No 9 - 2009
Lake Swimming in Texas
I sit on the side of the boat, waiting for the others to be ready. The rope came loose during Jimmy’s Circle of Death and now it has to be re-tied, with a lot of accompanying bicep-flexing and joshing. For Rhona’s benefit, of course.
She is positioned on the other side of the boat, to counter-balance me. In the sunshine, her sternum gleams like pearls beneath her white skin as she laughs at the boys. ‘Are you not finished yet?’ she shouts in her Glasgow accent and they practically swoon with delight. ‘God, Rhona, marry me, will you?’ Jimmy begs. ‘I could listen to that all night.’ She turns to me and says, ‘Isn’t this great?’
Of course it’s great. The lake is around us in all directions, and surrounding the lake is Texas. Surrounding that is the rest of America, then the oceans, and thousands of miles away, right at the edge, is home, green and damp. When I go back and say we went lake swimming with a bunch of guys we met at Rita’s Cantina it’ll sound even better.
Finally, they finish with the rope and Kyle says, ‘Ok, Julie, let’s go.’ I slip into the water and duck under. Below the surface it is a pale milky green with leaves and ribbons of weed suspended in it. My arms and body stay warm but my feet are in coolness. A baby turtle paddles past, heading down, and I worry for a moment about what’s below me, then I come up inside the inner tube and I’m back in the sun.
When I’m in the boat, it seems small and crowded, but from down here it looks enormous. Rhona waves at me, her face high up and far away. ‘Have fun,’ she shouts. She has already had her turn. While she was in the water and we were all watching her laughing and shrieking, Don asked me, ‘So, how y’all liking Texas?’
I love ‘y’all’ and I’m thrilled to find that everyone uses it, and all the time. ‘I love it,’ I said. ‘It’s so… American. No, so Texan. I mean, people really do wear cowboy boots!’ I sounded about 12 years old.
‘Mmm hmm.’ I could see he was looking down my bikini top from behind his sunglasses and I started to gabble.
‘Britain’s all cramped and thin and everything there has to be tasteful. Heritage and all that. I mean, something like that burger-shaped diner on 5th Street would just never get built.’
‘Yeah?’ He didn’t sound very interested.
‘And everyone likes the same music here. I mean, my dad hates everything I listen to, and he just plays boring classical stuff. But here it seems like everyone listens to blues and country, no matter how old they are. Everyone just gets it.’
Don didn’t say anything and I thought I must have bored him stupid, so I said, ‘Have you ever been to the UK?’
He shook his head. ‘Guess they don’t play football over there, huh?’
I wanted to say something else, to redeem myself, but Rhona climbed back in the boat then and Don turned away to pass her a towel. She’s always the one they go for and I don’t mind most of the time. There’s something about her that everyone just likes. I hoped that out here I might catch up a bit, that an English accent would help, but apparently being Scottish is a real turn on.
Now it’s my go in the water and I hold up my hand to show I’m ready. The engine chugs and the boat moves away. Nothing happens for a few seconds, then the rope pulls taut and the lake starts streaming past, the weight of it combing down my body and flipping my feet like bits of paper.
It takes a while to get used to the skim of the inner tube on the surface and it isn’t 100% enjoyable. Water keeps slooshing into my eyes and my bikini bottoms are all but falling off. There is a certain amount of adrenaline as well I suppose, but I feel like the bait trailing behind a fishing boat.
I wonder what the others are talking about as we turn towards the middle of the lake. The curve bounces me upwards and I get a clear view of the boat for a second. I see Rhona’s thin, pale arms waving around. Sun flashing on a bottle of beer. Big smiles and lots of teeth.
This morning Rhona said she didn’t want to come out here today. Kyle, Jimmy and Don had too much money and too few brains. In fact they were fatheads. I pointed out that yesterday we had both been perfectly happy to dance and talk with the fatheads and to let them buy us drinks. She stopped eating her huevos rancheros for a minute and said, ‘So, which one is it you like?’ I didn’t tell her but she guessed anyway. ‘Kyle,’ she said and I had to admit to it. Even she agreed that, compared to the men we met at home – other students, either puny or puddings – he looked pretty good. ‘But there’s nothing here.’ She tapped her skull. Who cares, I thought.
