She’s already there when I arrive, sitting with her legs drawn, her chin resting on her knees, just the way I remember her. She looks up at me and smiles. The sun reflects off the water, drawing white squiggly lines all over everything, but when she smiles, she makes the sun her own. It’s like it was especially set up just to make her look more beautiful. I push that thought from my mind and give her a little wave.
“How are you?” she asks.
“Nervous. Excited. Happy.” She laughs, and it sounds a little nervous. At least she has a good reason.
We’re standing in what used to be a warehouse, what is now a barn. It belongs to some member of my family or another, I’m not sure who. Someday it will either belong to me or to my brother, as we’re the last in the family line. Probably him, since he’s a respectable member of society with a job and a future. I travel the world, looking for…something. I don’t know what yet, but I hold on to the hope that when I find it, I’ll recognize it.
The warehouse used to be for lumber. Some great, great something or other was a bit of a local mogul, chopping down trees left and right, building up a fortune, whatever. He got too big for his britches, as the saying goes; bit off a little more than he could chew, as another saying goes. This great, great uncle or grandfather or cousin or whoever he was, he was a big believer in the notion that you have to spend money to make money. He invested in all kinds of new land-developing technology, he invested in all kinds of lumber-processing, tree-chopping technology. He spent money, secure that he was going to be able to sit back and make money.
What he didn’t count on was a spring of rain, a summer of rain, a fall of rain, and a winter of rain. In short, what he didn’t count on was a year of rain. Not continual, of course, but enough to raise the water table to make the land he owned useless—unless you have a use for a swamp. What he also didn’t count on was the dam. Once that rain came, flooding everything, some big shot somewhere realized that all of this land would be better utilized as a lake. Chop down the trees, build a dam, blah blah blah.
As soon as the land dried, the building commenced. This great, great whatever of mine, he didn’t want to sell. He was convinced that his land was more valuable. He was convinced that having his land next to a giant lake would only make it more valuable.
What he didn’t understand was that his days of being a lumber giant (in the small, localized sense) were over. What he didn’t realize was that real estate is the name of the game when you’re looking to make a profit on lake-front property.
Not important, none of this is, but it’s part of the conglomeration of thought that sticks in my brain and in my throat and keeps me from saying anything intelligible at the moment. “Come look at this,” she says, either not noticing the fact that I’ve suddenly transformed from my natural mouthy state into some sort of a makeup-lacking mime, or pretending not to.
My family hasn’t ever been even close to wealthy since that first great, great whatever, but they’ve always had a chunk of land to call their own, even if it is pretty much useless.
The warehouse sits mostly immersed in the lake, and the land around it is mostly treeless, houseless, and useless. No one in the family ever wanted it, until my mother came along. Like the stereotypical little girl, my mother loved ponies. Unlike most of those little girls, she never lost her love for them. When she grew up, she took over the family land that no one wanted, and she turned it into a horse ranch.
Not many people in that area had horses, so they would bring their kids over to look at hers. They paid her money to let their children ride those horses. And soon she had a horse ranch. It never got huge, but it was enough so that she didn’t have to do anything else to bring in money. When the cancer finally took her, several of the remaining family fought for the land, what with it making a profit now, and all. While they battled for land rights, my brother and I sold the horses, emptied the house, and took everything that my mother had left us in her will.
The family finally figured out who was in charge of the once-again useless piece of land, and whoever it was decided they weren’t so interested in it now that it was worthless.
I don’t live here, but I rent the entire plot of land so that I can come here any time I want. I work only through the family lawyer, the one that handles the trust and everything, so that none of the family knows that I’m the one paying the extraordinarily high rent for what is essentially a worthless piece of property.
We used to play here. I pretty much grew up here. Sloppy emotional bullshit, but it’s worth the chunk of change when I really need to get away.
“Hello? Earth to Matt!”
I snap out of my daze. “Sorry,” I tell her, “I was just…”
“I guess. Thinking, woolgathering, whatever.”
“How long has it been since you’ve been back here?”
“I don’t know,” I tell her, honestly. “Either too long or not long enough, depending on how you look at it.”
“And how do you look at it?”
I shrug. “I don’t really know that, either.” Again, completely honest.
She laughs. “Same old Matt.”
“You think so?”
