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.