The Same River

Fiction / Meaghan Mulholland

:: The Same River ::

Today, Sharla is going on about her daughter’s ex again. He is suing for custody, even though when they were married he often came home drunk and sometimes didn’t come home at all, and could never be bothered to pick the kids up from daycare, or take them to the park, or go to things like Kayleigh’s dance recitals or Kayden’s T-ball games. Now he wants them all to himself, just out of spite. “Some people have evil in them,” Sharla says.

All people have evil in them, Lexie thinks. She doesn’t bother saying this to Sharla, though, because she knows Sharla isn’t interested in having a discussion. Sharla wants a captive audience, and she has one in Lexie, at least on the days that they have to file title insurance forms together in the back room. The best strategy in these situations, Lexie has learned, is to disengage: pretend to listen while mentally going someplace distant.

She has disliked Sharla from the start. In the five months since she began working at Anderson, Bell and Bergman, Sharla has never once expressed an ounce of concern or compassion for Lexie, or for her father’s illness. She’s never said anything nice to Lexie at all. Instead Sharla seems to find pleasure in teasing her and bossing her around and emphasizing, with exaggerated eye rolls, her frustration whenever Lexie asks her to clarify something or (on certain rare occasions) makes a mistake. The eye-rolling reminds Lexie of her own mother’s frequent small belittlements, and this makes her hate it more than the bossing or the teasing.

She’s relieved when Sharla goes upstairs for a drink—damn change of lifeI’m burning up—leaving abruptly without offering to get anything for Lexie. Her head is throbbing, but she tries to focus on her task of slipping color-coded folders into alphabetized drawers. Rizzo between Reynolds and Roth. Her thoughts are elsewhere, though—traveling back to when her father’s cancer first made itself known, just a month into her first semester of college. The doctors said it was likely he’d make a full recovery, but the treatments and subsequent convalescence meant he would have to miss work at the roofing business he’d started with his cousin, and Lexie’s mother would have to take time off from her job in the security line at RDU. So it was decided that Lexie would take a semester or two off from school and get a job to help defray expenses. Never mind that her father seemed like his regular old self—cussing at Panthers games, stomping around in his muddy work boots—at least until the treatments began; never mind that there were such things as scholarships and student loans, all of which Lexie could have applied for and most likely would have gotten, had she been given time. She could always go back to school later, her mother said—but it was time to think about giving back to her family. To stop being selfish and grow up.

The thing is: Lexie isn’t selfish. Even as a small child, she was a goody-two-shoes. Not perfect, of course, but always obedient. Her mother would get annoyed when people said what an angel Lexie was all the time, and tell them, “She ain’t always good, believe me,” in a tone that made it seem like Lexie was a terror behind closed doors. This wasn’t true: Lexie never threw tantrums, never broke rules. In the bit of Psych 101 she was able to attend before being forced to drop out, she learned that selfishness is a natural part of development—that children are supposed to be selfish, at least for a little while. She can only imagine Mama’s reaction if she shared that bit of wisdom with her.

For as long as she can remember, Lexie has had a strong inclination towards calmness and order, both things that are in short supply in her parents’ house. There, someone is always in crisis, and something is always in disrepair. Piles of things where they shouldn’t be—unopened mail on the couch, unfolded laundry on the dining table. From the time she was a toddler, Lexie’s mother would marvel at her compulsions, calling her “neat freak” for the way she put her toys away without being asked or hurried around the house before her friends came over, stuffing loose papers and detritus into cabinets and drawers. Her father would inevitably get angry later as he ransacked the house, unable to find something he needed.

Even in high school, Lexie never rebelled—unless you count those confused fumblings with Rob Skirmerhorn in the field house at church camp, but that was more desperation or boredom than anything else. No keg parties (not that she was invited to any). No making out in parked cars (not even close). She worked hard, not smart enough to be valedictorian or anything, not beautiful but not bad looking, either, so afraid of being ostracized for some unwitting social blunder that she succeeded, for the most part, in blending in with the walls.

When she got into State she was allowed to enroll and drive to campus twenty minutes away in Raleigh, but she had to live at home. She’d gaze longingly at the students loafing on benches outside the dorms, and strain to catch the faint music and laughter drifting out the open windows—but loved college nonetheless, and felt a part of things even if only a commuter. Crossing the quad on those golden afternoons, she thought this was the Utopia they were talking about in Western Civ: the shirtless boys playing Frisbee, the student activists manning their tables with banners and clipboards, offering a free cookie if you supported their cause. There were so many causes! So many horrible things were happening, in places Lexie had never even heard of. Just taking a flyer for the Gay-Straight Alliance’s Fall Mixer was enough to fill her with awe at her burgeoning independence—though she made sure to throw the flyer away before leaving campus, lest she leave it in the car for her parents to find. The linoleum-tiled hallways of the academic buildings she wandered were plastered with colorful flyers, every tattered slip promising a show or lecture or club that she was welcome to belong to, all of it vibrating with the thrum of knowledge.

