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Come Down to the Water by Emily Flamm

Emily Flamm's fiction has recently appeared in Catapult, Cosmonauts Avenue, and Crab Orchard Review. She has been a Bread Loaf work-study scholar and a finalist for AWP's Intro Journals Project and the Jack Dyer Fiction Prize. She teaches fiction and rhetoric at the University of Maryland.

2nd place, 2016 Raymond Carver Contest

 

“We are made of star stuff,” Alex tells me. “All the scientists agree on this, even the God nuts. Break it down far enough and we’re made of the same root business as all other things: things like chimps or our mothers that we kind of resemble and things like washing machines and natural bridges that we do not. We are like pharaohs, Ford F-150s, and fire,” he rhapsodizes, his voice low, as he repositions his head on the pillow. “It’s only measurement, placement, structure that makes things as different from each other as they seem to be.”

When he’s soft and noble like this, I don’t mind playing the student.

“Emotions? Are they that way? Is fear the same as confidence?”

He fends me off with a tweak of my nipple.

“You,” he says, “ask too many freaking questions.”

“Sensory stuff? Sounds, colors, smells? I should take a physics class.”

“They wouldn't let you,” he says. “They can tell an impostor a mile away.”

“But what's an impostor, if we're all the same, so nearly the same? Look at you, impersonating a star.”

“You're always trying so hard to be funny,” he says. “Your humor stinks of effort.”

“Oh,” I say, and faux-ponder this. “Is humor the same stuff as stuff that isn’t humor?”

His eyes close. “The badness of your jokes,” he says, “physically hurts me. It’s abusive.”

“Okay, okay,” I say, though my jokes are part, if not most, of what he likes about me. “Touch my nipple again.”

He does.

I writhe a little.

“What are we, then?” I ask.

“My best guess,” he says, moving back into a gentle tone, “is that we are what we do and feel. We are what we affect and how we affect it. Feeling and movement. Energy containers, participants in a great cosmically insignificant energy show.”

I picture cans of demystified souls emptying into darkness, a scene that strikes me as hectic and sad.

Alex is a scientist. In some circles, he was briefly famous for it, for a discovery he made. He has powers I can’t properly name. While I was checking out of high school, he was ripping through his Ph.D. He can turn an average cell into another more exotic kind of cell, one that can deflect malignance and help heal damage to the body. Although that is as sophisticated an understanding as I’ve reached on the matter, it means he manipulates the very substance of life and that’s wizardry. I believe the things Alex tells me, but the things he tells me do not seem real.

The room has no smell, no grime, no clutter. It’s neither warm nor cool. Lying in the puffy white bed belonging to no one, it’s easy to forget the events that led us here, to retreat into the old movements until sleep falls upon us like a delicate seasoning.

We wake to a beeping clock in what Alex calls the hour of anthracite — a silvery dark hour that brightly fades. It’s an older hotel and we can hear heels, the ding of the elevator, the costumed bellhop pulling back the grate. From another room, I hear the high-pitched whir of a hair dryer. Washington is an early-rising city.

I have to drive home to get ready for work. I dress and put in my contacts while Alex lies still in the bed, waking energy assembling. His gaze reddens me like a brand.

“What are we doing for dinner?” he asks.

“I’ll make something easy. Come by whenever.”

Have a good day, we both say, and with a weak kiss, I go.

Our couplehood is strained, but it’s what we know. He lives across the country and visits often, and when it goes well, we talk about permanence, about commitment, and when it goes poorly, we bask in the relief of our aloneness until we miss each other again. Last night was different: He’d brought up marriage, marriage to me, all timid and unsure. Not a proposal — a plea. No declaration of feeling, no claim of willingness to share, honor, endure. I heard the fear in what he said; what he wants is not specifically me in his life but an even score, a good marriage to make up for the bad one. He’s become something of a bet-hedger, but I don’t see it as his fault really.

His heart is not whole.

It almost gets buried under the currents now at work, but Alex is, in a sense, someone’s husband. His wife is a memory, a missing person. Some of her things are still around, but no new evidence of her has turned up in nine years.

After one of our first fights, he took a snapshot of her from his wallet and placed it in front of me as if it were a kind of proof. I remember her face perfectly, though at the time I thought she looked indistinct, like a woman you’d see behind the counter at a pharmacy. She was not a deep beauty, not pretty enough to be a ghost. I supposed she was manageable competition.

.  .  .

