Second to the right and straight on 'till morning.
Peter Pan's instructions on how to get to Neverland, J. M. Barrie
Jason had thought about putting New York City as his location in the online dating profile. It would almost be justifiable, since he was always thinking about moving to the city now that he was divorced. There was, Jason felt, something pathetic about a single guy in his thirties living in the suburbs, especially in a town with a ridiculous name like Valhalla and he imagined any interesting woman would probably feel the same way. At least there was a big cemetery in Valhalla, so the name wasn't completely inappropriate. Supposedly Ayn Rand was buried in that cemetery and the actress who played Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz. In the end Jason figured that looking like a bit of loser was less off-putting than being found out as dishonest, so he admitted to living in Valhalla.
He'd never meant to live there. Like most kids from the New York City suburbs who think of themselves as arty or creative, the plan was to move to the city or someplace like one of the Portland's, where a person could live a real life in a real place. But when he and Julie had graduated from Binghamton and talked about moving in together, they'd decided to be practical and live in Westchester where their parents were, just for a while, to work and save money to chase their dreams with later on.
The “for a while” had gone on longer than they'd anticipated after they both got decent jobs in Westchester, Jason at an interactive agency in White Plains, Julie at a design consultancy. The jobs weren't unusually mind-numbing, just like most work nowadays, making you wonder what the point was and how much damage your career was doing to the world and your spirit. They'd bought a semidetached town house in Valhalla pretty cheap, figuring it would be a starter place they could use to finance a move to somewhere Jason could work on his novel and Julie could do something interesting with her geology degree. They'd talked about having kids but had trouble imagining what that would look like, so it never happened.
Now all the parents were dead, and Julie had moved to Sedona, Arizona. She and Jason hadn't really fought or anything. It was just that their ability to be together, two people quietly not content with life, had worn out. The only geology jobs Julie could find after she graduated were with fracking companies, so she'd never worked at it. But she really liked rocks, and in Sedona she could do dishonest labor with less cost in personal despair and societal damage, by bullshitting well-off people about the healing powers of pretty crystals. Since Julie was the one leaving, Jason had gotten a second mortgage to buy her share of the townhouse. They'd agreed to stay friends, but that had petered out too.
Jason had an afternoon client meeting in the city today, so for this evening's internet date he and Cheryl had arranged to meet at a nice bar in Union Square. In her pictures Cheryl was pretty, kind of outdoorsy looking, so she probably wouldn't be one of those women with shiny nails and glossy hair, who took one look at Jason in the flesh and knew he wasn't going to be confident enough, or skinny trouser wearing enough, or whatever it was that women who looked like that were looking for, that wasn't Jason. Cheryl's pictures didn't show any inking or unusual piercings, which was also encouraging. Anyone who was fond of tattoos or metal bits that strayed beyond the earlobes was going to find Jason lame. Though he did have that blue spot on his arm where Randy Gilmartin had stabbed him with a pen in fifth grade.
Having agreed to meet, presumably Cheryl felt more or less the same about at least the cyber version of Jason as he did about her, so he was not without hope that something might come of the evening. Not that it had so far, but presumably it was a numbers game. Go on enough dates and eventually something might happen. Jason had read that during World War II, American bomber crews in Europe had been required to go on twenty-five missions before they got sent home, but that statistically none of them would make it to twenty-five missions before their plane was shot down. So if any of them did make it home, it meant that someone else's plane had been shot down twice. He wondered if similar statistics had been established for online dating. It might be hard to figure out what counted as success though. Nothing so neat as making it out of the war alive. Did you get laid, did you initiate a lasting relationship, did you go on a few more awkward dates, did you like the person well enough to get her number, but never actually send a text? It was all pretty ambiguous.
He got to the bar seventeen minutes early. He could walk around the block a few times, but that seemed silly and would end up making him even more nervous as he checked his watch every few seconds. So he found a seat at the bar where he could see the door and hopefully Cheryl's entrance. Unless she was early too and already here waiting for him. He glanced around the bar, looking closely at women who could conceivably be Cheryl, getting some glares back. She wasn't there, not that he could see.
He thought about getting scotch, but sitting by himself drinking spirits might look like he drank a lot. Probably he did drink a lot. He got a beer and so as not to be staring at his phone or his reflection in the bottles on the back bar, got out the novel he was reading, about a pretty American art restorer in Florence, who discovers and tests a lavishly illustrated Renaissance erotic manual. Luckily the novel didn't have any erotic drawings on the cover, so his literary choice wouldn't be either shocking or raise false promises, depending on what Cheryl's tastes were. He wasn't really reading anyway, too nervous to concentrate on anything but who was coming through the door. He really should be used to it by now, after several didn't go anywhere but were not mean-spirited encounters.
As he was staring down at his book, a woman's voice said, "Arlington? You don't look like I expected."
So maybe this would be the first of the mean-spirited encounters. The woman was slender, thirtyish, with absolutely straight blonde hair. She was looking Jason over, hands not quite on hips, but in that attitude. She was classically pretty in an almost abstract way. Tallish, wearing a pale green shirt dress that was just short enough and with enough buttons undone to be tastefully provocative. She was saved from conventionality by eyes like a husky's, one transparent blue, the other amber. If he'd had the presence of mind, Jason would have said something like, "I often feel I don't look like I expect either." But he was too confused to be witty, so just kind of gaped at her. If this was Cheryl, she didn't look like he'd expected either. Not that he was against how she looked, but it was different.
"What's with the moustache?" the woman said.
