On the Amtrak train that carried us across Montana, Matt Boone met a girl from outside our group, and they sat together with a complimentary blanket over their laps. Nobody could see their hands. Meanwhile, in the club car, a drunk woman continued trying to kiss me. My classmates shrieked with laughter and the woman tried to put them in their place. “I’m one hundred percent pure fucking Eskimo! You hear me? Pure fucking Eskimo!” She downed another shot-sized bottle of Jack Daniels, and climbed over a table to try to get to me. I felt uneasy. I wasn’t sure anybody should be saying “Eskimo.”
The other time a woman tried to kiss me, it was my geometry teacher’s wife. We all knew she was a Mail Order Bride. Her English was poor, but she’d had enough of something. At a faculty party, at my friend’s parents’ river house, the M.O.B. and I were alone in a bedroom. She was hiding from the other wives, who were not mail-ordered, and who did not rub their husbands’ feet at functions, even when asked. She told me about the ghosts in her own home, and how that’s why she’d had to burn it down by stuffing newspapers in the oven. Her face was a perfect oval. I didn’t realize she was coming in to kiss me, close, on the mouth, I thought she had another secret to tell. I slammed a door against her. It wasn’t because she was Filipina. But I knew I couldn’t go back to geometry class on Monday, or ever. Luckily, I had only ever wanted to paint.
The prettiest woman I ever saw caught me staring. I was on my fifth date with her fiancé. He’d picked me up at dog training class three weeks before; his dog was better than mine, and he helped me say, “Cody, stay” and “Cody, wait,” less pleadingly. She stood in the arc of my doorway. I began to understand the relationship between the three of us while I studied her cheekbones, gaped at the cup of her clean, strong collarbone that miraculously left room for me inside of it. “I know what you’re thinking,” she said. “And it’s not going to happen.”
The Eskimo woman had worn a ring. She only needed to land one wet kiss to settle down and tell me about it. It had eight stones – one for each of her children. One for each of her throwaway bottles of Jack. One for me, she said, for listening. She passed me a bottle.
The M.O.B. wasn’t crazy. She had only sniffed me out, amid all the pacing females in that river house, as one of her own. Her kiss seems now a welcome, a sorrowful induction into the fold.
I’ve got a stone of my own now, pulling heavy on my left side, and the fiancé to boot. The thing I think I’m supposed to say is that the difference, this time, is that I chose him. But what if I said, instead, that I’m one hundred percent pure fucking Ohio River Valley, and I waited for him all the time? That I sat at home in no underwear and a too-short dress, nursed my bourbon, and left it to fate that he’d come to claim me.
Monday I sat scraping the hard skin off my heels with a paddle that was a gift from his mother. It was a first for me and I’d worked up a little sweat going at it. But I was getting somewhere. I was becoming a different kind of woman. Then out of nowhere he was home and in the room with me. I hid my feet under my body and let him kiss me through his usual smile, furious.
I came here dragging two stones.
We came by air, by bus, by foot. We’re heavy. We’re scraping over bedrock, eyeing the trilobites. We’re avoiding groups of schoolchildren here to learn the unthinkable – that everything here now is different than it was, which suggests that it will all change again.
The river’s held back by great steel gates. It looks patient but I’m no fool – I know what’s just an act to protect its pride. It laps the steel and waits. I can wait, too.
He’s simply up in the city, walking Cody three times a day, and being, generally, ecstatic.
The buzzer’s gone off and we’ve all climbed the bank, and the locks have opened and the water’s eager. It’s got things to do downstream. It’s got no time for history. It’s got no time for me. It slights me like a surge of subway strangers. The bitch doesn’t pause for a second. I pictured it differently; I pictured some reunion. Besides, the children are watching.
Suddenly the stone on my hand feels light. It rises. I wave it above my head, bragging to every bent molecule. I taunt the river from above, and I know how the trilobites taunt it from below. The Ohio feigns indifference.
It’s only what’s in my pocket that still wants to sink. Sink then, I say. I’m not giving that cunt the satisfaction.
But goddamn if it isn’t hard to sink a metaphor rock. I’m scanning the faces of fifth-graders. One’s got long dark hair in a mess around her head and an unnatural smile. Yes, she was born for this, she might as well listen.
It started when Clint Grisanti leaned over the table at Casa Mamita and picked up the bowl of Pico de Gallo. I’m gonna dip my balls in it, he said. This was at age sixteen. But it wasn’t for my benefit Clint carried the salsa into the bathroom and did it. I’d just gotten braces, see, and my fucked-up dentist pulled a few of my teeth, baby teeth that didn’t want to go anyplace because there were no grown-up teeth behind to push them out. Then he glued the braces on. The metal made bridges, spanning the pits in the front of my mouth. When Clint made off with the salsa to impress the other girl, it was Paul that turned to me. He wasn’t from our school. He went to Saint Xavier. But he went to the same punk rock shows we did, at the Brick House. When he turned to me then and said, “Let’s go down to the river,” I smiled with my mouth closed. And we did walk down to the river, to that spot south of the city where the walking trail switches through river birch – you can see it past that bend. I’d been there once before when there’d been a black man – I mean a man, just a man – with a cooler and a boom box, fishing, in this, the Most Polluted River. The boy from the Catholic school and I stripped down to our underwear and pushed off from the mud and swam out. The currents were sneaky and this boy, it turned out, was mentally ill. And he said, “We’ll swim until one of us goes under.” And we swam like that for six years. And here I am. And he wasn’t bluffing.
Meghan Gilliss is a former journalist currently earning her MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College. She lives in Maine.