“Louise she’s alright, she’s just near.
She’s delicate and seems like the mirror,
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna’s not here.”
—Bob Dylan, ‘Visions of Johanna,’ Blonde on Blonde (1966)
Our retreat took us to a cabin along the shores of Lake Michigan. It was only about an hour and a half away from Whitehaven, but it felt a thousand miles away. The cabin had been in UB’s family for years but rarely got much use anymore.
“When I was growing up, this place would be over-run with people,” UB said on the trip up. “Aunts and Uncles, and my mom and dad, and a whole bunch of cousins.”
“And nobody’s going to be there?” Bonnie asked.
“Not this time of year. Most of them are dead or too old to travel anymore, anyway. I was the youngest grandchild, even though my dad was the oldest in his family. Yup,” he said, “the only child, and a tremendous disappointment to everyone involved.”
“That sounds about right,” Bonnie said.
“But there’s one more thing,” he said. “I’m also the last man standing, and to the victors go the fucking spoils!”
The cabin itself didn’t look like much from the outside, but it was pretty roomy inside, filled with a miss-mash of furnishings from five or six decades. It was built into a dune and faced out towards the lake. Looking out the back windows, I was amazed at how much Lake Michigan resembled the ocean.
The kitchen, main living room, and four bedrooms were on the main floor, and the basement held a full bar and rec room. A pair of sliding doors opened out onto a deck, which lead down to a path that crossed over a dune onto the beach.
Within a half-hour of walking through the door, we had all pretty much made ourselves at home, lying about in odd angles on the sofas and chairs, lazily yapping with one another as we indulged our lethargy. Another hour later, Karl burst through the front door carrying a large, fully-loaded cooler. “Hey, you sons of bitches, what’re you all lyin’ around for?!?!”
Karl had driven up separately from the other group, with Caroline and a carload of her friends. The girls, drawn by the allure of a sandy beach in the middle of June, had agreed to jump into the car and make the trip at a moment’s notice. In an instant, the combined force of their feminine presence breathed life into the otherwise languid room.
Within moments, music was playing, and everyone began parceling themselves off into clusters, angling for prime positions with their chosen member of the opposite sex. As always, I chose to sit back and watch the chaos unfold around me. Before long, I found a spot that suited me, perched on a bar stool along the back wall of the rec room. From there, I had a prime opportunity to take in the whole spectacle of debauchery that was likely to follow.
About eleven o’clock, I found myself shooting dice with Bonnie, playing ship/captain/crew for a buck per toss. When I landed a third pot in a row, Bonnie blew a gasket. “What the fuck? I can’t buy a break!”
“You won’t be able to afford it by the time I’m done!” Bonnie responded with a dispassionate middle finger. He fished a cigarette out of a pack of Marlboro Lights sitting on the bar. “I’m going out to the beach to smoke,” he said.
As I shoved the small pile of bills into my pocket, Caroline came walking down the steps into the rec room. The skimpy cut-off jean shorts she was wearing were accentuating her long, tan legs, and she swung her shoulder-length blonde hair back and forth as she walked. It was that same wild, careless fluidity of motion that I had noticed on the dance floor the very first time I saw her.
Some girls used a walk like that to their advantage—control through the power of sex appeal. Caroline, though, seemed different. She seemed completely unaware of the attention she attracted wherever she went. Whereas most girls that looked like her were painfully aware of that attention, Caroline seemed oblivious, drifting through our gazes with an impossible nonchalance.
When she got closer, I could tell that she was upset. She wasn’t crying, but she was clearly on the verge.
When she plopped down on the stool next to me, I nearly jumped up and scurried away from the excitement. Though we had spoken enough times to be friendly, she still made me feel like a high school freshman hitting on a senior. She grabbed the beer out of my hand and took a long swig. “You alright?” I asked.
She waved her hand absently at the stairs. “Just the usual,” she said. “First, he invites me up here, then he spends half the night staring at one of my best friends’ tits and copping feels.” She tips the beer back and finishes the last of the bottle. “Then when I call him out on it, I’m nothing but a cunt. You know, because I deserve that.”
As she spoke, I stared at the side of her face, her sharp chin and pointed nose. “You don’t deserve that,” I said. “You’re beautiful…”
I felt my face immediately flush when I said the words. For every interaction I’ve ever had in my life, I have heard a distinct inner monologue that narrates the situation. I assume everyone has that, the voice in their head that examines the situation, takes measure of what’s to come next.