Another shrug, and another honest answer, “I don’t know that, either.”
She laughs again, and I laugh along with her, even though all three of my answers have vaguely unsettled me.
Was I always so indecisive? So confused?
Did I ever know who I was or what I was doing? Probably not. Does it even matter, this late in the game? Probably not.
“You remember we used to play out here all the time?” She asks, gesturing with her open arms at the old barn/warehouse.
“Yeah.” The building was built on a hill, so about half of what it’s covering is water—the edge of the lake. The other half is filled with various pens and corrals, and huge wooden shelves that had at one time been used to stack hay.
We used to climb onto those great shelves, up and up and up, and then swing out from the rafters: out over forever, until gravity is completely forgotten, until it remembers you. And then you fall so fast that you barely have time to scream, and you’re suddenly in the water, so far under that you wonder if you’ll ever make it back to the surface before you run out of air. As you swim upwards, you realize that you’re not going to make it, that in three seconds, you’ll have to inhale, whether it’s air or water, and mortality is right there with you in that too-cold/just-right water, and then two seconds later, you break the surface, and you can barely breathe, you’re laughing so hard, and they’re up on the giant shelves, or on the bank, laughing along with you, and you know they know just how you feel. You know they’re feeling that way right now.
I don’t know if it was the flirting with death—so many ways to die doing stupid shit like that that it boggles the mind—or being able to relate with other people so absolutely. Those times, the three of us, they were perfect.
“Yeah,” I say again, “I remember.”
She looks up at the rafters. They seemed old when we were children; they seem ancient now. I’m surprised this place is still standing, honestly. “You were the first one,” she says.
Eleven years old. I remember it like it was yesterday. A version of hide and go seek.
You make your hiding place easy to get out of, because just being discovered isn’t enough—the one that’s “it” has to touch you, too. “Tag you,” we called it. “You din’t tag me!”
“I tagged your shirt!”
“Don’t count! You gotta tag the person!”
Many a heated argument over semantics, and the rules were not at all static.
My brother was “it,” and she and I had somehow managed to find the perfect spot. You had to walk across a ceiling beam (which was kind of scary because there was nothing to hold onto, and if you fell, there was a good chance you’d either land in shallow water or miss the lake altogether) and there was a little platform with some old feed buckets on it. The feed buckets were actually fifty-gallon metal drums, easily tall enough for a couple of kids to hide behind.
The beauty of this spot was that even if you got discovered, there was a hole in the barn just behind the platform. It was a bit of a drop, but nothing for a couple of country kids. There was no way my brother could climb up into that hole, and if he tried to come across the beam, we could quickly drop out the back of the barn and run to base.
The rule with hiding places that good was that they could only be used once, otherwise the game got too frustrating, and it all went bad. But, man, when you found that spot, you were like a hero. Because everyone wants to find that impossible-to-get-you hiding place.
I had just happened to see it, and had quickly called her over, and now here we were, huddled behind the drums, giddy with the excitement of finding a perfect spot. You always wondered if it was really as good as you first thought—many a “perfect” spot had quickly been disproved by the cunning of whoever was “it.”
“I don’t think he can get to us here,” she whispered.
“We’ll have to wait until he’s about halfway across the beam, I think,” I whispered back.
“Even if he’s barely on it, we can make it to base easy. He has to climb up all those shelves to get here, so he’ll either have to finish crossing, or climb back down.”
“This is gonna be great.”
Childhood excitement—there’s nothing like it. Only as children are we able to exert so much energy over something so mundane.
“You did a great job finding this spot,” she whispered.
I turned to tell her that we had both found it (a lie, but one designed to make her feel good, so it was okay), and we were suddenly face to face, our noses about an inch apart. And the mood changed so instantaneously that it was happening before either one of us really realized what was happening.
The excitement was still there, but it was all of the sudden different, and we both leaned in, and then we were kissing. It is the single most brilliant moment of my life. The brightest, the clearest, the most defined. My hand lifted to gently hold the side of her face, and her hand floated up to the side of my neck. There was no tongue involved, because neither one of us really knew what we were doing, and it was the first kiss for both of us, anyways, and everyone knows you don’t use tongue on your first kiss.
My eyes were closed—I didn’t know when I had closed them, but I knew that hers were closed, too—and there was nothing in the world but her and me and our kiss.
