By the River
by Ceridwen S. Lewin
The hot air swirling languidly around the church reinforced my urgent need to sit down. I shifted my weight discreetly from foot to foot, trying to ease the soreness in my feet and back or at least provide some distraction from it. Images from the previous drunken night swam into consciousness from time to time as the Baptist minister’s words droned on and on, their cadence decidedly Southern, slow and drawn out, grating on my Yankee ears accustomed to clipped words, harsh intonation and to-the-point diction. I gripped my bouquet tighter to stop myself from making hurry-up motions with my hands.
Raising my hand to my forehead in what I hoped was an inconspicuous manner I wiped the sickly sheen of sweat from my forehead. One of three mauve-clad bridesmaids, I had already been deemed a lost cause in terms of ladylike behavior. My ignorance of the proper side for a corsage had branded me a crass, unfinished northern girl among the soft, plump southern women in whom such knowledge was apparently genetically ingrained.
On my way up the aisle, I had winked at my brother, Jonathan, as he stood stiffly next to the altar. The previous night, though made hazy by the alcohol, was clear enough for me to assume he needed some moral support before this event. He had smiled weakly at me, too nervous to grin, too keenly aware of being observed to make a face. Like all the Jones men, he hid his terror behind a look of bored stoicism that grew more composed in relation to the level of fear or anxiety. I had grown up seeing it on his face, my father’s face and the faces of all our uncles and recognized it for what it was; a sham. He looked cool, almost cold. The anxiety he was hiding must have been closer to mortal terror than run-of-the-mill fear.
The cessation of the monotonous tones of the preacher indicated he was done proselytizing and the actual wedding would commence. Jonathan and his soon-to-be wife, Marsha, ascended the stairs to the altar, arranging themselves on either side of the minister, quite a production with Marsha’s fluffy concoction of a dress. Stifling a yawn I turned to face them. Despite my discomfort and boredom with the religious part of the ceremony, tears and a lump in my throat reminded me that my only sibling was getting married.
Vanguard tears had started to make their way to freedom when their followers were stopped dead in my tear ducts, too surprised to continue their journey. Jonathan had turned from the altar after mumbling something to his bride and hurtled down the steps. He was halfway down the aisle when the first shock subsided and I was able to move.
Throwing my bouquet on the scuffed marble floor, I ran to the aisle, kicking my inhumanely high-heeled shoes off as I went. Our father sat in the aisle seat of the front pew, his head turned to look at his son’s retreating back. I snatched the rental car keys out of his tuxedo jacket pocket without breaking stride, not waiting to see his look of surprise at my blatant thievery. Instinct was driving me and my rational mind was screaming questions and invectives at me. I hogtied it and pushed on down the aisle past confused faces and quiet murmurings.
Able to run now that I was free of my high heels, I caught up with the runaway as he pushed through the heavy wooden doors and into the heady, damp air. He had stopped running and turned to look at me, the fear in his eyes mixed with something else; a plea for someone else to take control, to tell him what to do. Whatever impetus had turned him away from the altar and towards the door had left him as soon as he hit outside air. Cursing and admiring his clearly impetuous move, I grabbed his arm gently and led him to my parents’ tiny red rental car.
I unlocked and opened the passenger side door, not trusting Jonathan’s motor skills to let him do it. My rational mind had struggled loose from its restraints and was asking what I was doing here. Climbing into the driver’s seat, I chastised it for bothering with existential questions at a time like this and slammed the door. Confused guests appeared at the door of the church as we tore out of the parking lot. I squelched the urge to wave a like a beauty queen and soon we were out of sight.
We drove for several miles in silence broken only by my occasional swears as we got lost in the winding mountain roads. I was trying to find my way out of the upscale rural community, but unlabeled, labyrinthine roads and a puny four-cylinder engine were challenging my frayed nerves.
As we passed the faux rustic sign announcing we were leaving the caring community of Towering Pines, a sigh of relief escaped my corseted diaphragm. Adrenalin had saturated my muscles, making me nervous and jittery, shaky and hyper-aware. As the hormone drained out of my system, back to whatever alarmist gland it had come from, I began to feel calmer, steadier.
Jonathan was beginning to frighten me with his stunned livestock expression. Though he possesses a fierce and enviable intellect, my brother has the emotional intelligence of a mountain goat. Repressed is not a strong enough word for his emotional life. Whatever had caused this flight had probably been building for months, though years were not out of the question.
