Meet me at the River
( 1 ) TRESSA
I, of course, can tell you about now. It’s everything else I don’t like thinking about. Not that now is so terrific. It just happens to be my only option—a concept that concerned doctors, therapists, teachers, and most of all my mother have worked very hard to impress upon me. So for their sake I am here, in a bizarre limbo, living with Mom and her husband in the southwestern part of Colorado.
Rabbitbrush is a tiny little Christmas card of a town nestled in the San Juan Mountains. My mother grew up here and then spent most of her life—and most of my life—trying to escape it. The town is very pretty, but it has a bit of an inferiority complex. Although we’re not far from Telluride, we’re not quite close enough to share its tourists. Local developers and the town council are
always trying to dream up new ways to entertain visitors, especially in the summer, since building our own ski area isn’t realistic.
Paul, my mother’s husband, wants to build a drive-in movie theater on the parcel of land near town that my grandfather deeded to my mom, years ago, so that one day she could build a house there. Now of course she has Paul’s house, but Grandpa says Paul will use that land commercially over his dead body, and then he looks over at me apologetically. I shrug to tell him it’s okay. Nobody likes to say the word “dead” around me anymore, as if avoiding the word will help me forget the concept. I never realized how often some version of “dead” appears in everyday expressions until people tried to stop saying it. Last week my mother used the word “mortified,” then clapped her hand over her mouth, as if that Latin root might send me running for the medicine cabinet, or the graveyard, or wherever they think I’m going.
Certainly not to the graveyard, where Paul had half of Luke’s ashes buried. The other half belongs to Francine, Luke’s mother. It used to bother me, this weird division of something that used to be whole. Used to be Luke. But now that I know those ashes aren’t Luke, not at all, I think: let them do whatever they need. My sister Jill told me that Francine plans to scatter her share from the top of the Jud Wiebe Trail in Telluride on the anniversary of his death. This sounds much more like Luke than the
quaint but lonely graveyard, which I haven’t visited since Luke—the real, whole Luke—started coming back. If anybody notices I’ve stopped going, I hope they find it comforting.
But truthfully, nothing could be comforting enough to stop my mother from worrying about me. This afternoon she stands waiting for my school bus at the end of Paul’s driveway. Ordinarily it’s Carlo who waits there, and with a sinking feeling of dread, I wonder where he is. The past few days he’s seemed more sluggish, not at all his usual self.
I can see my mother from where I sit in the very back row. It’s late November, the week after Thanksgiving, and I know I should probably feel embarrassed. I’m eighteen years old and riding the school bus for my second shot at senior year, which I am repeating, not—thank you very much—because I didn’t finish that last month but because the school officials, like Mom and Paul, are determined to keep a close eye on me. Even though I took all my exams and passed them, nobody could stand to let me graduate and go to CU the way I was supposed to. And even though I’ve had my driver’s license for more than a year, nobody wants to let me touch a car. Nobody ever says I’m not allowed to drive; they just come up with some very good reason why I can’t have the car when I ask. So I’ve stopped asking, and they all seem relieved.
All this means that what was supposed to be my first
year of freedom has turned into a thinly veiled version of house arrest, which actually is fine with me. “This isn’t meant to be a punishment,” my mother said back in the summer, when I was still at the hospital and she told me that I couldn’t graduate. I nodded, not because I didn’t want to be punished but because if I were to be—and if I could choose my own punishment—it would be a whole lot graver than an extra year of high school.
“Hi, Mom,” I say as I step off the bus. She smiles and presses a steamy mug of hot cocoa into my hands. I look down into the mug and see a fat marshmallow bobbing and floating. That marshmallow looks so hopeful, refusing to be dragged under or melted by the thick, hot liquid surrounding it. Mom must have timed it out very carefully for the cocoa to still be hot and this marshmallow un-melted. This kind of domesticity is new to her, and it always makes my heart hurt a little, especially when it’s directed toward me.
