I stand inside a time capsule.
Everything is exactly the same at aged 36 as it was at 16. The bespectacled moose head with a yellow scarf wrapped around its neck peers at me from its perch on the wall. Its antlers are still supporting the same fishing rods. Sagging furniture tucked into the darker recesses of the great room are draped with the same blankets. A bookshelf filled with well-read volumes stands between them. A long table sits in front of a bank of windows overlooking a disintegrating ice shed. I smell gas, mold, sand, and bacon intermingled with the heady aroma of percolating coffee. I half expect to see Jim, my first boyfriend, sitting at the table brandishing a deck of cards.
The floor boards creak and sing me a wooden song of my past. Flo looks up over the half-moon glasses perched near the end of her nose and smiles. I want to hug her tight again, but all I do is walk over and rest a hand on her shoulder. “Did you sleep alright?” she asks and pats my hand with her warm, dry one.
“Like a baby,” I say. Or, closer to the truth, like a 16-year-old. I spent the night in my old cabin. It too is like a butterfly caught in amber. It is exquisite in its shabbiness. I lifted familiar covers and crawled onto the sagging mattress, whose springs squealed with my every move. On a shelf, above my head, sat books waiting like long-lost friends; we friends stayed up late enjoying each other’s company in the dim light of a kerosene lamp, which somehow still burned with the dregs of years-old fuel. And then, finally, the sound of the soft, quiescent lap of water against a chilled and empty beach lulled me to sleep.
I almost say no to the offer of coffee. My 16-year-old self would have turned it down. However, my 36-year-old self is well on her way to becoming a caffeine addict. “Stay,” I tell her before she has a chance to get to her feet. It’s my turn to pat her hand. “Do you want a refill while I’m at it?”
“Do you even have to ask?” She smiles, picks up her knitting, and then returns her gaze to the paper. Still the multitasker, Flo retains a touch of the timelessness around her.
The boards creak a morning rhythm as I walk into the kitchen. I grab an off-white mug and pour myself a cup of the strong, bitter coffee which sits warming on the stove. Both gas fridges are running in the other room and I dig through the shelves until I find a container of cream. The thick white liquid swirls the coffee into a beckoning mocha-coloured wakeup call.
“No cream for me,” Flo calls from the other room. “I’m on a diet.” I smile. Things never change.
The back door squeaks and then bangs shut as Don walks in. He pours himself a coffee before making his way into the main room. “You’re up early,” he says and ruffles my bedhead on the way by.
He picks up the discarded Times and squints at it through thick glasses. Remarkably thick glasses. Don’s eyesight, or lack of, is legend around the lake. The grey stubble on his cheeks matches the grey in his hair. Or at least the remaining hair he has. His bald spot winks in the morning light as he concentrates on the paper. We sit, a silent coffee-drinking threesome, briefly absorbed with yesterday’s news.
I fold my section, drink the dregs from my mug, and then stare out toward the lake. “What’s on the agenda for today?” I ask.
Don blinks up at me. “Why? What do you need?”
“Just a ride across the bay—to the island.” The island, once known as Echo Island and renamed Xanadu by his brother Mel, is just over two kilometers across the lake by boat. “All you have to do is drop me off.”
He frowns. “And how were you planning on getting back?”
“I’m going to swim.”
This gets both their attention. Flo stares at me like I have just declared war on the U.S. Don’s face breaks into a grin. The one he uses when he’s caught someone in a lie. “You’re not going to swim across the bay.”
The summer I was nine I had become obsessed with the idea of swimming across the channel from the island to the Edwards’ dock on the point. It’s about twenty meters. Mel had a visitor from Chicago who used to get up every morning, don a pair of Speedos and then strapped a Bowie knife to his leg and swam the passage. He became a minor celebrity to the American cottage owners on the lake, and an idiot to the Canadians. My dad used to wonder if the knife was to ward off the small Perch hiding under the docks. My nine-year-old self thought it was the coolest thing ever, but then I was obsessed by the story of Tarzan at the time. I begged to be allowed to do the swim. My mother put the kibosh on the idea, with or without a Bowie knife. So it had remained an unrequited dream.
As an adult I came to understand that Mel’s Tarzan was, in fact, an idiot. Nevertheless, the seed had been planted and I still wanted to do the swim. But not the channel swim. That would be anticlimactic, and frankly a waste of a whole thirty seconds. I had my sights set on swimming the two kilometers from the island to the lodge. Sans Bowie knife, of course.
Today was a perfect day for it. The wind was coming from behind the island, the water was cool, and the day was hot and sunny. It took me more time to convince Don to give me a ride across the lake than it was going to take me to do the actual swim. Although he eventually agreed, I could tell that he really didn’t believe that I was serious. So early in the afternoon I put on my bathing suit, grabbed a pair of goggles and a towel, and jumped into the boat. The big motor tossed up a wake of fishtail rainbows as we sped toward the island. They were like multi-coloured memories of long afternoons spent waterskiing.
As the dark granite cliffs of the island grew closer I stuck up a hand, pointed at it, and then twirled my finger in the air. In response Don circled the island as the wind whipped my hair about my face. As we zoomed by the vertical, shadowy crags topped by mature trees I whistled. The island was much bigger than I remembered. This was an odd feeling. I had become accustomed to things appearing smaller as I aged.
The Lodge was a blurred speck across the wide bay as I snapped my goggles in place and prepared to dive into the water. To one side of me Don sat in his boat with the engine idling, waiting for me to start; to the other side, a barge filled with island people prepared to accompany me. They had already discussed how to rescue me somewhere in the middle. I could see on their faces that they thought I’d lost my mind.
It had been impossible to convince them that I didn’t need an escort. That I actually wanted to do this on my own; after all, it was only a little more than 2000 meters. But this was on my bucket list and if the only way I could do it was with an entourage, then I would suck it up and enjoy the experience.
I watched the black emptiness of the deep water slide by beneath me and the blue sky above.
Too soon I stepped on the sandy bottom of the far shore and raised my hand in thanks to the convoy of boats. I looked back at the dark smudge of the island on the horizon and in my mind ticked off another box.
Photo by Gab Halasz. All rights reserved.