And then there was a crash as my brother accidentally bumped a pitch-fork into a work bench. The work bench was covered with various tin cans filled with various nuts and bolts and screws and nails, and the world was ripped apart by the commotion.
She pulled back, startled, and the look on her face made me want to dance with happiness. It was love, plain and simple. There was no mistaking it.
She glanced down at my brother, and her look of love turned to a look of fear, and she whispered, “You can’t ever tell him.”
“So you have picked, then,” I whispered back.
“It’s not picking, Matty. It’s just…”
Up to that point, it had been, what? Ignored? Undefined? Something. We were both in love with her, see? My brother and I.
I think all three of us knew it, but none of us were willing to admit it. Even when we were all dumb kids, we weren’t so dumb, and I think we all realized that acknowledging this love would break the perfection of our friendship.
And we were right.
Right then, as she looked at me and told me that I could never tell him, I knew I was out. What had been a circle of friendship was now something else, something in which I had no place.
I stood up without another word, and began running across the beam.
It took my brother about two seconds to spot me, and another second to realize how reckless I was behaving. “Holy shit, Matty, be careful!” he screamed up at me.
I kept running.
“Matty! You have freebies, okay? You’re home-base!” This was a special exception to the rule, one used only when we were sincerely afraid. Like if someone was up in a tree, trying to scramble out, and jeopardizing themselves in the process, you could yell freebies, and then they could take their time climbing down safely instead of killing themselves while trying to rush.
I kept running.
I heard her shout from behind me, just one word: “No!”
And then I jumped. Away from her, away from him, just away. We had been swinging from the beams for months at this point—I had been the first one to try it, on a dare—but this was much higher, and there was no guarantee that I would make it to deep enough water so I wouldn’t kill myself.
I didn’t care.
I soared out over the world, with no idea how it would be when I ended my descent, and I was free. I was alone, and I was everything, and nothing could hurt me. The thought of death didn’t leave my mind, but the worry that usually comes with that thought did.
And then I hit the water, what we used to call a belly-flop, and I felt the sting on my stomach and my thighs and my face, and I felt myself sinking, and didn’t know if I was sinking into the water or into the blackness behind my eyelids, and I still didn’t care.
The too-cold/just-right water felt warm, warm like her kiss, and I surrendered.
I woke up, coughing and vomiting water all over my mother, and she was hugging me and calling me an idiot and kissing me and crying. Apparently, I died.
I don’t know. There was no white light, there was no tunnel, there was just being alive, a bit of mind secrecy—like when you sleep but can’t remember your dreams—and then more being alive.
And my brother was crying, and my mom was crying, and she was crying. I said I was sorry, and my mom told me that it was all okay, just never do anything like that again. But I wasn’t talking to my mom.
“The first one, what?” I ask.
“The first one to swing out from the rafters. You don’t remember?”
“I don’t remember a lot of stuff.”
“Oh, man, I do. We were so scared. You swore it would be fine, but Mike and I, we were terrified. It worked out, though. That was you: always so confident, always so brave and adventurous, and always so right about it. I guess that’s why you’re flying back from the jungle somewhere while Mike and I are putting a down payment on a house, huh?”
“Do you…do you remember any other firsts?”
The smile drops from her face, and even after all these years, she looks just like she did when my brother knocked all that shit over. She looks like she’s about to tell me not to ever tell him.
“Don’t be like that. Don’t act like I’m the pathetic ex-boyfriend that calls up in the middle of the night. This is the first time I’ve brought this up since…well, since ever. You’re getting married tomorrow. I would like some closure before I give you away to my brother.”
“No, I didn’t mean for it to sound like that. I just…I was hoping that it had…gone away, I guess.”
“Did your love for him ever go away?”
“Not even for a second.”
“There you have it.”
She puts her hand on my face, and my skin remembers the feel of her fingers, and I see a tear at the corner of her eye.
“I wish it could have been different, Matt.”
“No you don’t,” I say, not harshly, and I wipe the tear from her eye. “The two of you are going to have a great life together.”
I kiss her cheek, and then turn and start walking away,
“What about you, Matt?”
I stop and turn around. More dramatic than I’m used to, but whatever—special occasion and all, right? “I’ll keep looking for whatever I’m looking for,” I say.