Jana Richman Utah Writer

River Crossing

River Crossing

by Jana Richman

Featured in Dislocate

I’ll remember her best this way: gracefully entangled in the limbs of a dead tree, globs of muddy hair stuck to her face, blood trickling down her sleek, brown limbs, laughing gleefully. I was angry with her for laughing when she should have been crying, for not having enough sense to be terrified.

We first saw the river after driving about six hours—the last hour on a 20-mile stretch of dirt road filled with ruts and zigzags, and the hour before that, back and forth on a 15-mile stretch of pavement looking for the rutted dirt road. Jeannine had mentioned the recent snowstorm and thaw a few days earlier wondering if we should postpone our trip, but I had shrugged it off. We knew the river would be wide, but our first glimpse left us silent, neither one willing to turn back without reaching our final destination. As usual in all of our outings, we had convinced ourselves that our journey to this particular location was vital, that it would soften our spirits and change our perspectives on life.

I was driving as I always do on our long-distance excursions. We hadn’t discussed it; we didn’t need to. We both know I have no patience for her dawdling style. Jeannine doesn’t break the speed limit, and she seldom passes another car. When she drives, I sit down low in the passenger seat and keep my eyes averted from the why-the-hell-are-you-in-the-fast-lane gestures of drivers flying by on my right side. On my left, she sits a good six inches in front of me, seat pushed forward to accommodate her 5-foot frame. Her breasts nearly touch the steering wheel, her feet barely reach the pedals. She is unaware of the stir she causes around her.

I have come to admire this uncanny ability she possesses to remain oblivious to the crap that seems to seep into my life no matter what I do: the new fall television lineup, the McRib sandwich back for a limited time, the best-dressed actress at the Academy Awards, the white sale going on at J.C. Penney. She doesn’t have cable, she reminds me as if this explains everything. Nor do I. But somewhere, somehow, although I never watch ESPN, I can conjure in my head the irritating banter between the anchors of SportsCenter. Jeannine cannot. No irrelevant information oozes into her life.

When we met fourteen years ago, I suffered her frittering ways and she my aggressive ways in silence. But over the years, the relationship has evolved to accommodate both, and after thousands of miles of desert road, both are intermingled in a comfortable unspoken understanding. We know each other now—not like you know a lover and not like you know a coworker. We know each other with a knowledge that is pure, without any hint of there being something else, something that hangs below the surface, something more or something less. Our friendship is what it is, without qualifications.

I know without glancing the way her thin, tan legs hang over the red seats of my truck and come to a halt in a 20-year-old pair of clunky hiking boots. I know the uncertain smile that will adorn her face when she’s thinking my driving might make this her last trip. I know that I will be the first to suggest stopping for food, and she will be the first to notice the old couple at the table next to us. She will look at them and everything around us as if bandages have just been removed from her eyes.

Now Jeannine is leaving Tucson—the place we have shared for 10 years. Packing her bags and moving to an island thousands of miles from here—thousands of miles from me. I know friendships can survive long distances; everyone has an example to offer. I even have a few of my own. But I have an uneasy feeling about her leaving. What will happen to our friendship when we stop creating shared memories? At this point, we split. She will commit acts in one place, and I will do the same in another. We will tell each other what we have done, but from this point on, we will no longer share unspoken experiences. How, under these circumstances, can the friendship survive?

* * *

We stepped out of the truck at the river’s edge and stood for several moments watching the mucky water churn a froth around stubborn boulders and spit through the tips of dead branches solidly lodged somewhere below. The end of our journey lay just beyond the opposite bank, but the opposite bank was the distance of about eight traffic lanes away from us.

“This isn’t a good place to cross,” said Jeannine. “Let’s walk upriver.” I nodded silently, a little surprised by the authority in her voice and the idea of venturing into the river at any point. We stuffed writing pads and towels into bags, flung them over our shoulders, and found a muddy path, which we followed in search of calmer water. From time to time, we came upon wet bodies trudging along the trail toward us. “Been to the other side?” we asked. “No,” they always said. “The river is too fast and too deep.” Not yet willing to abort the mission, we marched on.

After interrogating a few more passersby, I was ready to concede defeat. I turned back toward the truck, fully expecting her to follow my lead. She didn’t.

“We can cross the river,” she said.

“We might lose our lives trying,” I joked searching her eyes for some sign of my prudent friend.

“So be it,” she replied.

