I knew this would happen. I shouldn’t have let them talk me into this. I’m like a beached whale, only not beached. No,…I’m the bobber on the cane pole fishing line my daddy used when he fished at the reservoir, and there’s no way to reel me in.
I can’t decide which part of this is more humiliating: when everyone passes by, waving and yelling, “hang on, help is coming,” or when they politely avert their gaze, as if I’m a street beggar. I know Kevin is going to round the bend before long. He’ll be purely mortified—I’m still not sure he really wanted me to be here.
Oh, sure, he asked. But who can read what a teenage boy really means? I can’t, we’ve proven that over and over. “Mom, we need a few more chaperones or we can’t go whitewater rafting,” he said as I finished peeling potatoes for the roast I was making. “We’re supposed to ask our parents if they can come.”
Would he have said that if he didn’t want me to come? No, I am sure he was crossing his fingers that I’d say ok, I’ll do this for you. He wouldn’t have mentioned it otherwise. Even Sharon, my best friend, agreed. Since she’s a high school teacher, she understands the hidden language of teenage boys—the sullen silences and sighs—that baffle me.
The following morning, I called the church to talk with his youth group leader, an energetic man named Bill. I’ve caught the way Bill looks at me, then at Kevin. Lithe, slender Kevin, built like a distance runner, like Lance Armstrong. Pale and quiet, long artistic fingers—pianist’s fingers, in fact. Oliver Twist eyes, always pleading for more, but more what? I’ve given and given, all that I could plus some. I’ve been a room mother, a soccer mom, a Sunday School teacher, car pooled to endless lessons and clubs, even bought the baby grand piano he wanted—I don’t know what else to give. My love? My soul? Kevin hasn’t wanted those. In his detached way, he’s made it clear that I’m not the mother he was supposed to have.
He should have a mother who oozes refined elegance, Blythe Danner, perhaps. Someone who understands his artist’s temperament, who instinctively soothes his angst. Instead, he got me--more Aunt Bea than Melanie Wilkes. More Mayberry than Gone with the Wind. I mean well, and try with all my heart, but I never dress right, or talk right, or even walk right—at least as far as I can tell.
“You’re wearing that?” Kevin looked me up and down this morning, scowling. Teenagers milled around us, more skin than swimsuits—there will be some raging sunburns tonight. Good thing I bought the economy-size aloe. Even the other chaperones were in swimsuits, and Kelly’s mom was there in a bikini, even. In front of the kids—it just doesn’t seem right. Well, gravity will catch up with her someday, I guess. Not that I’m wishing bad on her, but the facts of life hit us all sometime.
“Yes. I am. What’s wrong with it?” My sweat suit was comfortable, a major requirement for any clothes I wear. I’m not going to win any beauty pageants, so why look as if I’m trying?
“For whitewater rafting? Mom, everyone else is in swimsuits. You’ll look ridic—“
“I’m performing public service, Kev. Protecting everyone from the sight of me in a swimsuit.”
“You’re more noticeable wearing that,” he said, motioning towards my sweatpants and “Gardening Angel” sweatshirt.
“I won’t burn, either. You need more sunblock, turn around.” Kevin looked at me once more, a measured look that reminds me he is his father’s child, then turned and walked away.
Sharon was behind me, chatting animatedly with a clasp of teenage girls as she helped tighten life vests. “Mary—you can put your sweats in this bag if you want. They’re going to lock up the bus in a moment,” she said as she handed me a bright red life jacket.
“This is what I’m wearing.”
She looked at me again, from the floppy brim of my L.L. Bean hat (SPF 50 sun protection) to the flipflops with perky daisies between my toes. “You’ll probably lose the sandals. Want to borrow a pair of water shoes?” At least she didn’t say anything about the sweats.
“Why would I lose them? I’m getting in the raft, going down the river, then getting out of the raft—my feet will be in the bottom of the boat, safe and sound the whole time.”
Sharon pursed her lips, then shrugged. “Ok, But you heard the guide—you’re likely to get wet, and things do float away.”
“The kids can have a wild ride; I’m just floating down the middle—or wherever the smoothest sailing is.” Sharon shrugged, then turned to hand a life jacket to Kelly, the violinist I suspect Kevin likes.
When I called Bill, he sounded grateful for another volunteer. “”We’re doing a pretty gentle river—probably no rapids above a 3.”
“Out of how many?”
“”Five. Rapids that are fives are the most dangerous—well, the most dangerous that are passable. There are some sixes that professionals attempt when the water level is right and their life insurance is paid up.” Bill laughed. He does that often, even when I’m not sure what he’s found to be funny. He’s a minister…maybe it’s that “joy of the Lord” stuff that I don’t quite understand.
“And a three means…” I really didn’t see myself doing this, but if I could help…
“A three means there’s a bit of excitement—you wouldn’t take a kindergartener on the trip—but any competent eight year old would have a good time.
An eight year old. Certainly I can do anything an eight year old can do. “Well, I suppose I can help.”
