Since all the the events that happened two years ago, Cory had become fearful. Suddenly all sorts of things she’d never given a second thought to–flying, skiing, passing strange dogs on the sidewalk–sent her into a terror spiral, suffocating in a flood of worst-case scenarios.
Or maybe, she thought, this was bound to happen regardless when she reached a certain age. She thought of her mother’s many anxieties, they way she clutched the steering wheel as she drove, always five miles below the speed limit, braking for nothing at all. “Be very, very, very careful,” she always said and still said when she talked to Cory on the phone.
But I’m just going to the supermarket, Cory used to think. Now, though, she wondered if her mother had a point. The world, if you really thought about it, was a terrifying place, a death trap around every corner.
When Miles suggested a kayaking date then, it took Cory a few moments, but she sighed and mustered some enthusiasm. After all, she had kayaked several times years ago and enjoyed it. And besides, she’d grown tired of sitting at bars and talking talking talking.
Miles was a good match for Cory, 90 percent if the algorithm was to be believed, and Cory felt you had to have faith in something. Like her he was tall and did environmental work, and they were both ex vegetarians. “Was bacon your gateway drug?” she wrote. “That was mine.”
“Bear, actually,” he wrote back. “My gateway drug was bear.”
She went to TJ Maxx to pick up some things she didn’t have and thought she might need–a towel that wasn’t clearly a bath towel, cheap athletic sandals, a sun hat. Cory’s family had a minor legend that took place in one of those stores. She was three and out shopping with her mother and father around the holidays. In a rare impulse, Cory’s father decided to scoop his daughter up and put her on his shoulders. The girl he lifted from behind, though, was not Cory but another small child who howled until Cory’s father realized what was happening and was completely mortified.
Cory had only shadowy recollections of the actual incident but was there for numerous retellings over the next few years, giddily standing by awaiting the twist. It was the wrong kid. The thing was, Cory couldn’t ever remember her father actually lifting her onto his shoulders, so with each re-telling of the story she felt the heartache of a missed opportunity. If only she’d been standing closer, she thought. TJ Maxx had become to her the spot where anything was possible, and so the few times she found herself back there with him, she stood in front of him and sent him telepathic messages. Now. Do it now. But he never did, and soon she was too big anyway.
They met at the harbor. Miles had his own kayak, but Cory had to rent one from the shop. She left her ID at the desk, put on a PFD, and sat down to sign their liability waiver. Risk of injury, including the potential for permanent paralysis and death. Across from her, Miles was saying something about his truck and his nephew, asking if she had any nieces or nephews, polite getting-to-know-you questions, but she was distracted. “Um, no, yeah, give me one second.”
His expression when she finally signed the paper was quizzical, but he said nothing.
“What a nice day we picked,” Cory said, getting back on track, and it was–windless and sunny, the water smooth as glass. Miles brought a six pack and suggested she take a few in her boat, but she declined, believing those few cans might throw her completely off balance, maybe throw the entire planet off its axis. It wasn’t impossible. She led the way out of the harbor, paddling side to side, pleased by her ability maneuver around the other small crafts. When she reached the open river, though, a vertigo descended. Which direction? She could go anywhere. Before she had a chance to decide, the current seemed to be choosing for her. She felt wildly untethered, like a released balloon that won’t ever make it back to Earth. She was relieved then when Miles pulled up next to her, and she allowed him to overtake her a bit before paddling again.
Cory began to take a good look at him. He had broad shoulders and bronzed arms that rippled as he paddled, which with his beard added up to a general rugged handsomeness. For the first time since leaving her apartment that morning, Cory was conscious of her own appearance. She smoothed her hair and tried to look friendly as she caught up.
“So you must do this a lot, huh?”
“Not too much,” he said.
“Well, I think I would if I had my own boat.” Was that true? She owned a lot of things she didn’t use, a dvd player, snowshoes, a food processor.
“Well, it’s not exactly my boat.” He cracked open a beer and held it out to her.
She was aware of their fingers touching as she took it from him. “Thanks.” She took a sip and thought about where she was going to put the can. There wasn’t a great spot for it, so she set it down between her legs. But that was a mistake, because they were suddenly passed on the right by a speed boat and caught in a field of its wake. Cory’s boat spun, and the beer tipped into her lap.
“Turn into it,” Miles shouted, and she did, focusing on keeping her bow above the ripples, ignoring the cold wet feeling until the water was still again. Then she picked up the can and chugged what was left.
“Look out. Another one’s coming.” This time it was a bigger boat.
She laughed, hoping it appeared she was having a good time, but she really just felt dread. Rationally, she knew that the worst thing to happen may be capsizing and getting wet, but she had her wallet and cell phone in a dry bag strapped to the kayak. What if that came loose and was lost. What if someone unknowingly steered a boat into her bobbing head. What if she was carried out to the ocean, the riverbanks already impossibly far away, spreading further and further apart, birthing her into a great lonely void. Or something.
Their two kayaks bobbed together and then, after a moment, stilled. Miles said he knew of a slough coming up. “Want to paddle over there where it’s less busy?”
They didn’t go far, but it felt like another world entirely, the channel more narrow and shaded by canopy of trees. Instead of boat motors, they heard birds.
“Oh, hi!” Cory said
“I’ll take another beer if that’s all right.”
“Yeah, definitely.” He handed her another can.
The water here was even more still, the trees mirrored on its surface. It made Cory think of one of the first art lessons she had in school, drawing a horizon line with stick figure trees, then turning the paper upside down and drawing them again, a neat trick she’d repeated all year on paper placemats and birthday cards.
“So, I have to ask,” she said, “what does bear meat taste like.”
Miles laughed. “I made that up,” he said.
An eagle flapped its wings overhead.
“Sorry. Are you mad?”
They drifted further east, paddling just enough to circumvent large rocks and tree branches. Each paddle stroke just a lazy scoop and drizzle of water.
Miles laid his paddle across the boat. “Hey, stop. Listen,” he said, and Cory did, motionless as a mountain. “It’s totally quiet. You can’t hear anyone.”
It was true. Cory locked eyes with Miles, who was grinning. A chill shot up her spine. “I think we should go,” she said and did a quick about-face before paddling hard the way they had come.
“Cory, wait,” Miles said, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Cory said, but didn’t let up speed, “I just think we should get back.”
Miles stopped paddling. “Okay. Clearly I said something that you took the wrong way. And even though I don’t think it’s reasonable at all, I’m going to stop here and let you paddle ahead.”
Since they hadn’t actually gone very far, she was back out in the main channel quickly and suddenly, in the bright sunshine surrounded by waterskiers, she felt foolish. “Hey,” she called back behind her. “Hey, I’m sorry. Miles, are you there?”
He glided out slowly, with his hands in the air. “Are we cool?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Cory said. “Sorry again. I guess I just freaked out for a second when you were talking about how quiet it was. I had this sudden thought like, and nobody can hear you scream. She laughed but knew it wasn’t funny.
“Jesus,” he said.
“I don’t know what to say.”
Across the river was a large karaoke bar. On the second story was a balcony where people leaned over the rail and watched the boats. Cory felt like they were on display.
“If it helps, I’m really not even interested in you.”
This time she laughed for real. There was a lesson to be learned from all of this, but she didn’t know yet what it was. “Come on,” she said, “let’s go back.”
© 2015 Erica Korer