We heard them through the walls of the inn. Her voice trilled long sentences; his laugh was a nasal heh-heh-heh. It was prime rib night in the dining room, and the couple in the next room delivered details—the bloody roast, the smashed potatoes, the sting of horseradish—to someone over the speakerphone. The woman described the relentless rain; the man complained about the snarling thunder that accompanied the apple pie. On the other end, someone responded, too low to decipher.
"Bang on the wall," Nick said. "Maybe they'll get the message." He drew the covers over his head.
I wanted to hear more. Listening to the woman's voice with its fluty Hispanic accent, I experienced a reflexive pull of sadness, similar to hearing a song from one's youth. Her voice had the same undulating rhythm and sing-song optimism like those I remembered.
"Perhaps we'll learn who they are," I said.
Nick shifted in his cocoon. "Who cares?" After a frustrating day at the glass museum where we worked, the two-hour drive from upstate New York to northern Pennsylvania, and the bottle of wine—most of which he drank—at dinner, he was only interested in how comfortable the bed was. As someone who rifled through coworkers' desks, I had a different take. I liked to hold someone else's things, to pretend to be that person, if only for a moment. I had little history of my own. My parents disappeared during the Revolution, and I was relocated to the States with dozens of other Salvadoran orphans who had no family names or belongings. I was curious about everyone.
"Maybe they'll want to hike with us tomorrow," I said. I assumed they were here for the falls. In the spring, after a snowmelt, the twenty-two waterfalls in the nearby state park were supposed to be an impressive sight. The previous winter had produced record snow, and in the first two weeks of April a steady rain had fallen. Nick thought we shouldn't miss this spectacle. He'd seen it before, and now he wanted to share it with me. Although I wasn't the outdoorsy type, I agreed on the condition he would show me how to use the camera he'd bought for my birthday. If other people accompanied us, perhaps Nick would select an easier trail.
He raised his head above the covers. "They're not hikers, Celia. They're not even serious walkers."
"How do you know that?"
"Listen to them. If they came to hike, they'd put the weather in context of how it affects the trails—slippery rocks, steep steps." He shifted onto his side. "Not how it complements dessert."
"I'm going to call them Maria and Tony." It was the closest I could come to a Latina and a native New Yorker.
"Why are you whispering?"
"You know, like in West Side Story." If we could hear our neighbors, they could hear us. "Dulces sueños," I said. Sweet dreams. I traced his lips with my fingertips. We'd dated for several months. Now we talked about living together. He understood my need for assurance, and I accepted his passion for the outdoors and his desire to crack into the upper echelon of photojournalism. I was willing to help him do that. This getaway, I was sure, would cement our relationship. In the darkness, I sensed his fatigue. Still, he took a playful nip of my finger, pressed his thin, knobby frame against my fleshy one, and within minutes we were making love. Afterward, he stuck his head under the pillow and wrapped one of his long legs around mine, an affectionate gesture, but one that made me feel trapped.
Laughter burst through the walls. Hers was lilting, his raucous. She spoke with an accent my adoptive family had worked diligently to erase from my speech. When she sang a Salvadoran lullaby, I went rigid enough for Nick to notice.
This time he didn't raise his head, just slid an arm around me and whispered through my hair. "Get some sleep. We have a full day tomorrow."
I drifted off encased in Nick's appendages until sometime in the middle of the night, when the woman next door cried out. "¡Socorro!"
"What's wrong? You can't sleep?" the male voice on the other side of the wall said.
Their bed groaned. I pictured her trying to settle into a comfortable position. I assumed she was my age, thirty-two, and, like me, had the olive skin and straight black hair of a Latina. Unlike me, I imagined she'd immigrated to this country with her family. That she wasn't raised in Ohio with red-haired, blue-eyed children. That perhaps she had a child who had round cheeks and the soft brown eyes of a Mayan prince.
"A bad dream," she said. "It's okay." I wondered if she dreamt of poui trees piercing an azure sky, or brilliant yellow orchids bursting from their spikey stems on a warm spring morning, or the warning screech of a white breasted hawk circling overhead, the crunch of soldiers' boots on gravel, an overturned basket of laundry in the backyard.
