Life is a River in India: Part Four
By Brett Paesel
Brett Paesel is the author of the Los Angeles Times bestseller Mommies Who Drink: Sex, Drugs, and Other Distant Memories of an Ordinary Mom. She has been published in many national publications, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Salon.com. She has also developed television shows for HBO, ABC, Fox, Comedy Central, Lifetime Television, WB Television Network and Nick at Nite. Brett blogs weekly at lastofthebohemians.blogspot.com.
This story is excerpted from the literary travel anthology Lights, Camera…Travel!, published by Lonely Planet.
Spencer stepped onto the rock. I stopped. He timidly reached out one hand to guide himself. I wanted to move further forward, offer him my arm or a boost. But his face had a look of steely determination. He put his other hand down and raised his other foot, placing it next to the other. Now he had both hands and feet on the boulder. Scaling it like a land crab, he started to inch his way up.
‘You can totally see the river, Spence,’ Murphy crowed from the top, hanging onto Vinod’s hand. Spencer lifted his head toward Murphy and smiled, stretching out one hand and then the other, then lifting and placing one foot, then the other. I watched, breathless. Pat appeared beside me.
’He’s doing it,’ he whispered.
‘By himself,’ I whispered back. ‘Why now? Is he hyped from the rapids?’
‘Maybe. I wouldn’t exactly call them rapids.’
Spencer reached the midway point, stopped, and looked up again. I started to reach out. This was surely where he’d buckle. Turn back. Look for me. I readied my reassuring smile. But he didn’t look back. He inhaled and moved his hand forward again. I dropped my hands. Holy shit. He was going to do it! Maybe he’d finally had enough of being afraid. All eyes were trained on him as he painstakingly inched up the last couple of feet. When he got close to the top, Vinod reached out a hand and pulled him to the summit. Pat, Murphy and I erupted into cheers and applause. Pat hugged me, Murphy pumped the air with his fist, and, teetering, Spencer turned to look down at Pat and me with a goofy grin. If our guides were confused by our familial enthusiasm for such a simple act, they didn’t betray it. Perhaps they had children too.
Pat and I scrambled up to meet the boys and Vinod. We gazed over the Betwa River, aglow with triumph. It was a cosmically invisible victory. But the four of us savored it. Spence had climbed a mountain, and in a year when almost everything that could go wrong, had – we had made it to India.
This is where the story should have ended. Neatly. The metaphoric mountain summited. The boy having pushed past his fear and won. The mother having learned that limitations are constructs of our own making and can, therefore, be transcended by the same maker. But had the story ended there, the mother might have thought later that such a triumph was unique to her oldest child. Perhaps it was simply his story, she might reason. Perhaps he was simply an extraordinary child.
Our descent was unremarkable and took five seconds. Keir lifted the boys down and they loped ahead, leading the party to the boats. The moment on the rock had been so perfect that I wasn’t anticipating angry rapids around the bend. I was, at last, where I should be – on an overgrown path in India, with my family.
Murphy stopped abruptly, turned, and said, ‘Dad?’
His tone was plaintive. I wasn’t aware of what was happening but Pat leapt ahead, barking, ‘Yank ’em down. Yank the pants down.’ He made exaggerated pulling gestures in the air as he hurtled down the hill. For days, Murphy had been suffering the unavoidable intestinal distress that attends almost every foreigner in India.
I sprinted ahead, only to find Murphy staring up at both of us, his legs already wide apart. The look of misery on his face was so complete, so unguarded, it could only be owned by a seven-year-old boy. He looked up at us, his pants still secure at his waist, and whimpered apologetically, ‘I pooed.’
‘I know, buddy. I know,’ Pat said, leaning down. I stood behind him, seeing Murphy’s curly blond hair as Pat eyed him. My body ached with cellular memory, a lifetime of petty humiliations, each one endured, shamefully, not to be spoken of – loose bowels, a period stain, a crush announced to all my friends, a subpar SAT score, a one-night-stand zipping up his fly without a word, a credit card denied by the cashier, a dinner invitation including everyone but not me, bankruptcy. How do we ever move on?
Keir caught up with our Indian guides in tow, the sides of his mouth twitching. He loves a good story about events going horribly wrong, and I could see him already drafting this one. My own mouth hardened protectively. In response, he turned to the men and said, evenly, ‘There has been an incident.’
They nodded formally and stepped back a polite couple of paces as if they had just served our meal at a five-star restaurant. I squatted next to Pat, ‘Buddy, we’ve got to take your pants off.’
Murphy squeezed his eyes shut, ‘No.’
This story is excerpted from Lights, Camera…Travel!, edited by Andrew McCarthy and Don George, published by Lonely Planet. Copyright 2011 by Lonely Planet Publications. “Life is a River in India” excerpted with permission of the author and the publisher. To purchase a copy of the book, click here.
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