Dinner is not the point, so when he comes to my apartment, I set out the food I have on hand: canned soup and crackers and strawberries and wine. We fumble at chatter and look out my window, out across the low buildings toward the blue-lit spires of a cathedral.

“How long do you think it takes to build a cathedral?” I ask.

“Thirty-thousand man-hours,” he says.

“That’s quite a few.” I lean forward. “You know, I forget sometimes that these great buildings were actually built.”

He smirks as if he were chiding an idiot, his left eye almost disappearing into the fold of his cheek.

“As opposed to being what, Ellen?”

“Of course I know they’re—”

“Hatched? Pasture-raised? Nestled there by the president of the clouds?”

“Hilarious, thank you. I’m saying it’s easy to forget what’s involved in the making of things that have been around awhile.”

He shakes his head, annoyed, and checks his watch. Man-hours, he’d said. He looks tired and well older than his age, which is thirty-four.

“Tell me, how do you make it through the days without fainting from wonderment?” he asks.

“I don't think like you.” I wiggle my wine glass, making a little vortex in the liquid. “What’s your airline?”

“United.”

There are things we ought to say but I’m not going to start.

It goes on like this. An impasse, a contest of pride. On a younger version of this night, we’d have drunk heavily until we were moved to kiss and so on or until the conversation spun tears that washed clean our collective will to do better. But the returns are not as good as they used to be; I am wary of the pattern. Between the good days are months of dwindling assurance, of meeting interested men and not letting myself hold onto their names, of watching long shadows develop under my eyes from the great distances they are always straining to see.

When he decides to leave, I walk out with him to wait for a passing cab. Traffic is light on the avenue.

“At the risk of ruining a great night,” I say.

“But it wasn’t great.” He pauses. He can’t read me at all. We’ve begun the retreat into our separate selves. “Say what you need to say.”

A cab catches sight of us and brakes. I can see that he’s unhappy, and also that he cares. All the possible words hang there, waiting to have some effect. I could invoke love — love is a piece of what I feel.

“Good-bye,” I tell him.

The driver presses the unlock button and switches off the light. I step back.

“Well, good-bye,” he says gamely, matching my tone. Good-bye for good or for now, he’s wondering. He moves toward the taxi and doesn’t look at me before slamming the door.

When I get back upstairs, my phone is vibrating.

“Hi,” I say.

“Hi,” Alex says. 

“Hi,” I mention again.

We sit, holding our phones.

“We’re about to go through a tunnel,” he says. “I might lose you. If I do, I will call right back.”

“Okay.” I nod.

We don’t speak. I picture him in the taxi, overcome — but as much as a person can know, I know: It’s done.

.  .  .

The days that follow the endings of things are gummy and thick, like drying paint. I remember what my father said after quitting substances: “Some bodies need trouble.” I thought he meant the tongue, the stomach, the sex organs. Not the brain, but I suppose that was what he meant most.

I think of that pillow talk in the hotel. Loosen the arrangement, shuffle the order, kick in the scaffolding, and everything is all it doesn’t seem. The brain may as well be a tongue, the heart a knuckle, the future a past.

When I come home at night, I wash and change into sweats. I stack the new mail by the door. I try to read books, I stare blankly at the cable dramas, but mostly I stew.

This feels like mourning — mourning a plausible life, a plausible house with plausible children and pets, all that was recently alive to me in some future time.

It’s easy to blame the wife, too easy, I think, but in her absence she is there. Her name is Ana and she is a ghost. She may not be living, but she is not surely dead, and in order to live in this world, he must proceed as though she is. She haunts his life in shards: a curly hair lying on the can of waxed beans in the back of the pantry; questions posed by old acquaintances who heard he got married but were never caught up about the plot twist. They were married a year. He came home from a conference in Munich to an emaciated cat and mail falling out of the box.

He never did have a memorial service, but he should have. Release the agony, reach catharsis, a proxy burial, some howling at the moon, a bonfire to send up her possessions.

There were always questions.

“What if she comes home?” I asked him once.

“I’d probably kill her,” he said calmly, without delay. “I’m not kidding. If she’s alive she’s made her point very clear. Whatever it says about me, I’d prefer to think of her as a victim. Not a coward, not a snake.”

“Must she be one of those things?”

“Come again?”

“There’s no other possibility?”

“No,” he said. “Think about it, Ellen.”

He sounded sure, but there is such a range in which tragedies fall. Other grotesque, nonlethal configurations that, if true, could absolve her of cruelty and threaten to slice up his heart all over again, and mine too.

