‘Before We Drown’, Vanessa Fogg

Illustration © 2022 Katharine A. Viola

 [ Pedestrian bridge, © 2022 Katharine A. Viola ] My love, I can see through time. I never told you; it doesn’t happen often. But every now and then time’s surface thins, the way a heavy sheet of rain might lighten into single drops, before thundering down in an opaque wall again.

Right now, as the rain falls and water rises in the streets below, I’m thinking of a moment from twenty years ago. A moment in late August, a bright blue sky. Do you remember? A spontaneous weekend getaway, just before Labor Day. We left work early and drove four hours to the city on the lake, the city we loved. Do you remember dinner that night, fried chicken in the hole-in-the wall near our hotel? Do you remember sleeping in late the next day, sunlight pooling on white sheets? Your bare feet on mine. Do you remember the Hokusai exhibit at the art museum, the concert in the park, cocktails at the hotel’s rooftop bar? An overpriced dinner at an overhyped restaurant we couldn’t afford? Do you remember how normal it once was to do all this—to just get in the car and go; to walk fearlessly into a restaurant and crowded indoor spaces; to hold my hand above the city lights; to breathe in easily; to laugh while walking down streets that are no more, in a city that is no more, wrecked by rain and flood and time. Do you remember?

Yes, I know, we have to go. You’re packing our things, and still trying to get a cell phone signal. We have to evacuate. Again.

But first, my love: listen to me. Do you remember that moment between storms? Between the plagues and floods and flame? That moment when we were free?

It was just a weekend getaway. One among the many we’ve shared. Not our honeymoon, not our wedding day, not the first time we said, “I love you,” or even our first trip together. But there are small moments that flash like lightning. That glow against the backdrop of time, shining when all else fades.

Come with me. Yes, the waters are rising, but come back with me to that long-ago moment. Not to the first night in the downtown hotel, or the night after; not to the rooftop bar or concert or anything we posted on Instagram from that weekend. Not to the weekend as a whole, but to a single instant of it.

A single instant is all that’s needed.

Remember: walking along a pedestrian bridge, the roar of traffic around and below us. Flowers potted along the bridge railings—gladiolas, I think. Slender flames of red and gold and orange. The sky above, so blue. And the lake before us, a deeper blue against the blue sky. The pandemic was briefly on hold. We wore no masks. The lake was calm, the shoreline intact; the lock gates on the river held. No one we knew had ever died. We were young, and euphoric to just be together; to have left our university town for the weekend, to feel free. All the world was alight, glowing sharply in the late summer sun. The skyscrapers of the city were mirrors for light, reflective towers of glass and steel. And the two of us on that bridge, crossing thin air, holding hands and drawing in light with each breath.

Can you see it? Can you feel the light in your lungs?

I told you that I sometimes see through time. I saw through it then. Time’s layers peeled away, and I saw everything at once. Anyone could have predicted it, but I saw it: the coming storms, the lake flooding that bright city, and the ocean taking other cities along the coasts, around the world. I saw us here, in this present moment. Thousands of miles from where we started, in a foreign land, the sea at our door. I saw us meeting for the first time, nervous and excited, a blind date at a boba tea shop. I saw into the distant past. Images superimposed upon one another: rivers running with trash and blood and glass; tides of cholera, typhus, smallpox, and more; cars swept down highways by floodwaters; a skyscraper collapsing; a horse struggling and sinking in the mud and sewage of a nineteenth-century street.

You’re not going to get a cell phone signal, my dear. The power is out. There’s no rescue coming. Come stand here with me. We’ve already climbed as high as we can go.

The lost city by the lake was built on mud, on drained swampland. This city, too. There is no solid ground. We’ve lost every home. We never had the children we dreamed of. I see dead people struggle and sink in the mud. Fire sometimes falls from clear blue skies. But there once was a sky that was flawless, curving over a concrete pedestrian bridge.

You held my hand then; hold my hand now. I saved that moment, you see. I knew it for what it was, and I tucked it in my pocket and sewed it up tight. There are moments that would seem unremarkable to any outsider—but that flash within us like lightning, lighting up the inner landscapes of our lives.

Close your eyes. Here’s the moment. Time ripples, and we can step through its parting curtain. Remember. Remember the light between storms, the light on the water. That vanishingly thin window of clear weather—the last that we would ever know. We were young and hopeful. There is no fear. We’re crossing the bridge now. The gladiolas are slender flames. The lake is a calm shimmer, a deeper blue against blue sky. Your hand tight in mine. Everywhere, there is light. We’re floating in it, drawing it in with each breath. A wave is rising, and we’re drowning; we’re drowning in light.

© 2022 Vanessa Fogg

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