I continued to follow her along the trail and it occurred to me as I watched the graceful movement of prominent calf muscles in thin legs that I seldom find myself in this position. I usually take the lead on narrow trails; I usually stop to wait when she’s drifted so far behind that conversation is no longer easy. When the trail forks, I decide which one to follow without hesitation, without consultation. Everything was different that day; I felt unsteady, as if I had little choice in the events that would follow.

The same unsteadiness washed over me when Jeannine announced she was leaving Tucson. I depend on her in ways that don’t translate to a long distance relationship. I depend on her to be in the passenger seat of my truck when I go exploring. After we’ve reached some remote, difficult-to-get-to location, I depend on her smile, her silent understanding of our purpose. Every time we took one of these trips, something changed in our relationship, something intensified, solidified. I depend on her high-pitched laugh, her slight touch of encouragement on the side of my face, her scent of musk mixed with Blistex. She can’t send those things over the phone or through email, and without them, the everything changes.

Sometimes relationships have clear beginnings and clear endings and all parties can see it. Two summers ago, I spent two weeks at a monastery in New Mexico. I went to be alone, to struggle with some choices in my life. There I met two women also looking for answers. We never intruded on one another’s time, but we shared our meals and became friends. At the end of our two weeks, one woman smuggled a bottle of wine into her room, and we toasted our friendship. We talked late into the night about God and how and why we believe. Then we parted. We didn’t exchange phone numbers or addresses; we just shed a few tears and said goodbye. We didn’t talk about it, but we all knew our friendship would lose its luster outside the walls of the monastery.

I’ve never been a hanger-on, a person who keeps friends for emergency purposes long after the friendship should be over. Maintaining a long list of friends overwhelms me, and I’m a constant disappointment as a friend anyhow. I never attempt to remember birthdays or anniversaries although there are one or two people in my life who never forget mine. Jeannine is not one of them, which is certainly one of the reasons our friendship continues to thrive.

* * *

When a young man of about 19 years strutted along the muddy path toward us, I flippantly asked, “Been to the other side?”

“Yup,” he said grinning and dripping and tugging at the soaked denim shorts weighing heavily on his gangly frame.

At that moment, I saw what I thought was utter glee in Jeannine’s eyes. It made no sense to me, but I didn’t have time to contemplate. She had gently coerced the young man into taking us to the river’s edge and pointing out the path he had taken to the other side. He had been there when the river was low, and he knew of a roadway built up across the river. If we could stay on the roadway, which crossed the river diagonally, the water would only come about waist high, and we could cross safely. He agreed to direct us from the bank.

These are the things I love about Jeannine: she is a risk taker on a grand scale—she has walked and bussed through India on less than $5 a day—but she lives her day-to-day life cautiously—she would never bite into an unwashed apple. She quit her job and lived out of her truck while traveling around the country, but she always locks her doors and buckles her seat belt before starting the car. She comes to a complete stop at every stop sign—even if the sign is decorating a deserted country road at 3 a.m.—before proceeding cautiously through the intersection. Since turning down two well-paying safe jobs near home to work for next-to-nothing in the Virgin Islands, she spends her days contemplating her safety on the island, analyzing rape and murder statistics, calculating her odds, and she’ll pack two computers in case one gets stolen. She weighs alternatives carefully before deciding what toothpaste to buy and never misses a 6-month tooth cleaning and checkup. She frets and worries about little things, shrugs off big things, is quick to laugh, not so quick to cry, and is usually hurt when she should be angry. She’s a vegetarian who will force meat down her throat at someone’s house rather than risk insulting them by refusing it. She finds people’s cooing over babies—human or animal—tedious, but she always coos at my cats to please me. She never suffers from insomnia.

With a few exceptions, if you turn Jeannine’s life inside out, you see my life. I’ve lived in only four states in my life and I’m careful to consider all long-term ramifications of every career move I make. I’ve never been further out of the United States than Canada and Mexico—I have no idea how to travel through a foreign country—but I travel the barren back roads of the West alone on a motorcycle averaging 90 miles an hour to unknown destinations. My day-to-day life is typically filled with somewhat confused recklessness. I make quick decisions and worry about the consequences later. I eventually shrug off most things, big or small. I’m quick to laugh but also quick to cry, and I usually get angry before I get hurt. I eat meat with abandon and never think twice about leaving my vegetables right where they sit on the plate when someone invites me to dinner. I also never stop to coo at human babies but will absolutely gush over any animal. I suffer from chronic insomnia.

