I went to Silver Lake with a good friend of mine today. I've gone there with him three or four times already this summer, and today wasn't much different: the sky was very blue, the lake was cold, the beach was crowded, and I came home with a light burn on the backs of my knees. It could have been just another bright hazy day in the middle of an eventless summer, except that today I found out just how deep Silver Lake is.
Curt showed up at the door of my apartment just as I was chewing the last bite of my lunch. He was about half an hour early. “Hi Jay,” he said when I opened the door. He walked straight by me and took a seat on the couch.
I swallowed the last of my mashed potato sandwich. “You're early,” I told him.
“We don't have to leave yet,” he said, as if that helped matters.
“Wait here while I get ready,” I said. I walked back toward the bedroom to change into my swimsuit. “And don't touch anything,” I called.
Curt is by nature very inquisitive. I found that out after working with him for only one week. He'd needled me a little my first few days at Stewart Data, and managed to find out that I had a degree from Michigan and half a masters from a university in California. “Why'd you come back to Ann Arbor?” he asked, late in the shift on Wednesday, and kept asking for the next two days. I put him off with vague non-reasons. “School wasn't working out,” I said. Or, “I got homesick,” He didn't buy it. Finally, with all but an hour of my first week at Stewart gone, I confessed glumly: “Girl trouble.” I was tired, and figured that he'd have enough respect to leave me alone.
He did leave me alone, for about forty minutes. We sat there typing, not saying a word to each other, or to anyone else. Time dragged. When it was almost time to go, Curt slyly asked if I'd like to go out for a beer after work. I was tired, I was bored, I wasn't thinking: I said, “Okay.”
We went to a hole-in-the-wall place with a jukebox and a pool table, in a part of town I'd never spent much time in. It was there, over the next two hours, over several beers, that I found out just how sly and relentless Curt is when he wants to know something.
He started out by telling me about himself. “This is a great place to meet chicks,” he said, as we sat down at a booth in the comer.
“Uh-huh,” I said. I checked my watch, thinking This guy's too crude for me. “Do you know how I got here?” he said suddenly, in a stage whisper.
He leaned toward me across the grey formica.
“Yeah,” I said slowly, puzzled. He'd taken State to Huron, to Seventh, then some street I wasn't familiar with. “You took State. . .” I began.
“No, no. How I got here,” he said. “Ann Arbor, Stewart Data, twenty-four grand a year, blue Prelude. This is the high life for me.”
He had me. I listened intently as he drew a picture of his life: of his years of “trash and junk, shit jobs” in Livonia, of turning himself around, throwing himself fervently into night school, working fifty hours a week at a Kroger on Eleven Mile. Pushing himself, swallowing abuse from his manager, reading his textbooks twice through so he'd really get it. Then
the grand, magnificent, sunny day he quit the job at Kroger to move to Ann Arbor, to work at Stewart, to put a down payment on a car.
“What's so great about Ann Arbor?” I said, near the end of his story, near the end of our third round of beer.
“The girls,” he said. “Also the bars, the parties, the football and basketball games. But mainly the girls.”
I shook my head, laughing. But Curt was dead serious. “It's no joke,” he said, smiling.
We were quiet for a while, and I checked my watch again. It was getting late, and I was getting hungry. I figured I'd finish the rest of my beer, tell Curt it had been nice, and go home. But he wasn't through yet.
“What about you?” he said, and signalled the waitress.
“What?” I said.
“Why'd you come back?” he said.
I didn't want to get into it, but I knew I owed him. I also knew we were a little drunk, and that I liked Curt better than I thought I had. I respected him, now that I saw what a self-made man he was. So I began. “Girl trouble,” I said. .
“Who?” Curt asked.
“Sally,” I said, nodding. “Redhead.”
“Yeah,” Curt said solemnly.