Jason had recently grown a moustache, not one of those hipster walrus ones, just a regular moustache. Julie had encouraged him to try one when they were together, but the idea of it had made him self-conscious, so he never had. But he'd seen a picture on Facebook of the guy Julie was seeing in Sedona, handsomely rangy and cowboy looking, with an impressive moustache. After all of Jason's cyber dates had ended with an amiable but unambiguous committal to never seeing each other again, he'd wondered if something radical wasn't in order. So he grew the moustache. He didn't see how it came as a surprise. His photographer friend Alice, who being an artist should know about aesthetics, said she liked it and took pictures of Jason with the moustache to post on his dating profile.
He touched the moustache unconsciously. It still felt weird and bristly to him. He said, "I'm not so sure about it myself. I guess you missed those pictures."
"You're not exactly six foot three either," the woman said. "Christ, I should have known better when you said you'd be the one carrying a book. Pretentious crap. Thanks for finding me so shallow, before even meeting me."
It appeared to Jason there might be a mistaken identity here. A kind of short circuit between two different internet dates. Probably happened all the time now. Before he could tell the woman, presumably not Cheryl, that he was not Arlington, she turned and stalked out of the bar.
It wasn't Jason's fault that he wasn't Arlington, over six feet tall and without a moustache. Who was named Arlington anyway? Well, probably that beautiful tall guy, carrying the latest Houellebecq novel and looking around for someone. Jason supposed the polite thing to do would be to ask the guy if his name was Arlington and if he said yes, try and explain that his date had left, due to confusions about misrepresentation and pretentiousness. And a moustache. But it would be a complicated conversation, so better to leave it alone. Arlington's departed date had been right. It was pretentious to be reading a book in a bar, so Jason put his away. He concentrated on trying to look soulfully contemplative while waiting for Cheryl.
When she came in, she was prettier than her pictures. There was maybe the briefest shadow of disappointment across her face when she saw Jason, replaced with the requisite anticipatory smile as she came to meet him. But both of them could already tell this wasn't going anywhere. Maybe it was the moustache's fault. He wondered if he could excuse himself for a moment, go to the men's room, use his pocket knife and whatever soap they had to shave the moustache off. He and Cheryl chatted for a bit, but Jason wasn't at his best, finding it hard to concentrate, with the awful moustache twitching around like an independent creature as he tried to say clever things. Cheryl got a beer she didn't touch, went to the women's room, came back, put down money for her beer and said goodbye.
Well, Jason thought, as he sat in the horrid fluorescent lights of the commuter train back to Valhalla, that was a humiliating evening. Though it could have been worse. He hadn't made love since growing the moustache, so God knows what embarrassment it might get up to in such circumstances, getting stuck in the folds of the labia or something.
When he got home, he poured scotch with ice so it wouldn't seem like he was just slugging it straight and went out on his terrace. If he leaned over the railing and craned his head, he could see around the woodgrain vinyl siding of the adjacent townhouse unit, to the flash of fireflies over the blue-black water of the Kensico Reservoir. He wished he had a kayak or something. It would be good to be out there on the water, lights of the suburbs shrouded and indistinct behind the summer woods, watching the moonrise, not thinking about anything but the pretty night.
He held up his glass to see if things looked more interesting through the amber of the scotch and caught a reflection of himself. On the curvy wet glass and with the moustache, he looked like an extra in the drugged-out party scene of a seventies movie, where they distort the image to show how fucked-up everyone is. Before he got too far with the scotch, he went upstairs to shave off the traitorous moustache.
Marilyn had chosen Sir Galahad's Pasta and Cocktail Lounge to meet this guy Jason, so as not to get anyone's hopes up too much. Just being at Sir Galahads put to rest any unrealistic expectations, for romance, companionship, sex, food. For anything except straight liquor. That came out of the same bottles, no matter what kind of place you were in.
She'd been out rowing most of the day, working off last night's failed date with an annoying guy named Martin. She'd been enjoying the flow of water and woodlands around her, almost like she was a kid again on the real lakes up in the Adirondacks, not on Kensico Reservoir in the suburbs of southern Westchester. She'd thought about blowing off the date with the guy Jason, keep on rowing into the night, but she didn't like to be mean like that, so she rowed for home to get ready for the evening at Sir Galahad's.
Really, you were only supposed to have a boat on the reservoir if you were fishing. Marilyn had the fishing license and the boat permits and always took some tackle with her for show but never actually fished. She just liked rowing the boat. The water police knew she wasn't fishing, but they didn't bother her. She was less trouble than the men who actually were fishing, but at the same time drinking so much beer they were always peeing in the reservoir. She remembered reading that a high percentage of drowned men were found with their flies open, standing up to drunkenly piss over the side of a boat and falling in.
Most of the boats on the reservoir were aluminum skiffs, so beat up they looked like wives and girlfriends had worked them over with ball-peen hammers as revenge for having to clean and cook all those fish. Marilyn's boat was different, an old-fashioned Adirondack guide boat, cedar planks on spruce ribbing, cherry wood trim and cane seats. She and her father had built it when she was a kid, up at the cabin on Cranberry Lake. She'd loved rowing there, portaging the light boat between forest hemmed lakes, seeing loons and beavers and other critters. After her father died, Marilyn had wanted to keep the cabin, but her brother had said no way could he get his kids to go up there, and he'd wanted to get what money they could out of it. That was reasonable, so Marilyn brought the boat down to Westchester, figured out the regulations for being on the reservoir across the road from her house and now rowed whenever she could.
Before he'd left a year and a half ago, Brian had said Marilyn used being out in the boat as a way of compensating for the meaninglessness and malevolence of her job as an HR director for a health care system. Marilyn couldn't argue with that, but it was kind of an obvious observation and not very useful. Brian had encouraged her to quit and do something more in tune with her character and compassion. But since Brian was working as an apprentice to a luthier, someone had to make money and that seemed to be her.
