We were like Betty and Veronica in those comics we read endlessly—practically identical except for our hair. Andrea’s was dark and I was redheaded. Her skin tanned easily and I worried about sunburns, but we were the same height and our bodies were lean and undeveloped.
We met when we were assigned to the same canoe at summer camp. Andrea took the stern and I was in the bow. As we drifted on the placid lake, she said, “If we paddled hard, how far do you think we’d get? Before anyone caught us?”
It was the closest thing to love at first sight I’ve ever found. At summer camp, the days are long and friendships are quick and intense. After that canoe ride, Andrea and I sat beside each other at meals, played on the same sports teams, and slept in adjacent top bunks. And we were always the last to fall asleep. If I closed my eyes, Andrea would stretch out one of her legs and kick something over on my shelf: my flashlight, or the bottle of calamine lotion my mom had packed for me. Something to knock me awake.
“Jess,” she whispered. “Wake up.” Her voice was quiet but demanding, and it forced me to open my eyes, to focus in the dark, to stay in our private world of wakefulness.
During the day, we participated. That’s what we called it—“participating”—imitating our counselor, Lisa, and her sunny way of speaking. In the past I’d enjoyed participating, but that summer, I hated everything: swim lessons, nature walks, dodgeball, arts and crafts, tennis, basketball, canoeing. Most of all, I hated horseback riding, which involved getting saddle burn as your horse walked listlessly around a ring. The horses were so tired and used to their work that we could drop the reigns and they would continue at the same pace, retracing the same circuit. Andrea said riding one of those horses was like having sex with a dead person. She’d never had sex with anyone, living or dead, but she had a gift for a memorable turn of phrase. She kicked uselessly at the horse’s sides, flicked the reigns, yelled, “Vamos! Caballo!” She always got in trouble for that.
Other girls fawned over the horses—brushed their manes, fed them apples, kissed their noses—but I didn’t like to touch those big, sad animals. The camp rented them from a rancher who provided horses that were too old to be of any use to him. Some had sagging bellies from bearing foal, others were scarred with bug bites. Sometimes they would sweat so much that a white lather foamed along their necks. And they weren’t gentle like the horses in books. They kicked and bit each other furtively, the way children abuse each other when their parents aren’t watching.
What I mean is, Andrea and I were thirteen and beginning to outgrow this daylight world of lessons and games and sing-alongs. We were sick of having our days parsed into hour-long blocks, sick of being led from one activity to the next. We were hungry for feral time. That’s why we loved the dark.
We remained awake until long after the other girls had finished brushing their teeth, trying on each other’s clothes, and talking about which boys they liked. We stayed up even after Lisa had flicked off the light and left the cabin, on her way to plan the next day’s activities. Andrea and I stayed up until the sky was so black that each star was outlined against it, sharp and bright like scraps of metal. That’s how we knew it was time.
We changed from our pastel pajamas into jeans and hooded sweatshirts, and put on running shoes that we’d turned from white to black with a permanent marker—my mom would freak out about that when I got home. We dressed quietly so none of the other girls would hear us—those girls were our friends during the day, but we didn’t want them to know what we did at night. They might tell on us. Or worse, they might want to join us.
We opened the cabin door and ducked out, careful to keep close to the small, wooden building. We couldn’t let ourselves be seen by any of the counselors who sat on benches outside with flashlights and first-aid kits and boxes of Kleenex, ready to deal with bleeding noses, stomachaches, homesickness. We slipped through the night as silently as fish through water, skidding between cabins until we were far from where the other kids slept. In the dark, we felt brave. We were no longer part of that camp world. Or rather, at night, the camp itself changed to accommodate us. It ceased to be an ordered, regimented place, where we ate at the same time every day, where we sang songs after lunch, where we played sports after singing. At night, the infrastructure for these activities—the dining hall, the soccer field, the lake—seemed mysterious.