I glance at my mom, who wears maternity jeans and a baggy, wheat-colored Henley shirt that probably belongs to Paul. She’s got one hand resting on her huge, blooming belly. Her hair is long and tousled and bleached almost the color of her youth. Mom has always been a wiry, athletic woman; her collarbones still protrude and her arms are corded and toned from prenatal yoga. She has a good face, my mother, with wide blue eyes and high cheekbones, a face that moves without creasing. If I squint, I can block out the weariness
she still carries from last year, and the loss of elasticity along her jaw. I can almost believe the illusion of young mother-to-be.
In reality my mother is forty-five years old with three grown children. Almost as soon as she and Paul remarried, they decided they wanted another baby. This meant a long stretch of fertility drugs and in vitro, followed by two miscarriages, followed by an egg donor and this about-to-be sibling who shares exactly zero of my DNA. My sister Jill says she finds it ironic: our mother, at this late date, having a child she actually intends to parent, and it’s not even related to her. Mr. Tynan, my English teacher, says that “irony” is the most persistently misused word in the English language, but I know that in this case Jill’s using it correctly. Every time my mother turns down a cup of coffee, I picture her pregnant with me—a joint in one hand and a shot of tequila in the other. With Jill and Katie, Paul’s daughters, she was more conventional—probably a cigarette and a glass of wine.
Still. When I see my mother trying so hard—putting so much heart into this latest transformation—I can’t help wishing her well. I know what it feels like to long for last chances, even when you know you might not deserve them.
The bus pulls away, and my mother still stands there, looking hopeful and expectant. I want to ask about Carlo, but I’m afraid of her answer. So I bring the cocoa
to my lips and sip. To my surprise, it tastes amazing: rich and chocolaty and exactly the right temperature.
“Thanks, Mom,” I say. “This is delicious.”
“Do you like it?” she asks. “I made it from scratch. I got the recipe off this great food blog.”
I stare at her. There are times, lately, when my mother seems completely foreign, as if some alien being has entered her body and turned her into the exact kind of mother I used to think I wanted. In these moments I perversely want the old one back, and luckily, she has a way of obliging. For example, right now she sees the expression on my face and realizes she’s gone too far, so she laughs—like the old transient Mom making fun of this new Happy Homemaker.
I want to laugh, too, but worry about Carlo prevents it. Mom must suspect this, but she doesn’t say anything, just hooks her arm though mine. We start walking up the hill to Paul’s house. It’s a big place, not too over-the-top but still impressive. Paul made a lot of money buying land in Telluride before its big boom in the late eighties, right after my mom left him the first time.
“Where’s Carlo?” I finally ask. For a second the words hang in the air, and despite everything I learned last year about worst-case scenarios, I can’t stop hoping for a happy answer. Carlo’s sleeping upstairs in that sunny spot by the window. Or, Look, there he is, waiting on the porch.
But Mom says, “Carlo’s at the vet.”
I stop. She stops too, and I try to read her expression.
“Why? What happened?” I force my voice to stay calm, then ask the hardest question. “Is he going to be all right?”
“Well,” she says carefully, “he looked very bloated this morning, and he wouldn’t eat, so I brought him in. Dr. Hill said he had a lot of fluid in his belly. He drained it, and now he’s running some tests.”
“Why would he have fluid in his stomach?”
My mother looks at the ground for a minute. She does not love facing reality. For example, she’s had an amnio and a million ultrasounds but will not find out the sex of her baby. She says she wants to be surprised, but I know the real reason. She is hoping against hope to have a boy for Paul and can’t bear being disappointed a moment too soon. When you have three girls, you probably think your body’s not capable of producing anything else. So I know it’s a feat of strength on my behalf when Mom looks me in the eye and tells me the truth. “Dr. Hill thinks it’s congestive heart failure.”
“Congestive heart failure,” I echo. I have no idea what that means, but it sounds so ominous. We start walking again. Mom puts her arm around my shoulders, and we go through the front door in silence. Inside, my eyes travel past the foyer into the dining room, with the long table and its multitude of chairs at the ready for a big holiday gathering, and the sideboard crowded with family pictures. It’s exactly the sort of room I thought I’d never have in a house where I lived with my mom.
