Mel and Justin pulled up in his Wrangler minutes after I got home from church and changed. I hopped into the back seat. He had the hard top off, and as we drove away the wind rustled through my hair and the sun beamed down on my head. I took a deep breath of the warm air and sighed with contentment.
“Gorgeous day, huh?” Mel asked, turning around.
“Wait till you see Lake Minnewaska. It’s beautiful.”
Justin had the radio on but I couldn’t hear much because of the traffic and the wind. We traveled back roads, driving past horse farms, apple orchards, and acres of corn fields, majestic mountains in the distance.
I started drifting off - not to sleep, I was too excited for that - but into a sort of somnolence, a deep sense of satisfaction and comfort I hadn’t experienced in a while. Out here in the country, breathing in the fresh air, my eyes feasting on the green grass, the lush trees, the farms and ranches, all of my worries, resentments, and disappointments started to melt away. It felt like sweet freedom. I was intoxicated with the sights, scents, and sounds of the rolling landscape, and could almost taste the apples ripe for picking on their branches, could almost feel the flanks of the horses as I imagined straddling them and riding off into the wind. I was a city girl at heart, but that glimpse into country life filled my senses and set off a need for simple things and quiet places. It was a balm to the dark spaces inside me that I kept hidden where no one, not even I, could see them.
I sat behind Mel, catching bits of her chatter as she narrated our journey. She pointed out sights along the way, and commented on the ice cream shacks and pizza parlors we passed, reminiscing about horse farms where she took riding lessons and parks where she’d played Little League softball years ago.
I studied Justin in his reflection in the rearview mirror, admiring his chiseled looks, the strong jawline, his incredible blue eyes, their long lashes brushing the delicate area underneath. He was the kind of guy who had no clue about his good looks. He was comfortable in his body and moved with ease, not self-conscious of his six foot two frame or his flipper-sized feet. He caught me staring at him in the mirror a couple of times and smiled back, his perfect teeth flashing in the sunlight.
I looked away, embarrassed to be caught, but couldn’t keep my eyes off him and went back to staring moments later. He held on to the steering wheel with one hand, the other on the stick shift, and maneuvered the Jeep around the twists and turns that led to Minnewaska. I was comfortable with him in the driver’s seat.
Everything about the day was perfect.
As we entered the state park, Mel grew more animated, turning around in her seat to play tour guide, making sure I took in all of the beauty surrounding us. We made a hairpin turn and a gigantic rock face loomed in front of us, rising hundreds of feet with dangling climbers on its surface reaching for the clouds. My jaw dropped, revealing my awe and wonder, but I didn’t care.
“Ever go rock climbing?” Justin asked, meeting my eyes in the mirror.
“No,” I said, the thought of it sending shivers of fear through my belly. I was afraid of heights and couldn’t imagine hanging from a rope so high above the ground.
“Justin’s done it,” Mel said, “but I prefer to be on terra firma.”
“Me too,” I said.
Minutes later, we pulled off the road at an entry to the park and stopped at a gatehouse. Justin paid the entrance fee, got a map of the area, and we drove in. The road to the parking lot was uphill all the way over a fern and tree-lined road that became a deep forest, the boughs of the tallest trees forming a canopy of leaves overhead, blocking out the sun. At the top, the lot was crowded but we managed to find a spot. I hopped out and waited for Justin and Mel to gather their gear. They each carried backpacks that looked heavy.
“What are you carrying? Rocks?” I asked.
“Lunch,” Mel said.
“That’s a lot of lunch.”
“Hey, we’re all swimmers,” she said. “I’ve got heroes stuffed with roast beef and cheese, apples, carrots and dressing, a bag of chips and a bag of Oreos.”
“What have you got?” I asked Justin.
“Water, two bottles each, a can of sunscreen and a first aid kit.”
“So prepared,” I joked. “Like a Boy Scout.”
“Don’t laugh,” he said, smiling. “I was a Boy Scout.”
“Until he got kicked out for sneaking out on a Jamboree to stargaze,” Mel said.
“Hey, don’t give away all my secrets,” he said.
“I’ve got to hear that story,” I said.
“Well,” Mel said as we started on a path out of the parking lot, “it goes like this. Big Bother was the senior camper in his tent, in charge of all the younger boys, and supposed to maintain law and order. But he’s never been one to follow the rules, and one of the rules was to stay in your tent after lights out. He convinced the boys to take a midnight walk.”
“In my defense, there was a meteor shower that night,” Justin interjected. “I had a purpose. I was teaching them astronomy.”
“He took all the boys on a walk in the pitch black darkness.”
“We didn’t go that far,” he said, “only about 200 feet.”
“Yeah, but on the way back one of the kids tripped over a tree root, fell, and broke his arm.”
“It wasn’t my fault he didn’t watch where he was going.”
“They had to take him to the Emergency Room at, like, two in the morning. His parents were not pleased, and demanded the troop leader expel Justin.”
“He suspended me,” he said, “but I got busy swimming and preparing for Junior Olympics, and didn’t go back.”
I couldn’t help laughing, imagining Justin leading the group of innocent boys through the night forest, stargazing, and then getting into trouble. “What happened to the kid with the broken arm?”
“Nothing,” he said. “He had a cast all the way up to his elbow. Everyone thought he was cool, and covered it with doodles and autographs. He was fine.”
We talked while we walked, and when the story ended stopped at a split rail fence.
“Look at that,” Mel said.
I followed her gaze and looked down upon the most beautiful body of water I’d ever seen, the color of jade, shimmering in the sunlight, surrounded by cliffs of white rock. Specks of red and gold graced the trees, but for the most part an endless wreath of green bordered the lake.
“Lake Minnewaska,” Mel said.
“Wow,” I said, almost speechless. “Can we swim?”
“Yeah,” she said. “We swim all the time, but not now. The season’s over.”
“I want to go,” I said. “How do we get down there?”
“We can go down there, but we can’t swim,” Justin said. “No lifeguards. And if the Rangers catch us they’ll kick us out.”
“You’re a lifeguard,” I reminded him.
“And as a lifeguard I say we’re going to follow the rules.”
“You’re no fun.” I pouted.
“Don’t worry,” Mel said. “We’ll swim next summer.”
“Let me take a picture,” I said, snapping a few shots with my phone, knowing my mother would love to see them. When she came home, I’d bring her here.
We resumed our hike, walking downhill, venturing into the shaded pathway. A band of bicyclists passed us, giving us a heads up as they approached.
“We should’ve brought bikes,” I said.
“You have a bike?” Mel asked.
“Aunt Maggie lets me borrow hers.”
“Then next time we’ll bring bikes.” She grinned and I grinned back.
I enjoyed the talk about “next time” and “next summer.” It promised a future together, plans to make, fun to share. I hadn’t talked about a future with friends in months. I’d lost contact with my Manhattan friends the year I lived with my dad and Dawn. When I returned the following year, I didn’t fit in anymore. Kids can be cruel, and I found myself left out of my own group. I tried to find a new one, but my hours spent in the pool left little time for socializing so I spent most of my time alone. When my mom started having her troubles, I stayed home to care for her, and became further isolated. I’d forgotten how good it was to spend time with someone my own age, someone I liked, who accepted me for who I am, no questions asked.
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