After that she said she would come out and now she’s having a great time. I can tell that because she’s my friend, she’s trying to be cool with Kyle, but of course this makes him ultra keen and in this snapshot view I’m getting from the inner tube, I see his big golden arm come to rest on Rhona’s shoulders.
I want to go faster now and I wave my hand in the way we agreed. Jimmy waves back at me and I hear him whoop, ‘Way to go, Julie!’ as the engine shifts up. The water is suddenly harder and sharp when it flicks up at me. It’s difficult to catch my breath as wind roars into my ears, down my throat, inside my eyes. Stupid, I say to myself, stupid, stupid, what made you think you’d get what you want?
Last night it had seemed a possibility. Rhona and I were standing in the courtyard at Rita’s, drinking beer and jiggling to the music, feeling pretty happy.
‘If we were standing outside at a bar near the uni,’ Rhona said, ‘there’d be a gale blowing in and freezing our tits off.’
‘Too right,’ I said. ‘And an old smelly bloke trying to chat us up.’
We both sighed with pleasure at not being there and then the boys walked up. It was just Kyle and Jimmy at first. ‘You girls look like you need a beer and a dancing partner apiece,’ was Kyle’s opening line. Back home, we would have laughed in his face. But back home he wouldn’t have been grinning his big Texan grin, and B.B. King wouldn’t have been belting out through the speakers, and the ‘Grilling Tonite’ sign at Antone’s Bar-B-Q Pit wouldn’t have been flashing red and yellow across the street. So we grinned back and said he’d guessed just right.
The boat swoops left and the inner tube skids away at an angle, scooting me past sunbathers on the shore. Everyone is browned and well-fed, vast cool boxes resting at their sides, gleaming jeeps and trucks parked behind. I feel a sudden yearning for an ugly British beach, for the display of cautious white flesh and sunburn. I want to go home, but first I want a Circle of Death.
The Circle of Death whizzes you round and round, the boat turning tighter with every circle. It’s like playing that dizzy childhood game in the water. There’s a special signal for it, and it’s quite difficult to do when you’re gripping the inner tube and zipping along at 20 miles an hour. I manage it though, and Don gives me the thumbs up. I can’t see his expression but I bet it’s miserable.
Last night, as soon as he arrived, it was obvious he had a thing for Rhona. The four of us were standing at the bar when Jimmy suddenly yelled out, ‘Hey, Don! Donny-boy!’ and this big hulk of a guy loped over. Kyle introduced us. ‘Rhona, Julie, this is Don. Best tight end U. T.’s got.’
Rhona and I found this hilarious of course, and Rhona reached out and grabbed his bum. ‘Ooh, they’re right, you know,’ she said and we started giggling again. Don looked surprised and Kyle and Jimmy just about died laughing, then explained some American football terminology to us.
From then on, Don couldn’t take his eyes off Rhona, and kept manoeuvring himself to be next to her. It was only when Jimmy said, ‘Those guys never learn,’ that I realised Kyle was doing the same. ‘They always go for the same girls,’ Jimmy told me.
‘Who usually wins?’ I asked, willing him to say Don.
‘Oh, it’s about even. Don’s got the prestige but Kyle’s got the looks, I guess.’ I felt sorry for Jimmy then. He was like me, second best, and we gave each other a little smile. Not too much though; we still had hopes.
Soon after this, the idea of going out to the lake came up and we all got very excited about it. I always think these things will be wonderful.
The boat starts its first circle and I close my eyes. I want to be overwhelmed, blasted, so that I can’t feel anything else and I’m glad when the water screws itself up around me until I’m bound tight and helpless. Then, as I’m bracing myself for the next circle, everything slows, softens, and my legs drift down from the surface.
I open my eyes and look towards the boat. It seems miles away but I can see it rocking wildly. As it swings from side to side, faint tugs reach me through the rope that is stretched hair-thin between us. I keep gliding forward for a moment, and my focus on the boat sharpens. Kyle and Don are both standing, pushing at each other. I can’t see Rhona but I can hear her voice, shrill and repetitive. The noise floats wordless across the water. Jimmy isn’t visible.
I am not part of this. They aren’t trying to attract my attention or shouting for my help. I could leave them to it. I could just swim to the shore, hitch a lift back to town and pack up. I could have my own story about today.
I push off the inner tube and look around me. At this low level, all I can see is water and very far away, a clump of rocks. It’s terrifying. I have never felt smaller or further from home as I float there, feeling the weight of the lake pushing against me.
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