Fetching Roger at the airport gives the feeling of a theater before the curtain rises, of a play about to begin. His arrival is an event: today, as ever, he flies his own Cessna-182, bumping down the runway before emerging from the cockpit dressed in a cracked leather jacket and old-fashioned goggles like it’s 1915 and he’s on his way to take Gallipoli.
Alexandra watches from the driver’s seat of her ancient Land Rover—she’s not about to get out—but before she can yank up the parking break, Millie, their sixteen-year-old, leaps from the car, leaving the door wide open. She runs to her father, throws her arms around his neck. She is not like this for anyone else, least of all Alexandra.
“Yo,” Alexandra says to Roger after he’s heaved his duffel into the trunk and himself into the passenger seat beside her.
“Yo?” he repeats. “Are you a skater chick now? Is it a midlife crisis?” He’s smiling, he thinks this is very funny. “Hello, Alexandra. It’s lovely to see you.”
Alexandra scowls. Roger’s an expert in making her feel petulant. She peels out of the airport’s gravel parking lot, setting a course to the northwest, up through the Four Corners to Utah.
Roger visits Santa Fe, where Millie and Alexandra live, every summer for one or two weeks, but this year is different; this year, they are joining a small rafting party in Cataract Canyon as a joint birthday present for Millie and her best friend, Mira. Months ago, when Millie asked, breathless, if she could go, Alexandra said yes immediately, because it didn’t occur to her that she would be asked to come along, let alone that Roger would be too. She reminds herself that the trip is brief—only two nights on the water—and that she can do it, she has endured worse than the discomforts of camping and cold rivers for Millie, that it is her duty as a mother to pretend she’s enjoying herself, even when she isn’t sure which she dislikes more: rafting with randos, or being stuck with Roger. She keeps her eyes on the road, pilots the Rover down the right lane at a steady 75.
Roger looks over his shoulder. “Millie!” he shouts. Alexandra has forgotten how loud he can be, even in enclosed spaces, like cars. “Tell me more about Mira! Was she your best friend last summer, too? Do you need to have those things in all the time?”
“What?” Millie fishes her AirPods, brand new and expensive, out of her ears. Alexandra doesn’t think Roger knows what they are.
“I asked you about Mira—is she the girl you talked about last summer, or was that someone else? What was her name? Nancy? Natalia?”
If it had been Alexandra who suggested that Millie take a headphone break, she might’ve been met with a string of expletives, growled under Millie’s breath, or lectured, in a tone that suggests her questions are barely tolerable, about how it is essential that Millie have access to her music at all times to manage her anxiety, does Alexandra not get how messed up it is to try and control her main source of therapy?
For Roger, Millie merely rolls her eyes. “That was Francesca,” she says. “Mira and I met in track, in the fall—she’s definitely my main best friend now. She’s hilarious—can be crazy, but she’s fun, and pretty, and super popular. Oh, also, Mom thinks her dad, Ram, is hot!”
Roger looks over the tops of the mirrored aviators he’s traded the goggles for.
“Ooh, really Zan?” he asks, using his old nickname for her. “Is this true?”
Alexandra can feel her face redden, grips the steering wheel harder.
“Jesus, Mills, I never said he was hot, I said—one time—that he looked good for forty-eight.”
“I think the exact quote was ‘fucking amazing for forty-nine,’ but whatever,” says Millie, and Roger chortles. Alexandra doesn’t like the two of them making fun of her together; Roger hasn’t earned it.
“You can put your headphones back in now,” she says, taking the opportunity to exercise authority over their child. Roger doesn’t protest. Once Millie is reabsorbed in her music and sending forlorn selfies to Mira when they hit pockets of cell service, Roger says, “If you’re interested in this Ram fellow, does that mean things are over between you and Gregory?”
Alexandra lifts one shoulder, her eyes on the highway. “Not exactly. Greg and I are on-again-off-again.” A mirage puddle appears on the blacktop before them, then disappears again right before they’re about to splash through it. “I never said I was ‘interested’ in Ram. And none of this is any of your business, why are we talking about this?”
She risks a glance away from the road. Roger is cleaning his glasses with the untucked hem of his shirt.
“If Gregory’s a stepfather figure to Millie,” he says, taking his time, holding the glasses up to the window to check for smudges, “I think it’s very much my business. Is it wise, if he’s in and out of her life?”
“Greg is not a stepdad to Millie,” Alexandra shoots back. She hates when Roger talks like this, like he’s part of their lives in any meaningful way, which he does every time they see each other. “Look, they like each other fine—they get along—but Millie’s sixteen, she knows that Greg’s my… friend. Again, it’s not your business, Roger.” To change the subject and also because she’s been looking for an excuse to tell him, she adds, “I’m up for the Doyle.”
