“Perhaps the river leapt into the sky,” he suggested, later, when the fog from that morning was a memory, a story they told.
“Maybe,” she said. But for her, there was falling.
On that first day, he faced out towards the water and his edges blurred. His shoulders huddled into a coat of fog. He blew out a puff of smoke and his lips disappeared. He didn’t turn at the sound of her steps behind him, but his eyes slid around.
“Ah, you caught me,” he said, and smiled.
The river was still out there somewhere beneath the cover of fog, though they didn’t stay long enough to see it reappear.
He looked down at the cigarette in his hand and shrugged. “I know, it’s a horrible habit,” he said. There was a lightness in his voice but a heaviness in the way his eyes traveled across her face.
“All things in moderation,” she said.
“Still.” He stared down at his hand. He was lighting the cigarette when she walked up. She recognized him at once from the line of his back. The dark curls at his neck. The shirttails that he would tuck in when he got to the office.
He’d taken only that one long pull before he noticed her behind him. She could almost feel the impatience in his lips.
The two old ladies on their bikes appeared out of the fog. She saw them every day, but they never nodded at her. Never returned her wave, even in this small town. Their feet and their mouths never stopped moving. They were a self-contained bubble of noise that had no room for anyone else’s existence inside.
She watched the red lights on the back of the old ladies’s bikes fade into nothingness as their voices were carried away inside the heavy mist. Then they were alone again, the two of them together.
“I won’t tell,” she said.
He stared out at where the water would be. They could hear the sound of splashing. Geese, or a great blue heron, spearing something in the shallows.
“Our little secret,” he said.
Once in college she watched a boy she barely knew tilt a bottle of whiskey up to his mouth and take a long drink. She felt her whole insides warm, as if she were the one with whiskey in her stomach. She didn’t even know his name. Couldn’t remember his face. It was not the boy, she thought later, that made her want to put her lips in that same spot, to lick the whiskey off his skin. It was the moment. It was the way the amber liquid caught the light. The sweet smell that drifted towards her. It was something deeper than memory, a story written somewhere in the snaky tangles of her DNA.
That was why she couldn’t stop thinking about him after that day down at the river, she told herself. It was the cigarette. The way his lips drew together. The distant frown as he inhaled. Standing in the fog, he looked like a thousand movie stars. The light cast him in black and white and that was all it took for her.
He was her boss and at least ten years younger. There was nothing else to it.
The next time, the river was the ocean–choppy and vast–and he offered her a smoke. She shook her head.
“You’re going to make me do this alone?” he asked.
She pinched a cigarette out of the pack. He leaned in to light it for her. The wind blew her short hair up until it stood on end. For a moment, their two bodies created a tiny, still cave. Then he leaned away.
“Your hair used to be longer,” he said.
“Yes.” She sucked the smoke into her mouth but didn’t inhale. She tasted the lips of high school boys she’d known and closed her eyes. “I’m too old for long hair now.”
“That’s stupid,” he said.
She laughed and stared at the print her lipstick left on the white surface of the cigarette.
It was raining and the river was fuzzy, droplets hovering in the air just above the surface. But he was still there. They sat in his car. He didn’t smoke. He ran his hand along her knee, as if to wipe away the drops of rain. She thought of the boy and the whiskey. She never kissed that boy. She leaned towards him and tasted mint on his tongue instead of tobacco. She heard the voices of the old ladies as they whizzed by in the rain. Their laughter floated back towards them, as if they knew.
At night, the river was a lake. The line between the water and the sky became long-forgotten history.
They walked very quietly to an old picnic shelter. He ran his hands over the stone fireplace someone built there.
“This is solid,” he said. He bent close to examine the mortar between each rock. He traced the pattern with his fingers, slow and careful. “Well-built.”
“You became a different person that day I saw you by the river,” she said. She sat on the top of the picnic table and waited.
“How so?” He turned away from the stones and took her shoe in his hand. He pulled until it fell to the ground and then ran his thumb over the sole of her foot.
“You were deeper,” she said. “Like the river.”
“The river’s a shallow thing out there.” He looked towards where it sparkled in the moonlight and his hand moved up to her ankle as he worked at the other shoe. “You could swim down to the bottom.”
“You had a secret,” she said. As he trailed his hand up her leg, her breathing became something intentional, like she had been doing it wrong all this time and just now got it right. He stepped in close, his shadow falling over her. “Are you disappointing someone?” she whispered.
“I hope not.” He smiled. “We’ll see, I guess.”
She imagined the old women, naked without their bikes, whispering at them from between the trees. “Ride fast,” they would say. “Don’t get left behind.”
They were so quiet then, their movements might as well have been the river, lapping gently against the shore.
About the Author: Robyn Ryle started life in one small town in Kentucky and ended up in another just down the river in southern Indiana. She teaches sociology to college students when she's not writing and has stories in CALYX Journal, Bluestem Magazine, Stymie Magazine, and Bartleby Snopes, among others. You can find her at her on Twitter, @RobynRyle.
Story Song: "Flying Over Water" by Jason Isbell
Photo Credit: Elisabeth Clem/Poppy and Pinecone