For people like Mark, or Karl, or even Bonnie, that inner monologue flows from their minds to their lips without a second thought, as steady and true as the flow of the river back home. What’s more, they never seem to experience any guilt or remorse over the situation. They just keep flowing, consequences be damned.
I suppose that’s what drew me to each of them as friends. Their unrestrained honesty, the freedom of expression.
I have always been jealous of that.
Somehow, Caroline pushed things out of me that I never would have imagined. Out of nowhere, I just proclaimed her beauty, like some awe-struck little boy. Blurting out the words without any filter whatsoever, my carefully maintained reservation shattered.
Of course, I could guess why the words popped out the way they did. Though they looked nothing alike, Caroline reminded me of Aimee. They both were completely oblivious to beauty that seemed painfully obvious to everyone else in the world.
I used to look deeply at Aimee’s face, too—stare at her when she wasn’t looking. Though she never would admit to her own beauty, all I saw was perfection. Strong features and those big, dark eyes.
I tried to tell her that sometimes, but it always came out sounding awkward and clunky. I could never truly find the words to describe her beauty. She would just smile and laugh it off like I was making things up, and I’d let it go. It was one of the things that caused me regret late at night, my inability to make her understand how I truly felt. In the end, it was probably that more than anything.
On some level, it was inevitable that I was going to leave, and it was just as inevitable that she was going to stay. The idea that we were somehow going to carry our teenage crush into our real lives was always far-fetched, and somehow I always knew that. Still, the feelings that I had felt for her were real, there was no question in my mind. She was beautiful and perfect, and in some ways she literally saved my life. Those times in my life that I had felt the worst, buried neck deep in the muck, it had been Aimee that had reached down and pulled me up.
Maybe that’s why I blurted out my omission to Caroline. Though there was a physical likeness, the resemblance was there, some unspoken essence in the way they each talked and moved.
I nervously tried to back petal out of my strange omission. “I’m sorry, I mean I…”
“Sorry for what? Are you saying I’m not beautiful?”
“No it’s just that I…”
She started laughing. It was a full, unrestrained laugh—yet another quality that reminded me of Aimee.
“You’re cute,” she said, reaching up and brushing her hand along my face. As her hand drifted off my cheek and grazed the top of my thigh, I wondered if girls like her realized the power that they had. A simple, offhanded touch had the power to devastate someone like me, and as I stared into her face, I felt simultaneously elated and crushed.
“You makin’ time with my girl!” Karl stomped over and pushed up to my chest. He wasn’t really angry, of course. This was all absurd, drunken theater, but the problem with Karl is that you never really quite knew how far the theater would go.
“How could I compete with a guy like you?”
Karl snorted out a laugh and put me into a headlock. “I love this guy,” he said. “Can I tell you that? I love you man!”
“I know, I know,” I said, struggling against his arm to catch a breath. After a few seconds too long, he let go of my neck and turned his attention to Caroline. “Where’d you go?” he asked, attempting to make his voice sound sweet.
Caroline snorted and shook her head, her eyes filling with tears. “I walked out right around the time you told everyone upstairs that I’m nothing but a cunt.” She stood up, and marched over to the other side of the room. Karl looked at me, rolled his eyes and obediently followed.
In an attempt to avoid snooping, I stood up and walked around the bar to the refrigerator to grab another beer. Everyone else in the basement was either passed out or making out, which left me as the only one to witness the passionate drama unfolding on the other side of the room.
Karl was far too drunk to notice me watching, and if Caroline realized she didn’t seem to care. He leaned in close to her, talking in hushed tones, but she kept pushing him away. Eventually, she turned to walk towards the stairs, and he grabbed her by the arm. From the look on her face, I could tell that he had grabbed too hard. He had crossed a line.
I felt a pain in my chest that I had known a thousand times before, that crippling side effect of inaction. It wasn’t so much that I was afraid of confrontation, though a fight between me and Karl wouldn’t last very long. It was something else—a tiny voice in my head that told me that I wasn’t good enough, that I wasn’t up to the challenge.