Roger doesn’t say anything and for a minute, Alexandra’s mind flashes to the absurd—he thinks she’s lying, or she somehow misinterpreted the e-mail, it’s true that her recent output is modest—but then she feels his hand on her right bicep, the rough squeeze of his palm.
“The Doyle is big time, Zan,” he says. “They don’t give it to weenies. Weenies don’t get nominated for it.”
“Thanks,” she says, relaxing a little, though surely Roger could have come up with better congratulations than “not a weenie.” Easing into the left lane to pass a slow-moving tractor-trailer, Alexandra starts daydreaming about the Doyle—$50,000 awarded each year to a visual artist, no strings attached—and what she will do with the money if she wins: spend three months at a ceramics institute in Japan that specializes in porcelain and takes only a handful of foreign students per semester. She can’t remember the last time she wanted something this much; she is desperate to go.
Alexandra makes a living working in clay and less frequently porcelain, designing sleek, indigo household items—vases and serving platters, mostly—and tiny, trendy things, like custom ring dishes for bridal parties. She sells them on Etsy, at pop-up flea markets in the summer, and to friends of her mother’s. The money is decent, but it cuts into the time Alexandra has to make her own “work”—and she gags on the word alone, never sure how to talk about being an artist without sounding like a total dick. She has gallery representation in LA and Austin, but it’s been months since she’s sent them anything new, longer still since they’ve reached out to ask what she’s working on.
Now, when Alexandra does sculpt for herself, it’s a stolen hour late at night, after orders are fulfilled and she’s sure Millie’s safe in bed. Of late, Alexandra’s pieces are delicate, hollow structures, pockmarked with nicks and holes. The forms, at once spare and heavy, are not especially suited to clay. Their walls, which taper and pool, should not be able to endure firing, and they often don’t, exploding in the kiln. When a piece survives, she glazes only the inside and suspends it with a cord from the ceiling of her studio. At some point, Alexandra decides that the shapes are seed pods, though she never says so aloud. Few have seen the pods. Millie has, and so have Alexandra’s parents. Roger has too, but only once or twice.
“I should hear from the committee within the next forty-eight hours, give or take,” Alexandra tells Roger. “It’s cool just to be nominated, you know”—nominated? She sounds like a grating drama club friend of Millie’s, rehearsing her future Oscar speech—“but holy shit, I’d love to win.”
“I bet you would,” says Roger. He has produced a fisherman’s hat from his fanny pack and pulls it low over his eyes, apparently to take a snooze. Alexandra opens her mouth to ask Roger if he really thinks he’s napping right now instead of navigating, when he speaks again, booming, sonorous. “All the luck in the world,” he says before shutting his eyes, a benediction. “May it be yours.”
Roger Lambeth was already famous when he and Alexandra met in 1998, her sophomore year at Sierra—a small liberal arts college in Colorado—but she hadn’t heard of him. When he arrived at the start of the spring semester for a guest professorship, Alexandra pretended to know who he was because it was clear everybody else did: she was the only one not clamoring to take his classes or vying to escort him around campus.
She was twenty that year, and despite registering at the last moment, managed to snag a spot in his sculpture class Form and Landscape. Before meeting Roger, Alexandra threw large vessels with lids that were most often described as urns and did not know what to do with a project besides make it as perfect as possible.
At the time, Roger was forty-five and best known for his work in neon: he half-buried long, skinny tubes glowing chartreuse or magenta in cool desert sand, then took a long exposure as the sky grew darker or got brighter. He was known as both a photographer because he showed and sold the prints, and as a sculptor because he did installation work.
One evening in April when the breeze was scented with blossoms, Alexandra stayed after class in the studio. She cultivated the Joni Mitchell look back then, three decades too late: middle-parted hair washed infrequently, chambray everything.
“Zan,” Roger said for the first time, like he’d said it a million times before, “do you ever think your pots are too symmetrical? What would happen if you threw something off center?”
In the moment, Alexandra shrugged off his suggestion, trying hard to contain her full-body blush, to stop thinking about how tall Roger was, how good he looked in his glasses and splattered jeans. But his words took root in the back of her head where they grew tendrils and later thorns.
She also knew, when Roger moved to brush a smear of wet clay from her cheek, that he was going to kiss her. She did not expect the urgent, clothes-on sex they had atop the wheel she’d used to throw hours earlier, could not yet imagine Millie, who’d arrive fifteen months later: five pounds, always angry, and raven-haired, like Roger.
