River Box
Jessica Lee Richardson

If you're going to swim in the small boxy river beneath the airport when fifty yards away is the ocean, it is not just any ocean then, you are probably in another hemisphere. And this is precisely where I was, in another hemisphere beneath an airport, drugged and dandy, and not far from the ocean I swam in just the day before with beguiling manatees not scared of me. One even came up to my face. I asked a manatee to come, and it came. Then others swam right below, their skin on my skin. I giggled to mask how rewarded my heart felt, and how scared.

The water under the airport was much dirtier, though. We just stepped right in, didn't we? I called to small whales and fish to come close, but when they did they were definitely not manatees. None of these observations helped me save money on hospital bills, however, when later I was all wet and slipped and broke my ankle in the airport.

The nurse said I should do a fundraiser, said I should call this rich man she knew for help, but I said nah, forget it, I'll pay the three grand. I wanted to show my work ethic. A work ethic seems important when in a foreign country. Plus, the truth was that I had been drugged when I broke my ankle. It didn't seem fair to fundraise when I had been drug-breaking my own limbs. We'd sucked something out of someone's vape. It had seemed like a good idea, waiting in line. Then, though, we were out of our heads. Who even knew what kinds of wild stuff you could put in a vape these days? We didn't. We were fine to sit on the floor. Fine to step into dirty under-airport water. Fine to substitute a two-bit lobby for Myanmar.

I could have stayed with my feet in the deep rubbing oil-slick skin for decades. But I didn't. I flew home high as a kite with a three-thousand dollar air cast, slept, and went out with my friends the next day.

"In fact, just the day before that," I told them, telling the airport story, "we swam in real black water all day." I was trying not to be smug. "Clean black water. I know the color implies oil." I rubbed my nose crease, failing at my attempt to not be smug. "But this was thin and safe! Stones and sand were the only detectable litter." It was true.

Before the ugly airport water incident, when our bones were tired from swimming in the ocean on our vacation, we had simply retreated to the cabins to eat hand-shucked oysters from the black lake out back. We did wonder if we should worry about seafood from this water, but we were hungry and they smelled so fresh. They filled us the way only food from the yard fills. 

The truth was it was tough to take this first meeting among friends back in the city. My ankle hurt. I had guilty nostalgia for cold dark waters. We were in a hot and crowded bar with a different take on food, one that tried to imitate black water yard oysters but wasn't quite getting there. They got it as wrong as we had gotten the swimming under the airport thing.

The great quality of big cities is that everyone in them has decided to agree on the inherent worth of the place, which acts as a magnet to other potential agreers. There are still problems, though. The problem in this city was not just the mimicking food; it was also that sometimes you suddenly had a group leader. This was true now, we suddenly had a group leader. No one had elected her. Clearly she had up and elected herself. City people are like that. We didn't mind terribly, we just ordered the sliders like good New Yorkers. But then this unelected group leader began holding up lists of rules. The rules were cryptic. Like, "It sits at the center of religion," or "If you switch modification and hue, you may," or "Sand hills are not for the non-pneumatic." The group leader's rules were, in fact, utterances that mimicked sentences, but weren't quite. In this way our group leader went with the ambiance.

We all just stared. We could see how she matched the place and was going for something mildly artistic, but we were unable to formulate the response she was looking for. This upset her. She finally stormed out without saying anything.

It doesn't have the desired effect to storm out of the door in a big city, though.

It isn't as if you've left the house. The city is continuous. It's just as if you've gone out into the hallway. You're in some other room now. No one is insulted by your being in some other room now. It's a free country.

Yet we had just flown in from a place where sea mammals will swim with you by choice and the food came from the silt underfoot. There, the cabins were over when you left them. When you left them you were really gone. Elsewhere. A ring of silence in your wake.

So we didn't say anything, but we were properly insulted, even in the free country of the big city. We stuffed the sliders in our mouths wishing they could be more than they were, and we limped out into the continuity.

Jessica Lee Richardson's first book, IT HAD BEEN PLANNED AND THERE WERE GUIDES, won FC2's Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize and was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Award.

Read her postcard.

Detail of photo on main page courtesy of Theophilos Papadopoulos.

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