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Stop the River            April 3, 2000

A choice between reason and love.

by Amanda Nowlin


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I sat on the hood as Jake and Cracker loaded the car. I go camping all the time and I love it, but these guys weren't exactly sleep-on-the-ground people, and it made me a little nervous.

'Are you telling me we're driving ten hours to the middle of the woods to do mushrooms? Great!' I shoved my hands in the front pockets of my vest instead of looking at him, and stared at the jumbled gravel on the ground that could have been a parking lot, or just bad New Orleans landscaping. There was no way to tell.

'What is it? Why are you getting all pissed?' He stopped loading the car.

I breathed out hard and slow, releasing the tension and frustration in my limbs. 'I'm not, Jake. You'll have fun whether you fish or not. I'm not taking my rod at all. I just thought you wanted to.' I looked at him and smiled with my eyes as much as my mouth to show him that I was only sad.

It was terrifying that every moment we were together couldn't be perfect, especially since our time was so limited. Every second that drifted by without some loving occurrence to mark its passing, felt lost. I think back at how mopey I must have been and how hard it probably was for Jake to be nice to me - since I didn't believe that he was in love with me.

'I love you,' he whispered towards the side mirror so that I could see him but Cracker, the best friend, driver, roommate, referee, could not. I believed he said it more to reassure me than because he felt it. I figure that's something guys do. I know it's a girl thing to have the urge to say it. Even if she isn't the 'I love you', type of girl, it just wants to jump out there like a Wonder Bra pad when you get really excited. That's usually when I told Jake that I loved him, when I was so overcome with feelings that I would explode if I didn't share them all over him. Luckily, he'd had a girlfriend other than me for the previous six years, since he was a sophomore in high school, so he knew how to deal with the overload. He never panicked; he was quite compassionate about my affection.

I smiled again with my eyes, and it made my cheeks pouf-out like a toddler's, while my eyelashes fluttered just fast enough to keep the tears away.

About Cracker: he's the most lovable of the men I've known in Louisiana, but stiff as a shadow sometimes. The only thing he's ever lit up was a five-dollar-cigar with a two-dollar-bottle of scotch. Besides being straight-laced, he and Jake are a good deal alike on the outside. Between them they must own every Polo plaid ever printed. It looks like Ralph Lauren died in their living room: all greens and navies, burgundies and coordinating accessories.

The trip took us from New Orleans to Broken Bow, Oklahoma. It was a long drive, most of which I spent asleep or sulking in the back seat, and trying to stay as close to the heating vent as possible. Three weeks after our weekend trip Jake was going to grad school in Georgia. But worse, before he left for school he was going to Europe with the woman he had been seeing for so long but was officially 'taking time off' from to be with me for our last semester together. In fact, he was expecting a telephone call from her on the evening we got back from our weekend, to make plans for their European vacation. They hadn't spoken in two months. I think a lot of couples take time off when they're in different places. They see other people to make sure 'their love will last.' I knew I was other people.

It's just that neither Jake nor I thought we'd get as involved as we did.

I like to think that the unspoken promise of commitment was an act of chivalry, to be only mine for that short time because he was going to spend the rest of his life with her. It didn't make any difference if he loved me or not. He loved her as much and for longer. He never treated me like anything less than his girlfriend, but she had seniority. Of course, she was in another state for those three years, and well, I can fly fish.

For the trip Jake bought some mushrooms from a guy he worked with at the fly shop.

'I figure it'll be like doing acid but more organic,' Jake said. He had never done acid either.

'I mean, Jesus, they grow in cow-shit at the ranch, and my parents always told me stories about kids having their stomachs pumped for eating them in the yard,' I added. 'Are we sure about this?' No one said anything for a second.

'What if we get sick and can't get to a doctor? Or worse,' Cracker's eyes widened, 'what if we flip out and do something crazy like eat each other?' He paused and his eyes went back to normal. 'I'm just trying to prepare for any situation.' He was white-knuckling the steering wheel. I dozed off to the thought of Cracker going crazy trying to gnaw Jake's arm off.