They were broken up before Millie was crawling, and for a few years after that, Alexandra spoke to him only when necessary. But he comes to see Millie every summer. He reliably sends presents and money and takes her all over the world on whirlwind trips that last ten days, but which are recounted to Alexandra for months afterwards, voyages to places she has never been: Rio and Glasgow, Zurich and Kuala Lumpur.
By the time she was nine or ten, Millie was taking photographs of her own, mostly film that she learned to develop as she got older, with help from Alexandra at first and then not at all, in a makeshift darkroom in their downstairs bathroom, a towel shoved in the gap between the door and the floor.
To her resignation and dismay, Alexandra sees Roger annually, at least. She prefers him now through the lens of their daughter’s Nikon-F7. Often in her pictures, Millie features a work of art, occasionally her father’s, but always off-center, half obscured by a glitter of lights. Roger himself is sometimes caught lurking offstage in a corner of the frame, looking older, looking bored.
The semi-private rafting trip they’re joining is scheduled to put-in at the river at first light, but Alexandra hasn’t really slept; she’s had an agitated night of reading in the bathtub and pacing the motel hallways.
In the grey light of dawn, they try on life jackets (which all smell rancid, like other people’s sweat) and Millie looks sidelong at Alexandra, who is very cold in a holey t-shirt and denim cut-offs, topped with a plastic poncho that she hopes will trap her body heat.
“Cotton is a terrible fabric for a river trip,” Millie says. “It doesn’t insulate or breathe, especially when it’s wet.”
“No way,” says Alexandra. None of the flashy outdoor stores in town are open at this hour. She has packed sweatshirts, t-shirts, a second pair of cut-offs, a couple bandanas, a bikini. An old sleeping bag of Greg’s that smells musty in a good way, like a garage, and several packets of peanut butter crackers, added in a moment of panic over getting hungry at night.
On Millie’s other side, Roger fiddles with a large dry bag brimming with fresh-from-the-store supplies, both useful (a gorgeous sleeping bag that packs down to a football) and not (a compass, a hand-crank emergency radio/lantern combo, an orange spade for digging holes in which to poop). Alexandra wonders if he dispatched his assistant to REI with a list and a credit card, or if he shopped for the items himself, comparing ratings and reviews online. Roger unzips a first aid kit, stuffed tight with bandages and individually wrapped packets of tablets and ointments. He tears one open, starts chewing something white and chalky.
Seeing Alexandra watching him, he says, “I’ve been taking all sorts of things for my gut these days, it’s been acting up,” and he pats his stomach, like it’s a pet he’s fond of. “How much do you know about intestinal flora?” he asks, not waiting for a response, when Alexandra is very nearly knocked over by Mira arriving in a blur, shrieking “Mills!” and catching Millie from behind in a bear hug that ends with both of them tumbling into the nearest boat.
“Thank god you’re here, it’s been so boring without you—I’ve been keeping a mental list of annoying things to tell you, like you won’t believe what my mom packed? How was your drive? Did you bring the solar charger?”
Suddenly Millie is vibrant and awake, and she and Mira walk away from the adults, their arms linked and heads bowed in whispered conversation. Alexandra has a feeling that this is a preview of the next few days, any half-hearted visions she had of mother-daughter bonding with Millie seeming suddenly silly. Alexandra turns to look at Roger. He is frowning; he has his plastic compass flat on his palm in front of him and is slowly lowering and raising his hand in the air, as if this makes any difference at all.
“So that’s the famous, popular, crazy Mira,” he says, not taking his eyes off his compass. “She could stand to be more polite. Millie perked up, but did you notice, she didn’t think to introduce us? It’s not as if I’m about to announce myself to an adolescent. Millie should know better, she does know better. Where do you think he is, this father of Mira’s?”
“That’d be me,” says a voice from the direction Mira came. “Ram. Hi,” he says, extending a hand to Roger. To Alexandra, he says, “Hey, Alex,” and she beams at him, though no one ever calls her this.
Ram is slightly taller than Roger’s 6’2”, which is rare enough that Roger notices; Alexandra sees him glancing at the top of Ram’s head. The men size each other up—Roger in his new fisherman’s hat and aviator glasses (both bound to his skull with cinch-tight bungees), and bulky water sneakers better suited to a toddler; Ram in a black t-shirt made from a silky technical synthetic fabric, a Dodgers ball cap, and sandals with crisscross webbing.
“How do you do,” says Roger. “And what do you do, if I may ask? My daughter recently told me that question’s now considered rude and passé, though I don’t see why it should be.”
Ram smiles. “I don’t mind,” he says. “I’m an architect. I know who you are, of course.”