Our relationship has flourished within these parameters. Our differences define the relationship in this way: they insist that the friendship be fluid and resilient, which consequently requires the same of its participants. At times I am baffled by her actions and her thought processes—such as when she presents a credit card to pay for a 90 cent cup of coffee—and I’ll contemplate it, trying to understand what seems to me illogical reasoning. Usually I give up; I never figure it out. But every once in awhile I get it. I watch her as she places her bags on the floor to listen to a worker in an empty convenience store talk about the milk case that has gone on the fritz and the repairman who won’t be around until day after tomorrow—not because she needs or wants this information—simply because the person had something to say and no one else to say it to. Then I get a glimpse of something that tugs my mind in a direction it doesn’t easily go. That’s a considerable gift of friendship.

* * *

Jeannine strode into the river with fierce determination, and I felt compelled to splash in right behind her. About a quarter of the way across the river, it became apparent that “waist high” held a different meaning to the young boy standing on the bank than it did to two women who together could barely push a scale beyond 200 pounds. I glanced back at his untroubled young face, and it dawned on me that I was taking instruction from a carefree teenager who no doubt thought himself invincible. He waved encouragingly.

Side-by-side we shuffled forward, bags held high above our heads. When the water reached my armpits, halfway across the river, I looked to Jeannine, sure that she would be panicked and looking to me for guidance. She wasn’t. I turned back to the boy again to reassure myself we were on the right path. I was a bit alarmed to see him standing a little farther upriver than where I remembered leaving him. He had lost that over-confident grin; in fact, he looked a bit confused and hesitantly pointed upriver. I tried to move in that direction, but the current persistently disagreed with the young man on the bank.

A couple of years ago, I cleaned house literally and figuratively. I charged through the rooms shoveling junk out of closets and drawers where it had been accumulating for decades. I hauled it out to the curb and watched jump-suited men thoughtlessly dump my broken-strapped sandals into a truck and churn them up with coffee grounds and moldy leftovers. Then I sat down and wrote an overdue letter to a born-again Christian mother who used to be my disco-hopping buddy of the 80s. I told her she was wasting her proselytizing efforts on me. When I mailed the letter, I felt unburdened, untethered, liberated.

Now, on the eve of the departure of my dearest friend, I’m feeling a bit too untethered. And I’m thinking about that disco-momma-turned-Christian-mother I threw out of my life along with my platform shoes and love beads. I know that somewhere under that proper Christian exterior is a tall, cocky broad in a short, black dress cut low enough to show off a $2,000 boob job with disco lights flashing in her platinum blond hair drinking Jack Daniels straight from the bottle. I miss her. I’m not foolish enough to think she will re-emerge from behind the bible now clutched to those breasts with both hands. But more than drinking and dancing bound us as friends for more than ten years. My instincts tell me it was time to let her go. But every time a friendship ends, a chunk of me—a part that belongs to those years together—is cut away leaving a hole as if made by a wood-boring bit. The hole needs to be filled and sanded, but the spackle won’t adhere to the material I’m made of. Should I have tried one more time to find the place within us both that we once shared?

But to buttress a friendship with old memories is equally painful as ending it cleanly. When I visit the town of my youth, I feel compelled to call an old high school chum, who calls another, who calls another, who calls another, and the five of us get together for lunch. The ones with kids show pictures and talk about private schools, and the ones without pretend to care. The ones with careers bitch about bosses and brag about promotions, and the ones without pretend to care. If we were honest, we would admit that we barely know one another anymore. But once a year, this group of mothers and businesswomen come together and remind one another that we were once rebellious teens who cut class soon after the first spring thaw to sip beer on rocks warmed by the sun and stick our feet in cold canyon creeks, who marched into school barefoot and braless in the face of school administrators. We were bold, we were united, we were friends. But now we are five separate women living five separate lives, so why not let the friendship die?

Each time I return home, I tell myself I will not make that phone call—that there is no reason to keep this going. But I do make it and the rest of them respond to the call. Maybe we carry a piece of one another that no one else has—a piece that lies buried under years of conforming to bosses and husbands and schedules. A piece that hasn’t emerged since the kids were born, since the last promotion. When we push back from the table to return to our lives, an almost unbearable sadness settles over us. But the sadness is intermixed with a self-image of the audacious girls we were, and we realize that it’s too frightening to let this relationship die.

