I find myself on the beach of a lake that is large and surrounded by tall ancient pine. Its white powder is soft under my feet. A searching breeze creates ripples in its surface that are echoed above in clouds that resemble white glowing sand dunes. Flares of brilliant sunlight and life affirming blue, bleed from between the orderly rows of cloud. As the rows of cloud momentarily obscure the sun, the temperature oscillates between a red heat and an autumnal chill. Their quick succession makes the contrast all the more intense and leaves little time for my body to acclimatise. I feel my limbs shiver. Just as the first shiver leaves my spine, I feel the covering of a soft warm towel. As it falls from above and anchors on my narrow shoulders, I am greeted by the sight of my mother. She smiles at me, and is almost immediately distracted by laughter from within a group on the beach. She pats me on my head and walks toward the adults hovering around a barbecue and grabs a beer, held aloft by a tall man.
I am about 12, and wearing navy blue Speedos. My father emerges from the water beside me. He receives no towel, but runs past me and snatches one from a chair. He looks very happy and beckons me to a seat beside him. I walk over, using the towel to cover my indiscreet swimwear, which is doing me no favours since my emergence from the lake. My father smiles broadly at me.
‘The water’s good right?’ He asks.
‘Yes Dad.’ I reply sheepishly, remembering to maintain the father-son hierarchy he so passionately protects. This was before fathers tried to befriend their offspring. We talked and laughed, but the line between love and kinship was never crossed.
‘See, this holiday isn’t so bad, is it?’ He always addressed me through commands, wise teaching or questions. He would never converse through opinion; that was saved for his peers, unless I posed a direct question. Real, self exposing, vulnerable opinion could breach the line he set between us, and potentially make him seem more human than fathers need be. I loved him and hated him in equal measures. He was the hero father every young orphan dreamed of. Physically strong. Emotionally impenetrable; never seen crying, or heard admitting he ‘didn’t know.’ Dependable; showing his love in his antiquated parenting style. He brushes sand from my hair. This type of tenderness was reserved only for family holidays and severe illness. His rare touch temporarily sweeps away all memory of his inadequacy. It is so much easier to forgive in youth. Our moment is interrupted by my mother’s garish laughter coming from behind us. My father grimaces and resists the urge to look back and instead turns to the lake and stares intently; his deep frown lines mirroring the lake’s surface. I look over his shoulder and see my mother in full on, head back laughter with one hand resting on the shoulder of the tall man who handed her the beer and the other playing with her hair.
I hear another laugh to my left, which instantly draws me away from the indiscretions of my flirtatious mother. It’s Ocean. She, like me, shares the misfortune of being born into a family of last generation hippies. I got the cliché mother; she got the cliché name; although it completely suited her. She was strong, majestic and consistently evolving. She seemed years older than me, but was in fact months younger. Her parents were polar opposites of each other, like the comedy double acts of the time, only without the laughs. Her father saw positivity in all situations. As well as his perpetual smile, he wore above knee shorts throughout all four seasons, beneath which sat toned calves worthy of a Greek god; Enviable anatomy when viewed in isolation, but cartoonish beside the rest of his body, which was of a below average build and tone. He is an encyclopaedia of useless information. Every statement Ocean’s father uttered was always followed by a farfetched statistic or fact, and the rolling of his wife’s eyes. She was a complete pessimist, and perhaps more accurately, a depressive. Constantly in black and always accompanied by her chain-smoker’s tar cloud; Ocean’s mother was perhaps the first ever ‘Goth-Hippie,’ or the physical bridge between the two movements. Her reason for living seemed simply to oppose her husband’s positivity. To create a counter balance, to his ‘glass half full’ aura. Ocean through being born of these two polar opposites was surprisingly centred. She took logic and made it her own science. She was a complete realist, which combined with her razor sharp wit and forthrightness, made her seem rude, arrogant and at best tactless. I thought she was amazing!
She looks at me apologetically as she always did when with her parents, as though foretelling their annoying behaviour. I reciprocate; my father is still scowling beside me rubbing sand from out of his crutch and my mother’s laughs can still be heard over the water and music. Ocean winks at me and shifts her pupils toward the lake. I smile at my father, discard my towel and return to the cold water. We race, dive and hold each other under. As the froth dispels, we float on our backs and look to the heavens.
‘If I have children, I will never force them to go on family holidays. So cruel!’ Ocean broke the brief silence as though I were in her head and heard all the thoughts that led up to her statement.
‘The only reason I agreed to come was because I heard you’d be here.’ I reply. Ocean for a moment says nothing.
‘Have you lost your virginity then?’ She asks with her eyes locked onto the flight path of a gull.
‘Umm, well…not sure.’ Ocean abandons the gull and sets her gaze on me.
‘What do you mean not sure? Either you have or you haven’t.’ She says with a look of intrigue.
‘Well I guess…well… technically no then.’ Ocean finds another gull and says nothing. I imagine she is laughing to herself. I expect more interrogation, but she just lays there floating, saying nothing. I think she is waiting for me to ask. I don’t. I’m afraid of the answer.
‘Why do you think people who clearly shouldn’t be together, get together? They say love is blind, but surely you can apply a little logic in all situations; including love or let’s face it lust, I mean no one really falls in love at first do they? They experience lust.’ She says, now sitting in the shallow water with her back to the beach. I persistently float for a few seconds, and then, unable to resist her gravity, join her on my knees.
