“...and so I told him to call me old-fashioned. I really believed that when one says they are in love with you,that the feeling would be reciprocated!” The woman sobbed into her phone as she sat on the banks of the Guadalupe River. The brush behind her served as both a cover and a muted wall from the road above her. It was a weekday and still early afternoon, so the traffic hadn't picked up yet. It left her with the feeling of isolation to go with the waterworks she was casting down her cheeks. The words of encouragement from the voice within the phone comforted her in that it was a voice she felt cared, but it didn't take the emptiness she felt inside. There was only so much the voice could do for her. In the end, she had told the man she loved him, and he rejected her.
At the end of the conversation, she hung up and stared into the river bank. The water looked back, calm and murky. There was nothing blue or beautiful about the river. Even the Gulf wasn't a beautiful body of water. It was a series of dark, muddy waters that stretched out into the deep seas. Her love life was like the river, calm and murky with a lonely pull all the way out to the ocean deeps. She took off her shoes, setting her phone into the left one and stood up. She wanted to float away with the current, become lost to the water and feel the rocky bottom as the water consumed her whole. She wouldn't be alone that way.
As she stepped up to the river bank's edge, she began to envision the sensation of her body being rushed off by the current. It gave her comfort and made her smile a little. She scooted closer still and the earth beneath her feet gave out. She screamed as she fell into the water depths. It was faster than it looked and swept her under faster than she imagined. She was panicked going in and the sensation of water filling her lungs was both painful and terrifying of an experience. Why couldn't it have felt as nice as she envisioned? Why couldn't he have loved her back? If she had the energy to cry out, she would have, but it was all being used to try and propel herself above water. She didn't want to be in it anymore. She didn't want to become like the water. She didn't want to die.
Arms wrapped around her waist and the feeling of something warm tugged at her in the cool waters as she was pulled upwards. The motion took seconds. She never looked back, but instead, looked up to the lighted glow of the top of the water, where the daylight was and air... and life. She thought she felt her own arms reach up for that life as it called to her from beyond. Part of her felt she would never feel it again until the cold blast of air his her arms and face. She was splurting and coughing up water as her upper body broke the surface of the river. Her arms flailed to stay afloat, though her body didn't bob back under. She was being carried up into the air towards land. She was safe.
She gripped the muddy grass as her breasts nudged the bank's edge, grasping for dear life where she could. The arms about her held her steady as she found her footing against the bank to climb out to the land. She vomited water and a bit of her lunch as she curled into a fetal position on the bank side. And she sobbed. She sobbed bitterly for her foolishness and fear that she could have really killed herself over a heartless bastard that didn't love her back. She sobbed deeply and longingly until she had no more tears to shed, and even cried dryly until her chest would no longer heave. She lay on the ground panting, breathless, emotionless, and sedated. Then, she finally opened her eyes.
She couldn't remember if she had her eyes opened before. Did it matter? Had she truly lived? She must have, she was breathing somewhat. Before her in the river, a young woman was wading against the bank with hair the color of kelp, the reddish brown kind that washed up on the beaches of the Gulf. It even looked as kelp, thick and viney. Her flesh was as muddy as the water, a paler brown. Yet it looked soft and had a sheen to it as though the skin wasn't skin at all. She felt her hand extending and could even make out her fingertips as they reached to touch the woman's cheek. The strange woman laughed and it sounded like gulls playing in the setting sun. Her fingertips brushed on the strange woman's cheek and it was slick and soft like fish scales.
“Don't be sad now.” the strange woman told her.
The strange woman leaned her head to the side, smiling brightly to her as she rested a scaled cheek to the back of her hand. Perhaps it was webbed. She wasn't sure about anything anymore. “Don't be sad, Vv-roon-ick-ah. You smile pretty. Like when happy. Don't be sad.”
It took her a few moments to recognize the other was trying to say her name. Veronica. She had wanted to as how she knew. She wanted to ask a lot, but all she could do was smile faintly. This made the strange woman sit up.. or was she standing.. floating straight? She was up and her smiled brightened and she clapped. “ Yes! Smile Pretty! Like smile! Smile all ways.”