“Oh, an architect!” Roger brightens. “Fantastic! Say, do you know—”
“Hey y’all,” breaks in Amanda, one of two impossibly fresh-faced Mormon twenty-five-year-olds who will be guiding them downriver. “It’s time to get this showboat on the water, so get your keisters in the rafts!”
Alexandra hopes to end up sitting next to Ram accidentally on purpose. Roger is talking his ear off about a building in Dubai, and she looks for a pause to intervene, but Ram’s head is inclined, listening to Roger and nodding at the things he’s saying. They take the last two spots in Amanda’s boat, which is where Millie and Mira are too. Alexandra is left to fend for herself in the other boat with a pair of newlywed husbands from Oregon, entirely absorbed in one another, and piloted by Jake, who at least has the massive arms of a river guide.
Once they are afloat, Alexandra lies on her back over the curved side of the raft and looks at the canyon walls stretching high overhead, striations of tan and rust and gold. The Colorado is brown, choked with the snowmelt of a good winter, but at the right moments, out of the sun, it winks at her in flashes of grey and green.
While the newlyweds dip their paddles into the water—short, ineffectual strokes that are more about the experience than they are moving downstream—Alexandra attempts a surreptitious e-mail check on her phone, hoping for news of the Doyle.
“Hey, what d’you think you’re doing? You can’t look at your phone now!” Alexandra glances up. Jake is shaking his finger at her, smiling. “I promise, nothing on your phone is as good as all this.” He sweeps his hand around them, as though he is somehow responsible for the natural splendor.
Alexandra forces a smile and resents having to explain about the Doyle, but does so anyway. “Sorry, though,” she adds, when she realizes Jake is actually listening. “I’m sure it’s annoying to watch people have their faces in their phones instead of looking at the canyon.”
“It is, usually,” Jake says. “Jack and Phil over here,” the newlyweds turn around and give him a dual thumbs up, “have been on the waiting list for this trip for five years. But I’m sorry about what I said—this award sounds important, too. I didn’t realize you were an artist.”
Hearing him call her this, without guile, makes Alexandra smile. Jake has a kind face, brown eyes, and a spray of freckles across his nose.
“I didn’t realize this trip was like, hard to get on,” she says. “I think my daughter’s friend’s dad just called and set it up?”
Jake shrugs. “Some people know how to pull strings. Hey, do you like stars?”
“Celebrities? Or celestial bodies? Actually, it doesn’t matter—I like both.”
This makes Jake laugh. “I meant the kind in the sky, but you’d be surprised, not everybody does. There’s a meteor shower tomorrow night, not a huge one, it’s called the June Bootid. It’s early, around four. I can wake you up, if you want… You too, guys!” he calls to the front of the boat, but Jack and Phil don’t hear him this time, they are flicking water at each other with the tips of their oars.
“Okay,” Alexandra says. “Wake me up.” This is unexpected, this hot and nauseous feeling high in her stomach, like being asked on a date. “I saw the Perseid once, in the desert,” she adds. “Years ago.” She doesn’t mention that this was during her and Roger’s brief courtship, the window of time in which they conceived Millie.
In the late afternoon, the group makes camp on a bluff overlooking the river, surrounded by sagebrush, still wet from a sudden rain, and bordered on one side by a silty beach, where Mira and Millie are spreading mud on each other’s limbs, pretending they’re at a spa. Alexandra watches them from several feet away as she makes squat figures out of river clay and arranges them in a wide, wobbly circle. From what she catches of their conversation, she gathers that Mira thinks Amanda is hot; Millie thinks Jake is.
Alexandra’s thoughts are drifting, watching individual branches and bits of foam float down the river, when she hears Ram’s voice, clear and sharp.
“Mira!” he shouts. “Come back closer to the shore. That’s dangerous.” Alexandra follows his gaze to where the girls have waded out into the river, the current rushing fast around their narrow waists. Mira glares at her father and gives him the finger (Jack and Phil are at the other end of the beach, making a show of looking away) but she stomps through the rushing water, and after a moment, Millie follows. When Mira reaches the shore, Alexandra hears Ram say something clenched about the solar charger and the rest of the trip, while Millie hangs a pace or two behind. Ram stalks off toward the dry bags—presumably to confiscate the charger—and once he’s gone, Millie and Mira head off purposely in the opposite direction. Alexandra wonders if they’re going to go smoke weed (undoubtedly what she’d have been doing on a camping trip at sixteen) when Roger plops down next to her. He’s just back from the camp toilet (a watertight box with bleach in it that poor Amanda and Jake have to haul in and out of each campsite) where he’s been spending a lot of time.
