By Cecilia Rogers
A few years ago, the first day of June had ushered in a heat wave that, as it turned out, would last for three months. No one knew it then of course, which was just as well. We all struggled through the hot, muggy days, shuttling back and forth from air-conditioned homes to air-conditioned workplaces, usually by means of air-conditioned transportation. It was supposed to be the best time of year and we were all trapped inside, trying to escape the heat. Casual conversations were peppered with endlessly repeated clichés as to how hot it was, how unusual a June heat wave was and variations on, Wow if it’s like this now what’s it gonna be like in mid-August! Repetitive though they were, those comments didn’t get to me. What got to me was that before long the refrain had shifted to the irritating inanity uttered by would-be comedians: Hot enough for ya, Marissa? Usually it was accompanied by a braying guffaw that no self-respecting donkey would ever produce and a hearty slap on the back, as though it were all just good fun and shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
When on a Monday in the middle of the month I had heard that from three different people before 10:30, I felt as though the day couldn’t get any worse: I was mistaken, as a mere ten minutes later it did.
Hurrying to get away from the latest jack-ass braying about the heat, hawhawhaw, I was collared by my boss and pulled into his office for an impromptu meeting of those with seniority and supervisory experience: him and me. The vacation roster had been established, and as a senior member of staff I was informed that it would not be until later, much later, August or maybe even September, that my presence at work could be spared. No arguments, no pleading, that was the way it would be. Deadlines still had to be met during the summer, employees with less experience and fewer responsibilities had their vacation time booked, and the skeleton staff that remained would need to have someone reliable around to keep things running, make decisions, maintain project schedules and so on and so on. As it turned out, that someone was me.
I’d heard it all before. Even though it was a litany repeated every year, I had never gotten used to it so our meeting proceeded as it always did: I informed him that in that case I would be away for the rest of the week, time off was owing to me, and if my talents and presence were so vital that the firm would fall into ruin without me, then they could not only spare me before the great exodus of the fortunate vacationers but it would be in the company’s interest to make sure I had a break before July rolled around. As usual we argued and exchanged cross words with one another, and then at the point where I was ready to hand in my resignation the boss capitulated, told me to get lost for the rest of the week and sweetened the deal by informing me I was being given a raise.
Same damn thing every year, I’ll never get used to it: Hot enough for ya Marissa? Hahahaha!
Early the following day I was heading out of the city, taking enough work to keep up with things, my computer, half a dozen books and a small suitcase of clothes. While I would be doing some work I most sincerely hoped I would not be needing to wear many, or even any clothes. It was mid-week in the middle of June and I was going to the cottage on my own. Past experience led me to hope and expect that once there my solitude would be complete. The neighbouring cottages would be empty as it was too early in the season for people to have taken up summer residence. None of my family would be at our place until the beginning of July and the same was usually true of the neighbours.
Mind you, nothing is wrong with our neighbours and in fact a lot of things about them are quite right. The cottages are fairly close together and fortunately everyone gets along with each other. They are old, family owned cottages, none of them of any significant architectural style or interest. Several had started out as simple lakeside cabins sixty or seventy years ago and gradually had additions built on to accommodate families increasing in size. My sisters and brother and I had spent our summer vacations playing, swimming and hanging out with the neighbours’ kids. The adults got along just fine too. Looking after and out for each others kids, sharing trips into the nearby village to go shopping, card parties at night — they were relaxed times for the adults and great moments of freedom for us as we grew up. Lakefront friends, however, were just that: Our contacts with them, and theirs with us, existed only at the lake during the summer, until the cottages were closed up for the winter. Even though some of us lived in the same city, it was as though the connections we had were meant only for that particular place and couldn’t flourish elsewhere.
So that’s where I was headed and it wouldn’t take long to get there. The drive through rolling farmlands was an easy one, given that it was the middle of the week. The traffic consisted mainly of truckers and very few even of them. My spirits started to lift. I was breezing down the highway, free of the workplace (if not work) for a few days, and I was heading to the lake. So what if my getaway would only be five days? If things worked out as planned it could seem like it was much longer.
Once I arrived, settling in took no time at all since my brother, Sean, had been here a few weeks earlier to open the cottage and ready it for the summer months. I made a quick trip into the nearby town to buy groceries and by mid-afternoon was immersed in the lake, swimming lazily and basking in the peace and quiet. It was absolutely perfect and my fatigue and stress were starting to fade away.
The next morning I rose and wandered out onto the front porch while my coffee was brewing.
“Well hello! I didn’t think there’d be anyone up here at this time of the year!”
Startled, I nearly jumped out of my skin and rubbed my eyes in an attempt to focus them; I didn’t have my glasses on and could not identify the owner of the voice. Said owner couldn’t even be seen, for the masculine rumble came from deep within the shadows cast by the morning sun between our place and the Reardons’ cottage to the east of it.
