Last June, I took my brother to the river to jump off a cliff. I am 19, and I feel old—jaded and tired. It may be foolish to feel this way, but to me, it’s real. I feel I’ve done life already, and, to a certain extent, I have. The gauntlet has been run to plan; the plan does not stretch far beyond high school. I’ve always been aware of the likelihood of my life continuing after graduation, but the concept of a grown-up Jack Reed felt too grand to conceptualize. To my knowledge, he does not exist. I feel that all I am are these 19 years.
High school. I made mistakes—the ones you tell stories about. I made grades. I stayed in shape. I had sex. Not bad. It wasn’t particularly easy, nor was it particularly hard. It just was. To the comically naive imagination of a kid, I had set my goals and done them all. Life was small, and I felt like the captain of my own dwindling existence. Alonso Quijano, without the gumption to invent Quixote.
My brother Michael is 15, and I am showing him a new part of the river: Gold Branch Trail. I visited these places with my friends often—rarely, though, did I bring Michael. I’d been participating in my own rituals with my own friends. I figured that in time, so would he.
Located off a two-lane public road, a short sign marks the trail’s entrance. Past it runs a one-lane drive and a gravel parking lot. Gravel steps lead to a worn wooden bridge over a creek bed. When it has been dry, the ground is mud. After a storm, the creek swells into something huge and lush.
Yesterday it stormed.
Past the bridge, it’s a twenty-minute walk until you reach a mud depression marked by the bare footprints of those who came before; sometimes, they leave backpacks or sullied boat shoes. From here, we have to wade across a narrow stream, then climb an overgrown bank obscuring the river that runs behind.
I turn to him.
“Take your shirt off here. You’ll ruin it otherwise.”
“Leave your phone too. It’s fine; no one will take it.”
“What if Mom calls?”
A good question. Regular communication keeps her at bay.
“It’s okay. We’ll be back soon. Plus, she knows we’re here.”
I should turn back. He asks about Mom because he’s nervous to swim, nervous to jump. Rightfully so. It has stormed, and the current is stronger than I’m used to. But I fear that my surrender will disappoint him. More importantly, I am embarrassed to seem weak. I am his older brother, after all—being better than him, knowing more than him, is part of who I am. It is my job to show him things like this—things he will share with his friends, as mine shared with me. Convinced, I ignore the danger, and we step into the mud.
We are surprised by how far we sink. Mud reaches our thighs. It’s only a few steps until we get to the water, which is waist-deep. The water is always cold. It is colder today.
Michael is skinny. His spine ridges out from under his skin, and with little fat to speak of, he quickly shivers. My own body follows suit. But so it goes in the river; a little shiver is nothing to be concerned about. Our blood vessels constrict. Our body temperatures equalize.
I climb around him, brushing against his goosebumps.
“We’ll be out soon. Then it’s just a short walk. There’s spider webs, so I’ll go first.”
I hate this part. Water collects in muggy, trash-filled ponds; poison ivy abounds. The air whips my wet skin; again, I am cold. He follows closely behind, walking in my footprints. The river is just ahead. I push back the last branch, and we see it.
“Holy shit, it’s freezing.”
The water is even colder here. I’m too distracted by the cliff to care. Two hundred yards ahead, it rises—a hundred feet of rock face. The air is clear. I can see the footholds from where we wade.
Pacing the shallower edge of the River, I calculate our point of entry. The water flows to the right, and at two hundred yards across, you have to account for the strength of the River’s current. Your path will be diagonal, no matter how hard you try to keep it straight.
He nods. I dive in head-first, quickly transitioning to freestyle. As expected, it is shockingly bitter. The current fights every muscle. It is an all-encompassing, non-stop force. I am no swimmer; there is no elegance in my stroke. I kick. I punch. I am battling Scamander, and I am losing.
I stop my freestyle and tread what water I can. No sunlight greets my ascent; it is overcast and cold. Less than halfway across, I have drifted further downstream than anticipated. I start to feel frightened. You can’t beat a river, but I expected to go more rounds than this. I look back and see Michael struggling not far behind me. His head emerges as he begins to tread water.
“This is really hard!”
“Yeah, it sucks,”
I’m bluffing. I can’t appear panicked, but I am panicking.
“We gotta keep going, though. Go on ahead of me.”
There is a fallen tree rising from the water some fifty yards on.
“Just try to make it to those branches, okay? I’ll meet you there.”
When I see his head dunk under the water, the weight of the moment hits me. I put him here. Knowing the risks and consequences, I brought him here. It was his first time; he couldn’t have known. I put him in this river.
White water swipes violently at the air above him. He’s kicking so hard.
People die here. People die here doing this. Just the other day: a brother and his sister. That boy drowned, and it meant nothing to me—death did not register in my adolescent brain. Even now, my own drowning is not at play; it is not even a consideration.
Everything is Michael. The universe collapses to a pinpoint.
My realization has taken too much time, and I have floated further downstream. I begin to swim again. Hard. I have to keep my line completely straight if I’m to reach that branch with him.
Keep a straight fucking line.
My arms are spinning as fast as I can make them go. Whatever drives me is incomprehensible. There is no logic to my actions—only faith. If he isn’t at the tree, it will make no difference if I am. Still, I swim.
Stop. Fire shoots from fingertip to shoulder as my cupped hands slam into something solid. My legs slow. My fingers scrape across the weathered twigs of a felled oak. Grabbing on, I yank myself up. Michael is there, standing on a branch, his torso out of the water. He looks down at me and smiles beatifically. He laughs.
I feel myself return to me.
I have never, before or after, felt love like that. Michael made it to the branch, and so did I. Maybe we were always going to. Michael is strong, an athlete. Nonetheless, a year ago, something happened to me. The great “I am” dissolved to make room for him. At 19, I commanded consciousness and ruled my world. I was an aloof critic, sure of what life was and bored of it. But, fighting my way to the branch, I was sure of nothing but a need to swim to a boy named Michael. I had been so confident in my omniscience, and it had been so suddenly torn away…for him. All the while, he smiled. The little boy kept calm, and I lost myself.
The memory still troubles me—the purity of that dire moment, my dissociation. But it keeps me curious. I know that life is too big for me, not the other way around. Today, I am 20 years old and much younger than I was at 19.
“We’re almost there, Jack. Let’s go.”
“Wait. Hold on—”
But Michael has already jumped in. I follow, swimming hard behind him. Soon we reach the end, where the river touches the rocks and the rocks rise into cliffs. We climb thirty feet to the top, and sit on the edge. We are breathing heavily. We are cold. We don’t speak, but we smile. The view is nice.
“Are you ready?”
I nod. This time he goes first. I dive after him.