I couldn't stop myself. It wasn't just out of a sense of camaraderie, or out of a sense of debt to Curt. When I began telling him how I'd met Sally on the first day of class my first semester out West, it felt good. I kept going, and kept feeling better. I told him how pretty she was--he liked that--and how much time we spent together, how little time I spent reading my history books. He scoffed a little at that, without saying anything. I went on about how she taught me to ski and I taught her to bodysurf, how we became neighbors and spent even more time together. I told him all the good things.
Then I told him how my grades suffered, how she was concerned that I wasn't working hard enough, how during the second semester she insisted that she needed to leave me alone so I could study. How sometimes we'd spend two or three days together like before, sometimes not spend any time together for a week, or even two weeks. I described the hours I spent in front of the television when I knew I should be reading about the origins of the European hegemony, when I wanted to be with her. I outlined our plans for the summer in almost as much detail as Sally and I had outlined them, and told Curt how that kept me going, how I was obsessed with the summer ahead.
Finally, more slowly, I told him how I ran into her on campus when she was walking along with a philosophy major with a mohawk, how I pretended nothing could be going on. How I saw the mohawk from my window one evening, leaving the apartment complex Sally and I both lived in. How I asked her finally, the next time we went out, whether she was involved with him. I told Curt that it turned out she was, but I didn't go into detail, didn't say how enraged and saddened I was, didn't describe that last, tearful, frenzied scene on a cold beach in Northern California in March. I just said, “That was the end of that. My grades were turning out too putrid to be saved, so I quit school and came home. Here I am.”
“Wow,” Curt said, and drained his beer, the fifth one.
After that we stumbled out of the bar together, stumbled to our cars, and drove off. I went home and stumbled into bed with no dinner.
Since that evening, Curt’s asked me a few questions at work, like “Have you heard from her since?”and “You got a girl now?” Also, “Wanna go out for beer tonight?” All I tell him is “No.”
I have accepted Curt's invitations to the beach, though. And I've had a few beers from the big cooler full he brings with him to Silver Lake. Out there, there are so many half-bare women in sight, Curt doesn't have time to needle me about Sally.
Today when I came out of the bedroom with my swimsuit on, Curt was standing over my desk, which is in one comer of the living room. “What are you doing?” I said.
“Nothing,” he answered, facing me. “I was just wondering if you had any pictures of Sally lying around.” He shrugged.
“I threw them all away,” I said, slinging my towel across my shoulder, trying to look very ready to leave.
“You don't have any pictures of California?” he said.
“No.” I said, truthfully. “Let's go.”
“What about Michigan? Didn't you live in the dorm? Got any pictures?”
“The dorm?” I said.
“Any pictures of the wild parties you guys had in the quad? I heard about those parties. I think I might crash a few in the fall.” Curt stood there in front of my desk looking expectant, and looking like he wouldn't step one foot closer to Silver Lake until I relinquished some new morsel of my past to him.
“Actually, yeah,” I said, remembering a roll of film I took at the Halloween party my dormitory had during my sophomore year. For once, Curt’s rosy and hectic notion of life at the university was on target--it was a wild party, and a long night. “Move over,” I said, walking to the desk. Curt peered over my shoulder as I opened a drawer.
“Hey, you got a lot of those,” he said, as I pawed through a pile of yellow photo envelopes. I pulled one out of the bottom and peeked inside. The photo on top was of two of my old friends dressed as vegetables. I had the right envelope. I shut the drawer.
“What are those others?” Curt said, eyeing the desk drawer.
“Those are personal,” I said. “You can look at these, all right?”
“Okay, okay,” Curt said, and flopped down on the couch. He held his hand out.
“At the beach,” I said.
“All right.” He sighed and got back up. I opened the door for him, closed it, locked it, and followed Curt to his car, wondering why I sometimes thought I was drawn to him.
As we drove to the beach, Curt did his best to grill me on the photos he was about to enjoy. What were they of? When? Who?
When I told him they were of a big Halloween party, sophomore year, his eyebrows shot up. “At East Quad?” he said.
“I've heard about those. Supposed to be the wildest party of the year.”
“Big deal,” I said, but he ignored it.
