What Kyoko had come to think of as the defining moment of her life had come spring semester of her freshman year in college. Her parents had been divorced for six years, her mother dead for four. She and Keith had been going out since October. He was the shy, hulking kid who lived down the hall, with a mass of curly blond hair that grew like ground cover, across his head and down his face, to his chin and neck. From the beginning he’d been devoted to her, and Kyoko liked his bulk, his gentle giant quality. Losing her virginity to him had been painful, but Kyoko was not disappointed; she was glad to be rid of her burdensome innocence, and hadn’t expected much to begin with.
Kyoko also had a best friend, Sally Mitchell, who was blond and busty and wore sluttish clothes. Like Keith, Sally had chosen Kyoko. Kyoko had been shy and cautious then and did not think she had a right to claim anybody. No, that wasn’t true. She’d been wary and suspicious and felt no impulse toward people.
It was the week before finals, a fluke New Hampshire day in mid-May, posing for August, with a hazy heat that hung like a canopy over the valley. Sally suggested they go rafting on the river instead of studying for exams, and, because Sally was bossy and the others weren’t studious, they had rented inner tubes from the rec center and loaded them into the back of Keith’s pick-up.
Kyoko felt sorry for the guy at the gas station where they stopped to fill their inner tubes. He was wearing long sleeves and work pants, with a dirty red rag hanging out his back pocket. His lank hair was pulled back in a ponytail, his face covered in volcanic acne. He looked to Kyoko like one of those thin dogs, a whippet or greyhound, nervous energy straining as though from the end of a rope.
Sally made a display of bending over, her purple bikini bottom wagging up and down. She pulled a nozzle from the tangle of hose at the air station. “How do you work this thing?” she’d asked over her shoulder, and the kid nearly jumped out of his skin rushing to help her.
Keith leaned a hip against the truck, filling it with gas, looking – in fluorescent orange bathing trunks, with a thicket of hair on his chest, zinc plaster on his nose – like a vacationing Yeti.
The asphalt was sticky under Kyoko’s flip-flops, and flickering lines of heat made the world seem wavy and indistinct, the way you could get a pencil to look like it was made of rubber if you shook it right. An old man had driven up, running over the rubber cord that made the bells chime. The boy had left Sally reluctantly and went to attend him.
They grappled their inner tubes into the back of Keith’s truck and got in the cab, Kyoko in the middle, Sally stretching her newly-shaven legs out the window. Kyoko saw the attendant give them one last look as they drove off, his chin up, squinting eyes following their progress toward the drop-in. It looked to Kyoko as though he wanted to ask them something, but his pride would not allow it, as though, at the last minute, he would chuck his heavy boots, his work clothes and his responsibilities, and beg to come along.
Of course it had been crowded from the start. No one, it seemed, was studying that day. Half the college was at the drop-in point, unloading their inner tubes, their cases of Budweiser, the girls in uniform bikinis with lime green stripes and pink side ties; boys in baggy bathing trunks, the blue-white pallor of a winter’s hibernation on their chests and stomachs. The path to the river was steep and mined with small rocks. Keith took two of the inner tubes, Kyoko the other, and they started down the path. “You guys!” Sally had panted, following after them with arms outstretched.
The sun had been brilliant, river glistening. Kyoko noticed broken beer bottles in the brush, used condoms, the charred remains of a fire. They came out onto a small swath of beach, not so much sandy as littered with finely crushed stone.
“I’m going first,” Sally said, pushing her tube in front of her as she waded into the water. “Whoohoo! See you suckers at the bottom.”
Kyoko hesitated. Keith waded in with both their tubes. “Hop on,” he said.
“Can’t we both go in one?” Kyoko said.
They tried, Keith getting in and Kyoko settling herself awkwardly on his lap, but the tube squealed and capsized and they emerged from the river half-soaked.
“Guess not,” said Kyoko, shocked by the coldness of the water.
“Get on. You’ll be fine,” Keith said, steadying the tube for her. Kyoko climbed in and Keith let go. All around her black disks floated, each with a person draped inside, like anchovies on crackers.
Keith jumped on his tube, which bowed noticeably in the water but stayed afloat. He put his feet onto Kyoko’s tube, and they floated together for a while. Kyoko closed her eyes and felt the sun on her face. The breeze was piquant, smelling of pine.