Our favorite place to go was the horse’s field. We crawled along the barbed-wire fence of the camp’s perimeter, rolled down a steep hill past the boys’ cabins, and came to the corral: a locked tack shed and a ring of close-clipped grass used for riding lessons. The horses were kept here during the day, but each night, when the lessons and trail rides were done, they were let out—“set free!” we called it—into an open field where they grazed and slept. There was nothing romantic about this field during the day: It buzzed with mosquitoes, and smelled of the overflowing septic tank. But at night, these things could be ignored. At night, the field was full of moon.
To get there, we passed the corral and went through a small patch of forest. We followed trails the horses had made through the trees and, because we never brought flashlights, had to feel our way, our hands gripping rough branches, our feet moving slowly over dirt and rocks. I’ve never thought that I have good hearing, but on those nights, I heard everything: distant coyotes, insects circling my body, my own breath.
I was only scared once. Andrea and I moved through the densest part of the forest, along a path so narrow that branches scraped my face. No moonlight could reach us, and I couldn’t see anything. I followed the sounds of twigs cracking under Andrea’s shoes. I felt the thrill of my heart in my chest.
Then there was silence. I couldn’t hear Andrea’s breathing or her steps.
“Andrea?” I figured this was a joke. “Andy?” I whispered, using the nickname she hated.
There was no reply. I held my breath and tried to quiet my body, but my heart seemed to be lodged between my ears.
“Andrea!” I screamed, and that’s when she grabbed me from behind and put her hand over my mouth.
“You chickenshit,” she laughed. “Do you want us to get caught?”
I could feel her heart against my back. “You’re a bitch.”
“Shh.” She still had her arms around me. “Look.”
She turned my head toward the outlines of the horses, ghostly and elegant against the black sky. At night, it was easy to forget how ordinary they were. Or rather, at night, we could see the beauty of their flawed bodies. They stood together, some of them asleep, some eating, and we could see the breath from their wide nostrils. They looked like shadows, not entirely real.
We approached the horses quietly, with the single-mindedness of lovers. It was as though Andrea and I had created them, as though they were our secret, a gift we’d given each other. They had a quiet kind of bravery, a grace I’ve rarely seen since.
The only time we had to ourselves during the day was the hour-long rest period. That’s when our counselor would throw on her bikini and lie in the sun. Any spare moment she had, Lisa would try to get tan lines from all the hemp jewelry she wore. She arranged her limbs on a red towel, closed her eyes behind her sunglasses, and drifted into a silent, more grown-up world. We envied the way she looked, so pretty and still.
All the girls in our cabin followed Lisa, dragging their towels out onto the grass beside hers. Andrea and I did the same, but we laid down our towels away from the others and spent the hour reading from Andrea’s extensive Archie collection. We adored the swerving of Archie’s affection from Betty to Veronica and back, the way competition pervaded the friendship between the blonde and the brunette. These things seemed subtle and full of meaning.
“Veronica is his beast-lover.” Andrea sounded wise and resigned, using a term she’d picked up from her older sister. “Once a person finds their beast-lover, that’s it. They can never escape.”
Neither of us had any experience with any kind of lover. Some of the other girls in our cabin—Lena Bindman and Nicky Jmaeff—had kissed boys, then described the experience in detail for us. But we weren’t interested in the boys our age. They were as thin as we were, their voices sounded like our own, and they traveled in packs like stray dogs. Instead, we liked the older boys, the ones we saw talking to Lisa. They were tall and muscular and wore the timeless uniform of camp counselors: bandanas tied around their heads, T-shirts tucked in the back pockets of their baggy shorts. They had a pale line of skin at their hips where the sun had not reached and, if their shorts hung low enough, this paleness could be glimpsed.
Once we saw Zack, the most beautiful guy at camp, throw his arm over Lisa’s shoulder and say, “Hey, you.” After that, Andrea and I lay on our towels—comic books scattered around us, the sun forcing us to squint—and imitated them.
“Hey, you. Hey, you,” we’d say, switching roles, practicing for when it was our turn.
At first, the horses didn’t like our nightly visits. They sidestepped away from us when we approached, and each kept a wide, dark eye on us. But we didn’t mind. We never felt we owned them, or that they owed us. It was enough to be outside, to be awake. To be free to watch them move through the tall grass. To listen to their knees crack as they took long, gorgeous steps.
