I’m sure Roger won’t believe me. I bet he’ll look for the psychological reasons, the passive aggression in losing my engagement ring, “supposedly,” I imagine him saying with wide nostrils, “by mistake.” Then he’ll staccato, “While Crossing Our Same Bridge,” meaning where we met.
I don’t know how to answer people who are so suspicious. I didn’t throw the ring in. It’s not like I wanted to lose it.
“Are you trying to get out of this marriage?” he’ll probe like a judge, which isn’t a very romantic way to talk to your sweetheart.
He doesn’t admit what the Red River’s like. It has fate threaded through its water, and every now and then, that river changes lives. Martha got pregnant just by going there. Well, and she got in. But still, wading in the river and swimming has never gotten a woman pregnant before, and no one could understand it, especially not her husband, (impotent) Jim.
Of course, I won’t bring that up now. Last night was Roger and Jim’s pool night, like every Thursday since the divorce. After all this time, Jim still doesn’t ask about the baby. The last time he talked to Martha was when we were all at Applebee’s and he said little Anthony wasn’t his, in a long loud public speech, with a finale of “cuckold!” Later in the bathroom, Martha swore to me it was the river that made Jim’s sperm take hold. She said she felt it happen inside her when a wave wet her to the waist, and a brightness flashed under her skin, beneath her bellybutton, in her depths. A light turning on, and that was it.
Back when I met them five years ago at the fall bar-b-que, Jim was sweet and a little awkward, keeping his arm around Martha’s shoulder almost the entire day. He introduced her to me as his “prize,” but once the river got her pregnant, he turned cold and hard as a winter lock frozen shut. Martha moved away to Lake Shasta for warmth and to live by her family, but I saw her in my dream just two nights ago. She was laughing in slow-motion and cradling a golden baby with fertile green eyes, shining like 1st prize. I took it as a good sign.
A more spiritual man might thank the potent river that blessed his wife. Jim’s an import car mechanic with 10-hour workdays, and when the pieces didn’t match up, he made his decision. It’s never occurred to him that the river’s powers are real, that anything could be governed by rules he didn’t know about. He’s Roger’s closest friend, other than me: Roger’s fiancé, minus a ring.
I didn’t lose it on purpose. Makes me think of that lost boy on the fliers outside of Albertson’s who went missing years ago, I’m sure he didn’t mean to walk by the riverside and disappear. The police said “probable abduction,” but you know what I thought? Maybe the river men wanted him. From the tales my great-grandmother told me when I was a girl, it’s quite an honor if the river men take you. They’ll make you immortal, or super-powered, or happy – that’s actually the part I wish I could remember. My great-grandma was as tall as me when she died when I was seven, and I’ve forgotten some details. Nobody else talks like her. I’ve listened.
I didn’t know that lost boy, but he did have an interesting walk, really bouncy. When I saw school kids on field trips downtown, I focused on him because his dark head bopped up higher than the others’, and his loose hands flopped at his sides like fish. It was an eccentric walk, you could say. Maybe that’s what the river men liked about him.
I have lots of eccentricities for a river man to like. It seems they also like gold. –Of course I feel guilty about losing my engagement ring. Its absence casts me as the forgetful flimsy female I’m always trying to convince Roger I’m not.
And now he’s pulling in the drive. I meant to do the dishes.
The mirror over the stove says I’m a windy red tangle, but that’s what buns are for. I fix my hair, lick my lips to make them brighter, and change my hazel eyes from brown hesitation to green welcoming. The lock slides back, Roger opens the front door, and I remember I need to stop caring about what he thinks.
“Hello my love,” he says, and sets his shoulder-slung briefcase by the wall. “Hi dear,” I answer, fold my hands behind me, and lean back against kitchen doorway. I can still see the outdoorsman hidden under his office clothes, his masked strength. He walks down the long hallway, his shiny businessman shoes tapping girlishly on the hard wood floor. With each step, his gelled hair lifts and falls like a wing on his forehead. I briefly wonder where our 20’s went, and when we got so domestic.
