Two Rivers Meet, Rebecca Turnbull
We were driving through the marshes of the Meadowlands on our way to Newark when my mother forgot where she was for the first time. She always had trouble with dates and names and the like. This felt different. She had been staring straight ahead, at the spot where I-95 twisted off into the naked trees. She had been talking about her wedding night.
“The city flooded that day. Did I ever tell you that?” she asked. She leaned forward a little bit as she said it. Her chin pointed forward. Her nose hooked down. “The water bubbled right up into Saint Mark’s Square, formed pools right in front of the Palace. But oh, the way the light reflected in those pools at night…” Mother sighed and leaned back. “And it—“
I saw Mother suck in her breath, watched from the corner of my eye as she looked about the car, eyes wide like lamplights. Her mouth parted slightly, circled, as if to start whistling Billy Joel again. “What…now where are we, darling? Where are we now?”
At first, I thought she had forgotten the route to the airport. The last time we drove down to EWR was for Thanksgiving two years ago, when Harrison had flown in from Denver to meet Mother and spend the holiday weekend with us in Ramapo. I had asked Mother to stay at home, that the drive was fine to take on my own, but she had wanted to meet Harrison at the gate. She said you could tell what kind of man someone was by the way he dressed for travel. When Harrison came out of the gate in blue jeans and a white collared shirt, she nodded silently to herself and patted me on the back.
“We’re on I-95, Mother,” I told her. “I told you, taking seventeen would have been too much with the rush hour traffic, and—“
“Now, where…” Mother started squirming in her seat a bit, turning to get a glimpse of the fingers of stagnant water that twisted through the tall yellow grasses, of the power lines and smokestacks of East Rutherford. She stretched a hand out in my general direction, without looking at me. I held her fingers tight. They were cold again.
“Mama, we’re going to EWR, remember? The airport?”
“The airport,” she breathed. “Now, why are we going to the airport, darling?”
“Harrison is flying in,” I said. “We’re signing the divorce papers with the attorney tomorrow, and then he’s going to that psychology convention in Midtown.”
Mother held my hand a bit tighter. She shook it up and down, gently. Like she was weighing it. “Did I tell you about the pools that night? My wedding night, that is. My God, we ran from Santa Lucia all the way to the square. Just to see the lights reflect in those pools. Me in my wedding dress, and—oh, the beading on that dress—and Robert in his coat and tie…”
She dropped my hand slowly. She patted it as I rested it back on the stick. “It had just flooded that day, the city did. Didn’t stop raining for nothing the night before. But that night, the water was still. Completely still. Like it was waiting.”
I cleared my throat and gripped the wheel tighter. “I know, Mom.”
“Do you remember it, too? The water?”
I shook my head. “I wasn’t there, Mom.”
She paused a second. Looked at me real close. “Oh, but of course not darling. I tease you. Truly.” But she kept looking at me, like she wasn’t so sure. Like she remembered the curves of my name as she wrote it on an invitation. Like she remembered when I telephoned to say I wouldn’t make it. “Oh.” She waved her hand at the air. Let’s forget about it. Mother settled back in her seat. “Enough about my wedding. I’m afraid you’ve got enough to deal with, dear.”
The car was silent. I kept driving.
“Does Harrison need a room? I don’t think I’ve been able to dust up in the guest room, but I can always pop in there real quick before he goes to sleep. I remember he’s got that allergy, right?”
“Right, Mom,” I said. “But he’s got a hotel room, he doesn’t need a bed in the house or anything. It’s just one night, too.”
“Oh.” She waved her hand again.
“But thank you,” I said. I turned to her, but Mother wasn’t looking at me anymore. She was watching the lazy hum of the marshes.
We were in Terminal C when my mother forgot about my father’s death for the first time.
Harrison had already come out of the gate by the time Mother and I got there. He leaned against the railing by the Security Checkpoint. He tapped his thigh with his hand, drumming out a beat as he talked on the phone. To her, most likely. I imagined him making some joke about the lazy boot cut of my jeans, or the way I had to put some effort into pushing mother’s wheel chair forward. Margaret was probably laughing softly on the other end of the line, just soft enough to get him riled up and wishing he were in her bed in Portland instead of waiting for me at the airport.
