Beth said, “Look out–there’s a rock straight ahead!” I leaned to look around her, saw the ripple in the water, and pushed my paddle to veer away. Too late. The side of the bow hit the submerged rock hard. Beth flew out of the canoe, and I rolled into the river. I bobbed to the surface and saw her 10 feet away from me. Actually, I saw her upright head facing me as it floated sideways downriver, a huge grin plastered on her face.
I grabbed a paddle floating nearby, righted the canoe and climbed in. I went after Beth. I reached out a hand, shifted my weight away from her to counterbalance the canoe, and pulled her aboard. I circled back and found the other paddle caught in some reeds at the edge of the Little Miami.
We had set out an hour earlier from a canoe rental shop. The owner warned us of pirates downstream who would call to us from the shore. He said, “Make sure you see my sign on the dock before you pull in. If you pick the wrong place, they’ll take the canoe and leave you to find your way back on your own. And if you come back without my canoe, I’m gonna charge you for it. Same thing if you lose a paddle. Oh yeah, give me your driver’s license. You can have it back when you return with everything safe and sound.”
I normally wouldn’t have agreed to such odd terms, but Beth looked eager to go. I handed the man a twenty and my license.
Beth and I had gone to the same grade school and high school, but had never been friends. During the spring semester at U.D. she sat a few rows over from me in a philosophy class. She had green eyes, a willowy figure, and a big smile. I wanted to get to know her better.
Our first date didn’t end well. I gave her a little kiss as we said goodnight, and she stared daggers at me. I had crossed one of the lines a Catholic girl still felt obliged to draw. She surprised me when she agreed to go out again. We got on much better, and I made sure that I maintained a foot or two of separation between us the whole night. A week later she stopped me as I turned to leave, closed her eyes and leaned in for a kiss.
That summer we went to movies, family picnics, and jogged together in the evening. She liked to slip her hand into my back pocket as we walked side by side.
Beth broke things off at the end of August. We’d had a few arguments, nothing serious. Her phone call shocked me: I hadn’t seen any of the usual signs. She didn’t criticize my clothes, my choice in movies, the crappiness of my rust bucket car. I didn’t catch her coldly studying me. My first girlfriend once sat silently and glanced at me out of the corner of her eye as I drove us to a restaurant, toting up my strengths and weaknesses. The balance had been a negative number.
I had annoyed Beth on a few occasions, and she once accused me of not caring one bit about her feelings. But she’d never put any distance between us. I called her back and demanded an explanation for the sudden dump, and she concluded with the following: “I know I’ll find someone I like better than you. There are other fish in the sea.”
I saw her once after the fall semester began. She and a girlfriend crossed the quad in front of me, and Beth stopped to say hello. I grunted something back, deeply embarrassed and still smarting from her rejection. She smiled ever so brightly, said a few kind words and drifted away…
No pirates accosted us on a warm day in July as we glided on the current and twisted our way through a few rapids. We made it to the correct drop-off point without further mishaps, turned in the canoe and paddles and waited for the bus to come. She and I were still drenched, and the other canoe renters stared at us as we rode back. Beth and I didn’t feel embarrassed, but held hands and smiled. It had been an excellent day.