I lifted and dipped the oars, port forward, starboard back, guiding my new shell in a quarter turn. Pulling harder now, I rowed diagonally across the current. A few yards from the river’s eastern shore, I spun another quarter turn and settled into the rigorous upstream cadence.
The effort of rowing upstream warmed me; my sweatshirt—and under it my unisuit—clung to my back. Feeling muscular, loose, strong, I pulled the oars harder, rowing at full pressure.
As I drew even with the square of sand where the entrance to the beach—Bare Ass Beach, as I knew it—met the water, I slacked off. At the foot of the asphalt switchback to the street, two boys in ragged black denim sat side by side on a picnic table. One passed a cigarette to the other. Both glowered at me, as if I’d caught them at something illicit. One of them pulled the last drag off the butt and flicked it toward the water. It spun toward me in an angry arc.
* * *
Toward the end, during the gloomy months when nothing had pleased him, Tom had taken up smoking. He’d hidden cigarettes and lighters everywhere. Cigarette packs in the closet, one in each mate of a pair of fraying, grass-stained running shoes. Lighters in jacket pockets, at the back of the sock drawer, behind a row of books—why so many lighters? He’d come home every night with the stink of smoke in his hair and on his clothes. A carton of Marlboro Reds had appeared in the freezer. Again, just as it had on the day I’d found the carton, my gut seethed. My cheeks burned.
Fixing on a patch of brown water ahead, I pulled hard and regained my rhythm. Shafts of sunlight slanted now through the nude-limbed trees on the riverbank. I passed the section of beach where, in the few warm weeks of summer, men sunbathed and cruised among reddening sumacs. Decades of footprints cut the upward-sloping strand into countless switchbacks and risers.
Tom and I had come here almost every weekend in summer, had driven the other men crazy with our aloofness, our conspicuous togetherness. Now I would be free to come alone—as if I wanted to be free. I could try my luck unencumbered—as if I wanted to be unencumbered. But Tom’s and my customary place among the sumacs would be one of the numberless commonplace things that would remind me of him and make my heart swell and thrum in my chest.