The law firm of Anderson, Bell and Bergman doesn’t vibrate with anything, except perhaps the barely audible hum of the overhead fluorescent lights. Lexie appreciates the general air of calm here, at least, and the ability to see her tasks, however menial, through to completion. Her organizational tendencies, compulsive or otherwise, serve her well in her duties, which primarily include filing, photocopying and answering phones. Some days the phones ring non-stop, multiple lines at once, requiring a deftness she enjoys—manipulating the hold buttons, keeping track of who is on which line and whose situation is most urgent, clicking the intercom buttons to ask various attorneys if they’re available, or putting callers through to voicemail if a red light shows he is already occupied. She likes the predictability and orderliness of office life, as well. Whether new parents coming in with their babies to close on first homes, middle-aged couples to manage investments or navigate divorces, or frail elderly folks drawing up wills, at Anderson, Bell and Bergman, all stages of life are dealt with decisively, and there are predetermined forms that apply to each.

“You know what the worst thing is?” Sharla asks, returning from the kitchen and resuming where she left off, slumping onto her swiveling chair and watching Lexie insert another file into the drawer.

Water-boarding? Lexie wants to say. Burning at the stake? Dying alone? She wonders what the actual worst thing might be. There are so many types of hardship: illness, loneliness, heartbreak. And you can’t really protect yourself from any of them, no matter what you do.

“The worst thing,” Sharla says, “is she could have done better.” Her daughter wasn’t stupid, Sharla says, but she squandered her potential by falling for the first boy who showed interest in her. “Like every parent,” Sharla says, “I wanted more for her. More than I had for myself.”

There is only one window in the back room, and beyond the blind-slats Lexie can see the sky is still gray, the rain still coming. She’s not sure she believes that Sharla is as selfless as she describes, or that all parents necessarily want more for their children. That hasn’t been the case in her experience, anyway.

“Anyone could see that boy was trouble. Just ’cause he drove a fancy car in high school, she thought he was going places. By the way, you hear about the BMW that Geoff got for Wylie?”

Lexie looks up to see Sharla’s eyes fixed on her and wonders for a terrifying moment if she knows. Hearing his name spoken aloud causes something new to rupture inside her, and she turns away, pretending to rummage for something in the cabinet on the far wall.

She met Wylie at the Christmas party three months earlier, held at the home of his father, Geoff Bell, one of the senior partners. She hardly ever speaks to Mr. Bell, whose office is upstairs. He rarely passes her post at the reception desk, and when he does, he’s in a hurry—headed out to court or to grab a sandwich, or escorting clients to the conference room down the hall. He is a tall, straight-backed man with thick salt-and-pepper hair who walks without moving his arms, which gives him a slightly robotic air. He wears a suit to the office every day. Lexie wonders how many he owns. She pictures a walk-in closet full of them, with an electronic revolving rack like they have at the dry cleaners.

She was glad to be invited to the Christmas party, if only for the chance to escape the gloom of her parents’ house. She’d expected to drink hot chocolate and admire the holiday decorations—the Bells live in Hope Valley, a neighborhood of sprawling mansions known for their tastefully elaborate light displays. She hadn’t expected to meet someone like Wylie there, looking like a younger, floppy-haired version of his father, or that later that night she would share a joint with him outside under an electric candy cane blinking red, like a streetlight that had shorted out after a storm. She’d tried marijuana once before, in that glorious first month of college, when she was allowed to stay late one night for a group project and then tagged along to a campus party with her classmates. She’d only taken one hit, and hadn’t felt anything substantial, but this time a tingling warmth spread from the center of her chest, and her limbs went rubbery, and when Wylie made a joke about “Santa’s Little Helper,” she laughed so hard her eyes filled with tears.

He looked like a typical Southern frat boy—and was one, Alpha Tau Omega at the University of Virginia—but Wylie had also just returned from a semester abroad in Argentina, after which he’d spent weeks traveling down the Amazon River, and at some point on the journey had attended a shamanism retreat in the heart of the jungle. He had to explain to Lexie what ayahuasca was—a sort of psychedelic stew, made of various plants—and how it opened the mind to new dimensions. “I definitely felt like I tapped into something when I did it. Like, a higher life form.” He glanced at her, his gray-blue eyes momentarily wide and vulnerable. Then he looked away. “It sounds stupid.”

“No,” Lexie said. “It doesn’t.” She was enthralled. His stories about the jungle—swimming with piranhas, sleeping in hammocks on riverboats, snakes hanging from the trees—were something out of National Geographic. During the rainy season, he said, the water came like bullets from the sky, knocking twigs and insects off the plants and drenching everything. He would hang his clothes to dry after getting caught in a cloudburst, but they never did completely. There were certain places in the jungle, he said, that the sun never reached, the canopy was so thick.  

As if making contact with higher life forms wasn’t amazing enough, at the shamanism retreat Wylie also met the movie star Kurt Van Landingham. “None of us recognized him at first,” Wylie said. “He’d lost a lot of weight, looked pretty dirty. Unshaven. I guess we all did.”

“Researching a role?” Lexie asked. She knew from celebrity gossip blogs that actors did this sometimes—went undercover to get deep into character—and she was proud of the savvy, nonchalant way in which she asked this. But then Wylie shook his head, with an almost pained expression—no, no, that’s not it at all—and she felt foolish.

