I Found a Friend At The Lake This Summer
I pull free of my mom’s hand and dive a few feet under the water. I hear the splash of her hand dipping down to find my shoulder or my boney arm and then I feel the scratch of her fingernails on the nape of my neck moving left toward my armpit, and my arms clasp onto my sides and I wiggle away from her probing hand as if I’m a dolphin at Sea World. I gulp down the air that’s made a bubble of my mouth, my eyes open now so I can see my mom’s feet moving in circles like radar, and I laugh. An air bubble shoots passed my face and up through my hair, which waves in the water like anemone, and I rush to the surface after it because it’s all I have left.
The water parts and I decide to twist around so my back is to the water. All I can see is the sky now, that familiar blue over Lake Arthur, before I close my eyes and let the water take my body back in. I let all the air out of my lungs and sink to the bottom and sit there with my legs crossed looking like a monk, a game my brother and I sometimes play. The bottom of the lake is cold and shivers my legs as they sink into the mixture of rock and mud, but the water feels warm in comparison and comforts me like a blanket I can hide under and my mom can’t see through.
I’m out of air again, so I get my feet under me and push myself back to the surface. I take a deep breath once I get my head above the water, the air feels hot and wet, and the water ripples outward from my treading arms. I’m splashed in the back of the head by what feels like the drops sprayed by a rock falling into the water, but when I turn around I see my mom lumbering through the water toward me, using her hands as little oars in aid of her turning legs. The resistance of the water makes her look as if she’s moving in slow motion and it makes her more menacing than she actually is.
“Come. Here. Right now,” she forces, muted, through her teeth.
Her portly stomach is hidden under the water, but her breasts look like emerging submarines peaking through the surface, and I can’t help but laugh.
“Wipe that smile off…I swear to God if you don’t come here right now.”
I start to swim away, but she grabs hold of my hand and pulls me close to her and lugs me to shallower water under her arm like a surfboard.
“Put me down. I can stand here, Mom. Let me down!”
“Don’t you yell at me. Look at me. I’m not kidding. Look at me,” she says with a finger waging an inch from my face.
“I’m looking at you, Mom.”
“Look at me, Teddy.”
“Mom, I’m looking at you.”
“If you ever do that again, I swear to God, If you ever even think about doing that, I swear to God, Teddy, if you do that again, you won’t leave your room for a week and we won’t come back here for the rest of the summer. Do you understand me? Look at me. Do you understand me, Theodore Michael? You scared the shit out of me. I thought you were dead.”
“Mom, I can swim. You taught me how to swim.”
“I know. But you don’t understand. I taught you’d run away, or were kidnapped, or were drowned, or I don’t know what I thought. Do you understand? Come here.”
She pulls my head into her gut, and her wet, one-piece, swimsuit against my cheek feels like sand newly washed by the tide. She kisses the top of my head and I pull my head down through her hands like Winnie the Poo trying to free himself from a beehive.
“Go reapply your sunscreen. Get your Dad to get your back. Okay?”
I run through the sand up to where the rest of my family is stationed on the beach. The bottoms of my feet burn as they slip and struggle to gain traction on the loose sand, which feels more like a collection of small rocks than actual sand, you know, not like the kind of stuff that makes up the beaches in South Carolina where we normally go.
My Dad lost his job three months ago, so we go to Lake Arthur instead of making the 13-hour drive from our house in Pittsburgh to a small beach on Kiawah Island in South Carolina. We just can’t make it happen this year, my mom told me when school got out last month, but we’ll go back again she said. I asked when, but she wasn’t being specific so I asked my Dad, who was sitting in his favorite chair in the living room watching a Pirates game, and his head dropped and his eyes closed and when he opened them a second later he looked toward me and said he wasn’t sure either and that I should be happy with what we have and then he didn’t say anything for the rest of the night so I decided not to ask again.
This is our second time at Lake Arthur this summer and I like it, but not as much as the normal beach. My little brother’s sitting on a Cinderella-themed towel, burying his feet up to his ankles in the sand and my Dad’s reading the newspaper from underneath this grey, denim sunhat that makes him look like he might be cutting through bush in the Amazon at any moment. He was a skinny man, but he’s gained weight since he’s been home more and now his skin hangs over the top of his swim trunks and his chest is beginning to look more like mommy’s. People say we look the same. A woman at the grocery store said, “There’s no question about the paternity,” which Dad said means we look alike.