One day Brian, his luthier stuff and his old Saab were gone when Marilyn got home from a business trip. He'd left a handwritten note, saying he'd found a guitar shop to work at near Ashokan and that she should come and visit him and Abigail sometime. Abigail was news to Marilyn, though she probably should have known there would be one. Brian didn't say much about Abigail, just that she was a self-taught botanist working on developing heritage apple varieties for organic growers and that he hoped someday Marilyn would find something fulfilling like that to do.
Brian had never been much of a word guy, relying more on meaningful silences, but he'd obviously worked long and hard on this note, maybe for months. He wrote as a postscript, "I think you maybe need to find your own way to grace." Aside from the initial surprise, which didn't last long, because really for quite a while they'd been not much more than two people happening to share space, Marilyn wasn't so broken up about it, just lonelier. She'd never really registered before this note how precise and beautiful Brian's handwriting was.
He was right that she ought to find something else to do, but these days thirty-seven wasn't a great age to be looking for a new career. Maybe she could take her boat up to the Adirondacks and be an old-timey wilderness guide. Of course, there weren't that kind of guides anymore. But she'd read in an article how going into a black hole might distort time in a way that past and future existed simultaneously, so maybe she could find a black hole and slip through time to be a wilderness guide. But there was probably no way of ensuring that she would end up in the time and place she wanted to be in. And her body would likely be transformed into some hitherto unknown state of matter, so she might not be able to row the boat anymore.
With Brian gone, Marilyn rowed even more, started taking the boat up to other reservoirs in the north part of Westchester. You weren't supposed to move the boat from one reservoir to another, but that was to keep zebra mussels from getting into the water and Marilyn was super careful to clean the hull of the boat before she moved it around. She mostly went rowing at night. You weren't supposed to be on the reservoirs at night either, but when darkness came they were so quiet and empty it was like the modern world had disappeared.
Jason decided to walk to tonight's internet date. Marilyn, the woman he was meeting, had suggested Sir Galahad's Pasta and Cocktail Lounge, which was only a mile or so from Jason's townhouse. Arriving on foot might make him appear fit and environmentally sensitive. Since he wouldn’t have a car, Marilyn might offer to drive him home afterwards. If things went that way, he could invite her in for a nightcap. Except then she would know the unflattering information that he lived in a woodgrain vinyl-sided townhouse on a cul-de-sac in Valhalla.
Sir Galahad's was in a strip mall on Route 22. Jason had passed it driving to White Plains but never been inside. He wondered why Marilyn had chosen a place like this. Probably to tamp down expectations. There was a purply light showing through the plate glass doors of Sir Galahad's, and when he went in, a large woman in a gauzy Stevie Nicks-ish outfit said, "Welcome to Psychic Singles Saturdays."
"Oh, um, thanks," Jason said. "I think I'll just go to the bar." Psychic Singles Saturdays. Maybe he had the wrong place. Though it was unlikely there was another place on earth called Sir Galahad's Pasta and Cocktail Lounge. He was early again, so he made his way to the side of the bar that seemed to have the least psychic-looking people. There was a table in the back where a woman with cards and a crystal ball, or maybe an inverted fishbowl, was talking intensely to a young couple, who would listen for a bit, then turn, nod and touch each other's arms with the kind of tentative anticipation that indicated the early days of a relationship.
Putting aside the psychics, Sir Galahad's was not as grim as he'd feared. The bar was actual oak. The lighting wasn't too bad. Fake tiffany lamps, plastic instead of glass. The purply light came from a shawl draped on the light fixture above the psychic woman at the table in the back. There were several beer taps, the usual variations of Miller, Bud and Coors, with PBR for the hipster crowd, as if hipsters would come in here. Well, maybe ironically, but this was Westchester and as far as Jason knew, there were no actual hipsters closer than City Island. But the place was clean and not too brightly lit, with plenty of liquor bottles to choose from.
Jason got bourbon on the rocks, cautioning himself to consume slowly and try not to meet any psychic eyes. He hoped Marilyn didn't choose this place because she wanted him to participate in Psychic Singles Saturdays with her. Jason was open-minded, or at least didn't like to argue with people who believed things, but psychic dating was going a bit too far, even if Marilyn turned out to be as pretty as her picture and ended up driving him home.
The kids talking to the woman at the psychic table got up. They were obviously pleased by what they'd heard about themselves, locked together by their adoring eyes and beatific smiles, moving through the room as if they were levitating away to some private Eden. Jason couldn't help but smile at how beautiful they were. Maybe it was just a blissful moment before the expulsion from Paradise, but still it was lovely to see.
"Welcome to Psychic Singles Saturdays," the Stevie Nicks lady said as Marilyn came into the bar.
"Oh hell," Marilyn said, not quite under her breath. She'd forgotten about stopping in here once after rowing and running into this psychic thing. Jason was going to think she was a maniac. Though given the way these encounters had gone so far, a guy thinking she was a maniac could be useful. A way to forestall fumbling attempts at unwanted intimacy at the end of the evening.
She looked around for Jason. There he was at the bar. He'd lost the moustache he'd had in his online pictures, which seemed like a good idea to her. Given that he was sitting in Sir Galahad's on Psychic Saturday, waiting for an internet date, he seemed admirably unglum. He was looking at a pretty couple of kids so deep in their fascination with each other that they were barely in the room with the earthbound rest of them. Jason looked amused, without being contemptuous, like wouldn't it be nice to remember how to get to where those kids had gone.
She walked over. "Are you Jason?"
She could see him taking her in, and for a moment there was a glint of appreciation on his face before it shrouded back to ordinary politeness.
"I am," he said.
"What are you doing in a place like this?" she asked.
He looked confused, like maybe she wasn't who he thought she was, then he got she was making fun of herself and the both of them in this silly situation and he smiled that nice smile again.