“Nah, he was down there searching for truth,” he said, “just like the rest of us. He’s been through a lot of ups and downs. Money, fame—all that stuff you think you want, Kurt knows that’s not what it’s all about. That’s not what you should seek if you want true happiness.”

True happiness—did such a thing exist? The idea of a life spent in pursuit of it was a revelation to Lexie. She thrilled at the way Wylie talked about Kurt: like an old friend, this famous millionaire who had recently gone through a lengthy, acrimonious divorce and then lost one of his children in a boating accident. She pictured them sitting by a campfire together, talking into the night, and knew she would have been too star-struck in such a circumstance to say anything at all.

“Do you think you’ll go back?” she asked.

“I’m hoping to go for Spring Break, actually. A crazy thing happens every year—the Atlantic current makes this giant wave that travels down the river for miles. People come from around the world to surf it, to surf the Amazon. If you do it right you can ride it thirty minutes or longer. They say it’s the longest wave in the world.” He went on to describe how the wave destroyed everything in its path, that you could hear it coming long before you saw it, and it carried lots of debris—trees, frogs, poisonous snakes.

When the joint was finished, Wylie lit a cigarette and told Lexie he was headed back to Charlottesville tomorrow to tie up loose ends, but he would be home again in two weeks for Christmas. “We should hang out,” he said. “We should go ice-skating. They put in that rink downtown.”

“Sure,” Lexie said. She had never been ice-skating. It never got cold enough to skate here. She hoped Wylie might kiss her then, but was still surprised when he did, stepping forward and backing her against the bricks in a wave of something not quite cologne—muskier and sweeter, like incense. His lips were soft, and as they moved against hers something opened inside her, a gnawing like hunger. She didn’t care then if Mr. Bell and the entire office staff came out of the house and saw them—but then the sliding door to the deck opened, and voices drifted to them around the back of the house, and they pulled apart. “You’re a good kisser.” Wylie said. “Two weeks can’t get here fast enough.” He kissed her once more and then let her go.

Two weeks later, she rode with him downtown toward the converted tobacco warehouses where a skating rink had been installed on the public green. They parked, and he paid for their tickets and skates at a booth strung with blue icicle lights. The evening was warm, even for December in North Carolina, but the air that lifted off the ice was cool. The perimeter of the rink was lined with cardboard cutouts of snowmen and smiling reindeer, and the speakers played Christmas carols, the music floating over the steady whoosh of blades slicing into the ice.

At first Lexie clung to the outer rail, terrified of looking like a klutz. The rink was crowded, some people sailing past in laps, others attempting spins and figure eights in the center. Wylie stayed close, trying to coax her out, occasionally zooming off to do a loop and then sliding up beside her again. When he skated away, she watched; he moved gracefully for someone so tall, leaning into the turns, straightening up and letting his arms hang comfortably at his sides as he slowed to approach her again. He wore jeans with rips in the knees and a black Patagonia fleece that made his eyes look even bluer than she remembered.

After a while he convinced her to hold his hand and let go of the rail, and towed her gently around the oval once, twice. She wobbled and winced and at the same time felt giddy at the way their fingers were interlaced, at the way he met her eyes and grinned. A song from The Nutcracker was playing, the part where Clara rides in the sleigh with the prince. As a kid Lexie had recorded a performance of the ballet off the TV and watched it religiously. She felt like Clara now, gliding through a whimsical, frosty world, far from everything familiar. After a while, Wylie released her and gave a whoop as she ventured off without him, and soon she was sailing around in loop after loop on her own.

When they’d had enough, they clumped off the ice together and collapsed onto a bench.

“Did you know Eskimos have over a hundred words for ice?” Wylie asked as he bent to unlace his skates.

“Is that really true?”

“Yeah. They’re really specific things, like—I don’t know, uggawugg means ‘melted ice, not safe to walk on’ and gagagoo means ‘thick ice close to shore.’ Stuff like that.”

Uggawugg and gagagoo, huh?”

When he realized she was teasing, he grabbed her and smothered her into his chest, mussing her hair with his free hand. She pretend-struggled, giggling. When he let her go, he left his arm resting on her shoulders and looked down at her with an eyebrow raised. “What are you doing right now?”

She wasn’t sure how to respond to this: she was here, with him, sitting by the ice. She wondered if he meant it as a spiritual or philosophical question, if he was asking what she was doing with her life.

“I don’t know,” she said, and shrugged.

“Want to do something?”

They stopped at Only Burger first—Lexie too nervous to do more than pick at hers, Wylie devouring his Bacon Bomb, fries, and vanilla shake before polishing off what was left on her plate as well.

“Why do you work at my Dad’s firm, of all places?” he asked between mouthfuls. “Isn’t it boring as hell?”

“It’s okay,” she said carefully—not wanting to disagree, but not wanting to get herself in trouble, either. “It’s good until I go back to school.”

“How do you like State?”

“I liked it for the little while I was there.”

