Barely Keeping Abreast

by Meredith Wadley

I’ve invited friends over to swim in the Rhine. “Join us,” I say to my brother. He’s not a confident swimmer. When it’s just the two of us, Daniel takes an inflatable, a giant Toblerone bar, Fairtrade banana, or a Swiss airplane. No telling where he gets them. Maybe they find him. 

When my friends come up the drive on foot, Daniel’s rocking in his hammock. He keeps the hammock in the side yard, shielded from the drive. “I’m a downer,” he says, rolling to his feet. He scuttles into the house. Daniel’s on meds. To give him a chance to chill, maybe decide to swim with us, I leave him be.

My friends are two guys and two girls, swimsuits on, towels in hand, and flip-flops slapping. We’re in our mid-twenties and fit. Daniel’s already thirty and hasn’t held a job in years. He doesn’t like being around us because we radiate laughter, gestures, and words – school, work, relationships, and travels. “I can’t contribute to the conversation,” he’s claimed. “You talk too fast.”

“Share your stories,” I counter. “They’re as valid and relevant as ours.”

I offer my friends something to drink. It’s cold beers all around.

Nearing three o’clock, the heat’s peaking. I drain my bottle and call, “Daniel, suit up. We’re going already.”

The route I take my friends passes the cemetery. A boy born the same year as Daniel is buried in the children’s section. His older brothers took him swimming and didn’t notice when he lost his swim ring and slipped under the water’s surface. There’s also an old man who went into the river one night. A morning jogger found his shoes and folded clothes on the top steps of the town’s quay.

Downstream, someone always finds these river casualties.

We turn onto agricultural tracks that parallel the railroad line. Several years before Daniel experienced his first psychotic episode, a classmate of his stepped out in front of a train, right here.  

“Whew, I’m sweatin’!” one of my friends says. He removes his sunglasses and wipes his brow. One of the girls asks about Daniel, if he’s home from the clinic.

“He might join us,” I say.

We cross a sugar beet field. Green-topped mounds rise out of the earth. We’re headed to the town pool, where we’ll leave our towels and glasses. In the 1930s, a Swiss-German consortium dammed the Rhine and gifted each riverside community a pool. There’re changing rooms, a composting toilet, shade trees, and an open-air shower. The sunning decks are perfect for drying off.

Kids, kids, kids. A cannonball’s burst of water. Adults with babies, diaper bags, and picnics blanket the grassy surrounds. We claim decking space using our towels. A dip here’s tempting, but we save our sweat for the river.

The shoreline footpath offers welcome shade. You can’t tell now, but in the spring, wild garlic grows in abundance here. Back in April, I begged Daniel to join me foraging. He got as far as the cemetery before turning back. From my haul, I made pesto. We ate it with spaghetti, and I froze the remaining green paste in ice-cube trays. After our swim, I’ll toss a few cubes into some risotto. Daniel loves Bärlauch risotto. I try to lure him to the dinner table with his favorites, fried chicken and mashed potatoes, lasagna and fennel salad, homemade Wähe. He’ll take a bite, circle the table several times, ask if he can finish in his room.

The answer’s yes. Always yes.

There’s little chance that he’ll join me and my friends at the table.

But maybe. Maybe?

Where a creek feeds into the Rhine, one, two, three, four, we’re jumping in.

Several of us crawl against the current for a bit of sport. The river sweeps us along, regardless. We’re helpless against its flow.

Our spongy flip-flops float on its surface. I’m paddling after mine, so they don’t get too far away, when I notice Daniel’s bright rainbow trunks. He’s hugging his pale, reedy self and pacing, pondering this thing he wants, so obviously wants, to do. He’s brought no inflatable.

“Whoo-hoo, Daniel!” I call. “The water’s great!”

“Daniel!” my friends call. “Jump in!”

We’ll look after him.

There’s a splash, and I’m crawling against the cold current to reach my brother. Water in my eyes; I see nothing. I hear nothing but my own efforts. Strong and steady, I’m barely keeping abreast.

Meredith Wadley is an American-Swiss living and working in a medieval micro town on the Rhine River. Her writing has been anthologized and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Read her latest work in The Disappointed Housewife, Mediterranean Poetry, and Subnivean. Her monthly musings about life and writing plus her publication links appear on her website,