The four of us had probably lost our minds. We'd been saying we were going to go skinnydipping on the last night we were there.
And we did.
"Madison." I motioned him closer, our faces silhouetted in the dying firelight. "The story is, we went down to the bath house to get showers. Because these ones suck. Got it?"
His eyebrows had jumped halfway up his forehead, and the little boy I'd known for years looked at me as though I had four heads. His expression was one of total skepticism as he opened his mouth and spoke in his characteristic boyish lisp. "Alys. Are you guys seriously going to go...naked--because if you seriously are...this is, like, a whole side of you I've never seen before..."
I laughed. "Sorry, Mo. But I don't care. I feel like a rebel. I want to. Promise you won't tell anyone."
I held out my pinky until he reluctantly clasped it with his, and I muttered thank you and affectionately touched his head. "I trust you."
Samira darted out from the shadows around the clothesline, a towel tossed over her right shoulder, and went down near the car, where Kat and Kirsten were already loudly whispering. Three more towels draped around my neck, I made my way to join them, my flip-flops slapping the gravel in the darkness. I left Madison sitting in the dim light of our smoldering campfire, looking sullen and confused--though I knew boredom would drive him into the little tent where Trevor, Bethany, and Olivia were still up playing cards; and our absence wouldn't pain him very long.
I came to the three gathered shadows that were my girlfriends and handed them each a towel.
"Don't we need a flashlight?" Samira thought aloud.
"No, no, no," I said, "they're all in the tents. Let's just go. We'll be okay."
"Guys, this is scary," Kirsten said. She grinned hugely and fumbled for our hands, 'til the four of us were standing in a tight circle, our heads close together. I looked at them and every one of them was laughing with secret, excited, terrified girlish delight; laughter that didn't stop when I broke ahead of them and started to lead the way down the long dirt road.
It had begun.
This had all taken some convincing, of course, mostly on Kirsten's part. Samira and I, the oldest two, had been planning the escapade since the day we arrived at the campsite and first jumped into the cool caress of the daytime lake. We'd been talking about skinnydipping all weekend. Kat, who's always up for anything, had agreed to go with us almost immediately. Kirsten didn't decide that she wanted to do it until the very last minute, though; and then for a moment we all thought that Samira would fall asleep on us and back out of it. But thus far, everything seemed to be playing out as planned.
We searched a little desperately for the trail that cut into the woods and led out to the lake--thought we found it, then realized that it was just another thick clump of trees. "What are you doing?!" I hissed as Kat blindly groped her way to a ditch. "That's not the trail!"
"Well, where is it?!"
"I don't know!" I clung to Kirsten's shoulder.
"Alys, you're dumb. I told you we needed a flashlight!" Samira fumed.
"Okay. Okay, okay, guys, let's go back and try to find one again--"
Kat, sparked suddenly with her usual boldness, stumbled out of the ditch. "No. Let's keep going."
"Yeah," Kirsten chimed in, "there's that bathroom right there. You can see it. There's a trail right there."
"Are you sure?" I tried squinting into the distance--I have bad eyes.
"I can't believe we're doing this," Samira giggled randomly.
Neither could I. Eia and I had been skinnydipping before, alone at my uncle's private beach in the broad, secluded daylight. It had been nothing like this. This was juvenile delinquent. This was common criminal. Indecent exposure in a public swimming facility, after hours...oh, if they caught us, who knew what they'd do to us.
There weren't many stars in the silent black sky; only a few dusty sprinkles of glitter that weren't even bright enough to call stars. The waxing moon was hiding, and the whole campground was dark--the light from campfires paling in the blackness; the vague glow of dancing flashlights growing less and less frequent as even the teenagers and the insomniacs started retiring to their tents. We had nothing to guide us but our hands and the deceptive shadows--and each other.
