The exquisite pleasure of swimming across the lake with my friend P. brought up multiple thoughts about summers and how best to spend them as I rhythmically gasped for air, splashing my arms into the chopped surface of the lake and kicking as hard as I could to ward of the cold that was grinding its way into my bones. It was all I could do to keep from freezing, pushing my arms hard into the water, thinking about pleasure and laziness, being in gorgeous places and hanging out with friends in Vermont. I flashed on hikes up Mount Pisgah with the girls, afternoons under a blue sky watching Bread and Puppet performances and late night boat rides with friends, drifting for hours while the kids sang, the adults drank and we watched the moon rise over the hills. Periodically, P. and I would slow down to rest and swim leisurely as we talked, making heart shaped strokes and chatting about people and places, where we felt at home and why. I peppered her with questions about her boyfriend. I was twenty six when she was born but we are swimming partners, and we never let a summer go by without making our trek across the lake.
It’s already late. By mid-August the weather starts to cool down up here and I’ve been waiting all summer for P., who has been traveling. I took a few quick swims after running and relished the cold water, going out far enough to achieve the illusion that I was in the middle of the lake, but knowing I wasn’t even close. I didn’t dare swim across without a partner, though I’ve done it before, because I can get anxious out in the middle by myself, and my husband and kids don’t really like me doing it either.
This morning P. was determined that we should go even though it’s been cold and rainy for days. I was more than game having waited so long but we both procrastinated for a couple of hours, finally finding our nerves around eleven. We jogged the quarter mile down the dirt road to get the blood flowing but the water was still very chilly when I jumped in. It was drizzling. There were a couple of people out in kayaks but otherwise the lake was devoid of other humans. We swam hard as long as we could to get warm but it wasn’t long before we slowed into breast stroke and started talking. The green of the hills around us seemed brighter this year, maybe because the summer was a cool one. The water felt silky against my arms and legs and sweet in my mouth, but the sky was an angry gray. It was windy and the current felt like it was slowing us down because the dock on the other side did not appear to be getting closer.
“It’s weird,” P. said as we swam, “it starts to look like you’re getting close and you get all excited and then it takes a long time to actually get there.” She’s right. It’s very tricky to tell how far you have to go when you’re in the water. The only way I can tell if I’m past the halfway mark is to look back and compare the scale of the cabins on the shore I just left to the ones I’m approaching. It’s impossible to have a sense of time passing. We were definitely getting there, but she was right. The dock didn’t seem to be getting bigger fast enough.
When we finally did reach it we were too cold to get out. We crouched on rocks to rest our muscles and shiver with only our heads above the water. As we sat there panting, the cold was like an enemy gaining on us as our heart rates slowed so we decided to get on with the second leg of our journey. The other side seemed even further away and as we got out deep I suddenly felt panicked about hypothermia. I thought I might be too tired to keep swimming hard enough to stay warm. But with P. there with her gorgeous smile and chatting about whatever, my anxious mind never had a chance to overtake me.
I concentrated the rest of the way on staying warm. Our bodies were spending energy just to keep the heat in our veins, so we swam hard in spurts, enough to keep from freezing without depleting our stores. As we neared our home dock we realized the girls, my kids, were not on the dock with our towels. The thought of getting out with nothing to wrap around us, having to wipe the water off with our hands, was unthinkable. But just as we got within striking distance, they emerged from behind the trees cheering us on. The air was bitter cold on my wet skin and I shivered convulsively as I toweled off and struggled to pull on pants, and a polar fleece. I noticed my kids were in their pajamas which seemed incredible. To me the air was as cold as a winter’s day but it was only about 62 degrees out. We flitted down the road, high on endorphins, a middle aged and a much younger woman, both in wet clothes with their hair in towel turbans, and two young girls in pajamas. We must have looked a little weird to the one car that drove past us.
Even a long hot shower didn’t manage to eradicate the chill that had settled deep inside but we were exhilarated from the effort, the beauty and the excitement of our swim. “Let’s do it again tomorrow,” P. had grinned as we pulled up onto the dock, the lake dripping onto the aluminum, and I’d said yes.