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Forbidden Waters

ISSUE:  Winter 1988

Her name was Eleanore, but a name like Jean or Jo would have suited her better. She was a lean woman, with short blond hair and narrow blue eyes that would have been at home in a man’s face. Eleanore seems like a name for a matronly woman, a woman like my mother was then, plump and soft-eyed. I saw Eleanore only that one time, yet her features are as clear to me now, years later, as the features of people I know well. I can even picture her hands on the oars, her long, tan fingers, fingernails filed straight across.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is a story about reservoirs, those special bodies of water that are set aside for drinking water and protected by law. There was a reservoir near the house where I grew up, and there is a reservoir near the house my husband and I have just bought. This reservoir is forbidden to swimmers, boaters, and fishermen, forbidden to everything, except, perhaps, looking. No Trespassing signs are posted all around, but the signs are old and there is a path along the shore made by trespassers before us. The reservoir of my childhood was forbidden to swimmers and picnickers, but licensed fishermen were allowed to cast their lines from the shore, and some were even given permits to keep rowboats there.

I never liked fishing, for itself, but I enjoyed going fishing with my father. Sometimes we cast from a favorite spot on shore; sometimes we borrowed the rowboat of someone he knew from work. Fishing is one of the few things in the world where you can sit and do nothing and nobody bothers you. You don’t even have to talk.

The water level in the reservoir was controlled by a dam at the far end. The water was pumped to the city, an hour away. The houses near the reservoir got drinking water from their own wells. Ours had a high iron content and everything white that we owned looked as if it had been rinsed in tea. People who lived in our town and commuted to the city to work got to drink the reservoir water during the day, but no one in my family did. My father taught social studies at the high school in a neighboring town, and my mother didn’t work at all. This was in the late fifties, and it wasn’t peculiar then for a college-educated woman, like my mother, not to work. She had stayed home to raise her family, and even though I, the youngest, was in school all day, she still stayed home. It was almost as if she hadn’t realized her children had grown up, and everyone was too tactful to point it out to her.

The water in the reservoir fluctuated according to rainfall and according to the needs of the city. One year the water was so high it drowned all the young trees on the periphery. During one drought the reservoir was emptied. All that was left was the original stream that fed it, finding its way through the huge depression. Someone built a stepping-stone path across the belly, and grass grew, like a field. But that was an unusual year. For most of the time, and for the year that matters to this story, the water came up to the top of the concrete footings for the bridge.

I am certain that my mother never knew where we actually went, when my father and I set off together, wearing our most disreputable clothes. If she had seen our favorite fishing spot, she probably would not even have let my father go, for we had to climb over the bridge railings, edge along the concrete footings, then scramble over some boulders to get there. This was the spot, my father said, where the water was deepest. Here were the pools where the bass lurked, those elusive fish whose name even now gives me the chills, for I remember how my father used to say it, his voice rising and falling as he spun out the vowel, his eyes widening with the sound. He almost never caught any, however. In fact he rarely caught any fish from shore, and what he caught—mostly sunnies—he usually threw back. From the rowboat he occasionally caught a perch. Once he brought one home for my mother to cook, but after an elaborate cleaning procedure there were still scales, like mica, which caught in our teeth, and endless bones. The only fish my mother liked to cook was filet of sole, which isn’t really a fish at all.

My father taught me everything he knew about fishing. He taught me how to hunt for night crawlers, how to bait a hook, how to cast, and how to be patient. I was good at everything except baiting the hook, even though my father promised me it didn’t hurt the worm. I always turned away when my father caught a fish and went to work to get the hook out of its mouth, my hand shielding my own lips.

My father also taught me how to row. When I was little, he would sit beside me and have me work one oar; when I was older, he had me row myself. He taught me how to row with oars together and what he called “Indian style,” and he taught me how to maneuver around rocks and untangle fishing line from dead branches. Sometimes I would row and he would trawl. Sometimes he rowed and I would lean far back off the boat and trail my fingers in the water. I was filled with longing to swim in that water, and on hot days it seemed like a particular privation to see all that cool water around us and not to be able to lower my body into it. I was a good swimmer—years of lessons at the Y pool—and I had fantasies about cutting across the reservoir, my father in the rowboat keeping pace with me, the way I imagined Channel swimmers were followed by their escorts.