"Dulces sueños," I said, just loud enough, I hoped, for the woman on the other side of the wall to hear.
In the morning while Nick showered, I listened for voices next door, but heard only the birds chirping outside. The rain had stopped; the sun shone. I dressed quickly. I wanted to see Maria at breakfast.
While we waited for our omelets in the small dining room, I tried to pick out the voices I'd heard through the wall. Nothing sounded familiar. Then a man with a gray-streaked beard and bushy hair, and a younger woman with a long thin nose, tan skin, and dark curly hair stood in the entrance. It had to be them. I tried to catch her eye but couldn't. I took a deep breath to control my curiosity.
"Did you see them?" I said.
Nick opened a packet of strawberry preserves and spread it on his toast. "See who?"
"The couple from next door. Maria and Tony." I nodded toward the table across the room where the couple held hands. "The Ones Who Kept You Up Last Night."
"How do you know it's them?"
"Who else could it be? You said they weren't here for the hiking. At least not her." The man wore olive cargo pants and thick soled boots. The woman was dressed in a gray tunic and black tights. I'd seen her flat heeled booties online at Zappo's. If I were ten pounds lighter, I would have worn that outfit to my book group.
Nick looked at me mischievously. "Maybe you should ask if he wants to come with us. He looks like a mountaineer."
I couldn't always tell when Nick was joking. At the glass museum where he was the resident photographer, his reputation was about his intensity on the job and in his physical pursuits. He'd been married for a short time. The gossip queens said it ended because he tired of having a wife who showed no interest in his treks to mountains and forests around the world, places she had no interest in going. I told him at the beginning I wasn't an outdoors person. I was a graphics artist, a designer of exhibits, someone who created things that were eventually broken down and destroyed. I wasn't someone meant for hiking steep, rocky trails.
"I've seen you scramble up the climbing wall at the gym," he'd said.
"That's exercise for me," I'd said.
"You've got balance. You take risks." He found that attractive.
When he insisted we climb real rocks, I protested. "I don't want to hurt my hands." I waved my fingers in front of him. "They're my livelihood."
To appease me, he limited our activities to hiking the nearby hills so I could develop confidence on uneven terrain, detect leaf-covered tree roots, and detour off the path to avoid mud holes. Gradually, he added hikes where we had to scramble up steeper trails and boulder-hop streams. And now he'd brought me here. He embraced the outdoors and wanted me to enjoy it as much as he did. I nodded as if I understood. It seemed so American.
The waiter deposited our omelets. With his usual enthusiasm, Nick attacked his breakfast. I inhaled the aroma of eggs, cheese and tomatoes, my favorite combination. In my peripheral vision, I watched Maria and Tony. "Vitamins," I said. "I forgot my vitamins."
Before Nick could protest, I got up. On my way out of the dining room, I stopped at the couple's table. "Buenos dias," I said. "¡Por fin, va a ser un dia soleado!" Tony looked at me like I'd dropped something dead on his plate. Maria's eyes widened. "Are you going to the state park?" I blundered on in English. Perhaps I had the wrong couple. Perhaps they recognized my voice. My face reddened; I turned toward the door. "Yes," she said in her fluty voice. "We plan to see the waterfalls."
"Enjoy the walk," I said over my shoulder. Across the room, I knew Nick was looking at me and shaking his head.
Upstairs housekeeping was underway. Several doors stood open; used sheets and towels were piled outside the rooms. A vacuum buzzed at the far end of the corridor. The door to the room next to ours was ajar. I walked through it.
The accommodations were similar to ours, large enough to hold some furniture and little space to navigate. Walking sticks leaned against the wall. Two unzipped duffle bags sat on the floor, one with a woman's leopard print top and a multicolored silk scarf spilling out; the other held neatly folded pullovers. On the nightstand were three photos of a dark haired boy, soccer ball under arm, with the look of a disgruntled five-year-old in all but the last, where he decided to smile. From that one I sensed the mischief he would get into later in life. His image spoke to me more than the pictures on my screensaver of the red-haired nephews who were part my adoptive family. I kissed the photo and put it in my pocket. Orphan's privilege. We're eager to belong to someone, or push them away before they leave us. The vacuum hummed closer.
