I grew up in a small island town, in the mouth of the dirty Fraser River. Below sea level, we were surrounded by dykes keeping the water out. On sunny days, which were few and far between, many of us river rats would find solace on the banks, watching the ripples lap against the slimy, brown and green and grey stones and shielding our eyes from the glittery glare of the water’s surface. As a college student, I’d often sit cross-legged, perched atop a picnic table I’d sat at as a child. In those days, when I was eight or nine, we were allowed to build a bonfire on the beach, and my Dad would build the biggest of all. We’d roast marshmallows and hot dogs on sticks and skip rocks for hours. Now, the only clues there were ever bonfires there by that picnic table, were buried bits of burned wood and charcoal and black smoke stains on stones.
I went down to the dyke on one particular day, just after finals. I needed a moment alone with the river and my brand new notebook and pencil. Needing a way to come down from studying nonstop, stress and no sleep, I sat there on that picnic table looking out over the water. There was no one around really, not close anyway. In the distance, there were dark specks plodding slowly along the dyke in the spring sun. I could barely make out tails wagging and bicycles and baby strollers.
I sat there in near silence, criss-cross-applesauce with my notebook open on my lap. The only sound was that of the light breeze rustling through the willow spilling out over the road, and the liquid language of the river as it breathed heavy against my island city.
I’d taped a rather beautiful picture I printed up the night before to the inside cover of my notebook. Matthew, my best friend and the man I loved but couldn’t tell. I was gazing at him and scratching my pencil against the page as fast as I could get the words down. The sun was so hot, licking my skin and reflecting off the living water. The silhouettes in the distance grew clearer as people made their way, with leisure, closer to me and my peace. Someone walking, running or riding their bike. They’d get closer, and then even closer, and then they’d be passing me. They might glance and smile. Their puppies might stop and wag, looking for a pat and I’d give in, grinning at their furry little faces. Cars would appear out of nowhere, zip around a corner and park or zip off.
I saw a black lab in the distance, his coat was shining in the intense sunlight. His owner came around the corner behind him, about a kilometre off. They walked slowly, gradually toward me. The owner was a happy looking man in sunglasses with a bouncy step. He grinned as he passed, and I watched his dog pad off behind him. A few minutes later they passed coming back and he asked if I was enjoying the sun.
“Yes”, I said.
He smiled and bounced away.
As the little black lab disappeared back around the bend, a station wagon came into view. It crept slowly down the road and pulled into the gravel lane where I had parked. The woman inside was about sixty, with silvery hair all sucked up into wispy curls on top of her head. I didn’t know her, even though we lived in a fairly small town, and she didn’t appear to recognize me. I watched her roll down her window, prop her elbow up on the door frame, appear to sigh and lean her head in her hand. Her eyes were sad as she sat there for forty minutes, completely still looking out at the water. Not a depressing sort of sad, but rather a nostalgic sort of sad, as her face would contort into a soft smile every once in a while as she sat there. I wondered, for those forty minutes, what she might be thinking of. I drew thought bubbles in my notebook with my guesses in them.
“All her kids have moved out?”
I doodled around each thought bubble with little stars and polka dots and lightning bolts.
Looking back up at her, I saw her eyes shimmering like only moist eyes could, reflecting the golden light of the sun just like the Fraser beside me. I rose to my feet, closed my notebook, curled it up and stuck it in the back pocket of my jeans. My pencil got tucked behind my ear before I pulled out a cigarette and lit it. I trudged toward my car.
I heard the woman’s engine start and turned to look at her once more. She turned the steering wheel and did her shoulder check and slowly drove off. I popped my smoke between my lips and raised my hand. I held it there in the quiet, hearing just the river’s whispers, feeling the breeze on my palms.
I waved. Perhaps I did know her, after all.