The Raft



Toni Mirosevich

They are all on the raft at the beginning, everyone who ever counted in your life, along with those who didn’t count, the resolved and the unresolved, every true blue friend, every nemesis, every good neighbor, every bad, your kindergarten teacher, the school bully, swim instructors, car mechanics of honest and ill repute, the quiet man you saw every morning at the coffee shop who nodded as you entered, your favorite checker who rounded down the total more than once, the shifty tax accountant, the girl who gave you your first kiss, the one who chose another, every inconsequential affair, and on there too, everyone of consequence, the inner circle, family, blood, those you call your loved ones, your one and only.

If you have evidence—credible, irrefutable—that the end is coming, if you have been given a timeline, then you have time to gather up everyone, see that they get on board, which isn’t possible for those who are taken from this life without notice, off guard, quickly, in a flash, an instant, in the plane going down, or the car crash, the gunshot, the heart that bursts without warning; not possible for those who drop dead in their tracks, right there on the sidewalk, for no apparent reason, nothing to indicate today was the day of reckoning for them, the day of sorrow for those who didn’t see it coming and therefore weren’t able to go along for the ride. Their loved ones will never be able to make a case in their defense, propose a bargain, take me instead, not like all those people on your raft who propose and propose and propose to no avail, who know full well that getting on board with you means somewhere, sometime, in the not too distant future, the ride will end.

So in the beginning it’s like a party or a convention of everyone you know or knew and you’ve even invited, the estranged, the long gone, the ones you’ve banished from your life; the grudge that never ended, the betrayal that never healed, that resulted in years of absence, in not calling, though, lord knows, nowadays we always have the means within reach, you can ask the person in the grocery line, right in front of you, if they wouldn’t mind, can you use their phone, and you can call because you remember the number, be honest, you remember, and when they answer, say, “I just wanted to hear your voice again,” without initially telling them the kicker, that your days are numbered, are being tallied by someone with an abacus in hand and each day, week, month, the hand reaches out and moves a bead over to the other side, and each time you hear the click of the wooden bead: loud, sharp, final.

You float down the river and soon learn this isn’t a joy ride, you’re not free yet, of duty, of care, of what binds you to the earth; there’s one more job to do. It’s your task to turf the unessential cargo. Certain people must go, and even though it was you who invited them along it is now you who decides the ones who don’t matter so: the one night stand, the members of the PTA, the odd relations you had to stomach but could just as well have done without, the convict nephew, the viperous aunt, all the coworkers who came back late from their breaks and didn’t care that you had to work overtime, and you were robbed of those minutes, precious minutes you could use now. How many minutes are wasted in waiting, in stewing, in unhappiness, and there are others who don’t deserve a second thought, all the bosses who were, well, bosses, and therefore expendable when the time comes, for this is the one time the rank and file rise up and turn the tables, here’s the real revolution, so you can say Supervisor, and hey, you, CEO, you go first, and you give them a little push.

Now there’s more room to move, not exactly a dance floor but a little more elbow room, and you begin to enjoy this spaciousness, this range of motion, now you can see the point of letting go, of getting rid of all that encumbers, and like a circus carney with his finger on the flip switch that, once flipped, sends the clown into the dunking tank, you are the one who gets to say when, and you laugh, not at the surprised look on the clown’s face, or the way he flails underwater, glub, glub, glub, not at others’ misfortune but at your own meager power, this little bit of say so, that’s delicious and spiteful and then strangely sad; see it’s not meanness really, it’s just that your body’s getting weaker and you’re less able to maneuver the raft with all that weight, so there goes the good friend who fed your dogs when you went on vacation, there goes the couple you played poker with, now a favorite schoolteacher who taught you the wonders of the Pleistocene age, now a childhood priest.

