The river is dark and murky. There is no reflection when I lean over the side of the tube. My vanity, though, is ephemeral. I’m too hot in this heavenly wasteland to wear my hair down, to layer my face with makeup.
There is no sound of life. No cars. No voices. No music. Nothing. There is only the sound of trickling water, and only when I move my fingertips through the river below me as I float along in a giant inner tube, my lifejacket unzipped and hanging around my shoulders in a display of unfettered arrogance.
It’s 10 a.m., and I am alone.
I pull my flip-flops off my feet and slide them onto my palms to help paddle and steer myself away from the mesquite thorns that taunt from the shoreline. I had already brushed against them once after coming upon a corner too fast and being unable to bring myself back to the river’s center. I now have an angry gash in my shoulder, pink and swollen.
Tomorrow I will go home to an empty house, a house that has been closed up and unoccupied for the past two weeks. It will smell of lazy cats and dust. I will leave oblivion in the river among the broken glass stuck between boulders, in the river where you can’t see the bottom. Obscurity is today’s lesson.
There are two ducks wrestling, wings flapping lividly, but neither flies away. That exact place, that exact moment on the water, belongs to both of them and neither of them. The river doesn’t stop moving. There is no place. The space is unlimited.
I have nothing. No keys. No identification. No, that’s not true. I have sunglasses. Sunglasses that I barely save as they’re ripped from my face. I’ve hit a rapid that tosses me off my tube and into the river. I had seen it coming. I saw the bubbling of waves, tall and dark that rose up like a tunnel and hit like a brick wall. I saw it coming and went right for it anyway.
Goodbye, River City.
The life jacket tugs me to the surface while pulling away from my body. It’s too late to buckle the straps.
I kick and struggle to hoist myself back up onto my tube that had flipped on its side and crashed into my face. The current is too fast, and my lower body buoys beneath the tube,
my knees bumping up against the bottom. Weeds tickle and taunt the parts of me hidden below the river’s surface. Blood drips from my nose and becomes a part of the river.
Nobody knows I’m here.
I imagine a fire. The flames climbing over one another, their edges white or green as they spike and then circle across the wood. A shifting log and embers confetti into the air, falling and disappearing like lightning bugs disguised in darkness.
I imagine the heat against my skin and my eyes squint at the change in light. Orange flames rolling down the side of the new wood, their tips flapping like a flag as they come together and become one. The embers pulsating, giving off an underlying glow, a heartbeat. As the flames grow quiet, the logs white with ash. Listen hard enough and you can hear the sound fire makes when it’s dying, when it’s drowning in its own flames.
There is no fire. I am not swallowed. I feel as though I should panic, but I don’t. I allow the river to take me in its current, to float me along at a pace it chooses. Eventually, I drape my arms over the tube and kick myself to the side, but there is no shore. There are stone steps leading down from houses, docks that extend out to the water, posting signs that warn, “No wake area.” There is tall sea grass, deep black muck, and steep eroded walls. Finally, I push myself up onto algae-covered rocks and climb back onto the tube, zipping and buckling my life jacket. The next time I approach rapids, I stay to the right and gently coast over the rutted water.
Melissa Grunow’s writing has appeared in New Plains Review, Yemassee, The Quotable, 94 Creations, and Wilderness House Literary Review, among others. She has an MA in English from New Mexico State University and a BS in English-creative writing from Central Michigan University. She teaches composition and creative writing courses in southeastern Michigan. Visit her website at www.melissagrunow.com.