Let me tell you a secret. I once fell in love with the river. I was young then, and I didn’t know any better. She lured me in with the promise of a better life and swept me away from my people and land. She was rich and beautiful, and I was reckless. Even if I had known how to stop water in her tracks, I would have refused so that I could keep playing but I remember feeling amused by their warnings about the river.
Some people hate having fun. They insisted the water is toxic and that I would die if I remain in the river. I ignored their warnings out of necessity. I could not imagine life outside of her walls. I have no memories beyond the river. She is my only home and family. So I continued to delight in my captivity, feeling lucky to be alive and swimming.
On one particularly lonely day, I almost drowned in the river. The shy boy who had a crush on me offered me his hand. I felt invisible to everyone else and was amazed that he could see me. Wearied by the tumultuous waters at home, I fell victim to desires of escape within a hopeless reality. When his open hand turned cold and revealed itself as a weapon against my body, I learned that the river was a dangerous place. Help is not always as it seems.
I hate this damn river. It’s too littered with bodies that look like me and people I love. Sometimes I cannot tell the dead bodies from the live ones. I hide under my armor of sticks and stones that broke me down and left me for dead. My back hurts. I am losing my grip. I fantasize about digging my nails into her skin and bleeding her dry as the bones at rest in her bed.
In another place and time, I learn that I am one in four women in the United States who has experienced sexual assault and dating violence. I am not responsible for the violence I experienced. I am the target of an entire system that aims to destroy young women of color. I cautiously shed my defenses. I return from the dark corners of my consciousness, pushing past the shame and isolation that possessed me. Much to my surprise, just beyond the confines of my suffering, I find a community of survivors who welcome me into their conversation. They invite me to picture a river.
As I look upon the river, I see a person drowning. They are yelling and splashing as the current moves them closer to danger. I rush to the riverside and reach for them. After an exhausting struggle, I pull them out of harm’s way just seconds before they approach the deadly waterfall. A moment later, I see another person drowning in the river. There is no time to recover. I must save them, too.
These days, I keep returning to the river. I see a person who looks like my mother praying for life after death. There is no safety net to save her. She is sinking downward while the steady currents of apathy move her closer to the end. The water is freezing and she clings to a wet blanket that was donated to her. I want to help her, but she keeps me at a distance and tells me she is fine.
I also see a man who looks like my father. He is golfing in the river. He takes off his shirt to show me his tanned muscles. He looks young and happy despite a difficult childhood. His scars and scrapes with life only make him more attractive. He takes a break from his rigorous sporting to show me a photo of a red pepper that looks like a penis. He laughs at his own hilarity.
I count backward from two-hundred-thousand to the little girl who drowned in Lake Michigan. She was a teenager and I was a kid. I remember my childish confusion with the possibility that someone could die so young and pretty. I overhear the adults tell one another that there was a horrible accident. She slipped while playing. The waves were too big and she was too small. The adults look more lifeless than my sleeping childhood friend.
I wonder if there is more to the river than what lies before me. I lift my gaze and turn my attention towards upstream. I follow my origins to the root causes of the societal sicknesses that have poisoned my relationships, imaginings, and body. I see the river moving everyone forward in one direction. No one meets. Everyone is alone within the river.
In solidarity with all peoples surviving the violent currents of economic and gender injustice, I return to the river despite my fears. I am one of the two-hundred-thousand wishes cast away for a better life, only to become one in four women in the United States who has experienced sexual violence. When I hold my individual experiences as part of a greater movement, I am buoyed by our shared strength. In love and friendship, I will not yield to salvation when hope remains in this lifetime to bend power with collective action. We are not alone, nor are we exceptional.