“Finally home,” Roger says, and sighs. I turn my face up, lips puckered. He descends, encircles my waist, and for a second there, his nose mashes mine, his tongue fills my mouth, and I can’t breathe. A panic flutter goes through me, but then he turns his head and my nostrils work again. Knees bent, he pins me to the wall with his foot-taller body, and I’m unimpressed. Then magically, his hand slides down my back and simply cups my ass, just right. He slips his tongue from my mouth, waits an inch above my neck; he breathes on me.
And I’m panting. My body becomes a hot red ribbon draped around him, like I’m a red vein leading to his heart. Each day I’m floored by his spell, amazed that it’s happening. I’m powerless against the effects, I’d think I’d be more rational, yet it takes so little and I starve for him, him, him.
He pulls away, just when I want him, and I feel like a sucker. He wipes his lips, and runs his fingers through his hair to crack the gel and muss it into a more natural look. “You want a beer, baby?” he asks, walking to the refrigerator. He kicks off his fancy man shoes and nudges them under the counter. Head in the fridge, he asks, “Yes or no?”
“My engagement ring fell in the river,” I answer, though I could’ve sworn I was going to say yes.
He slumps half-inside the fridge for thirty seconds, then emerges with two beers, sets them on the counter, pops off one cap with his lighter, and sets the bottle cap down gently. “It slipped off,” I say. He hands over the open beer without turning; I take a sip. He opens his beer, sets down the cap, finally drinks. Staring at the counter, he asks, “Don’t you want to marry me?”
“Come on,” I say. “I didn’t mean to. I went to take a walk by the river this morning. It looks like all the geese are back. I was halfway back across the little fishing bridge when the ring slipped off and fell in. It was weird, Roger, because it’s humid today and my fingers are even swollen. That ring had a snug fit, but right then it just… slipped off.”
I leave out how mesmerizing its circle was when it dawdled as it sank, drifting lightly back and forth, as above, my small dry hand reached toward its escape.
He sighs, then drinks his whole beer in one go. It’s a noisy business with a lot of swallowing sounds. When the river swallowed my ring, it made the quietest “blip.”
Roger gives a breathy burp, and asks in a resigned tone, “Shouldn’t we go look for it?”
I shut my eyes, lift my beer, and take three long swallows. As I drink, I imagine the Red River with all those phantom river men swimming through the waves like silky ropes, and one river man carries on his back the lost boy with the bouncy walk, sitting straight up. When they rise over a wave, the boy sees me; he raises both of his floppy hands in hello. He doesn’t fall off the river man, even without holding on, and his left hand glitters in the sunlight with my gold ring.
“I doubt we’ll find it,” I say, and give a burp of my own. “But if you want, we can try.”
Roger shakes his head and I watch the muscles in his cheeks shift as he bites down hard. “I want to know you’ll be mine,” he says with the same thick-voiced earnest drawl he had at fifteen. We met when I was on my family’s Red River fishing trip; I crossed the little bridge as he was reeling in his third catfish. He had the ability to pull fish after fish from the water and caught two more as we talked, plus he was cute, so when he offered to cook me up that very catfish of hello, I ate it. Now I wonder, maybe eating his fish is what did it. Because I changed; love got in me and made me stupider. My intuition doesn’t work as well around him, or I suppose I don’t follow it as much. In certain ways, it leaves me wide open.
I’ve left him before; this last time I was gone four years. I had another life, with my own vegetable garden. I was independent and square-shouldered; I felt wise. I’d moved on, but not really. Each time, the curling memory of him hooks me, I think of him more and more, and long for that mysterious way we’re attached. It always catches me eventually, and then I seek him out, leave my coming harvest, and return like I did last year, while he remains close to the Red River, like he’s still standing on that little bridge, reeling me in. I’ve never loved anyone like I have Roger. With such a solid claim on me, it’s like I never had a choice.
“Just be mine,” requests my river man now, in the same whispered urgency he said it with then, and I want to run away. Then he touches my waist, and a current runs through the magnet of me; I observe how I turn to yes, and those are my hands that grasp up and down his back, as he kisses my hair wet, and his tongue flickers over my jugular.
Wrapped in his embrace, I watch the water tumble down the carpeted stairs, swash over the kitchen floor, and eddy around our ankles. Soon our house is hazy green and roaring. It’s flooding with the river’s uncontrollable currents, come to return his ring to him.
Read more about Dawn Sperber here.
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