I picked up the scarf and inhaled its comforting floral scent. I wrapped it around my neck and pretended the woman in the dining room was a cousin who had lent it to me for the weekend. The mirror revealed an athletic though slightly overweight sad-eyed woman dressed in khaki hiking pants, checkered long-sleeved shirt, and a flamboyant scarf that looked ridiculously out of place. The fire door that separated the corridor of rooms from the stairs slammed. I stopped breathing. Footsteps came toward the room. I threw the scarf into the duffle. I made it into the hallway and walked into Tony. We jumped liked startled cats. "What the...." he said.
I shook my head. "These rooms, they all look alike." Before he could respond, I bustled down the hall.
I knew the trails Nick wanted to hike and the falls he hoped to photograph. In his anticipation, he'd talked non-stop from when I returned to breakfast until we locked the car in the parking lot of the park. Certain falls were better than others, and he wanted to get to those before the crowds. The water would no doubt have a brownish cast from the rain and run-off, but that would enhance its photographic qualities. He was sorry to see the bright sun; an overcast day would've been better for shooting the falls. He gave me a quick tutorial on how to use the basic settings on my camera.
"Got it?" He was festooned with his SLR, backpack, and tripod.
I shrugged. "I learn by doing." I checked my backpack, one of Nick's castoffs, to make sure I had our water and the lunches the inn had made for us, and followed him into the wilderness.
The April morning was cool enough for me to wish I had a sweatshirt. We crossed through a crevasse where the trail became a narrow passageway between large blocks of sandstone. Oaks, pines, and hemlocks towered a hundred feet above us. By the time we got to the first gorge, a mile and a half from where we'd started, I was sweating. A few birds sang in the forest, but their songs were obscured by the thundering roar of the three falls we'd passed and the upcoming set. Hemmed in on one side by a rock wall and the other by surging water, I made my way down stone steps to the ledge where Nick waited.
"So what happened?" he said. "Did you discover who kept us up last night?"
"Kept us up? Oh, the people next door. Yes, they were the ones I spoke with." I passed him a bottle of water. "Maybe. I think so."
He took a long slug and passed it back. "Did you tell them to quiet down?"
"They didn't seem interested in talking to me. I think they're having a romantic interlude away from their son." To avoid his eyes, I gulped some water. "To celebrate a special occasion. They're from Manhattan."
He snorted and continued downward. My foot slid on a pile of leaves. I grabbed at the granite wall to steady myself. Below in the waterfall's plunge pool, three teenagers, two boys and a girl, hopped across rocks to photograph the falls. A fourth girl in yellow shorts lagged behind. Like me at that age, she had long dark hair, a few extra pounds, and remnants of acne. "Ellen, move your ass," one of the boys yelled. Ellen held her arms outstretched for balance and tried to catch up.
We hiked past them. Nick jumped off the trail onto one of the boulders in the streambed and motioned me to follow. Water cascaded down forty feet of terraced rocks that reminded me of tiers on a wedding cake. A cooling mist rose from the pool, and in that moment I understood Nick's enthusiasm. "It's amazing," I said.
"You're amazing," he said. I looked at him, convinced he was as moved by the sight as I was, that he had known all along how stirring this place could be and was about to say something romantic.
"Because I'm such an adventurer?" I teased.
He stepped away and focused his camera on the falls. "How you stop and talk to strangers, and they tell you so much in a few seconds." Click, click, click. He moved his glance from the viewfinder to me. "The couple at breakfast."
I busied myself with my camera so he wouldn't see the disappointment on my face. "I made it up. I don't know anything about them."
"No." He nodded toward the top of the path. "The couple from the inn. 'Tony' and 'Maria'." We watched them, she in her dress and booties, he in one of the sweaters from the duffel bag, clamber down the rocks with their walking sticks. "You can say hello to your new friends."