Cracker stuck his finger in my ear to wake me and let me know we were in Broken Bow. Jake had heard about a place called Presbyterian Falls. It was on no map, and everyone we asked in town thought we were nuts. We didn't even have verbal directions. Our only hint was that we knew about where the Mountain Fork River was, and that the waterfall was somewhere between highways 75 and 82.

'Are we lost?' Cracker asked Jake as we turned down a dirt road.

'First of all, you are driving. And second, if you don't care where you are then you're not lost.' Jake used his Jack Handy voice.

I looked out the window at all of the trees beginning to bloom, their tiny soft buds sometimes brushing the hood of the car as we made our way down the trail. I wished to be a tree, to be able to start over every spring.

'You gotta be kiddin' me!' Cracker stopped the car so abruptly that I lost my grip on the Granola I'd been eating. Pieces went flying onto the dashboard, and my face pressed into the back of the driver's seat, smashing my lips and nose to the left until I pulled away from the vinyl.

'I'm not a cereal eater, but thanks.' Cracker said and threw a piece of the granola over his shoulder at my head. He put the gearshift into park.

I ducked, checked my face with my hands, and followed his gaze out the window. There was the river just through the woods. The pale roar of water falling seeped into the driver's side window when Cracker turned off the engine. It wasn't a myth.

'I can't believe that we found this place. It's beautiful,' I said.

Cracker opened the car door and the cold hit me immediately. It felt like it might take the air out of my lungs. I wrapped my jacket tighter around my neck and walked down to the water.

The river clawed its way downstream over every rock and branch in its path.

It bubbled and spewed and tore gently along each curve in the bank. In awe, we stared at it without speaking. The trees bowed down to kiss the current, but it only spit and slapped at the leaves that dipped into the water.

The river seemed nicer to the banks, familiar with the land, not at all violent. It knew each nook, every eddy and exactly how much pressure it would take to cause a whirlpool behind a bolder. It knew where to pass slowly and where to hug the worn edges of the bank. The dirt that lined the shore was as much a part of the Mountain Fork River as the water itself.

We had to set things up before it got dark. The sun began to settle down into the river, slowly pulling a calm pink light over every thing. Every frosty breath, tree and fish glowed and seemed to exude that pink energy from within instead of simply reflecting it from the outside. It was comforting and it took my mind off of Jake leaving.

Our camp-building techniques were rusty at best, and it took us an hour to build a fire that would burn on its own. Once we got it started and the coals died down, I warmed some three-day-old chicken for dinner.

After we ate, Jake opened the sandwich bag full of mushrooms and split the contents into thirds on the hood of Cracker's Jeep by the lantern light. I took mine like black-eyed peas on New Year's Day; I swallowed them whole.

All that was left to do was wait. We watched the sky darken and I put full beers in the cooler and threw the empty ones in the back of the Jeep. It was quiet and chilly, but peaceful.

'Do you feel anything?' I asked Cracker.

'Yeah, but I've got half a case of Miller Lite in me. I just feel drunk.'

'Whatever you say, big boy,' Jake suddenly slurred. A boyish laughter, a giggle, jumped out of his mouth. His whole body joined in the jovial event, which ended a second later as quickly as it had started. He looked around to see if we were watching, and of course we were.

When the laughter started again it was even sillier. His arms bobbed and his neck became loose. He looked like a rubber chicken sitting between us.

'Ah. . . Okay.' Cracker raised one eyebrow and looked at me behind Jake's back and silently mouthed, 'What is this?'

Like a bolt Jake jumped up and ran down to the water. Cracker and I stayed by the fire, too cold to move. I tried to listen for splashes of the 200-pound variety. I could barely hear Jake by the water, but I could make out that he was talking to himself. Cracker heard it, too.

