A Long Walk
To us kids, the alpine lake was something of a legend. As legendary as only things can be when you’re eleven. For weeks the lake had been talked about but we hadn’t gone. Probably it was because the trail up there took a full two hours to hike with children, an incomprehensible journey to which the adults wouldn’t consent unless absolutely necessary. But that morning by 9am we were all already half-smothered in our tents from the heat. So we children asked, once again, if we could go to the lake for a swim. Whether the sun had addled their brains beyond reason, or whether we had just worn their resistance down to nothing with our constant wheedling, I don’t know. Nonetheless, the adults at last capitulated and we were all there, hot and tired, but on the trail to paradise.
Horses had blazed the path ahead. Here and there, slim “J” half-hoofprints cratered the dirt. In fact, some horses had evidently passed through only hours before, filigreeing the trail’s border with deposits of faintly damp, cylindrical turds. The other girls and I sidled around them and made faces at the smell. But the boys seemed less cautious. One of them actually kicked a dropping at me, then retreated in a spasm of laughter. He missed though, and the thing bounced away down the trail like a renegade pinball. Too late to protect me, but plenty on-time to make a scene, my girlfriend rushed to my side. She grabbed my arm and whipped me behind her, throwing her arms protectively wide, like some overreaching actor. She stuck out her pink tongue, quivering defiance. However grand, the gesture was lost on my assailant. He and his friends had already stampeded down the trail, slapping every low-hanging leaf in their path.
Those boys were (and would be for another five or so years) absolute ogres. I hated --- but loved --- the sight and smell and thought of them. Everything they did was incomprehensible; they were loud and rude, unthinking, and an utter, delicious mystery. To start with, they were much bigger than me, seeming to stride the earth with mastery and confidence, knowledge, experience. And they were at ease with each other, making their jokes, making references to things with knowing looks and laughter, things of which I could make neither head nor tail. How the boys had come to be so tall and so worldly I couldn’t imagine, but I regarded them with shy and supreme fascination.
Why this should be so, I could not have told you. Since I had four brothers, boys were always around. I had played with them without any embarrassment, almost without thinking. But something had changed, subtly, absolutely, one morning three years earlier. It was the morning my brother’s best friend had tried to teach me the inimitable art of peeing whilst standing.
We were in the downstairs bathroom at my house: him, his sister, my brother and I. A little window let in light above the toilet, and we four children stood round, chattering. You would have thought we were at the movies for all the excitement in the air.
“Look girls, this is how you do it!” my brother’s friend said as he arched a deft, yellow parabola into the toilet. The sister and I giggled. My brother giggled. I edged to the toilet bowl and dropped my shorts. Then, to my horror, I found the feat physically impossible. I hadn’t considered, until that moment, that I lacked the requisite equipment. Instead, I straddled and squatted, trying to compensate with no small measure of panache. I may even had flourished my hand in the air, like Barnum (or Bailey?) in the center ring. Still, the sister and I felt, my performance had been somewhat lackluster. Somehow it didn’t count. Something was off.
After that sad and confusing episode, I started avoiding the boys. When my brother’s friends came over I cloistered myself in my room and pretended not to be home. Sometimes I would watch the boys horsing around in the backyard through a gap in my bedroom curtains. But I would never, never talk. Not to any of them. Later I would find out I wasn’t the only one skittish around the opposite sex. For my tenth birthday party I had twelve girls over for cake and presents. My friends chased and teased my youngest older brother (one year older than us) so mercilessly my mother had to smuggle him into the downstairs TV room and hide him there till the party was over. That night as I went to bed I overhead my parents debriefing about the afternoon. My father shook his head, both sad and amused, and my mother humphed about how “aggressive” adolescent girls can be.
That summer day as we walked to the lake, my girlfriend and I giggled and chatted under the evergreens. We held hands, fingers laced tightly as if we might actually lose hold of each other. It was so hot that our shirts stung as they clung to us, so hot that sweat matted our bangs to curly Qs on our foreheads. Her cheeks were spotted red. Cicadas roared from the margins and birds shrilled in the trees. We could see the boys up ahead, straying from the trail whenever the parents weren’t watching, running too far and circling back when they were called, but with groans. Any climbable object in their path was scaled and conquered with great to-do. My friend and I smiled, then rolled our eyes.
Finally, we reached the lake. There it was: limpid and serene, bone-quakingly cold, wreathed in granite. In my little life I had seen plenty, but I knew even then that this scene was something special. My tender heart was pricked, for the first time in remembering, with an understanding of the sublime. I felt happy and so, so sad. It hurt me to look.
The other girls and I began to pick off our shoes and socks, looking for clean rocks to put them on. Meanwhile the boys made quick work of cooling off. Most ran headlong into the lake, shedding neither shoe nor sock, tilting with madding speed. The parents shouted for them to slow down, but half-heartedly, knowing even as they chided that they were being ignored. And suddenly, everyone, every single person, was laughing. My mother was laughing so hard she had tears in her eyes. My father was laughing and all the other parents laughed. The boys laughed and we girls laughed as we shimmied meekly into the freezing water.
My friend and I dropped hands and, as we waded into the lake, began to make splashes at the boys. I knew, without knowing why, things would be different now. It was a strange feeling, (my childish mind, read up on CS Lewis and little else, called it “queer”), strange and timeless and true. Something had shifted, something was new. My friend and I would feel differently about each other, and about the boys, but that was going to be fine. We had come to this legendary lake together, and we were going to enjoy our swim while it lasted.