My elbow collided with Katia's, and in surprise I gripped it for a moment, whispering frantically. "Okay, guys. We gotta stay together now. Hold hands!" I reached out and grabbed Kirsten's, the closest to me. She grabbed Samira's, who grabbed Kat's, who cautiously dipped beneath the canopy of the trees overhead and led the chain of us down.
"Kirsten! Not too fast, not too fast..."
"Watch out. There's all these sticks right here."
"Shhh! Shut up!"
"Oh my God...what was that?"
"I'm going back!" Samira turned sharply, but we all started protesting, and I pulled her arm and drew her ear close to my mouth. "No! We're almost there. Look, you can see the light at the bottom. We're almost there."
"Hello, Mr. Bear," Kirsten said, and all four of us stopped dead and started laughing violently, groping in the darkness until we found each other's arms and pulled each other close, touching shoulders and backs and hands.
"Kirsten, why'd you have to saaay that..."
"We wouldn't know if a bear was right there--"
"Yeah, I can't see a thing out here! I can't see!"
Kirsten was laughing so hard she was wheezing, the way she does when she's really nervous and can hardly even think. Samira's voice was rising in pitch, her laugh coming in short little bursts. Kat's breathless giggle sounded like silver rain.
"We're almost there," I repeated, pointing to the barely-perceivable break in the shadows below. "Come on. I don't wanna go back."
"We've gotten this far," Kat said.
"This is so much fun," Samira said, with one of her bad looks (which I didn't have to see to be aware of).
We felt our way down the sloping trail in that darkness, hushing and scolding and clinging to each other the whole way. Katia strayed from the path for a moment and ran right smack into a tree, but we found it again and kept stumbling slowly down the rough, slanting earth, sprigs of plants brushing our ankles, branches scratching our arms. The moment our feet touched flat ground, and the scenery of the forest gave way to the shadows of picnic tables, thinly-dispersed pine trees, and the dimly-lit clearing in the distance that was the lake, all four of us breathed relief.
"Yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord," someone murmured, then laughed.
"What are we gonna say if the park rangers find us?"
"Just say we're taking a walk. We can't possibly get in trouble for walking."
I don't know whose idea it was, but we ended up stuffing the huge towels in our shirts, massive wrinkly bulges right over our abdomens.
"If anyone asks, we're pregnant!" I laughed to them.
Kat gave her towel an affectionate pat and said, "Five months."
"More like a million."
"Yeah right...they'll never believe this..."
"Well, what else can we do?"
"I say we ditch the towels."
"Oh, uh-uh! I need my towel."
"Shhh! If we don't be quiet, yall are gonna wake up the whole campground. Just shut up and keep moving."
Still leading one another by the hands, we stumbled about halfway toward the small bridge that led to the lake. By now we could see the empty, stretching wasteland of water, quiet and black and lucid, reflecting the neutrality of the sky. The water was so still that it looked rather like a dark patch of a ice or a solid black desert, instead of the lake that it was--the same lake that had rippled and swelled violently just that afternoon, quaking sunnily with the vibrations of all the happy, splashing campers. (Us included.) What had been as vivacious as an inanimate thing could be in the daylight had transformed into a silent sheet of glass in the dark.
We heard a cough.
"Shit!" someone cursed under her breath. I hid behind Kat and clawed her arm desperately, glancing quickly around as the four of us were plunged into a fit of whining, contagious fear.
"Someone's right there!"
"Look! There's a light over the water!"
"What is that? A boat?"
"There's that noise again!"
"We're dead. We're dead. Oh my God..."
"If anyone asks, we were just taking a walk to the showers here to see if they were still on."
"That's our goal. Let's just get to the bathrooms, then we'll go from there."
We shut up and crept across the bridge on tiptoe, clutching our towel-swollen stomachs and each other's arms; only then realizing that the "cough" was a rather intimidating bullfrog that sounded exactly like it was saying "Kirsten, come here" over and over again--which did not help to calm her nerves.
The wooden bath house came closer and closer in our line of vision until it was looming directly in front of us, promising relief--in more ways than one.