He swallowed, put the burger down, and looked at her with new seriousness. “Your Dad’s going to get better, you think?”

“Yeah, I do. When he recovers, I’ll go back to school, and things will get back to normal.” This was the opposite of what she hoped, really; she hoped her father would get better, of course, but she also hoped—she counted on—that when she went back to school, everything in her life was going to change.

After dinner, they went to a party at Wylie’s friend’s house. His parents were away, and the street outside his house was lined with cars. Wylie was only a few years older than Lexie, and they’d grown up in the same town, but she didn’t know any of his friends; they had all gone to private school. He mixed her a rum and Coke in the kitchen and soon they were upstairs, laughing at a framed picture in the hallway—a professional portrait in which an entire tow-headed family sat before a black velvet background, everyone looking to the left with frozen smiles.

Then they were stumbling into a bedroom, Wylie shutting the door and leaving the light off, and then they were kissing on the bed. Lexie didn’t care whose room this was, whose bed; she had known—she had hoped—that they were headed for this all evening.  They rolled around, skin on skin, on the musty bedspread for a while. Wylie’s mouth tasted like Coke and French fries and cinnamon gum. When he leaned back to look at her and whispered, “Do you want to do this?,” she thought she knew what he meant, but wasn’t sure. She wondered if she should tell him she had never done it before, but feared it might make him stop—so she simply nodded, yes. Then he was off the bed, grabbing his jeans off the floor and fumbling for something in the pocket—a condom. She lay watching in amazement as he rolled it on. The moment seemed impossibly intimate. How vulnerable they were, like this, naked together. This is life, she thought stupidly, happily: this is life, and it’s happening to me.

Sex hurt at first, and then it didn’t. Wylie appeared to be working hard, focused on a task that seemed to involve her indirectly. When he finished, he collapsed on her chest. She felt his sweat on her, inhaled the incense smell of him. She didn’t know if the sex was good or not, but she knew that she enjoyed being as close to him as possible. They lay together a short time, Wylie catching his breath, Lexie wondering what she was supposed to do now, and then he pulled on his boxers and handed her her sweater and said, “We should probably go.”

When he pulled up at her parents’ house, she was glad it was late and the street was dark and he couldn’t see how shabby it all was, how their meager window decorations somehow made the house look even smaller and sadder.

“Merry Christmas,” he said, and kissed her, and she thought as he drove off that she wasn’t sorry about anything. Not her job at the law firm, or even—this was an ugly thought, but she couldn’t help it—her father’s illness, provided of course that he got better as he was supposed to. As Wylie said, beauty came from ugliness; all things were connected. The cancer seemed to be making her father more reflective, at least—less prone to flares of temper, though perhaps he was just weakened by the pain. She turned her key in the door, remembering something else Kurt Van Landingham had said to Wylie: When a door closes, a new one opens, but sometimes you don’t see it because you’re still looking at the closed one. Or something like that. This is your life, Lexie told herself now: this is a new door, open it and go on through to the other side.

She saw Wylie twice more before he returned to Charlottesville, and both times they had sex—once in the back of his SUV on a country road near the mall, once in his bedroom at his father’s house on a night his parents went to a charity benefit.  Though Wylie was perfectly pleasant afterwards, talking and joking with her as naturally as before, she found herself at the door and saying goodbye to him sooner than she would have liked. “Hope your Dad gets better soon,” Wylie said, looking into her eyes. This was not the note she wanted to end on. “Take care.”

After she got into her car and turned on the heat—it was January, a rare dusting of snow on the ground—she looked at his house once more, the neat brick walk curving up to the white-columned verandah. Through one of the tall front windows she could see the lit dining room, through another the chandelier glittering in the vaulted foyer. Though she hadn’t been to their houses, she knew the other partners at the firm lived in this neighborhood as well. They were all broad-shouldered, booming-voiced men who served on charity boards and belonged to golf and tennis clubs and invested in local businesses. Such a degrading illness as cancer would never befall any of them.

After Wylie returned to school, she waited a week before emailing, drafting the message several times until it captured what she hoped was the right mix of friendliness and flirtation. She included a link to an article she’d found, in which Kurt Van Landingham mentioned a “transformative experience” that he’d had in the South American jungle.

After sending the message, it was all she could do not to refresh her inbox constantly. She tried to distract herself—sealing stacks of envelopes, typing names and dates onto real estate contracts—but it was a slow day at work. Wylie didn’t reply until later that night: Haha, that’s great, thanks for sending the link about Kurt. hell yeah it was transformative experience. hope alls good with you. Ill give you a shout when im home next. No signature—no love or miss you, or even xo—but she would cling to this promise of future contact, even after she started to give up hope of him inviting her up to Virginia for a visit. One Saturday night, she got a text message at 3 am—hey sexy, what are u doin—but she didn’t see it until the following morning. She waited a few hours to reply—as long as she could restrain herself—and then wrote: hi how are you? No response. The next day she wrote: Got your message. What’s up? Nothing. She sulked a few days, and then one of the lawyers gently chastised her for misfiling a contract, and her father was getting sick in the bathroom every evening, and she told herself to forget Wylie for the time being, that she had more important things to focus on right now.

