There was clearly felt the presence of a force not bound to be kind to man. It was a place of heathenism and -superstitious rites, to be inhabited by men nearer of kin to the rocks and to wild animals than we.
—HENRY DAVID THOREAU
Early one morning in late March, Pia forced my hand.
A slapping spring wind ushered me through the heavy doors of the YMCA lobby as the minute hand of the yellowing 1950s-era clock over the check-in desk snapped to 7:09. Head down and on task to be in my preferred lane by precisely 7:15, I rushed along the glass corridor next to the pool. The chemical stink leaked from the ancient windows, as did the muffled shrieks of children and the lifeguard’s whistle. I felt cosseted by the shabby walls, by my self-righteous routine, by the fact that I’d ousted myself from my warm bed to face another tedious day head-on. Small victories.
I’d just squeezed myself into my old-lady swimsuit when the phone in my bag began to bleat. I dug it out. The screen pulsed with the image of Pia Zanderlee ski-racing down a double black diamond slope somewhere in Banff.
My choices? Answer it now or play phone tag for another week. Pia was that friend you love with a twinge of resentment. The sparkly one who never has time for you unless it’s on her schedule, but you like her too much to flush her down the friendship toilet.
“Wow, a phone call—from you!” I said as I mercilessly assessed my middle-aged pudge in the greasy mirror. “To what do I owe the honor?”
Of course I knew the reason. Five unanswered texts.
Pia laughed. “Hey, Win, listen. We need to make our reservations. Like, by tomorrow.”
I fished around in my swim bag for my goggles. “Yeah, I -haven’t—”
“I get it. Nature’s not your thing, but you’re going to love it once you’re out there. Rachel and Sandra are chomping at the bit to go, but they have to make their travel plans. We all do.”
With a shudder, I recalled my frantic Google search the night before for Winnegosset River Rafting, Maine.
“Just wondering why this place doesn’t have some kind of website. I mean, is it legit?” I asked, my voice coming out all high and tinny. Already I was ashamed of my wussiness. “I’d hate to get all the way up there and find out this is some sort of shady -operation—”
I could feel her roll her eyes. “Wini, just because some place or something or someone doesn’t have a website doesn’t mean they don’t exist.” She sounded windblown, breathless. I pictured her power walking through her Cambridge neighborhood, wrist weights flashing neon. “It’s a big old world out there. One of the reasons this place is so awesome is because no one knows about it yet, so it’s not booked solid before the snow’s even melted. That’s why there’s space for the weekend we all want, get it? This year, it’s the world’s best-kept secret—next year, forget it!”
“I don’t know, Pia . . .” I glanced at the time: 7:14.
She laughed, softening to me now. “Look, the guy who runs the white-water tours is a good friend of my dad—he’s my dad’s friend’s son, I mean, so it’s cool.”
“Can’t believe Rachel would want to—”
“Are you crazy? She’s dying to go. And Sandra? Please. She’d get on a plane right now if she could.”
With a wave of affection I pictured my last Skype with Sandra: kids running around screaming in the background, papers to correct stacked next to her. When I brought up the trip, she’d groaned, Hell, yes, I’m game for anything—just get me out of Dodge!
“Wini, listen up: Next year—I promise, we’ll go to a beach somewhere. Cancún, Key West, you choose. Do nothing and just bake.”
“Look, Pia, I’m at the pool and I’m going to lose my lane—”
“Okay. Swim. Then call me.”
I tucked my flyaway dirty-blond bob—the compromise cut for all hopelessly shitty hair—under my bathing cap, then hustled my stuff into a locker and slammed it shut. Do nothing and just bake. Did she really think that was all I was interested in? Who was the one who rented the bike the last time we went to the Cape? Just me, as I recalled, while all of them sat around the rental pouring more and more tequila into the blender each day. And my God—we were all pushing forty—shouldn’t awesome and cool be in the rearview mirror by now?
? ? ?
I crossed the slimy tiles of the dressing room and pushed open the swinging doors to the pool. The air hit me, muggy and warm, dense with chlorine that barely masked an underwhiff of urine and sweat. Children laughed and punched at the blue water in the shallow end as I padded over to my favorite lane, which was . . . occupied.