And How the Algae Twines!, by Leah Kaminsky
“Nineteen,” Josh said, smiling triumphantly and flopping onto his back. His skin was browned with sun and dirt. I stared into the murky water and wiggled my toes, dipped my index finger under the surface and started counting. The goldfish darted between our legs and nibbled at the raised hair on our taut skin, always one tail-stroke ahead of our pudgy fingers.
“Twenty-one,” I said slowly, running the tips of my wet fingers across my lips and licking away the algae. Josh frowned and lowered a pair of yellow goggles over his brow, turning on his belly and sticking his face into the water. I studied the three moles on his left shoulder blade and wondered if, as his body grew, the points of the triangle would meld into a patch, or if they’d always stay distinct.
“Nineteen,” he repeated, wiping a string of snot-like lake weed from his brow. I tucked a lock of crinkly brown hair behind my ear and thought about this, biting into the soft flesh of my lower lip.
“They’ve just swum away, I think.”
Josh shrugged and sank down into the water.
* * *
Every summer of my childhood, when the ice dissipated from around the edges of Cayuga Lake and the leaves sprouted, greened, and singed in the upstate sun, the Linn Street kids would converge on the lake’s shores reeking of factor fifty sunblock and cherry Kool-Aid. The high schoolers would play cheesy pop songs through the wound down windows of the rusted Volvos they bought off the Cayuga Heights doctors, and we’d hum like we knew what it meant to be touched for the very first time. In that brief time before our swimsuits strained to accommodate our new adolescent bodies, we stood together, unabashedly thrusting our bellies toward the forest, crunching potato chips between dull baby teeth and drenching the soles of our feet. The leaves would be vermillion by the time it warmed, and we’d be trapped between hard metal desks and buzz-cut rugs, our skin painted yellow in the flicker and buzz of fluorescent lighting.
Even then we were racing time, our tongues chasing vanilla rivulets down soft chocolate walls before nothing remained by lumps in the sand.
* * *
“Not too far!” the moms shouted as we doggy paddled out into the lake. There was a line of floating Coke bottles not far into the water demarcating the pre-approved swim zone from the greater lake. My mom clutched her heart and held a cool can of diet Fresca to her flushed cheeks. Then they spread bright colored towels on the yellowed grass and sipped wine coolers on the sly, laughing hard and swiping their pointer fingers beneath the dark, wide lenses of their stylish sunglasses.
I was still of the age when I buried myself deep into sticky cinema seats and shoved handfuls of butter-drenched popcorn into my mouth; when I drew joy from threading my fingers between my parents’ silver wedding bands and leaping across gum-strewn curbs. I secretly liked when my mother rubbed lotion on my skin and commanded that I return for a touch up in an hour. When she was finished, she’d run the back of her hands across my cheeks and I’d smile into the sun.
Still, I wanted to know what it was like to swim away from the shoreline, point my red-painted toenails to the sky.
On the shore, the mothers pored over a pizza takeout menu. I lifted the rope above my head and ducked under. The soda bottles plopped back into the water, bouncing violently for a moment, then settling into a rhythmic bob. It was quiet in the center of the lake, the red ribbons that held my ponytail together dipped back into the water, a blue noodle at my spine. One of the mothers laughed and the sound skipped across the lake like a flat rock. When one of the kids fell back into the water, the waves rippled outwards and dissipated over my Speedo belly. The kids shouted “Marco” and “Polo, Polo, Polo,” and splashed each other until one of the moms shouted. From that distance they sounded like birds in the woods. My hair collected lake weed and algae and I wondered if I lay there long enough if the green would tighten, pull me downwards to the muddy bottom, suck me into the earth to another world entirely.
Styrofoam scraped my leg-a blue noodle, emerging from the base of Josh’s back. Joshy Boy Mckenzie, they called him. He was floating too.
“Achoo!” he said, and pulled a dripping wad of lakeweed from the side of his nose as if he had just sneezed it out. I laughed politely and then looked back up to the sky. The clouds were drifting with nowhere to go. Josh lay his head back and followed my gaze. Our hands floated in the water, one above the other, not touching.
“I am the Lake Monster,” he roared at a jagged cloud in the patchwork center. A water walker landed on my belly, and I watched its legs slice through the water’s surface.
Back on shore, my mother wrapped me in a soft blue towel.
“You’re all pruned!” she scolded and handed me a snack. I rolled my eyes, took a bite of the soppy ice cream sandwich and didn’t say anything. Adults had this way of taking important experiences and making them meaningless.
“I am the water,” I whispered, but she was back at the cooler and no one heard me but Joshy Boy. He handed me the unmelted part of his sandwich and ran off to play tag with the other boys.
* * *
“What are they doing?”
At the far end of the lake where the lily pads were so thick a frog could get from one end to the other without ever having to leap, I’d seen Josh disappear underneath the briars. We were playing Capture the Flag and he was on the other team. I’d seen him grab the handkerchief and stuff it into the back pocket of his Dungarees, but he’d gone here rather than sprinting back to his territory. I had dropped to my belly and crawled after him, then stopped short just before the clearing.
