Riverman Ch. 02byAdrian Leverkuhn©
I cared not one bit about malignant Navy jets or disingenuous Coast Guardsmen. I could only listen to the music of the spheres and wonder at my place in it. And . . . Betty's place with me.
But those questions could wait.
She had tasted me. Now it was my turn.
We rode hard through that night. She straddled me, impaled on our need as the boat rose and fell over wave and swell, her back arced and her hair streamed over her shoulders and across my face, and she shuddered in the night air as the fire of her release collided with the coolness of the air that held us.
Yes, Betty had a serious introduction to sailing that night.
We slept the next night at a marina in downtown Norfolk, Virginia, and we slept the sleep of the dead . . . Oh! we were so very tired.
We had raced a line of thunderstorms into the Chesapeake, then taken refuge in the first marina we could duck into as thunder and lightning rumbled and crashed all around this harbor full of aircraft carriers and weary looking warships. Too tired to cook, we had showered and slipped under the sheets even though the sun was still up.
I woke sometime during the night. Betty was sleeping with her back to me, and the world below decks was a smooth pastiche of gray-shaded memories, each calling me back to Ruth. I lay looking at Betty's neck, the smooth line of her shoulder, the curve of her neck. There was something of the familiar in those lines. Were they too familiar?
It was as though I could see Ruth floating over the scene, looking down on me - and Betty - as if she was taking stock of my recent choices. Here in these shades of gray, the morality of chance was an ambiguous construct.
Was it too soon, I wondered again? Too soon to embrace the company of another woman, another future? Or does one simply hold on to love, any time one finds it? Is love - true love - that precious, that rare?
What was this, this affair with Betty? An infatuation? La forza del destino? Un voyage du coeur? The more I thought about Ruth, the closer to a precipice I found myself. Was I really ready for this leap of faith, or had I found myself in a slow-motion act of contrition? Had I crawled on my belly to the edge, only to stare down into an abyss?
When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you. So said Fred, anyway.
Love is an endless enigma, an exploration of the workings of the heart certainly, and beyond the understanding of mere mortals. I woke up with that thought, and it left me feeling unsure of my footing all that next day.
We refilled the water tanks, then motored across the harbor to a fuel dock and topped up the tanks. We were going to take the Great Dismal Swamp Canal today and tomorrow, so it would be necessary to motor the next two days . . . an unnatural activity for a sailboat, but one all too often unavoidable in a world so divided into parcels of ownership and outposts of oblivion. In this world, sailing becomes a metaphor of avoidance.
Topped off, we made our way down the Elizabeth River to the Deep Creek cut-off, and as we left behind the suburban sprawl of Norfolk and it's environs we entered another world. A primeval world. Reptiles of every kind swam in the iron-colored water beside us, and none seemed friendly, or even merely inquisitive. Trees hung over the water as we approached the Deep Creek Lock, and we motored slowly, reluctantly in. Once in the lock, we were as held captive in a mysterious world cut off from the normal freedoms of the sea, we would be held in the embrace of a world distinctly out of the normal ebb and flow of time.
The gates shut and the water began to rise, and as we bobbed and shook in the rising flow my sense of isolation grew.
What was it, that I was now completing a circle?
I had not two weeks ago transited this very lock, headed into this very same canal. The lock-keeper came alongside as we entered the confined space, and he looked at me strangely, like - 'what are you doing here again, mate?' - and as I tossed him a line, he eyed me suspiciously.
"Weren't you just here last week?" he asked. "Headed south?"
"Oh, well, just wondering."
Yes, me too.
Most voyages are circles - in one way or another - just as life is circular, and just as human history is cyclical. How do we keep focused, I wondered, within the ever changing reality of repetition?
Against boredom, even gods struggle in vain. Eh, Fred? What's that you said? Surely you weren't thinking of me when you wrote that?
Shades of gray?
Betty Hutton was a contradiction in terms.
In terms I could barely comprehend, too, as it turned out.