“Who’s that? I can hear you but I can’t see you: Wait, is that you, Danny Reardon?”
He laughed and moved into the sunlight. “Yeah, it’s me. How ya doin’ Marissa? And what are you doing up here?”
“Hey, I could ask you the same thing! When did you arrive?”
I refrained from voicing what went through my mind: Yeah, Danny, when did you show up? Is the universe against me?! Neither you, nor anyone else is supposed to be here so that I can have an absolutely quiet few days before heading back to that hell hole of a heat wave and a work-filled summer, damn it!
I didn’t say those things and as it soon turned out didn’t really mean them either, but all that in due time.
“I drove in last night, late. You must have already gone to sleep, because there were no lights showing and it seemed no one was around here.” He stopped and sniffed the air. “You makin’ coffee, Marissa?”
Coffee: Yes, I was making coffee and if he could smell it then maybe the damned stuff was ready. Would he like some? Of course he would! Fool! Why even bother to ask? Oh right, it’s a social norm and the polite thing to do.
We settled on the porch with our coffee and he elaborated on his earlier question. “So, what are you doing up here, mid-month, mid-week, and, I presume, alone?”
I sighed and summarised as briefly as possible why I was at the lake, emphasising that yes I was alone and in need of peace and quiet.
“Do you have to get some work done while you’re here or is it just a getaway for a few days?” he asked when I had finished my sad little tale of woe.
“Very astute of you to pick up on that. Yes, my hard earned time off comes with the price of keeping up with some of the work I’ve left behind, or, if you wish, the work I’ll be returning to.
“What about you? What brings you here, mid-month, mid-week, and, I presume, alone?”
Upon hearing that he shot me a questioning look. I grinned at him over the edge of my coffee mug. After a second he relaxed and grinned back.
“Touché. Let’s call it ‘same-same but different’. There’s a specialised training program in my field I’m trying to get accepted to, complete with a set of entrance exams for it. Those start at the end of this month and next week I have several deadlines to meet at work. This is my only chance to try and get in some serious prep work for the exams. No internet connection, no cell phone coverage, no friends or social engagements, no TV or other diversions and even if it’s hot up here, it’s not nearly as bad as it is in the city. Like you, I thought I’d have the area to myself, not be distracted and have to chat or hang out with anyone.”
I didn’t say anything and after a pause he continued. “Look Marissa, we’re both after pretty much the same thing here, so it should all work out. We don’t have to be neighbourly or stop to talk if we see each other. I know it breaks all the unwritten rules of cottage behaviour and we’d both be strung up if our folks knew, but they’re not here and they’ll never know. So let’s just get on with it as if we were alone, well, as much as possible. How does that sound?”
In fact I thought it sounded pretty good and told him so. Getting up to go he thanked me for the coffee. “By the way,” he added, “I have to go into town later for some groceries, do you need anything? It’ll save you a trip and besides, I owe you for the coffee.”
“Thanks Danny, that’s great. I forgot to pick up a few things when I was there yesterday. Let me know when you’re going, I’ll have a list ready, as long as you’re sure you don’t mind. You planning to get some studying in beforehand?”
He yawned and stretched. “Yeah, I need to get cracking on the books. A few hours studying, take a break to town, then back at it.” He paused and glanced toward the lake. It glimmered invitingly under the morning sun. “First a dip though, that’ll help me get going. You up for a swim, Marissa?”
“Thanks, but not right now, later. A swim right now would totally demotivate me and I wouldn’t get any work done this morning. It’ll be my reward this afternoon, after plugging away at the grindstone.”
He nodded. “Makes sense to me. OK, I’ll be by later for your list. Work well!” With that he headed down to the lake, stripping off his t-shirt and whistling cheerfully as strode away.
I went back inside the cottage with our coffee cups and finally released my suppressed laughter. Within minutes of suggesting we forgo the rules of neighbourly conduct Danny had fallen right back in line with them, not once but twice, and didn’t seem to realise it.
As it turned out, I was no better at keeping to our pact than he was. When he returned from town I ambled out to his car to get my groceries and we chatted in the hot sun for close to half an hour. In the afternoon when I stopped working, the temptation to knock on his door and invite him to come swimming, should he care to join me, was hard to resist although I managed. How he could concentrate on studying when the day was so beautiful and the lake so inviting was beyond my comprehension.
Floating lazily in the water, I mused on the situation; yesterday I had been basking in my solitude, relieved to be away from the city and the office for a few days, determined to replenish myself with a total break from the demands made on my time and energy by work and colleagues. This was different, and I couldn’t quite figure out why suppressing my urge to suggest to Danny that he take a break from studying and join me for a swim had been so difficult. It would have been easier to ignore his presence if we hadn’t struck our bargain.
In fact, neither of us was any good at ignoring the other.