“What were you dressed as?''
“Uh, a fish I think.”
“A fish?” Curt laughed. “That's great. What about your girlfriend?”
“What girlfriend? Oh, come on, you must have had one.”
“No,” I said.
“Not even for that one night?” he said.
I had to laugh, but I didn't say anything else. I was glad Curt didn't press the subject further. I knew he'd think I was nuts if I told him Sally was my first love. There were a few that I'd gone out with when I was a student at Michigan, but nothing serious. Back then, I studied hard.
When we got to Silver Lake, Curt found a close parking space, and we carried his cooler between us out to the beach. It's not a real beach, just a tongue of grassy land reaching out into the lake. Silver Lake is one of those pretty, clean little inland lakes that Michigan seems to have an endless supply of. We stumbled to the end of the tongue, dodging picnic tables, grills, beach towels, and nubile girls.
It's the nubile girls that attract Curt to Silver Lake. They swarm there on weekends, lying in the grass, running to the water, swimming, laughing, tan, with tiny green tattoos on their shoulders or ankles. They seem tough and self-sufficient, completely free. I'm not sure where they come from, maybe from Livonia. Maybe they're the rough little daughters of big strong autoworkers. Wherever they're from, they're interesting to watch. Curt watches them with more fever than I do, though.
We set the cooler down in a clear spot right near a whole crew of these girls and spread our towels on the ground. As I was pulling my shirt off, sitting down, getting out the suntan lotion, Curt just stood there gaping. I could hear him saying “Damn,” and “Man oh man,” under his breath. He had his chin lifted, as if behind his dark glasses he was scanning the far shore. I knew he was scanning the near flesh, though. I imagined his thoughts: their bikinis peeling away, their lips parting, eyes closing.
“Jay,” he said, sitting down on his orange towel at last. “Jay,” he whispered, “Which one do you want?”
“None,” I replied. “They're too young, Curt.”
“Come on, which one? You like blondes? Maybe we could find you another redhead.”
“They're kids, Curt.” These girls were about seventeen or eighteen.
“What's ten years?” Curt asked.
I just shook my head, but he wouldn't drop it.
“You ought to have more fun, Jay. Forget about Sally, why don't you? Just forget her.”
I shook my head again, and began spreading suntan lotion on my bare skin. I didn't expect Curt to understand that I'd tried, and realized I couldn't. How could I forget all of the powerful feeling that had poured through me for so long?
Curt pressed on, as usual. “She had her chance, Jay, and she blew it,” he told me. “Just forget her, that's what I say.”
Yeah sure, I thought. “I will,” I said.
Once Curt got settled--after he'd exposed his hairy chest, and made a show of rubbing lotion all over his muscular body--he looked at me and said, “So break out those photos.”
I handed him the envelope. He opened it and took out a slim pile of snapshots. “This all you got?” he said.
“Roll of twenty-four,” I said.
He started to go through them, and I looked on over his shoulder. There was the picture of the tomato and the stick of celery, of me in my cardboard salmon outfit, of the front hall of East Quad packed with oddly dressed intoxicated people, of a man wearing only an oversized diaper.
At that point, I got the shock of my life. A smaller picture fell out of the pile, one I'd forgotten I had. “Is this you?” Curt said.
Is that me? I thought to myself.
“Who is the girl ?” Curt said. “Where are you?”
That's when I stood up, walked down to the water's edge, and started to make my way toward the heart of the lake.
It was a strange picture, even to my eyes. It was not a picture of Sally and me that I'd forgotten to tear in half and burn--that would have shaken me less, and in a different way. There I was with my hair past my ears, gaunt, with pimples, still shaving only twice a week. Sitting in a cafe in Madrid. Looking longingly, painfully, at Mona.
I didn't know exactly why I'd headed for the lake. I just walked to the shore, stepped down off the grassy part onto the narrow strip of sand, and waded in. Something had hit me, unexpectedly--not only a forgotten memory, but something else as well. When the water was at my chest I started swimming, out past the little orange and white buoys.