The boat we borrowed was painted green on the outside and blue on the inside. It was chained to a tree in a pine grove beside the reservoir, the chain looped through the oarlocks and the handles of the life-preserver cushions we sat upon. The boat was just small enough for us to be able to turn it over, drag it to the water, and get it afloat. It was always heavier when it was time to bring it in, and the pine needles stuck to its wet hull. There were a few other rowboats tethered nearby, but we rarely saw any other fishermen around, and some of the boats were nearly camouflaged under more than a season of pine needles and leaves.

One Friday late afternoon in September, when it was still warm enough to fool yourself into thinking summer wasn’t really over and school hadn’t begun, my father and I headed down to the reservoir to fish for a while before dinner. Looking back on it now, certain aspects of the scene stand out for me, though at the time I don’t think I really noticed them. It is as if the whole afternoon was preserved fairly objectively in my memory, and only now, in retrospect, do I observe things which I passed over then.

The reservoir was actually walking distance from our house, but we always drove, because the trunk and backseat of my father’s car were full of gear. My mother ran a tidy house—even the basement and the garage—and my father’s old car, which she never drove or rode in, was the one place where he could keep things as he liked. We didn’t take much with us to our fishing spot or when we went out in the boat, but my father liked having the car nearby so he’d have access to extra rods and reels and tackle and rags and pails.

That afternoon, when we got to our regular parking spot along the road, my father saw another car already there and hesitated pulling off. It was a brief hesitation, and I make note of it only now, as I think about what might have been going on in my father’s head. At the time I was impatient to go fishing and annoyed that anyone else was there. I liked to think of the reservoir as our place. I liked to imagine we owned it all: that long, narrow body of water, the surrounding pine forest, even the hills beyond.

There was a woman standing by the opened trunk of the car. She seemed surprised to see us. Then she waved and my father waved. We pulled off the road behind her car and got out, and my father brought me over to introduce us. Eleanore, my father explained, taught math at his school, and she was the owner of the boat we had been using all these years. It had never occurred to me that the owner of the boat was a woman. In fact it never occurred to me that women did—or even could—own boats.

My father and I had been planning to take the boat out ourselves, that afternoon, but it was clear Eleanore had the same idea. My father told her we’d be just as happy fishing from shore.

“Why don’t we all go out in the boat together?” she asked.

My father looked over at me and then back to Eleanore.

“Come on,” she said, “there’s room enough for the three of us.” She moved her rod out of the way and slammed the hood of her trunk.

We got our gear together and walked single file on the path through the woods, Eleanore in front of me, my father behind. Eleanore wore navy blue sneakers and jeans and a faded blue workshirt with the cuffs folded up. From the back, she could have been a boy. This was a time when my mother and most of the women I knew always wore skirts. Of course they never went fishing.

We walked silently through the pine forest to the boat. My father and I stood aside while Eleanore undid the lock and untangled the chain from the oars and the cushions. Then she and my father lifted the boat and carried it to the water. My father held the boat steady while I climbed in and took my place in the small third seat in the bow. As we headed out from shore, I caught Eleanore looking at me, smiling, as if waiting for me to say something. So I said, “This is a nice boat. I like its colors.”

“Thank you,” she said. “I painted it green on the outside to reflect the water and blue on the inside to reflect the sky.”

I didn’t say anything after that. My father rowed out towards the center of the reservoir, and I listened to the oars moving in the oarlocks, like the sound of a familiar bird, and I listened to the oars moving the water, the boat moving through the water. What is peculiar about the outing is how quiet we all were. My father bragged to Eleanore about my rowing and my casting and urged me to take a turn at the oars, or in the stern, trawling. But I shook my head. They seemed content to let the subject drop, and we all fell into our silences.