My mother raised a hand and tried to find my arm. I gave her my hand and she pulled me close to her. She whispered, “Is he still talking to that whore?”
“Well? Are you going to answer your elderly mother?”
When he saw me, he kept eye contact as he hung up and put his phone away. He left his brown leather bag by the railing and walked towards me.
Harrison wore blue jeans again, could have been the same ones. I didn’t think they were, though. They seemed darker, newer, not yet broken in. White collared shirt, eyes open like he spent more of the three-hour flight reading Descartes’ Meditations than he did sleeping.
“Giulia,” he said.
He stuck a hand out over Mother, who sat in a wheelchair in front of me. Harrison and I shook hands. Brisk and fast and all business, except for the way he looked at my mother. He looked at her, analyzing, and then looked back at me. As if to say he was right, I should have listened to him, I shouldn’t be the one taking care of her still. I smoothed out my shirt.
“Julie,” I said. “If you don’t mind.”
Harrison pouted a bit. “Julie,” he said, testing it out. “Well, if it’s what you want.”
I nodded. Inhaled, exhaled, slow.
“Harrison DuPois!” Mother said. She moved to get out of the wheelchair, attempting to kick up the pedals her feet rested on. Her hands clutched the armrests, ready to push herself up.
“Mom, just stay, please,” I said.
“Oh, and be rude to our guest?”
I sighed. I came around the chair and braced her, one hand on my mother’s back, the other on her right hand. Harrison held his arms out to her as my mother slowly rose from the wheelchair.
“Amelia,” he said. She finally got up. He held both of her hands in both of his. He rocked them back and forth. “My, you haven’t aged a day.”
“Wish I could say the same for you, dear,” she told him. “You’re getting crow’s feet. Now the only man I’ve ever seen with crow’s feet as deep as yours was Robert.”
“How is he? Your husband,” Harrison said.
Mother looked at him for a second, and another one. Another. “He’s…well now, he’s…”
“Why don’t you sit back down, mother?” I said. I helped her get back into the wheelchair. “Harrison, go get your bag before someone calls security.”
Harrison sucked in a breath. He put a hand on his chest. “Julie, I’m sorry, I—”
“Bag. Get it now, please.”
Once Mother was in the chair again, I turned and started pushing back towards the outside of the terminal, to parking lot A. Harrison went to get his bag and followed.
That night at dinner we ate the wedding soup my mother had been preparing all day. Harrison raved about it. He felt a great chill the entire plane ride here, he said, and the soup warmed him right back up. That made Mother smile. I knew she felt most useful when she was cooking food and filling bellies. I sipped on some Cabernet. Father would have told me that the reds, the good reds like the Sauvignon especially, should be saved for steak. The heavier stuff. Mother had some hot lemon water. Harrison had cracked open a Mighty Mango Naked Juice he had bought at the airport.
When Mother finished eating, I cleared up her bowl and got her into bed. When I came back out to the kitchen, Harrison was poking around in the fridge. He peered around the door and looked at me. Then he looked back at the shelves, almost bare, sighed, and closed the doors. He walked back over to the table and sat down again.
“Just needed something a bit heavier,” he said.
“Then just ask, if you need something more filling. Don’t go poking around my kitchen.” I picked up his bowl, still half-filled with now-cold broth and meatballs and Acini de Pepe and brought it over to the sink.
“You don’t have much in your kitchen,” Harrison said. He got up again and reached for his wallet, which he had set down on the table. “I’ll grab something on my way over to the Sheraton.”
“There’s not much on 17, remember?” I said. “Just gas station food. Would you just—“ I grabbed some sea salt and almond Kind bars from the cupboard and tossed them on the table. “Just sit for a second.”
Harrison sat back down. He started unwrapping a Kind bar. I sat back down across from him.
“You really had to call Margaret as soon as you landed? You couldn’t have waited until you got to your hotel?” I said.
Harrison leaned back. “Maggie asked me to call her right after I landed. The flight took off on time instead of fifteen minutes late, and you said you hit traffic getting off the parkway. I called Maggie to tell her I got in just fine. That much I’m allowed to do.” He took a bite of granola, chewed, and swallowed. “I’m allowed to do much more than that, but I don’t. That’s the kind of person I am.”