Veronica laughed weakly and nodded to the woman. “Ok. I will. Are you an angel?”
The woman blinked and made a few click like sounds as she contemplated the question. “Am Undine.”
Veronica nodded once to Undine, “Hello, Undine. Thank you for saving me.”
Undine squealed. It was similar to the sound a dolphin made and bobbed in the river water, “ Vv-roon-ick-ah owes Undine! Happy day! Happy Undine!”
Veronica wasn't sure what the Undine meant, but she was grateful just the same. Slowly, she got to her feet and looked down at herself. Her outfit was a mess and her pants were ruined. “I need... I should go home and change. I am going to be late going back to work.”
“ Vv-roon-ick-ah come back next day. Undine wait. Undine see Vv-roon-ick-ah smile all ways.”
Veronica picked up her shoes and nodded slowly to the strange woman. “ o...ok Undine. I'll be back tomorrow.”
She walked away from the river bank in a daze as Undine clicked and clapped and splashed about the water. She was still trying to determine if she was dead or hallucinating. But at least she was alive.
Veronica Alvarez always went to Riverside Park on her lunch hour. Generally with a book, her phone and a paper sack lunch, she'd climb down to the River bank and watch the water as she read and ate. When she was in high school, she'd come out after school and read for an hour after her dance practice and on the weekends would spend a few hours enjoying the water.
She'd never litter and would often times pick up debris that she found on the banks or close enough to the water. It was murky, but this was her river. She loved it and she felt it loved her too. The Guadalupe River always made her happy.
She had stopped coming to the River on her lunch hour when she started to see Jose. He worked at the bank across from her business building downtown and often took her to eat at the Rosebud Fountain & Grill. Some days they'd order and sit outside at the plaza at down town's center and make it a picnic. She loved it, though she missed the water. Jose wasn't one that enjoyed the water. In the summer, she'd beg him to go to the beach with her to watch and play in the Gulf. The only time he agreed was with her father on a boat to deep sea fish. They only caught sunburns, and he swore off the Gulf and all water activity after that. The days he couldn't take lunch with her, She'd return to the Guadalupe and like old friends, catch up on old times.
Now she was single again and had something of the river that talked back, sort of. Undine was an unusual creature. She spoken broken bits of English. Veronica assumed it was from the language the creature heard while watching people from just under the water. Her coloration allowed her to blend to the water and her hair, even when it rose to the surface, looked like kelp, so it too blended to the natural surroundings. Many times, Veronica would read aloud to Undine the books she had and they would laugh at the funny parts, cry at the sad parts and hug one another at the scary parts. Veronica learned to carry a spare set of clothing for her lunch break. It was hard to stay clean with Undine.
At the end of the hour, Veronica would give her goodbyes to Undine in the same manner, “Thank you for the lunch, Undine. I'd be lost without you.”
Undine would laugh and clap or squeal her delight and respond in the same way. “ Vv-roon-ick-ah owes Undine next day. Undine loves Vv-roon-ick-ah. Undine wait for Vv-roon-ick-ah.”
For six months, day in and out, Veronica would be there for Undine and as Undine insisted, Veronica was always happy. It came to a point that Veronica couldn't imagine her life before Undine and couldn't think of a time without her or the River to keep her company.
And then, one late summer afternoon, as Veronica was heading to the library to get a new book to read the following day, she ran into Jose.
He smiled in his over exaggerated way but in his eyes glowed the gratitude he held to see her and even ducked his head in her presence, “ Roni.. I.. hi. Wow.” He blushed and weakly chuckled, “ You look great. Happy. I mean, you look good. How are you?”
Veronica blushed as well, the swell of the old feelings of pain and the memory of her stupidity of her attempt at drowning bubbling to the surface of her memory. “ Oh, hello, Jose. I'm good. What are you doing here? You don't read.”