He was leaning on the railing of his porch watching me as I headed back up towards the cottage after my swim.
“Taking a break from the studying, eh? How’s it going?”
“It’s going all right, but man it’s hot, even up here! Not as bad as in town but whew! I was nearly falling asleep just now.”
“That’s why I like to swim in the afternoon. You just hit a wall with the heat and the work around this time and don’t get anything productive done.”
“You sure got that right,” he replied. “Maybe I’ll go for a swim. You’re not stopping now, are you?”
Was he inviting me to go swimming with him or checking if he had the lakefront to himself? Curious to know which it was, my plans suddenly changed. “Nope, not me! I just needed to get some cold water to drink, then I’m going back in.”
His face brightened. “Great! Mind if I join you?” He didn’t wait for an answer, but nipped back inside to get changed.
We continued to ignore one another in our own peculiar way by swimming together, then talking for half an hour as we dried off while sitting on the beach. It was until after we had pooled our food and shared an impromptu meal in the evening that the subject of our agreement came up.
“How do you think we did today?” he asked me.
Taken aback by the question, I wasn’t sure what he was referring to. “Well, I managed to keep up with the work I brought along. What about you?”
He grinned at me. “No, silly, not how well we worked, how well we kept to our bargain. You know, ignore each other and pretend each one is alone here.”
“Oh, that! You may not be aware of this, but that agreement was broken by you not once, but twice, before you left my front porch this morning. Then I’d say we both broke it several times during the day. We’d probably be just about even, in fact, if you didn’t have those two previously mentioned infractions already. How do you see it?”
“Well, I don’t think we broke the agreement exactly, we just sort of bent the conditions a bit.”
I nodded. That sounded like a fair assessment to me. “What are you getting at then?” I asked. “Where do we go now?”
He stood up and stretched. “We could go swimming again or for a walk. Which do you prefer?”
I laughed and threw a balled up paper napkin at him. “That’s not what I meant and you know it! You brought the subject up, so carry on with your thoughts.”
“Yes, I know I did, now come on, let’s get up and move a bit.”
He pulled me out of my chair and led me down to the lake, where we started to walk along the shore. “Seriously, Marissa, I think we did just fine. It seems to me we both understand what kind of solitude and space the other one is after, don’t you? I mean, as long as you don’t feel squeezed or pressured to be sociable, and I don’t get the impression you do, why not just go on as we did today?”
I didn’t answer him for a moment, mainly because the only thing being squeezed, or rather held firmly, was my hand, which he hadn’t relinquished after he pulled me from my chair. He had tucked it in the crook of his arm, pulling me close to him as we ambled along the shore and the physical contact with him was somewhat distracting, to say the least. Didn’t he notice or realise it, I wondered?
“Well?” he asked, stopping and turning so we faced each other. “How about it? Shall we agree on the revised format of the agreement?”
He put his hands on my shoulders and waited. For a brief second I thought he was going to kiss me, and to forestall that unlikely event I managed to speak. “All right, it’s a deal. We continue as we were today, and take it as it comes.”
“Great! I hope that includes coffee on your porch tomorrow morning, because I don’t have any.”
“What? You went into town to get groceries and you forgot to buy coffee?” I spluttered.
He grinned at me. “Nope, I didn’t forget to buy coffee, I just didn’t buy any. I knew I had bent our agreement as soon as it was made, and just figured the rest of it was going to go by the wayside before the end of the day as well. Besides, you make a great cup of coffee.”
I started to laugh. He had had the upper hand right from the start and I was just now discovering it. “All right,” I said, “but I happen to know you were at the Bon Ton today, so whatever was in that large box from the bakery had better find its way over to my front porch tomorrow morning, buster.”
“It’s a deal,” he replied, starting to walk along the beach again and once more tucking my hand into the crook of his arm. “Before our stay is over we shall have perfected the art of ignoring each other.”
My only reply to that would have been to tell him that this business of holding me so close was making it even harder to ignore him, but I kept that to myself; clearly I needed practice ignoring Danny, and this was a pleasant way to go about it.
We followed the same pattern of ignoring each other the next day. After our shared breakfast facing the lake we left one another alone, as agreed upon. In the late afternoon we swam, talked, relaxed on the beach, ate together again and spent an enjoyable evening talking. Feeling lazy that night we stayed seated on Danny’s front porch. I felt both regret and relief that there were no walks along the beach, and no pleasant but disorienting physical closeness. There was no point in rocking the boat, I thought, by adding a romantic stir into the mix. What we had established was just fine and keeping to our revised agreement allowed us each to accomplish what we were there for. We had three days ahead of us and with luck, everything would continue just as it was.
Naturally enough, it didn’t.
“Is there still a canoe in your boat shed, Marissa?” he asked the next day at breakfast.
“Hmmm, I don’t know, my brother may have taken it away. Why, you want to go canoeing?”