It was hot out in the middle of the reservoir. More than ever, I wished I could dive off the boat and swim. I scooped up water and splashed my face and the back of my neck. My father took off his shirt. The hair on his arms was flattened with sweat, and droplets of sweat, perfectly formed like droplets of oil, glistened on his shoulders. Eleanore had taken off her work shirt, and underneath she was wearing a red and white striped polo. She had small, widely set breasts, and I could tell she wasn’t wearing a bra. She slicked her hair back with water and held her face up to the sun.

My father rowed to the south end of the reservoir, then he and Eleanore exchanged places and she rowed back north. Neither of them caught any fish. Eleanore got a few bites, but the fish took her worm and got away. My father thought he had a big one, but when he reeled it in, it was just a rotting branch. We headed back to shore while the evening gathered around us and the reservoir began swallowing the sun.

I carried the tackle boxes and the rods and reels, and my father and Eleanore flipped the boat over and carried it back to its place. My father ran the chain through the oarlocks and cushion handles, and Eleanore locked it all up. As we left, my father slapped the boat on its side, the way you’d slap a horse at the end of a long ride.

We walked back to our cars with me in the lead this time. My father was usually slow about stowing his gear in the car, but this time he stuffed it in without ceremony. Eleanore was ready to leave even before us. She didn’t really say goodbye, she just gave her horn three little taps as she took off.

At dinner my father said nothing about Eleanore, and I didn’t either. My mother asked how our fishing went, and he said fine, the way he always did, and my mother didn’t ask anything more about it.

There are two things, in retrospect, that stand out about that afternoon. One was the way Eleanore and my father handled the boat together, the way they lifted it and carried it and laid it in the water. They worked with a smoothness that could have come only from experience and practice, or perhaps from some remarkable instinct. The other thing is the kind of quiet they shared that day. They were quiet the way my father and I were quiet when we were fishing alone.


Today my husband and I walked around the reservoir near our house. Like the reservoir of my childhood, the water is in safekeeping for a city, far away. There is a diminutive brick building with a green metal roof at one end of the reservoir. At one time it may have been used as a waterworks office, but it has been deserted for years. Perhaps the water in the reservoir is no longer actually pumped off to the city. Perhaps the reservoir has been forgotten by everyone except for the hikers who come through the woods.

It was the hottest day of the summer, the hottest day since we moved to our new house. My husband wanted to cast off his clothes and go swimming. I looked out at the water. It was so clear I could see the intricacies of each rock, and when some sunnies darted close to shore I could see the movement of their gills, the beating of their hearts. I wanted to plunge into the water, plunge in and swim across, just as I had wanted to swim across that other reservoir, years ago. But the message on the No Trespassing signs, barely legible with age, stayed with me, I pleaded with my husband to just continue our walk.

“You can do as you like,” he said, “but I’m going in.”

He took off his clothes and sidestepped down the slope into the water. When the water level reached his waist, he pushed forward and let the water take the weight of his body. He dipped his head in once and came up slowly. The water was so clear I could see the hairs lifted up on his arms and legs. His rear end and the soles of his feet were luminously white. He swam out a distance, then he turned toward me again.

“Come in,” he said. “It’s perfect.”

I could smell the coolness of the water. I could imagine it soothing each cell of my hot skin. But I stood there, watching, unable to follow.

When I married my husband, I promised myself that I would tell him everything, always. It was my second marriage, and I wanted a fullness, an honesty, what I thought of as a purity, I hadn’t had the first time around. I wanted to be able to tell him everything I thought and everything I felt. Withholding, I had learned in my first marriage, was not very much better than lying.

But I haven’t told him about Eleanore, and I think now that to withhold this small tale is less a sin against love than it would be a sin to tell my father’s secret. I tell myself it will not hurt us, my husband and me, if I don’t share with him this memory.


What was between them?

I don’t know for sure if my father was ever unfaithful to my mother. My guess is that he wasn’t. My father’s life and Eleanore’s life overlapped there, in that blue and green rowboat, the way people’s lives so often overlap. And that one afternoon I just happened to be there with them in that small boat, there with them and their desire.


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