She had tried for months to get me to go. I’d refused because I didn’t want to head down that path. I didn’t want to do the whole couples retreat thing to save our marriage. I was already out. I had been for years.
In the end there would be a death knell, a final straw. She could tell it was coming and Wisconsin was her savior.
“I made eggs,” she said, passing me a plate.
“No. I didn’t even think about it. I could run to the store. There’s a little place on site.”
She had this adventure planned out by the hour. Canoeing at 11. Hiking for the afternoon. Campfire in the evening. I could tell her now and be done with it. I could wait till she goes out to the car, then wander away and make everyone believe I was lost or injured somewhere in the woods.
“Jackets! Everyone good to go? Alright, we’re gonna push off slowly, then that first current will catch us and pull us downriver,” the instructor said.
What kind of guy wears a neon life jacket for a living and enjoys spending his time with strangers from the suburbs and losers looking to escape their shitty lives? Why is he in this little boat with me and my wife?
The first couple of waves were nothing. The tail end of the canoe would swing out, the bottom taking on a little water, but we kept moving. I was expecting waterfalls or maybe falling rocks.
But no. It was just me, Jan and this guy. Every now and then I’d rock the boat a little, or try to stand up just to throw a little fear into the action. I didn’t like this guy leading the way and telling us what to do. You’re not gonna save my marriage with a wooden paddle.
Jan was having the time of her life; her face said it. She’d turn around and peak back at me to see if I was smiling or not. I’d just look away like I didn’t notice.
I could see up ahead a small channel where the river narrowed and the rocks were larger, sharper. The current was forced into an opening, breaking against the rocks. Jan went to adjust her helmet when the underside of the canoe flipped over.
10 seconds went by before I finally reemerged, my torn life jacket barely able to keep me above the surface. All I could see were three paddles floating on top of the water but no sign of Jan or the guy. The canoe rocked back and forth. The instructor was trapped underneath, his leg bent. I swam over and tried to upright the boat, but I had no traction and was swallowing water. I went under and tried to free him, tugging at his jacket, but the water had begun to flood into his nose. I couldn’t tell if he had stopped moving or not, but I left him there.
Jan, I could see, was struggling against a rock about 20 feet away. She was screaming, but I could only hear the sound of her hands slapping against the water. She was trying to hold on so she wasn’t pulled further downriver where the water deepened, blood covering half her face.
We made eye contact and it was almost effortless how we both knew.
She tried once more to call for me before she slipped and her body was dragged underneath. I waded motionless, braced on a tree branch closer to shore.
The police confirmed within an hour that both of them were gone. I asked the cops to leave me be. I would pack my things and leave in the morning, head home.
We never got to go hiking that afternoon but I still made a fire out behind the little summer house, just as Jan had planned. I tried to start it myself but I gave up after five minutes and began spraying gasoline on top of crumpled newspapers and threw a match.
It was peaceful, sitting there alone with my stick held over the fire. The flames turning green then orange then a soft yellow. I could stare into them and try to imagine a shape, her face maybe. I could try to see my future in the streaks of black smoke. I could try to bring her back. I could try these things.
And yet, seeing the fire struggle for oxygen, trying to hang on before succumbing to the night, was almost too easy. Letting her go was that easy.
I drove back to Illinois the next morning at sunrise. It wasn’t difficult. I tried to conjure up a meaning for the beautifully sunlit September day, locate some sort of metaphor for the long ride home. And I know this is where I was supposed to feel something. But I didn’t.
Many years ago, I too had died. But I did it slowly, hovering above the flatline until I was shocked awake by her absence. How final it was.
Michael O’Neill is a fiction and poetry writer residing in Chicago. His work has appeared in Maudlin House, WhiskeyPaper, the Journal of Microliterature, Unbroken Journal and Great Lakes Review, among others.