“Dad, where’s the sun screen?”
He pulls it out of a small tan bag at the foot of his chair.
“Here you go, buddy.”
“Can you get my back?”
He gets off his chair for the first time all day, farts a little sunscreen into his hand and smears in onto my back.
“There you go, buddy.”
“Thanks Dad. Did you get it all the way rubbed in?”
My mom’s floating on her back in the water.
“Sure did, buddy.”
“What was your Mom saying to you?”
She gains her standing and looks at the landscape that I’m looking at, the trees that dip into the water on the opposite shore and the mountain they cover up to the sky.
“Out in the water, buddy. I saw her yelling at you.”
“Oh, nothing. I don’t know. Just not to do something or something.”
“Okay, well, don’t do it. Okay?” he says to me as if it doesn’t matter what I did or if I do it again or not.
He rubs my back again. “Don’t forget your shoulders.” He hands me the sunscreen and I throw it at my brother who gets up and tries to tackle me but his feet are stuck in the hole that he’s buried them into so he falls and we laugh and I tell him to bury me.
I lie down next to his blanket and he runs behind my Dad’s chair and gets a bucket and then down to the water and sticks it into the sand and comes back with it filled and turns it over onto my legs.
“You’ve got to do the legs first because then you have to stay here and can’t go nowhere,” he tells me like an expert in body burying.
My mom walks past me and tells me to make sure I don’t get anything on Jeremy’s towel and if I get sand in my eye she won’t feel bad because I’m asking for it. And when I watch her walk past my Dad without saying anything, a ball flies over my head and a boy about my age jumps over me in pursuit.
“Hey!” I get up to say. He picks up his ball and says nothing to me. “Hey, are you even listening to me. You almost just kicked me. Are you even going to say sorry or something. I almost got hurt.”
“No, I didn’t. I was just getting my ball.”
“My brother’s burying me and you almost knocked over all the sand that was on me when you went to get your ball. I just said watch out because you almost kicked me.”
He didn’t respond, and I watch him walk back to his family. His Mom, who is skinny and young, points at me and he comes back.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “My Mom told me to tell you I was sorry. So, I’m sorry, I guess. Plus, I, maybe I scared you or something. I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. I wasn’t scared.” There’s long pause because I don’t know what to say and because I can tell he doesn’t want to be here, talking to me, apologizing. My Mom must have seen us standing in our awkward silence because she comes over and stands behind me.
“Is everything okay here, boys?”
His mom’s there too by the time my mom floats her question to us.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am,” his mom says to mine, regarding her as an elder, though I’m not certain this was true. “I saw my son, this is Ryan. I saw Ryan jump over your boy, so I sent him over here to apologize. Did you apologize?”
Ryan nods his head once, and stares down at the sand defeated. I feel bad and embarrassed that I had gotten this boy in trouble.
“He did,” I say. “And I apologized because really it was my fault because I was lying in the sand and he probably couldn’t see me because of where I was lying there in the sand.”
Ryan smiles when I say this, and he asks me if I want to throw the ball with him in the water, which his mom tells him is a nice suggestion. The ball’s nylon, neon, and about the size of an orange, and it’s squishy and he says that it can skip on the water like a stone. Our moms begin talking to each other, I hear my mom say something about how sorry she is and my dad sleeps.
Ryan’s black hair is buzz cut, but there are longer patches on the back and on the sides that lead me to think his mom cuts it for him. He has these long, pale arms that stretch almost down to his knees. When he moves them at all, it looks as if he’s reaching for something with a certain amount of desperation. I think they’d be fun to tie around something large, like a tree. His bathing suit is too short, so they look even longer than they probably are.
