THREE WOMEN AT THE LAKE
On Saturday, I met two women at the lake.
I met the first woman when I got out of the water to get my book. She sat at the end of a bench, crosslegged, the sole of her right foot rested above the strap of my bag. I didn’t want to scare her. I didn’t want her to feel like she had to move. “I’m just getting my book,” I said as I approached but I don't think she heard me because when I knelt next to her, knelt next to my bag, she moved quickly down the bench. Scooted really. Startled. I said, “It’s okay, I’m just getting my book, you don’t have to move.”
“How is it in there?” she asked. She was British, words were soft, dense like spoken tomes.
“Looks it.” Her words precise, affected, silk caught in a rip current between sea foam and sand. She was very thin, papery almost, skin primed for rubbing off if touched the wrong way, giving way to pink flesh and cracked bone yellowed and splintered with age. She had long thin legs she kept crossed at the knee, they dangled straight as ribbons. She sat with an equine's equipoise. She wore white linen shorts and an unbuttoned loose linen collared shirt over her bathing suit, a blue and white striped one piece with a wide scoop neck. Her eyes looked out with caution, sadness, alarm, from beneath the lid of her white cloth visor. They looked out her long thin face as milky ice cubes slightly sunken and droopy, red lines traced the rims of her eyelids, What happens as we age?, eyelashes sparse like cricket hairs. Her face mask hung around her ears, she had it pulled down and wore it like a chinstrap. Later I would learn she was 82 years old. “I wish I had the energy to get in,” she said.
“It’s more like having the energy to get out,” I said.
“Oh yeah? Is it that good?”
“Yes. You could swim forever.”
“I don’t know about that. My knees, they’re so bad. I have a hard time getting in.”
“There are steps over there.”
“And rocks over there.”
“There are rocks all over the place.”
“If you want a hand, I can help you down.”
“A hand?” She grabbed her heart, she gasped. “We can’t hold hands...can we?” She was appalled. I appalled her. There escaped a little fear.
“I don’t think so, but if you want to get in the water and need a hand, I will help you.”
“I don’t think we can hold hands.”
“There’s not much we can do.”
“There’s not much at all, that's right. We can’t hold hands and I can’t see my husband.”
“They have him locked up. He’s in hospital. He fell ill, got very sick, last year, in December,” she spoke in fluid spurts, served information in teaspoons, all of it soft, just above a mutter, under-the-breath exhale talking. “They put him in intensive care, I couldn’t see him then, and I can’t see him now. He was starting to get better, earlier, in January, but then everything happened. Now they moved him to isolation and I’m not allowed to visit him inside his room. They have him in therapy, he is getting better, but I’m told he is showing signs of dementia. What do you do?”
“I’m 82 years old, what are you going to do?” she raised an eyebrow and tilted her head, then lowered the eyebrow and straightened her posture. “I’m going to sit, watch the lake, and if I have the energy, I'll go for a swim. That’s what I’m going to do. Then I’ll go home, have dinner, listen to music and have a martini. You’re too young for martinis, aren’t you?”
“Oh god no. I’ve had many martinis. Some would say too many, I would say too many, way too many martinis.”
She laughed. “What do you do?” she asked.
“I work for the San Francisco Opera, I make their emails.”
“Yes, so if you get an email from them…”
“…I sent it.”
“I love the opera. I thought there’d be a Met broadcast this morning, turned the radio on to listen but didn’t hear anything. It was disappointing, so disappointing.”
“They’re doing streaming.”
“Yes, they’re streaming full operas, I think every weekend.”
And then it got quiet, hear the rustle in the trees type quiet, hear the strokes of a swimmer cut through water, and it occurred to me maybe she didn’t know what streaming meant. Streaming is an odd word to hear if your point of reference is a river, or worse, urine. A thin stream of urine ran down his leg. Streaming? The Met is streaming like a river. Every weekend the Met is streaming like urine down a leg. Full operas are streaming...like narrow rivers of urine.
“You can watch the operas on your computer.” Hint dropped. She didn’t say anything. I got my book out of my bag and stood up to leave. She started talking just as I was a half-hunched like a catcher rising from the plate.
“What’s your favorite opera?” she asked. “Whose your poison? Verdi? Mozart? Puccini? What’s your pleasure?”
I put my book between my armpit and rested my hands on my knees. I stayed hunched, now looking less like a catcher and more like a little league coach, C’mon kids! What we gotta do is focus. We’re only down by two. Get your heads in the game! Standing up seemed odd, condescending in some way, impolite to be towering over this tall British woman sitting heartsick or was it age sick? alone on the bench, I kept my hunch, my coach pose.