After about a week, they didn’t mind if we touched their flanks, their heavy bellies, the ridge of bone along their backs. We cupped their rough chins in our palms, and felt the softness of their noses. Putting my hands against their warm skin made me feel like a thief, stealing something I didn’t deserve.
This was all we were doing when we were caught. Andrea and I were running our fingers through the mane of a horse we called Hell Bitch, though her real name was something less memorable. We were pulling burrs from her hair when a flashlight shone in our eyes.
Someone yelled, “Who is that?” and I recognized the voice. It was Lisa, but she didn’t sound like her usual, sunny self. Andrea and I froze. We stood perfectly still as though we could pretend we were horses, asleep standing up. Then, in the same instant, we ran. Our sprint spooked the horses and they bolted, too, kicking up dirt.
We heard Lisa and someone else screaming at us to stop, but instinct drove us toward the forest. We were fast and I thought we’d make it, but then I felt someone grab my hood and a handful of my hair. The sweatshirt choked me, and Lisa shone her flashlight in my face. “Hey you,” she said.
“Look at this,” said another familiar voice—it belonged to a blond counselor named Dahlia, one of the camp beauties. She held Andrea by the wrist. “Two sneak-outs.”
“I didn’t think you’d do something like this, Jessie.” Lisa’s face was so close to mine that I could smell the stale hot chocolate on her breath. “Andrea maybe, but not you.”
“Sorry’s not good enough. Sneaking out is illegal.”
“We’re going to have to call the police,” said Dahlia. “We’ll have to inform the RCMP.”
I was almost sure that wasn’t true. I was almost sure they were making it up. But somehow, at night, it seemed harder to distinguish the truth from everything else.
“No. Let’s not be too hard on them.” Lisa still held me by the hair. “We won’t call the police.”
“We’ll go easy on you,” said Dahlia, and it occurred to me that they were enjoying themselves. It occurred to me that Andrea and I had only done what was expected of us.
“We won’t soak you with the fire hose,” said Dahlia. “We won’t even make you run laps around the soccer field.”
Lisa let go of my hair and threw her arm around my shoulder. “Where were you going, anyway? Who were you going to visit?”
I didn’t understand the question. “No one.”
“You can tell me.” Lisa pulled me toward her, and spoke into my ear. “Which boys were you going to see?”
“Was it Jason Lazarick?” said Dahlia. “That kid’s hot.”
Lisa and Dahlia laughed, which didn’t surprise me. What was alarming was that Andrea laughed along with them.
“So it was Jason.” Lisa shook me. “What were you going to say to him? What were you going to do?”
“I know what they wanted to do.” Dahlia’s voice had a malice she would never have exhibited during the day. “I think these girls should crawl back to their cabin. I think these little sluts should lick the ground.”
I thought it was a joke, until Lisa shoved my back and almost knocked me over.
“We weren’t going to visit Jason,” I said, facing away from her.
“Shut up, Jess,” Andrea hissed at me. She was on her hands and knees.
“We weren’t going to see anyone.” My voice sounded loud against the soft noise of the forest—the creak of tree branches and rustling of leaves. “We just wanted to see the horses,” I said. “We just wanted to be together.”
“‘We just wanted to be together,’” Dahlia imitated me. “That’s fucking sick.”
Then one of them—I think it was Lisa—kicked the back of my knees and I fell to the ground.
“Come on,” she said. “Crawl.”
After we were caught, we stopped going to see the horses. Andrea seemed to get over it.
“It’s not like they’re dead.” She put her arm around me. “We could go to the corral right now.”
But watching the horses during the day was not the same, and she knew it. She rested her head on my shoulder. “I know what we can do.”
We decided to sneak out to the lake, where we’d met drifting in that canoe. The lake was easy to reach from our cabin—we had only to go down a grassy slope to arrive at the waterfront—but if we were caught there, we’d be in real trouble. No one was allowed near the water without supervision. There were stories about a boy who’d drowned years ago, and who haunted the lake now. They said he was half-human and half-fish, and if you went near the water at night, he would drag you to the bottom. They said he was lonely and wanted company.