My hand flew to the pocket where I'd put the photo of the boy as if to stop him from crying out. Hoping to conceal as much of my reddening face as possible, I turned away from the couple and held the camera to my face. I stopped breathing and waited for Tony to shout, "That's her. The woman who stole the picture."
"The light's perfect, Celia. Get the shot."
I nodded. But before taking a picture of the falls, I moved into the shadow of the rocks where I hoped I'd be invisible.
As we approached the larger falls, the images in my viewfinder grew smaller. I got into the swing of the day by shooting Nick's muddy footprints on the rocks and the display of crystal-like water drops atop plant leaves. Even with these stops, we kept ahead of the teenagers and Tony and Maria. The rocky steps were haphazardly placed, and I was forced to stretch my legs to get from one to another. The sun had done little to dry the leaves; mud coated every step.
Nick found a sheltered spot under a ledge to have lunch. We sat on a cold rock, our backs against the wall. The air was damp and moldy, so different from the fecund heaviness of the tropics. I was four when I was taken from El Salvador, but I still remember the scent of orchids and the feel of sultry tropical breezes against my skin. Memories of my life there exist as sensory perceptions—the scratchy sound of lizards scampering across the metal roof of our house; the taste of a soft pupusa, its cheesy filling dripping down my chin; the flash of my mother's yellow skirt as she hung the laundry; the smell of the coffee plantations.
When people asked me what it was like to live through a revolution, I said I was too young to remember. Occasionally, I had the urge to tell Nick about the suitcase hidden under my mother's bed with her blue dress, my father's striped shirt, my pink sundress, a book of fairy tales, and a picture of me on the day I was baptized with papi, mamacita, and abuela. And about the last day, when the soldiers came. But he never asked about those times. At first I took it as respect. Then I learned he lived in the present. The future was for planning. The past didn't exist. I tried to find this liberating, but the need to connect with my history gnawed at me. I'd ordered a DNA kit; the newly arrived test to help trace my ancestry sat unopened on my kitchen table. Nick thought my trying to resurrect my ancestors was a bad idea; he worried I'd find the results insufficient, or worse, disappointing.
We ate our sandwiches in silence. It was quieter here, a welcome relief from the deafening falls. Nick's forehead was creased; he wanted to get back on the trail. While I chewed one of the last peanut butter cookies, he trained his camera on me. "Face the other way. Look slightly over your shoulder toward me. I want a profile." I brushed the crumbs from my lips, delighted that he wanted me in his lens. "Tilt your head down." The shutter clicked. "Now tilt it up." Overhead, the voices of the teenagers bounced off the rocks. "Ignore them," Nick said. I tried, but when they walked by, I watched Ellen to see if her tentativeness, like mine at that age, was still there. More feet scrambled above us. Tony and Maria. This time I followed Nick's instructions and looked away. I hoped he didn't notice my cringing when they walked past us.
"Your friends didn't seem interested in talking to you," he said.
"Why do you call them my friends?"
"Because you seem so taken with them." He replaced his lens cap. "Tell me. What do you know about me? What would you say about me after ten seconds of conversation?"
A ribbon of birds passed overhead. I sighed. "That some days you are charming." I searched his face for a hint of a smile but the earlier frown returned. "And other times you get up on the wrong side of the bed."
"How would you know that? Whether it's a good day or not."
"Hmm." I pretended to study him. "Your smile. It's a dead giveaway." I stood up and stretched. "What would you say about me?"
He smiled. "Nutty."
"Like a candy bar?" My legs were tired, but I refused to complain.
He stuffed the empty wrappings from our lunch into my backpack. "Did I say sweet?"
"Would you?" We started up the rocks.
"Only on Tuesdays."
"What about my hiking skills? What about those?"
"Almost as good as your cooking. Definitely."
"I'm trying for my mountain goat badge."
He grabbed my shoulder to prevent me from slipping. "Badges are for amateurs, Celia."