"Well," he said, "someone told me to meet her here." He nodded toward the kids. "In the meantime, I was watching those two take joy out for a spin."
Marilyn nodded at him, glanced at the kids, felt almost, not quite, like she was going to cry, and suddenly it seemed like there was something really at stake here, not just the usual clever or not so clever banter, getting to know a bit about each other, probably not wanting to know more, maybe having one of Erica Jong's zipless fucks, usually not even that worth the bother. She felt at an uncharacteristic loss but had to say something. "Sorry about the psychics. I forgot about that."
"I thought about texting you that the place is infested with psychics," Jason said. "But I was afraid autocorrect might change it to 'infested with psychotics.'"
"It's a worry," she said.
"Autocorrect or psychotics?"
"Both, I would think."
So here was the banter, but it wasn't what she wanted and she was pretty sure it wasn't what he wanted. Not only the banter anyway. She picked up his glass, raised it in a toast, peered at him over the rim as she took a drink, put the glass back down. He looked at her for a few moments, smiled shyly, picked up his glass, found the place where her lipstick had left a faint mark and drank from there.
"Well," she said, "that's flattering. I'm Marilyn by the way."
Jason nodded, without smiling, then did. "That's a relief," he said. "If you weren't, I'd be making more of a fool of myself than usual."
"You're not making that much of a fool of yourself. Your pictures had a moustache."
"They did. I had a crisis of confidence that led to a shaving incident."
"I kind of like it better gone."
"Me too. It felt like a not particularly kindly creature had taken up residence on my face."
"Why'd you grow it then?"
"It seemed like change was in order." Jason felt as relaxed as he had for a long time. It was like the usual competition of these things was missing, like they both understood they were being how people were meant to be. Flashing and stolid, clay and stardust. Still, a little push back might be the manly thing. "Why'd you choose Sir Galahad's Pasta and Cocktail Lounge?"
Marilyn was maybe a step ahead of him. "Were you afraid I chose it to be ironic?"
Jason was just going to nod, then thought better and said, "I was just now hoping not."
"I come here at all," Marilyn said, "because I know I'll never meet anyone from my office. Too unfashionable. I chose it for tonight to keep expectations at bay. Mine and yours. Not sure I want to stick with that." She grinned, touched his hand briefly, signaled to the bartender and ordered an Oban.
With the feel of her fingers lingering on the back of his hand, Jason tried to think of something smart and heartfelt to say, heard himself blurting, "Wow. I should try not to fuck up my response."
Marilyn laughed. "You're a bit of a worrier, aren't you?"
Jason had never thought of himself as a worrier. Julie had often remarked that he was overly stoic. He supposed one could be a worrier but stoic about it. Or maybe Marilyn already had more insight into him than Julie had. That could be promising. He said, "I don't know. It's an interesting question. It may be that I'm trying to express myself more spontaneously than usual and not so great at it." The bartender brought Marilyn's Oban. "I'm encouraged you ordered the expensive stuff.”
"You should be." She held her glass to him. "To be fair, since I stole a sip from you, you should have one of mine."
"Okay. But I won't be able to get lipstick on the glass for you."
"Sure you will." She took out her lipstick, gestured for him to lean towards her and carefully made up his lips. The red didn't suit him, but he had a nice mouth anyway. She held the glass to him and he drank. She turned the glass to drink from his lipstick mark, gestured him to lean forward again and wiped the lipstick off his mouth with a cocktail napkin.
"That was fun," he said, a little breathlessly. He leaned forward, stretched his hand across the bar so it was not quite touching hers, looked at her with his big hazel eyes and said, "I actually mean that. It's a way more fun way to try something new than growing a moustache." He told her the story of last night's date, making an amusing story out of being mistaken for a fraudulent and pretentious Arlington, then the quick follow-up failure with Cheryl.
Marilyn appreciated the humor and saw through to the longing. She shared her similar experiences, without telling him how often the end of the evening issues weren't nothing happening at all but extricating herself from someone who was way too enthralled with her, given the hour or so of their acquaintance. Then again, maybe she'd been unfair, since in twenty minutes she seemed to have become enthralled with Jason and him with her.
They talked about losing Brian and Julie, both pleased that the other didn't seem too bitter or unreasonably blaming of the departed partner. They agreed that one of the hardest things was coming home from soul-sucking work to an utterly still house. They'd each thought about getting a dog or cat, but hadn't, figuring they should stay unencumbered in case the fantasy of there being someplace far away, where one could live with a darling companion, do honest work and live gently on the earth, ever came true. Unspoken by either of them was the seductive thought that pooling their resources, economic and spiritual, might make an escape from the barrens of late capitalism a little more possible. Maybe when they got to wherever it was, they could get a dog together.
"So what do you do for wage slavery?" Jason asked.
"HR for a healthcare system," she said. "Last week I got to tell the entire physical therapy department that their jobs have been outsourced. Of course they're welcome to stay on for reduced pay and benefits. In my defense, I did argue to my bosses that this would be bad for morale. Everybody knew I was going to say that and pretended to care. But management salaries are safe, so really there's no problem." She took a drink.
Jason thought of saying, “Wow, that's even worse than mine,” but that seemed not very ingratiating. Mostly what he did seemed just a pointless waste, not so directly hurtful. But he did have one recent example that was pretty bad. He said, "I'm a digital strategist. I just got to launch a website for a company that aims to creatively disrupt breathing. For only fifteen thousand dollars a month they'll equip your home and office and cars with dedicated atmospheric systems, so you don't have to breathe air that's already been breathed in and out by a bunch of loser people you don't know. The hope is that eventually enough of the well-off will sign up, so we can relax air quality standards that are adversely impacting economic growth."