Alex told me once about a theory of infinite copies, that everything that happens, happens in every possible way somewhere on the matrix of space and time, even things that are quite specific. To me, this means there are infinite Anas trapped in wells and mauled to the brink by bears and forced by eely religious perverts into sex slavery. Anas who, by the grace of their inimitable Ana-ness, escaped almost certain death and have been working their way back to their respective Alexes all while the Alexes circle their versions of me and all the versions of me clear for his landing.

Such things happen in this world, once in a while.

And if there are infinite versions of me, there must also be infinite versions who don't clear for anyone's landing. Versions who do not attach, expect, or lie in wait. This exhausting idea of infinity has a kind side.

As I try to sleep, memories stir. The ones that include Alex scratch at the edges of my attention, but I fend them off.

.  .  .

A family camping trip. I must be about ten. My brother, Liam, twelve or so, and my father are trying to make a campfire in a damp wood. They’ve gathered armfuls of sticks and logs and laid them out to dry in the last of the sunlight. They create a teepee from the wood and kindling and my brother scrapes flint against rock until his hands bleed. Dad splashes the last of his gin on the woodpile. A spark takes. Confidence blooms. My father coaches Liam and they work at it together. I sit with my mother. We both feel like we should participate, but they're conventional men and they want to take care of this fire for us.

The sticks light up and stay lit. We whoop and clap and scoot closer to the heat. My father holds Liam's hand for a moment there. I look at my mother, who tilts her head up to the sky, cued by a distant thunder.

Rain materializes.

“Fuck it,” says Liam, his fingers curling like claws.

“That,” Mom says, “is not what we say,” but right there on her face is some version of fuck it.

My father kicks a large rock. Liam holds his hand out to the rain to rinse the blood. We pack up and go home. It wasn't a very good fire. But the fire was difficult so we care about it too much. 

.  .  .

The weekend brings an oddly warm winter day. I go for a long run by the river on a path that widens and narrows between boathouses and bare brown trees. The sky is a clean, cloudless blue. The first few miles are painful, my leg muscles like cold dough. Old men in thermal underwear trot past me, smiling.

During the last stretch of my run, time seems to shift, to slow, and I notice a greater level of detail in my surroundings. Runners and cyclists and people pushing strollers outpace me on the trail, but I feel a sense of command. I can switch out my focus from thing to thing: on the distance between trees, the pace of the water, the fit of someone’s pants. It’s a simple whoosh of endorphins, Alex would say. Your brain is soaking in fun sauce. Of course you’re seeing things differently.

.  .  .

Tina, my boss, has me over for afternoon tea.

“What should we do?” she asks and leans in. “Do you want Mo to kick him in the teeth?” She spoons honey into her mug. Mo is her husband. He’s in the next room paying bills, and he wouldn’t kick a tire.

She met Alex the first time he visited after I moved East in a futile attempt to end things. He stayed with me a full month then, and at the time, that seemed like the beginning of reliability, a marker of change. In fact, it was the only good continuous month we’ve had. I’d started coming into work late, breathless and happy. Tina, who had always treated me with a kind of big-sisterly affection, was touched. She invited us over for brunch. Mo fried beignets and they served us thick bacon and eggs that we ate, grinning, in their garden. A good month can ruin your life.

“Not sure what benefit that would have,” I say. “But it’s done, I’m sure of it. That’s hard for me to say.”

“Tell me everything that happened,” she says gently.

“I don't know what happened,” I say. “Maybe nothing did. Maybe I just got tired of thinking about it.”

“That doesn't sound right.”

“It wore me down.”

“So much time,” she says, finger-combing her brown hair and scanning my face for clues. Her hall clock clangs out the hour. Tina has suspiciously good diction, like women paid to read fairy tales out loud. “He had so many chances. You’re beautiful and smart,” she says.

“Don’t say things like that.” I have the flashing illogical fear that Tina is breaking up with me. But it’s in some way true: People like you less if they know no one happens to be in love with you. Dating is awful. Maybe Alex had been my intricate shield against the awfulness of dating. I brighten. “Maybe I made the whole thing up.” The surety I claimed. He told me what he was capable of without putting it in a sentence.

“Don’t be silly,” she says, but some oddness in the way her words hit the air tells me she finds some credibility in the idea. Mo grunts in the next room. “You know, you weren’t his great love, Ellen.”

Just when I pick Tina for a coward, she tells it like it is.

“He has a ghost wife,” I say.

“It’s more than that.”