Most of the pictures are of Jill and Katie, my older sisters, but crowded in there somewhere are one or two of me. There are no pictures of Luke. I wonder if Paul would like to retrieve old ones from wherever they were stashed, years ago. Probably he does want to but doesn’t do it, because of me. If he thought about it for even a second, he would realize that upstairs my computer files are crowded with hundreds of pictures of Luke. I wish I could bear to open them. I could print one out and sneak it into a frame. Place it here with the rest of us.
Even though Mom just told me that Carlo’s at the vet, I realize my ears are waiting for the click clack of his nails across the wood floors. Mom sees the look on my face and says, “Tressa. Dr. Hill didn’t say anything. He didn’t offer any prognosis. But Carlo is old, he’s very old, especially for such a big dog.”
My heart constricts in a panicky way. Carlo is twelve years old, half-Newfoundland and half-collie. I know my mom is right. I also know, standing there in the foyer with the infantile school bag over my shoulder, that I don’t care how old Carlo is, or how long a dog his size is supposed to live. I just want him with me. I want everyone I love with me, well and safe, right where I can touch them. In my head I make a quick and terrible calculation. If Carlo dies now, it will be just about exactly six months between them.
I put down the mug and twist my ring—the pearl ring Luke gave me—around my finger. “Remember,” I
say to Mom, my voice verging on wobbly, “when I was a little kid, how whenever I drew a picture of myself, I’d also draw a picture of Carlo standing right next to me? I couldn’t draw me without drawing him.”
My mother hesitates for a fraction of a second, and I can tell she doesn’t remember this at all. My grandmother would remember. Her sewing room is decorated with pictures and maps I’ve drawn; the oldest ones are going yellow and crinkling around their thumbtacks. But Mom just nods, her face completely blank.
“Hey,” she says, steering me toward the kitchen, toward the consolation of food. “Let’s not be all doom and gloom. Maybe he’ll be okay.”
I think—I don’t want to think, but can’t stop myself—how Paul will feel, how he’ll look at me if Carlo dies so soon after Luke. But my mom is staring. She has arranged her face so carefully. She wants so badly to be optimistic, and young. I know exactly how many cracks in that illusion are my own doing. I know this, and I understand that I am far from blameless, and that the least I can do—apart from staying alive—is pretend to believe in her version of our life together.
* * *
We go to Dr. Hill’s before closing and pick up Carlo. I don’t want him spending even one night in a cage on cold linoleum. While Mom talks to the girl at the front desk, I go in back where the dogs are kept, half expecting someone to stop me. But nobody does, not the techs
or the assistants. It’s a very small town, and everybody knows my story. I imagine they want to sneak peeks at my wrists, which are covered, as always, by long sleeves pulled up to the middle of my palms, but when I accidentally meet a tech’s eyes, she’s not looking at my arms but at my face, and her eyes are full of sympathy. And it has nothing to do with my wrists. I look away, not meaning to be unfriendly, just not wanting to cry. Not here, in public.
Carlo lies splayed out in a large wire cage. As I approach, he thumps his tail and then lifts his head. He knows the sound of my footsteps. He has always been a pretty dog, with the shiny black fur of a Newfoundland and the same breed’s floppy ears, but slender and sleek like a collie, with a long narrow nose. When I open the door to his cage, he pulls himself out and crawls into my lap. He’s too big for this—his limbs spill over mine awkwardly. I can feel his bony ribs and hips pressing into my legs, and I stroke his glossy head.
My grandfather gave me Carlo one summer when I stayed with them. I was six years old, Carlo was six weeks old. Grandpa said we were both puppies. He put Carlo into my lap and the dog flopped down in the circle of my legs. At the time, Grandpa still taught English at Rabbitbrush High, and he chose the dog’s name. He said that Emily Dickinson’s father gave her a Newfoundland named Carlo to protect her on long walks in the hills. I remember nodding as Grandpa told
me this. I had no idea who Emily Dickinson was, and I didn’t care what we named the puppy. I only felt so glad to have company—someone who might come with me wherever I went.
“That’s the point,” Grandpa said, “to have someone with you wherever you go.”