"No hope for either of us then," Marilyn said.
"I guess not." He took a drink. "I fill notebooks with sentimental fables and take long walks in the woods. What do you do to stave off the horror?"
"I row," Marilyn said.
"Row? Like get into fights?" He looked around the bar. "Did you want me to provoke some psychics, so you can beat them up?"
"Row like a boat," she said, taking his wrists and rowing his arms as if they were oars. She was wearing a sleeveless cotton dress and her ropy shoulder muscles flexed as she rowed. "Let's get out of here and I'll show you"
In the parking lot Marilyn opened the passenger side door of her truck, an old Ford Ranger, tan paint faded almost to rose. "Get in."
She pulled out of the lot and headed up 22. Jason wasn't sure where they were going, something to do with rowing, but he was happy to go along. Marilyn headed fast through the twists and turns along the east side of Kensico Reservoir. The steep ridge to the right blocked any lights from that direction and fog was rising off the reservoir surface, so you couldn't see lights on the western shore where the suburbs were thicker. There was no traffic for a few miles, and for a moment it felt like they were somewhere deep in wilderness.
Just before Armonk, Marilyn turned left, on a road along the north shore of the reservoir, mist drifting over the pavement. Turning up a steep driveway, she pointed to a track across the road, spoke for the first time since they'd gotten in the truck. "That goes down to the reservoir, where I usually put the boat in." She stopped in front of a seventies modern wood house, opened the truck door and turned to Jason. "But tonight we're not rowing here. There's something I've been wanting to do and you can help with the portages."
The planes of her face and the angular lines of her body in the stark relief of the truck's dome light were stunning, and there was something Jason was wanting to do too, but he didn't see what portaging a boat would have to do with that, so he guessed he was going to have to wait.
Marilyn smiled, like she knew what he was thinking and like maybe she was thinking it too. She got out of the truck and said, "I want to take the boat all the way across the county, on the reservoirs, row from Connecticut to the Hudson River."
"Across the county? Like that Cheever story about the guy who swims home from a party through all the swimming pools?"
"Something like that," she said. "But we're going to use the reservoirs."
Marilyn's place was a lot nicer than Jason's. Away from other houses, high on a ridge so through the big windows you could see the reservoir beyond the tops of the pine trees.
"Reminds me of my parent's house," Jason said. "Up by the New Croton Reservoir. Near Katonah."
"If this works, we'll be going right past there. We could stop and visit."
"Oh, they're long gone to North Carolina. Then dead. I might have bought the house from them, but I'm afraid I'm downwardly mobile."
"Probably makes you a better person than me." She led him downstairs to the garage. The guide boat was on a wooden cradle by the open garage door.
"Beautiful," Jason said, running a hand along the dramatic curve of the gunnel of the boat.
"Isn't she?" Marilyn pointed out boat stuff in the garage for Jason to load in the back of the truck, then made several trips upstairs into the house, bringing down duffel bags and coolers to add to the things in the truck. On her last trip she brought a pair of water shoes. "Hold your foot up," she said.
Probably, Jason figured, so as not to look like he had nothing better to do than whatever Marilyn told him to, he should ask why she wanted him to hold his foot up, but it was a little late for that kind of pretense, so he did what she said.
Marilyn held the shoe against his foot to test the size. "These will work. You're going to need them when we have to walk in the rivers for the portages."
Jason looked at all the stuff they were bringing. "Are we going to be gone a long time?"
"If we're going to make it all the way across the county, it could take two or three days, there and back. Is that going to be a problem?"
Since he worked mostly at home, Jason figured he could get away with missing a day or two. And how often did he get an opportunity to go boating? "Not really," he said. "But if I remember in that Cheever story, what seemed like one evening of swimming ended up going into some kind of time warp and lasting for years."
Marilyn shrugged. "Things happen." In one graceful motion she lifted the guide boat from its cradle, flipped it and laid it on the rack over the truck bed.
So far it didn't seem like she needed Jason's help with this expedition, so maybe Marilyn just wanted him to come along. With the stern facing him, Jason could read the boat's name. "Straight on 'till Morning," like in Peter Pan. He said, "Are we going to end up in Neverland?"
"It would be nice to get away from all of it. Probably not that easy though."
They got in the truck, headed north through the suburban woods, past the small town bustle of the movie theatre and restaurants in Bedford, up to Purdys where they turned east on a winding road along the north shore of the Titicus Reservoir.
At Salem Center, where the Titicus River flows into the reservoir, Marilyn said, "We're not quite to the Connecticut border, but unless we want to carry the boat down three miles of shallow river, we're going to have to cheat a little here. We'll ceremonially put in the river a little up from the head of the reservoir, so it's like we came all the way from Connecticut."
"I'm sure that makes sense," Jason said. "But right now I'm kind of not worrying about things."
He couldn't see her grin in the dark but heard it in her voice when she said, "Different than the usual date, isn't it?" She found a place in the woods off the road, a few hundred yards upriver from the east end of the reservoir, where she could get away with leaving the truck for a few days. They carried everything to the river, deep enough here to float the boat, loaded up and headed downstream. It was dark under the trees over the river, and Jason wasn't sure how Marilyn was seeing to navigate. Maybe she was following the smell of marshy river slowly giving way to the open water smell of reservoir. The moon was just rising as they came out on the reservoir and Jason watched the smooth rhythm of Marilyn rowing in the soft light.
There was a breeze out of the north and Marilyn hoisted a small lateen sail rig. Jason didn't offer to help. It was obvious he would just be in the way. When the sail was set, he got up from the stern seat, assuming Marilyn would want to take the rudder, but she motioned him to stay where he was.
"You steer," she said. "I'll handle the sail."
