Clean

river-in-autumn

(1,305 words)

I went to the river where my husband died, looking for absolution.

Far below the bridge from which he’d jumped, I perched on the rocks where we used to sit sometimes on hot summer days. We’d lazily watch the boats speed by, as they churned the sparkling waters to foam.

The sun was absent on this cold November day, and the river flowed quiet and gray with no boats in sight. Danny had always hated November, with its falling leaves and mournful, departing geese. I suppose it was a fitting month for him to die.

As I wondered if he’d cursed me when he fell, the opaque clouds cracked open, and a golden ray of sun slanted across the water. In its bright beam, I saw my husband.

He floated vertically just below the water, his eyes closed as if he was asleep. Shadows rippled across his tranquil face. I nearly tumbled off the rocks, and when I looked again he was gone. A moment later the sun faded as the sky closed up, leaving the water steely and impenetrable once again.

 

“You’ve been through a trauma, Jen,” my sister told me over coffee the next day. “I know you blame yourself, but Danny had serious problems. The drugs took over. It’s not your fault.”

“I saw him, Kath. He was there in the water, like he was waiting for something. I’m not crazy.”

“I didn’t say you were crazy. All I’m saying is that you’re grieving, and you feel guilty because you couldn’t save him.”

I ran my finger over the edge of my foam cup. “I was going to leave him.” I looked up at Kathy’s surprised face. “I told him that morning, on the day he jumped.”

“Oh, Jen.”

“There’s more. I was having an affair. I told him that, too. I was so angry. I wanted to hurt him.”

My sister sighed, and took a sip of her latte. “That doesn’t mean-”

“I may as well have pushed him off that bridge.”

“Stop it. For once, let Danny take responsibility for his own life. And death. He held your heart and emotions hostage for ten years. Don’t let him do that to you forever. Are you listening to me?”

I heard Kathy’s words but didn’t acknowledge them. Lunchtime traffic sped by outside the coffee shop window. Forever? What did we know about forever? Only Danny now understood the endless dimensions of that concept.

I’ll wait for you, he’d said, his last words to me as I walked out the door. I’ll get clean, one way or another. I promise.

Kathy was writing something on a piece of paper.

“What’s this?” I asked as she pushed it over to me.

“My counselor’s number. Promise me you’ll call her?”

“Okay.” I stuffed it into my purse.

Outside, she hugged me tightly. When she drove away, I dug out the paper and crumpled it up before throwing it into the trash.

 

The telephone was ringing when I got home. I glanced at the caller ID. Miguel. I stared at the phone, remembering how he whispered to me in Spanish as he’d made love to me, although I didn’t understand a word. I remembered his caramel-colored skin, his long dark hair, his easy laugh. So unlike Danny. Miguel been a breath of fresh air when I was suffocating. Now I only felt sick.

I had turned the answering machine off, so it rang a long time. When it finally stopped, I collapsed onto the couch and drifted into an exhausted sleep.

Lapping water woke me. I sat up on the couch, surrounded by it. Rivulets streamed down the walls through cracks in the ceiling. It rose rapidly up over the furniture, over the couch. I stood up on the cushions, but soon was treading water. At the ceiling, I breathed in the inch of air left. Soon I was completely submerged. I swam for the door, but it wouldn’t open.

At the window, Danny floated, his eyes still closed. Clouds of fish shimmered around him, and river vegetation hung from him like ribbons. I’m clean now, Jen, his voice echoed in my head. The water’s washed me clean.

I woke with a gasping breath. Sitting up, I reached into the pocket of my sweater for some tissue to wipe the tears in my eyes. Instead, I pulled out a handful of river mulch and a dead frog.

 

I went back to the river to peer into its murky depths. I waited a long time in the cutting wind, but nothing happened. No gleam of light, no Danny is stasis under water. Just the waves slapping up against the rocks; crows flapped and cawed at the far bank, and rustled the brittle brown leaves of the most stalwart oaks and maples.

Cars and trucks rumbled across the bridge, nearly three hundred feet up; the girders rattled and shook under their assault. I finally drove to the small parking lot on the west side of it. The leaf-peeping tourists were long gone, and I was alone as I traversed the narrow sidewalk along its span.

My hands rested on the smooth stone railing as I stared down at the choppy water. It was a long way down, offering plenty of time for someone to change their mind. Or curse the one who had driven them over the edge.

I imagined falling, weightless and free, and then the smash of contact, like hitting concrete. I imagined my broken body floating down the embracing currents, swirling in eddies. Danny would be waiting, his eyes finally open.

“Are you okay? Do you need help?”

I wrenched my eyes away from the river. A woman had stopped her car to look at me, her face pinched with concern. In a moment I understood why: I had climbed onto the railing. My right leg dangled over the abyss.

“Do you want me to call someone?” the woman continued. She clutched her cell phone in her hand, fingers poised to dial.

I scrambled down the railing. “No. No, I’m okay. I’m going home now.” As I hurried down the sidewalk to my car, I shivered uncontrollably. My clothes were drenched as if I’d just climbed out of the frigid river.

 

The dream wouldn’t leave me. Every night Danny’s submerged form waited for me. I floated beside him and pleaded for him to open his eyes. My garbled voice emitted bubbles that drifted up to a surface I couldn’t see. Watery beams lit his face in an otherworldly glow.

I’ll wait for you, his voice cut through my water-clogged ears in clear tones. I’m clean now.

I’d wake damp and breathless. River grass tangled in my hair and little silvery fish fluttered between my sheets.

One morning I found slime-covered rocks weighing down the pockets of my nightgown. I emptied them into the bathroom sink and washed my hands, but this tap water would never get them clean. As I glanced at the mirror above the sink, a drowned woman looked back at me, pallid and apathetic.

I went to the river a third time, and on this day the sun shone like muted gold in a cerulean sky. Below the rocks, Danny looked up at me with his eyes open at last. I peeled off my clothes and slipped into the water.

The bracing river was like an antiseptic. With every stroke and kick, layers of grime washed away. The heaviness left my limbs. I was cold and light and white as snow.

Danny smiled as I drifted into his arms. I kissed his cold, blue lips. As the air left me, I instinctively tried to rise, but he held me fast in his arms.

Stay with me, he said, and as life left me, I knew I always would.

I’m clean now.

 

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