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On the Riverbank by Joe Marchia

We were silent on the plane. I told myself this was because of the confined space, that nobody talks on airplanes because other people would listen to our conversation. They would hear the two of us playing happiness and roll their eyes. It’s better we don’t talk.

I looked at her in the seat next to me while faking a peek out the window. Caroline put her headphones in delicately, checking the earpieces and then fitting them in carefully, as if there were any other way they could have fit. Right, I thought, this is how we will do it.

I shoved my hand into my small carry on bag, instinctively looking for my book. The Pocket Buddha was to be my spiritual guide for the vacation. I wasn’t a superstitious guy but I figured you couldn’t go wrong no matter what passage you selected.

Few cross over the river.

Most are stranded on this side.

On the riverbank they run up and down.

I’ll keep that in mind.

Before the trip my shrink tried to get me to admit it was a bad idea to go. I stayed true to my optimism while he scribbled on his notepad in professional passive-aggression.

Is this a good idea for you?

We’re still friends.

It doesn’t always work like that, John.

Well, not always.

The flight attendant came by and I scanned the tray of beverages. I got some vodka in an opaque plastic cup which I used to wash down a valium. They say anyone scared of flying can just sleep through it these days. It’s one of the few horrible events life offers that you can sleep through. It’s a miracle of modern science, I thought, before reclining into my seat.
I noticed she had been looking at me for an indefinite amount of time. Her face read: You’re such an idiot and don’t realize it, but her eyes said: So let him be stupid, he’s not our problem. I gave a smile before she looked away again. In a few minutes I felt myself sinking into a dream.

I dreamed I was on the beach back home in Jersey where I grew up. The sun was extra hot and beating on my bare stomach so intensely I felt it had warmed my insides. The crowds gathered like they did every summer. In the distance I made out my brother.

What are you doing here?

It’s the best time to be on the beach, John. Do you feel how hot it is?

But you don’t want to drown again!

I didn’t drown, I’m an expert swimmer.

Oh.

You know I almost was in the Olympics this year?

Were you?

John looked towards the ocean before sinking into it. My brother was the only one in my family Caroline liked, and was the only one who liked her besides me. She’s too moody, my mother said; don’t let her distract you from what you have to do. I’m not. Don’t let her suck you into her world. I’m not.

By the time the plane landed she had removed her headphones just as carefully. I studied her as she wound them up into a tight circle around her finger.

I’m glad we still could go together. You know, as friends, I said. It’s very mature of us.

Right. Let’s just not feel we have to spend the whole time together.

Oh no, of course not. If we want to, you know, meet other people we should feel free.

Why would you say that? Are you looking for someone?

No, not yet, I said. Not a good time.

Yeah, it’s not a good time for either of us.

There was silence again as we got into the cab on the way to the hotel. I watched her to see if she betrayed any signs of love. This was our new routine. I waited for her to snap out of it and ask me about what words I thought were in the Dolphin language. “They have their own language” she would say, “it’s been proven — don’t laugh!”

What do you want to do tonight? I asked.

I’m pretty tired.

You don’t want to do anything tonight, then?

I’m too tired, John, I just told you.

Breakfast tomorrow, then?

Sure.

We got into the hotel and checked in. We stood in a small circle of our luggage as the crowds went by. I looked at her waiting for her to make the next move. We were chess pieces on the checkered board of the hotel lobby floor.

It’s not you, John, she said.

If it’s not me, who is it?

It’s me. This is just miserable for me.

Is it that bad?

It’s bad enough.

She briefly extended her hand to me for a hug, before putting it down quickly. She said goodbye and went off to bed. I went to the hotel bar.

I sipped the whiskey on ice slowly, knowing the taste could only get better. Perhaps, I thought, the vacation had been a mistake. But it was too late for that, and I waited for the feeling of resignation to come back to me. It was too late for a lot of things, now. Whiskey on ice.

Caroline was one of the rare strokes of luck one has in life. In her good moods she was eloquent, charming, and original. She would say sentences you never heard of in your life. Your friends would make faces, but you would understand, it was your secret Dolphin language.

The best times were on the beach. She would sit on a towel with her huge sunglasses, tanning. It was always when she was most quiet that she would come out with something that made you think.

Do you ever wonder about the future, John?

The future?

The things we do, if we’ll still do them in a year, in two years, in five years? Will we know the same people? Think about five years ago!

Huh. I didn’t know you five years ago.

And I didn’t know you, or your brother. I rarely came to the beach to be honest.

Why did you ask?

What?

About the future.

I just wonder, don’t you wonder sometimes?

Things did change. I don’t want to say only for the worse, but certainly things got more complicated. Her moods changed quickly. She could cut me down with a sentence. She knew all the buttons to push and that made her more dangerous. She would compare me to my brother real often.

I realized I had spaced out at the bar. My brother used to do that too. In this way we were similar. We were both drinkers, neurotic introverts. The difference was luck with women. My brother was always just more charming, lighter, and better looking. I thought that he must have hidden something dark inside him. He was my brother, and if I knew anything about the two of us, I knew there was something heavy in his heart like mine. It drove me crazy that he didn’t show it.

I ordered more drinks, hoping the alcohol would keep the revelations rolling. It felt good, really good, to sit in this far-from-home hotel bar. I could be anything; tragic, romantic, mysterious, a world weary traveler with tales from the new world. “Yes, it’s the New Jersey, quite exotic my friend.”

I forcefully opened the door to the hotel room in what I envisioned a grand re-entrance. Caroline was in bed with her glasses on, reading a book. A tiny part of me felt bad and it soon subsided.

Did you ever fuck him?

Seriously. Are you drunk?

Did you ever fuck him?

No, John, I didn’t fuck anyone.

I left the room in a hurry, closing the door as I started to hear my name again. I ran to the parking lot.

My brother drowned earlier last year. Everyone said it was an accident; the official story was that he got drunk and accidentally drowned. But I kept thinking and thinking about the ocean at night. How the waves churned slowly, hitting the shores in whispers. It’s different than silence; it’s just you and the ocean talking. It was only when Caroline came out that I realized I had been laughing, or crying. She stood there for a few seconds, her eyes narrowed. She crouched next to me on the curb, running her fingers through my hair like she was trying to find secrets. I think about holding her hand.

Few cross over the river.

Most are stranded on this side.

On the riverbank they run up and down.

Joe Marchia
streamimageJoe Marchia is a literary writer. His writing has been featured or is forthcoming in Citizens for Decent Literature, Instigatorzine Magazine, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, The Beatnik, Milk Sugar Literature, and Emerge Literary Journal.