“The kind of person you are,” I said.
“Oh, you righteous saint.”
“Come off that, Giulia.”
“Can you just—”
“Julie.” He put his hands up to stop me. “Got it.”
I could hear Mother’s air machine pumping back in her room. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale.
“I can’t believe you forgot about my father.”
Harrison looked at me. “We haven’t talked and—well, quite honestly, it’s easy to forget about if you’re not there to see the change. Last time I was here, before—“
Before he grew tired of me and went right to Maggie, I thought.
Harrison caught himself. “Then. I felt it then. The air felt different without him. Heavier.”
“And your mother,” he said. “Amelia, she—she didn’t remem—”
“You don’t get to have an opinion on this,” I said.
“I’m trying to help,” Harrison said.
“I’ve got it.”
“There are so many options you’re not exploring, you know that. You’re still not listening. Why won’t you listen? I mean, there are homes where she would have constant help, and you would be able to move back to the city, and she’d be safe and well off—“
“Stop talking. Please.”
He held his hands up as if to explain. “I’m trying.”
“I’m going to need you to stop trying.”
“You’re screwing yourself over here,” Harrison said, putting the granola bar down. “It’s entirely simple. We could even start while I’m here, we can visit a few homes, talk to some people. I know someone who works at Partridge Homes over in Allendale—“
“We aren’t doing anything,” I said. “You especially don’t get to do anything. Except sign those papers.”
“She’s not your mother. She’s my mother. And I’m doing what is best for her.”
Harrison didn’t say anything more. Just leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms at me. “Well alright then.”
I nodded. “Alright then.” I picked up his wrapper and tossed it in the trash under the sink. I took my keys off the hook by the door. “Come on. Let’s get you checked in. We’ve got an early appointment tomorrow.”
Sally next door came in early the next morning to watch Mother. Sally’s watched Mother before, but still, I left a note with a list of her morning medication, which I set up by the sink in her weekly pill box, with a red sticky note on top of the “Monday” slot. I left her my number, which Sally already had. But still.
I picked Harrison up at 7 and we took Route 17 to Hackensack, to the Law Offices of Peter Van Aulen. We sat in the waiting room for a bit before Van Aulen actually came in—traffic on 208, he said. “But come on back now,” he said. So, we went on back to his office.
I took the papers out of my bag, slightly crinkled from being in there for weeks. Harrison shook his head at me, slightly, like he didn’t think I would notice. Van Aulen went over the terms and everything again before Harrison clicked a ballpoint Van Aulen gave him and signed. I took my own pen out of my bag and signed after he did.
Harrison and I had gone to the Municipal building in Ramapo in a quick, fifteen-minute ceremony to tie the knot last March, on the 21st. It had been raining. I had stepped in a river of rainwater as it rushed to the gutter at the corner of Washington Ave and Corporate Drive. It was four, maybe five o’clock, the darkness of winter still settling early. The lamplights flicked on, covering the streets in a soft orange glow. It just made the running water look harsher. Like it was burning as it went.
Ours had been more of an intellectual fling than anything else. We had met at a psychology conference in Providence. He had been there as a psychology professor with several of his students, and I had been there with some other school counselors from the Pascack School District. We had sat next to each other during a talk on mental health in young adults and had sparked up a conversation that was enough to get me.
Harrison DuPois and I were married for a total of seven and a half months. The first few months were more than a honeymoon phase, it was passion and spark and his lips on mine, on my cheeks, on my neck. We spent entire weekends in bed, talking and making love and laughing. Being with Harrison was as easy as floating, as breathing.
Three months after Harrison and I got married, Mother started forgetting things. It consumed us. Things with Harrison became clouded, crash-course, water rushing towards the cliff of a waterfall and we hovered over the edge staring, each of us waiting for the other to fall first.