Jason didn't have a lot of experience sailing. Sunfish at camp when he was a kid and being on friend's boats a few times. But even he could tell the guide boat was a sweet little sailer and he grinned at Marilyn when she turned around to point him the way to steer.
About halfway down the reservoir, the wind died. They sat rocking gently in the light chop. The moon was higher over the trees now and the light must have been playing tricks because Jason knew there were houses all around this reservoir and roads on the north and south shores, but he couldn't see lights or hear traffic noise. There was nothing but the murmur of water against the boat, then the sudden call of a great horned owl somewhere to the south.
He was about to say, “Where did everybody go?” then thought how much that would sound like his mother, who whenever they'd visited the Allegheny hills where she'd grown up, would wonder at how empty the abandoned farms and derelict towns were, compared to what she remembered from her childhood.
"What are you smiling about?" Marilyn said.
"I was going to say where'd everybody go? But that would sound like my mother."
"Nothing wrong with that."
"No. Just makes me feel like I should laugh at myself."
"Nothing wrong with that either." She lowered the sail. "There's that owl," she said, pointing over his shoulder to where the dark shape was flying low along the south shore, hunting.
Marilyn dropped the sail and set the oars in the rowlocks. She touched the slight indent in the gunnel just aft of the port side oar. When she and her father had gone out in the boat on Cranberry Lake at sunset, he would tap his pipe there on the gunnel, while he was watching the herons flocking into the trees for the night and bats and swallows darting after insects. He'd look at the little mark his pipe left in the cherry wood, run his finger over it and absently say, “I should stop doing this.” Marilyn had never sanded the indent out. Of course, in the end the pipe had killed him, but she couldn't help but remember how good the smell was and how he'd said it kept the mosquitos off.
Jason could see by how still she'd gone as her hand touched the gunnel that there was some memory there, something like his mother saying, "Where did everybody go?" He didn't say anything, just nodded at her and she nodded back with the most beautiful sad smile.
Marilyn rowed down the reservoir. In the stillness they heard the rumble of water over the spillway before they saw the Titicus dam. They beached on the south shore, just short of the dam and pulled the boat out of the water. Marilyn rigged up a pair of yokes on either end of the boat and helped Jason fit the stern yoke onto his shoulders. She led off as they portaged the boat through the woods around the dam to where the Titicus River flowed the half mile downstream to the Muscoot Reservoir.
The water was too shallow and too rocky to ride the river but deep enough so they could walk with the boat mostly floating downstream, lifting it over shallower spots and fallen logs. Jason couldn't say he didn't notice the weight of the boat, but it was well balanced and the portage wasn't as hard as he'd thought it might be. He certainly wasn't going to show any distress if Marilyn didn't.
The houses of Purdys had to be to the left up the hill, but no lights showed. They went without speaking, picking their way down the streambed by moonlight, crossed under the Route 22 bridge. The river became a narrow inlet from the reservoir and they got back in the boat. The next bridge carried the interstate but crossing under that, there was no noise of cars and trucks and when they were past the bridge, Jason turned to see there was no traffic at all on the highway, no light from the town or anywhere at all, except the moon and stars.
The wind picked up again. Marilyn got the sail raised and they wound down the Muscoot Reservoir, under the road and the beautiful abandoned iron rail bridge at Goldens Bridge, under the highway at Katonah, still not seeing cars or house lights or hearing anything but the sound of the boat moving and the call and rustle of animals in the water and woods.
Somewhere ahead there was the roar of falling water. Marilyn motioned for Jason to turn the boat into the wind and she dropped the sail. Even with the moonlight, the pulse of stars across the sky was astonishing.
"What's that?" Marilyn said, listening ahead. "Hard to believe any stream comes into the reservoir from high enough to make a falls that loud."
"Ah," Jason said, ridiculously proud he knew something useful that Marilyn didn't. "Most people don't know about the old Muscoot dam." He told her how in 1905 they'd built the New Croton Dam, high enough so the Muscoot dam was nearly submerged, how now the water flowed over the whole width of the old dam in a broad fall, a few feet high.
"Well, I'm glad you came along," Marilyn said. "I might have sailed right off the edge. That dam's not on the map. How'd you know about it?"
"My parent's house was right along here." He gestured in a vague circle to encompass him and Marilyn and the pretty boat, being where they weren't supposed to be. "You may have noticed that some people don't necessarily follow the reservoir rules. My friends and I used to explore these woods and swim in the water. Our private wonderland." He pointed to the near shore. On a sandy area, bright in the moonlight, a mother otter was dragging a young one into the water to teach it how to swim. "We should be able to portage around the dam to the south." They watched the young otter frantically struggling to get onshore, the mother dragging it back into the water.
Marilyn got the sail up and they headed on, portaged around the old Muscoot dam, got back on the water of the New Croton Reservoir as dawn began to show in the east.
"We need to find a place to hide out for the day," Marilyn said. "The map shows an island ahead that might be a good place."
"It is a good place," Jason said. "There's a little notch between two hills, with stone walls from an old house and a grassy terrace we could camp on." He didn't say why he knew this island, because the explanation might seem a little forward, under the circumstances.
But Marilyn wasn't going to leave it at that. "You know it pretty well?"
So he told her how one hot day, a week after the end of his senior year in high school, he and his neighbor Allison had swum to the island. How difficult Jason had found the whole process of helping her out of the clingy wet bathing suit, how scared he was at not knowing anything at all. But Allison was a year older, home for the summer from her first year of college and knew what she was doing. All that summer she and Jason were pals, hanging out together, not acting like boyfriend and girlfriend, but every day swimming across the stretch of water to the island, making love in the bee hum by the honeysuckle vined walls. The last time they'd been on the island a cold rain had come, a warning of fall. They'd swum shivering back to shore, kissed quickly, run chill and alone, each to their own house. The next day Allison went back to college in Oregon, a few days later Jason went upstate to SUNY Binghamton. That same year Allison's parents had moved and she and Jason never saw each other again.