"Thank God," I said as we rushed up to the door and started fumbling in the dark with the knob. "I have to pee so bad."
"Good luck," Kat coughed.
"Yeah," Samira said, "they cut all the lights off here until morning. I think."
Kirsten looked at her. "Nuh-uh! They come on automatically when you walk in. Don't they?"
"I don't think so."
"Well, they better. 'Cause I gotta pee too."
"Maybe there's a switch or something." I stepped into the true blackness of the building, wrapping my arms around my body and gazing around in vain. The other three started feeling all over the warm, dry walls--"Check behind the door," Kirsten suggested.
There was no switch. Just the blinding darkness. We would have stepped back outside after that, if it hadn't been for--
"Rangers!" Samira cried.
That one word was our cue to panic. Samira swung the door shut and crouched low, peering through a little window; but Kat, Kirsten, and me scrambled deeper into the darkness and the cramped heat, pushing our way into the first stall and falling all over each other, heaving uncontrollably as we tried to contain our laughter. Prayers flitted through my head like nervous little birds.
Dear God, please--please don't let us get caught--you've done greater things than this--please God. Don't let us get--
Kirsten announced in a violent, laughing whisper, "I'm peeing my pants! I'm peeing my pants!" Kat clapped her hand over Kirsten's mouth.
I'm not sure how long we stayed there--waiting for the zipping lights to disappear into the trees, waiting for Samira to assure us that they were just regular people and not rangers so we could emerge from the stall and start breathing again. But eventually we inched the door back open and slipped through it, returning to the moist night air and the dim, reassuring light outdoors. "Close the door," I said to Kirsten. "They'll know we were here."
"You do it," she said, and walked on ahead of me.
I looked at the door for about half a second, still propped open to reveal a sliver of the dark abyss inside; then turned and hurried after my girlfriends' quickly-departing forms. Yeah right.
Creeping over the remaining paved path to the lake, guided by the light flooding from a nearby vending room, our footsteps were quick and fleeting--I swear, we barely touched the ground. With the water waiting just a few yards ahead of us and the sky opening up, black and brilliant, just beyond the trees--and the silhouettes of mountains rising in the distance--our hearts were pumping up into our throats, and we weren't watching our steps, and--bam!
Samira was the first to fall, but she dragged Kirsten down with her; and the two of them landed heavily on the beach, flailing all over each other and laughing, a tangle of arms and legs. This wasn't enough, however, to teach Kat and me. She fell down the sudden cold, stone steps--and then I did too. The four of us laid in the sand, laughing our asses off and trying to talk over each other, for about five minutes straight.
"Sorry, Samira," Kirsten said, rolling off of Samira's leg.
"That was so funny," Samira said.
"It wasn't enough that you guys fell," I said. "All four of us..."
"I'm never gonna get over that," Kat said.
As hilarious as it was, though, the lake still called.
We helped each other up from the sand, feeling our way along the stone wall until we reached a place with enough light to see by. We kicked off our flip-flops and dug our toes in the sand, and even though I began to murmur, "I can't do this, guys--I can't do this," I did. The four of us quickly stripped off pajama pants and huge T-shirts; ripped scrunchies from our hair and wrapped our arms around our bodies, glowing white against the blacks and blues of the backdrop. Our hair floated loosely around our shoulders and down our backs: Kirsten's messy pink-streaked strands, Kat's natural copper waves, and Samira's and my long, crazy curls; all framing our faces, our features distorted in the darkness.
"Alys, don't take off your bra and underwear," Eia advised me, and all of us silently consented. "I'm not," I said. "Yet." And I turned and darted in.
