JEROMY BY THE RIVER • by Jessica Milam

We could see straight down to the bottom of the Guadalupe river that day. There were turtles, minnows, and rocks covered in algae. We walked along the banks, scoping out the perfect spot to sit and pretend we were carefree. Jeromy sauntered with his guitar slung across his bare chest. I carried a paper bag filled with crispy tacos, and Ben pulled an ice chest full of beer. It seemed, for a few hours, as if nothing existed beyond the banks of the river. We weren’t young, but had chosen to forget we’d grown up.

We settled into a spot in the grass in the shade of a live oak tree, and Jeromy strummed his guitar as Ben’s opera-trained voice floated in the wind. Their songs traveled downstream, inviting drunk young fishermen, families with picnic baskets, and elderly couples walking their dogs to listen. Ben looked into my eyes and sang only to me.

He sang a couple of lines from “Little Wing,” and winked. “I know how you love some Jimi Hendrix, Jill.”

Jeromy looked up and smiled. I admired his dimples, long fingers, and strong arms covered in tattoos. Sweat beads glistened from his forehead and chest. He was the sexiest guitar player in Texas, I believed he had to be. And I told him so.

I enjoyed the sun, the clear water, the taste of the cold beer, and being desired by two men.

We cooled our bodies in the river. We dried ourselves in the sun, still as alligators in the grass. Ben got high in his rusty blue van with leopard print carpet inside. Jeromy kissed me and we swore we’d never been so happy, that we’d never been more in love.

We weren’t young, we so easily forgot. We treated life like we were just beginning, as if we had a highway of hope and fortune laid out before us. Drinkers, hippies, artists, we were. Thirty something, somehow still struggling to find our life’s successes. Fighting to figure out how to fit in. Dreamers who got numb by the river because we’d never quite learned how to exist in reality.

Ben offered me a smoke. I declined. He handed me a folder filled with papers, filled with words. “It’s my opera,” he said. “I’ve written an opera. I’m dyslexic, so some of the spelling is off. I’m going to sell this in New York City.”

He had written it while in prison, where he’d done three years for dealing meth. His mom had been a stripper, his father an alcoholic abuser. Ben repaired roofs during the day, earning cash for his weed. He wrote and sang songs at night, while stoned. His wife had taken their kids and left him years ago. Sometimes, when he sang, tears would stream down his cheeks and his body would quiver as though he suffered physical pain.

Jeromy told Ben his work was “genius,” and he meant it. I told Ben I had no doubt he’d make it big, but I didn’t believe it.

Years ago, Jeromy had played lead electric guitar for a metal band in Boston. He wanted to be Slash, Bucket Head, or Keith Richards. He said he was happy now, playing with Ben by the river, strumming for random spectators, performing for free.

I had my own folder filled with papers, filled with words. Poems and stories, along with a stack of letters telling me they just weren’t good enough. I had a Master’s degree in psychology from a prestigious private Texas college, which brought me nothing but debt and dead-end jobs. Still struggling for success. Getting beer-buzzed by the river. Here, I didn’t have to fight to fit in.

Ben’s lips tasted like sweat and cheap cigarettes when he kissed me under the live oak tree that day. “I love you, Jill,” he said. Jeromy had left to fill our cooler with more beer. I pulled away. Ben begged me not to tell. My heart felt heavy and my stomach turned. I knew he was going to tell.

Jeromy told me it was my fault. He said I flirted with my eyes. His long musician’s fingers wrapped around my throat, and I struggled to breathe. The next morning, I stared at my reflection in the mirror, my fingers tracing the blue and purple imprints of his fingers on my neck. The bruises weren’t the worst his hands had ever left on my skin, but I left his bed, his home, and that town. That was five years ago now.

Ben’s opera didn’t earn him fame and fortune, but it was showcased in a musical festival in New York City. Jeromy married a girl who works at Walmart and sings in his new band. I’m hours away from the river, in the city, with my folder filled with papers, filled with words, trying to make my stories good enough. Still struggling for success, fighting to fit in. I’m not young, and rarely forget that I’ve grown up, anymore.

Jessica Milam is a former school psychologist who writes in Denton, Texas.

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