‘I don’t know. Perhaps the way people feel in the beginning is often a lot different to the way they feel later on. I guess you can’t predict the future.’ I reply, feeling for once that I may be the one to have offered some food thought.
‘My parents hate each other.’ Ocean says looking out at the trees in the distant horizon.
‘Your dad seems happy.’ I reply, trying to put a positive spin on her family situation and offering her the chance to step away from her uncomfortable truth. She continues anyway.
‘My dad is only happy when my mother is. I guess her mood swings have conditioned him to be that way. But you know there’s only so much conditioning you can take. I mean, you can only stretch so far right? Sooner or later you’re gonna snap. You can only change so much, or else you lose your own identity. You forget who the real you is or maybe in my dad’s case, was.’ I stare at her in awe, in the way any hormonal teenage boy stares at an attractive girl who speaks anything half intelligent. Her little insights are to me like Zen philosophy. I am once again the student. Natural order has been restored. ‘I bet he can’t look himself in the mirror anymore. I want to tell him, he doesn’t have to be such a pussy. I feel like I need to shake him up; tell him to shout or kick or something! He doesn’t need to keep up the pretence for me anymore. Shit, I’m almost thirteen for fuck’s sake.’ I nod, saying nothing, only thinking to myself that Ocean swears more frequently since our last meeting. I try hard to focus on her feelings, but am distracted by the sexiness of her adult language. ‘I think these trips are just a way of making things seem okay. A temporary fix. Papering over the cracks. It’s so unbearable having to spend time with them. ’ She speaks while watching her hand morph under the water’s rippled surface. She looks vulnerable and is visibly worried. I remain seated saying nothing. I think I’m in love with her.
‘My parents will probably be divorced by this time next year.’ I say hoping to extract more emotion; I find myself enjoying the intimacy of her pain.
‘Yeah right.’ She says and swims off further toward the lake’s centre. Ocean has the natural ability to turn anything into competition. She swims with vigour without looking back. She knows I am following her. We swim hard. The crystal water swirls and foams around us. I look up, mid stroke and catch our chilled spray diffracting spectrums of neon sunlight. We swim through the centre and continue. Ocean shows no sign of stopping. My aim to out-swim her has now changed to simply keeping up. I try to hide my extreme fatigue. My arm and leg muscles ache. The water is still crystal clear. I look down to ascertain whether I could safely stop and stand. I can see that the water’s depth has altered abruptly in the last few metres. I could quite easily drown now, were I to get cramp. I ignore the thought of death or worse still, Ocean having to pull me back to the shore. Pride is my fuel. I swim with an intense heat sitting between my shoulders. The gap between Ocean and I is lengthening with each stroke. I can feel my rhythm escaping me. Water that was before my friend is now the enemy. It beats me as though I am an eroding coastline. I curse my decision to follow Ocean. I see her ahead clambering on to the beach that was before a mere slither of white in the horizon. I take consolation from the sound of her heavy breathing and coughing. This wasn’t easy for her either. I make it onto the beach and collapse beside her. We lay there, heaving in agony and laughing from the adrenalin born from our flirt with mortality.
‘You’re quite fit aren’t you?’ Ocean says after a few minutes. I say nothing still catching my breath and enjoying the water playing with my toes. It is my friend again. After some time, Ocean looks up at me with eyes that seem to have aged. She just looks at me for a moment; her huge eyes framed in long glistening lashes; still wet. She looks at me, and despite myself, I stare back. I know my look betrays me, but I don’t care. The stillness of the moment carries an electricity that shocks me into lucidity. I know I’m dreaming! I feel an outer body experience. I see the two of us, wet, staring deep into each other. Saying nothing. I see the lake rising to our knees. I watch as neither of us notice. I realise that from my vantage point, my vision goes beyond 20:20. I see everything with no degradation of focus. I look into the sand, and can examine the smallest detail of every grain. The clarity makes me feel slightly nauseous. I wonder whether my new sight is a sign that this place somehow exists beyond normal fantasy, or is a higher understanding of a reality I once owned. I consider whether death is actually both reality and fantasy; or the point at which the extremities of these inner opposites converge.
‘I’m sorry.’ Ocean finally says.
‘Don’t mention it. You didn’t force me to follow you.’ I say from above without thinking, as though speaking words from a memorised script. I see the dream me speak my words a moment later, like an undiminished echo.
‘No, I’m sorry that it had to turn out like this.’ She replies. I watch the two us speak, but my ears are made deaf. I want to know what she is saying. I see the dampness of her long eyelashes; give way to that of her silent tears. I see my own.
In an instant I find myself within me again. I’m now in my parent’s tent at night, pretending to sleep and watching as my mother climbs out. My father sleeps silently. I watch her leave and zip the tent shut. I get out of my sleeping bag, slowly unzip the tent again and watch from within as she and her long deformed shadows creep silently across the sand, illuminated by a full moon that seems to devour the night sky. She stoops beside a red tent to the far south of the camp. I see Ocean’s father clamber out, almost tripping over his calves. She offers her hand and helps him up. They stop, look at each other and walk into the forest behind them; its thick canopy shielding them from the bright lunar searchlight. I hear stirring behind me. My father tells me to sleep. He spins around in his now much roomier double sleeping bag, and faces our olive green tent wall. I think I hear him crying, but cannot be sure.
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