Jake had trepidation but allowed me to take the kayak out without him a couple weeks later. We were having what people say “an Indian Summer.” It was sixty nine degrees and he was busy with his new girlfriend and I desperately wanted the respite away from my parents house. I come home to visit them every other month and some days I curl up inside myself in my dead brother’s room. But today, I was strong: rested, full (I had eaten a bowl of oatmeal and two cups of blueberries in the morning and snacked on Cliff bars throughout the trip) and rowing. I was also separated from everyone else, alone on the river. Also four hours in. Also not sure where I was. Also left my phone in the car so it wouldn’t get wet. I marked the passing time with a pink Sharpie; drew a line on my forearm every time I thought an hour passed. Four pink lines. Petrified would be downplaying what I was feeling. When something knocked the boat the first time, I ignored it. I brushed it off as anxiety. You make things up, Lion. Convincing myself it was a current, I paddled on. Keeping my eyes on the tops of trees for sunbathing snakes, I hadn’t looked down to see the depth of the lake or that I was in the middle of a lake or I was so far from everyone and in open water until. I wanted to get away from the snakes.
“You’re obsessed with this drama of a snake falling into your kayak and murdering you.”
“Snakes don’t murder, Jake,” I interrupted again. “They just kill. Don’t be dramatic.”
“Oh, I’m being dramatic, Cat? I’m being dramatic???” he laughed
I was remembering the first time we talked about my phobias near the shore.
“How do you convince someone their house isn’t haunted?”
I was talking to him about the fine line art of “reality testing.”
“Or that they are not haunted?”
I was explaining how to hold two things at once without favor.
“Or that people aren’t watching them?”
It was windy and chilly. We both had bathing suits but sweatpants over them.
“Reality testing is a common practice for people experiencing psychosis in which they talk to another person about the delusion and most people do it with a psychiatrist. BUT,” I suddenly project my voice, eager to keep the attention, “You can also try to test with the person you are having the delusion about but it only works with the person if you get an affirmative answer.”
He was gazing at the waves but engrossed.
“You mean you only believe them if they say yes?”
I dig my toe into the sand.
“Imagine deliberately asking someone if they were stalking you or watching you. You would only believe them if they say yes because otherwise you would always think they are protecting themselves.”
He nodded, looking at me, “That makes sense.”
“So I had a ton of clients that believed their neighbors were spying on them. I could tell them they weren’t but only their neighbors could admit it. And no one would do that. And if they did, then what? Probably exacerbate everything. And in our world, people are being stalked online. So people kind of spiral,” I make that perpetual motion with my hands, “And you don’t get any definitive answers because the truth is we are all being spied on.”
I watch a wave crash.
“It’s not just in our heads. Some people are just really sensitive.”
“Hmm,” he started. “So how would you ever reality test?”
“You don’t. I mean, you try. Bring statistics and probability into it. The likelihood of the TV being directed at you is high because of the way advertising works now, but it’s also not sentient so to break the pattern of thinking electronics are talking to you, you first have to accept they were programmed to cater to your desires, and then to ignore them. But the likelihood of your neighbors watching you is less. Your crush, maybe. An abusive ex, probably. The mailman, unlikely. And the internet is father: always watching.”
“The algorithm,” he said.
I was always talking about the algorithm.
“So anyway, you can’t actually tell me that I don’t owe these ghosts a favor because you can’t tell me that my house isn’t haunted, that I didn’t invite them, that I didn’t communicate with them and ask them for help. Only the ghosts can tell me I don’t owe them anything. Only years can tell me. Only no one can tell me because I would only believe the affirmative. You can’t say no.
“No, you can’t.”
We both watched my feet in the sand.
“But I can teach you how to kayak down Alligator River.”
We both watched the waves crash and I started guessing with a 98.3% accuracy rate.
We stopped at the pier on the way back to my room, saltwater taffy stuck to our lips and miles to go.
“Remember when we used to race,” he suddenly said.
“Don’t you fucking dare.”
But he was already running.
“I’m obsessed with snakes but not bitten by any snakes so there is that,” I said out loud.
I was in the middle of a lake, far from the bank and I had just felt a bump against the bottom of my kayak. The boat rocked a little to the right but not much and Jake, was right, I am dramatic. It is probably the current. It was probably the current.
“But alligators are moving north through the intercoastal waterway and with climate change they could start settling. We are not far from North Carolina..”
“Ok where did you read that?”
“I Googled it.”
“You purposely Googled it!I told you not to Google anything…”
“Oh, I should just plug my ears and cover my eyes and trust you during alligator season.”
“WHAT? What did you Google?” “Are alligators moving north on…”
“No,” I splashed him with my oar. “I did google that, yes, but I Googled “are there alligators in Virginia?”
“And it said they are moving north.”
“Lion cub,” he always called me lion cub. “The only thing you have to look out for are snakes falling from the trees.”
He pointed up to show me: a little black rat snake hanging from a cypress just to the right of us. I turned to him and smiled: big with all teeth.
“Very cool,” he affirmed.
My arms are tired and I am not sure why I didn’t take his advice. He told me not to go out alone and definitely to stick to the route with people.