In the late nineties, there was a short-lived resurgence of ska music, and in 1997 or 1998, a band called the Mighty, Mighty Bosstones had a hit song called ‘The Impression that I Get.’ There was a line towards the end of the song, just after the bridge that said, “I’m not a coward, I’ve just never been tested. I like to think that if I was I would pass.’
That line always scared the shit out of me. Because I was afraid, somewhere deep in my bones, that if I was tested, I would fail. I suppose that the intruder was that kind of a test. A stressful, dangerous situation…a clear call to action. The question, though, was had I passed or failed?
Logically, I told myself that it was self-defense, just like Whistler had said. I stepped up to save myself, and to save my brother. On some level I knew that to be true, but it still didn’t feel true.
I kept thinking about the sound that bat made as it hit his skull, and every time, it made me feel ill. Something beyond guilt. A kind of bone-deep gloom.
Tommy was tested. I know that much for sure. He was tested, and he passed. Right up until the very end, he looked cancer straight in the eye, and he didn’t blink. He looked death in the eye and stood his ground. I swung a wooden bat.
When I saw Karl grab Caroline by the arm, something in my gut told me I should act. Stand up. Get in his face. Do the right thing—modern chivalry in full display. Instead, I stood behind the bar sipping a bottle of beer and watching it all unfold, like some week little voyeur.
Without turning back to me, Karl grunted loudly and punched the wall at the bottom of the steps, leaving a softball-sized hole in the drywall. He stood there looking at the hole for a few seconds, then turned to sulk up the stairs, his shoulders already slumping in defeat.
Suddenly, I felt claustrophobic. I grabbed the nearly empty back of Marlboro Lights off the bar and walked out the sliding doors and onto the deck. As I walked out, I nearly tripped over a foot.
Bonnie jumped quickly to his feet. He was shirtless and sweating. I leaned around him and saw a half-dressed girl laying on the deck, Carol or Connie, something like that. She was one of the friends that Caroline brought with her to the party.
“Sorry about that,” I said, patting him on the shoulder. “Didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“No worries,” he said, dropping like a sack of potatoes back down onto the wood of the deck.
I walked down a sandy path that led over the dune down towards the beach. Though the cabin was only a few hundred yards from the water, the sound of the waves was surprisingly muffled by the high dunes. As I got closer, the crashing of the waves sounded more like a rolling roar.
I had, of course, been around the river my whole life, but my only experience with ocean water came when I was ten years old. My mother decided that Tommy and I needed the experience of a true family vacation, my father’s absence be damned, so she stuffed us into her Ford Explorer and we drove a thousand miles across the country to Orlando, Florida. The purpose of the trip was to take in Walt Disney World, in all of our touristic glory, but outside of Space Mountain, I don’t really remember much about the park itself.
What I do remember is St. George Island. We stopped there on the way back because my mother wanted to experience the beach. I think part of her had always wished that she had run off to another life, in some port city smelling of Atlantic sea salt. I remember sitting on a white sand beach on that island, marveling at the size and power of the gulf stretching out before us. The rolling waves rising and slamming into the sand.
I know people always talk about the beauty of a beach or a clear night sky, the majesty of a mountain range stretching for miles. We see these sights and we marvel in awe. We take deep breaths and suck that wonder into our chest, and we pass that off as beauty, but I’m not really sure if beauty is the right word.
I know that beach made my mother happy, as happy as I had ever really seen her in my life, but sitting in the sand, watching those rolling hills, I felt a twinge of fear. It was the same feeling I had experienced a hundred times on the Illinois River. While fishing in the middle of the night, I would look up and see that sky, painted in so many dark hues, and I would feel tiny and insignificant.
Human beings are hard-wired to respond to a sight like that. We are taken back because we finally confront something that is commensurate with our capacity for wonder. We see the way nature itself compares with our vast imagination. It is beautiful, but it’s also frightening.
Whether we recognize it or not, we’re afraid of the idea of being nothing more than a single ant in a colony of billions.
I walked out to the beach and sat in the sand, looking out at the water. Though Lake Michigan paled in size to an ocean, to a river-rat like me, it felt exactly like sitting on that beach on St. George Island. The swelling waves and white caps, the rolling thunder of crashing waves echoing across the empty beach.
