My Dad was sitting on the swinging bench with a pile of my books again. This time he didn't take anything from my nightstand, the stuff I was currently picking away at. So while I was weary about why exactly he was interested in my reading selection- at least I wouldn't be missing anything that I wanted to pick up.
My parents had deposited us at the lake house cabin in upstate New York with our aunts and cousins, as they did every summer. The cabin had ten beds on the highest floor and three private bedrooms for the adults, more than enough for all of us. My Mom and Dad would fly in and out throughout the summer as work permitted them to vacation.
I was 13 that July. My birthday is in September, so really, I was on the cusp of 14. My hair was short, pixie cut, and I'd just gotten my braces off (but not my palate spreader). I was all arms and legs, thin but with a small pouch that only I really noticed, and quite unsatisfied with my bookworm pallor. I read on the cabin’s private dock and hoped to gain the attention of the teenagers hanging out on the pier next door. I wanted them to invite me into the fun I'd been promised by countless movies and YA novels. I’d not yet had any of it.
As the oldest cousin, all the younger kids looked to me for things to do day in and day out. When the mood struck, I did my best- adventures up the waterfall paths, starting a bonfire for s’mores, balancing rock statues, catching crayfish, or even jumping off an 8-foot cliff into the lake. But being with them made me insecure. Where was the gang of girls my age; the 16-year-old with the license to drive us into town on our first forays into adulthood? The lake was full of young people. I saw them in catamarans and motorboats on the water, unaccompanied by adults. They were permitted to roam, to explore to their hearts' content, and most of all, to be together with people their own age. They were in their rightful place, I was not.
My uncle had one boat, and he'd sooner cut off his own fingers than let me drive it with other kids aboard in his absence. The summer was passing very slowly for me, I was becoming more and more uncomfortable leading my brother and cousins around. Thus, I retreated into the world of my books. If I wasn't permitted to enter young adulthood yet, I would at least read about it while trying to force my skin into a shade that wasn't so embarrassingly pale by laying out in the sun on the dock.
I languished there for hours; my skin started to feel quite hot. Experiments moving my bathing suit around revealed that I'd burned myself thoroughly. Great, now I would be Casper-white in some places and lobster pink in others. Putting down my book, required summer reading for my first year of high school English class, I looked up to see that my Dad was still on the bench, but now he was staring at me. He had one of my favorites in his lap, The Golden Compass, and he looked at me as if he wanted me to come over to him. The kids next dock over were taking turns waterskiing from their dock. If I went to him, they'd see me and probably continue to ignore my existence.
Before I knew it, my Dad's hand flew up, calling me over to him. Cringing, I instead put my book down and made a swimming motion. Hastily, I grabbed my goggles and flippers before jumping off the dock into the lake. I glanced back at him once; he was sad-looking, and I tried to ignore the way it made me feel.
Maybe if I swam long distances daily, I would get toned and lose my belly issue. Perhaps if I were tan, fit, and beautiful like the other girls on the lake, I'd get invited to adventure with the kids on the other dock. With that goal in mind, I swam on. The water was ice cold. It was a glacial lake, so even in August with the summer heat, it was still freezing until one got used to it. Similarly, I tried to get used to the bite in my muscles, particularly my arms, which were more used to holding up books than propelling me across a lake. Ten minutes into my swim, I realized that's what I wanted to do. I was going to swim across the lake and back—what a cool story. I could walk over to the other dock and introduce myself as the girl who did that. Then maybe I'd be awesome enough to water ski with them from the dock or ride in their retro 80's pickup truck into town for ice cream and burgers.
I lifted my head to see how far I'd gotten. Both shores looked far. I was exhausted. I made the mistake of looking down under my feet into the blue-black depths of the lake. My toes nipped at the growing fierce cold beneath the first few layers of the lake. When I was younger, that darkness horrified me. My aunts told me that there were no large predators or even large animals that would hurt people in the water. Just zebra mussels near the shore that would shred your feet and trout or weeds that might brush past you as you swam. But the animal mind doesn't always believe in science or rationality, and as my dog-tired brain tried to process that petrifying unknown void below me, it acted on instinct and sent me scrambling back to my dock.