We veered off the main trail and stood at the base of the largest waterfall. For ninety-four feet, violent white water pounded down gray sandstone terraces. We boulder-hopped into the center of the pools where the rocks were wide and flat. My quadriceps quivered from the day's exertion. The sun pierced the white pines, removing shadows and leaving the crashing white water to throw off dizzying sparks of color. The sound was deafening.
Nick motioned me to him and pointed upward. "The creek changes direction near the top of the falls," he shouted. I gave him a blank look. "That'll make the size and shape of the falls seem to change with your perspective." I nodded as if this were as important to me as it was to him. He set up his tripod. I dropped my backpack on a rock so I could move around, and fiddled with my camera. "Expose for the surroundings," he'd told me earlier when he explained how to override the automatic settings. "The reflective quality of the water fools your lens." I looked around. The four teenagers had climbed the steep trail that ran alongside the falls and were near the top. Behind them, Tony and Maria moved up the mountainside. He was upright and resolute; she scrambled on all fours to overcome the steepness. Despite the crashing water, the people on the trail sounded closer than Nick.
One boy yelled to the girls. "This is what we came to do. Watch." He started across the falls, arms widespread like a tightrope walker, his sneakered feet balanced on the wet rocks. "It's no problem. The ones on the other falls were worse." My mouth went dry. The crossings on the other falls were in the pools, which made the stepping stones more slippery.
"Warn them," I shouted to Nick.
"They'll be fine," he shouted back. He screwed a filter onto his lens. "They're teenagers. Invincible." His six-foot frame looked insignificant against the granite pinnacles.
I stood on an exposed rock in the pool and watched the people above me through my viewfinder. The first boy and girl appeared to walk through the roiling water. They made it across; the second guy and girl stood at the edge.
"Come on you big pansy," his buddy yelled.
I zoomed in. Tony tapped his walking sticks like he was late for something. The second teenage couple started across. Tony said something to Maria and followed them. Maria stood still.
I moved further to the side to try another angle. I saw what Nick meant about the change in perspective. From that location, I saw the teenagers and Tony were actually on a path across the top. Maria stood on an overhang closer to the edge than to the path.
I started up the hillside to warn her. Every few feet I slipped backward in the mud. The steepness of the trail and the trees obscured my view of the top. Below I saw Nick gesture to me. I ignored him.
Halfway up my legs buckled. I inhaled and climbed. The group came back into view. The young couple and Tony were almost across. Maria, still positioned incorrectly on the overhang, stepped forward.
"Don't move," I screamed in Spanish. For a moment, as if they had become a photograph, everyone stopped. Then the boy and girl and Tony leapt to safety. Maria continued to cross placing one foot unsteadily ahead of the other. At the apex the sun pierced the trees like a lightning bolt directed at her. She shaded her eyes. She took a step in those useless booties. I screamed for her to wait. And then: the slip of a foot. The body sliding off the edge. The outstretched arms. The open mouth. The flash of gray against the frothing water. The brown hair spread out like angel wings. Maria growing smaller and smaller.
Someone shrieked. A man yelled "Oh my God! Oh my God!" I turned and ran down the mountainside toward Maria. My foot caught a tree root. I rolled and slid until my legs wrapped around a tree, the slap its thick trunk against my forehead the last thing I remembered.
When it was over, I returned to awareness with a concussion and several bruises, and Nick telling everyone what a heroic effort I'd made to try to save the woman from falling. The story appeared in the local news media with a picture of the falls that Nick had taken. I read the stories dispassionately. The blow to my head had expunged my memory of those few minutes.
As miserable as I felt, I went back to work a few days later. The staff feted me with a hero's welcome: cake, flowers, balloons. The celebration made me uneasy, although I couldn't say why. I longed to return to my apartment and the comfort of familiar smells and sounds, but Nick insisted I stay at his house until I was fully recovered.
The seconds before the accident returned to me in fragments. When I tried to put them together, I became dizzy. Maria's step. My shout. Her slip. I knew I should ask Nick what he remembered, but when I tried, my voice caught. I stopped showering. The sound of water against the tiles made me nauseous.