'Should we go check on him?' Cracker looked at me with big droopy eyes and I could tell he didn't want to go.

'I got it.' I stood into wind, which had dropped ten more degrees since our arrival. As I neared the water I stopped to listen.

'No, No, No, that is stupid,' Jake said. 'I can't say that.'

I crouched low and crawled closer until I could see him through the darkness.

He took a package of peanut M&M's from his pocket and opened them. One by one he held them towards the sky. He spent a good while examining each. Then one by one he put them in his boot.

I couldn't help but smile. I enjoyed him. I stood up from behind the bushes and made my way to him. He didn't see me coming, and when I started to speak he jumped backwards several feet.

'I know you hate it when I say this, but do you know how much I love you?'

He stopped putting the M&M's in his boot and wrapped his arms around me. I could hear them crunch as he put his foot back on the ground. We stood silent and happy for a moment until he abruptly pushed me away to look at my face.

His eyes were glazed over. 'No, no, I don't hate it when you say that. It's just that it makes me sad because you're leaving.'

'You are leaving,' I said. 'You're going back to her.'

He furled his brow. 'Aren't you the one who told me to just take it one day at a time?' He smiled.

'Yeah, but - '

'But nothing - is a wonderful thing. You know, no-thing, toe ring.' He broke into laughter again. He let go of me and bounced and played, picking up rocks and throwing them straight down onto the ground, not even into the water. And he again began to examine his M&M's.

I sat on a tree stump. 'Jake, what in the Hell are you doing with those?'

'Dah, I'm looking for the gray one,' he said. 'If I can't tell what color it is when I hold it up to the moon, then I put it in my boot so I can look when the sun comes up.'

'But Jake.' I was trying to be nice. 'It's all going to be one big brown mess when you take that boot off. Besides, it says on the inside of the package if you won or not.'

He looked at me with all seriousness. 'They lie.'

I started to giggle like he had done earlier.

'Are you laughing at me?'

'No, I'm sorry,' I said. 'Why don't you come back up to the fire.'

'I'll be up in a minute,' he said, a little aggravated.

I kissed him slowly, hoping to bring him back to sobriety. It was one of our kisses. When people date for a while they start to have kisses familiar and specific only to them, and they are as reassuring as only that kind of intimacy can be.

He raised his hands up under my shirt. The cold air running over my bare chest made me crazy but I pulled away. 'Please be careful down here.' I made myself walk back to the fire instead of staying close to him.

'How is he?' Cracker asked.

'Lit,' I said, amused as I collapsed back to my warm seat. 'He's hell-bent on finding the gray M&M.'

'He has M&M's?'

'Yep.' I was finally becoming tired. I spread my arms and legs out across my unzipped sleeping bag.

'He has M&M's?'

'Yes, Cracker, I just said that.'

'Sonofabitch!' He jumped up and ran down to the water. It was a sure sign that he was still with his senses. But before he ever made it to the water, Jake came running up the hill. He sat down and looked directly into my eyes.

'What?' I was a little flustered and not used to being stared at so intently.

'I'm just looking at you.'

'Well, what do you see?'

'Your soul,' he said in a voice that he seemed to think was cool.

I laughed until I realized he was serious.

He tried to explain what he meant. 'Sometimes you're not all-together.'

I raised one eyebrow and showed him my Elvis lip but let him continue.

'I mean when you are in New Orleans. None of us are really, but you seem outta-whack with everything there.' He slowed down and made a face. 'The Pontchartrain. It freaks you out more than it does most people. Your job just barely keeps you sane, and what do ya' do? You take pictures of the shitty city parks, and that's not cuttin' it. But here,' he pointed to the ground, 'right now, I see you whole for the first time.'

My mouth opened slightly.

'I see that you belong here. You are so graceful. Watching you tonight - God, Cracker and I didn't even know how to put up the tent. You made that wonderful dinner, you're relaxed here and you make perfect sense.'