“Why not? In this weather the lake is unbelievably calm and there aren’t any motor boats buzzing around. I was thinking it would do us good to paddle down towards where the lake narrows a bit. I haven’t seen that area in years.”
I knew where he meant. The shoreline was wilder along there with isolated places, secret coves, that could only be accessed by boat. “Sounds like a good idea to me, as long as the canoe and all the gear are still here. When do you want to go on this expedition?”
“This afternoon, before we go swimming. We can go for about an hour or so, see what it’s like these days, and then swim when we get back.”
“That sounds good; let’s check on the canoe first. If it’s not there we could always rent one from the bait and tackle joint out on the highway.”
The canoe was still in the boat shed, along with paddles and life jackets. It took us half an hour to sort things out and then haul everything down to the lake. I was dubious about one point, though. “Do you think the canoe’s going to leak, Danny? Usually it needs to be submerged at the start of the season so the wood swells up again.”
He examined it carefully. “It’s in great condition, Marissa. It’s your brother’s, right? Sean wouldn’t leave it here if it weren’t fit for use. It didn’t even have any spider webs on it; he’s probably already prepped it this year. Look, we can leave it tied to the dock and check for any problems before we’re ready to go out. How does that sound?”
He was right about the canoe being water-worthy, and his suggestion of going out in it was wonderful. While swimming and being immersed in the lake is probably the best thing in the world, floating along on top of it is a close second. We set off, moving smoothly and silently along, staying parallel to the shore line. The changes we saw were dramatic as the groomed, sandy beaches fronting the scattered cottages gave way to a rocky escarpment that plunged straight into the water. This part of the lake could not be accessed from the land side, and the area was untouched and uninhabited, at least by humans.
We were cautious in venturing close to the base of the rocky incline, concerned about the risk of scraping against a sunken tree snag or some other object under the water’s surface near the shore, but as it happened, there was no danger: The area had no shallows and it seemed as though the rugged cliff face rose straight up from the depths of the lake. The water was clear as far as the light penetrated, perhaps as far as half a meter. Below that it was dark, mysterious, and gazing into the murky abyss sent a shiver down my spine.
The place was silent and eerie. I jumped when Danny asked in a hushed voice, “What do you suppose is down there, Marissa?”
“I don’t know,” I whispered, “but it’s spooky, isn’t it?”
He turned to look at me. “Are you OK?”
“Yes, but you felt it too, didn’t you?”
Our eyes met and he nodded; neither of us had to define what that feeling was; a primitive fear of the dark, the unknown, and the potential dangers that lurk there.
We moved on and again the shoreline changed. The escarpment had receded from the water’s edge, leaving room for scraggly pine and scrub brush to grow. The water became shallower and the lake bottom reappeared below the canoe. Danny spied a small cove and pointed to it. “Head us that way, I think there’s a bit of beach.”
He was right and within minutes we navigated the shallow water of a narrow inlet. The bottom was rocky, so stepping out of the canoe in a half meter of water we walked it onto the scrap of shore, carefully lifting it up to prevent the keel from scraping against the stones.
It was a lovely little spot and after beaching the canoe we waded in the shallows, balancing precariously on the stones beneath our feet. We didn’t talk; there was no need. After a few minutes I stepped out of the water and sat down on a large flat rock. Danny joined me and still without saying a word, put his arm around me and pulled me close. I relaxed against him and took his free hand in both of mine. Time must have passed but it seemed as if it stood still. He tightened his hold on me and sighed.
“Why didn’t we bring our bathing suits, Marissa?”
“Clearly, we weren’t thinking. We could come back with them tomorrow, though.”
“How much longer does our agreement run?”
“The rest of today, tonight, then Saturday and Sunday.”
“Sunday as well? When are you going back to the city?”
“Not until early Monday morning. If I leave at the crack of dawn I can get home, change and still be at work on time. What about you?”
“I was going to leave on Sunday but early Monday morning would work for me, too. Are you really going be stuck in the city all summer?”
That wasn’t something I wanted to think about just then. “Yes, unfortunately I am. Why?”
“I was just thinking that we should continue to ignore one another there. After all, we’ve done a decent job of it here. We’re off to such a good start, it seems a shame to stop now, and I’ll either be working, studying or both for most of the summer as well.”
“Same rules, continually adapted to the circumstances as need be.”
“Oh! ‘Same-same but different‘! Yes, that works for me.”
He turned to me with a strange expression on his face. ‘Now what?’ I wondered, but before I could say a word, he leaned over and kissed me, long and slow and sweet.
“There,” he said, “no backing out, it’s been sealed with a kiss.”
So it had, and neither of us reneged on our agreement to ignore one another at every opportunity, not for the rest of that summer, or in the intervening years.
© 2012 Cecilia Rogers All rights reserved.
Cover photo rights belong to the author and the image cannot be copied or used without permission