"That's a romantic story," Marilyn said. "Most of us don't have a story like that for the first time. Are you sure you didn't make it up?"
"I don't think so."
They pulled ashore at a little cove Jason remembered, hid the boat in the brush and carried housekeeping stuff up to the notch between the hills. They made a fire behind one of the old walls, where no one could see it from the mainland. Surrounded by the racket of wakening birds, they had sausages with caramelized onions, roasted potatoes, real tomatoes, good bread, scotch in tin mugs. When they were done, Marilyn spread blankets on the grass where trees filtered the rising sun into dappled shade.
The rest of the day they made love and dozed in cool shade and warm sun, blanketed in the smell of crushed grass and honeysuckle. There were sounds of small waves on the island shore, insects buzzing in the flowers, kingfishers raucousing along the water. Underneath, there was the whine of car, airplane, radio, leaf blower, but all of that muffled, like there was something more than the few hundred yards of water between their island and the everyday suburban world.
As the afternoon shadows got longer, they cooked again, drank scotch and sang songs like "The Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia," songs about memories of beloved places, places that might never really have been the way they were remembered, but were still beloved. As dusk settled they took a swim, then huddled together in the cooling evening, drinking coffee from mouth-scalding tin mugs.
They broke camp and loaded the boat, set off in the freshening breeze. With the moon rising behind them, it was like the night before, car noises and house lights and all that receding away, leaving night and stars, the glow of moon on water, rustling wind, call of night birds and the creak of the boat as it bore them on.
"How does this work?" Jason asked, nodding toward the arched bridge where the Taconic Parkway crossed the reservoir, no lights on the bridge, not a car moving, no house lights showing in the hills beyond. It was impossibly still and dark and wild for the densely populated suburbs all around them. He didn't expect there was an answer and didn't much care, just felt for forms sake he should question what was happening.
"I don't know," Marilyn said. "It's kind of happened before. Not this much, but kind of. Always at night. It's like in the dark, on the water, something changes. As if our kind never arrived on the continent. Do you want to go back?"
"I think we should see what happens when we get to the end."
"Yes," she said. They were sailing, so Marilyn didn't need to be in the rowing seat. She moved aft to sit in the bottom of the boat, her back against Jason's legs.
There were no lights burning on the New Croton Dam, just white stonework and the curve of water down the spillway glowing in the moon. They landed on the left shore, portaged around the dam to the Croton River.
"This is where you really have to trust me," Marilyn said when they reached the bank of the white-water river.
"Okay," Jason said.
She squeezed his hand and slid the boat into the water, holding it to the bank. "We'll both kneel in the middle of the boat," she said. "You in front, me right behind you." She handed him a paddle, motioned him to get in, showed him how to position himself. Even with the boat held against the bank, Jason could feel the chaotic thrum of the river trying to drag it down.
Marilyn got in, snugged up behind him, still holding the boat to the bank. "You'll have to paddle as hard as you can," she said. She leaned her chin on his right shoulder. "When I touch your right shoulder with my chin, paddle on the right." She moved her chin to his left shoulder. "When I touch your left shoulder, paddle on the left."
Her body was pressing all along Jason's back, her breath warm in his ear. "This is a very provocative way to give navigation instruction," he said. "If we turn over and drown in the rapids, I'll die stimulated and happy."
"I should hope so," she said. "Now, to keep me calm while I'm piloting, tell me one of your fables as we go along." She pushed off, touching her chin to his left shoulder and they paddled hard into the bucking flow of the river.
Jason was particular about the language of his fables and didn't want to paraphrase, but it wasn't like he memorized them. But when he started the story of a brant goose from Canada and a scarlet ibis from the Amazon, how they loved each other so much that each of them wanted to live in the other's homeland and therefore they could never be together, he somehow remembered it word for word, bellowing it at the top of his lungs so Marilyn could hear him over the roar of the water. He didn't know how Marilyn could see hazards in what little moonlight came through the trees, but she guided them down the four miles of rapids, over the falls of a couple of small dams, ducking under fallen trees, until they reached the delta where the Croton River flows into the Hudson. They stopped paddling, the boat twisting slowly in the sudden quiet of flat water.
"Nice story," Marilyn said. "Sad though."
"Nice boat handling," Jason said. "Aren't most stories sad?"
"Probably. If they're any good."
The highway bridge over the mouth of the Croton was gone from where it should be and there were no lights anywhere, just the moon and stars. Except there on the north shore of the Croton, an avenue of torches leading from a stone pier on the river bank, up to a big stone house high on the bluff. The terraces around the house were glowing with torch light and teeming with people dancing, the music muted by distance, maybe old-fashioned jazz, maybe fiddle music, too far away to tell for sure.
"Looks like the place to be," Marilyn said.
Jason nodded, said, "Do you mind if I try rowing?"
Marilyn showed him how to brace one leg, how to hold the oars and how deep they should go. When he was set, she leaned back against his legs, using a pine on the south shore as a guide, tapping him on the left or right leg to turn, when he got out of line with the pier.
"I can see why you like this," he said. "It's a good rhythm" and Marilyn tapped him on both legs to let him know he was going right. Coming into the pier Jason did a quick couple of back rows on the right oar to parallel the pier, shipped the left oar into the boat and feathered them in, to dock neatly between two other boats.