“I saw the end of that,” he says. “I’m grateful we don’t have that kind of relationship with Millie. It’s so exhausting, arguing with teenagers over every last thing.”
Alexandra snorts. How the hell would Roger know? When Millie is with him, she has neither a bedtime nor household chores. Roger buys her whatever she wants, lets her have espresso and champagne. But he doesn’t catch Alexandra’s snort, nor the sneer she’s giving him.
“Say, those are cute,” he says, noticing the clay figures between them, already cracking in the arid air. “Is this part of a new series?”
“No.” Alexandra stands. “It’s the Burghers of Calais.” She stomps on the soft forms with her bare heels, crushing them into the beach. She wants to get as high up out of the canyon as she can before the sun sets, and there is a rise behind their camp that looks steep but climbable.
When Alexandra reaches the top of the hill, she sees the camp laid out before her: the dots of Phil and Jack joining Roger at the river’s edge, Amanda and Jake moving in congress, neat circuits as they prepare dinner—guests aren’t allowed to help. Alexandra checks her phone—three whole bars. She opens her e-mail, forgetting to breathe as she waits for it to load, taking breath in gulps when her lungs remember. The third message down: The Doyle Foundation. She clicks, her heartbeat echoing in her throat. Dear Alexandra. She scans the next sentence and sees all she needs to. Not this year. Not her. Alexandra thought she had steeled herself for disappointment, that she’d imagined the disfavorable outcome of this scenario so many times that the bad news, if it arrived—when it arrived—would sting less. But her body betrays her; she feels the letdown low in her stomach, making its way to her chest. The last of the sun hugs the rim of the canyon, lighting it like a laser beam.
When she reaches the others around the fire, they are snacking on chips and fresh-chopped salsa, playing some kind of game. Wordlessly, Alexandra sits on an empty chair and sifts her feet through the sand. She knows that the others are talking around her, but isn’t tracking what they’re saying.
“What about you, Alex?” Ram is asking her something.
“Never have I ever been bungee jumping, you?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Mom,” Millie starts, ready to lecture, “that’s not at all how you play, you have to say, ‘never have I ever,’” but she stops when she sees Alexandra’s face. “What happened?”
“Nothing,” she says, alarmed to hear her voice quaver, “just the Doyle.”
Millie gets up to come around the circle and hug her mother, a hug that Alexandra wants very much, but she does not want to cry in front of strangers, in front of Ram and Roger, and she knows she will blubber if she lets Millie hold her, so she forces a smile and says, “It’s okay, honey.” Before Millie can reach her, she’s on her way to the camp kitchen to grab the first hamburger, rare. Alexandra sees Millie’s face fall, but doesn’t turn back.
“I’m sorry about that prize,” Jake says quietly, when he slides the bleeding burger onto Alexandra’s bun. She nods, and smiles at him, her lips pressed together, and tries not to cry, feeling both grateful and foolish.
After dinner, Amanda goes to the kitchen area and comes back to the fire with a round chocolate cake in her hands, thirty-two supermarket candles (sixteen each for Mira and Millie) stuck into the frosted, rainbow-sprinkled top. The girls are delighted; they blow the candles out in unison, then begin methodically pulling them out of the cake, sucking on the bottoms.
“Amanda, I’m amazed,” says Phil. “How did you manage to bake a cake out here?”
“Camping oven!” Amanda says and winks. “We do it a lot—you can haul so much on these boats, you wouldn’t believe it. Angel food for you two, tomorrow!”
“Oh! Wait!” This reminds Alexandra of something else she has packed. She runs to her dry bag for two purple glow-stick necklaces, the kind that are snapped into activation before being held in a hoop with a plastic clasp.
Millie gives her mother a side hug and puts on the necklace, but Mira looks at the glow-stick with a mixture of pity and disdain, waits a beat too long before she takes it, then dangles it from her hand. Alexandra wants to take the glow necklace back, but doesn’t know how to without seeming extremely petty. She announces she’s tired and will see them in the morning.
Mira and Millie have chosen to make their own camp, away from the others and closer to the beach, so Alexandra is alone when she finds her sleeping bag, cold to the touch. She slips inside and closes her eyes, but it becomes evident that it will be impossible to sleep while the other adults are still awake, drinking and talking around the fire. Roger, of course, is loudest of all. From afar, she can’t catch individual words and phrases, but she hears how he holds their attention, how they laugh appreciatively at all the right parts.
Alexandra does not know how long she’s been lying there when she hears someone coming up the hill, whistling tunelessly. Roger. In the dark, she watches him dig through his duffel, still whistling.
“You know, you guys are being really loud,” Alexandra says, sitting up encased in her sleeping bag like a worm. “Also, why are you whistling? When you know I’m up here sleeping?”