Two weeks later, she drove to a Rite Aid on the far side of town, telling herself the whole way no one gets pregnant the first time they have sex, it’s like physically impossible, it’s a story people tell kids to scare them into abstinence.  After buying the test she stopped at a gas station on a back road—the same road where they’d had sex in Wylie’s SUV. She remembered now, him saying shit, I think it broke, want me to stop? To which she replied no—not because what they were doing felt particularly good, but because she imagined herself a different person in those moments, and she wanted the feeling to last as long as possible. She brought the test into the Family Restroom and sat there the full two minutes, wouldn’t let herself look at the stick until her cell phone timer went off. When she saw the line of blue, she read the directions again, ripped open another wrapper, waited the two minutes, and saw the same results.

On the drive home, even with this proof, she felt she could not understand what was happening. She seemed no different physically, except for the odd sense that she was not alone in the car anymore, which was of course ridiculous. She couldn’t let herself imagine how her parents might react to this news, or how it might affect the rest of her life. So she thought instead of Wylie’s enormous, well-lit house, and that this meant she would have to see him again. Such a revelation should be made in person. She imagined him meeting her at his door and embracing her, then talking with her into the night about what they should do, kissing her and telling her that whatever they decided, they would get through this together.

She bought a Pregnancy and Childbirth book at Barnes & Noble and hid it in her closet to take out after her parents went to bed. In this way, she learned that the baby was not yet the size of a pea; that she shouldn’t drink coffee or Coke or eat cold cuts anymore; that she might suffer from nausea or intense moodiness and perhaps hemorrhoids and other unpleasant-sounding things. In a matter of months, the book said, she would be able to feel the fetus moving inside her.

Two weeks later, she left the house early in the morning and instead of heading to the office drove three and a half hours north to Charlottesville. On the way she called in sick, claiming a stomach bug, which wasn’t a lie if you counted the morning sickness that had begun to assail her at odd times of day. She could get to UVA, talk to Wylie, and be back by five-thirty when her parents would expect her home—unless he asked her to spend the night, to stay with him, in which case she might never come back. The drive was mostly rural roads, tobacco and sorghum fields and then rolling hills and vineyards into Virginia. She sang along to the radio to calm herself—funny, how many songs included the word baby. There had to be thousands. She had no idea what to say to Wylie, not even how to greet him after weeks without contact—but she would trust in the universe, trust that once she saw him, the right words would come.  She tried to envision positive outcomes, beyond his inevitable initial shock: they wouldn’t have to get married, at least not right away. They could spend time getting to know each other. He could still travel the world, like he wanted; perhaps they could travel it together. Or if they weren’t ready for parenthood, they could give the baby up for adoption: a noble sacrifice, a secret they would share for the rest of their lives.

In Charlottesville, she found the Alpha Tau Omega house almost by accident, turning onto Greek row and recognizing the symbols on the side of a sprawling brick building with a half-collapsed volleyball net in the yard. She parked on the street, walked up to the porch and, finding the front door propped open, went in. A big screen TV in a vast, unfurnished common room to the left was blaring ESPN. She went further in, called “Hello?” A boy in a backwards baseball cap came around the corner carrying a lacrosse stick and a bottle of Mountain Dew. When she asked, he pointed her toward the stairs and said Wylie’s room was the first on the right. He didn’t seem interested in why she was there, or who she was, and she climbed the stairs alone.

At the second landing a long, straight hall stretched ahead of her. It was carpeted and smelled like the sports equipment closet at her high school—basketballs and old sneakers and unwashed uniforms. The white walls were scuffed and chipping. The door to Wylie’s room was open, but he wasn’t there. The room was small and almost entirely devoid of decoration—a futon, a dresser, a loft bed. Immediately she noticed a single photo tucked into the frame of the wall mirror: Wylie wearing a tie-dyed shirt and Hawaiian lei, standing behind a girl in a grass skirt and bikini top with his arms around her waist. The girl was smiling, dark-haired, pretty. They stood on a surfboard before a tropical backdrop, the photo imprinted with the words ATO Date Dash: Cheese-brothers in Paradise, and dated less than a month ago.

Wylie’s bed was only reachable by ladder, so Lexie sat on the futon to wait. Her eyes roved the room, flitting back to the door every few seconds, afraid some passerby might get the impression she was snooping. She tried to avoid the photo on the mirror but her eyes kept going back to it. After thirty minutes her stomach was grumbling and she felt light-headed. She thought about going to find food but didn’t want to leave and risk missing him—it was important, for some reason, that she catch Wylie off-guard. Almost forty-five minutes passed, and then there he was in the doorway.  When Wylie saw her, he looked startled but cheerful, and the sight of his smile flooded her with relief. Then he seemed to realize who she was, and his smile vanished.

“I’m in town to see a friend,” she said.Thought I’d stop by to say hello.” The words came before she could weigh them, consider how believable they might be. His discomfort was palpable.

They stood facing each other in the center of the room. After a moment, he exhaled through pursed lips, then asked, “What’s up? How’ve you been?”