"Welcome," a man on the pier said, catching the line Marilyn tossed him. He was wearing a long black jacket over a white shirt and light-colored breeches, like a gentleman in a Jane Austen movie. A woman took the bow line. Her pale red gown was tossing prettily in the breeze. They reminded Jason of his fable of the brant goose and the ibis. It's what they would have looked like if they were humans instead of birds.
The brant goose and ibis gestured with a beautiful flow of wings for Marilyn and Jason to follow the line of bark and wax smelling torches up to the house. The music resolved into something unbearably beautiful and sad, like nothing the world had ever heard, as if instead of being dragged to the Americas in chains, people in Africa had been left alone to invent a music like jazz, but totally different.
The dancers were wearing clothes not just out of this time, but out of any time, or in and out of every time. The closer Marilyn and Jason got, the more the people looked like animals dressed as people, or people dressed as animals.
Marilyn took Jason's arm, led him toward the dancing. He felt like a bum among all these well-dressed beings, whatever they were. Then instead of the old shorts of Brian's that Marilyn had given him, too big and held up with a length of rope, he had on something like the clothes the brant goose on the pier was wearing, but Jason's were more rustic, like something a 17th century explorer might wear. Marilyn was wearing another pretty sleeveless dress, soft blue linen, fabric shot through with threads of a slightly darker blue. "That's a pretty dress," he said.
"Thanks. I didn't know I had it." She looked Jason up and down critically, kind of like the woman in the bar who'd mistaken him for Arlington and was disappointed in how he'd turned out. "That's a becoming outfit you've got on," she said, "I wouldn't go wearing it on the streets of White Plains though."
"I would probably be a little self-conscious. It feels okay for wherever we are right now."
"Yes," she said. "But I think we can do without the hat." She pulled off his cap, which he hadn't noticed he had on, a long knit thing with a tassel. "Too much like one of those Brooklyn slouchy hats," she said, stuffing it in the pocket of his long jacket. "We can save it in case it gets cold later on."
"'Later on' seems like it might be a messy concept at the moment," Jason said. His hair felt mussed from wearing the hat and he combed it down with his fingers.
"It does," Marilyn said, re-mussing his hair. "Maybe it's time for a little messiness." She took him in her arms, waltzed them onto the dance floor.
"I can't really dance," Jason said.
"You can't really paddle a boat through rapids either. Yet here you are." She danced them to the edge of the terrace and onto the lawn. They walked holding hands to where the bluff dropped toward the Hudson. There were none of the lights of towns and roadways like there should be, but the meadows and marshes along the shore were pulsing with millions of fireflies. The fireflies flowed up the bluff to where Marilyn and Jason stood, swarmed around them, then rose straight into the sky, the individual lights blending together with distance, until you couldn't tell them from the Milky Way.
Still looking at the sky, Jason asked, "What's the journey back going to be like?"
"More struggle than getting here," Marilyn said. "Have to portage all the way to the Croton dam. Can't paddle back up those rapids. Then around the dams and across all the reservoirs. The wind's going to be against us, but no reason we shouldn't make it." She looked at him until he turned from the sky to look at her. "Probably won't have time to stop on that island again."
The fireflies come back, dancing in front of them, weaving the light into something like a holographic image. There's Jason cooking in the kitchen at Marilyn's house. Braising stew beef in flour and oil, simmering a stock with vegetables, herbs and cream.
The sound of Marilyn's truck coming up the steep driveway. You can see by how Jason raises his head to listen and pours two glasses of neat scotch that it's a familiar routine, that they're living together and of course chose Marilyn's house for that. He takes a glass of scotch in each hand, walks to the front door to greet her. But there's the sound of the garage door opening, then through the window there's Marilyn in the dusk, two oars over her shoulder, trudging down the driveway, across the road to the guide boat moored on the shore of the Kensico Reservoir. You can read in her posture, in Jason's face as he watches her, that this has happened before, her dispirited by a bad day, worse than the usual bad. You can see that sometimes it's been Jason coming home like that, ignoring Marilyn, sitting at his desk feverishly writing in a notebook, tearing out pages, crumpling them and tossing them on the floor.
Hours later, there's Marilyn's step on the stairs from the garage to the kitchen. Jason's been there since she went down to row the boat. He's hardly moved, except to pour more scotch, leaning on the stove, watching the cold skin of fat forming on the abandoned stew. Marilyn comes up behind him, briefly, barely touches his shoulder with her chin. Picks up the glass he'd poured for her, leaves the room.
Then the fireflies and the image of their life are gone, and Marilyn and Jason are on the bluff over the moon-white Hudson, standing beside each other.
Jason says, "Do we have to go back?" his voice tiny in the vast night.
Marilyn takes his hand, leads him back to the pier. They get in the boat and cast off.
Marilyn rows south, to the middle of the Croton River. She stops, touches Jason's arm. "Which way?"
Left is east, to the portage through the thickly settled neighborhoods along the Croton River, towards the orangey glow of security lamps on the New Croton Dam, then back up the reservoirs, water glinting with the lights of houses and office parks and cars, back to the truck and the drive south on 22, light and smell and din thickening the closer they get to their lives.
Right is west, to the Hudson, Muhheakunnuk the Lenape call it, smell of salt tide and mountains, sturgeon leaping and crashing on the water and on the wind from the dark hills across the river, the scream of the hunting panther and the warm scent of its bloody breath.
There's a line of four stars, low over the west bank of the Hudson. Jason points at the stars, says, "Second to the right."
Marilyn turns the boat right, then the second right, up the Muhheakunnuk, into the fjord eroded at the end of the last ice age by glacial melt through the billion-year-old rocks of what isn't called the Hudson Highlands yet, maybe never will be. Wind at their backs, together in the pretty little boat, Lenape fires on the shore casting ragged arcs of light onto the great river, Marilyn and Jason sail north into the feral continent and straight on till morning.