But Andrea and I had outgrown that kind of story, so we came up with a plan. The lakefront was blocked off at night by a metal fence with a gate that was locked each evening. We inspected it during the day and determined that if we lay flat on the ground, we could just fit under the gate.
The first night we tried it, I slid on my stomach, making myself lithe and long as a cat. Andrea waited for me, already on the other side. I could feel the sharp edges of the fence catch my clothes, but I made it. That locked gate meant that if anyone noticed we were missing from our bunks, no one would expect to find us here. On the other side, we felt safe and alone.
We sat on the dock and looked out at the lake. It was not as striking as watching a herd of horses—nothing was like coming upon that wildness. But it was something. The water was calm and black and lapped gently at the wood, made a sucking sound as it hit the tires that kept the dock afloat. Lights from cottages and campgrounds along the shore seemed to rest on the water’s surface.
Andrea untied her blackened running shoes and peeled off her socks to reveal her slim, pale feet. Then she rolled up her pant hems and let her legs dangle over the edge of the dock. “Hey.” She turned to me. “The water’s warm.”
“Not really. It just feels that way ’cause the air is cold.”
She stood up on the dock, water dripping from her feet to the wood, and began to take off her clothes. She pulled her sweatshirt over her head and took off her layers of shirts with it. The skin of her arms, chest, and stomach seemed to pick up the light of the moon. She unbuttoned her jeans and kicked them off. Her cotton underwear came off last, and she tossed it onto the pile of her clothes. She looked white and fragile against the sky.
Once, years later, I began to tell this story to my husband, but stopped at this point.
“Okay,” he said. “So you’re at the lake. She takes off her clothes. Then what?”
“Nothing,” I replied. “That’s it.”
I didn’t trust him with this story. I worried he would read it as only sexual.
In truth, I noticed Andrea’s body, but mostly to compare it with my own. I watched as she stepped to the edge of the dock, and wondered which one of us would later be considered beautiful.
When she dived, her body shattered the glassy surface. The water was so dark that for a few seconds, I couldn’t see her. I was alone. I held my breath until her head burst through the surface, a ghost returned from the other side.
“Jess!” She was out of breath and loud and laughing. “Come on!”
I was already pulling my arms out of my sweatshirt. I left my clothes in a pile beside hers. I didn’t dive, but slid off the dock and splashed in. The water was good. It felt as though the lake had been waiting for us, had stored the sun’s warmth inside itself in expectation of our visit.
I put my head under for as long as I could, and when I came up for air, Andrea said, “You’re a fish.”
I knew what she meant. Our pale bodies moving through the black water shimmered like they were covered in scales. Her dark hair was pasted to her head, and I said, “You’re an eel.”
During the day, there were reasons to avoid swimming: the algae in the water, the imagined threat of leeches, and the boys who splashed us and assessed our bodies in our swimsuits. But at night, even the algae didn’t bother me. I liked when the soft, green arms wrapped themselves around my legs. And I wasn’t afraid of the possibility that a fish might glide past me, its cold body brushing against mine. At night, I was a fish. I was made to swim. Andrea and I dived under the surface again and again and counted the seconds we managed to stay underwater—twelve Mississippi, thirteen Mississippi—then burst above the surface and shouted our best time. We swam out as far as we could, as fast as we could, to where the water was deep. Andrea wrapped her arms around me, tugging me farther. We held each other, laughing, our skin slick, our hearts pounding in time with each other.
That night, nothing bad happened to us. We swam until we were tired, then dog-paddled lazily back to the dock. We climbed out of the water, shivering, and got dressed. Then we snuck back into our cabin and changed into pajamas. We were exhausted and happy. We fell asleep with our hair still wet, leaving stains on our pillows.
Every night we snuck down to the lake, and every night we took off our clothes and swam. I got up the courage to dive in, and felt the water hit my face. We didn’t care about making noise—we felt we were safe—so we played tag in the water. Andrea started the game by pushing me and yelling, “You’re it!”
I swam toward her and smacked her shoulder. “No, you’re it!”
It was stupid to play with only two people, but we didn’t care. We liked swimming and the fact that we weren’t supposed to be swimming. Andrea splashed toward me, and I kicked away from her, and that’s when we heard it.