She shrugged. “Okay.”

“How long are you in town?”

“Just today. I hope I’m not bothering you.”

“No, no problem. I just have class, is the thing…” He glanced at the doorway. “How’ve you been?”

Why hadn’t she thought about what she would say to him? She looked wildly around the room. “So,” she said. “This is where you live.”

“Yup. Pretty fancy.”

“It’s not so bad.”

“How’s your dad doing?”

“Okay.” Wasted, wasting—she didn’t want to talk about him. “How’s the semester? Is it weird to be back?”

“After Argentina? Not really. That place seems far away now, which sucks.”

“You’ll go visit, though, won’t you?”

“Definitely.” He glanced at the door again.

“Are you still planning to surf the Amazon on Spring Break?”

He shook his head at this, and gave a sharp laugh. “Nah, just Cancun with some buddies. A package deal type thing. A lot cheaper and closer than South America, and I’m less likely to get killed. Though who knows, it can get crazy in Cancun.”  He laughed again, haha. She laughed. They were laughing at the idea of him getting killed. “Listen,” he said, “I’m sorry, but I was just rushing back between classes—I can’t really hang out …”

“Of course.” Her mind raced, searching for something that he would latch on to. She saw the electric candy canes he had made fun of at his father’s house; the Blues Brothers poster on his bedroom wall; Kurt Van Landingham, tripping his face off in a thatch-roofed hut. Tell him, she commanded herself. Tell him now. “I understand,” she said, taking a backwards step toward the hall. 

“It’s good to see you!” he said, clearly glad she was leaving. “I’ve been so busy with school. Sorry I’m shitty at email and all. Thanks for stopping by, though. Maybe I’ll see you this summer.”

She was in the doorway, almost gone. “Do you remember,” she said—a last flailing grab, “when we went ice skating?”

Wylie stiffened; then something in him seemed to soften and he replied in a gentler voice, “Of course.”

Hope flared inside her. “We talked about how challenges in life make you stronger,” she went on, “and show you the person you really are.”

She’d struck a chord here. For the first time, Wylie was looking at her, really looking at her.

“People are brought together in unexpected ways,” she said, “and that’s when life really starts to happen—when you go off the path that’s been laid out for you, and make your own choices.”

He was squinting at her now, still interested but wary. She hurried on, “Your father, for example. He has an idea of who you are, he thinks he knows you, but only you know who you really are, and what you are capable of.” She paused—Wylie had only mentioned his father once in their previous conversations and spoken disparagingly of him, something about him being a slave to the system.

Wylie smiled now, the same glorious smile she remembered. “Did you come all the way here to remind me of that?”

“No. I came to tell you something.” She was calm; he had relaxed, and she had his undivided attention. “Something big.”

His eyes widened, and then he exclaimed, “Hey!” in a bright voice, and Lexie turned to see the dark-haired girl from the photograph standing in the hallway behind her.

“Hey,” Wylie repeated. He brushed past Lexie, took the girl’s hand and pulled her into the room to stand beside him. “This is my friend Lexie, from home,” he said to the girl. “She’s up visiting someone and stopped by to say hi. Lexie, this is my girlfriend, Beth.”

Beth flashed a brief, dazzling smile.

“Lexie works at Dad’s firm,” Wylie went on, still talking to Beth. As he spoke, he placed his hand on her back. “Sorry—what were you saying, then, Lexie?”

Lexie tried to swallow, but her throat was coated with dust. She tried to speak, but no words would come.

“You mentioned my Dad,” Wylie went on, with a nervous chuckle. “Did he send along a care package or something?”

Lexie shook her head. “Aw, come on,” Wylie went on, looking panicked. “I thought the old man would have given you something for me, if he knew you were coming all the way up.”

Mr. Bell didn’t know Lexie was coming, of course; no one did. At the office, he acted as obliviously toward her as he always had. If he knew about her outings with Wylie over Christmas break, he had never mentioned them.

She had to do something—send Wylie a message, at least; a signal to remind him of their connection, perhaps hint at the revelation to come. But he and Beth formed a wall before her, arms around each other’s waists, and there seemed nothing she could do to reach him short of blurting out the truth.

“I was just going to tell you,” she began. The desert in her throat choked her anew. They stood watching, waiting for her to continue. “Your Dad….” She faltered, her mind gone blank, white noise roaring in her ears. “He got you a BMW,” she said at last.

Wylie turned to Beth in shock. “Are you serious?” he asked. “Are you really serious? Hey, Lexie?”

But she was already in the hallway, hurrying down the stairs and out through the entrance hall past the still-blaring television, then down the front walk past the boys who sat smoking on lawn chairs, watching their friends whack a badminton birdie over the sagging net.

She got into her car, started the engine and peeled away from the curb without looking back. Then she drove blindly through the neighborhood of mostly brick academic buildings, turning left, then right, then left, not caring where she was going as long as it was away. Tears stung her eyes, but she held them in, and soon a cold fury rose in their wake, though toward what or whom she was not certain. She knew only that she had made a mess of things. If Mr. Bell learned of her spoiling his surprise—the BMW was to be a gift for Wylie’s upcoming birthday—he would have every right to be angry. She would probably be fired. She had lied and skipped work, first of all, and then ruined this joyous revelation. She should have told Wylie not to let on that he knew, but it was too late. She had blurted out the first thing that came into her head.