“I know that.” I disassemble a scone, pick out the raisins. “Have you ever heard this notion that there are multiple live-flesh versions of things? That for the Tina and Ellen that sit on this gray sofa in Washington, D.C., planet Earth, the Milky Way … there are alternate versions populating the vastness of space and time doing almost exactly or even exactly what we’re doing right now, here. I guess that’s what’s meant by infinity. All the possible versions of a thing are present in the concept of the thing.”

Tina looks at me with concerned amusement, like a dog waiting for the release of his biscuit.

“Okay,” she says politely.

“It’s comforting is all. I’m saying I’d like to believe there’s another Alex and Ellen that didn’t fuck it up.”

“Then you’d have to let there be an Ana that didn’t leave or die.”

I discard this idea. The thought of none of this ever having happened would change too much of my life.

Tina sighs. “Do you want some wine?”

“Thanks, but no.”

We chitchat for a while and listen to Mo puttering around in the kitchen, reheating food. He pokes his head into the room and asks if I’d like to join them for pad thai. Tina glances at me.

“I have to get home,” I say awkwardly because there is no express reason why.

At home, I change into my inpatient clothes and sit by the window. Under the purple swell of clouds, the landscape is eerie, doom-filled. I can sense, from here, the weak branches of the decisions I’ve made: the decision to move far away but to continue being his, the decision to provide him a home inside my allegiance. Considering these moves makes me wary of myself where I used to feel proud. They trace back to the power of a sadness that shaped me but that could not be described as mine.

.  .  .

I start taking the train out to different coastal cities on the weekends, thinking about places to look for work, cities where I might want to live. I travel to Providence, Baltimore, Savannah. Up and back, down and back, rarely staying the night. I associate hotels with a desperate feeling, the feeling of hiding or having been stranded. Trains at night are nicer, the hum of metal on metal, blurred shadows between the trees.

At work, I help Tina market pleasure products to high-end boutiques — bath salts, perfumed candles, Egyptian towels, porcelain tile. The short trips fuel new dreams. I feel empty but with a cool sort of wisdom. Failing at something has killed off a certain kind of fear.

I could be a police officer maybe. A cab driver. A gardener. An actor. My education is weak, which has kept my resume stocked with mistruths and me holding carefully to a job that pays just fine but that I don't love. In my well-heeled neighborhood, I’m a squatter, a tourist. Two weeks before graduation, I turned eighteen and left high school without the diploma. My parents were lost in their own woods then. Liam was in college on scholarship, doing just fine, making everyone proud. Our parents didn’t terribly mind having a shadow child and a sun child. I was fine with what I’d done. I was defiant, that was part of it, but I was sensitive too, and all the ritual aspects of proving knowledge and understanding didn’t work for me. School had a way of damaging tender roots of interest that required solitude to take. I moved to a college town full of young, fascinating people, found a cheap place to live and some work answering phones, and dated around until I came across a lovely, troubled man with a Ph.D. To others, it might have looked like luck.

On my little trips, I am alone but moving. It’s less melancholy than visiting with friends about how things are going. Everyone always wants to talk about men. Even, I admit, me — even if I can feel color and shape leaving my world while it happens.

Sometimes in an eastern city, I’ll catch the date on a statue or building and it reminds me how little I know of history. Before moving to Washington, I’d never known this strip of country. I admired the peeling buildings with wainscoting, coffered ceilings, lacquered doors, thick brass doorknobs. Old things. I’d never studied in great libraries or flitted around Europe photographing castles and fountains. I’d never spent any time, really, around relics. In Colorado, buildings state their purposes in plain-speak. Even the churches are unfussy.

Hurtling along the coast in train cars, the physical feats of others come to mind and seem to matter. They beckon and taunt from unseen places across the country, across oceans, across time. They seem at once impressive and paltry, heroic and fleeting. Skyscrapers, bridges, telephone lines. All the jagged places where men hack at earth for copper, diamonds, salt.

I read books, or I don’t. I watch people, or I don’t.

When I arrive in Charleston and see palm trees lining the streets of downtown, it occurs to me that I’d long ago made an assumption that palm trees came from Hollywood. I make mental note to locate and dislodge logical flaws like these that have nested in mind and quietly flourished.

I start interning nights at a local radio station. I don’t tell Tina until they offer me steady work in production with the possibility of airtime if something opens up.

.  .  .

Liam calls with news.

“I’m getting married,” he says, “to Janie.”

