Alice lifts her dress above her knees and steps ahead of me, bare feet sinking beneath the surface of the water and then reappearing, slick and shimmering with silt. I unhook Maggie from her leash and she splashes into the water, paddling out past the rocks.
“Crazy thing,” Alice says, knotting the hem of her dress at her thigh and wading further in.
She’d shown up at my house that morning just as the sun was rising up from behind the trees, her arms loaded with grocery bags and Maggie’s leash wrapped tight around her wrist.
“Should we walk to the river?” she’d asked, as if I’d been expecting her, and then headed toward the woods. We’d walked the trail in silence, our feet beating their familiar rhythm against the dirt, Alice behind me as I led the dog down the path.
“Walk in front so I know I haven’t lost you,” she’d said. “Otherwise I’ll keep looking back to make sure you’re still there.”
I pull off my tennis shoes and follow her into the river, rolling my pants up as I go. The current weaves around my ankles, cold and rushing, too quick for the sun. In front of me Alice climbs over a rock to where Maggie is swimming, in the area where the water is deep and still below the waterfall. “Fuck it’s freezing,” she says as she lowers herself in. The bottom half of her dress is wet now and clinging to her legs, sheer enough that I can see the pink of her skin beneath the flimsy blue.
“It’s early,” I say. “We always used to come in the afternoons.”
She’s standing waist-deep and I can see the rise of her belly beneath the loose folds of her sundress. She tucks her hands beneath her growing stomach, cradling its curve like there’s already a baby in her arms. Then she closes her eyes and splashes backwards into the water, and for a moment the belly is all I can see, hard and buoyant like a separate creature. Maggie paddles over and pushes her snout against Alice’s shoulder as Alice resurfaces, slicking her hair back with the palms of her hands. “You’re not getting in?” she asks me.
I climb further up the wet rocks and look down at her. “It’s cold. I’m tired.” Drops of water are beaded along her eyelashes and she blinks them away.
“You didn’t have to come.” Her teeth are chattering but she makes no move to get out, her arms carving wide arcs in the water, keeping her afloat. “I just figured you’d want to see your dog.”
I sit down and hang my legs over the edge of the rock, unrolling my pant legs to show that I have no plans to swim with her.
“Of course I wanted to see the dog.”
It’s been months since I’ve seen either of them. Maggie trots out of the water and settles in a patch of sunlight on the shore, her mouth hanging open in a sweet, dopey dog smile, happy and oblivious. We’d found her four years earlier, dirty and nearly starved to death in a cardboard box behind our house, so young her fur had felt slippery and matted in my hands. Together Alice and I had scrubbed her clean in the kitchen sink and then cooked her a hamburger that she ate carefully out of Alice’s palm before falling asleep stretched across our laps. That first night Alice and I had stayed up late, smiling down at our new little creature, whispering our love for this shared thing as if we had created her ourselves.
“You should have called me. You just ran off with her.” I’m surprised by the calmness in my voice, as if I’m launching some mild complaint. You forgot to lock the front door. You left a clump of your hair in the shower drain. You moved out of our house with no explanation and took our dog with you. You got knocked up by somebody else and turned my life into a fucking joke.
Alice shrugs. Her shoulders look narrow and bony, like a little girl’s, and she reminds me of herself ten years ago. “I’m sorry. It all just seemed too hard.”
“And this seemed like a better idea?” I wave a hand around, toward the bags of food sitting on the edge of the river and then up at the waterfall. “Disappearing for months and then bringing me here? To what, have a picnic? Go for a swim together? Do this stuff with your husband, Alice.”
I expect her to get angry but she just stares up at me.
“He’s not my husband,” she says, then kicks off the rocks and swims away.
We used to skinny-dip here together late at night, back when we first started dating, when everything was still a reckless, harmless adventure. We’d strip off our clothes and crash into the river, two streaks of white in the darkness, floating on our backs beneath the falling water, letting it batter our naked bodies for as long as we could bear it.