He stared flatly.
“How will you get there? You don’t have a rack.”
“YOUR car. Trade. I just got it detailed and your car smells like dead fish.”
He stared again.
“What else is there to do but drift down No Alligator River?”
He relunctantly handed me his keys and took my freshly cleaned Honda into his driveway. But his intuition was right. I daydreamed, became so obsessed with finding rat snakes in the trees that I lost all sense of direction. I don’t even know what direction I came from. Whimsical. They call me whimsical. And I was whimsically carried downstream and now had to row back to the sides of the lake with the trees while both watching out for snakes and trying to find my path which I felt was behind me, but I’d been wrong before. As I rowed to turn around, I felt my biceps tearing and my calves had already cramped long ago.
“Fuck. I’m tired”
No, I was exhausted. Smiling through exhaustion. My arms were growing and so was my hunger, my impatience, my budding fit of panic trapped in miles of water surrounded by miles of swamp. I felt a push at the bottom of my canoe like a sudden strong current. It’s just the current. Looking to the sides, I tried to calculate if (and only if) I was literally too exhausted to row, could climb up the bank and rest keeping my canoe (borrow, lion cub, I will let you borrow the kayak some days) safely secure at the bottom? It’s hard to tell with the swamp. The bank could contain solid ground or dense thick marsh. I would have to abandon my kayak anyway to climb it and there was no telling what I would fall into. I had nothing to tie it with. Truly, I had no choice but to paddle back, back to where I had seen the three couples earlier getting ready to venture out. I was concerned about my father. No, brush that from your mind.
“I will make it.”
I had eaten everything. It’s true. I have very little impulse control and when I am anxious, my stomach grips itself but when I am hungry, I am voracious and my salivation drives me. The bag next to me was empty and my canteen (I brought two) was down to a quarter of the bottle.
“It’s ok,” I let myself float.
I could not row anymore. I deserved and needed the rest. That’s what started this. It was only three pm. I had a few more hours before it got dark. It was hard for me to relax. In a state of constant hyper vigilance, I tensed every muscle in my body and constantly.
“So everything hurts,” I told him on that first trip.
“Yeah,” he rowed ahead a bit.
“I just want to be prepared.”
“How do you feel today?”
“Oh, fine,” I cheerily responded.
It was easier with him. He had packed extra; extra things that I may not have remembered or ever even thought of at all: peanuts and water and a sweatshirt. My arms hurt. I had goosebumps. I wore loose-fitting pants but a sleeveless top. The sun would go down. My knees were sore. My legs were shaking, the muscles clamping and unclamping slowly but Jake and I laughed a lot. That’s what I’ll remember.
“What will you remember?”
“What the alligator from the dream means.”
“Ah, the alligator dream again. Always the alligator dream.”
He turned around and smiled at me, leading me.
“What does it all mean?”
I let my mind wander.
“You always ask me about it.”
He rowed so he could face me and float backwards while I floated forward.
“And what does it all mean?”
“Sometimes an alligator is just an alligator.”
He caught me gazing up at the trees.
“A lot of times, they won’t even bother you. You may not even notice them.”
“I’ll notice them.”
“Yeah, of course, Cat.”
Jake showed me four snakes that day and I showed him two.
“See? I am beating you.”
“Whatever, when I look up I see them. I don’t always look up, sometimes I look down. You can’t always look up. You have to focus”
“True but. Maybe you should look up more.
When it dropped from the branch, I reacted as I always thought I would. With swiftness, I gracefully tumbled over the side leaving my bag but taking the oar. I tumbled. Mildly disoriented, I felt young, the way I felt when I visited the beach with Leana or Alex.
I would jump the small waves in the water to crash into the big waves. I had zero fear as a child, none. In fact, I played in the surf all summer long enjoying the pull; the way a wave will pull you back like the fletching of the arrow to the bow. I was being plucked, ready to launch. I was gliding forward like a seal. I was riding it, one long wave and then above water and thenI was suddenly in the river, wading, the water at my waist. My oar floating gently away and I peeked in the canoe to confirm it was a rat snake. My bag was next to it, placid, both my pack emptied of all food, only a quarter of a canteen of water and it was gray. It was not black like a rat snake but gray like a tree trunk lying lifeless, defenseless and not full of venom. Dead, or never alive, the branch that had scared me right out of the boat. Sometimes an alligator is just an alligator. Sometimes a branch is just a branch.
“What was the last thing you said?”
Jake coughed, “In your dream. I remember you saying sometimes you were trying to figure out if it was a crocodile or an alligator but you said something too.”
I turned slowly to see it’s two eyes and briefly it’s wide open even-toothed smile before it ducked.
“In the dream?”
Before I was pulled.
“No, just now.”
I was twisted over and over like the way a wave will catch you in the surf and tumble you, keep it’s watery fingers on you.
“I told you the alligators were moving North.”
My lungs were full of water and just freshly out of breath.
“No, what was the last thing you said, Cat. Before you saw its jaws?”
I was feeling perpetual motion.
I said, “Oh, I said it would be either be a snake or an alligator.”
I was feeling my left hip disconnect from my waist.
“The Dream of Alligator River”