Each night was a conversation about Mother. What was wrong with my mother, what to do with my mother, what was there to say about my mother? Harrison spent evenings at the kitchen table on his laptop, looking up nursing homes while I helped Mother into bed. He threw phone numbers at me. He threw doctors’ names at me. Harrison would wake up in the morning and he would look at me, and I knew. He wanted her out of my hands, her weight off my shoulders. He would dial the numbers for homes and press call and place the phone in my hand. I would always hang up and walk out.
We stayed at each other’s throats, him insisting that I send my mother away, me refusing. Then my mother fell, stumbled with laundry she wasn’t supposed to be doing while trying to get up the steps. I was at the hospital for three days with her, stopping home only to grab her some things to make the room feel more at home: her plastic purple orchid plant, the knitted quilt Grandma Silvia had made, the ceramic lion my father got for her on their first anniversary. A reminder of their flooded wedding night in Venice.
Harrison hadn’t come to the hospital at all. He was interviewing for a job at Ramapo College as a visiting professor of psychology and was on campus for lunches with professors and students, giving mock presentations and lectures. To pay the medical bill, he had said.
I brought my mother home three days later, got her set up in bed and went into the kitchen to just sit, tired. It was late. Harrison was there, doing research on his laptop. It was the nursing homes again. He had spun the laptop around and showed me the place where he knew someone: Partridge Home.
“You don’t even have to dial. I’ll dial,” Harrison had said. “I know a guy who works there, great guy.” He talked aloud as he dialed. “Two-oh-one, eight-two-five, oh-six-six-oh.” He pressed call and handed the phone to me. I had smacked it out of his hand. I screamed at him until my throat was raw. I was tired. You weren’t there, I had yelled. This is my decision, not yours. She is my mother, not yours. You weren’t there.
When we left Van Aulen’s office, the grass outside was damp from the morning showers that had been going on and off. Small licks of streams rushed down the sides of the road to the gutter. I stepped in some runoff as Harrison and I walked to the car. It stained the light brown leather of my shoes for a while.
Thirty-five minutes later we pulled into the Sheraton lot. Harrison hadn’t said anything the whole way home. I don’t know if I wanted him to or not. Harrison just looked out his window, counting the number of Shell gas stations we had passed. He had said the number to himself, softly, each time. One, two, three, four.
I drove right up to the door for him. I didn’t put the car in park. I didn’t take my hands off the wheel. Just held the brake down steady with my foot. Waiting.
Harrison got out and looked back at me before he closed the doors. “I can give you some money,” he said. He reached for his wallet. “So, she can start having a nurse there regularly. Not you or Sally watching her and taking her blood pressure and making sure she turned the stove off after boiling some water. Here. Enough to keep you guys going with a nurse until you put her in a home that’ll give her the real help she needs.”
He handed me the money and I just looked at him sadly. I was tired. I wished he hadn’t said anything.
“The fare for train tickets to Penn goes up during peak traffic hours,” I told him. “You’ll need it.”
Harrison looked at me. Analyzed me. He had the look on his face he got when he was trying to figure something out, or someone out. Still.
“Close the door, please,” I told him. “Sally goes to work in the afternoon, so I need to go be with my mother.”
Harrison nodded and looked at me sadly. Maybe he was tired too. He closed the door and walked into the lobby.
I was talking to my mother about Harrison when she forgot who I was for the first time. Mother held onto Sally, like she was hers, and yelled at me. Eyes wide like lamplights. Her cold hands shaking as she gripped Sally’s forearms. It started raining again outside, so softly you couldn’t tell the rain was there unless you were looking for it. I tried reaching out to my mother, tried to calm her down. I choked on my breath. Mother pushed me away. I understood. I inhaled, slowly. I reached for the phone.
About the Author
Lucia Garabo · Susquehanna University
Lucia Garabo graduated from Susquehanna University in 2018 with degrees in Creative Writing and Italian. Her work has been previously featured in Silver Needle Press. “The Pools of Saint Mark’s Square” first appeared in RiverCraft.
About the Artist
Rebecca Turnbull · Marshall University
Rebecca Turnbull received her BA in journalism from Marshall University in 2018. She currently attends law school at The Ohio State University. Her photography and writing have previously been published in Thoreau’s Rooster. “Two Rivers Meet” first appeared in Et Cetera.