She sees the form of Roger pause, turn toward the sound of her voice. A second later, she’s blinded by the LEDs of his headlamp, searing her retinas.
“What the hell!”
“Just wanted to be sure of where you were. I’ll tell them to keep it down.” Roger pauses, like he wants to say something else. “I don’t know if you’re humiliated, or just disappointed—”
“What? Humiliated? Where do you get that?”
“Fine. Then you’re upset. About the Doyle. That’s no reason to lash out at me.”
“You didn’t think I could do it,” she says, as though it’s just occurring to her. “I mean, could you have been more patronizing? What did you say? In the car? ‘The Doyle’s big time, good luck?’ Fuck that. Fuck you.”
Again, Roger is silent, she wishes she could read his face. “Who do you think nominated you, Zan?” he says at last. “Of course I believe in you, silly girl. I always have.”
Alexandra feels a rush of several things at once: first, infuriatingly, affection toward Roger because she’s never quite shaken it, in spite of herself—it is his approval that means the most. Quickly, this is overtaken by irritation: she isn’t a girl, she’s a woman in what should be the prime of her career, and she should’ve won a Doyle by now, should be preparing for a mid-career retrospective at a mid-tier, no, at a major museum. Instead, she is still dependent on Roger’s connections and goodwill, just as she was at twenty.
“It’s convenient for you, isn’t it?” Alexandra says. “Being a parent when you feel like it, but an artist first, always.”
“Oh please,” Roger says. “As if I could have convinced you to do anything else. I asked you to come with me. You were adamant—you wanted to stay in Santa Fe with your daughter. Our daughter.”
“Do you even remember, when we tried to come with you? How awful it was? No duh I didn’t want to sit there and breastfeed in the lobby while you held court in a gallery, getting drunk and making friends. No, ‘friends’ is the wrong word. Acolytes. Fans. Meanwhile, I raised our daughter for both of us, you’re welcome.”
“It just means duh, Roger.”
“Then why not say duh? You’re as bad as Millie. And I don’t think she’s fine, incidentally—she barely speaks to you, who knows what she’s off doing with that Mira, the two of them are awfully furtive, don’t you think? Maybe you haven’t noticed.”
Here he is. The Roger who drips with sanctimony when he feels like being mean.
“How fucking dare you,” she says, lowering her voice to a hiss even though the others are far away. “You are an authority on nothing where Millie is concerned. It’s girl stuff, which you’d know if you knew anything about teenagers or Millie, but you don’t—child support isn’t the same thing as parenting. Like, thanks for the money and literally nothing else.” She does not say, “and the Doyle nomination,” because it is too embarrassing, too pathetic, already in the air between them.
Roger sighs. “I’m not doing this right now,” he says, as though they are not already doing it. “I’m going back to the fire.” Alexandra is still breathing hard while he walks away. She wants to break something, or storm out, but there is nothing to shatter and nowhere to go. She doesn’t remember falling asleep, as her fury wafts off of her in thin layers, never dissipating completely.
When Alexandra next opens her eyes, the sky is a soft blue like the inside of a songbird’s eggshell and the air is scented with the mineral undertone of sunlight hitting cold earth. The world is only perfect in moments; if she thought too hard about what came before or after, it was ruined. When she remembered about the Doyle and her fight with Roger, the lightness she felt when opening her eyes evaporates, fog in June sun.
Shortly after setting off on their float for the day, the group reaches the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. Alexandra is surprised to find that the Green River is actually green, though the brown waters of the Colorado overtake it when they merge. The confluence is calm, if ominous— the water rearranges itself to double its volume, but quietly, as though it hopes to escape notice.
As they drift downstream, the river glassy but swift, Amanda and Jake brief the party about the rapids they’ll soon encounter, including one ‘Class V’ called Satan’s Gut. Alexandra feels her blood quicken when they round a bend in the canyon and hear the sound of rushing, pounding water getting louder, getting closer. Jake yells, “Not long now!” Then she sees it: crests of water as tall as ocean waves, and equally alarming, scoops carved from the river, so deep Alexandra expects to see the stony bed below. Her stomach flip-flops as they drop into Satan’s Gut, racing downhill, spray stinging their cheeks. As they swirl into the heart of the rapid, a wave of brown water crashes over the side of the raft.
Alexandra cries out in shock from so much cold water at once, but can’t hear her own voice over the roar of the river. She catches sight of Millie in front of her, just out of reach, smiling in adrenaline-fueled glee at Mira. The girls have their fingers looped loosely around the ropes that ring the boat. Alexandra scoots forward, incrementally, until she can touch Millie. She throws her arm across her daughter like a safety bar on a rollercoaster.
