The River

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Timing is everything.

Last weekend I made another trip back to my old stomping grounds, the college town where I went to graduate school. For a variety of reasons, I decided to stay over Monday night too. My friend & hostess suggested we could go tubing that evening when she was done with work, but we hemmed and hawed about it all day long. Then I decided: fuck it, we should go. Just go.

We went.

Forty-minute drive to the parking area. Wait a few minutes for some other friends. Short walk to the put-in. Compulsory discussion of how to get my fat ass in a tube. Unceremonious leaping. Some selfies in the lagoon. Drifting and spinning, drifting and spinning. The languorous pace of the current was initially frustrating to my city-girl need to go-go-go, but I eventually settled in. Slow but steady progress down the river.

Drifting, spinning. The river takes control. You don’t fight it, unless you get hung up on the rocks, which is usually your own damn fault for picking a bad line. Then your ass drags the bottom in a punishingly undignified metaphor that perfectly encapsulates the folly of your error. Go where the water runs deepest. That is the path. The river knows.

We saw a lot of wildlife. A doe and her shy fawn trotted parallel to the bank. A fisher or mink darted into the overgrowth. Kingfishers swooped back and forth across the water. A great blue heron stood still as a sentry in the shallows.

And then, in front of us, on a narrow stretch of river in which the hill on one side and the tall trees on the other created the feeling of a canyon, we saw it: a bald eagle.

The eagle swooped in from the left, turned towards us, and followed the river’s path right over our heads.  Its wingspan was huge, intimidating. The yellow beak and dark eye pressed against the white of that distinctive head–it was like something out of a painting. Sure, one of those terrible, bellicose, patriotic meme-paintings, but a painting nonetheless. We were so close, perhaps only 30 or 40 feet below, that we could make out individual feathers as it passed by.  It was stunning.

“Epic,” said my friend.

The encounter lasted eights seconds, ten tops. The eagle flew upstream and veered right, disappearing around the bend. We all agreed, it was an awesome sight. Rare. A true gift.

And, as I realized on the long drive home yesterday, a miracle of timing.

If the river were running a little faster. If the rocks had hung us up a little longer. If our friends arrived before us. If we had stopped off to buy beer. If I had gone home instead of staying over. If I hadn’t come to town at all. If my friend and I had never met.

The encounter with the eagle–brief, powerful, and random–made me think of everyone I have known and all the people I have loved. There is probably a sacred math to explain all the vectors and intersections that allow us to find and know and love one another.

If I had used a different exit. If I had sat in a different seat. If I had gone to a different school. If there hadn’t been a war that delayed my parents’ marriage. If I had swiped left instead of right. If he had swiped right instead of left. The smallest variable can make all the difference.

I am grateful for the love I have, but I wonder where other choices might have led me. We saw an eagle fly right over our heads. Who knows? Perhaps if we had been a minute earlier, we might have seen a bear. Or a minute later… and nothing at all.

 

 

First-Date Friday: Hurricane J*

from-the-calm-to-hurricane-1892Two days before my first-ever online date with Col. Asshole, which was the day before I met J*, my friend died. These stories will always be connected in my mind, because they meet at the intersection of grief and hope where life is lived most richly.

Ana was my neighbor of five years, and she had been critically ill most of that time. She was in her mid-50s, but she seemed much older, having survived kidney failure, the amputation of all her toes, a heart attack, a stroke, multiple falls and broken bones, and a million other trials, including war, loss, perilous border crossings, and endless poverty. Through it all, she was mostly positive and always strong; I called her a “warrior woman.” We had very little in common, as she was born and raised in Central America, very traditional, a woman of no formal education, and had different politics and beliefs. What I loved about her was the way that she loved. Her children made terrible mistakes–teen pregnancy and fatherhood, drug use, catastrophic financial mismanagement, violent criminal activity–that would represent unspeakable, irrevocable failures in my family. And yet she loved them, fiercely and without end, no matter the mistakes they made. I loved living on the periphery of that love, like sitting on the shores of a calm but powerful sea, because every now and then I would catch its breeze. My heart sang when she would refer to me as one of her girls.

Ana died. Three days later, I met J*. And within days of that first meeting, I had come to believe that Ana sent J* to me, that somehow, in a final act of motherly engineering, she summoned a great storm to wash away the loneliness in me that worried her so.

More particularly, I believed that she had J* run over by a truck so that we could meet on Tinder. (Yes, I know how that sounds!)

Ana believed in witchcraft and spells. She didn’t engage in them, mind you, because she was a Christian and they were the Devil’s work. But she had the option, and she definitely believed in them. And when she would squint her black eyes in disgust at something that displeased her, she made you believe in dark power too.

J* believed he was just going for a bike ride while visiting his friend from out of state. He got clipped by a pickup truck pulling a trailer and was sent flying, resulting in serious bruising and abrasions that prevented his departure from the area. This happened about 1,000 yards from my house. The accident occurred before Ana’s death, true, but in my grief at her passing and amidst the great surge of hope I felt when I met him, it seemed like she must have had a hand in it.