I looked up to see where to point the rocket of my adrenaline-fueled muscles and realized that I'd drifted farther downstream. I'd need to swim harder and farther to get back to where I'd begun. In the din of my ragged breaths and my own kicking, I did not register the danger until a rush of furious sound sliced its way through the water in front of me. The wake of it pushed me back, and I screamed in surprise. My heart thundered and my body shook with terrible force and cold as I processed that I'd almost been hit by a speedboat. The house or any nearby houses were nowhere to be seen. In my panic, I registered that another boat was barreling toward me, and I tried to make a beeline for the shore away from its trajectory. As it approached, another shout rose in my throat, but the aged brown 70's looking craft turned some distance sharply away and slowed expertly to a stop at a safe distance.
The sight of the teenagers from the neighboring dock peering down at me evolved my mortal terror of almost dying into a more profound existential terror and extensive embarrassment.
"Are you alright?" A beautiful boy with a short beard called from the back of the boat. "Did those assholes clip you?"
"No," I started to answer but realized I was wearing the childish goggles that covered my nose and made me talk funny. So I pulled them off hastily, "I'm fine. I just lost track of the dock on my way back."
A girl with long blonde hair and a sporty, fun build held her hand out to me, "You almost made it to the middle of the lake. Did you get too tired?"
"I wasn't aiming to cross. I just wanted to go out for a while and cool off," I lied, hoping they wouldn't notice how hard I was trying to come off casual.
The boat's back ladder was broken. The only way up was either to be hoisted over the side or to pull oneself up through the back. I tried to pull myself up from the back, but I was too weak. Both the boy and the girl took my arms and pulled me over. I tried hard to make sure my bathing suit was in place as they dragged me over the lip of the boat.
"Thanks," I said, trying to pass off my red face as exertion rather than embarrassment, breathing heavy.
"Next time, make sure you take a floating flag if you head out that far into the middle. Or ask someone to follow you in a boat to make sure drunk assholes like that don't turn you into fish food," he offered as advice, while he also reached into a cooler to pull out a can of Coors for me.
I took it gracefully and was putting on my full nonchalant act as I ripped the top open halfway and took a fake swig, "oh, thanks."
"My pa says you guys are from Florida," the girl eyed me. She motioned with her head to the front of the boat where the others were laid out on towels with sunglasses, baking themselves and drinking beer. I followed her. The boy went to the captain's seat and started to maneuver the boat away from the dock, to my surprise.
"Do you want to ride with us to the gas station for 20 minutes? I can take you back afterward," he called to me. In a cringe moment, I didn't look back at him but simply gave him a 'thumbs up' and a nod.
I sat in an empty spot near the nose of the boat. It would be turbulent if they went fast, but there wasn't another spot. Thankfully, the boy driving did not go fast.
The blonde eyed me over the tops of her own sunglasses, "What part of Florida?"
"Oh wow, that must be cool to be from there."
"It's alright, must be cool to be from around here. You get to see snow and shit." To her credit, she didn't laugh at my unnatural use of curse words.
"Snow can be nice, and snow sports are fun, but it's so ugly after the ground gets all dirty and muddy."
I nodded, and a silence fell between us. Then, she picked up the conversation again to continue the flow of the conversation.
"We always see you reading over there. What book is so interesting?"
"Just some summer homework reading. Two books actually. Kind of tedious," I didn't know if she'd think I was a dork for talking about my obsession with Sci-fi or fantasy.
"And what do they make you guys read down there for summers?"
"The school-wide book is called The House on Mango Street and the one for English class is called, Their Eyes Are Watching God."
She was mystified and shook her head, "I've never heard of either…We just read normal stuff, like Catcher in the Rye." I had heard of that one and spoke before I'd really thought through what I was saying.
"That's the one that takes place in New York City about the white kid in the 60's who hires a hooker but doesn't sleep with her right?"
She laughed good-naturedly, "yeah, I haven't gotten to that part yet, but I think something like that happens."
"Miami schools tend to assign books about people of color for summer reading. More relatable. They teach more classic stuff like that during the school year when the teachers can ensure everyone is following along. A lot of kids where I'm from check out when the MC is a rich white person," I added without thinking.
She gave me a funny look for a moment but moved her head in a side-to-side kind of nod.
"How old are you?"