I sat there in the dark and looked up and down the beach. Other than a single boat out on the water, and the lights from a factory a few miles to the south, the whole area seemed completely deserted. Somewhere, almost directly across from where I was sitting was the city of Chicago, with its luminous skyline and hordes of people. If I were to get in a boat and steer it west, I would eventually see the lights of the skyscrapers tipping over the edge of the horizon. The Sears Tower would come first—though it was renamed the Willis Tower many years ago, it will always be the Sears Tower to me—followed by the John Hancock. The further west you continued, you would see the lights of more and more buildings, popping up like clusters of mushrooms, until you finally reached the shore. No matter the time of night, Lake Shore Drive would be filled, nearly to capacity with the streaming lights of a thousand cars.
It seemed strange that such hustle and chaos was lying just over the ridge of the horizon. In terms of distance, it wasn’t that far—maybe fifty or a hundred miles as the crow flies—but sitting on the cooling sand of that desolate beach, it seemed much farther.
Suddenly feeling very lonely and afraid, I stood up and walked back up towards the cabin. Rather than walk down the path, and stumble back across Bonnie and his lady friend on the deck, I decided to walk up over the dune to the side of the house.
As I reached the top of the dune, I had a clear view into one of the bedrooms on the north end of the house, and I was stunned to see Caroline standing in the window looking out. She was completely nude, the whole beautiful length of her body reflecting the soft yellow glow of a nightstand table lamp. In a panic, I dropped to my knees, sure that she had seen me cross the peak of the dune. As I watched, though, it was clear that she hadn’t noticed me in the shadows. She was staring out past the dune towards the water, watching the waves with a kind of stern longing.
I knew that common decency dictated that I should look away, but I couldn’t move my eyes. I felt the thrill of a young boy, sneaking out of the house for the first time, leering in the dark towards clearly forbidden fruit. I saw Karl stand and click off the table lamp and walk to stand behind her in the window. Though the orange glow of the lamp had died, I could still see them both reflected clearly. Their skin shimmering in the pale blue light of the full moon. He was shirtless but still half clothed, perched behind her shoulders. He reached around her waist and pulled her close, leaning her weight against his chest.
Whatever they had been arguing about, she had clearly forgiven him. It would all wash under the bridge with all the other insults and petty cruelties, and other than a few tiny bruises on her wrist, it would all be mostly gone by morning. She leaned back and melted into him as they continued to stare out over the water. After a few seconds, she turned to kiss him, and they disappeared out of view.
I remember thinking that I should have been excited, worked up by the cheap thrill of it all. When I was young, eleven or twelve years old, I would sneak peaks out of my bedroom window, hoping to get a glance just like this of the neighbor girl. In fact, I would have given anything for it—and she wasn’t half as attractive as Caroline was.
Sitting there on my knees on top of that sandy dune, I felt anything but excited. Watching her standing in the moonlight, her long blonde hair drifting down over her shoulders and across her chest, I felt nothing but devastated…Devastated and painfully alone.
When I stood to walk away, I caught another glimpse of her, this time only her back and shoulders. Karl must have been lying back on the bed, her straddling him and moving her body in a motion that mimicked the roll of waves crashing against the beach below.
Somehow, she was even more beautiful from behind, the pale skin of her shoulders practically glowing in light of the moon. It was seeing her like that, her head turned away, her body slowly rising and falling, that I realized why I felt so sad and alone.
The whole dangerous, titillating show that I had witnessed was nothing more than a harsh reminder.
A reminder of the girl that I left behind. The one that would have forgiven me just as easily for drunken stupidity or petty cruelty. The one who used to melt into me the same way she melted into him.
It wasn’t exciting because it wasn’t about sex. Despite her exhilarating nakedness, the surge of voyeuristic thrill, I didn’t see sex when I looked at her in that window.
I saw an echo of the life that I had walked away from. And for the first time in a very long time, I felt like an outsider once again. The creepy voyeur who was only here to take notes, the consummate observer.
They called me Scribe. In ancient times, that name had fallen on the men who documented the lives of the high priests. Their role was to serve through abstinent reflection, holding themselves back at the periphery—taking up residence in the margins.
As much as I had felt embraced by their brotherhood, I was still irritated by the knowledge that I was still, in some ways, an outsider. Even our late-night trip to that creek hadn’t completely changed that. Standing there on that beach, surrounded by that constant swell of water, I was absolutely sure of one, singular fact:
True admittance to the club was going to demand something more, and it was a price that I was willing to pay.