“Well, to be honest…” I said.
“Yes,” she looked eager, perked up on the bench, fingered the buttons on her shirt. She liked this “to be honest” I could tell. She was a person who listened and her husband would listen to her, they would listen to each other, perhaps somedays they would listen to each other out here on this bench and sit together in front of the lake. In the beginning they got in the water and swam no problem, they’d swim far out to the center and float there for a while, no problem, and then they’d swim back in staggered parallel strokes, they’d get out of the water no problem and go about their afternoon. As time went on they still went to the lake but did less swimming than before and going to the lake became more about thinking about swimming than the actually act of swimming, but still they swam, eventually, after thinking about it, they did some swimming, they just didn’t go out as far as they used to and when they swam back to shore they’d get out of the lake no problem and get on with their day, and then as time went by there was less swimming than before, there was still swimming, just not as much as there had been because now there was the problem of knees, so the swimming became more about the getting in and the getting out without problem than just the swimming, and as time went on again and again the knees got worse and the getting in and the getting out had a lot to do with the swimming, the two went hand in hand, the questions arose Is the swimming worth the getting in? Is the swimming worth the getting out? and so there was even more time spent thinking and even less time spent swimming, and then the knees got even worse and then one winter, in December, the husband fell ill, got sick, and had still not recovered by July and the question became Would he ever?, so the whole thing just became about getting out of the house a little each day and sitting alone on a bench and thinking about things, but not about swimming, thinking about the husband and the getting in and the knees and what it must feel like to be afloat in water. To be honest, there was no one there to listen to her. That role had emptied, there was vacancy, one of many, in the hospitalization of her husband and the abandonment of age, onward go the minutes and with them go the knees. “To be honest” may be an indication of an engagement, an actual engagement in conversation, Let’s have it! Have at it! Or, it may be a frivolous interlude between honesty and provocation, an idiotic remark “To be honest” to entice, “To be honest” to be flippant, “To be honest” to dismiss, deceive, “To be honest” false erudition. She was the type of woman who would challenge, “To be honest? Why would you be anything but?” To be honest, whatever it was, it made her sit up.
“They are all great,” I said. “Verdi, Mozart, Puccini, they're all great.” This made her laugh. “But the only opera I’ve seen that actually moved me was Jenufa.”
“Yes, Janacek’s Jenufa. I saw it with Karita Matilla but it was Malin Bystrom, I think that’s how you say her name, that really did it for me.”
“They did it there, in San Francisco?”
“Yes, like four years ago, I think, 2016.”
“Yes, it was incredible.”
She gripped her collar. Kids screamed in the background. One said, “Hi, Isabelle! Hi, Tommy!” I stood up and released the coach pose, my knees were killing me. Then that stillness came, a beat, a break, end scene.
“Well,” I said. “Let me know if you feel like breaking any rules today. I can help you down the stairs if you’d like.”
I turned to walk away to my nook at the far edge of the lake and she said, “What is your name?”
“My name’s Meg, you?”
“Nice to meet you, Julia.”
“Nice to meet you, too.”
The second woman was swimming back to shore as I walked down the cement ledge at the far edge of the lake, my book jammed in my armpit. The ledge ran along the base of a wooden fence that ran parallel to, and in front of, a chainlink fence. Kids scrawled nonsense words in green marker on the wooden fence, something about a bed or was it a dingo?, their letters indecipherable, too long and shaky, they came together like points, spindly-armed monster letters. The chainlink fence ran past where the wooden fence stopped, it held back branches from a shoreline shrub but branches crept through anyway, they reached out over the water, leaves danced in sparkled shadows, a checkerboard on the surface. In between the two fences was a gap about a foot wide. A sundress was draped over the chainlink fence, a pair of clogs was wedged between the gap, a set of car keys strewn atop.
As I reached the end of the ledge a woman in a black one piece emerged from the water, an older woman with shoulder length gray-brown hair, who covered her mouth with the palm of her hand as she spoke.
“That’s my spot,” she said.
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s fine. But that’s my spot.” I saw the corners of her mouth rise into her cheeks from behind her palm, I could tell she was missing teeth. The skin around her eyes creased, I could tell she was smiling. “I’ve been coming here since 1983," she said. "Not too many people used to come here in the eighties. Not many in the nineties either. I’ve been coming here since then, always sit here. Used to photograph myself, I'd take nude self-portraits right over there on the lawn. Cops came around in those days. They’d chase you out. Had to act fast. Ha!”