There was nothing to do now but drive back to the highway, back to North Carolina, the only home she’d ever known. Getting fired should be the least of her worries: it dawned on her that the secret life inside her was truly a secret now, hers alone. She couldn’t tell Jamie, who though just a few hours away at Appalachian State was also a virgin and evangelical Christian who believed in saving oneself for marriage. She couldn’t tell her parents—her father so weak and weepy now, hardly recognizable as himself; it scared her to think what such a shock might do to him. What she needed was to stay calm. Make a plan. She would go to the free clinic during her lunch break on Monday and arm herself with facts. She would find a way to see Wylie again, fix this botched attempt and start over.

That weekend she watched a numbing stream of game shows, re-runs, local news, and black-and-white movies with her parents in the dim, wood-paneled den, eating the whole time: corn chips, salted mixed nuts, Oreos straight from the box. When Mama made a crack at one point about the “freshman fifteen,” for a horrifying moment Lexie was certain that she’d given her condition away—but then her mother went back to her crossword, and Lexie went back to her Oreos. Later, after showering, she stood naked before the bathroom mirror, turned sideways and puffed her belly out, trying to picture the tiny person curled inside. She lay in bed that night and dreamed of herself years in the future, shopping with a teenage daughter. The two of them could be mistaken for siblings, swapping clothes and confiding in each other like sisters. 

On Monday morning she noticed faint rust-colored spots on her underwear and snuck a peek at the book in her closet, checking the index for “bleeding.” As far as she could tell, at this point in pregnancy it was either nothing to worry about or a sign that something was terribly wrong. The morning at work passed uneventfully; if Mr. Bell was planning to fire her, he was in no immediate hurry to do it. At lunch she drove to the clinic across town, where people stood huddled outside, praying and holding signs with gruesome pictures she didn’t look at.

After she filled out the required forms, the nurse weighed her and took her blood pressure and asked the date of her last period to gauge how far along she was. Then the nurse led Lexie into an examination room, asked her to take off her bottoms and sit on a paper-covered chair, and gave her a thin cotton blanket to cover her lap. A short time later, a woman who introduced herself as “Tonya, the physician’s assistant,” and an ultrasound technician came into the room and dimmed the lights. Lexie put her feet onto metal stirrups and the technician inserted a probe, and then they all looked to the monitor to see what it might reveal. Lexie thought this was what being abducted by aliens must feel like. The room was dark and full of whirring, bleeping machines, and the technician was moving the probe around inside her, but seemed unconcerned by her presence, or of the life-changing weight of all of this. Lexie thought of her father and his hatred of hospitals and doctors—even now, even after all their attempts to heal him in recent months. “They get their hands on you and look for something wrong till they find it,” he said. What Lexie was viewing on the monitor screen looked like an alien landscape, or perhaps the bottom of the sea, swirls of fluid accompanied by a faint hissing sound like heavy rain. The technician moved the wand as the P.A. studied the screen, murmuring instructions. To Lexie the tech seemed a bit rough, a bit callous—but what did she know? She had never been to a gynecologist; she had only had sex three times in her life. Maybe this discomfort was normal. She tried to lie still, to give in to the experience as Wylie said he had done with the ayahuasca, watching the gray screen as blobs of light loomed up and shrank back again. Her body was the sea bottom, and they were searching it for sunken treasure. Then, there was something: a white dot amidst the gray. The P.A. and technician studied it, leaning close, then used arrows and clicks on a keypad to rotate and zoom, all the while murmuring to each other. “There’s the embryo,” the physician’s assistant said to Lexie, after a pause. Lexie stared. It didn’t look like a baby, but there it was. They watched in silence another few moments, as the doctor rotated and zoomed a bit more. Lexie would have liked to keep looking, but then the P.A. said “Okay,” and the tech removed the wand and re-covered Lexie’s lap and told her she could sit up. Without turning on the lights, in the glow of the now-blank monitor screen, the P.A. told her that there was no heartbeat, that the embryo wasn’t viable. It was nothing Lexie did, she said. Nothing wrong with her or her body.  These things happened sometimes, when there was a problem with development, for whatever reason. “It’s nature’s way of ending a pregnancy,” she said, “that wasn’t meant to be.”

She put a hand on Lexie’s shoulder. The technician produced a box of tissues. Wasn’t meant to be. Lexie was crying, but not for the reasons they thought. Or maybe for those reasons and others, too.  

She was late returning to the office. In her purse was a prescription for a pill that the P.A. had said would “speed the process along.” It could take weeks, otherwise—a prolonged, bloody agony. On the drive back, she passed through a sudden downpour and thought of Wylie and what he’d told her about the rainy season in the Amazon: how the jungle animals would cry out when the rains started—the monkeys and birds and other creatures, all making these panicked warning sounds. As if there was anything they could do to stop it! As if, no matter how many times it happened, day after day, they never got used to the flood.