I though about Mona as I swam, and about things I hadn't brought to mind for what seemed like years, things that happened during the summer I studied in Spain, after my freshman year. Mona was a few years older. There were about forty of us on the trip, and everyone adored Mona at first. She was beautiful, with enormous brown eyes and long black hair. And at first she was all bright and witty, leading groups of us out into the city, late into the night. She was our catalyst and leader. Every guy was at her feet to some extent, including myself to a great extent. But she disdained us, putting our compliments aside with a laugh and a shake of the head. Even though she was everyone's friend, no one could really get near her.
I stopped swimming and turned around to see how far I'd come. I treaded water, looking back at the shore. There was Curt, a little figure sitting up on an orange rectangle, peering out at me. Or maybe he was just pretending to peer while he ogled the girls between us. I couldn't tell, though the shore was closer than I'd thought.
I noticed that I was in one of those seams some lakes have, where the water gets much colder. My legs were kicking in and out of a colder chunk of lake. I submerged my head and looked around. In my fuzzy underwater vision, I could see that the bronze color of the sun-struck sandy bottom turned to dark green right below me. I was suspended above a deep drop-off.
Something happened to Mona after a couple of weeks in Spain. I felt like I'd missed something: suddenly everyone else was avoiding her. I thought it was great having her all to myself, even though I had no concept of what to do. I ignored the rumors--that she'd been drunk in class one day, and something about a Frenchman she'd met at a bar.
She'd begun venturing out alone at night, staying out very late. I would have gladly escorted her if she'd asked, but she never did. She liked my company during daylight hours, though: we went out to lunch a lot, lounged around the cafes that lined the Plaza Mayor, went to the Prado. We talked, laughed, became friends. I would stare at her smooth face when she wasn't looking and wonder how to cross the line from friendship into something else. She offered no clues.
All of this came rushing back to me in bits and pieces as I treaded water over the drop-off. I stopped kicking, took a huge breath, and curled over head first. I began to pull myself deeper. I'm a good swimmer, and had no problem reaching the nearer bottom. It occurred to me that if
Curt was keeping an eye on me, he might become alarmed when I didn't surface for two minutes. He can wait, I thought, and decided to investigate the murky ledge.
Nothing strange happened until the day Mona and I went to a bullfight. She had a wild, unsteady look that day, especially as the careening little taxi took us to the stadium. She seemed to relax a little once we sat down inside. We sat way up high, and I remember leaning back so I could watch her profile against the sky. I was more interested in her than in the corrida, but she watched it absorbedly. I glanced down to the arena once in a while. It was all very formal and stiff, a weird dance of horses, men, and bulls. I looked up at one point to see the sky-black bull lifting his horns stubbornly into the horse's padded ribs, wet red ribbons of blood decorating the bull’s hide.
Mona turned to me at that point. “Isn't this unusual?” she said, opening her big eyes even wider.
That morning, someone had hinted to me that there were two Frenchmen in Mona's night life, and more than just alcohol in her bloodstream. I had been sitting back watching her with a mixture of skepticism and awe; when she turned to me, the awe eclipsed all of my doubts. “Very,” I said.
“I think it's all just so, so. . . true,” she said, turning back to the arena.
“What do you mean?” I asked the back of her head.
She addressed the sand below us. “The way they fight, struggle. The drama of it.”
I just nodded.
When I was in that odd place, pulling myself further down the sharp underwater cliff, where it suddenly got so rocky, it struck me that if Curt was not alarmed by now, he was a least puzzled. Why would I swim out into the middle of Silver Lake after seeing an old photo of myself with some girl?
The next time I looked down to the sandy arena, the matador was poised on tiptoe, facing the bull, sticking his chest out insolently. The bull was looking ragged. I had missed all the passes, staring instead at Mona's profile and thinking of all the things we could do together. Innocent things. Meanderings, discoveries, sweetnesses. The most physical thing I imagined was the feel of her hair on my face.
