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Love That Dirty Water

Eunice Cho, Honorable Mention, Literary Non-Fiction

In 1976, a Los Angeles secretary married a rock. Not a rock star, or Curtis Stone, or Barack Obama, or even a man-shaped rock. No, Jannene Swift tied the knot with a fifty-pound slab in front of twenty human witnesses. Slightly concerning. But is it possible to fall in love with a landscape? Not the kind of love that lands you in Yahoo’s Weird News, but the kind that clarifies and shapes, that cultivates thought?

 

One by one, a Dunkin Donuts billboard and plum-colored Kia slid past our taxi window. I was squished in the backseat with my mother and twin sister, on my way to a seven-week camp in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was listening mostly to the radio – something about sharks or coral reefs – and watching the meter. $48.77. Almost there.

Mom leaned over, anchoring her elbow on Candace’s thighs to point at the joggers dotting the path along the river.

“Look at those people!” she said, jabbing backward with one hand now. “You can run here in the mornings!” She beamed and pumped her arms back and forth.

The river wasn’t a satiny-blue ribbon unraveling through veiled bluffs. It definitely wasn’t the white-capped rapids of Dostoevsky’s novels or the nestle-ridden haunt in my backyard. Its murky depths seemed to absorb every honk and hiccupping motor; it was gray and uncouth, littery and industrial. Charles River: Boston’s own watery behemoth.

But it was cool, so at 6:46 a.m. some days later, I stood at the Anderson Memorial Bridge. It arched and dove over the water, creating a living light-exposure portrait of a roving Slinky. The flattened dirt trail kissed the foot of the bridge, where tired soil mingled with reinforced concrete. It smelled rank sometimes, as if someone had combined the city’s cumulative sadness and the river’s sluggish breath. Petite pink buds floated on the sloped bank’s overgrown brush. I ran. The clay path merged into gravel at the fourth bridge. Cars zipped by as I chased the now fading night. My calves brushed against fat green weeds and a few lethargic bugs. I found a great white feather with swipes of gray and held on to it, panting to the rhythm of dirt on dirt on water, to the sloppy strata of life.

On the last week of camp, my roommate and I stayed up to watch the sunrise. It was misting outside; Cambridge was still fashioning the weighty cloak of 4 a.m. The river looked black. We sat on the bridge, huddled in our rain jackets and stared at the horizon. Circular red lights and their silver and gold cousins effervesced and bubbled around the street signs and traffic lights. We didn’t see much. My roommate’s iPhone later confirmed we had been facing the wrong direction.

 

Now I checked the time on my Blackberry. 5:16 pm, September 2nd, three weeks after the camp. My sister and I had been painting our local clinic’s walls neon yellow. We wanted a break, so we went downstairs with our mother to the kitchen. It was a small dingy room we had known since we were six, flanked with an ancient drink vending machine and too many Southern take-out menus. We made coffee. My mother mentioned my poor mathematics grades from camp, and asked how I liked Harvard’s campus.

I was remembering the last day of camp. I had walked to the river at 6 a.m., cold key slapping my thigh with each step. The dewy grass clips clung to my flip-flops; I stopped at a bridge. Its foot bore an eagle which would forever be encased in burnt stone among brush, and forever watch the litter of cigarette butts on the ground below. A rower glided along the river’s bank, rhythmically retreating with sweeping oars.

I hadn’t expected to cry in the kitchen of that clinic. What had I seen in that murky water? What in the name of Holy Mary was so special about thorny brush and non-existent sunrises?

I don’t know. Maybe it was the release afforded by the river. The intersection of sky and water somehow snaps the string that tethers you to dreams. It clarifies a dull pain and awakens a dormant desire. As I had stood on the riverbank weeks before, watching the cars rush beneath a tired, blue sky, I think I felt, for a few minutes, the mundaneness of life. I saw that people live life in pseudo-parallels, vague perpendiculars and skewed intercepts. That they skim the glittering surface and sink to the grimy bottom and rise and sail with the moon.

And I wondered what it felt like to want. To catch a flame and burn; to suck up oxygen and glow. I am one in a million, billion, infinity-trillion; one in an entity larger than the mind, that single, vast expanse of nothingness and everythingness that permeates life and non-life and controls what I’m saying and what he’s doing and what all creatures, beasts, and critters are –ing right now. I am one and the air is full. I swim to an unfamiliar tide that I want to know.

 

Maybe, underneath the fluorescent lights of that clinic kitchen, I finally shook hands with reality. Maybe I was crying not because of some nice experiences by a river 979 miles from home, but because of their implications. Self-pity and envy are close colleagues, so I could have been regretting the past—of spending hours along a river instead of doing math problems. Or was it regret for my future, knowing that many of my peers would be able to enjoy the river; to stand on a promontory just beyond the frozen eagle and watch the city come to life and feel the young air and coarse concrete and settle into an easy satisfaction? Knowing that they would be able to call the Charles and Harvard their own, an honor that was so improbable for me? Or maybe I was just homesick for the river and its surrounding beauty. Mist draping over a sleepy town, sprinklers hitting the cold black pavement, the worries of faded red brick, a river that lives history…

A fine line marks that nebulous divide between thought and reality. The latter elbows you from your daydream, prompting a state not unlike the feeling you get after completing a tricky math test. Something is resolved. Your head feels achy, like it’s been pumped with air, and you hover in a momentary limbo.

But you tie up your apron. You return to paint the walls. Memory and regret and hope settle to the bottom of your mind until a landscape, a question, a stink, a color, recalls them and back they rush, slow at first – a languid current – but soon gain speed, pulling and swirling and tugging at your insides. Like it belongs to you.

 

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