There, beneath a shadow of brambles: entwined bodies. A woman with bright red lipstick smeared down her neck and a man with no pants, his back hair sticking out thick and bushy from beneath his shirt. The woman groaned but the man kept pushing against her. Their feet kicked up whirlwinds in the dust.
“He’s hurting her,” I whispered. I angled back my slingshot and lifted one finger, but before I could raise the other, Josh laid his hand over mine. We crouched there, listening to the cicadas rub their wings together. First he leaned forward; then me. He tasted dirty, sweaty. A thorn scraped against my cheek and the blood thumped hard around my head.
Further down the lake, the other kids were shouting. I pushed away and grinned, wacked his chest hard and grabbed the flag from his pocket.
“You’re in jail!” I shouted and ran across the line to victory.
* * *
I closed my eyes and Josh flicked a Skittle into my mouth from the weathered surface of the picnic table beneath the weeping willow. I pressed the hard candy shell into the roof of my mouth and then ground it open with the edges of my teeth. Flavor crystals dissolved into the corners of my mouth.
“Red,” I said, and looked to Josh for confirmation. He rubbed the freckles at the tip of his nose.
“Five for five. My turn.” He closed his eyes and opened his mouth. I placed the candy on his tongue and he moved it from cheek to cheek.
“This isn’t a skittle,” he said. He stuck his tongue out and strained his eyes to see the tip.
“No,” I said.
“What is it then?”
I fingered the tin wrapper behind my back. Josh looked at me in a way that I didn’t recognize. My lips tingled and I wondered if this is what it felt like for the other kids when they spun the scratched soda bottle around the dusty path at the edge of the lake called Middle School Lane.
“Okay,” he said. The palm of his hand scraped against the flattened grass. His pinky extended and wrapped around mine. We sat at the edge of the lake and listened to the paddleboats clunking against the dock.
* * *
“Groton, Homer, Ithaca, Johnson City,” said Kevin English from Lite 97 FM. It was the winter of our sophomore year at Ithaca High School. The night before the weatherman with the lopsided toupee had said, “One to three feet, folks, one to three,” so I woke early and counted down the schools as they cycled through the alphabet. When they called my district, I pulled on my polka-dotted long underwear and stomped black rubber soles deep into the fresh snow.
This was my snowstorm tradition-piling on my snow clothes, sneaking out before anyone was awake. You’d think with all the space in a city as small as Ithaca you’d have all the privacy and freedom that you wanted, that if you ever needed to get away, you could disappear into a forest or drive out to the countryside and let the cornfields consume you, but truth is, with more open space and fewer people to move within it, the more people look to fill it with everyone else’s business. At 5AM in a sea of white, if I whispered, if I shouted, if I cried, no one could hear.
Big lazy flakes played hide and go seek in the moonlight. The trees around the shore were weighted and arched like ballerinas in graceful, sugar plum poses and the lake was one solid sheet of ice, blankets of snow melding its crystalline surface to the shore. A lake was below, I knew because in the summertime I floated in its middle, but with all that snow on top, any shapeless surprise could have lain beneath.
At lake’s edge there was a bench where lovelorn teenaged girls scrawled initials in heart-framed inscriptions, and lusty boys tossed used condoms in the general direction of the wide mouthed trashcan. On that morning, the snow had nearly devoured the bench whole, its top loose slat the only indication of its continued existence; a survivor’s SOS in the high wintry seas. I ploughed against the snow with my thighs and lay down across the dune.
Josh didn’t say anything when he arrived. Just lay down at the foot of the bench, took my hand, kissed his warm lips to my cold winter cheeks. We watched the snow twist to soundless ballroom dance tunes.
* * *
“What do you two do out there?” my mother asked. She was making chocolate chip cookies and was frowning into the mixing bowl. She dipped a metal teaspoon into the batter, and dropped a ball onto the pan. “All alone, I mean?”
I shoved a fistful of dough into my mouth before she could warn of salmonella.
“Leave me alone.”
* * *
“You can touch it,” he said gently. We lay beneath the weeping willow in thick untended spring grass. The tree’s long tendrils brushed the grass’s lush green tips. I could see the lake lapping through the cracks in the leaves. “I mean, if you want to.” I pressed my nose into the mulch. It had rained earlier that morning and thick slimy worms burrowed back into the soft soil. When I didn’t say anything, Josh unzipped his jeans and slid my hand beneath his boxers, cautiously, as if moving more slowly would sand my fear into fine dust. He licked his lips and pressed himself deeper into my palm. Then he moved his hand up my leg and into my skirt. I clenched my legs together.
“What are you doing?” My voice felt small and I wasn’t in my body, perched instead somewhere high inside the tree’s twisted branches. The lake looked muddy from so far away.
First pain, first drifting; then pleasure, then the earth.
* * *
“Plethora,” Josh said, pressing the vocab card into his lap. It was spring of our junior year and I was looking at colleges. I’d always dreamed of going far away but several months into our relationship, Cornell had never looked so appealing. My mom and I had visited Boston University a couple of weeks before and we had walked on a pedestrian bridge over the Charles, the river’s waves sharp and choppy against the bridge’s iron girding.