“What if Mom won’t let me keep him?” I asked Grandpa, keeping my eyes on the tiny black puppy, the sleek silk of his head.
“Oh, she’ll let you,” Grandpa said, his voice a firm and insistent growl. “She’ll let you, all right.” And I knew that it was settled.
* * *
When we get back from the vet, I tell Mom I’m not hungry for dinner and go upstairs with Carlo. Last summer, during my stay at the private hospital in Durango, I received talk therapy in addition to medication. I felt too awkward questioning the psychiatrist, but Dr. Reisner, the therapist, promised me that Prozac was a weight-neutral medication. I have no idea why I packed on so many pounds in the five months I took Prozac; maybe because I just stopped caring. But with Luke coming back, it feels important to look as much like my old self as possible, so now I’m medication-free, and I try to skip meals when I can. Yeah, I know, not the healthiest way to go. So on school days, instead of eating the lunch my mother packs for me, I pick tansy asters behind the baseball field and leave them on the
front porch of Luke’s house. Francine, his mother, used to complain that those flowers grew everywhere in Rabbitbrush except her front yard. Midday, when I’m supposed to be in the cafeteria, Francine is safely at work. I like to picture her, later in the afternoon, coming home to the bouquets. I imagine her bending down to scoop them up and arranging them in the lopsided ceramic vase Luke made for her at summer camp. Sometimes I hope she knows it’s me who leaves the flowers; other times I hope she thinks it’s someone else.
Now Carlo and I sit upstairs in my room, the room where—I suddenly realize—I have never been alone, because this dog has always been with me. There’s a bandage across his belly, but I can see already that the bloat is coming back. I kneel and curve my arms around his body to lift him onto the bed. I expect him to be heavy, cumbersome. It surprises me how easily I can manage.
I crawl into bed next to him. I have been curling up beside this dog forever, since he was barely bigger than my head, and since he was nearly twice my size. This dog has lived with me summers at my grandparents’ house. In winters he has lived with me and my mother in tepees and yurts and tents. He has lived with me in what seems like hundreds of apartments, shacks, houses, and trailers that my mother moved in and out of. He even came with us the four years we lived in the Marquesas on a fifty-foot sailboat.
I don’t remember ever facing the world without this dog. “Sometimes I think you love Carlo more than you love me,” my mother used to accuse, and I would duck my face in apology because I didn’t want her to know that she was partly right. I could count on him to always put me first. Now I am terrified to tell Luke about Carlo, even though he won’t be able to grasp it, and I am heartbroken to face Paul. I lie on my bed, curled around my dog, tracing the extra dark lines surrounding his brown and watchful eyes.
My stomach growls, mournful and deprived. Familiar dog breath envelops my face. Carlo’s nose feels cracked and dry, and I recognize the expression on his face, grim but loving. And I know that tonight—for however many nights—he works hard to stay alive, for one reason, for me. I know I don’t deserve his devotion, any more than I deserve Luke—coming back to me, through my window. But come back he does, which must mean something. Right? Maybe it means I have the right to small hopes, like my dog getting well.
Last year at this time I was a girl with things to do. I took pictures and drew maps. I played guitar. I babysat three afternoons a week for Genevieve Cummings. I found ways to sneak out and meet the boy nobody wanted me to see. Now it’s all I can do to move through the day, waiting and hoping that same boy will make the unlikeliest and most welcome appearance. It’s been more than a week since I last saw him, and tonight the
moon is on the wax. My window stands open, and the air carries in the first thin strands of wood smoke, and the barest hint of snow. I run my hand over Carlo’s rib cage, treasuring its rise and fall, willing that movement to continue. I know what it feels like to stick around because you don’t want to cause someone else pain, and I almost want to tell him that he can go. But then comes a flood of sadness. And I see Luke, running alongside that rushing river.
Downstairs someone turns on a faucet, and from the way the water gushes—not turned off at intervals—I can tell it’s Paul. I tighten my grip on Carlo, and even though I have sworn to give up everything that brings me happiness, I can’t tell Carlo what he needs to hear.