Jose chuckled again in that weakened and embarrassed way as he raised up the book in his hand. She recalled the cover to that of an author she had loved, and a series she loved and had on a few times tried to get him to read himself. Jose often said he hadn't the time to read silly stories and pushed her suggestions aside. “I found where you stashed your books at my place. I almost forgot you did that. I was going to call you about it, but... I... I didn't want to upset you more, so I kept them. Finally picked one up to see why you liked it so much and well. They are great. They reminded me of you... well... they are a lot of fun to read.”
Veronica snorted. She could feel the desire to want to cry, to yell at him, to throw the book at him. “Oh.” was all she managed to say.
“Yeah...” Jose responded as he looked away. So did Veronica. They stood on the steps to the library long enough that Veronica's mind began to wander to anywhere but him. She focused on the two school kids sitting on the steps near them, looking over a picture book about sea birds. The page was bright with white seagulls as pooled together and hovering in the sky. Looking at the picture made her recall the memory of the sound of their laughter, and that made her think of Undine. “....Hey, Roni?” Jose's voice broke her thoughts on her aquatic friend and she turned to look at him with wide eyes and blushing cheeks. “ Hi..sorry to interrupt you. I'm...” he sighed out and hung his head again. “ Look, I know it doesn't mean a lot now, but I am sorry for hurting you. I was stupid and scared and didn't know what I wanted. I regret not calling you. I regret every day that goes by for not doing so. I'm just... scared. You made me strong and without you I'm just here.” he chuckled weakly and raised his head, but he didn't look directly at her. He couldn't. “ Look, I... I'm glad you're happy. All I ever wanted was for you to be happy, Roni.”
Veronica's eyes did well up with tears as he spoke. She hugged the book she carried to her chest and nodded at him. She wanted to speak. Tell him off or yell at him, but the words her mind tried to piece together wouldn't come. All she could do was sniffle and hug to her book and nod at him. “...thu... thank you, Jose. That... it means a lot.”
Undine's sweet voice bubbled in her mind, 'you owe me next day!' She cracked a smile to the sound. Jose took it as a smile to him and bobbed his head with a renewed strength, “You're welcome. Well... I better go. See you around, Roni.” He took a step forward, then stepped back. He blushed and twisted in place. Finally he sighed, and raised a hand in a waved and stumbled on his way to his pick up truck. Veronica giggled softly as she turned to watch him leave. She watch him get into the truck. She could remember the habits he took in doing so. Lock the door. Unlock it and lock again, to be sure. Adjust a mirror that never moved. Set the keys in the ignition. Whistle three notes and turn on the truck. It was like clockwork. Predictable and comforting to see that he still hadn't changed. It was also a little sad to see that he kept the same routine. In a way so had she, only her now had Undine in it.
Veronica spent the night thinking about Jose, then hating him, missing him, and trying to not think about him. This pattern went on during the morning and up until she went to see Undine. Her pensiveness was noted by the creature that giggled in her seagull manner before saying, “ NO! Vv-roon-ick-ah sad. Vv-roon-ick-ah not be sad!”
Veronica sighed and lowered the book she was reading. “ I'm sorry, Undine. I saw Jose yesterday afternoon.”
Undine snorted, “Jose mean. Make you sad. Vv-roon-ick-ah no be sad. Vv-roon-ick-ah have Undine. Undine loves Vv-roon-ick-ah. Jose no love Vv-roon-ick-ah.”
Veronica nodded. His apology ran through her head. He was weak and scared. Wasn't that normal of most men? Wasn't she weak too? She tried to drown herself in the river because she felt she couldn't handle it. He ran instead. Now he was reading.
Veronica pushed out the thoughts of Jose long enough to finish her story with Undine. Afterwards, she went back to work and requested to leave a little early. She wanted to go by the bank. Jose was still in his office by the time she got there. He looked at her in amazement to see her standing in his doorway. “Roni...I... hi.” he said quietly.
“Do you want to go to the beach this weekend?” she asked him. It was a test. She had tried to get him to read some of her books and he didn't until she was gone. He changed for her. Perhaps, if he could attempt to appreciate the water, then there are a chance for them.
Jose blinked and looked at her with a dumbfounded look on his face, “ Do I..?”