I could feel my eyes opening wider and I couldn't help but nervously bite my lip so hard that it went numb. He had formed into sentences the one truth about me I had but could never articulate for lack of understanding it myself. I didn't fit in New Orleans. It is a concrete zoo, and dirty. It is so dirty.

'What do you think?' he asked.

I sat in front of him in silence fumbling for words I could not form.

Then he jumped up and ran full speed back down to the water where Cracker was waiting for him.

He screamed, 'Nay-cher, Nature, I told her! What do you want me to tell her now?'

I knew that he understood what was inside of me even when I didn't and that's why I didn't think about his girlfriend most of the time. He was my best friend, my very best friend. I felt triumphant but mortified with sadness because he knew every inch of me, and he was leaving, and choosing her.

I finished a beer and tried to look at the bright side of it all. The sky was perfectly clear, not a cloud or spec of dust in sight. I could not see anything. I zipped my sleeping bag, curled up inside as close to the fire as possible, and fell into a crying coma. I was frustrated and exhausted and angry. And the angry part took up so much energy that I couldn't stay awake.

I woke up at five a.m. Cracker was in the tent and Jake was nowhere to be found. I unzipped my sleeping bag, pulled it around me like a poncho and walked down the trail. I walked pretty far upstream, but he wasn't there either. I found a clear spot to sit so I could figure out where he could have disappeared to. I looked up, half-waiting for someone to look down. Unlike earlier, there really wasn't a sky, just stars, billions of them. They covered every inch of heaven all the way down to each horizon. They seemed like sugar-crystals floating in place, waiting to dissolve. I wondered if they would be as bright over different water, over mountains. And instead of sugar-crystals if they would look like sparklers or diamonds.

Before long I felt two warm hands on the back of my neck. 'About an hour ago I went up to the fire.' He looked at the ground. 'You were crying. You wanna tell me what that's about?' Of course he already knew.

'You - me, how sideways our relationship is.'

He nodded without surprise and looked out over the water. He was standing so close to the river that I thought he might fall in. 'Look,' he pointed to the rapids in the middle, 'it's going so much faster than it was before.'

'Re-reg opened about an hour ago, remember?'

He looked confused.

I tilted my head a little and I could feel my face soften. 'The dam?' I lifted the intonation of my voice with the word 'dam' to gingerly coax him into understanding.

He was visibly calmer than I had seen him all night. 'I want the river to stop, now,' he said. 'I've been standing down here watching it for hours, and every time I turn my back, more of it runs away. It just goes faster and faster. I want it all to stay here. It's what makes this place.' He looked at me inquisitively. 'Does that make sense?'

I nodded. 'I'd like it to stop all together for a while so we could enjoy every moment. But you just can't do that. It doesn't work.'

'Then how does it work, Samantha? How does it work? What do you think it's made of?'

'Water.'

He looked at me like I had given a dumb answer. I knew he was near sober.

'History,' I said. 'I guess it is just time.'

'Bullshit, Samantha! It has to be deeper than that.' He balled his fist in frustration. I thought he might stomp on the ground. He didn't. 'There is more to it than that. There's more to us than that.' He grabbed my shoulders. His face was swollen with the panic that I had felt for months. 'It belongs here, and all the water, it belongs here too, and the rocks and the weeds.'

I was losing him. 'You can't just stop time Jake.'

'No, but you can change what you do with it.'

I could tell he was becoming scared of the idea of going back to her. He had been unsure about it before and every time I got my hopes up he always let me down easy, talking about what was sensible and right, long term incompatibility of careers and the directions our lives were going. So because of him I had learned to reason and reason told me that he would never marry anyone but her. She fit the refined mold of a lady that he thought he needed. Someone to stand by him while he got his MBA, someone who wanted the same things he did, someone who didn't fish.

'Are you in love with me?' I asked.

'You know I love you, Samantha, to the point that it kills me to watch you leave.'