“What are you doing? Get off!” Millie shouts, and pushes Alexandra’s arm away.
“You’re not holding on tight enough!” Alexandra shouts back, trying to reposition herself, like her forearm is the only thing between Millie and certain disaster.
“I’m fine!” Millie yells. “Don’t touch me! I’m holding on, see?” She grasps the ropes more tightly and Alexandra relents, backing up a few inches, turning her face from the spray.
I’m sorry, she thinks, looking at the back of Millie’s neck, the bare skin underneath her ponytail. I’m so sorry I didn’t let you hug me. I’m sorry I’m a shitty mom right now. I’m infinitely sorry, Mills, and I can’t say it, because once I start apologizing I won’t ever be able to stop, there’s so much to apologize for.
The raft spins out of Satan’s Gut into calm water. Up ahead, they hear the other boat cheering, but Alexandra is uneasy, how long until the next rapid? She takes deep, ragged breaths.
“You did good,” a hand on her shoulder. Jake. “That’s the biggest rapid of the whole trip, and it’s behind you.” Alexandra nods. Jake leaves his palm on her shoulder and she lets it steady her.
When they make their camp, Alexandra changes into damp sweatpants, only slightly less clammy than her cutoffs. She pulls her polar fleece over her bikini top and grabs a cold Tecate on her way to the fire pit, where the others are waiting for dinner. The terror she’d felt on the river has been replaced by a giddy, tumbling relief. They have survived the worst of it.
Alexandra cracks open the beer and relishes the rush of bubbles to the back of her throat where they burst against her membranes, scratching an itch she didn’t know she had. Carbonation feels so nice, she thinks, so satisfying, as she takes another long gulp.
By bedtime, she is drunk on three Tecates and an almost empty stomach. Jake keeps trying to catch her eye and she remembers something about astrology, no astronomy, does he have a telescope to show her? Alexandra can’t remember, but she winks at Jake anyway.
Hours later, she’s still halfway drunk and coming out of a complicated dream when she hears a low voice by her ear.
“Hey,” the voice says again. “It’s Jake. The Bootid’s starting. You still want to see?” Bleary-eyed and not wanting to get out of her sleeping bag but feeling for some reason that she has to, Alexandra nods. The outside air is frigid. She shoves her feet into sandals and throws Greg’s sleeping bag over her shoulders like a shawl.
“Want to sit on the beach?” Jake says. She nods again and follows him, stumbling through the darkness, hitting her big toe against something sharp and wincing instead of cursing so she doesn’t wake anyone up. There’s a tarp already laid on the beach, and Jake’s sleeping bag, unzipped and spread out like a blanket.
“This okay?” he asks, almost shyly. “You get the best view lying flat on your back.”
“This rocks,” Alexandra says, settling herself on Jake’s sleeping bag and covering her body with her own. Even whispering, their voices seem insanely loud—it’s the deepest time of night, when all but the river and the wind are asleep.
“Look!” Jake says after a minute. “Did you see that one?”
“No,” Alexandra says, but a few minutes later, she sees a falling star, and another, then three or four in quick succession. “Wow!” she cries, and Jake laughs.
“Sorry,” she whispers. “This is cool! What’s it called again, the June Bug?”
“The June Bootid.”
Alexandra turns her head, catches his smile. She is curious, can feel something happening between them, like winding a clock, the gears moving slowly at first, then smooth and quick. She wants to know about meteors.
“How can it be every year?” she says, asking a question she’d be too embarrassed to voice sober or in daylight. “Because like, aren’t shooting stars just rocks hitting the atmosphere? That seems so random, but these things happen every year.”
“A shower happens when the earth’s orbit intersects with a comet’s orbit, on its annual trip around the sun. The meteoroids still hit the atmosphere, and the air around them still burns up, same as the stuff from outer space we never see coming.” He explains it patiently, not like she’s stupid.
“Oh,” Alexandra says. “Neat.” When she turns to look at Jake, his face is close, not six inches away.
“Can I say something?” he asks her. “I don’t want to be weird or creepy or anything, but I think you’re really beautiful. And not just for like, however old you are—not that I’m saying you’re old.”
It’s so easy, and it happens so fast that it feels like her face does it for her, tilting itself to Jake and meeting his lips. If he’s surprised, he doesn’t show it. His kiss is warm and sweet, like his face, and it tastes like corn chips and butterscotch. She feels his hand on the back of her head, his fingers in her hair.
Then, behind them, Alexandra hears a cough. Not an ahem, but a hacking of lungs out cough. Jake sits straight up, and Alexandra hides under her sleeping bag. The coughing continues, comes closer. A second later, a flashlight beam sweeps over her.
