn’t have yet—just out of reach, floating away too fast for them, like the sticks the kids raced by dropping them off the wooden footbridge that led from the town to the dense woods. Monique wanted to get pregnant this year, before she turned thirty-five. Last year they’d moved back here, away from the students they loved in the city, to teach at a prep school near their alma mater so they could give their own child a start in green fields, a house, a prestigious school with free tuition for the children of teachers. Their friend Will had offered to be the donor and sign any papers their lawyer cared to draw up. What was Jane afraid of?
She stopped rowing. The woman—always a woman, she thought—wore a red quilted vest, jeans soaked to black, and a thin white thermal shirt that revealed brown skin, like Monique’s. Her hair was brown too, darker than the water, undulating like the fingers of a magician just before his assistant disappeared. It fanned away from her skull long enough for Jane to see her ear with its trail of silver studs down the cartilage, sparkling. She started to cry.
This. She was afraid of this. She wasn’t afraid of midnight calls to the pediatrician or the days she’d hold on for dear life to four o’clock with its promise of Monique walking through the door, or that parenthood would shift the topography of their marriage, sending the highs higher and the lows lower; these things would come, she knew, and their inevitability could be prepared for.
Instead she was afraid for anyone alive in a world that seemed to conspire with men against the happiness of breathing things. Afraid every time Monique drove alone, afraid when they walked into a grocery store together, afraid of those who wished them harm and those who were supposed to keep them safe. How could she know which had hurt this woman? How could she prepare a child—their child—for this life when she couldn’t prepare for it herself?
The current pulled sharply at her boat, wanted to bring her away, but she fought it with her oars. Who was this woman? Why was she here, tangled by a button or a necklace in a net of green-brown weeds?
She should row for the boathouse to call the police, she realized. That’s what she should have done in the first place, what a normal person would have done. The cruisers would come, then the police boats, and the local news nobody watched would cover the woman in the water for a day, maybe two. Last spring a white teenager had gone missing in the town just north of theirs and the whole county had turned out to search, Boy Scouts and book clubs and Masons. Not this time. She imagined the afternoon spent giving her statement, surrounded by other people, the days of questions from their colleagues, the trial, in the unlikely event there was one. As a kid she’d met enough summons-serving officers with big knocks, bigger guns, and small smiles. She knew how it went. They did too. She imagined having to explain to Monique what had happened, the expression on her face of horror and sadness and the tiny, hated piece of relief—the look that would say it’s happened again, but not to us, this time.
What if she told nobody, rowed fast, and went home? Nothing would happen—to her. But she’d seen the TV shows. The weeds were strong enough to hold the body; they had to be stronger than the current to stay rooted in the riverbed. It was unlikely anyone would pass this way on the water for days, maybe even a week. Bodies don’t last in water, and evidence washes away. Jane felt a trickle of sweat trail down her belly.
For their tenth anniversary, when they’d just decided to make the move back here near the river, they’d gone hiking in the Santa Fe National Forest. Late in the morning they came to a stand of aspens, tall and bleached in the clear sky, the last of the leaves at the very tops of the trees like paillettes mirroring the sun. Through the trunks they could just make out a hut built from leaning branches, small enough for a child but not constructed by one. Venturing off the trail, they saw as they came closer that the wood was spaced like a ribcage, sheltering a fire pit lined with dark mottled stones, crumbling logs arranged around it.
What if we dropped everything and lived here, like this, she’d said to Monique, only half joking.
Monique reached out to prop up a branch that had fallen into the charcoal. She blew the dust off and turned to Jane with a smile more golden than a thousand autumn mornings on the water, more fragile than the fiberglass husk she sat in now.
We save the world by living in it, she said.
The town would be awake now, people bustling out for coffee, perusing the hardware store for rakes, jogging by the riverside with strollers. Jane drew in a deep breath, blew her nose on the hem of her fleece like a child, and hefted one oar out of its oarlock. She dug the blade deep, slicing at the weeds beneath the body, over and over. The small waves rocked her shell and she silently and fervently prayed it wouldn’t tip. Her right arm burned and was starting to shake with effort when she finally felt the resistance she was seeking. One more sweep with the oar and the unknown woman floated free, slowly moving toward the bend in the river and the faster current.
Jane pulled hard for home.
CAROLYN OLIVER is a graduate of The Ohio State University and Boston University, and lives in Massachusetts with her family. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Midway Journal, America, matchbook, and Free State Review, among others. Links to more of her work can be found at carolynoliver.net.