My boyfriend of 15 months and I are no longer together.
It happened swiftly, a huge fallout last Wednesday night. My two best friends swept in to help me pack on Thursday night, and by Friday afternoon the bulk of my possessions was stored away downtown in a 5x5x9 box. By 9 p.m. Friday night, I was in a car with my friend D. heading north to her lake house, the distance between me and the city widening with every minute. I let myself cry, hard.
After five hours of driving, D. kicked the Subaru into second gear for the last push over the ridge that guards Lake George and rolled down the windows. The crisp, clean mountain air filled the car. I stuck my head out the window like a dog, closing my eyes. Soft forest beds of brown pine needles, ice cold streams, quiet solitude.
We pulled into the gravel driveway, gently shutting the doors. I followed D. down the stone steps and inside the old wooden front door of the house. I was immediately rushed by a peculiar smell of old, seasoned wood, and rag rugs. It smelled like my great aunt’s house, but infused with the fresh smell of the forest. D. walked ahead of me into the dark foyer, yanking on old chains to turn on the lights. All around us on shelves and in corners were small vignettes of old blue china, brass candle holders, button-eyed dolls, musty books, a table crowded with bottles of sunscreen.
Scent is the sense that most powerfully evokes memories, and now memories washed over me. Of childhood, the woods, summer camp in the North Carolina mountains, a little hotel in Chile, tea parties in a tiny playhouse in the garden, listening to bull frogs croaking by the pond at night.
I slept soundly that night, which was good because we had a full day in front of us. It started with the baying of a black lab outside my window. I rubbed my eyes and slid open the curtains to see the azure lake framed by the summer trees, with the dark green of mountains rising behind.
The comforting sounds of morning conversation drifted in the window. I woke D. up, and we padded down the stairs to join D.’s dad, her little brother, her stepmom, her grandmother, and her cousins for breakfast on the back porch overlooking the lake. I met Jetta, the black lab, and Ginger, the yellow lab who nuzzled their noses into my hands before seeking more exciting things.
D. told me a bit about this house over black coffee and eggs. It’s a house-like cabin, which is to say, it has all the rooms and a kitchen like a house, but has zero insulation, just wooden walls and beams crossing the tall ceilings. It was built in the late 1870’s for the D. family, and they’ve owned it since. Now the houses that line this shore of the lake, with names like Random, Bittersweet, Fern Cliff, and Forest Ledge, and the one we were staying in, Chalet, almost all belong to an extended family network dating back at least five generations. Walk through the house, and you’ll find that almost nothing has been removed or added in 150 years. The blue china we ate our meals off of (“It’s not microwave safe.”), the pictures with termite holes burrowed in the corners, the books, the piano and powder puff with the powder still in it have not budged in all the time. It’s the very definition of benign neglect. Or benign utter charm.
After breakfast, we changed into our bathing suits, slathered on some sunscreen, and padded down the mossy stone steps to the boathouse.
It was perfect outside, a balmy 85 degrees, the sky embellished with fluffy clouds. I considered the water for a while, shifting my weight back and forth on my bare feet. I looked at the ladder at the end of the dock. Then I made the decision, and I ran and leaped, limbs flailing, into the water. I opened my eyes underwater, and looked at the shining white of my skin against the green-black depths. When I surfaced, I paddled lazily on my back, and watched the shadows and patches of light slide across the piny mountains.
D., her cousin, Dennis, her little brother and I swam out of our little alcove and around to Forest Ledge, scrambled out of the water and over the rocks to a mini cliff. One by one we leaped off the ledge, suspended in the air for a moment before plunging into the clear water. We did it again and again, before we finally tired and swam back to the dock.
D. and I packed a picnic of cherries, chips and guac and Vermont beer, and we walked past the other houses, stopping to chat with renters and neighbors, and crossed the small bridge to a little island. There we lounged on the mossy rocks under the small pines and watched the boats and jet skies cut swaths through the water. We talked. We kept talking while we swam, and while we kayaked slowly along the shore. We didn’t talk while I tried unsuccessfully to ski, but we got back to talking more while we hung out before dinner with our gin and tonics. We’ve been friends for a while, D. and I, but we hadn’t really gotten a good chance to really spend time with each other in a long, long time.
D. found an old croquet set, which was really two or three croquet sets jumbled together. We grabbed our gin tonics and took it outside to the back to set up. I rummaged through while she Dennis put the wickets into the ground, and found an old instruction manual. It was from 1887, a fact which D. just shrugged at. “It’s not that we don’t think it’s cool, it’s just that everything in this house is old. Everything.” I flipped through and read aloud particularly awesome excerpts.
‘Charming!’ is the universal exclamation of all who play or witness the playing of CROQUET…One prime feature of CROQUET is that it is an outdoor sport in which ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls may alike engage. Hitherto, while men and boys have had their healthful means of recreation in the open air, the women and girls have been restricted to the less exhilarating sports of indoor life; or, if they ventured out, all their participation in the healthful outdoor amusement and exercise was the tame and unsatisfactory position of lookers-on.”
“When one considers how much real enjoyment and healthful exercise from such a collection of simple articles, that they are a protection from evil influences by keeping all members of the household ranks, and that with rational amusements at home, no one will be inclined to seek irrational ones abroad, we think a great inducement is presented for the general adoption of croquet.
In short, “We are allowing women to get out of the kitchen and actually have some fun. Yay for us! Also, get the whole family involved so they don’t go out and get in trouble with the boys.”
Our game proceeded at a leisurely pace. The light turned golden, and the only sounds were those of the birds, the neighbors talking on their front porch (though we couldn’t see them through the trees), and the low drone of boats returning home to their docks.
After dinner, the whole family and I were sitting in the living room and talking, and I started to explore the bookshelf behind me. I pulled old tomes off one by one, looking for edition dates, each more fantastic than the next: 1940, 1918 and 1886 all came up. I found an edition of Vanity Fair from the 1860’s, and read passages from an epic about an army crossing the desert, with the “indifferent stars” above them. The whole family got into it, pulling more books off the shelf.
“Gosh, I haven’t looked at that bookshelf in probably thirty years,” D.’s father said. The whole family is so used to growing up surrounded by these old things, that they failed to even notice anymore.
D.’s grandmother, who’s been coming to this house since she married in the forties, pulled out an old album and showed us black and white pictures of serious-faced family members lounging on the same porch, under the same Virginia creeper, toddlers in elaborate white dresses sitting together on logs, the family posing together in front of their brownstone on west 57th Street in New York City.
I was utterly amazed by this family history. I loved that they had always had this home base. They could pack their things and move, shedding possessions, but nothing every changed or moved in this house that they came back to every summer. The faded art deco posters tacked to the wall and even the curtains just stayed the same, like an old friend waiting for you every year in the summer.
When everyone went to bed, D. and I took her dad’s iPad outside with the Star Walk app and studied the clear, bright stars and the Milky Way showing up ever-so-faintly against the inky blue sky. No city light pollution here. The next morning we started the day with yoga on the water break.
By the time we left the next afternoon to go back to the city, I was utterly refreshed. No, we hadn’t taken showers all weekend. Why bother when the the house’s water was being pumped straight from the lake in which we had just swam? Yes, there were insects hiding in the corners of the stairwell, moths fluttering at the lights–the walls were only nominal barriers between us and the outdoors. There were no TV’s, and no reason to ever put on our shoes. The only concern was from which way the wind was coming so it could catch the sails of our little boat and push us across the lake.
There was no reason to worry or think. Just float in the cool, clean water of the lake and dream.