“Do you still take photographs?”
“Oh yeah, not so much anymore, but yeah, not digital, just film.”
She walked closer to the ledge so I stepped down into the lake, onto the rocks. “Do you need to get up here?” I asked.
“Yes, that’s what I’m trying to tell you.”
“Oh, sorry.” I was confused. “Do you want to sit here?”
“No, I’m just trying to tell you that’s my spot, but I do have to get out. My dress is there. I’m getting out.” I walked out on the rocks. She climbed up on the ledge and took her dress down from where it hung on the chainlink fence. She slid on her clogs and put her arms through the dress sleeves, a green and black knee-length floral with a modest flounce. She put her car keys in her dress pocket and began buttoning the dress. Small black buttons ran up the center of the dress, she started at the bottom, at the hem and worked her way up, all the while talking about her photographs, her nude photographs, self-portraits that she’d been taking here for years. “Oh yeah, I’ve been photographing myself here for decades, same spot. Never used to be so many people back then.”
“What do you do with your photographs? Do you show them?”
“Sometimes. Not so much anymore. I don’t do digital, only film, always black and white, usually self-portraits but some other stuff too.” She finished her buttoning and patted her pockets. “Have a good day,” she said and walked away. It was all very fast. I wasn’t ready for her to go, I wanted her to stay or to take me with her back to her house. On the walk back she’d tell me more stories about the way things were. “That used to be a gas station.” “The MacKenzies lived there. Wild bunch. I was friends with the oldest, Erin. Used to smoke pot in the attic.” “Hurricane Bob took an oak down here, landed on the house. No one was inside, fortunately.” We’d get back to her house, a brown clapboard with overgrown bushes out front. We’d walk down a gravel driveway and enter through the back, through a screen door, nothing was locked. A radio would be playing, because the radio was always playing, there was always music. We’d take off our shoes and walk barefoot through the house, down the cool hallway floor, through the dining room its table stacked with books and magazines, a thin red rug underfoot, light came through a half-closed bamboo blind and lit up a built-in china cabinet full of crystal glasses, tea cups, and salt and pepper shakers, all of them blurry and dusty. She’d lead me downstairs to the basement, turn on the light, a bare bulb on a chain, wooden steps with black rubber tread mats. Down into the basement we’d go to the darkroom in the back corner. The smell of weed, damp, the chemistry. Black and white prints clipped with wooden clothespins hung from strings like prayer flags. “Here are some,” she’d say. “You ever make prints?” “I used to.” And then we’d go through old photographs in Epson boxes and then we’d make new prints, overexposed, blind for fun, time would disappear, the music would get louder but we wouldn’t touch the radio, it was just that hum that happens, at certain moments in time that hum that happens with certain people, that hum, a little connective electricity swapped and shared without speaking, what’s inside me is inside you, every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you, and after a few hours enlarging, gripping shiny paper with rubber tongs, tracing it back in forth in plastic bins, the anticipation of black and white photographic birth, hanging wet and shimmering nudes all around us we’d emerge from the darkroom and she’d offer me a drink. We’d walk back up the old wooden stairs with the black rubber treads and have Manhattans, rye not bourbon, and sit out on her front porch on brown wicker chairs, soft faded cushion seats, the radio on, this time turned up and playing through the window screen something alive, simple, deep. Sanders “Harvest Time”, Davis “In A Silent Way”, Simone “Ne Me Quitte Pas” How dare we? we’d sip our drinks and watch the sun set through the trees.
But this of course did not happen. I didn’t even get her name. She just turned and walked away and all I said when she said “Have a good day” was “You too.”
To be honest (there it is again) I was exhausted from Julia when this second woman, the woman in the black bathing suit emerged from the water. I was still thinking about Julia sitting all alone on the bench, worrying about her knees and her husband in isolation, afraid to hold hands, probably unaware streaming meant watching something on your computer or tablet or phone for that matter, I was thinking of Julia when the nude photographer emerged from the water. Julia was a woman in need of a hammock, something to catch her, to let her fall, safely, full body, sway and think, slowly, no pressure, no answers, just questions What’s next? What matters? space to talk, space to cry, to be wrong and say wrong, to recover and laugh and most importantly to push away the indomitable I didn’t think life would end this way cold cruelty. But this woman, the nude photographer, the artist, she didn’t need a hammock, she didn’t need anything, certainly not me. It was just me. In that moment. I needed her.