In 2001, my friend Andi moved away to Massachusetts to attend college there. I was staying in Vancouver for university and was sorry to see her go. There were only a handful of people I bothered to keep in touch with after high school, and of those, she was the only one I spent time with regularly. Still, we had the internet. We kept up such a flurry of online conversation that pretty soon the miles didn’t seem to matter so very much.
Of course, that didn’t stop me from jumping at the chance to go visit when she invited me to spend a week with her during the summer of her second year. I booked my flights and then counted down the days in giddy anticipation as Andi went into planning mode, trying to cram as many places and activities into our schedule as she could.
We spent the first couple of days wandering around Northampton. Andi showed me around her school and took me to all her favorite places. We basked in New England charm and scarfed down decadent ice cream (Herrell’s, I miss you forever).
We spent a day in New York, sitting in traffic and then spending far too much time and money getting up to the observation deck of the Empire State Building, which is one of those things where you’re glad you did it the once but you would never in a million years do it again. At least, not until it’s free and I can teleport there instead of waiting in a hot, sweaty line next to a group of obnoxious Québécois who were rather dismayed to discover I spoke French after they’d already been saying very rude things about Andi and I in it for about half an hour.
We spent a day at Six Flags New England where the Ride of Steel (now Bizarro) thrilled me but proved to be too much for Andi, who got off looking rather green. She took refuge on a bench to let her stomach settle and suggested I go for a few more spins with Superman on my own while she recovered. I protested…briefly. And then went on three more times.
Finally we came to the part of the visit that Andi had been looking forward to the most. For ages she had been trying to convince someone to go whitewater rafting with her, to no avail. But she knew that whooshing down a turbulent body of water in an inflatable rubber boat was just my brand of fun, and so it was with great excitement that we headed out to Charlemont for a date with the Deerfield River.
Upon arrival we were matched up with our guide and two other pairs – an older couple, who looked relieved when they were instructed to sit tucked away in the back of the raft, and a sparkly-eyed newlywed gentleman with his exuberant, chatty bride, who claimed the middle seats. Andi and I happily settled into the front, exactly where we wanted to be.
Our guide went through all the necessary safety instructions, including how to hold our paddles, how not to hold our paddles, how to sit, and what to do if we capsized. Then, formalities out of the way, we pushed off and settled into a lazy rhythm of paddle strokes.
The first stretch was calm and smooth. Taking advantage of the time before we would reach any actual rapids, Chatty Cathy immediately abandoned her paddle on her lap, twisted around in her seat and launched into a full-scale interrogation of the couple behind her. Her husband, a very nice man with the face of Desi Arnaz and the voice of Antonio Banderas, looked slightly mortified as she pressed them for the details of their life stories with an intensity that would have taken even Rita Skeeter aback.
After several gentle suggestions that she leave The Oldies be, Desi Banderas shot an imploring look back to our guide, who suppressed a smile and reminded Chatty Cathy that we needed everyone paddling if we were ever going to make it to where the real fun was. Chatty Cathy apologized, giggling, and took up her paddle once more, although it still spent far more time being suspended just above the water than getting dipped in it.
And then we all glided down the rest of the river in rapt silence, taking in the beauty of the scenery around us.
Just kidding. Chatty Cathy was quiet for all of two seconds and then turned her attention on Andi and me.
“So, where are you two from?” she chirped at us with a big smile.
Andi shot me her here we go look and responded, “Well, I’m going to school in Northampton, but we’re both originally from Vancouver, Canada.”
Chatty Cathy was suitably impressed. “Oh wow, Canadian! Vancouver…Vancouver…where is that again? Somewhere in the middle?”
Andi chuckled. “No, we’re actually all the way over on the west coast. Right above Washington state,” she added when she saw Chatty Cathy’s blank expression.
Chatty Cathy nodded politely, although she clearly still didn’t get it. But she wasn’t about to let a little confusion get in the way of her questioning. She shook her head as if clearing an Etch A Sketch and forged onward. “Well, this must be a real treat for you, being out on the water!”
Andi and I glanced at each other. “How do you mean?” I ventured.
“Well you must have to go find a lake or something to go to the beach, right?” Her eyes were wide and sincere.
I looked helplessly over at Andi, but her mouth was firmly shut as she choked back laughter. “…uh, well, like Andi said we’re right on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, so actually we have loads of beaches.”
“Ohhh, the Pacific?” Chatty Cathy mulled over this for a moment, then cocked her head to one side and asked, “Is that salt water?”
I lost all ability to speak. I looked at Andi and she looked at me and we just sort of nodded in unison. Desi Banderas was staring at Chatty Cathy with an expression of pure horror on his face, clearly realizing these genes are getting passed down to our children.
Blissfully, Chatty Cathy seemed to have no idea where to steer the conversation from there, so that was the end of the Q&A. Then we really did sit in silence for a while, listening to the sound of our paddles dipping in and the river, watching the rippling water flash and dance in the sunlight.
The current had picked up and we were moving a bit faster now. We passed under a canopy of overhanging trees, giving us a brief respite from the day’s heat. I closed my eyes for a moment to savor the delicious coolness. I did not get to savor it for long.
Have you ever had something happen to you that is so unfathomable, so completely absurd, that it takes you a moment to register that it’s happening at all?
*WHACK WHACK WHACK WHACK WHACK*
I was brought out of my shady reverie by the slowly dawning awareness that Chatty Cathy was, in blatant disregard of our guide’s “how not to” instructions, currently standing up and attacking my shoulder with her paddle.
I blinked once, heard a slight whistling as the paddle flew down for another blow, narrowly missing my ear. Then time caught up with me – or, rather, I caught up with it – and several things happened at once.
I ducked away from the paddle and yelled, “WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING?”
Our guide leapt forward, shouting, “NO NO NO NO NO!” and seized the end of the Chatty Cathy’s paddle.
Desi Banderas grabbed the paddle’s blade and helped the guide wrestle Chatty Cathy away from me.
And above it all, Chatty Cathy shrieked, “THERE WAS A SPIDER ON YOUR LIFE JACKET!”
There was a brief second of silence, after which everyone chorused, “Uh, what?”
“It fell out of a tree we passed under and landed on you. I didn’t know what else to do.”
Now that the paddle was safely out of striking distance, I regained my composure. “Okay, so some alleged spider falls out of a branch and winds up on my shoulder, and instead of, y’know, maybe TALKING TO ME and saying, ‘Excuse me, Nutty, but there appears to be a dislodged arachnid currently resting on your orange flotation device,’ you start hacking away at me willy-nilly with your paddle with no warning whatsoever?”
“Evidently. Where is this spider now, anyway?”
“I don’t know. It’s gone. I must have knocked it into the water.”
The furious guide then embarked on a stern lecture about proper paddle handling while Desi Banderas leaned forward and whispered, “I am so, so sorry. Are you okay.”
“I’m fine. But if she comes anywhere near me with that paddle again, I’m tackling her into the river.”
Desi Banderas grinned. “I think our guide will beat you to it.”
I’d tell you about the rest of the trip down the Deerfield, about how we finally got to the real rapids and successfully maneuvered sections named things like Freight Train and Pinball and the Terminator Hole, but what would be the point? I’d already survived the most dangerous thing on the water: an airhead.