I lightly recoil for some reason and breathe deep. I don’t know Janie, and I can’t quite remember her being mentioned. People you’ve never met all reside in the same gray casserole.

“Congratulations,” I say and peer suspiciously at the phone. “Come on, tell me about her.”

Liam has been living in Alaska since graduate school, studying fish. Neither of us much enjoys going back home. This fact has silently bonded us through the years, perhaps more than any other.

“She’s a firecracker,” he says. “We fight a lot, but it’s pretty fun. The fighting always leads to some new understanding. She looks a little like you, Ellen.” He’s quiet, thinking. “Somehow that was meant as a compliment to you. I meant nothing weird by it.”

There is something between brothers and sisters that no one mentions. It has nothing to do with sexuality; it’s a friendship thing. These loves shape our other loves.

“I’m thrilled for you,” I say and relax. “Where’s the wedding? When?”

“We don’t know, and we don’t know, but soon. Here’s the other part — we're having a baby in the fall.”

I grin. I picture a small person with Liam’s curiosity, his awkwardness, his particular style of daring.

“Yes!” I say. “Aunthood, ahoy.”

“Yes!” he says.

We stay quiet and strange on the phone a moment more while I absorb this new thing, and then I congratulate him again.

“Keep the details coming,” I say.

“I will,” he says. “I’m sure this goes without saying, but I really want this child to know you, to know who you are.”

“I will do my best,” I say, thinking and have the kid break it down nice and simple for me.

.  .  .

I’ve never been married, a detail that is starting to distinguish me from other people my age. Like many single women, I’ve imagined some form of wedding, pictured the flowers and mouthed the vows, and like most, I could find someone to marry if that was my big interest. My thoughts on marrying have been defined through negatives, arranged from the information leaking through the massive holes in the institution’s armor.

I’ve turned down come-ons from many a married man and consoled many a divorcée at her nadir. I’ve watched people enter into the sanctity of marriage knowing that the bottom would fall out from under them, that their wild, tentacled natures were being actively hidden. One year, amid the usual holiday postcards, I received a photograph of Leigh, my favorite aunt, and her kids posing in the snow with a puppy and a jagged hole where Uncle Phil should have gone. My own parents, after dealing with Dad’s alcoholism and Mom’s shitty upbringing, discovered that what they most loved in each other were traits embedded within the big demons: Dad’s escapism, Mom’s self-subjugating patience. The puzzle stopped fitting with those parts gone.

Everyone has stories like these. Everyone knows fifty stories just like these.

My father claims it’s coded in the eyes whether a person has ever been a user of serious drugs. He says intoxication of a certain level never quite leaves the body; the memory of the experience is inscribed too far within.

A person who casts off hopes of stability for the elusive, twisted bliss we call love would only do so under such an all-consuming influence.

So we support wise combinations over intoxicated pairings. We’re beat if we want passion.

The average sweet, unhindered couples tell us nothing. They live non-stories, in a sense, non-loves. They raise children and eat vegan cheese, or they don’t. They argue about directions and take scuba vacations or they don’t. They are not the embodiment of what stirs our centers. If they were, something about their eyes would be on fire always, if only at an angle.

.  .  .

At the station, I’m offered a slot between 1:00 and 3:30 a.m. My coach is Gerry, a gray-haired Chinese-American who has been with WLAC for decades, has a faded Southern drawl and smells lightly of chemicals. He works with me on my pacing and delivery, tells me to say my name on-air as if I’m “romancing a stone.” Ellen Inman. After a couple of weeks, it sounds to me like any other radio person’s name, a sort of shorthand for an entire way of living.

It’s all songs and quick news items at the beginning, but Gerry urges me to experiment, says this shift is like a free pass.

I visit the library some afternoons to poke through science journals, theoretical physics, evolutionary psychology. I write down some thoughts and mostly just wing it on air, tossing out loose strange facts gathered from the tightly woven technical language in the journals.

Gerry likes to tell me science jokes. “Three statisticians are hunting for quail,” he says one night. “The first shoots ten feet to the right of the bird. The second shoots ten feet to the left. The third says, ‘Looks like we got him!’ and packs the truck.”

I laugh freely at this, understanding that what’s delightful is not the quality of the joke but the fact that he’s working to get me to smile.

Rarely does anyone call in to my show. An intelligent guest willing to banter is rarer still, but I learn to take some pride in this fact. The loneliest hour of all is the one I oversee. Most things happening at this time are strange things. I picture my audience as a bleary-eyed and pasty lot, driving home from hospitals, police stations, newsrooms. Delivery drivers, night stocking crews, sleepless new arrivals from points east.

