North Fork of the Yuba River
NORTH FORK OF THE YUBA RIVER
Issue No. 8 – June 2015
Two things. One was that the guy I was with would beat me up.
The other was that I stuck around, that I played the part of a person who believed him when he swore he’d change. That thing to me, afterwards, was the most damning of the two. I was humiliated by the fact of it.
When it had finally been ground into me that this guy had no redeeming qualities at all –he was thoroughly bad and getting worse – and when I had become not only increasingly afraid but bored (the cycle: so repetitive, predictable), and at last when I was helped along by a small windfall of money that brought with it a pretty exhilarating sense of freedom and possibility, I summoned up the guts from somewhere and left. I wanted to live.
So there I was, 24, newly sprung and on my own after four years of shit. I had things going for me too, besides my youth. I was pretty and lively, but still I was paralyzed by feelings of social ineptitude. I’d been kicked and down for so long that part of me believed I didn’t deserve any better. There was a sort of ‘if it happened to me it must be because I suck’ kind of feeling, irrational maybe, but it stuck. Anyway, I was confused about how to re-approach the world now that I was free –a raw, exposed nerve– wanting to be liked but not sure if I would be. A volatile enough combination. I felt doomed.
But I was still, strange though it seemed to me, attracted to men. I hadn’t had a good time, any fun, for years. The need to live, to be in the world, to be loved and fucked and adored, was stronger than everything that troubled me, stronger than my fear, I guessed. So one afternoon, tentative and unsure, I walked down the main street of the little mountain town where I lived and approached a couple of guys where they stood on the street corner, watching people go by. I’d seen them around before. They were young and good looking, a little rough around the edges maybe, not too clean.
–Hi, I said.
–What’s up, said the taller of the two, turning around.
He looked me up and down, then turned back to the street. The other guy looked hard at me for a second. He didn’t smile. I stood there rather lamely behind them.
–What are you doing?
The first guy turned toward me a little.
–Watching the pretty girls.
He shrugged and turned back around.
–Oh, I can see that.
I waited. They didn’t say anything. This isn’t going very well, I thought. I stood there for another minute, waiting.
–What are you doing after?
–We’re going to the river.
He glanced at me. He had a big mop of curly brown hair, blue eyes.
–Cool. Can I come?
–Sure, he said. Let’s go.
I followed them across the street to their car, doubting, half–hating them. What the fuck am I doing, I thought. These guys are assholes. But I got in the car.
We drove out of town, up into the mountains. The guys introduced themselves. Jesse, the curly-haired one who drove, and Mike. They talked to each other about their band, an upcoming show. I sat in the back and listened. I wasn’t having a very good time. Then I realized that they were showing off, bragging to impress me. I felt a little better then.
We stopped at a gas station for some beer. When we got back in the car Jesse turned on the radio. Stairway to Heaven was playing. I’d been into Led Zeppelin since I was a kid. I knew every guitar solo by heart, but I couldn’t stand that maudlin song.
–This is the best worst song ever dude, Jesse said. He laughed and turned it up.
–Dude I know, said Mike.
He started doing an air guitar solo along with the music, contorting his face in pseudo-ecstasy.
–This is the extended version, I said. A fifteen minute circle jerk.
–Fuck yeah, said Jesse. That’s all they needed to do, take a horrible thing and make it worse.
We listened to the shitty song all the way to the river. I decided that I was having a good time.
It was hot. The windows were open. I stuck my arm out and I could feel the breeze pushing through my fingers. The road wound up through the canyon, shady in the hollows, the trees were tall along the creek. Higher up, the dry silver needles of the sugar pines, the manzanita, red-limbed and brown in the afternoon sun.
We stopped at the bridge. Below it the river, a swimming hole. Sunburnt women lay flat on wide yellow rocks, plastic pool toys floated purple and pink, kids screamed in play, the sound of jocks laughing, too casual – the sneer in their voices. The smell of cigarette smoke, drifting up.
–You couldn’t pay me to go down there, said Jesse.
–I know, said Mike, it’s a fuckin’ cesspool.
–We should go higher up, said Jesse. To the north fork. Is that cool with you guys?
–Hell yeah, said Mike.
–Okay, I said. I’d never been that far up the river.
We got back in the car and drove a little further. We were pretty high up now. Jesse parked on the side of the road and we got out. I could see the river, way down at the bottom of the canyon.
Jesse led the way. A little trail, dusty. I looked down at my ankles, brown with dirt.
–You haven’t been up here yet? You’re gonna love it.
–It’s such a rad spot. Huge swimming hole, definitely my favorite. Nice shorts, by the way.
It occurred to me that we wearing the same kind of shorts, brown Dickies cut off at the knee. I looked at his legs. He was wearing skate shoes, no socks. A skater. For a moment I thought about my predilection for skaters. There was the beauty and the grace and the speed of it, of course, but mostly it was the anarchy of the sport, the overt rebelliousness of the act, the constant run-ins with stuffy, irate citizens, with the police. I had skated a little myself. I thought about that, looking at him, then looked away.
We walked for a while. The two guys were in front of me, talking about people I didn’t know. Jesse slowed down for a second, turned to face me.
–We’re almost there. It’s just around that next bend.
–Okay, cool, I said.
We turned a corner. The trail veered steeply down toward the river.
I looked at his t-shirt, thin and full of holes. I could see his back, the bone and muscle of it, underneath.
–It’s a little gnarly right here, he said.
We scrambled down the hill, scraping our hands and legs on the rocks. The air was cooler at the bottom. Huge boulders worn smooth by the river. The water flowed between them, cool and bright. You could hear it splashing. There was a big swimming hole – blue water, clear. It sparkled in the sun. On one side, a small beach. The sand glittered, gold.
The guys took off their clothes. I tried not to look. Jesse climbed onto a rock in front of me. His boxer shorts were blue and threadbare, pictures of Snoopy. They were almost transparent. He passed so close that I could have touched him. I wanted to touch him. The feeling was overwhelming, a blow to my independence. I took off my shorts. Jesse didn’t look at me. Holding his nose, he jumped. I watched his body arc through the air, a long line. He landed hard and surfaced nearby.
The water was warm. I floated on my back. Pine trees grew out of the canyon wall above me, long shadows across the rocks. Someone opened a six pack. Jesse tossed me a beer. The trick, he told me, is to drink it quickly while it’s still cold.
Later, we lay on the sand. There were half-drunk cans of warm beer all around. The bees buzzed, drowsily, above them.
Anna Schott is a violinist and teacher in Portland, Oregon, where she lives with her husband and assorted pets. She recently had a midlife crisis and, instead of having an affair or buying a motorcycle, decided that she would try to write. This is her first story. She may get that motorcycle yet.