20 YEARS LATER
You promise yourself you’ll never settle.
And then you do.
And you promise yourself, not again.
And you do, again.
as if the bottom is not there, and the top
no longer in sight.
Is it like being deep in deep water?
Is this what drowning is like?
I cannot ask my friend Ben, who drown,
age 20, home from college, drinking
around a beach bonfire, and then
setting off by canoe into dark water
made silver in moonlight.
When he heard laughter trailing from the far shore
what regret came back?
He talked of a boyhood dog, grown weak in the hips,
so when it pissed, it fell over, and pissed on itself,
and the spots of blood he found, in the snow
that New Hampshire winter.
I talked of a grandfather with tubes in his nose
and liver spots across skin, and thick hands
that once swung a hammer, aimed a rifle,
touched a newborn.
And we watched the Blackfoot river slide past, tugging
ice clunks off the shore.
And we rattled another can of cheap beer from cardboard
case not because we were thirsty, but that each sip
was our breathing, and somehow it felt brave
to break deadfall and stoke our campfire, and let the stars spin,
and witness the grey of pre-dawn fade up, and the first birds
resume their stories.
“It is better to be bravely foolish,” said Ben,
“than foolishly brave.”
We wanted to feel the dawn frost etching each orange leaf,
and the dew bend down the sedge grass,
and make our noses drip but eyes clear.
We wanted to walk into in the Milltown café
where the first shift would fire up the grill
and sling scrambled eggs and hashbrowns,
and serve up bottomless mugs of watery coffee.
We wanted the waitress to call us “hon,” and notice
that we were up as early as she, and that
those who know sunrise share a secret.
But the waitress saw only two college boys, perhaps,
with twisted hair, and paperback books in mackinaw pockets,
and shook her head to herself, and knew that these two boys
knew nothing of settling, nothing of regret.
At least, not yet.
What is this feeling of falling,
with no bottom to catch, and
above a retreating flicker?
What would Ben have told me, had he made it
back to shore?
I would ask if drowning, as I have been told,
feels like euphoria the moment you let go.