The sun is on its way up, unmoving cars packed end to end on the other side of the highway when I drive back to my apartment. While I make coffee and toast, business people are down there striding home, shedding the coarse attitudes of the day. They are softening, preparing, shifting into parents or lovers or whatever they happen to become in their hours off.

.  .  .

Liam and Janie hold their wedding at the high point of the summer at a lake fed by two sloshing rivers. I’d never been to Alaska before, and in summer, it’s magical with a luscious, lingering twilight. The affair is small, but it’s clear that the couple has a strong community. We stay in cabins at the edge of the lake, each member of my family in a different rental, and we pass each other on walks in between the festivities. My parents are both starting to seem significantly old. Dad’s blond hair has gone white; Mom’s teeth live in a forest of dark lines. Of the four of us, only Liam looks young. His step is lively. His eyes are fierce. When I mention this to him, he laughs and says he’s much worse in winter.

Janie is a glowing beauty, a wise, fit woman with a protruding belly. She takes a walk with me on the morning of the ceremony and she points out which birds are which and what they eat. She probably knows as much about birds as Liam knows about fish. I tell her I don’t know anything about nature, that until a few months before I’d believed that palm trees came from Hollywood. She laughs in the same free way Liam laughs and says, “I think you can know about nature without knowing trees.”

After the ceremony everyone lifts a glass of champagne, even the bride and even my father, and we roast some food over a fire pit — a fire whose light and heat seem strange in the brightness of the place. Liam introduces me to some male friends from the university, and I make an effort to flirt with them, if only for his sake.

I watch how my parents interact. They are a little dry with each other and communicate mostly about logistics, impolite but deeply kind, fussing over the food and making sure people all have napkins and seats. Mom has lost interest in social variety. There are no one-liners from Dad, no double entendre designed to make her blush. Only negatives of their old patterns remain, faint and inverted, as if their ways of relating have been set inside a dusty mirrored box. Dad catches my eye and takes my hand. While someone plays country melodies on a guitar, we walk to the edge of the water.

He bends down to twist up his pant legs. His movements are jerky and slow, a bit clumsier than I remember. He appears resigned to a certain inner woe, a thing that at half his age, I fear I nearly understand. I’m aware of a rising sensation of something like nausea; it must be a bit of what children of suicides feel when they get that faint whiff of copper just before peeking into the study. Something at my core is on the move.

Janie had said there was rain in the week before. The lake is at the center of a shallow valley and the rivers churn a little on both sides before the water flattens out. Cicadas buzz in the trees. We take our shoes off and step into the lake, not talking much but, when we do, saying things like beautiful ceremony and they really have the life out here.

Surrounded by beauty, I’m stirred by records of the deeply physical. Nature’s aphrodisiac properties always get to me. In some ways, these are the memories with Alex that are nearest to my center, the toughest ones to reach and ever tougher to reframe. We camped on a Rocky Mountain in a truck bed beneath a meteor shower for a week one summer, our provisions spoiling because we couldn’t be troubled to gnaw on something so banal as food. We left thin and delirious, bonded by hunger. On a Shenandoah hike, the sky tore open and dumped a mess of weather down around our heads — electric bolts and rain blown crosswise, striped with columns of glittering sun. We hollered at the sky and made love against a tree without concern for safety or protection, just doing what we felt, assuming the lightning would spare us. We wanted then, low in our bodies, for something to force us to change.

As we dried out later, the calm of his chest. The feeling of hope, the infinite unknowns.

Remembering the moments now feels nothing like those moments felt freshly lived. I try to hold them; they shrivel in hand. They are line items, mere facts — things I did once with a man.

Our trance is broken when two young women from the wedding, cousins of the bride, run toward us with a bottle of bubbly. They remove their cheap cotton dresses and leave them to the shore, entering the water in pretty underwear, trading precious sips of something they’re not quite old enough to buy.

“It’s so cold,” my dad remarks self-consciously, unrolling his pant legs and reaching for his shoes. He touches my shoulder and walks back to the group.

I stay and watch more beautiful swimmers enter the lake. They’re splashing and teasing each other, getting drunk. Pairs move away from the larger group and night takes its leisurely fall. In the diffuse white light of the moon, I consider the people in the water. They look like a species of slender, elegant dinosaur, their assured movements casting rippling shadows, and to me they seem ancient, near mythological in their joy.