“Jake?” says Roger. “Sorry, didn’t see you. Ram needs his inhaler, it’s in the boat.” She feels Jake rise quickly beside her, running to meet them, locating Ram’s dry bag in the raft. They reek of weed, Roger and Ram and someone else, another pair of feet; Alexandra sneezes. She crawls out from under her sleeping bag, feels Roger’s headlight beam hit her square in her face.
She clamps a palm over her eyes. “Stop doing that!”
“Zan?” he says, confused, and then, horrifyingly, he giggles. Ram puffs several times on his inhaler, is sitting on the edge of the boat with Jake, who’s watching him closely. Phil is there, too, clearly mortified—he won’t look at anyone, but is too polite to leave.
“I’m okay,” Ram says, taking a deep breath. “Sorry if we, uh, interrupted you, Alex,” he adds, motioning to Alexandra and Jake, then watching Roger for his reaction.
Alexandra doesn’t hesitate; she still has enough booze in her blood to be bold.
“I don’t go by Alex, actually. Never have. Glad your asthma attack wasn’t fatal, Ram.” She turns around and begins the long stumble back toward the sleeping bags.
“Well done!” she hears someone whisper behind her. Phil. He lights the way for Alexandra back to her sleeping bag and she thanks him. She wishes she were unembarrassed, but she does feel shame—slow-burning and crawling up her back—for something private being exposed, for being a (possible?) cougar, for being Roger’s ex-flame, a mere footnote on his Wikipedia page.
She finds her mat, climbs into her sleeping bag and pulls it over her head. The meteor shower isn’t over, but Alexandra can’t bear it any longer, the feeling that she’s missed something incredible, when she turns her head too late and catches not the moment of impact, but the afterglow. She hasn’t figured out how to extract the terrible moments from the transcendent ones, when they are bound together so tightly.
In the morning, as they are packing up camp, Alexandra refuses to look at Roger and ends up in Amanda’s boat, with Millie and Mira. When they push off from the beach, she catches Jake’s eye and he and smiles at her, but it’s one she hasn’t seen before—distant, almost impersonal.
When Amanda announces over the wind and the water and the rumbling motors of the boats that Lake Powell is around the corner, Alexandra doesn’t believe her. The bend ahead looks the same as the five that precede it, another twist in the canyon. But all at once, there is the lake ahead of them, blindingly blue. They speed toward it, the boats’ yellow pontoons bumping over the waves. In the distance, Alexandra can make out the high-water mark like a stubborn bathtub ring on the canyon walls, at least eighty feet up. It seems wrong, this much water in the desert.
In the next boat, Roger’s hat has flown back from his head, but is still attached to his neck, the bungee cord drawn snug under his chin. “Hey, Mills! Check me out!” he shouts, then he and Alexandra look at each other. He has snot in his mustache and gives her a double thumbs-up, like she can forgive him, just like that, like all he has to do is act like a dorky dad for thirty seconds, and they’ll be fine. Is he deranged? Alexandra doesn’t know if you can come back from the kind of broken she and Roger are. Maybe someday, when Millie graduates from college, gets married, has children of her own. Or maybe Millie won’t marry or have children at all, maybe she’ll focus instead on her career as an artist, a photographer.
Alexandra sees herself, years away, leaning against a wall, grayer and thinner but still attractive, and Roger, rotund and aging terribly, seated on a chair beside her. Together, they take in large-scale black and white prints on clean, creamy walls, both bursting with silent pride: Millie’s debut solo show. In her daydream, Alexandra and Roger find each other’s hands and intertwine their fingers for a moment. There’s nothing erotic about it; it’s an acknowledgement of the best thing either of them would ever make.
On the river, Alexandra laughs softly to herself. She’s as crazy as Roger. She moves quickly, before she has time to stop herself. Holding her nose, she tips backward over the side of the boat. The water is cold and everywhere, shocking the tender folds of her unsuspecting skin. Once right side up, she feels the heavy drag of her shoes and kicks them off, feels the water pull them away. She untangles herself from the fetid mesh and twisted webbing of her lifejacket, pushes it toward the wake of the boat.
Her fingers and toes are tingling as they start to go numb, but it isn’t unpleasant. If she thinks about it in the right way, Alexandra can convince herself that they are warm.
She raises her eyes. The sun is high overhead and the lake reflects into her pupils, a dazzle of diamonds so bright it hurts. Alexandra finds a rock on the horizon, dull and unmoving, sets her gaze on it. Closing her eyes and puffing out her lips, she plunges her face back into the water and strokes hard for shore.