What do you do when you’re bored and laid up after getting run over? You see who’s on Tinder. He found me! He was funny, he asked the right questions (“What are you reading?”), and his photos suggested an average-looking man who might actually be handsome if he’d been photographed at better angles. (Turns out, I was right, so don’t give up on someone just because their profile pictures suck!) Most importantly, he was recovering from his accident right nearby. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon, and we decided to meet for coffee an hour hence, because he was leaving for home (some 270 miles away) the next day. Both of us engaged in the mad scramble to appear effortlessly presentable on short notice. I texted something like, “Why don’t we cut each other some slack.” He wrote back, “Deal.”

We met at my regular coffee shop. I got there first, unsure of who I was looking for. I was doctoring my coffee when I heard a man cheerfully call my name. I looked up and saw him standing about 10 feet away, backlit–no shit, it’s so corny, but it’s true–by light streaming in through the windows behind him. He was literally tall, dark, and handsome, with broad shoulders, sunglasses perched rakishly atop his soft, dark curls, and he had black eyes the likes of which I had only seen once before. He was wearing khaki pants and a light blue polo shirt. He was smiling.

We sat outside and talked. We didn’t have much time, because he had to fetch a friend at the airport, and it passed so quickly. It’s hard to isolate what I learned that day, because over the next year I came to be–in his words–the person who knew him best. And he came to be one of perhaps two or three people who know me at all.

Over the next year–and I mean, exactly 365 days–J* blew in and disrupted everything, in full awareness of his destructive power. He was the one who coined the term “Hurricane J*,” not me, and he did so long before we ever met. As our together-story unfolded, I imagined myself as the rock, the immoveable mass around which the storm could rage without effect. But at other times, I was clearly the poorly situated trailer park, shredded to bits by the wind and carried away by the surge. I still don’t really understand what happened, much like those sad people standing in the rubble of their homes the day after a Category 5, who grasp for metaphors to explain the incomprehensible. I don’t know what it was, I just know that–for me, anyway–it was big.

But that day, that first calm day, he was just a kind, sweet, curious man who liked listening to me tell stories. We had coffee, he departed to pick up his friend, then we met up again to take my dog for a walk. We strolled back and forth along the path, we stood in the cold waters of a creek while my pup splashed in the dappled shallows, and we lingered at our cars until long after dark. I learned that he was a former infantryman/medic turned trauma nurse–a potent mix of tough and tender that made me tingly in my bathing-suit area. He also dispensed with some pretty unsavory details: a divorce, a vasectomy (actually, a plus!), a complicated family history, and a history of emotional volatility. He disclosed the divorce last, as though that particular detail would be the most troubling to a prospective partner. In fact, the worst was a story he shared before that, about how he used to beat his ex-wife’s dogs for imagined infractions as a way of releasing his pent-up frustration. I suggested that, on future first dates, he lead with the divorce and close with the dog beating, because it really doesn’t get any worse than that.

But all of that was in the past. He was more than four years sober, and he had made a new life for himself in recovery–a life of gratitude, service, and honesty. It was such a compelling narrative; I was hooked.

This is First-Date Friday, so what happened next, and after that, and next again is a story for another day. What I will say is, Hurricane J* challenged me as no other man or relationship ever has. I grew more, I loved more, I hurt more, I loved some more again.

“What is it about him?” several friends demanded to know, their frustration and concern palpable in the query.

“He is a beautiful disaster,” I told told them. “And I just can’t look away.”

As strong as my feelings were, and as much as J* affected me, I often wondered during that year whether I had any effect on him at all.

A hurricane is mindless destruction, there is no explanation or meaning in its actions, and–unlike a tornado–it provides just enough ebb and flow to wreak havoc in your life for months: the ominous warnings in the weeks ahead, wind and waves that build over days, intermittent downpours as the eye spins slowly overhead, a devastating storm surge that carries everything away, then weeks without power or succor in the aftermath. It is no accident that J* used this term to describe himself, but it was more indictment than badge of honor. “Hurricane” was the ultimate term of self-loathing, because the storm doesn’t care about the people it affects, and it never ends so much as it just moves on, without apology and without ever looking back.

365 days after that first date, J* and I had a falling out so degrading that I’m not sure it’s a story I can ever fully tell. It wasn’t even the breakup–that was months in the rearview. It was worse, a revelation that threatened to undermine once and for all the fragile faith I placed in him. And still, I hung in there, because he was the storm, but I was the rock.

One day, in the wake of that final tempest, we were chatting happily about nothing important, and the conversation came around to the first time we met.

“I bet you don’t remember what I was wearing,” I said.

“Your little jeans skirt and a green t-shirt,” he answered correctly, without a moment’s hesitation. “I’ll never forget the first time I saw you.”

I was stunned. A hurricane would never say that! Those were the words of someone who allowed himself to be affected by me, if only a little; of someone who cared for me, even if it was just once upon a time.

I don’t know if J* was the hurricane or just a man I met on Tinder who maybe saved my life. (Time will tell.) I don’t know if Ana sent him, though I love to imagine that she did, because it suggests a comforting order to the universe. There was definitely a storm. And somewhere in the storm, there definitely was love.