Each morning Nick helped me put on my jacket and carried my laptop to the car. At lunch he filled a cafeteria tray with my favorite salads and encouraged me to eat. One day he shouted across the cafeteria to an associate, and I was back at the falls, watching him fiddle with his camera while Maria struggled up the trail. He placed a scoop of tabouli on my plate. "I can pick my own food," I said. I grabbed another tray and stood in the hamburger line. I never ate a burger for lunch. I knew I would throw most of it away. I didn't care.
For days I replayed the scene at the falls. Nick with his camera. Maria's step. My shout. Her slip. I tucked the picture of her son into my pillowcase.
Nick pursued his nature photography with greater intensity. Cameras hung off his body like weapons. At dusk he stalked deer and owls; at dawn through the bedroom window, I watched him shoot the cardinals and bluebirds that nested in his yard. At night I stayed on my side of the bed with the pillow over my head to block the sound of the creek that flowed behind the house. As much as I wanted to be held, when Nick reached for me, I feigned sleep.
If I was asleep, I had a recurring dream. I was in my family's home in El Salvador. I was my current age; my parents were as I remembered them. I could hear their voices in the backyard. There would be a knock at the door. Fear would gather in my throat; I knew I wasn't supposed to open it. Yet I did. And then I was once again four years old. A tall thin soldier carrying a machine gun stood in the doorway. Backlit by brilliant sunshine, he appeared as a silhouette. I couldn't make out his features even when he knelt in front of me and asked, "¿Dónde están tus padres?" I started to scream, and my mother came inside carrying the laundry. When she saw the soldier, she threw the shirts and pants at us until we were covered with wet clothes. The sensation of suffocation awakened me.
If I didn't have that dream, images of the accident, in and out of sequence, sometimes with people who were there and other times with people who weren't, filled my head until I no longer knew what was a dream and what had been real. When friends pressed me to join them for a drink after work, I said I was taking meds for my headaches and shouldn't have alcohol. It was an excuse; I didn't want to chat about that day, too afraid I would burst into tears of guilt and self-pity. The DNA test remained in my apartment. If there was a history of violence in my lineage, I didn't want to know about it.
Nick hovered over my desk and handed me a piece of paper. "I need your signature," he said. "It's a release for some photos I've sold." He cleared his throat. "You're in one of them. Just a side view." The form was from a major travel magazine, one he'd been striving to get into for years.
"Congratulations!" I was excited for him. "Can I see the pictures?" I hadn't looked at his work since the accident.
"Sure. Tonight when we get home. But I need to fax the release now. I'm shooting a demo in a few minutes. So if you would...."
I tried to remember the last time Nick had photographed me outdoors. "Where, Nick. Where are they from?"
People milled around the passageways. Laughter erupted from the adjoining cubicle.
"The falls. I took them the day we hiked the falls."
Nick's assistant rushed in. "Demo's starting."
He waved her off. "The pictures aren't going to change anything," he said.
"They'll encourage people to hike there. To take chances."
"If they don't use my photos, they'll use someone else's." He ran his hand over his head. "You know how important this is for me, right?"
I gave him a weak smile and turned back to my computer. "I'll give this to your assistant. Go." I understood that with or without my signature, those pictures would be published. If I didn't sign the form, he would simply remove the picture of me from the group.
I called a co-worker. "I'm not feeling well and Nick's on a shoot. Can you drive me home?"
At my house, I retrieved my car and drove to Nick's. I went through his computer files and found the pictures from that day. I deleted them. The magazine he was so anxious to get into would already have the shots they wanted. I saw no need for the remaining photos to appear elsewhere. I removed the picture of Maria's son from the pillowcase and placed it on Nick's desk. Then I gathered my things and carried them to the car.
When I got to my apartment, I opened the DNA kit. My hands shook as I swabbed my mouth and placed the tube containing my saliva in a mailer. In a few weeks I might discover where my family was from and if I had any relatives. I took a deep breath and steadied myself. In another room my phone buzzed. I turned on the shower.
Title image "Slippery Rocks" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2015.