"14," I lied but didn't feel too bad about it. It was only two months away.
She looked agog, her eyes moving up and down my body, "really? We thought you were at least 16."
"Oh really?" I said, looking encouraged and proud, "cool."
At that point, the boat sped up, and we couldn't chat much more. I tried to look cool and unabashed with my quickly warming full can of beer as we pulled in closer to the gas station.
The girl announced to the boat as we approached, "time to chug ladies and gentlemen." Before downing her own in one clean swoop and perfunctory burp.
The others followed her example, and I had all I could do not to choke. I tried my best to down the can before the boat reached the dock. I could not chug, only awkwardly swallow as I tried not to puke the disgusting liquid out.
The refueling adventure was brief, and I felt the buzz of my first full beer hit me as we all got out of the boat to buy stuff from the snack shop at the end of the dock. I didn't buy anything as I didn't have any money. But I did enjoy feeling "cool" at last. For once, I wasn't the pasty dork, and I was in the company of high school kids.
On the way back, the boy did not go so fast that conversation was impossible, and the rest of the boat had all kinds of questions for me. Had I ever been to a Heat game? (No, didn't give a shit about basketball.) Did I speak Spanish fluently? (I understood most of it, but speaking was hard.) Were there lots of hot girls in Miami? (Yeah, I guess?) Were there lots of hot guys? (Oh, hell yeah.) Did I ever get to go out on the ocean to fish or ski? (Unfortunately, only with my parents. Can't get a boat license in Florida until you're 16.) They were so interested in me. It was one of the first times anyone had ever been so interested in my awkward self. I soaked up their attention like a hothouse flower and felt a bit like one as they did not have any sunscreen to share. They offered me a second beer, and I found that after getting the first one down, the second was easier to stomach. I arrived back at my dock thoroughly buzzed (drunk, some might say), toasted like a raisin, and exhilarated.
My Dad was furious. He met me on the dock and roughly pulled me off the boat. "Get in the house!"
I stumbled and made my way back, jumping in the shower and simultaneously brushing my teeth like a madwoman hoping to expel the smell of Coors before anyone could notice. I was in there for a good 30 minutes before my cousins started knocking, asking to use the bathroom.
When I exited, my mother and father were sitting on the couch in the common area with arms crossed. They sat opposite the boy from the other dock and told me to change out of my swimsuit. I'd never had a dressing down like that before.
They screamed at me for trying to swim across the lake by myself. They also yelled at the 18-year-old boy who had offered me, the 13-year-old, beer. They were equally angry that I had not been brought back immediately but had been unaccompanied in town without parental supervision. The boy did not look at me as they spoke. I didn't look at anyone.
This wasn't Miami. This was a small town in New York State. It was much safer. These were things I did not say but kept inside of me to shield myself from my parents' vitriol. They forbade the kids from the next dock over to speak to me and told me that I'd be staying inside the cabin for the next two days doing schoolwork. After which, they'd be flying me home. I was grounded until September. My mom called me a 'puta imprudente/reckless slut’ in Spanish, and I was glad that the boy couldn't understand. Nonetheless, I was dying with each moment I sat there, burning from the inside out with embarrassment and anger.
I did not cry until the boy left the cabin, and I'd gone up to one of the beds on the top of the stairs. There was no privacy. Only married adults got to use the private bedrooms in the house. I had to cry quietly.
I went to the bookshelf and saw that there was a copy of Catcher in the Rye tucked into the corner. I used it to distract myself for a few hours until dinner when my aunt called me down to help her with the corn and burgers. I swallowed the book as if it were medicine, I became Holden and imagined what it would have been like if I were born in this state, with the same freedom as those kids in the boat. Would I be the slut that my mother accused me of being? Would I even believe her if she called me that?
I came to a line that jumped out at me. Lancing my heart at its most delicate;
"Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry."
In the margins, I noticed someone had written a few lines of notes. The handwriting was oddly familiar. It said, "Holden, just because you are not as unique as you believe does not mean that you are alone." My head was a pounding mess, and my tears welled fresh upon filling my mind with those words. Closing the book to open the front page, I saw my father's name scribbled, marking his ownership. I descended the cold metal stairs at peace with what had happened, and with what my future may have lying ahead of it.
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