Now she is here in the back file room, sorting forms while Sharla says that her daughter will be paying for her mistakes for the rest of her life.

“You don’t know that,” Lexie says. She is almost as startled as Sharla at the sound of her voice: it isn’t like her to respond to Sharla, especially not to contradict her. “You can’t know someone’s destiny,” she adds, sinking onto a desk chair, her knees suddenly weak.  

Sharla stares a moment, then laughs her dry coughing laugh. “Honey,” she says, “come back and talk to me when you’re my age. You don’t know what life is, yet.”

“Yes, I do,” Lexie says. “I know a lot about it.”  And she wants to spill everything to Sharla then—to tell her about the baby and Wylie’s deception and her own family’s slow unraveling, about her terror at the thought of being stuck in this place, as the person she is, forever. Sharla has seen all of these things and worse—and Lexie wants her judgment: to share this burden regardless of the consequences; confess her sins and be damned or absolved. However Sharla reacts will be better than this silence, this emptiness inside her. But then Sharla’s grandkids arrive, tromping into the room in their swishing plastic raincoats, towing child-sized roller suitcases decorated with cartoon characters. Kayden’s is Ironman, Kayleigh’s is Tinkerbell. Lexie remembers then that Sharla watches the kids on Mondays when their mother takes a night class. 

“Well, look what the cat dragged in,” Sharla says. “How was school?” As always, Lexie is amazed at the transformation—her sharp-tongued, sour-tempered colleague now a gentle, smiling grandma, watching with wide-eyed interest as Kayden reenacts a scuffle that occurred on the playground that day. Lexie wonders if this is how Sharla behaved with her own daughter when she was a child. It seems unlikely. She stands up, watching Sharla and her grandchildren as if from a great distance, feeling stranded somewhere between them with a long way to go in either direction.

In the ladies’ room stall, she sees the blood is coming more heavily now. Her abdomen has begun to ache; the Motrin the clinic gave her isn’t working yet. The pill she is supposed to take that night might make her sick, the P.A. warned. Lexie wonders how she will hide something like this from her parents—her father, who is always retching in the bathroom these days, her mother who is never satisfied, demanding that Lexie help clean and cook and ease her own sadness, always without complaint.

She flushes the toilet, watches the blood swirl away down the drain. Blood is a visible sign of pain, she thinks—like a bruise. Like the time Miss Rosado saw them on her arm—imprints of her father’s fingers—and touched her shoulder and said, “You know you are wonderful, don’t you, Lexie?” She clings to that memory, a secret that embarrasses her now.

As the blood disappears, she remembers she is supposed to look for pieces of tissue, to make sure her body is flushing everything out. The horrors we endure, as her mother might say. Nine weeks from conception: could you call that a life? What about fifty-seven years—the age her father will be, if he makes it to the summer? Lexie doesn’t know. Sharla is right: she doesn’t know what life is, not really.  

She comes out of the bathroom and walks down the hall, passing the closed doors of the conference room behind which she can hear muffled voices—people sitting at the mahogany table, planning their futures, signing their names over and over on stacks of white paper. She reaches the file room from which float the high, excited voices of the children telling Sharla another story, and goes past it, out the back door into the rain. She gets in her car and sits watching the water pelt the windshield, thinking about where she will go. She wants only to drive and drive without stopping—unfettered, free of all care or worry, free of anything resembling hope. Through the windshield the back door to the office blurs and then dissolves completely as the rain comes down. You can’t step in the same river twice—another nugget of wisdom, bestowed on Wylie by Kurt in the jungle.  She tries to imagine the unending wave he described—how it would feel to stand on the riverbank and hear it in the distance, then see it surging into view, carrying with it all it had touched on its journey, all the branches and animals and houses and trees, everything torn straight out of the ground and in a sudden, singular act of nature swept away. 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I conceived of the closing scene of “The Same River” before anything else: a young woman who discovers she is suffering a miscarriage returns to her desk at work, and pretends nothing is wrong. Only after finishing a draft of the story, years later, did I alter this ending so that Lexie leaves her post, goes outside, and thinks about the river’s destruction—suggesting at least the possibility of an escape from her misery. The story was inspired by a part-time administrative job I took at a law firm after grad school, which I hoped would lend some structure to my days while allowing me mornings to write. During this period I also became pregnant and suffered a painful miscarriage, which I kept secret from my employers. I began “The River” in earnest only long after I’d left the job—the image of that grieving young woman returning to her desk stayed with me, and I began to write about a girl on the cusp of womanhood who felt trapped by circumstances in her southern hometown. As I was writing, I knew only that this was a story about heartbreak. It’s part of a collection of linked stories, entitled Aqua Vitae, that explore the parts of life I’m most frightened of or intrigued by, now that I’m a parent: innocence and loss, independence and accountability, and the hazards of neglect.

 

Meaghan Mulholland’s stories have appeared in Playboy, Five Chapters, Post Road, and the Colorado Review, among other publications. She is currently working on a collection of linked stories and a novel set in Sicily.