Katherine Perkins '11
In a photograph you capture only a millisecond, if that. We stumbled out the back door of the bar into a semi-deserted patio. It felt like somebody’s backyard and therefore like trespassing, but the space was muffled from the music and general debauchery inside, so we stayed. The rest of the river guides were trying to set the camera’s timer so that we could all be in the picture, but James was too drunk and probably too slow to begin with—sometimes he got all of us in it, but in those cases the flash didn’t go off so we looked like blurry ghosts, orbs caught by accident on film. In other cases the flash worked but the aim didn’t so all you could see were twelve or thirteen groping bodies with beer bottles.
I had grabbed Matt’s hand and told him to come outside, but the confidence of the impulse left me as soon as we stepped off the dance floor, so we joined the rest of the photo crew like it had been our intention all along to stand there with a bunch of drunken, hugging, almost-strangers and smile at a digital camera in the dark.
That night I decided I was more in Maine than I had ever been. The weekend had seen me compromise all of my definite morals. Friday midnight I was driving back dirt roads with stoners and drunks, who drove with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on a Bud, slow, not to save the occupants, but the interior of the car from another coat of Jack and soda. Saturday afternoon, sitting in the back of a stranger’s coup, I took sips of drinks mixed in Styrofoam by a thirty-two-year-old mother with cigarettes and beer on her breath—where’s the kid, someone asked, and she laughed, he’s with James, he’s with James. That same night I danced in a bar with girls who pretended to be lesbians so the men who walked in, stinking of bug spray and whiskey and smoke, would drool in their general direction. There still, I tried giving signals with my eyes to the boy I’d known all of twenty-four hours and stumbled with him into someone else’s drunken Kodak moment. Everything about the place made my insides revolt, but I didn’t want to be an outsider there. In the back of my mind there was a steady inkling of the notion that none of it could possibly end well, but that was combined with the other voice in my head, that self-effacing voice that said Stop being a mother; Stop being so goddamn responsible; When the hell else will you ever do anything like this? So I gave in to the second voice and decided that I would be a little bit of a different person for the evening—I was more in Maine than I’d ever been.
Before that weekend, the boy, Matthew Leisure, was the river guide my cousin Alix kept telling me about. As usual, Alix was more concerned about fixing my dry spell than I was, so her cogs were turning way ahead of time, making considerations about who might be the fix. She described him as tall, overall-wearing, Texan, blue-eyed, sheepish and a bit of a drinker, so I was pretty much all for it—except for the drinking part, which she kind of glossed over with a half-apology that it was only this summer, now that he was living in The Forks.
You couldn’t really be part of that world without drinking, Alix kept saying. It was like one collective bad decision after another, but because everybody took part, it was okay. This is how you really live, they said with everything they did. If you’re not risking your life, how do you know—how could you possibly—that you’re living it?
Alix told me this—it was Friday afternoon and we were driving down the dirt road to the Moxie Guide Service base camp and the light was real nice through the trees because the light is always nice through the trees in the late afternoon in Northern Maine, and she told me this: You’re the kind of girl that a boy will never make a move on, unless you give him a real sure sign. You’ve gotta put something out there that he can grab ahold of, she said. See, you’re the kind of girl he wants to marry, not make-out with. A guy doesn’t want to go in for something casual when he thinks you might be a marriage prospect.
The thing about my dry spell, is that it doesn’t bother me so much until somebody I love and care for gets to addressing it like it’s their own. My own disappointment would, for the most part, be manageable, but seeing the looks on their faces makes my stomach grimace because you would think, from those looks, that they’d all had five hundred dollar bets going that I had an engagement to announce.
But Alix told me this: that unless I want to come across like a marriage prospect—for somebody’s younger, more religiously motivated brother, or a boy scout—I’ve got to make a general announcement with my body and my mouth that I do not, in fact, intend to be a cloistered nun. Touch his leg or something, she said. Give him a little sign. Use your eyes. Use them. You’ve gotta use what you’ve got.
The frustrating part is when she gets to giving me these pointers, the whole time I’m thinking: but wait. Wait a second. Don’t I do that? Don’t I do that already? If those weren’t signs I was giving with my eyes, then what the hell were they? Which leads me to the question: when you say ‘give clear signals,’ how overt are we talking here? I begin to think, based on these and other conversations whose primary subjects have been my dry spell, that the best approach would be to say it all straight out: Hello, my name is such and such and I am a sexual being. Would you like to ----? Or something along those lines. Very clear, very direct, a statement of what is, followed by an attractive proposal. Of course there are some who would say that there is nuance lacking in this approach. But the world seems to be in agreement these days that nuance is secondary to sex appeal, so I’ll go for the clear and direct I guess.
