Read on for a little snippet from The River at Night by Erica Ferencik
A slapping spring wind ushered me through the heavy doors of the YMCA lobby as the minute hand of the yellowing 1950s-era clock over the check-in desk snapped to 7:09. Head down and on task to be in my preferred lane by precisely 7:15, I rushed along the glass corridor next to the pool. The chemical stink leaked from the ancient windows, as did the muffled shrieks of children and the lifeguard’s whistle. I felt cosseted by the shabby walls, by my self-righteous routine, by the fact that I’d ousted
myself from my warm bed to face another tedious day head-on. Small victories.
I’d just squeezed myself into my old-lady swimsuit when the phone in my bag began to bleat. I dug it out. The screen pulsed
with the image of Pia Zanderlee ski-racing down a double black
diamond slope somewhere in Banff.
My choices? Answer it now or play phone tag for another week.
Pia was that friend you love with a twinge of resentment. The
sparkly one who never has time for you unless it’s on her schedule,
but you like her too much to flush her down the friendship toilet.
“Wow, a phone call—from you!” I said as I mercilessly assessed
my middle-aged pudge in the greasy mirror. “To what do I owe the
Of course I knew the reason. Five unanswered texts.
Pia laughed. “Hey, Win, listen. We need to make our reservations.
Like, by tomorrow.”
I fished around in my swim bag for my goggles. “Yeah, I
“I get it. Nature’s not your thing, but you’re going to love it
once you’re out there. Rachel and Sandra are chomping at the bit
to go, but they have to make their travel plans. We all do.”
With a shudder, I recalled my frantic Google search the night
before for Winnegosset River Rafting, Maine.
“Just wondering why this place doesn’t have some kind of
website. I mean, is it legit?” I asked, my voice coming out all high
and tinny. Already I was ashamed of my wussiness. “I’d hate to
get all the way up there and find out this is some sort of shady
I could feel her roll her eyes. “Wini, just because some place
or something or someone doesn’t have a website doesn’t mean
they don’t exist.” She sounded windblown, breathless. I pictured
her power walking through her Cambridge neighborhood, wrist
weights flashing neon. “It’s a big old world out there. One of the
reasons this place is so awesome is because no one knows about it
yet, so it’s not booked solid before the snow’s even melted. That’s
why there’s space for the weekend we all want, get it? This year,
it’s the world’s best-kept secret—next year, forget it!”
“I don’t know, Pia . . .” I glanced at the time: 7:14.
She laughed, softening to me now. “Look, the guy who runs the white-water tours is a good friend of my dad—he’s my dad’s friend’s son, I mean, so it’s cool.”
“Can’t believe Rachel would want to—”
“Are you crazy? She’s dying to go. And Sandra? Please. She’d get on a plane right now if she could.”
With a wave of affection I pictured my last Skype with Sandra: kids running around screaming in the background, papers to correct stacked next to her. When I brought up the trip, she’d groaned, Hell, yes, I’m game for anything—just get me out of Dodge!
“Wini, listen up: Next year—I promise, we’ll go to a beach somewhere. Cancún, Key West, you choose. Do nothing and just bake.
“Look, Pia, I’m at the pool and I’m going to lose my lane—”
“Okay. Swim. Then call me.”
I tucked my flyaway dirty-blond bob—the compromise cut for
all hopelessly shitty hair—under my bathing cap, then hustled my
stuff into a locker and slammed it shut. Do nothing and just bake.
Did she really think that was all I was interested in? Who was the
one who rented the bike the last time we went to the Cape? Just
me, as I recalled, while all of them sat around the rental pouring
more and more tequila into the blender each day. And my God—
we were all pushing forty—shouldn’t awesome and cool be in the
rearview mirror by now?
I crossed the slimy tiles of the dressing room and pushed open
the swinging doors to the pool. The air hit me, muggy and warm,
dense with chlorine that barely masked an underwhiff of urine
and sweat. Children laughed and punched at the blue water in the
shallow end as I padded over to my favorite lane, which was . . .
It was 7:16 and frog man had beat me to it. Fuck.
For close to a year, this nonagenarian ear, nose, and throat doctor
and I had been locked in a mostly silent daily battle over the
best lane—far left-hand side, under the skylights—from 7:15 to
8:00 each weekday morning. Usually I was the victor, something
about which I’d felt ridiculous glee. We’d only ever exchanged
the briefest of greetings; both of us getting to the Y a notch earlier
each day. I imagined we both craved this mindless exercise,
But today I’d lost the battle. I plopped down on a hard plastic seat, pouting inside but feigning serenity as I watched him slap through his slow-motion crawl. He appeared to lose steam near the end of a lap, then climbed the ladder out of the pool as only a ninety-year-old can: with careful deliberation in every step. As I watched the water drip off his flat ass and down his pencil legs, I realized that he was making his way to me, or rather to a stack of
towels next to me, and in a few seconds I’d pretty much have to talk to him. He uncorked his goggles with a soft sucking sound. I noticed his eyes seemed a bit wearier than usual, even for a man his age who had just worked his daily laps.
“How are you?” I shifted in my seat, conscious of my bathing
cap squeezing my head and distorting my face as I stole the odd
glance at the deliciously empty lane.
“I’m well, thank you. Though very sad today.”
I studied him more closely now, caught off guard by his
intimate tone. “Why?”
Though his expression was grim, I wasn’t prepared for what he
“I just lost my daughter to cancer.”
“I’m sorry,” I choked out. I felt socked in the soft fleshy parts;
smacked off the rails of my deeply grooved routine and whipped
around to face something I didn’t want to see.
He took a towel and poked at his ears with it. A gold cross hung
from a glimmering chain around his thin neck, the skin white and
rubbery looking. “It was a long struggle. Part of me is glad it’s over.”
He squinted at me as if seeing me for the first time. “She was
about your age,” he added, turning to walk away before I could
utter a word of comfort. I watched him travel in his flap step the
length of the pool to the men’s lockers, his head held down so low
I could barely see the top of it.
My hands trembled as I gripped the steel ladder and made my
way down into the antiseptic blue. I pushed off. Eyes shut tight
and heart pumping, I watched the words
She was about your age
hover in my brain until the letters dissolved into nothingness. The
horror of his offhand observation numbed me as I turned and
floated on my back, breathing heavily in the oppressive air. As I
slogged joylessly through my laps, I thought of my own father
rolling his eyes when I said I was afraid of sleepaway camp, of third
grade, of walking on grass barefoot “because of worms.” As cold as
he could be to my brother and me, not a thing on earth seemed to
I had barely toweled myself off when my phone lit up with
a text from Pia. A question mark, that was it. Followed by three
more. Methodically I removed my work clothes from my locker,
arranging them neatly on the bench behind me. I pulled off my
bathing cap, sat down, and picked up the phone.
My thumbs hovered over the keys as I shivered in the over-
heated locker room. I took a deep breath—shampoo, rubber, mold,
a sting of disinfectant—and slowly let it out, a sharp pain lodging in my gut. I couldn’t tell which was worse, the fear of being left behind by my friends as they dashed away on some überbonding, unforgettable adventure, or the inevitable self-loathing if I stayed behind like some gutless wimp—safe, always safe—half-fucking-dead with safety. Why couldn’t I just say yes to a camping trip with three of my best friends? What was I so afraid of?
Pool water dripped from my hair, beading on the phone as I commanded myself to text something.
I watched my fingers as they typed, Okay, I’m in, and pressed send.