The matador lifted the sword, peering at the bull along the length of the blade. The bleeding beast stamped, lifted its bulky head with effort. It gathered its breath and charged. The matador sprang up, sprang toward the bull, the long blade held stiffly out at the end of his brocaded arm. They met.
And the bull stopped, staggered back, stared at the ground. The matador strutted away, turned his back. The bull looked puzzled, then coughed a gallon of blood onto the sand. Then another.
The water was getting chillier as I worked my way down the steep ledge. There was enough light that I could see the handholds in the dark rock and the swirl of the silty murk. I knew I'd been under long enough to worry, or at least intrigue, Curt; but I felt like I could go another thirty seconds without drawing a new breath.
I must have been about twenty-five feet down when I came to the opening. A shelf of smoother, light-colored rock presented itself to me, right in my path. I pulled myself down and poked my head under the shelf. It was dark. I reached and found that there was no wall of rock in front of me. Turning right side up, I discovered that there was a slot under the shelf. I do mean slot: it was perfectly rectangular, about three feet by two feet.
My heart squeezed itself and missed a beat when Mona stood up, staring down at the coughing bull. “Oh,” she said. She hurried to the aisle, stepping on people's feet in her haste. I jumped up and started to follow. She ran down the steps of the stadium aisle, toward the arena, the bull.
She was running wildly, her arms open wide and her hair flying out behind her. I told myself that she must be going down there because she wanted to help the bull, and comfort him.
I put my head through the opening, even my shoulders. I couldn't see anything, not a thing. But there were swirls in the water, currents, vibrations, echoings. I had the uncanny sensation that I was at the top of an immense cavern, hundreds of feet wide and deep. Some kind of innate sonar was telling me these things. What it didn't tell me was whether the walls were as smooth as glass, or just rough rock. Something else, something further down than the sonar, gave me the feeling that something lived there.
I caught up with Mona just as she reached the first row. Before she could lean out over the wall and call to the falling bull, I took her by the waist and by one hand. I led her out through the tunnel just behind us. People were staring.
“Come on, Mona,” I said.
“I'm sorry,” she gasped. “I had to get closer.”
It was cooler in the damp concrete exit, and in the big circular hallway that went around the rim of the arena. There was no one else out there. Maybe it was getting out of the heat or getting away from the crowd that made Mona feel better, or maybe it was just the late afternoon sunlight flowing in through the high windows and the steam rising from the concrete floor. Maybe it was just me. All I know is, when Mona turned to me--made me stop walking and looked into my eyes--she seemed more at ease, less frenzied. Like some fight she'd been fighting was about to end.
I knew I should kiss her. I knew she wanted me to, and that if I did I'd loon learn the truth about the Frenchmen, about everything she'd been through, about her wild look that day, and what it was about the bull's struggle that drew her to him.
When I pushed myself away from the strange opening and began to kick madly for the surface, I remembered why I hadn't kissed Mona, remembered thinking for a moment that it wasn't sympathy she'd been feeling for the bull, remembered being briefly, wildly afraid of what she was letting me see. I also realized why I had walked straight to the lake when I saw our picture. Not because I still longed for Mona--as Curt night guess--and not because I wanted to kick myself for just taking her by the elbow and marching her back to the dorm with hardly another word to her. The amazing thing, the thing that bothered me, that still bothers me, was that I had forgotten all about Mona, and even about most of the trip to Spain. What kind of monster am I? Am I going to thrash my way through the rest of my life, forgetting people right and left?
When I came walking up out of the water, dripping and panting, Curt was right there at the water’s edge, with a couple of nubile girls standing there with him. I could tell he had played my disappearance for all it was worth—it’s easy to get people interested in such things. Still, Curt looked a little stressed by the whole thing. “Jay,” he said, as I started to climb up onto the grass. “What were you doing there? Why’d you do that?”
“Never mind,” I said, and got ready to repeat variations of that phrase over and over again until I was ready to tell him.