I’m not sure why I’ve always picked up rocks, but it’s something I’ve done since I was a kid. I’m walking down a dirt road and my eye is drawn to a glinting shard of quartz crystal, or maybe I’m on a beach in the Virgin Islands and a perfectly round pebble of volcanic obsidian finds its way into my pocket where I worry it between my thumb and forefinger for the remainder of the vacation. Later it will end up on a shelf in the guest bathroom or forgotten in the bottom of my sock drawer.
There was one special rock though, one that stayed with me for almost twenty-five years. I picked it up on a weekend in the mountains. Jill and I had only been dating a year and her best friend Carol had invited us up to her family’s cabin in the Smokey Mountains. Carol’s obnoxious husband, Mike, would be there. I had not been thrilled, but at that time I would have done just about anything Jill asked me to.
The cabin was not the one-room, Abe Lincoln variety that that word always brings to mind, but rather a colossal three-story structure with a sprawling deck that wrapped around it and stairs that switch-backed all the way down to a rushing creek. Jill and I fought like hell that entire weekend, so I spent a lot of time down by that creek. I don’t recall with any clarity what it was we were fighting about, only that it was probably the first time we got a peek through the cotton candy clouds of lust and euphoria that had enveloped us during our first year together.
It was early, and still mostly dark except for a pale blue glow above the tree line. In the sleeping house, I made a cup of coffee as quietly as I could before stepping out onto the deck, slipping on my sandals and descending the hundred or so stairs down to the water. The rush of the creek babbling over rocks drowned out the songs of chickadees, and nuthatches. I stood there on the bank for a long time, entranced by the movement of the water and the wisps of fog drifting above it. It was late September and chilly enough for me to cup the mug of coffee in both hands as I sipped and waited for it to perform its magic.
I was hoarse from yelling and soar from sex until the wee hours. Jill and I were like a pair of feral cats, hungry and in heat, tearing at each other in alternating currents of passion and fury. The smell of her on my hands as I brought the coffee to my lips made me smile and even flush at the memory. I don’t think I realized how alive I was at that moment – only now, looking back can I see it. I think I just had this expectation that life would always be such a rush of blood. As the sun broke over the top of the ridge and I could feel its warmth on my lidded eyes, I had the sudden desire to feel the cool water rushing over my feet. It was a reenactment of sorts – the replaying of a precious memory I had of being with my father and holding his hand as we navigated across the slippery rocks of a rushing creek bed. I have so few memories of him that these reenactments are a way of breathing life into them, coaxing them to burn just a little brighter even if it’s only for a moment.
My feet quickly acclimated to the numbing cold as the torrent soaked the rolled-up cuffs of my jeans. I gingerly made my way toward the middle of the creek, my arms pin wheeling just above my waist for balance. The riverbed was a made up entirely of these large, smooth stones. The arches of my feet conformed to them so perfectly that I remember feeling this weird sense of connection, as if in stepping into the current I had somehow completed a circuit and was now humming with it. Harmony is really the only word, as corny as it sounds, that can describe what I felt.
I stood there in the middle of the creek for a very long time, until I could no longer feel my feet and the pads of my toes had started to prune. I could hear doors slamming from up at the house and the strains of music from the stereo, but I remember not wanting to leave. It was a powerful, almost childish desire to stay and it was in that spirit that I plunged my hands down into the frigid water, searching for a souvenir. My hand closed around the first stone it touched. Like all the others, it was smooth and rounded, but the shape of this one, like half of a heart, fit in the palm of my hand as if it were an extension. Examining it the sunlight, it was nothing special to see, just a brownish-orange rock, probably a variety of quartz, but the weight of it, the dimension of it was satisfying, substantial.
I pocketed the rock and made my way back up the steps, to Jill and to the life we had set in motion like a bullet train where the passengers don’t have even the vaguest sense of its destination, only the desire to get somewhere fast. We married the following year, had our first child the year after that and moved to Boston because we were tired of the South. Neither of us had any real calling in life beyond each other and our little Lucy. I worked at any job where a bachelor’s degree in English would suffice and hated each of them in the ineffectual way that you can only hate something if you don’t have any better ideas.