The lake was cool against my skin. Not cold--cool. I heard the water churning and swishing around my ankles as I waded deeper; Kat following closely, Samira and Kirsten lagging after her. "Kat's going under!" I heard Samira say sharply behind me, and sure enough Kat dipped beneath the surface and the perfect black water-mirror shattered, pervaded by ripples and tiny little bubbles. Samira followed suit and crashed raucously into the water with a splash, making Kirsten laugh and me give a tiny yelp of surprise, 'til I yanked her out by the arm and told her to shut up--the rangers would hear us! She just laughed. We all swam out further, kicking our legs against the water, shivering with excitement, our eyes shining. Without announcement I turned away from them, pulled my bra away from my breasts, and lifted it over my head; and I stepped out of my panties and bundled everything into my right hand. Samira noticed me, pointed me out, and started to laugh; and then everyone followed my example.
Freedom hit like a slap in the face.
I smiled, remembering why I loved this so much. The feeling of the water flowing around every inch of my skin, my body unburdened with the usual useless strips of cloth--the feeling that I had unbound more than just my hair and stepped away from more than just my clothes. The revelation that this was proof of something, a fear I had let go--
Our passion for life is stronger than our hesitancy towards it. We jumped in.
But oh, no metaphors, Alys. Not now.
"Don't get close to me!" Kat screeched, laughing, when I drifted too near to her.
"I can't believe we're doing this," I said. "This is just like the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, what they did--"
"I know, I know!" Samira said gleefully. "I was just thinking that!"
"Alys, hold my clothes for a minute. I'm trying to get my underwear off..." Kirsten handed me her bra and struggled for a moment, then took it back from me. (Though, by the end of our swim, it was at the bottom of the lake anyway.)
"Look at the stars!" I kept insisting to them. Crossing our arms over our chests and tilting our heads back in the water, we did. It wasn't that they were amazing that night or anything--the clouds were still concealing most of them, a fact we could infer from the dusty streaks of purple strewn across the sky. But the view was still a powerful one. It looked like a huge dome above us--like we were all just part of a little snowglobe beneath that wide-open black sky, those black mountains that held us in and kept us from spilling out across the world; four female bodies dangling freely in a mini-ocean of that wide-open black water. Four female bodies who were more than bodies--who were hearts and spirits; four independent souls that at that moment were flowing together, sharing the water, the air, and the irrevocable memory. The friendship.
There was Samira, my long-time friend, and so close to me that even this was nothing new to us--Samira who I loved no matter what happened, because she may as well have been my sister. There was Katia with all her complexity, constantly teaching me something, and so close to me that I could have told her literally anything. There was Kirsten, practically a member of my family, and so close to me that the ways her kind and crazy heart had affected me had become countless. There were my girls. Just them and me.
I thought of the four Ya-Yas and what their story had said when they were sneaking out into the sweating night air and climbing naked into their city water supply. What Vivi had thought about her best friends as they broke the rules, broke the stillness in the water, and broke the stone in each other's hearts.
They seemed to glow from within, like there were lanterns inside their bodies. They looked very old to her, and very young all at once. They looked both invincible and utterly, utterly fragile. Their bodies were the density and weight that anchored her, that made her more real. She looked at them and loved them and was flooded with gratitude.
I did the same.
When Samira got cold and the rest of us got scared--which didn't take very long--we pulled our saturated undergarments back on and waded, still laughing, talking, and whispering, from the murky water. Clambering out onto the sand, we slipped back into our sandy pants and shirts and sandals and started back down the path with our towels slung openly around our necks. The four of us spread out in a row, walking side-by-side, so close that we touched. The crime had been committed and cleaned up, successfully--we were safe now.
"I wonder what would've happened if we got caught," Kirsten said.
Kat laughed. "It's like, they find a bunch of clothes and shoes just lying on the beach..."
"Alys, you have to write this all down in your diary, so we'll never forget it!" Samira said.
"Oh, I will," I said. "You know I will."
My friends and I crept campward down the warm black pavement, and Kirsten grabbed my hand, and the mountain lake, forever changed, bid us a fond farewell through the thick, sweet, gorgeous August night.
And I did.