“Great! You wouldn’t happen to have a tent, would you? We’re still short—“
“Tent? For the kids, you mean? I thought there’s a lodge at the park.”
Bill chuckled. The hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up when that man laughed. I didn’t think that was a good sign. “You know how kids are. We’ll be in the primitive campground with tents—the kids agreed that’s the only way to go.” He must have noticed my silence. “Is that a problem?”
“Sleeping on the ground?”
“You’re welcome to bring an air mattress.” I haven’t fit on those narrow, blow up air mattresses since…junior high, probably. What was that man thinking?
“Um…I want to be helpful and everything,…I’d be happy to bake a big batch of pecan chocolate chip cookies for the kids—but I really think we’d all be happier if I stay home this time. Maybe some other time I’ll be more suited---“ Bill must have known I was about to hang up on him.
“Wait, Mrs. Thomas—I really do need another female chaperone. Rev. Williams is on the verge of canceling the trip. Sharon Wright and Melanie Young are the only other women I have committed, and with 18 teenage girls, that’s just not enough.”
“And Melanie—Kelly’s mom.”
I knew Sharon had a camper, nothing fancy, but it would be better than sleeping on the ground. I haven’t even sat on the floor since Kevin was a toddler, and I truly believe it would take a crane to lift me up if I tried now. There was no way I’d sleep on the ground. After some more discussion, and a couple of phone calls to Sharon, we agreed that I could go, and that I could sleep in Sharon’s camper.
Noises are coming from around the bend. Sound travels far on this river, I’ve noticed as I bob here, water spraying up my nose and in my eyes as it slams around Dimple Rock, then careens across me as I wait for my knight in shining armor. Well, to be accurate, my knights in bright orange life jackets, I guess. They’ll sure talk about me for a while, the fat lady who fell out of her raft, then couldn’t even follow the simple directions to climb on Dimple Rock, walk across the rock pathway on shore, then hop back in the raft just before it gets to Washtub rapids. “It’s simple,” the guide said, “and lots of people get tossed at Dimple Rapids. You’ll be back on the water in no time.”
Right. And for anyone else, it’s probably very easy to climb up on the rock, hustle down the pathway, and hop in the raft. I don’t climb. I don’t hustle. And I certainly don’t hop.
I was so stupid. I heard those directions. Why didn’t I say “nope, not this gal. No way, no how should I be traversing around slippery rocks?” I could have sat in the bus, finishing the Lori Wick novel I’m half way through.
Why didn’t any of these oh-so-helpful guides stop me? Not one of them pulled me aside and suggested that mature women such as myself probably don’t belong on Class 3 rapids? Nope, they just took my money and handed me the largest life jacket they had.
While we milled around, waiting to get our rafts, I soaked in the mossy breeze coming out of the forest onto the river, noticing tracks that the guide identified as river otter tracks. The sun danced on the water, glittering pinpoints that tripped from wave to wave, round the rocks. “This is my Father’s world…” The words we sang this morning still echoed in my ears, and for a moment, I understood all those homages to nature the Romantic poets wrote. I’m a life-long city girl, but for a moment, I wanted to bellow out the refrain to “How Great Thou Art.” This just might be a good day, I thought.
Then Bill came up bounding up to me. “Hey, there’s six people to a raft. If you and Sharon and Melanie want to be together, add three of the kids and you’re good to go.” Did I mention that I hate phrases like “good to go?” I hate people who use that phrase, too. Bill came in close, putting his forearm across my back and looking sincerely into my eyes. His posture reminded me of every insurance agent who ever tried to convince me I needed to “consider the legacy I’m leaving”. I hate people who look at me like that.
“Mary, I’m so glad you’re with us today. We take kids on trips like this to teach them confidence, to help them feel strong about meeting the challenges of the future. Sometimes, as they battle the river, they find themselves. This could be a defining moment in your life. I’m excited you’re willing to break out of your Mary-box to ride the rapids.” I hate Bill, too. And I hope he’s not stupid enough to think I didn’t recognize Dr. Phil’s tag line—a defining moment in my life. I’d like to define his moment, but I’m pretty certain that Dante invented a level of Hell just for people who told their ministers where to go.
Where is the rescue boat? Supposing I’d been hurt—supposing I’d knocked my head and the life jacket was holding me face down in the water. I’d drown, that’s what. My left sandal floated past me a few minutes ago, just out of reach. I can see the silly daisy on it stuck between the pile of rocks between the shore and Dimple Rock. My right sandal, well, that’s anyone’s guess. I can’t walk barefoot. How will I get to the bus?
Damn. That’s all I can say. Double Damn. I don’t like using words like that, but there are times that call for strong words. When river water is bubbling up in your underpants and little waves are rainbowing out from your waistband and you can feel the sun burning your nose as you wonder where the damn rescue boat is—that’s a time you can swear.