Jill stayed home with Lucy in the little shit box of an apartment we had in Somerville. It wasn’t long before we had our second, Peter. He wasn’t part of the plan that we didn’t have, but unlike Lucy, he was missing the go-with-the-flow gene, and he cried constantly. It didn’t help matters that there were four of us trying to live in just under four hundred square feet. I could escape during the day, but Jill could only spend so many hours in the park before she would eventually have to return to our glorified shoebox and try desperately to keep two squealing and stomping toddlers from disturbing our crotchety old neighbor while she made dinner.
To paint the picture of these early years in this way is unfair. In between the bits that were hell on earth, they were the sweetest years of my life. Lucy and Peter were plump, pink little bundles of sweetness and purpose and they made Jill and I better people than we were or ever could have hoped to be. We were still feral cats, but more the domestic variety.
The random string of jobs I worked, from sales associate to copywriter to Photoshop monkey, had, with little help from me, straightened into a career path and I woke up one day to find myself a salaried employee at a large marketing firm. In rapid fire succession came a house in the suburbs, a new Toyota Camry and an hour commute. The river rock at some point migrated into the compartment between the seats and became my companion on these long drives in the morning and evening – in darkness both ways in the winter months. The stone, like little Peter’s blankie, was a totem, an enchanted object I could hold in the palm of my hand, feel its weight and somehow feel grounded, connected. Shivering in the car at the first stoplight, I would sit, stooped forward to peer through the frosted windshield and I would take the numbingly cold stone in my hand and turn it across my palm, kneading it. By the third stoplight, it would be transformed, warmed to the temperature of my body.
My thoughts in those days were a helpless tangle of wires and pulling on one for too long seemed like progress until it became clear that I was only tightening the knot. My longing was a loop of slack that could not be cinched, could not be drawn into the spool of days that make up a productive life. Between feeling guilty for wanting what I didn’t have and being angry for my inability to fundamentally change anything, I was a quiet mess much of the time. Jill used to roll her eyes and call this predicament my “existential itch.”
“Why the hell can’t you just be happy?” she would ask when we were cleaning up after a birthday party for one of the kids or sitting with our toes in the sand on a summer vacation.
It never occurred to me that I wasn’t happy. The truth is that I had never known anything different so I never had an answer for her, at least none that was satisfying. Maybe “happy” for me looked like something completely different than it did for most people. But Jill knew how to be happy. She was a self-sustaining flame, drawing energy out of thin air it seemed. When things were still new between us, I would huddle too close, unable to get enough of her warmth until, inevitably, in self-preservation, she would flare up in a vitriolic fury of shrieks and stomps, forcing me to back off and contemplate the raised burns on my wounded pride.
This advance and retreat two-step we did for our entire marriage. Twelve years in, the ratio between cheek-to-cheek and arms-length changed and the cold distances went on longer than the fiery, close encounters. With each retreat, I was slower to come back to center. To say we “drifted” apart is a cliché and also inaccurate. We willfully staked our boundaries and pushed them further out with every passing year – effectively gaining ground and losing everything that mattered.
By the time Peter started his first year at Boston College and Lucy was closing in on her degree from Brown, Jill and I were sleeping in separate bedrooms without pretense that it was temporary arrangement. I don’t know why we stayed together, convenience, habit maybe. Really, I don’t think either one of us had the heart to face it, to recognize the cold, dead thing our marriage had become because somewhere buried, there was the memory of heat.
On January fifth of that year I was commuting into work as I had for the last fifteen years. I could make the drive in my sleep and some mornings I believe I did. It was a beautiful, crystalline morning and I had gotten a late start. The slant of the light from the winter sun reflecting off the snow banks made me squint painfully as I fumbled for a CD to play. It was rare that I listened to music anymore, but that morning, I was weary of the sober voices and caffeine-fueled rhetoric of talk radio.
I pawed blindly through the middle compartment between the seats with no luck before popping open the door of the glove box. I was searching for a mix CD Peter had made for my birthday several years prior. I eventually discovered it among the odd collection of objects that had come to rest in the cramped space: six years worth of vehicle registration stubs, two ballpoint pens with missing caps, an ancient box of Tic-Tacs, some Chapstick, a sheet of wallet-size photo proofs from Lucy’s high school prom and the river rock.
