I have lived by the Ohio River for over thirteen years.
The sources of the Ohio River are the Manongahela and the Allegheny. Allegheny means “good river” and Monongahela means “falling banks.” Ohio also means “good river,” but it’s not. It’s a red and gray ribbon of toxic runoff, the most polluted river in the United States.
The mouth of the Ohio river is the Mississippi. A river is a thing that does not drink with its mouth; a river is a creature that only vomits from its mouth and drinks from the other end. The Allegheny and the Monongahela vomit into the Ohio which vomits into the Mississippi, which vomits into the Gulf of Mexico which I visited a few times as a child. A river is not just a boundary that marks off the edges of places and the places you cannot go: a river also goes somewhere, eventually, and the Ohio goes to the Mississippi which goes to the Gulf.
My grandfather, the one with the pool and the mistress, had a winter house in Naples, Florida– a little ranch house on a small yard, backing up to a canal. He bought it back before Naples was an expensive place and kept it long after the neighbors had sold their little ranch houses to be bulldozed and have mansions built on the lot. It was the one ranch house left on a street of lavish winter palaces for lavish winter people. We visited him there a couple of times. Grandfather had a boat which he took me for a ride in, once, and I got to beep the horn and wear a captain’s hat. He also lived three blocks from a glorious white-sand beach lined with coconut trees. Once, my father walked me down to that beach to see the sunset– bright orange from one end of the sky to the other, dotted with purple clouds over the Gulf which was almost black. I asked if there was “more beach” at the other side of this vast expanse of water, and my father said that there was. I asked him if we could go to that beach, and he said no, we could not. It was too far. This made me cry.
The next time we went to the Gulf of Mexico, I was old enough to know some geography. I didn’t expect to be walked across the water to the other side. I just sat on the beach, watching the sky go orange and purple; I admired a pelican that swooped low over the nearby pier and landed to pose for the tourists.
I am far, far upriver from the Gulf now, farther than ever from that beach on the other side. The water that borders the town I live in and keeps me from going where I wish is not the Gulf of Mexico but the Ohio.
Maybe I’ll go back to Naples.
We didn’t usually go to Grandfather’s house in Florida for our vacations, growing up in Columbus. It was too expensive to drive all that way. We went to West Virginia where my ancestors come from, and swam in the clear water of the Greenbriar that actually is a good river. We went to see my mother’s parents in Maryland, and threw corn to the ducks in the city park’s pond. Twice we went with those grandparents to the Chesapeake Bay, and fished for crabs with big nets. Once we went to the shore of South Carolina with my bad cousins. And once a year we took my grandmother and bachelor uncle to Lake Eerie. Lake Eerie is the place I think of when I think of going to the beach. I think of the glare white cliffs of Marblehead, the stone pitted by years of sloppy Ohio rain; I think of bracing cold, shallow, cloudy water that looks gray and tastes a bit like tin. On a clear day, you can stand on the pier at Lakeside and see Perry’s Monument at Kelly’s Island. You can imagine that on the other side of the island is Canada, a whole other country, another beach too far away to walk to.Maybe I’ll go back to Marblehead.
I have missed travel, the thirteen years I’ve lived in the Ohio Valley. I’ve missed swimming and wading, watching the water and feeding ducks. We haven’t had a car or any money for trips. Every year we hoped to move to a different town and every year we found ourselves still stranded here. But things keep easing up, and every year the prospect of having a car becomes less like wishful thinking. It could happen this summer or next, but it actually is going to happen. Going on a trip is now a matter of both longing and waiting, instead of just longing.
Maybe I’ll go to the beach.
During the years I couldn’t travel, there was a catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, between my beach at my grandfather’s old house and the beach I’d never been to– a slick so big you could see it from space. I watched the news and tried not to cry at stained sand, dead pelicans, and water that didn’t just look black from the sunset but was actually black with oil.
They tell me Lake Eerie has also changed. My friends went up to the shore there with their children and couldn’t go in swimming due to a toxic algae bloom.
It could be that I’ll someday go back to those places, and find them so changed that it isn’t really going back at all.
Sometimes I dream about going to the beach. The sky is always cloudy in my dreams and the water is murky, and the beach itself is a strip of sand barely wide enough for us to set down our towels. Behind us is a city of chaos and narrow summer houses, crisscrossed with chain-link fences and checkpoints and safety gates. Ahead of us is murky water– and very near, barely as far as the width of the Ohio river, I can always see another beach. I swim easily all the way across to that beach and talk to the people living there, and then I swim back to tell the others what I’ve seen, but they don’t believe me.
A few nights ago, I had that dream again. But this time I’m sure I was swimming in the ocean– not in a river or a lake, but the ocean. I felt the seawater sting my eyes as I started out to the other shore. I tasted it– that acrid combination of salt and minerals and life that I hadn’t thought about in so long.
I didn’t dream I got to the shore, not this time. I just woke up and found myself in my rickety old rental house, in miserable late January, just up the road from the terrible Ohio, realizing that I could someday leave.
A river is not just a boundary. It is also a thing that moves, from the Manongahela and the Allegheny to the Ohio to the Missisippi to the Gulf. I am also a thing that can move.
Maybe I’ll go to the beach.
(image via Pixabay)
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