I stand up and cross back to where Maggie is stretched out in the sunlight. She lifts her head to look at me then jumps up and starts sniffing around frantically, as if she’s searching for a toy she’s misplaced. I reach down and grab one of Alice’s sandals. It’s one she’s had for ages, so worn through I can see the shape of her foot in the leather like a footprint pressed into the sand. I hold the sandal in my hand, run a thumb along the tiny crater of her pinky toe, then pitch it into the river. Maggie gallops in after it and I watch the sandal float along the surface of the water for a moment before it disappears beneath the current.
“What the hell, Ben.” Alice is climbing back toward the shore, holding her stomach as she steps gingerly from rock to rock. “Did you just throw my shoe in the river?”
I nod and pull a pack of cigarettes out of my back pocket. We’d been quitting together before she left, had even signed a long, earnest, drunken oath that we’d written while chain-smoking, as if we were eating our last meal before execution; smoking again after she was gone had felt like a delicious betrayal.
“Your shoe was a sacrifice to the river gods,” I say, lighting a cigarette. “I’m restoring order to the universe.”
“I’ve had those since college,” she says.
Her dress is soaked through and I can see the familiar lines of her body beneath the fabric, almost naked but not quite, like I’m looking at her through someone else’s glasses and the details are blurring together. I feel myself staring at her belly, at the foreign swell of it.
“I can’t believe there’s a baby in there,” I say, which is sort of what I mean but not quite, and I realize I sound like a confused little kid pointing at his mother’s pregnant stomach in awe. A baby? In there?
She crosses a hand over her body. “Ben…”
What I meant to say is: I can’t believe you’re not just you anymore.
She sits down beside me.
“You’re smoking again?” She takes the cigarette from me and examines it like she’s looking for an answer. “To hell with promises at this point, I guess.” She pinches the cigarette between her fingers, holds it up to her mouth like a threat. “Lucas would kill me,” she says, and closes her lips around it. The cigarette dangles there, precarious, a choice waiting to be made.
I yank it out of her mouth and crush it into the sand. “What’s wrong with you?” I ask, angry though I’m not sure why. “Jesus.
“What do you care?” She pulls her dress down over her knees as if she’s suddenly self-conscious. I wonder if I should take off my shirt and wrap it around her, the way I would have in the past.
“I don’t know,” I say.
Her hair is starting to dry and the sun catches on a fleck of red. Her hair always lightens in the summer, auburn to dark strawberry, like a tree turning early.
“I can’t just all of a sudden not give a shit, Alice. I know it’s none of my business, this baby, this guy, your husband or not-husband or whatever he is. But what am I supposed to do?”
She squints out at the river. The sun is bright above us now.
“I wasn’t actually going to smoke it,” she says, pulling her legs up to her chest. “I’m not stupid. I just wanted to see what it would feel like to almost do it. Just to pretend things were different for a little while.”
She twists her hair into a damp knot and looks over at me. I’m reminded of us here in this place a year ago, swimming together, handing shared cigarettes back and forth, falling asleep in the sun and then walking back to our house, sunburnt and tired. By then she was almost gone but I didn’t know it; we’d been having long talks at night in bed, whispered arguments that never seemed to matter much in the morning. I didn’t bother to worry because breakups only happened when people fought and shouted and cried, when they threw books at each other and broke dishes and threatened to leave a hundred times. Alice and I spoke quietly over one another, our voices overlapping and our words tinged with anger but both of us so calm and even that I didn’t notice how treacherous things had become. She was trying to dig in roots while I tried desperately to pull them all up. Let’s go to Asia! I’d say, like this was a logical answer to her questions about marriage and children. Let’s hike the Appalachian trail! I ended up backpacking through the Rockies for a month without her and when I came home she wasn’t there anymore.
I pick up a small, gray stone and roll it between my fingers. Philosopher’s stones, Alice used to say when she’d find ones that were smooth and flat and rested perfectly in the palm of her hand.The kind that soothe you and give you answers.
It’s just a rock, you hippie, I’d tease, but the weight of certain stones always felt comforting and reminded me of her.
I toss the stone into the river and Maggie perks up, watching it pierce the water’s surface, then she looks back at me, her head cocked to the side as if to say: Am I supposed to go in after it? I know it’s already gone.