* * *

When Jeannine and I had crossed about two-thirds of the river, I was convinced we’d drifted off the raised roadway. Just as I began to express my concerns to Jeannine, who was directly upriver from me, she vanished. With a little yelp, she simply dropped out of sight. I didn’t see her coming, but she hit me at knee level. The tree-lined bank disappeared, and the world was momentarily muffled. As we tumbled downriver, I got my head up in just enough time to see myself being thrown into the middle of a dead tree with multiple branches above water. I crashed into those welcoming branches like a child rushing to the safety of a mother’s open arms. I spotted the top of Jeannine’s head and feared she would miss the tree. If she did, she would be dragged downriver to the boulders. I thought I should try to reach her, but my fear kept both hands locked on a tree limb. At the last moment, a tiny hand popped out of the water and grabbed one of the brittle branches. It was strong enough to hold her. Stunned, I wrapped my gouged and scraped arms around a limb and pulled myself out of the water.

As Jeannine pulled herself out of the water and into the safety of a forked branch, I heard her crying hysterically. I began to move toward her to assume my practiced role in the relationship, but soon realized that she was not crying at all; she was laughing. She lodged herself among the tangled limbs, peered out at me from behind streams of muddy hair and water, and laughed. I looked at her curiously.

“I have never felt so alive,” she said.

Jeannine laughed all the way home that day. Six hours. She’d sit quietly for a moment and stare out the window, a light smile on her face, and soon a little titter would slip through her thin lips and emerge into a giggle. She’d cover her mouth with a scraped-up hand and try to control it, but it would start up again.

“We could have died today,” I kept saying, and each time she would giggle more. At some point on the road that night, right around midnight, Jeannine said, “I understand now why you ride a motorcycle.”

I thought she had always understood. She had never reminded me of the dangers of riding as so many others in my life had; she never told me about accidents she had seen or victims she had known; she never checked to make sure I wore a helmet.

Although Jeannine and I talked a lot about our river misadventure, we never talked much about what happened between us that day. For a long time, I wondered what caused the aberration to our normal pattern. I thought it might have something to do with her recent 40th birthday or that it had something to do with her becoming a caretaker to an ailing mother. But maybe, on a subconscious level, she was preparing me for her eventual departure—letting me know that I don’t always get the final say on things.

Several months later when I asked her about it, she answered me in her typical oblivious way: “Really? I thought you were the one intent on crossing the river.”

Exasperated I began to remind her of her actions that day, but as I looked at her quizzical expression, I let it drop. I knew she was being totally honest, that in her mind she followed my footsteps along the muddy path and into the river just as clearly as I followed hers in my mind. I’m no longer sure that my version is the right one, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve always felt that our relationship was an unlikely one—one that evolved and strengthened in peculiar ways—and we’ve been satisfied to allow that to happen without much dissection. But our individual experiences of that day like so many before, were mutually absorbed into our relationship. However subtle, the changes are there. Although I do it much faster than she, I now find myself puttering along a few paths and noticing more wildflowers.

Now Jeannine will leave, and I am afraid of losing her forever. I want to sit on a rock with her and laugh together at her 200th reuse of the Wonder Bread bag she pulls out of her backpack and lays next to my Ziploc bags. I want to feel her wild hair across my face when I hug her scrawny shoulders. I want her to lead me into a river that is too deep and too fast to cross.

Like kids, Jeannine and I made promises to each other that we probably can’t keep. Because we are both childless, we promised to take care of each other when we are old and alone. We avoid any direct mention of her leaving in any context other than temporary; however, we spend too much time convincing each other that friendships like ours survive all odds. I don’t want to have coffee with her 20 years from now and feel like those five high school friends who speak to one another like strangers, who struggle to understand their friendship, who tenaciously clutch at dissolving memories. I want the friendship to feel right, the way it does now. I’m afraid her leaving will change that.

There will be no fanfare when she leaves; maybe we’ll just share a cup of tea. She will stand in the Tucson sun—a tiny 5-foot, brown body under a thatch of wild, black-streaked-with-gray, thick, curly hair—and look back at me. She will back away slowly with that look on her pixie face, the one that says I’m sorry to do this, but I’m doing it anyway; the one that says please make this easy for me, I depend on you for that. And I should give her that—that one last gift of friendship. But I can’t. Walking out of a person’s life can never be as easy as walking in.

Copyright 2005 by Jana Richman. All rights reserved.
Published in Dislocate 1, 2005, University of Minnesota.