My lover takes off just after midnight. For good. He is suddenly awake. I imagine him surfacing from sleep’s river and good boatman that he is, taking three breaths, heading into the waves, feet up, searching for an eddy. I turn on the light. His face is gray and what’s in his eyes is so far gone, I can barely remember its name. I have seen him this way once before, on a brilliant morning in Marble Canyon, the Colorado River green as malachite. He sat motionless in the stern of the rescue raft. I would have gone to him, but the boatman yelled, “Rapid Twenty-five, coming up!” As he began to pull for shore, I searched the flat gray stone of my lover’s eyes and, in that instant, knew something about death-in-life.
As the door closes behind this man I may have loved as much as I love the canyons and red rock, the dusk and ravens and white water where we courted, I know more. Outside my cabin window, the April half-moon is brilliant on last Fall’s grasses. I see everything with the same shocked clarity that once focussed rock, river, and half-drowned man. Now I see that the last two years have been the slow approach to another rapid, and in the last two minutes, we have washed through. I remember...
...the first time we said “I love you,” I was still fifty and he was not much younger. We had hiked out to a ledge on one of the sacred mountains that seem to hover over our town. We had been together five months and in that time, we had courted not just one another, but desert rivers, October’s vermeil aspen, the high desert mornings and sunsets of the Colorado Plateau. He’d taught me to row, to read the rivers. I don’t know yet what he learned from me—not how to cook, that is certain. As we settled down between the Ponderosa and cliffrose, the town below emerged out of the morning mist.
“It’s temporary,” I said. He laughed.
“I can see it,” I said, “how it once was. How it will be again. When the town is gone. Just green and gray and red, just clouds and sunlight moving through.”
“I think,” he said, “no, I know that I have always been and I will always be. Maybe as air, maybe in one of these pine trees, you know?”
I turned and looked at him. This was not the man I knew, a man whose favorite topics of conversation were roof racks, the good/bad old days up near Da Nang and beer.
“You know,” I said, “in the best way... I know this will scare you, but, in the best way, I love you.”
“Me, too,” he said, “in the best way. I would have said it earlier, but I was afraid you’d go.”
He took my hand, pulled me up and we walked back. The sun burned off the mist. In the dark-green shadows, you could still see your breath.
“Listen,” he said, “I don’t want this to bind us to anything, but that Colorado River trip, next August, I’d like you to go with me. I want to do it with you... with you.”
“Of course,” I said. We held each other a long, long time, in that thin, cold, sun-washed mountain air...
...August monsoons, the scent of pine steaming up from the forest floor. We woke and drove north to Lees Ferry, rigged his raft and moved onto the mineral green water, my lover rowing, joy blazing on his big face. I smiled back and saw that his eyes were not on mine. He looked past me, down river, ahead. I bent and trailed my hand in the water. It was icy. I cupped some in my palm and touched my face. That night we slept apart on our camp cots. We agreed. No tent. Just a sky neither of us had ever seen from just this particular beach, between these ragged stone walls, under stars and crescent moon shimmering in a ribbon of indigo.
I woke early and afraid. My lover said something nasty. I snapped back.
“Sounds like a personal problem,” he said, “lighten up.” I turned away.
We put in, moved steadily downriver, rapid after rapid. He was calm, focused as he once was moving into Laos out of Viet Nam. I was anything but calm. There was nowhere, in the midst of sixteen people, in all that Redwall Limestone, that compelling water and sunbright balance, to let loose the anger knotting my heart.
We scouted Rapid Twenty-four and a Half, climbing past glittering purple rocks, past a boulder that seemed the shape and color of my rage. I touched it, the sun hot on its surface, in my fingers, cauterizing, pain clearing my vision. I looked down on the river and I imagined something knotted in the guts of the current. I glanced at the trip leader. He grinned.
“Let’s go,” he said.
We went. Into the tongue, in an entry so smooth that I lifted my camera and shot a picture. I have it still, taped to my fridge, a quote from Thomas Paine printed across the sky.
“Hang on,” my lover shouted. The world tilted, spun, and I was in the fierce water. Under the raft.
“This is not a movie,” I thought and time forgave me. Slow, slow, I thought, “Remember Suzanne. She came up under the boat, grabbed the cargo net, pulled herself free.” I reached up and hauled myself out. “If you flip,” the head boatman had said, “take three breaths.”
There was nowhere to come up for air. “This is not a story,” I thought. “One, two, three,” I counted, and swung my legs forward. Light glittered just above my head. I surfaced, gasped. An icy wave slammed me down.
Into vast blue-green, into light that was not water, was no-thing known. I wanted to just go into it. “I’m 51,” I thought, “This love’s too hard.” That instant, a fine, clear fury rose in me, and, in a moment of profound spirituality, I thought, “I’ve paid for eighteen days on this gorgeous friggin’ river, I’m not gonna die on Day 2!”
The river spit me out and I knew She hadn’t done it out of pity, mercy, or anything but hydraulics. I swam the fifty feet to the rescue raft, the boatmen wrestled me in. My camera, my dark glasses, my amulets still hung around my neck. It appeared I had lost nothing.
And then, I remembered. “Where’s...?” The boatman finished the question. “In back, we just grabbed him. He went down three times.” I looked. I saw that gray presence and I saw that he looked, not downriver, not ahead, but somewhere else, and I knew it was a place I could not go...
...Two years later, this August morning, our April goodbye four months old and solid as stone, I sit in my backyard meadow. Lupine and penstemon glow in the dry grasses. I drink good coffee and think about that first parting, how he went west and I went east and we were suddenly as distant as the rims of the Canyon walls. I am coming to believe that I fell in love, not so much with the man, as with that high desert web of dusk and silence and glowing rock. And he was not so much in love with me as with dawn and river and the ways a woman, any woman, is so much like a river, so much like the earth.
What I know, beyond doubt, is that stone and light and water long survive love and betrayal. As well as death-in-life, there is life-in-death, in the hard sweetness of letting go. And, I remember what is written across that photo, across the sky above the hole in Rapid Twenty-Four and a Half of the Colorado River. “We have it in our power to begin the world again.”
And I am grateful.