“Well?” she asked again. “ Do you want to go to the beach this weekend? With me.”
He studied her as she studied him and let the minutes pass as he considered the question, her expression and whatever else was holding him into silence. Eventually, he laughed and reached back to rub at his neck, “ Well, I had been asked to come into work this Saturday, but I can always let my boss know I forgot about something already planned. Sure. Let's go to the beach together, Roni.”
Veronica smiled brightly. Her eyes were shiny from the tears of joy that were held within them. “Perfect! I'll be at your place at 10 on Saturday.”
“Ok. I'll see you then.”
“yes, at 10 AM.”
Jose chuckled, “ On Saturday, yes.” Veronica giggled softly and turned to make her exit. “ Roni...” Jose called out.
She paused in the doorway and looked over her shoulder, “Yeah, Jose?”
“Thank you.... for everything.”
She giggled and gave him a wink. “ Now you owe me.”
Jose didn't understand what she meant but he nodded to her just the same. Veronica left the bank then, feeling better than she had in months. She was so happy, the next day at lunch, she told Undine all about the beach outing.
“...but... Jose's mean!” Undine exclaimed as she splashed in the water. “Jose hurts Vv-roon-ick-ah! Undine loves Vv-roon-ick-ah. She loves her!!”
Veronica sighed and held out her hands to Undine, “ I know you do, Undine. I'm not going anywhere. I just won't be here Saturday. You understand, yes? I'll still be here for our readings, I just.... I still love Jose. I hate him, but I love him. I need to see if there is hope for us. But I'm not leaving you, Undine.”
“NO!” Undine shrieked as he dove into the Guadalupe's depths. Veronica was stunned by Undine's reaction. She had never seen the creature anything but happy. When Undine emerged from the water again, she had a small rock in her hand and she threw it at the river bank by Veronica. “ No! Undine loves Vv-roon-ick-ah. She does!! Vv-roon-ick-ah needs no Jose. Vv-roon-ick-ah has Undine. Undine loves her!!”
Veronica shook her head, gathering up her book and her little lunch bag, “ Undine.... look. Calm down, ok? I'll come back tomorrow and we'll read like normal. You'll see. Then I'll stay extra long on Sunday and make it up to you. I promise.”
“ NO! Vv-roon-ick-ah owes me! She does! Undine loves Vv-roon-ick-ah!!”
Undine dove back into the water, and her shrieking wails could still be heard as she swam on down the river bend. Veronica watched the water in that direction until all she could hear was the memory of the shrieking sobs. It struck a chord in her heart that weighed heavily against her chest.
The following day, when Veronica returned at lunch for their time, Undine never showed. It was awkward for her to eat and read alone, something she hadn't done in months. She tried to focus on the excitement she held for the next day and her beach trip with Jose, but the silence from the River was discomforting. Before leaving, Veronica paused and left the book on the river bank with a little piece of paper taped to it. It read ' Veronica loves Undine.'
At 10 AM on Saturday, she and Jose packed into his truck and she watched his ritual to start the truck with the brightest of smiles on her face. They drove to the near two hours to Port Aransas and spend the day in the sun, laughing and building sandcastles. They read to each other and even took a swim in the Gulf's waters. All the things she had wanted to share with Jose, she was, and he in turn appreciated them and her for it. As the sun set, they stood at the beaches edge, she in his arms and watched the sunset. They were happy, and even shared a kiss and an apology for the folly of their months apart.
“Roni... I love you.”
“Yes, I really do love you. I promise, I'll never run from my feelings for you again.”
Veronica sobbed and turned to hug Jose close. He rocked her in the hug, quietly shushing her and petting at her hair. It felt good, being in his arms, the arms she knew, the warmth she knew. She wasn't even aware she had her eyes closed through all of it, but when she opened them, in the dying light of the day, she saw the murky foam of the gulf washing up onto the surf and against their feet. A mass of reddish brow kelp slid across the thickness of the sand and brushed up against Jose's ankles. Nested atop the mass of kelp was a wet and slightly torn note with the blurred and fading words, ' Veronica loves Undine.'