The middle-aged, polo-clad man leaned over the wooden railing of the boat rental’s high counter, handing Grace’s credit card back with a receipt. “You’ve got two hours,” he said, and called out a string of names into the shed’s interior behind him, summoning four teenage boys who tumbled from the shed’s side door, scrawny, shirtless and sullen, like a gaggle of post-pubescent cherubim. They dragged with them the plain steel rowboat we had just secured for $45, carrying it the ten or so yards to the lake’s edge.
There were three seats. Laurel took the middle, volunteering to row, while Grace flopped down in the back and I settled in the front, folding my long legs with a little discomfort into the crevice of the ship’s pointed bow. The boys handed us life jackets and pushed us off on the water before scampering back to the boat-shed’s shade. It was mid-afternoon on a clear day in late July, and the high summer sun drenched the woods of Promised Land State Park as we set out across the lake.
We were about ten minutes on the water when I heard the hum, and I knew the three grams of psychedelic mushrooms I’d eaten back at camp were peaking. The hum always enters quietly, enough to be mistaken for some distant rumbling engine, before getting louder and louder until it ceases to be ‘a’ hum and becomes ‘The’ Hum, as my older sister’s shaman boyfriend named it before. I had told him on a previous trip I was hearing something like a hundred thousand volts moving over a high line on a misty day, or like a copse full of as many singing summer cicadas.
The great drone, now at full volume, settled above the gentle waves, which were shimmering as if slick with gasoline. Their deep blue hue gave way to gradients and tints of green and yellow and red while their simple pleasing pattern became a vast gridded matrix that stretched out indefinitely beyond the horizon, like an M.C. Escher painting, or a rendering from Tron. I thought of how cold the waves were that lapped my feet as I stepped into the boat. I began to shiver.
I was really cold.
Why? I thought.
Totally inappropriate on such a sunny day.
Maybe I’d gotten too skinny. The chubby-kid gut I was saddled with at puberty had deflated from a year of skipped meals and bike commutes into an empty, stretch mark-scarred pouch, turning out not to be, as I feared, an irrevocable curse handed down from my grandfather, a man I’d often been likened to, and who resembled in certain photographs (the only memories I have of him, God rest his long-still Gaelic heart), a Goblin. It seemed logical it would be harder to stay warm when so little separated bone from skin, and my clothes, a threadbare t-shirt and a pair of cutoff jorts I cut too far off, provided little in the way of extra protection. I wrapped myself in a hug and tried to stop shaking.
By now we were well out onto the lake, and the boat-shack behind us was sesame seed-sized. Grace took out a portable speaker and started playing music while Laurel continued to row. Her rowing was powerful. Each mighty pull jumped the boat forward with an ugly metallic groan, like the whinny of a saddle horse driven on by spurs. She’d always had the superior upper body strength, even when we were children.
Shouldn’t I tell her that we weren’t going anywhere?
I caught myself. Of course I shouldn’t. She knew that already. We all did. We had come out here to row around, not to get anywhere, and was I going to raise a stink about it? Hell no. I couldn’t justify that. I must have known what I was getting into, and couldn’t complain about it now. Here my friend was, tiring herself out to row us out onto the water on a beautiful day, and I was sitting here second-guessing the whole project.
I ought to be ashamed.
We were hugging the shore as best as we could. Grace wanted to poach some shade from its trees, while Laurel wanted to see if she could spot any creatures, but a thicket of reeds and waterlogged fallen trees kept us too far out to do either very well. I looked away, fixated on the horizon, which seemed less real every minute. It was getting dimmer, and the sun seemed ersatz, painted-in. At the corners and edges of everything, something dark shone through, as if the whole scene were on a coal-black canvas and I’d found a spot where the brushwork was sloppy.
I ran my hands over my arms and legs and found them warm to the touch — and covered in goosebumps. I was shivering again, and I knew now that it couldn’t be blamed on mere BMI. This cold came from inside. It was a failure of thermoregulation, psychosomatic in form and spiritual in nature.
