— For Edith
She had wanted to say something. Something to Emily. Emily was holding her hand.
She had wanted to call her. She couldn’t remember now if she had called, she couldn’t remember a conversation. There was the image of her hands holding an address book, searching for a phone number, but it floated before her, unanchored.
She is floating. She is allowing herself to float. The water flutters along the skin of the boat, its whispers rippling around her ears, her head, her still hands. Gray-green rocks drift by close, close enough to touch, grizzled with lichens and deep moss. She doesn’t reach out, she doesn’t allow her hands the comfort of their graze. She lies still along the curve of the boat, her body rocking gently side to side in the rhythm of the current.
She is standing, a small child, on a sunlit step, wearing a billowy blue crepe dress, hair pulled back in a matching bow. The golden light is warm against her skin and she looks down at her tanned arms, her shining new shoes. The smell of spring grass, morning, and the horses.
The water unfolds itself before the bow of the boat, parting quietly, rustling like leaves. Gently, its darkened folds trace the wood in passing. Her hands are resting upon her chest, loose there, warrior-like, shuddering as quietly as sleeping doves.
Her first book. Her first night spent outdoors. Her first visit to the city. The first time she sat with him at a small cafe just off the main square. They drank cappuccino, talking about music, his eyes glittering as he explained his erotic fascination with tone. Life had speeded up then, shifted into another gradual and steady gear which carried her through years with an easy accommodation. Her first night with him. His first concert. Their first child.
The rocks tower high above the boat on either side. Through half-closed eyes she can discern the deep blue in the crevice of sky overhead. The sun out of sight. The expanse cloudless. The stone faces breathing a damp coolness into the air around her. The current quickens. She is still.
She had loosened herself into the boat, settling her tender body into the rounded hull. She had lain there motionless, receding from her skin, drawing inside, further away from the surface, from sensation. She had curled herself into the liquid center at the core of her flesh, feeling now her bones tip and roll with the motion of the boat.
The smell of the child. Her hair. Her small, probing fingers. The way a fever filled the room with the scent and heat of her. Bare legs against her own at a beach somewhere. The gift of a leaf. An unexpected kiss.
Emily holds her hand. Emily is holding her hand. It’s cool and smooth along the creased blue sheet. Emily remembers the story of the ball, of her mother as a child and the ball, told often enough by her mother that it became a defining moment, a hieroglyph of her entire life.
The ball had been bright red. The color of a crisp apple. It had felt warm in her hands, heated, if only for a moment by the summer sun. It still smelled of new rubber, of course, and when she pressed her face hard into the rounded surface, hard enough to feel the resistance of the captured air within, the thick scent surrounded her.
It was impossible to say why she remembered the moment so clearly; why, in fact, she’d never forgotten it, so that she’d never found it necessary to remember. She held the ball between her two small hands, her fingers too short, her palm too rounded to keep it stable in one. She held it there and pressed again, with both hands now, to feel the pressure of her fingers struggling to meet each other through the resistant sphere of the ball.
It was a kick-ball, a dodge-ball; a little larger than a basketball but more supple, and lighter. Its surface was scored irregularly with short strokes and this scoring allowed for a better grip. It was a loose ball, having been designed for casual games where accuracy and control were less important than the gratuitous thrill of its color and the blend of dread and thrill which accompanied its contact with skin.
She sat in the back seat of the car with the new ball resting in her lap, testing its weight, its pressure and balance. She’d been extremely excited and it was impossible for her to say why. Even later, even much later in the telling of the story to Emily, she could not say what had thrilled her so on that day. She could not imagine it. But she could still smell the waxy rubber scent and the warmth of the surface in her small fingers.
She’d kicked her legs slightly on the seat. The landscape swarmed past the car window, blending gray and brown with green and blue, breaking vertical lines into horizontal, then putting them back together again. The air pressed against her, flinging her sandy hair away from her face.
Her mother, Emily’s grandmother, had been angry about the ball. And she could understand, her mother had only just bought it. Her mother had yelled at her for a moment but then she simply sighed. Sitting down in the dining room chair, she pulled her body close and raked her bangs from her eyes as if they were formed of glass.
She told Emily often how she sat upon the shore of the creek and watched the ball float out of sight, its cherry-red surface catching the water’s mirror and throwing scarlet into the passing branches and leaves. The ball turned and spun unpredictably as the water carried it away and she had the sensation of watching a terrific kick to left field spinning out past the pitcher in slow motion. As if she could see the currents of air parting before the surface, as if she knew all at once what it was like to be a ball, and to be spinning free.
She’d tried to call Emily. She thought she had. There’d been no answer. She’d held the phone in her hand as it rang and rang. She’d wanted to tell her something. Something about the day at the cliff where the sun burned bright orange on the horizon. Now, the idea had become too thin in her mind, spreading low like a damp mist and she could only recall the initial impulse. She felt it in her fingers, still twitching to push the buttons on the telephone. To calm her fingers, she imagined holding Emily’s hand.
She is standing in her office and the last client has left. Breathing in the moment between one life and the next; between office and home, between patient and family. Her hand lies open along the dark surface of her desk, the fingers upturned slightly, collecting air or rainwater or light for later use. Feeling the breath spinning deep in her lungs. And waiting for a moment, just waiting. Waiting to begin again.
Only when the child was taller and the man had grown older in her bed did she realize that she also had aged. Lying there beside him, at two in the morning when the darkened house had stilled, with his even breath rattling beside her, she could begin to see how the leaves had closed around certain buds in her life and nurtured them quietly within her. Almost invisibly these buds had been cherished until they transformed into something like new organs: a second heart, another distinct pair of eyes, a mouth which spoke a new language.
Living had slowed, almost imperceptibly, then. The light deepening somehow, the air suddenly dense and vibrant. In her office, in the moment before she closes the door for the night, her hand lies open upon the polished oak of the desk, its surface moist and new.
The current strengthens and the boat begins to toss. Her hands have slipped from her chest and rest now, upturned, upon the dark floor of the boat. She lies motionless, nestled deep in the purple stream, a fine pale mist lowering itself around the bow as she notices the first whispers of the rapids ahead.
To look back over a vast expanse, to look back across a plain of time, to feel a constant undulating thread within her, tracing its looping path back as a single unbroken strand, sometimes knotted or snagged yet playing out backward in her vision, playing out softly, playing out behind the boat dipping now into the water just behind the keel. Back, through the mist. Back, out of sight. Out of reach.
The water lifts her, pushing up from beneath the body of the boat, bearing her awkwardly toward the sky even as it rushes her forward, relentlessly forward. The roar of the water building like the shallowing breath of a lover; louder, quicker, until it is all around her, more than sound now; a touch itself.
The blue dress and the Sunday shoes, their rigid shine and flash as she walked. Her hand along the fence as the horse approaches. The touch of his finger upon her throat. The moment, one night so long ago, when the world had darkened so deeply that only tears, and more tears, would soften it at all. An orange on a table in the sun. The daughter giggling on a pony. The raging lips thundering against the skin of the boat.
She wanted a gesture, a gesture which was an acknowledgment. A kind of friendly embrace. She wanted a gesture. She tried to move her hand but it was too far away from her now.
The moment at the window. When her mother had held her close to her chest and the smell of her neck and the blue of the glass and the creak of the rockers upon the hardwood floor. The moment at the window when her daughter had pointed through the frosty pane to the deer in the meadow and had tilted her head up to look into her face. The moment at the window.
She was thinking of Emily. She thinks of Emily. She’d wanted to talk to her, wanted to tell her something. But, maybe it had happened. Already.