A lawyer, living in the political world - what I knew as a world of lies and false promises -and now she was running, too. Running from the ruins of her own shattered illusions, staking her claim with a chance inheritance - and finding the need to keep running from her past now an undeniable need.
She steered the boat with pure concentration, like her life depended on the precision of the course she held. I looked at her as we exited the lock and motored down the canal, her hand holding the wheel tightly, her eyes squinting into the morning sun. She seemed to want to be in my element, wanted to impress me. It was a funny feeling, really, that she wanted to fit in here, wanted to belong to my nomadic wanderings.
Was the calling she heard last week, this chance voice she stated had connected us, was it really so strong that she felt compelled to join me? Had the past unravelled the present so completely? Leaves floated from trees like snow that morning, and . . .
. . . October leaves floated on the water as we slipped by. Would they pause, and listen to our song?
We drifted through time, into that afternoon, perhaps drawn by an urge so primitive it was beyond comprehension. My past dissolved into hers as dying leaves coalesced in our wake, and in this weeping dissolution came a union - or was it reunion?
Somewhere in that time we came to rest deep in primeval forest, deep in the grasp of denial and understanding, and she came to me - again. Birds flew overhead in dense overhanging limbs now bare of leaves, and dark shapes slid silently across the black water. Betty found her way to my need again, as we met within nature's womb - and we kissed within leaves as they drifted by - and I told her that I loved her.
I looked into her eyes; there was only love, sweet love, in the air that day. She softened in my arms as she heard my words, tension dropped from her muscles as those words drifted over her, and she climbed on my lap and dropped into that comfortable union that now felt so much like home, so much like the love I had known in years past, and as afternoon gave way to evening once again, we rocked gently in those waters, her face on my neck, her tears in my chest.
Maybe, I thought, maybe when we run away from things . . . maybe, just maybe . . . are we running toward something? Maybe something undefinable, but forever real nonetheless? Are we running from emptiness, running from the emptiness that will too soon claim us all, running to find love and hold love - and in the end - to know love as the home it gives our soul?
What were we without love?
Falling leaves, waiting for the earth to claim us?
We pulled up to the town dock in Elizabeth City just before noon the next day, and Betty jumped ashore. I told her that I loved her, again, and she said she loved me. I watched her as she said those words, but she never looked at me as she spoke them, and walked away without saying another word.
I took a hose and washed the tobacco-stained water from the hull, and rinsed sea-salt from the decks of the boat while the sun beat down on the warm teak, and I thought suddenly how empty my world felt without that woman here beside me. Was it really so simple?
Was life really so simple?
Without that union, must life really feel so pointless?
After an hour Betty hadn't returned. I felt anxious.
Two hours later, and she wasn't back.
Then three hours. Four hours.
I walked to her shop. The door was locked, the sign said they were closed.
I walked back to the boat, to my home, and suddenly my world was empty again. She was gone. I went below, cooked dinner for both of us, but she didn't come back.
As the sun set that evening, I felt as bereft as I had two months before. I knew Betty Hutton had decided against our future. Decided against her own voice. Her own counsel. I turned the oil lamps down low and the boat below was suffused in honey-warm glows that I hoped would keep the chill from my heart, and I listened to music as I drifted into dark, familiar corners.
This honied world, her illusion of permanence, had all seemed so real. Maybe that was what drew Ruth and I together, I thought. Maybe we had created an illusion so strong, so enduring, that even time couldn't rip it asunder. Maybe we could create illusions so powerful, so compelling once in this life. So real . . .
The song changed, and I heard Nick Drake's Riverman join me in the decaying warmth . . .
Had Betty come to me in a word, as hope wrapped in promise of the new? Hadn't she believed? Believed in her own perception? Oh! What had we lost? n the end, was she bound to the illusions she had crafted throughout her life?
Was she unable to connect to the geometry of the heart, to the geometry of chance, and in the end unable to accept that her dark skies might blow away?
Another time, perhaps? Another man . . . another Riverman, perhaps . . .
"Oh, how they come and go . . ."
Maybe Turtle-man had been right, maybe I should have run. Maybe . . . maybe . . .
Pt III pending