He and I wade to our hips into the lake and Ryan notes how hard it is to walk into the water this way because of how cold it feels on his wiener. I agree with him, but I submerge myself and float for a moment, letting the calm water of the lake fold over me in subtle movements, that cool cocoon. We fly the ball back and forth for a while, it swerves with the wind then sits in the water waiting to be flung again, bobbing calmly like a duck when I can’t jump high enough to catch it. Then, on a particularly errant throw, I stub my toe on a rock. Under the water, I grab hold of my foot and shout my pain, dissipating, to the lake bottom.
“I’m going back in. I’m tired,” I say to Ryan, hiding my weakness.
“Yeah. I’m tired, I just want to go back out.”
“Are you coming out too?”
“No, I haven’t been in all day and the water’s nice, so I’m going to stay in here,” he says throwing the ball in front of him, flopping himself into the water after it.
“Okay. See you later,” I say when he emerges.
My brother’s waiting for me at his towel, sad that I’ve neglected him making my new friend, but I am tired and my foot’s throbbing so I tell him maybe later, that we can get back to our burial work. He dumps the bucket of sand he’s been sitting next to, that’s been waiting for me, on dad’s feet, and he nonchalants, “Not now, buddy,” out to my brother from under his sunhat. I lay down there on the sand and let it warm me into a light sleep. I can stil hear the splashing of water though. The high laughs and screems of siblings, and parents, and friends in the water keep me from falling completely out of consciousness. I picture them there, closing their eyes when they get splashed in the face, then lunging out for revenge and wrestling in slow motion under the water. They surface and blow water from their giggling mouths into a mist. Ryan’s behind them watching until he throws his ball into the air, dives backwards and extends his arms behind his head to catch the thing. The water takes him in. He reemerges tossing the ball back and forth, from one hand to the other. Then, sand crunches next to my head and I’m brought back to reality.
“Teddy, have you seen Ryan? Teddy. Teddy, wake up. Have you seen him, do you know where Ryan is? Where’s Ryan, Teddy? Teddy. Wake up. Teddy!” My mom nudges me gently at first, but then nearly rolls me over when I’m slow coming to.
“Teddy, listen to me. Have you seen Ryan?”
“Not since I came in. I was sleeping.”
“Teddy, this is very important. You need to tell me where Ryan is, if he told you where he was going when you came in?”
“He was staying in the water. Why?”
“It’s okay,” she says to me.
Ryan’s mom is speaking to a life guard, she’s crying and frantic and my mom goes over to her and I see her lips form, “water,” and his mom leans her head into her husband’s chest and my dad is at the water’s edge, running and diving into the cold water, a shock.
The lifeguard, less fit than those in South Carolina, runs toward me and asks if I thought Ryan might have come in with me, but he didn’t, I explain I’m sure of this. I look toward the water, where even the mountain’s reflection can’t stand still, where ten feet from my dad who is turning about, an aimless man, is Ryan’s nylon ball bobbing, anchored. I want to see the ball next to his family’s cooler, where he’s placed it carefully so it won’t roll down the slope of the beach into the water while he runs to the car to get a shirt or cards or a book, but it’s floating on the surface, over not-so-shallow water.
I point to the ball and when Ryan’s mom sees it too she says, “oh my god,” like it’ll help. The lifeguard takes off down the beach, kneeling at the towels of countless other families and they get up and congregate around Ryan’s family and stroke his mom’s back and tell here that it’ll be okay.
Then, my mom takes my hand.
“You hold on to my hand, do you understand me. Hold on to my hand,” she says as she squeezes the blood from it.
“What’s happening, mom,” I say noticing that everyone’s holding hands now and lining up at the tide line.
“Well, we’re going to go into the water, all of us, and if you feel something on your feet you tell me. Okay? But don’t let go of my hand. Do you understand?”
My dad came back and held my hand and we, along with a long wall of legs walked into the lake. The cold water inches up my leg and makes me shake once combined with my nerves. My mom looks down at me and I want her to smile but she can’t even look into my eyes, and she turns back, blankly to the water. Someone is holding Ryan’s mom on the beach, she too distraught to come in.
I take a step and something brushes on the side of my foot. A light touch from something big or small, hard or soft, rock or human that sinks my heart and turns me dizzy, and I pull from my parents’ hands and run to the beach and the world doesn’t make any sound anymore because they’re yelling my name and asking if I felt anything. And nothing comes out to tell them yes.