“Isn’t this great?” Keith said. Kyoko said nothing, but sighed to herself. He was the kind of person who spoiled perfect moments by speaking about them as they happened, diminishing them by identification. “It’s so beautiful,” he went on. Kyoko gave a little push with her heels and Keith and his tube floated a distance away.
“Hey,” Keith said. But Kyoko would not open her eyes. She let her fingertips trail in the water, which still held the chill of winter’s run-off. She herself, in a wet T-shirt over one-piece bathing suit, felt cold despite the sun.
Close by her floated a guy Kyoko recognized, in a super-sized inner tube. He was in her Comp class, a football player whose papers dwelled on the details of high school athletic triumphs. “Hey,” he said. “Want a beer?” He had four in the tube with him, connected by plastic rings.
Kyoko didn’t like beer, but she reached across to take one.
“Thanks,” she said.
“You Chinese?” he said, tilting his beer can toward her.
Kyoko pulled the tab on her beer and pushed it inside the can. “Japanese,” she said.
“Oh. I thought you were Chinese,” he said. “You’re in my English class, right?”
Kyoko took two big gulps of beer. She nodded. Drifting behind her she saw Keith trying to catch her attention. His feet pointed in her direction, like compass points. They were big and hairy and white, the most garish objects in the landscape.
“I’m Matt,” the football player said. He saw someone behind her and started to paddle upstream with his powerful arms. “Hey, Artieee!” he yelled, to which there was a howling, wolf-like reply.
It was a floating society on the river that day. To Kyoko it seemed more natural, more democratic than life in the dormitories and frats. People who floated past were friendlier, less concerned, for the moment, about comparative social status. They exchanged a few pleasant words, then drifted away or lapsed into wordless companionship.
Somewhere downstream she could hear Sally’s voice, shrill and ecstatic. “Don’t!” she was yelling. “You dirty bastard!” Kyoko wondered who she was talking to. She looked upstream and saw Keith coming toward her, closely followed by Matt, his beer can tipped in the water at the end of his trawling fingers. He reminded Kyoko of the painting of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – the twist of his naked torso, muscled arm reaching outward, the expression on his face dreamy, pre-animate.
“Kyoko!” Keith was kneeling in his inner tube, paddling with his hands toward her. “Hey, Kyoko.”
She shielded her eyes from the sun with her hand. When he reached her, she handed him what was left of her beer, which he drank, crushing the can and tossing it back to her. “What was that guy saying to you?” he whispered. “Was he hitting on you?”
Kyoko had smiled. It was new to her, the romantic ritual of jealousy and contrition. She wasn’t sure she liked it, but the novelty was amusing. The current was lazy and she could see how shallow the water was; two feet down lay mossy stones and sediment. She saw a small fish slip through a crevice between two rocks and disappear.
“Well, was he?” Keith was next to her now. He held his hand out to hold hers. She took it languidly. He was insecure, Kyoko knew, and had told her he loved her, and, though she hadn’t said it back, she felt a strange fondness for his insecurity, which was open and apparent, unlike her own, which was apparent and aloof.
“This is the life, isn’t it?” he said, giving her hand a squeeze, which immediately dissipated all the good will she’d been feeling.
“Don’t do that,” she said.
Kyoko let go his hand, suffused with sudden fury. “What you do,” she said, her tube drifting sideways so she no longer faced him.
“What’d I do?” His voice was aggrieved. Kyoko didn’t know what it was, or she could not telescope it down to coherence. She often could not articulate her thoughts; they seemed like objects glimpsed peripherally, skittish and ungraspable, splinters and fragments that would not add up to much if bundled together. For this reason, she was largely silent.
They’d caught up to a flotilla of tubes, each containing a girl in a bikini. One of the girls – Julie, Kyoko thought her name was, who lived in their dorm –splashed Keith playfully, and Keith responded with an armful of spraying water.
“You!” the girl said, and splashed harder. She was plump and white, melon breasts straining against a yellow bikini top. Kyoko thought the girl would make a good match for Keith, much better than Kyoko, who was short and serious and small. It struck her that Keith was happier, more attractive when he was not with her, and that made Kyoko feel both sad and vindicated; she was the kind of person who would rather be right than loved.