'I'M NOT THE ONE LEAVING!' I screamed. 'And that's not what I asked you!' I breathed out hard.

He paused half a second and I jumped back in. 'Don't do this, Jake. She's your soul-mate, if there is such a thing. I'm your best friend. Don't confuse the two because I am in love with you and that means I have to draw my boundaries by what you feel for her. It'll just be harder in the end.' It wasn't me talking. It was my brain. I wanted to scream, 'Why don't you love me enough to leave her? When will I be good enough?' But I knew the answers. He was bound to her by time, a thing almost greater than love. Besides, it had little to do with love and more to do with compatibility and the loyalty she'd shown him by not dating anyone else, even though they were three states apart.

He still did not speak. Confusion and frustration showed on his face as he sat down next to me.

I let my fingers slide gently over the hair on his forearms and then up to his face. 'See that rock?' I nodded towards it. 'It's been here for half a million years. We don't have to leave until morning.' I stood up and waited for him to get up off the ground. Instead, he pulled me into his lap and wrapped his full chest and arms around me, softly tucking my face to his neck. He kissed me, one of our kisses. Every breath seemed harder to take than the one before, but I just kept kissing him until it wasn't even a kiss any longer just more like our lips were hugging.

'I have been in love with you in a way that I have never loved another woman. You are amazing to me.' He sounded so honest.

It was the last thing I heard him say that evening. I leaned my head back as I lay down. The sugar-crystals were fading into the approaching dawn. I knew they'd be gone when I woke. I was too tired to cry anymore. I simply fell asleep with him by the river.

Cracker woke us at 8:30 a.m. The sun was bright and full but it was still cold.

'What are ya'll doing down here?' He laughed a little uncomfortably and so did I. 'Sam, could I persuade you to cook breakfast? I don't want to screw with the system you got going.'

Jake was rubbing his eyes and nodding. 'Yeah, that sounds good.'

'All right,' I said, 'but you two boy scouts are denied the camping merit badge.' I was eager to have a minute by myself.

Cracker looked at Jake and put his hand over the side of his mouth. 'I need a badge with a forest fire and a bottle of Jack Daniel's. I got those down.' He laughed heartily at himself and it eased me.

I laughed as I opened the ice chest and took out the orange juice. 'You couldn't start a forest fire with a gas truck and a flame thrower.' I put the night before out of my mind. I doubted Jake would remember much of anything.

Later, we bagged trash, swam in the 40-degree water, packed the tent in a way that permanently maimed it, and then we were ready to leave. I looked up at the sky. It sparkled a perfect, warm blue in the bitter cold sunshine. Cracker was already in the car asleep.

Jake had walked out to the big rock in the middle of the river. He squatted on his haunches for a second then stood up, leaped back on shore and walked the distance up to me. 'Do you have your camera?' he asked. 'I want to remember this place.' He looked me in the eye and smiled.

I imagined replacing the sugar-crystal stars from the night before, with diamonds, something solid and tangible. My camera was at the bottom of my pack. I kicked the dirt in one spot. 'No, I left it on my kitchen table.' Jake looked pretty good standing in front of me, but less like someone I knew.

'I think I might just come back here sometime. A lot of things can happen in forever.' He said it without looking at me as he walked past, picked up my backpack and put it in the Jeep.

He surprised me, he remembered. I didn't say anything.

'Do you think you'd like to come back here, Samantha?' He walked back to where I stood and held my hand.

Something in his eyes, just that second, told me he was different too. I almost said yes, until he looked at his watch and I knew he was thinking about her call, hoping he wouldn't miss it. 'I don't know. It's a pretty river but there are so many other places I want to see and it's such a long drive.' I thought about how nice it would be to move to the mountains, someplace clean. I stopped playing with the dirt and kicked a small rock down the hill into the river, 'You ready to go?'

'Yeah,' he let go of my hand and got in the car.

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