I didn’t realize until more than a month after I’d left The Forks, that I was getting inadvertent lessons in all the advice Alix was trying to give me from a woman named Maria. She was mentioned earlier as the thirty-two year-old mother mixing drinks in the front seat. She’s the mother of a seven-year-old named Romeo and she wears a skirt so short that you can see her underwear when she leans over, or you could, if you were looking. Our first night in The Forks, she came upstairs where all the guides were drinking Buds and chatting, and she sat down with her legs spread and Romeo right there between them, facing out at the rest of us. I don’t think there was a person in the room who could have avoided the thought that if Romeo decided to move just a tick to one side or the other, we would all, whether we signed up or not, have a free peak at Mother Maria’s downstairs.
You could say Maria knows what she’s got—it’s not for no reason that she wears that little tiny skirt—and I say ‘that’ skirt because there is just one that she wears, her goldy-tan legs coming out like little roman statues in all their naked glory—every day. I know it’s the same because on Sunday morning, following Saturday night’s debauchery, the object in question was muddy and stained with beer and who knows what else, and she was there in the kitchen in that, a Moxie T-Shirt and an apron, mopping the floor at 7:30. Maria is nuts, the guys kept on saying, but she’s a hard worker. She’s a hard fucking worker.
On Saturday afternoon the drinking started as soon as we got off the river—Buds opened up out of coolers in the flatbeds of muddy pickups—just like a bad advertisement. The overall-wearing, sweet-singing Texan invited me to go swimming with him at some falls somewhere nearby, and I thought this swimming trip might just be the beginning of a ticket for relief from my dry spell. Also, as my presence hadn’t really allowed Alix and her fiancé, Todd, any hanky-panky for the weekend, I decided it would be a nice gesture to accept.
A long, skinny girl named Meredith with kind of hunched over posture was driving and Matt hopped into the back with me. For a minute, I thought he was being romantic and letting Meredith be our chauffer, but then we stopped at the Moxie base camp and Maria got in front with her short skirt and a bag of ice and a cloth bag over her shoulder. Maria’s teeth and her legs are the most vivid parts of her and she was showing them both, grinning big to have her Mommy obligations on hold for the moment. She turned around in her seat and produced a stack of Styrofoam cups, a liter of coke and a bottle of Bacardi from her bag. She pointed at me with the rum. Who are you again? She asked. You’re Todd’s other girlfriend, right? Your Todd’s other girlfriend.
Kate. I filled in the blank. Kate Kate Kate, she said. I’ll remember it now. I swear I’ll remember. She turned back to the front. Okay, driver first, she said. You ready Meredith?
With the cap of the rum in her teeth and the cup balanced between her knees and the bottle not in use at her feet, she mixed it strong, all the while saying, Don’t worry—it’s mostly ice. Looking at her, you wouldn’t think this woman could possibly be a day over twenty-three—even less that she could be the mother of a seven-year-old, or of anybody for that matter. She passed one back to Matt. Jee-sus Maria. His whole body winced as it went down. I’m sorry—do you want me to dilute it for you? I could pour some into mine, she said. Naw, it’s alright, he said. But Christ.
By three or four dead-slow miles, bumping and sloshing down the road—all of the cars and trucks in The Forks smell like drunk driving, mostly on account of the fact that that is their primary occupation—Maria and Meredith were all over each other and loud in the front seat, saying how good it was to get together like this and why the fuck hadn’t they ever partied together before? Matt and I in the back seat were, for the most part, pretty quiet, except when we were laughing at the two in front and answering the occasional questions they threw back at us, like, Do you want another drink, and What’s your name again?
So far, I’d gathered a number of facts about our trip and its participants:
1) We were going to some falls that were really beautiful to swim before dark; 2) They planned on smoking pot when we got there; 3) The distance from the base camp to the falls was anywhere between five and ten miles—Why? asked Maria, grinning all her pretty teeth at me, Do you want to get out?; 4) That Meredith had gotten in some degree of trouble for previous drunken afternoon and evening expeditions; and 5) That Romeo was in the responsible, if slightly inebriated, hands of Maria’s well-intentioned, dumb-ass younger brother, James, for the duration of her binge.
The fact of the eventual pot-smoking got significantly more attention than the other facts, as we spent considerable time discussing the cost-benefit ratio of smoking in the car vs. smoking when we got there. Matt said he needed to smoke a cigarette to give the issue proper thought and asked Meredith to stop the car so we wouldn’t have to breathe his second-hand. Meredith enjoys driving a stick-shift with one rum & coke down the gullet and another in hand, but she draws the line firm and clear at cigarettes, a delineation that I think deserves at least some vague form of acknowledgement or appreciation, if not respect.
Standing outside the car with a thin line of trees and the lake behind him, Matt asked Meredith for her lighter. Would you look in the backseat? she asked me. And in that box at your feet? I found a clothespin and a condom and part of a candy bar and a stack of papers, but nothing resembling a lighter. Shit, they began to giggle in the front. We’ve come all the way out here and we don’t have a fucking lighter. Two things were decided: one, that we were officially too far out to turn around and go back, and two, that we’d come too far to turn around with only half our mission complete. So they decided that as soon as we saw somebody, anybody, we would ask them right away if they had a lighter and how much they wanted for it. Matt got back in the car and we were on our way again.