“Kevin, isn’t your mom wearing---oh my God, Kevin, your mom’s floating by that rock!” He’s here now. Do I wave? Tell him I’m ok—no. No. I’m turning, looking at shore. I’m fascinated by the….the wildflowers over there. Didn’t even hear then come close, in fact.
“Kevin, do you see her? She’s—“ He’s not blind, Kelly, just don’t look. I know Kevin is dying. I’d always thought Kelly was different than most teenage girls, a bit quieter, nicer. She dresses like a nice girl—none of that cleavage bouncing around like so many of the girls. But she has no future with Kevin, I could see that through a dirty window on a foggy day. When there’s a white elephant in the living room, you don’t embarrass it by pointing out it would be more comfortable in a zoo. When the fat lady is bobbing in the rapids, you don’t embarrass her—or her son—by noticing.
“Mrs. Thomas! Hey, Mrs. Thomas. We’re over here. We’re coming for you.” I heard more than just Kelly that time. There’s six in the boat—who was Kevin with? He slinked off before I noticed.
“Oh, Kelly—hi. Don’t worry about me. There’s a boat coming, I’m just supposed the wait here.” I chuckle, like this is an amusing incidence I’ll share the next time Leno asks me on. “You keep going. I don’t want to put a crimp in your fun.” There. You’re off the hook, Kevin. Run. Paddle hard.
“Hey, Mrs. Thomas. Can you paddle out any closer to us?” I’m going to die now. Don’t those dumb kids see the look on Kevin’s face?
“It’s ok—I can get in pretty close, I think.” Of course you can. Kevin’s in a boat with jocks. Even the two girls are athletic: Kelly plays soccer and swims, and the other girl—I forget her name—plays volleyball. She’s good, too. And the boys—I’m sure a lineman and a wide receiver can get me out. Where were they when my boat was closeby? Kevin’s going to be scarred for life if I flop into that raft.
“Here, I’ve got you—Brent, grab under her other arm.” My hat’s fallen into the boat. I probably look like Rudolph, my nose is so sunburnt. I feel the linebacker’s hand—no, almost his whole arm—trying to leverage me into the boat.
“Water—Mike, we’re tipping!” Kelly didn’t yell exactly, but she was as urgent as a toddler who needs the potty. “Mike, Brent—“ The boys let go, then redistribute weight on the raft. If the girls and Kevin stay towards the other side, I can probably be hoisted up…or so they think.
“Really, I appreciate this, but the rescue—“
“No big deal, Mrs. Thomas. We just happened to be passing by.” Kelly and the other girl giggled. I just realized I hate them, too.
“1..2..3..lift.” A huge heave up, the boat sinks to water level, and I start flopping like a guppy half-way up the side.
“Water, Brent,” Kelly shrieked. Deal with it, Barbie. The boys count again, a pull, and…
My sweatpants float to the surface. Without my legs in them, that is. Me and my granny underpants, the ones with the elastic gaping on the sides, are still partially underwater, but I feel new rapids rushing into crevices previously exploded only by my gynecologist.
“Uh, Mrs. Thomas,…uh…” Mike—apparently the smart one on the raft—realized that my sweatpants were half-way through Dimple Rapids.
“Oh my God!” Kelly had quit bailing water out (of the self-bailing rafts—how typical) just in time to see my sweatpants get to the calm after the rapids. “Mrs. Thomas, I think I see your pants.”
Kevin hadn’t noticed my worn out Hanes manipulating the rapids until Kelly yelped. With any luck, he’ll hate her for noticing, not me for wearing them.
“That’s no big deal, right, Mrs. Thomas? I mean, you’ve got on a swimsuit under that, right? Mike’s trying, I know. But I see him selling used cars in the future, mainly lemons. Lemons Ralph Nader condemns. Lemons that will get him investigated by Mike Wallace.
“Actually, uh, that’s a good point. I really didn’t think I’d—“
“Paddle!” Brent yelled, and the back of the boat grazed my head as it spun out of control. They had drifted too close to the rapid, and were sucked in and over and around. “Hang on—ride it out!” They were all clutching the rope on the edges, bending over as low as possible. It was like watching Dorothy as she careened through the tornado, watching as water flooded the Titanic—nothing could stop the raft’s twirling, bouncing, and lurching through Dimple Rapids.
I tasted blood. A scrape from the boat trailed blood from just above my eyebrow. If I had my hat, maybe I could blot it, but no use crying over spilt milk. What about spilt blood? Or about fat ladies spilt out of ridiculous boats on rivers that should be labeled as safety hazards? Where’s the surgeon general when we need him? They label cups of coffee at McDonald’s, but let children in inflatable boats bounce through this Pinball Wizard’s version of Hell?
“Mrs. Thomas! Mrs. Thomas!” I look through the rocks, beyond the rapids. There’s Mike, waving my sweatpants in the breeze. “We got these for you!” Kevin is resolutely looking down the river, away from me, away from the sweatpants, his jaw clenched.
Too numb to answer, bleeding and pantsless and bobbing, I decide that’s enough. I’m going to die now.