“‘You’re it!’ ‘You’re it!’”
It was a voice that imitated ours but didn’t belong to us. I couldn’t see where it came from.
“No, you’re it,” said another voice, deeper this time, and I turned toward the sound. I had been looking at the shore, expecting to see one of the camp’s staff members, but these voices came from the water. From a small metal fishing boat, about fifteen feet away. There were two men in the boat, one at the stern and one at the bow. One of them held oars and rowed toward us.
“Who is that?” Andrea managed to steady her voice.
“Just a couple drunken sailors,” said the rower. “A couple lonesome fishermen.”
I wanted to get out of the water. There was no ladder to climb onto the dock, but Andrea and I could have hoisted ourselves up. Or we could have swum in toward the shore, where it was shallow enough to stand, and simply walked out of the water. We could have done that, except that we were naked.
As the boat neared, the aluminum sides picked up light from the moon. The boat had no motor and the man who rowed had to face away from us in order to move toward us. The first thing I noticed was his thin back and bony profile when he turned his head to ask, “And who are you?”
We didn’t answer. We watched as they drew closer. Neither Andrea nor I appeared to move, though under the surface we kicked furiously.
The men looked about twenty or twenty-one, maybe older. They wore shorts and T-shirts, despite the cold night air. One of them drank from a bottle of something. I’d never had a drink in my life, so I couldn’t tell by the color or even the label what was in the bottle.
“Come on, ladies,” said the one with the oars. He had high cheekbones and eyes set deep in his face. “You’re not going to tell us your names?”
“You haven’t told us yours,” said Andrea.
“I’m Scott.” He pointed with the end of the oar toward his companion. “And this is my brother, Gareth.”
They didn’t look like brothers. Gareth had a face wide like a moon, hair cut close to his head, and muscle bunched along his arms and neck. He was the one holding the bottle, and he raised it to salute us. The liquid sloshed inside.
“Hi, Scott. Hi, Gareth.” Andrea was beginning to take on the flirty, confident tone Lisa used when she talked to the guys her age. “I’m Andrea.”
“Your friend isn’t very friendly,” said Scott, smiling at me and leaning his elbow on the boat’s misshapen gunnel.
“Her name’s Jessie,” said Andrea. “And she’s shy.”
“That’s okay.” Gareth’s voice was deeper and softer than his brother’s. “Shy’s all right.”
“Maybe you can help us, ’cause we have a bit of a problem,” said Scott. “Show them your problem, Gare.”
Gareth seemed to lunge at us, faster than I expected his big body to move. I splashed away from him like a skittish animal, until I realized he was only stretching out his arm. He held his hand out, palm up—a fishhook was embedded in his first two fingers. There was no blood, but the hook was lodged deep in his flesh, fastening his fingers together.
“Accident,” said Gareth, as though that explained it.
“My brother’s an idiot,” added Scott.
“Maybe we could get the nurse,” I said, even though I knew that was a bad idea.
“This is our nurse.” Scott nodded to the bottle. “He’s going to drink the whole thing and then we’re going to rip that hook right out.”
Gareth pulled his hand away from us and rested it in his lap, as though it were something he’d stolen from the bottom of the lake, a treasure he wanted to keep safe.
Scott kept smiling. “But we’re willing to share, aren’t we, Gareth? You girls want to join us? You care for a drink?”
Andrea’s eyes were on Scott’s face. “I don’t know.”
“We’re not even supposed to be awake now,” I said.
“Who says?” Scott laughed. “You’re grown-ups. You can do what you want.”
He couldn’t have seriously believed this. Andrea and I were thirteen, and we looked it.
“And you’re probably cold.” Gareth dropped his gaze to my bare shoulders. “We got towels in the boat. You can dry off.”
“It’s warm.” My throat was dry. “The water’s warm.”
“Not really.” He kept his eyes on me. “It just feels that way.”
“Who wants to row around in a boat all night?” said Andrea. “That sounds boring.”
“We’re not just rowing around.” Scott pointed across the lake, toward blackness. “We’re going to the reeds.”