Emotions burst from Jonathan only when they are too strong for him to hold in by will. By the time they surface, they are so intense, so fiery, that they can be heartwarming or harmful. Laughter takes him by surprise, the sounds escaping from his mouth with the force of an air horn. Anger erupts with the same abruptness, accompanied by a tight whiteness at his temples and fists clenched so hard veins in his arms stand out. This vacuous look was terrifying.
“Thanks,” he said after a time.
At least he was talking, a sure sign he wasn’t in shock. My fear eased up a little and I even loosened my grip on my rational mind, which seemed to have resigned itself to the situation.
“Sure,” I said casually, as if helping grooms escape from their weddings was my chosen career.
Asking Jonathan questions before he was ready to elaborate would be counterproductive, so I drove on in silence.
The consequences of what we had done began to trickle in. My plane ticket home was with my parents, all my clothes were at the rental house and I had no wallet or purse with me. My fiancé was also back at the church, wondering, I’m sure, what was going on and if this was some Jones sibling plan to run off to never-never land. These were my consequences. Jonathan’s were more far reaching.
After fifteen miles in a direction I had picked at random when we had reached a main road, I pulled into a picnic spot overlooking a river. There was no sense in wasting our gas driving around if we didn’t know where we were going. Jonathan looked better, some color returning to his face, his eyes more like eyes, less like glass. We sat silently on a wooden picnic table that was slowly losing a battle with the moss covering it. The river slid through a kudzu-blanketed landscape, other flora and features covered in what looked like St. Patrick’s Day-colored snow.
I wiggled my pantyhose out from underneath my voluminous skirts, Exhibit Z in the case to try me as terminally uncouth. I walked to the river and dipped my feet in. It was surprisingly cool and refreshing so I hiked my skirts up around my thighs and waded in up to mid-calf. I didn’t turn, but I could sense Jonathan behind me, gauging my movements. I waded further, an unspoken dare to follow me, to let go of his restraint and follow me into mischief, a behavioral pattern that had been forged in childhood.
A splash behind me indicated that he had taken the bait. Tired of waiting for him to spill his secrets, I turned to question him. A wave of water rose up and hit me full in the face, flooding my open mouth and leaving me dripping and sputtering. When I opened my eyes I saw Jonathan bending at the waist to create another tidal wave with his arms.
“Oh, no you don’t,” I yelled, suddenly jubilant in the utter absurdity of the situation.
I dove at him headlong, spraying water as I went, my feet slipping on the slimy rocks as we both went under.
Laughing and screaming, we splashed and dunked each other until we could no longer breathe. Safe in an unspoken truce, we hauled each other up onto the bank, winded and still tittering. Now that I was wet, the sun felt comforting rather than oppressive. I halfheartedly tried to squeeze the water out of my cumbersome dress, but to no avail.
Jonathan was much more relaxed than I had ever seen him since we had both somewhat unwillingly crossed the threshold into adulthood. He was leaning back on the grass on his elbows, his shoulders dropped from their usual spot an inch or two from his ears. I nudged him with my elbow, abandoning my good intentions to let him tell me in his own time.
“So, uh, what happened back there?” I asked.
“You mean at the church?” he asked.
He stared at the river, his contentment broadcasting through body language.
I laughed at the ridiculousness of his question.
“No, back in the car, when you turned on the stereo. What was up with that?” I said, keeping a straight face.
He was silent for a long time and I thought I had ruined my chances of getting an answer when he said “Panic. I panicked. I don’t want this life.”
I nodded, knowing then that he had spent the entire night before his wedding fighting down rising panic and imagining himself 50 years later in the prison of a life he despised.
“I love her, I think. But, I don’t want to marry her,” he said with a tone of finality, indicating that what passed for emotional sharing in his world was over.
We went on paddling our feet in the cool water as the sun set behind the mountains in the distance. What would happen next, I did not know, and did not waste time thinking about. Jonathan and I were children once again, contentedly weary from playing and I would not ruin it with discussions of what sort of unpleasantness the next several days and weeks would undoubtedly hold.
Ceridwen S. Lewin has over 20 book reviews published on the webzine, Crescent Blues, and a completed novel making the rounds with agents. She spends her time alternately locked in a tower writing and digging in the dirt of her garden. She also occasionally leaves her house to get writing ideas. Contact: Ceridwen