You must jettison them one by one in order to stay longer, that’s how it is, either or; you aren’t able to carry them though, ironically, when they signed on they thought they were carrying you, they thought you were the one who needed help. They joined up to be there for your every need, to fluff a pillow, run errands, bring a tuna casserole, eat, eat, they say, you need to build your strength, and you, who hate tuna, take a bite. All these people, well meaning, telling you what to do, and it dawns on you that there’s always a flip side: while they think they are the strong ones, the support, it’s the other fucking way around, and you want to shout, I am carrying you, but instead of wasting your voice you pretend like you need to stretch and you make a grand sweep with your right arm and six go in at once, and because it’s so easy, and ultimately economical, you do the same with your left arm and the raft almost tips over as one entire side falls off. (And you think to yourself: this is a new form of triage, and then continue.)

So it’s you and you and you and you. With quick speed you decide, you whittle and reduce and bring the number down. Now you can count the ones who are left on one hand. You’ve been efficient, and they stand before you, staring your way: your mother, your sister, your father, who is dead, your one and only. Push your father over first, you’ll see him soon, he’s already on the other side, so you explain the deal: it’s kind he came, but let’s meet up later, and he gives a knowing smile as he was the first to teach you how to leave, and then does a swan dive and hardly makes a splash. Now whose turn, it’s harder to decide, but you choose your mother, who bore you and raised you, who failed you as you failed her. I’m sorry, you tell her, sorry we were never able to ford the distance but even so I’ve been meaning to tell you thank you for all you did, but on the other hand, why did it have to be so hard, and before she goes she holds your hand for a moment and because you are diminished, because you have been getting smaller all this time, your hand feels small in hers, like it must have felt when you were young, and you feel the warmth of her body pressed into the flesh, into the palm of her hand, pressed into you, and then, without warning, you let go.

Your sister is next, whom you only came to know, to really know, late in life, whom you’ll never know, not like when you were young: an older sister who looked after you, who put her hands on your shoulders like you were a pet and steered you through tall crowds, who handed you down her outgrown clothes, her red blazer with the gold buttons, the blazer you coveted, that had her smell, her power. She’s been there the whole trip, with her cheery stories and Hallmark cards and stupid gifts that you cherish—the cat holding on in the TGIF poster, the pop psychology books on how to create your own destiny—each gift as precious as a handmade basket or a requiem. It will be hard for her, for she will have no one left, for even though there is her husband, her children, they aren’t first blood; a father, long gone from this world into another, a mother long gone in this life, and you are her only link, and that’s why you push her, tenderly over the side, for you cannot lift her any longer, and she, even though she never knew it, she, for so long, by her pluck and belief and good heart has lifted you.

There’s only one left. The one. Your one. You decide, right then, to never let go. You will take her with you, you’ll strap her on board and you can go together, it will be like a weekend away, you tell her, a chance for a little break, a trip up the Mendocino coast, a drive to the country. You were lucky, so very lucky: you loved her and she loved you, and face it, she is the one whose hands built this very raft, with her knowledge of tools and craft, she was always the practical one, and it was she who packed the picnic basket and looked after provisions, she told the doctors when to intervene and when to go to hell, she made the passenger list and rowed when your arms were too tired. She took care of everything so you could save your strength, so you could push them over, she made it all possible for you to leave like this, in full command, possible to leave this life without regret, for you felt loved by her. You’re not sure if she can swim without you. Someone else can teach her, it’s high time she learned. And, when her back is turned, you give her the most loving, the firmest push and she falls into the waves.

There is no one left; there’s room to stretch and move. Room for a game of foursquare or calisthenics, room for cartwheels, forward rolls, pirouettes. Funny this lightness you feel, this expansive body, no one to bump into, no burden to carry. They’re gone, all your loved ones and not so loved, they’re gone and what’s odd is you don’t miss them, for you are past that, with them went all feeling: blame, regret, love, sorrow, anger. Once the bodies left so did the pain. Every bead on the abacus is carried over to the one side, except one. There’s one more thing that needs to go. You have to jettison this, even this, the raft, sturdy raft, life raft, and in an instant it breaks in two, so flimsy, like a cardboard box, it falls away. How did it ever stand your weight, how did it ever hold you?