I shoved the CD into the player and palmed the rock, savoring the smooth, unearthly coldness of it. I sang along to Sweet Melissa by the Allman Brothers, embarrassed by the tears that pricked the corners of my eyes. Jill and I used to scream that song together with the windows rolled down when we were young Southerners without shame or good sense.
I’m not sure if it was the volume of the music, the sun in my eyes, the swell of emotion or some combination, but I neglected to see the pick-up truck that was taking up one and a half lanes of the narrow two-lane bridge ahead. I was going too fast to stop, and years of driving on ice had trained me not to slam on the breaks. Instead, I swerved right and took out the wooden guardrail of the bridge and was airborne.
There was nothing slow-motion about what came next. One moment I am warm and coasting along in a bitter-sweet state of nostalgia, and the next, my windshield is plunging below the waterline, I can hear the engine sputtering and stalling as it takes in water and a surge of adrenaline like a million tiny, stinging jelly fish is coursing through my body.
The seatbelt had locked and pinned me back. I was gasping and clutching wildly around me without any conscious thought as to what to do. The momentum of the car had propelled it out into the deepest part of the river and soon I was cloaked in murky darkness. The vehicle groaned like an old ship as water pressed against the windows and began spraying through the seams of the doorframes, so cold it felt like it was burning as it soaked my face and hands. A few bars of Layla, blared over the stereo until the electrical system winked out like a dampened candle.
The car had stopped plunging nose-first and leveled out on the bottom of the river. Water was around my ankles and rising quickly. There was a horrible shrieking sound and I wanted it to stop, then I realized it was the sound of my own voice. I stopped.
It seems unbelievable even to me that there was time to think about everything that passed through my mind in those next quiet moments. Something settled inside of me. There was a moment of recognition and then resignation. Just as my body was squirming like a trapped animal programmed to survive, my mind was letting go. It was clear to me for the first time how complicated I had managed to make the simple gift of living, how undeserving I was for what had come so easily to me all these years.
Lucy’s chubby little feet at one-year-old against the stubble on my chin, the fountain of giggles that followed, Jill’s crooked smile and the warmth of her hands, her smell and the gentle curve of her naked belly, Peter throwing his baseball glove in his first year of t-ball and cursing, the stern talking to from the pastor/coach that followed.
I had done nothing more to deserve these blessings than show up and here I was, prepared to let them all go without so much as a fight.
The water was up to my waist when I decided I wanted to live. It was maybe the first intentional choice I ever made about my life. There was no template for this, no herd to follow, no prescription to take. Most of all, there was nothing to contemplate -- I wanted to live. I didn’t want to die. It was that simple.
I managed to release the seatbelt despite the wild convulsing of my body against the frigid water. I reached for the handle of the car door and pulled. There was no satisfying mechanical click; the door did not spring open, even after I put my shoulder against it. It was useless.
At chest level the water had settled into my bones and my limbs felt as if they weighed a thousand pounds. My hands were frozen fists like blocks of ice, but there was enough sensation left for me to realize that one was bigger than the other, heavier somehow. When I managed to raise my right hand up to the surface I realized why. I was still holding the river rock.
When I struck the side window with it, the glass fractured into a million spidery lines, beautiful, like diamonds in their sparkling symmetry. Within seconds the river exploded into the cabin, stealing the rest of the air. The impact took the remaining air in my lungs as well and pinned me to the passenger side door. The impossible weight of my body seemed, in those seconds, too much to bear, but as I began to move and I pushed myself through the open window there was a lightening. My mind exploded with colors as I pushed up toward the light.
When I broke the surface and gasped, the air was warm and it lit up my lungs like the globes of a gas lantern. The glory of the morning light gilded every surface it touched, even the rusted pick-up truck of the old drunk who ran me off the bridge and was now waving his arms wildly, urging me toward him. As I made my way, arm over leaden arm, to where he was standing on the far bank, I realized I still had the rock in my hand.
I decided to let it go. As I cut the surface of the icy water with my next stroke, I did.