“If I go to BU, maybe Josh can go to Boston College,” I said. My mom had nodded, as if she understood, but the skin around her eyes wrinkled in a way that scared me. She fiddled with her wedding ring and looked out over the river.
“Maybe,” she’d said.
I rolled a tie off my wrist and wound my hair back into tight loops. My dress was wet with morning dew.
“Give me something hard.”
“I thought that was hard,” he said. He dug a hole with his finger, dropped the card inside and covered it with dirt. “You know these already, let’s just go swimming.”
“Those are expensive. And I don’t have a suit.”
Josh grinned and tackled me, lifting my shirt and kissing the soft fuzz of hair shrouding my belly. Then he unbuckled his jeans and dashed into the water. At the height of the summer, his bare white bottom was a glaring stain within the greater canvas of his crisp skin. I dug my toes into the soil and watched grains of dirt slip beneath the nails. I still had a year of high school left, but I already felt disoriented, as if I’d suddenly become aware of the world’s spinning. In it I could see the leaves turning first red and then brown, and I knew that when the sun came back and the ground thawed, the lake would no longer be mine.
“Achoo!” Josh said, hovering naked above me, lake weed streaming from his nose. I pulled my dress over my head and ran out into the water. I threw my head back and wondered if we’d still be there at sixty-five, our loose skin floating in pools about our bodies, the goldfish sucking at the bald spots on our skin.
* * *
The first big snow of the year had yet to come and everyone was chanting global warming. An abandoned wine bottle, the label half peeled away, sat by a small pile of orange wrappers near water’s edge. The sky was dark and grey on one end, a strange crescent of blue on the other, the sun peeking out between. Loose clouds moved by quickly, racing away to unknown places like friends with important jobs who will only nod when they see you on a weekday. The water, normally so blue and inviting, was black with cold choppy waves colliding angrily with the dock. A mass of seagulls convened on the dock, their grey wings eerily accentuated in the strange light.
He hadn’t named the obvious things. Just, “We need to talk,” and then nothing.
“So that’s it?” I asked.
He sat there, staring out into the water, legs clutched to his chest. There was a girl out there, trapped beneath the ice. I could see her struggling to break through.
I got up, packed my Volvo, drove to Boston.
* * *
Fresh blocks of cement line the furthest edges of the lake. Rusted metal grates guard the pumps, though I don’t remember them ever being there. At the base of my back there’s a thick heart drawn in red permanent marker: “JM + RL.” It’s been so many years since Middle School Lane, the inscription is like writing in a cave.
When you return home after five years away, it’s hard to remember the middle days-all that time you spent playing video games; hours lost in the quad choking on his friends’ pot. It’s hard to know what was there before and what’s a fabrication of the nostalgic mind.
Funny, though, how you can think you’ve turned your back on something, and then you’re sitting on a bench wondering what would happen if you’d refused time its inertia. But while the waves still lap and the birds still crow, all I can feel of Josh is his absence.
* * *
“When did you know?” I say. “You know, with dad?”
My mother and I are walking the gravely road back from the lake. The sun is racing westward and the leaves cast gold-framed shadows across the divider.
“I don’t know,” she says. “It just felt right and never stopped.”
I close my eyes, but keep walking forward. The sun feels like hot breath. My mother’s fingertips trace my cheeks.
“I’m not alone,” I whisper. “I’m not alone, I’m not alone, I’m not alone.”
* * *
When I have my first daughter, I’ll spread factor fifty across her elbows and run the back of my hand across her cheeks. I’ll tie her hair back in red ribbons and watch them twine into the algae. I’ll tell her not to swim past the Coke bottles, but I’ll teach her how to float so that her pink toenails point towards the sun. I’ll order pizza from a wrinkled takeout menu and the sound of my laughter will ripple the water’s surface.
“You’re all pruned!” I’ll say when she paddles back to shore, and she’ll look at me like I have no idea what it’s like to float with a Styrofoam noodle scraping against my thigh.
When her heart has been pierced and she’s wandering the continent looking for a patch, she’ll ask, “When did you know?”
“Never,” I’ll say, and when I smile, the folds of skin around my eyes will wrinkle in a way that scares her. I’ll take her hand, pull her into the water. “Let’s float.”
Leah Kaminsky is a short story writer and budding novelist from Austin, TX… “budding” meaning “yet to complete her first novel but really would like to one day.” She received her MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Washington in 2009. She has placed three times in Glimmer Train top 25 lists and was nominated for inclusion in Best New American Voices, 2008. Her work has appeared on the Rumpus, Pindedlyboz and her mother’s fridge right next to that picture of bath time circa 1987. She is a big fan and producer of short-shorts and comics, which she posts semi-regularly on her website, LeahKaminsky.wordpress.com, and is a big promoter of other people’s stories in her work as an admissions essay consultant at JustStartApplications.com. She is often profound, but only when there’s nothing better to do.
3 readers love this story!
Tags: coming of age, leah kaminsky, loss, romance