Stories on the River
Last week I went white water rafting with my niece and father. It had been 12 years since I last rafted on the river. About 10 years since I had last kayaked since I gave it up during fertility treatments. I tried on my water shoes the night before. I slipped my feet inside and took a step. The shoes were suddenly huge; my foot swimming in them.
“Oh my G-d, my foot shrunk since the last time I wore them. That’s how long it’s been! My foot is smaller,” I gasped at Josh.
“Is it possible that the material stretched? It doesn’t seem very likely that your foot shrunk.”
“I’m telling you, look at my foot. It is much smaller than the rubber sole. Maybe the material stretched out, but the rubber sole didn’t change size. I am shrinking. I’m becoming ancient. And when you become a shriveled old crone, your foot shrinks along with your gnarled hands.”
“Mel, are those my shoes?” Josh asked.
“Well, they’re my size.”
A quick trip up to our bedroom determined that yes, those were Josh’s shoes.
It felt odd to be out of my routine; driving towards West Virginia in the early morning. I had been out of my routine all summer, and only back in my routine for a few days. But still, it felt odd, as if I was playing hooky. I turned off my phone and left everything behind, my pockets completely empty.
When I walked into the office where you sign in for your boat, the smell brought back such intense memories of being in college, between semesters and taking kids out on rafting field trips. The guides were usually a year or two older than I was. I came back so often that I got to know them each summer, hanging out in the gear room, flirting underneath the hanging life jackets.
My niece was a baby the last time I had been there. I was getting married to Josh. I had been away from the camp for many years, returning for this single summer to make some extra money to furnish our new apartment. I felt awkward that I was several years older than the guides. They could have been my camper, I thought to myself. They could have been my student.
But now my thoughts were, you could be my kid. I mean, yes, I would have had to have gotten pregnant at the beginning of college, but the age gap was now so large between myself and the guides that I could easily be their mother.
Their freakin’ mother.
What I wanted much more than the rapids themselves were the stories. A good guide will tell you how the various rapids got their name or tiny snippets of history as you travel down the river. We got a good guide; a good story teller. I got to hear for almost the 50th time how Bull Falls got its name, and remember navigating the two staircases with a boyfriend one summer, and bucking on White Horse. And I said the same things I always said when I rode this stretch of the river, as if I were in a bucolic Rocky Horror Picture Show, shouting out the lines.
When we turned the bend in the river and saw the Mennen’s toilet powder sign on the rock, I waited for the guide to tell the story. Except that for the first time on the trip, he wasn’t saying anything. He was just looking around at the scenery.
Back when I was younger, I brought so many people to the Whitman Walker Clinic for HIV testing that I began being able to recite the 45 minute informational session that came with the saliva test. One day, the man delivering the presentation skipped a few lines, and I immediately raised my hand and excitedly told him that he had missed one of my favourite parts. And then proceeded to fill in the blank. I really hate the idea of a story left partially unsaid, and that applies to HIV-testing informational sessions and trivia from the river.
“Aren’t you going to tell the story?” I asked. “You know, of the Mennen’s toilet powder sign?”
The guide looked at me without saying anything. So I finally had to admit that I had done this stretch of the river probably 48 times that I could remember. “Why didn’t you say something?” he asked me.
Because I wanted to hear the stories. It wasn’t a waste of time to hear them again. You know how a kid wants to have you read the same story over and over again? Or how you ask your parents to repeat family stories even after you have them memorized? Well, the Shenandoah River is like a member of my family; it feels as corporal as a person, and it has shaped who I am as much as the people around me. Hearing the stories about the various rapids was as enjoyable as recounting old family vacations from years past.
For a few moments, we each played coy, refusing to tell the other the story we knew about the advertisement on the rock face. And then we both spilled, co-constructing the story as we passed over the rocks like water.
Lori was surprised when I told her that I was white water rafting. I’m sort of the last person you’d ever imagine enjoying white water. I don’t go on roller coasters, don’t enjoy drops or heights or fast movements. I got anxious on the freakin’ mail boat that one summer.
But for whatever reason, I like white water rafting.
A long time ago, I wrote a post about how everything I ever needed to know about navigating blogging I learned from kayaking. I thought I had posted it, but when I looked to link to the post, it was still in draft form. I have so many stories in draft form, unpublished. Sometimes I don’t know what I’ve put up and what I’ve left to languish unread in that folder.
If I had posted it, she wouldn’t have been surprised.