Nighttime, and for what must be the first time since flashlight tag, we’re out of his basement at this hour and together still, fighting against an army of eddies as we push down the Charles River’s smooth stream and through the woods of our time together that his mom has always called “The Forest Primeval.” Only now, after a year of college, do I understand her obscure reference. She’s in academia, well-read, ever-informed, so I am quietly proud of myself as I make specific note of the murmuring pines and hemlocks, bearded with moss, looming over us from their rooted seats on the bank.
Connor’s head is a shadow against the dark sky, and his arms are one with the paddle, carving rhythmic circles through air and water as it becomes his wake. His ease makes sense—he’s spent two weeks every summer up north on the lake for as long as I can remember. Those weeks were craters in my summer. Just when he would get back, I’d head north to the beach with my family, and when I’d get back, he’d go back to school the next day. I guess it’s ironic that water brings us together tonight.
His paddle dips gently to his right, and he swirls smoothly to a stop at the brink of the bend. Fumbling to my own stop, I bump his boat with mine and push him into the cattails at the bank. Beckoningly, he raises his paddle, implores me to click on the light. I do.
I brought the headlamp along so we could see where we were going in the dark, but when I turned it on back at the landing, the light caught all the mist on the river and made it even harder to see. Anyway, we don’t really need it—it turns out Connor has a natural feel for navigation, maybe from all that time up on the lake.
Now, I have to crane my neck over the falling vapor to see that he is right—this is the bend. The bend from the last day of summer maybe ten years ago, when with a knock, he drew me from my doorstep into the nature reservation adjoining my yard, down the fresh trail and to the very bank we now face. We dreamed of tying a rope to that tall oak and swinging into the river, but the next summer, when we returned with rope ready, we found the would-be swimming hole plagued by mosquitoes and a particularly discouraging trustee of the Reservation.
And now Connor pushes off again into the fog, and when he’s enshrouded in it, my fingers fumble about the headlamp. When the light is off again, my eyes scan the surrounding darkness and find him just as he tucks away behind the tall grass of a nearby bend. I scramble to catch him before he is gone behind another one.
It’s hard to imagine that way back when, this course must have been some water’s path of least resistance to low ground. It’s strange now, too, when at most points, only a few feet of mud and rhododendrons separate straight stretches of the river. Such small natural barriers begging to be broken down. My mind isn’t as supple as the serpentine river, and I don’t know anything about whatever kind of science this is. It’s easier to appreciate the what than to approach the why. Rather than waste time with conjecture, I’ll say this: the river snakes through the woods as if it were undecided or maybe trying to hide its scent, like a scared boy running to Boston, away from the daydream crimes of his small-town past. From above, it must look like factory-error ribbon candy, hairpins doubling back and curling over one another, rivulets trickling off to backyard brooks and stony stops.
“This is where I would run,” he says, breaking the harmony of cracking and cricketing. After a beat, he adds, “You know, if I had to.” It’s a verbal wink—I know he and I are both caught in our old dreams of swarms of helicopters with Hollywood-sized searchlights, of dogs and manned units chasing us through these trees, of secretly building a cabin hideaway in the woods. The chase would be the second half of the fun, you know, after the Feds bust the underground cartel we’d built up.
Soon, gunshots echo over the left bank, and we crunch our heads down into our kayaks. A previously-hidden flock of birds sets off over the trees. On the bank, lights flicker on as a man swings a screen door open and holds it for his trailing friend. He stands on the threshold of the club, no more than a cutout against the light, so we can’t see where he’s looking. Raising his hand to his mouth, he sips from a long, glass bottle before he slings it over his shoulder. It crashes. He retreats into the house, and with a switch of the lights, he is gone from our lives.
Connor’s boat is next to mine, and the look he shoots me tells me we both know that we’ve found it. From my front yard, the gun club’s cracks would only ever cause wobbly Frisbee throws, but out on the river, so close to the club our ears could never locate, the gunshots seize the heart. We shake our shivers into the depths of the river, the newfound silence shattered only by the occasional bankside beaver plop.
We paddle on to the remains of the Dwight Street Bridge, whose collapse many, many years ago forced two neighboring towns to rely on communication by telegraph wire, separating them slowly until 1934, when the first vibrations of the wire in many weeks were caused by a falling tree. Supposedly, no one cared enough to fix the line, but I find it hard to believe that this accident did not cause a welling of tears in at least one lonely bedroom in each town. Tears like the ones that I’m still ashamed to admit rushed down my cheeks when I marked tonight on my calendar at the beginning of the summer. Oh God I hope they won’t come back now.
I don’t cry, and I certainly don’t cry about Connor. We don’t talk about feelings—we play football in the street and Madden in the basement, and when we drive to Ice Cream Machine, we blast the hard rock station because that’s what guys do. We didn’t talk about girls until last year, and I only found out about his last girlfriend through his mom. I didn’t even feel slighted, especially because he finally told me about her when the time was right: after their breakup left him with an extra Pats/Jets ticket.
When I finally catch his kayak, he is in the middle of the conflux of the Charles and the Stop River, angling back and forth between the two for a few moments before choosing the wider mouth of the Stop. Much like the Charles, the Stop is full of unforeseen bends, which makes me wonder: who, upon spending enough time here to warrant the right to name it, thought “Stop” fitting?
Up ahead is Causeway Street, where the water narrows into a tunnel that has long been dammed by beavers. For years, he and I would ride down this road toward town, ready to spend a year’s worth of allowances on sundaes and baseball cards and comic books and candy bars and maybe a Wiffle Ball bat. Sometimes, if our backpacks weren’t too heavy, we’d pull off to the side of the road at this very spot and play Pooh Sticks, racing driftwood along the current and under the bridge. The beaver dams put a stop to this childishness many years ago. Now, this bridge is the spot where I’ll read on sunny days, where I helped land a canoe for an older man who told me that this night-kayaking thing was a good idea.
Connor and I move side by side now, and finally, I open up. “So, what time are you out?”
“Early. Seven-thirty, I think. After swim.”
And that’s enough of that. I know him well enough to fill in the blanks of this conversation. This means he has a team workout on campus tomorrow night, and he’ll be picking his new girlfriend up as he drives through Northampton. It means he’s already packed, which is probably why we had to take my car to the landing spot. It means there’s no pizza or even a movie at his house tomorrow night, and that we’ve played our last game of foosball, and that in an hour, when we’re back at my car, having navigated back around the many fallen trees and outcropping rocks, I’ll have to drive him home and hose off the kayaks and close the garage door behind me with the same parting words we’ve always shared under our breath when we know it will be a very long time.