Kyoko closed her eyes and laid further back in her inner tube. It was comfortable, though the rubber was heating up, and she was almost completely dry. Around her voices shouted up and down the river. Music was playing from somewhere down the shore, or maybe someone had brought a radio with them on their raft. Kyoko recognized the song in a distant way, something popular and ubiquitous that floated down the halls at night, and at parties in the frat houses. “Baby, baby… [something] …baby, baby.” Kyoko had an aversion to any music that was melodic or tonal, which was odd since both her parents had been classical musicians. Or maybe it wasn’t odd at all, for the same reason.
Kyoko preferred the sounds she heard inside her ear, a sweeping, intimate seashell noise that never fully went away, tinnitus that was caused, the doctors said, by an infection she had had as a child. She opened her eyes. Sally was standing knee-deep in the water, waving her arms like a cheerleader. “Kyoko,” she said. “Get out.” She pointed to the shallow beach where V-shaped lines of people waited to get out of the water. Beyond this point a thick rusted wire was suspended above the river. This was to mark the falls, where the shallow water funneled and tumbled twenty feet over granite rocks. The sound of the falls, rushing water churning, grinding, sounded to Kyoko like an amplified version of the sound in her own ears.
Kyoko remembered wondering what it would be like to glide out over the falls in her silly rubber lozenge, to float to the edge where water met air – raft becoming dirigible, buoyancy meeting gravity – and to drop like a… like a what? Like a stone? Like a feather? Kyoko thought she remembered a story about Galileo dropping a pound of feathers and a pound of lead from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. She couldn’t remember what the point was, but she imagined herself floating lightly downward, buffeted by the mist from the falling water, coming to land at the bottom as gently as though placed there by the unerring hand of God. If she believed in such a thing as God, or His unerring hand, which Kyoko did not, but sometimes secretly wished she did.
“Kyoko!” Sally had grabbed one of the handles of Kyoko’s tube, her face devoid of its usual flirty smile. She bent down to look into Kyoko’s eyes, her cheeks red from sun and exertion. Kyoko had never seen Sally so focused outside of herself; it seemed like the first time she had seen Kyoko at all. “Hello!” she said, her voice at least familiar, mocking and dramatic. “Do you want to kill yourself? Jesus, Kyoko!”
Kyoko had considered the question seriously for a moment. She got out of the tube and held on where Sally let go. “Sorry,” she’d said, because she knew Sally had been scared and would never forgive her for having seen it, and because she knew their friendship was as flimsy as the aluminum can that Keith had thrown at her, twisted and disposable.
She stood in the river, Sally having abandoned her for the shore, where a diminished group of kids was sitting in a circle, smoking cigarettes or pot, drinking whatever beer they had left. The sun was still warm, but the edge had gone out of it, and Kyoko felt goose bumps break out on her arms. She started to trudge toward land when she saw the group suddenly standing, waving their arms like Sally had, in a windshield wiper motion. For a moment Kyoko wondered if it was some joke on her that Sally had instigated, to make her feel foolish.
This was the part that faltered in Kyoko’s memory, as though the film had been spliced oddly, or damaged over the years. She saw herself turn around. Two tubes floated beside her, Keith in the far one, the girl in the yellow bikini in the near. She heard the girl’s high-pitched laughter, and Keith’s deeper, answering bellow. People were shouting. She saw Keith’s head and the girl’s head look up at the same moment. A boy splashed through the water in front of Kyoko, kicking his knees up high in front of him as he ran. Kyoko lost her balance and staggered.
The boy grabbed the girl’s tube and pulled her toward him; Keith jumped out. Other kids were getting out around her, pushing their tubes in front, or pulling them from behind. Kyoko saw the group on shore still waving, and she turned back in time to see Matt go by. It happened so suddenly, with what Kyoko can only think of as incredible serenity, a gentleness that belied the consequence.
She remembers this: the glint of sun in her eyes, the straightforward course of the inner tube, the look on Matt’s face reminding her of the boy at the gas station, a mix of wonder and longing, his last word, spoken to her, though she could not hear it above the falls. “Help,” he had said, and then put his hand up, as if to wave good-bye.
Kyoko had been told many times that there was nothing she could have done, that it had happened too fast and she’d been too far away, but she could never accept it. She knew that there had been a moment when she could have reached out and saved him, because she had lived it, a single moment, a fraction of a second – when she had simply chosen not to.
The Fetishist is an unpublished and unfinished novel that mom began writing in the late 2000s.