Now out of that red-roofed symmetry, the four tan chimneys like turrets above Weld drift behind the ivory shell, their curled wisps of warmth like decaying ghosts gliding over the Charles. Coffee ripples mix with the churned milk of small motorboats making their way out to harbor. The old motors, backfiring like last-resort defibrillators, measured their rapid antics against the evenly spaced sycamores silhouetted along the river’s edge.
In and out with the oars. A pause. His arms and legs linger between smooth sliding and rolling sighs, his ribs expand against the damp nylon with each premeditated breath. This boy, born like Venus from water, isn’t timing himself today but pushing hard against Botticelli’s zephyrs as they wrap their arms together and struggle to blow him to shore. Time had its cigarette break with the controlled pauses between the strokes he deemed imperfect. Each of those moments were chances for rebirth. Then, as we should say, each muscle’s successful expenditure was repeatedly lost in the swirling surface — each movement a determined failure and a reason to stop.
Awake at five, Dan made his way to the boathouse, tromping over the damp outlines left from winter leaves. Last year’s gaudy song about cheerleaders tumbled against his closed lips, his humming timed to the beat of sodden footsteps. The nasal breath hung behind him like sediment lilted by the flow of a powerful river, the bite of winter still alive in spring.
He wore his father’s coat, the wrinkles in the stale uniform reminiscent of some ancient war and his humming like a marching beat. He silenced himself and wrinkled a smile to a group walking toward him. Their unprotected, five hundred dollar cameras bounced against polka-dot dresses and knit ties as they each sought cover under a cheap umbrella. An orange price label was immediately visible against the older man’s spidery thumb. The girl in the group, attractive in her happiness and excitement, wore an embossed baseball cap she just bought at the campus gift shop. They walked with the wind and smiled back at Dan, talking among themselves and playfully pushing each other into the rain as they passed him. He stole a final glance before adjusting his jacket and humming from where he had left off.
The decorative masonry of Weld cried for those returning visitors, the people that returned after the fire of Roosevelt’s time. People covered their heads before jumping through the building’s wind-torn tears, its streams pouring from orifices in the stone. Dan didn’t care, his father’s jacket keeping him dry.
He sat in the entrance for a few seconds with Eliot and Johnny, talking and taking off his wet shoes as Kris hid behind the racks and puckered up with his new girl. She wore cherry rubber boots under a lemon striped dress that hid her infernal personality and bitumen singlet. They watched her eyes roll when Kris rolled his in humor. He’d leave soon. He’d graduate this year and go off to law school in Chicago — at Chicago, too — and learn to be even more of a jackass. People could see it in the way he smiled, and they say he always smiles. They’d say they see the lawyer in him, that he will make a lot of money with that smile on a billboard. It’s hard to see that in a smile.
And here we would say we agree with them, but Kris never smiles.
They met up after class at Pamplona, she wanted coffee and Dan needed it. Triss had a habit of complaining about her classes, cigarette in hand, but even the smell was manageable underneath the yellow umbrellas. The street’s petrichor musk wafted with her smoke. She had been talking for a while before he noticed. “Dan? Dan. I said he’s moving to Chicago.”
He set down his dollhouse espresso cup and looked up at her. The yellow glow off her skin was ethereal, more like a gold leaf and egg tempera Mary. The smoke rose up around her and through her undulating brown hair like incense, the eraser of her pencil pressed into La Dolce Vita lips while the accompanying crossword puzzle impatiently waited on the galvanized table. She wore a blue and white plaid shirt under a wrinkled tan coat, her pale chest and neck prickling against the occasional gusts of wind. She was beautiful, but a practical beautiful — as if without effort. Her eyes were bright and shining even as she glared.
“It’s not so bad.” He glanced up at her before suddenly concentrating on the buttons of her trench coat, realizing he should apologize. “I was out of it for a while there, who do you mean? I’m sorry.”
“Kris. He’s accepted to their law school. We should take him to lunch or something, you know?” Her twinge of a New York accent shuffled through the occasional word in her sentences, but the puzzles were what truly spoke for her. The puzzles only asked her to talk out of frustration, when their mysteries were unsolvable. But Dan kept losing his concentration in the evenly spaced squares and letters. Dan was bored, and when he was bored he’d think it was hilarious that she smoked. They didn’t have much to talk about. She wanted to be a doctor, after all. She would be off to Chicago soon. They sat for another quiet hour before paying and walking to her apartment.
Eliot thinks Johnny is bi, something about Johnny’s soul and body. The group never was sure about Eliot, though. He insisted on having his own tent on the camping trip and he was nervous the whole time. He’d play with his greased strips of black hair, checking to see that it was always lofted like a curled wave. His fingers would repeatedly surf toward the nape of his neck, reach the shallows, and swim back out – that and Eliot’s eyes jerked to Kris when he thought nobody was looking.
Kris was holding Ashley against the racked sculls now. She arched her back over the white fiberglass, offsetting her chalky skin. If anything was art, she was. Some painter would have her stand up and pose with flowers blown about by the wind. Kris pecked her concrete cheeks like a pigeon, laughing despite Eliot’s silent discomfort.
Dan lashed out to Eliot, asking if he’d help and hoping to at least distract him. “Hey Eliot, it’s the one next to your head. On your right.”
“You’re on time today. Surprising really. This one?”
“I’ve got my hand on it, yeah. Thanks. Oh and it’s only because I stayed with Triss last night, I forgot how close her place is.” They walked outside and slid the scull into the water, laughing as one of the newer guys got his shoe wet trying to land his on the wooden ramp. “Thanks.” Eliot waved and walked back into the boathouse, pausing to let Kris dance past him once he got to the door. Black cords jostled around Kris’ ears as he hopped toward the water, looking for someone. “You have enough fun for one day? We were all wondering when you’d finally let her breathe.”
It took a few seconds of hazed eye contact for Kris to realize that Dan was directing a question to him. He didn’t answer, at first like the contemplative yet quick-thinking lawyer everyone saw him becoming, but then with sudden embarrassment and apparent self-disgust. He rushed over to tap the shoulder of the new guy, shaking his head as he jogged. A quick shrug to the soaked shoe was all the speech he needed before grabbing one end the scull. Kris’ four eyes, two of them only the reflection of Dan’s in his sunglasses, shot toward Dan as he stood by his shell.
“Fun? I’ve got two exams today. I’m out here, I’m tugging on sticks for hours. I recorded my lectures but I don’t know how much help that’ll be. Anyway, you know how screwed I am.” The new guy grabbed the other end of the scull and they both began walking up to Weld, Kris talking to the other guy and clenching his tongue in his teeth as if it were leather at a whipping. He never smiles. Dan turned to the scull and got in, pushing against the ramp and letting the current do its work for a few seconds. His forehead rested against his knees but he could still see the pair in his peripheral vision. Kris and the guy were in the boathouse now, the mark of the one wet shoe like a trail to follow, or a trail for a lost traveler.
“If you’re screwed then we all are.”
Dan watched the murky water roil underneath him as he slid under Weeks and Western Avenue. He understood his assignment and still strove for that perfection. This sport was more like a second cigarette after work, hell for you but a step away from black-lidded anxiety. Dan hummed the song about cheerleaders, occasionally squawking lyrics with sincerity as cars’ tires loudly chopped above him on the bridge’s toothed rifts. The wind bites against his back, his respirations following the faint ghosts of Weld. Phlegyas, Phlegyas, skimming the Styx, the marshes drowning the sullen. The empty shell presses through, following the motorboats out to harbor.
Lukas Isenhart, of Louisville, KY, currently studies biology at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, AL. He enjoys writing in his spare time.