Andrea put one hand on the boat’s metal edge. “What’s that?”
“You’ve never been there?” Scott leaned toward her. “The reeds are really tall. You take a boat through and it’s like being in a jungle.”
“If we did go with you,” she said, “we’d have to be back soon. Before it gets light.”
“That’s cool,” said Scott.
Andrea looked at me and there was brightness, a visible excitement, leaping from her face. Then she held the boat’s metal sides with both hands and said, “You guys have to close your eyes.”
Neither of them did. They watched as she pulled herself, naked and dripping, into the boat. Gareth handed her a towel and she wrapped it around her body. She was shivering. “Come here,” said Scott, and she sat beside him. He put his arm around her and whispered something in her ear that made her laugh.
I was used to following Andrea, so I swam toward the boat. I wanted to climb in, to be with her. I also wanted to row through the reeds. I imagined reaching out my hand to touch them, and I wanted to hear the dry clicking sound they’d make as a boat passed through. And I was curious about something else, too. I had no desire to try whatever they were drinking from that bottle, but I wondered how Gareth’s mouth tasted.
He leaned toward me, his pale face reflecting the feeble light. “What’s your name again?”
“Jessie.” I could smell the liquor on his breath. “Jessica.”
“You want a hand, Jessica?” He stretched out his arm and I would have taken it, if he hadn’t offered the hand with the fishhook. The metal piercing his skin, the hook ready to bite into mine.
“Come on,” he said. “You scared?”
“Jess.” Andrea waved to me as though she were far away. “Come on.”
“Come here, little miss shy,” said Scott. “Little miss scaredy-cat.”
Everyone in the boat laughed, but I watched only Andrea’s face. In the darkness, I could almost see how she would look as an adult, how her features would shift and age. She already seemed older than me, ready to go wherever these guys would take her.
My voice came out too loud and absurdly polite. “No, thank you.”
“Hey.” Andrea sounded more angry than afraid. “Don’t just fucking ditch me.”
“You don’t have to go.”
“What’s up with your friend?” Scott spoke into her wet hair. “What’s her problem?”
Gareth shrugged and took another drink. He said nothing, and I was grateful for his silence. I turned and swam toward the shore. I could hear the boat creak as it moved away, the wooden oars knocking against its sides. I glided past the dock, and when the water became shallow enough, I stood up. I could hear Andrea laughing, but the sound was distant and I didn’t turn around. I wondered if Gareth could see my pale back as I emerged from the water. I hoped he could.
I want to say that I was concerned over Andrea’s safety. I want to say that I did the smart thing, and woke Lisa, and asked for help. I want to say that I spent the rest of the night awake and anxious. But I didn’t. I put on my clothes and felt them stick to my wet skin. Then I crawled back to the cabin, and climbed onto my bunk. I was so tired that I fell asleep in seconds and I slept until morning. I don’t know what time Andrea got in, but she was in bed when Lisa woke us for breakfast. And I don’t know what happened in that boat after I abandoned it. Andrea never told me.
Our friendship didn’t end. She and I continued to spend every day together—suntanning with the other girls, participating in basketball and nature walks and arts and crafts. The next summer, we were again in the same cabin, but we each made a new best friend. The summer after that, we got boyfriends.
I think of her only occasionally now, the few times I allow myself to see a man I know. This man and I, we meet at night, at the edge of our ever-expanding city. We meet away from our daylight lives of jobs and spouses and children. We meet where suburban development bleeds into countryside. Out there, the houses are half-built, and the city has yet to put in streetlights. We park on a road without sidewalks, on pavement that crumbles away to gravel. When we turn off our car engines, everything goes dark and we find each other through sound alone. I walk toward the click of his car door closing and he moves toward the jangle of my keys. We reach each other through the noise of our shoes on the pavement, and through habit, and through long friendship. Finding his familiar smell out there is like coming upon those horses at night: a moment of stolen grace, of beauty we don’t deserve. I slip my hands under his jacket, his shirt—my hands swim toward his skin. Then we hold each other, this man and I. We press our chests together and feel the identical thrum of our dark hearts.