What didn’t seem to be occurring to any of them was what seemed to me the very distinct likelihood that we wouldn’t see anybody at all. They were discussing what they would say to somebody and whether they would offer to borrow or pay for it, and I was thinking how I should go about phrasing how ridiculous they all sounded, as I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen another car, or house for that matter. Then like an apparition out of nowhere, a vision of an angel, there was an old guy with a beard and a beer-belly, fishing on a bridge on the road in front of us. Meredith leaned out her window—Hey. Do you have a lighter?
The guy had one of those mouths where the bottom lip is constantly moving out and in, like he’s trying to chew on something without using his top teeth, while also making it prerogative to maintain his frown.
Yeah, I’ve got a lighter, he said, fishing in his pocket.
You catching anything? asked Matt.
Naw, he said. He turned out to look at the lake for a minute. He turned back again, still frowning. Naw, he said again. There’s nothing out there.
He produced a lighter and handed it to Meredith, glancing in at the rest of us with big sad eyes. Thanks, said Meredith, and she shifted the car back into gear. Wait, you’ve gotta ask him if it’s okay if we take it, said Maria. Yeah, said Matt, or ask him if he smokes. Hey, do you smoke? asked Meredith, sticking her head back out the window. Yeah, he said. He was a little bewildered now. You smoke pot? No, I don’t have any on me, he said. But you smoke it? Sure he said. When I can.
We’re just gonna pull over up here, Meredith said. You wanna smoke a joint with us? Yeah, sure okay, he said.
We pulled over on an old side road leading up towards an old gravel yard and he left his fishing gear on the bridge. You wanna drink? Asked Matt. No, don’t drink, he said. Just smoke. When I can.
I was feeling kind of antsy by this time on account of driving piss-slow on a dirt road that was in no way familiar to me for upwards of half an hour with people who were also unfamiliar and also drunk, and also on account of not knowing how much longer we’d be driving to get to the nowhere that was our destination in the middle of even more nowhere. On account of all of those things, and also the fact that pot makes my heart beat about a million times a second and turns my mind into a paranoid den, I didn’t want to smoke with them, and I didn’t really feel like standing around and watching them get high, so I said I wanted to go look at the reflection of rocks in the lake and I took off. Hey, I’ll come with you, said Maria, and she left the stoners to join me by the water.
So you don’t really drink, she said.
Not really. I said. Occasionally. Sometimes.
So you don’t. It’s okay—I don’t really either—just sometimes. Weekends, you know. I can’t really. With Romeo.
How old is he? I asked.
He’s seven. You wouldn’t know though, looking at him, would you? He’s small for his age. I’m small too, you know, she said after a minute, like I hadn’t noticed her hairline at my chin level. So I’m hoping he takes after his father. Romeo’s father is really tall.
He’s not in the picture? I said.
His dad—Romeo’s father—he’s not around?
She looked me in the eye to see how her words would affect me. She tilted her head to the side and rubbed her fingers through her hair so the sun struck her eyes and her hair and her teeth just right. No, she said. Romeo’s father is in jail.
That must be rough, I said, and we were both silent for a while.
Yeah, she said eventually. It is. He’s a good person you know—we’re all good people right? But he’s the kind of guy who makes a lot of bad decisions. She looked at the lake, Fucking beautiful isn’t it?
It’s nice to have a conversation with somebody you don’t know when you’ve got something scenic to look at while you’re talking so you’ve got a real decent, genuine excuse not to make eye contact too often.
No kidding, I said, Fucking beautiful. I was trying to figure out how to phrase to her that she was, in fact, the kind of person that I most wanted to connect with and that it seemed like there was something cosmic about out meeting here like this. All winter I’d been talking to and thinking and writing about women whose husbands and brothers and boyfriends and fiancés and child-fathers were behind bars—women in California, women in the city—and I thought, how strange and purposeful this whole world must be, if I’m meeting this woman here, like this, on a planet so unrelated to the first. What I ended up saying was something mostly incoherent about how the women’s stories—the stories of the women on the outside, the ones who were suffering from the absence rather than the confinement—were so often overlooked, which is why I’m interested in telling them. But I think I said too much and I’m not sure if she believed me, though she did most likely develop an impression of somebody significantly stranger than her first glimpses had indicated.
I kept on getting struck by how much younger than thirty she looked, standing there with the late afternoon sun in her face. The word to describe her may not have been vulnerable, but she was worn to being open for a moment at least—a young person worn through and weary to the core. And also with a kind of brimming drive and intelligence that her looks and circumstances got in the way of far too early on in her existence. It was no innocent game she was playing, but I also got the sense that she was programmed to play it from the start.
Come on, she said. We should go back. We walked along the edge of the lake to where three blood-shot-eyed individuals were waiting, staring into space, leaning against the bumper of Meredith’s car. Matt gave the fisherman his lighter and got in with me. We pulled away, and I watched the old man through the back window as he returned to the fishing gear on the bridge, where he would sit and catch nothing until the sun went down.