I’m depressed again, aren’t I?
I thought I’d gotten away from all that. I’d outran it in Philadelphia, with my bar jobs and my new friends and my full course load and my active lifestyle. I’d outran it when I finally left home, stopped living in a basement, stopped being afraid to spend a whole day outside, stopped being afraid to talk to other people. But it had found me, even here in this beautiful place, even on this beautiful day, even as the breeze was gentle, even as the sun was shining, even where I was sure I could stay ahead of it a little longer. I started to cry.
“What are you thinking about, Miles?” Laurel asked.
“Oh, man,” I said, trying not to hiccup as I held back sobs. “Some really negative stuff.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“I don’t think it’d be good to do that.”
“This music probably isn’t helping.”
(Grace had been playing extremely sad music. She put on something else. It didn’t help.)
I turned away toward the shore, where we were passing a group of little piers interrupting the woodline that we had seen from further away. We had joked about docking there earlier, but we knew they were private, belonging to the rows of grand lakeside houses behind them. Happy-seeming people lounged on them in boat shoes, flip-flops, sandals, and shorts, and dipped their toes in the cool water. Probably the houses’ owners, or else their lucky friends.
What must they think of me?
Conventional wisdom dictates that if you can see them, they can see you; they’d see a rail-thin young man with eyes puffy, red, wide, and wet, pupils fully dilated, frowning in their direction. I imagined I must seem very off to them. Probably very ugly. Maybe monstrous. Maybe I was a monster, a blue-eyed Grendel, and the people on the shore were looking out at me, the unseemly shape in the distance, and hoping it’d go away.
Wishful thinking. If I were really such a monster I could dive over the side of the boat, swim down to some abyssal cave, make it my lair. Even if everybody wanted to behead or otherwise destroy me, they would forgive me for feeling the way I do. It’s embarrassing for a man to be so miserable for no good reason, but nobody expects anything different from a monster — a sort of creature whose defining characteristic, more than viciousness, ugliness, fearsomeness, or loathsomeness, is its inability to reconcile itself to living.
“I’m gonna go in,” Laurel said.
“What?” I asked.
“I’ve gotta get in the water at least once,” she answered, before standing up and throwing herself in a headfirst tumble off the back of the boat.
She broke the water like a dropped anchor and disappeared into its murkiness for a few long moments. Then she was coming up, mid-spin from an underwater revolution, to the surface again.
“How is it in there?” Grace asked her, leaning to address Laurel as she doggie-paddled behind the stern.
“Cold!” she replied. “And there’s some slimy things in here with me.”
She grasped around in the water for a moment and produced a long, green vine with a series of pale orbs strung along it. “This darn thing!” she said, drawing closer to the boat so she could pass it to Grace.
“Ewww!” Grace said.
“Can I see it?” I asked.
Grace handed it to me, being careful to keep it over the side of the boat. The orbs were indeed slimy; plus gelatinous, semi-translucent, tennis-ball-sized, heavy, and covered in an array of veiny fibers. They were alien, yucky, fascinating things.
But I didn’t have long to look at them. The vine snapped in my hand, and the orbs fell back into the water. The plant wasn’t meant to exist above it.
Laurel was climbing back into the boat, using her great abdominal powers again. She struggled for a moment halfway, her whole body pressed hard against it, before overcoming it and collapsing into her seat. She was soaked, of course. Lakewater poured from her dark, tousled hair, fell onto her shoulders and flowed down her arms, pooling at her sandals, and leadening the hull. She was grinning.
As I looked at her, I felt the sun on my neck. My skin was getting redder by the second. Mine wasn’t the tough, scaly hide of a monster, but rather the flimsy, vulnerable hide of a man, and the sun, which was real after all, burned me. But it warmed me, too.
Illustration by Laurel McLaughlin