Alex Simand is an MFA Candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. His words border on the inane, but with an attempt at the furtively transcendent,...read more the genuinely human, grasping at those slippery moments that make us say "aha!" He writes poetry and nonfiction. Alex lives in San Francisco, where he is employed as an Electrical Engineer filled with gentrifying self-loathing. He attempts to consolidate his math-brain with his writer-brain on a daily basis with varying degrees of success. His work has appeared in Mud Season Review, Red Fez, Ash & Bones, and Prague Revue.
When I was twelve I thought I had done this thing: fall in love. It was the summer of 1997; my parents and I drove to Moon River on Georgian Bay in Midwestern Ontario to a well-appointed cabin among a small village of well-appointed cabins. The place was known for its magnificent sunsets and its Muskie fishing. My uncle had once caught a ten-pound pike on that river. I remember when he brought it home – razor-sharp teeth, fins flapped and gills still sucked at the empty air. A few dozen feet from the village was the shore of the river. The water surged off on the horizon, sitting seemingly stagnant with its vastness. It resembled a lake more than a river, with its cold, clear water and pebble shores. Boulders of varying sizes appeared out of its deep blue like button mushrooms peeking out from the forest floor, through moss and layers of pine needles. I could not appreciate it then: twelve year olds are intrinsically resistant to beauty in that way – in the way of buzzing dragonflies baking on hot granite, the crooning of loons just before dawn, the early morning mist rising off the lake.
The place was overrun with Russians. Moon River seemed a preordained meeting place of transplants seeking familiar ground in which to root. Perhaps there was something reminiscent of their former home, there. The sickly smell of morning dew that wafts off sprawling fir trees, severe granite that shoots out preposterously from the forest, the treacherous, rocky, moss-covered shoreline that brackets the land – all of these things felt like home, I thought. I have never known that place, but, watching the Russians, seeing the slope of their shoulders, the forward lean of their hips pushed forward by their palms, their crooked Communist smiles – these things communicated their comfort along the shore of the Moon River. Their bellies protruded just a little further. Their nighttime snoring spoke of the tensile release you feel when you return to your bed after a long trip.
Like me, she was Russian. Like me, she wasn’t really Russian, or didn’t really want to be, anymore. Her name was Yulia. When we met, my father was building a fire for a dusk barbecue. He crouched low, exposing the plumber crack over his floral-patterned trunks that were really re-appropriated and oversized boxers, and threw bits of newspaper, stacks of kindling into the concrete fire pit between our cabin and the neighboring one. His purple tank top crept slowly up over his burgeoning apprentice of a beer belly, exposing the violent sun-seared skin underneath. stood idly and looked at the fish lying on our porch, their dead marble eyes gazing up into the darkening smear of orange and red of the sky. If I had been a smoker then, I would have been smoking a cigarette. If I had been smoking a cigarette, I would have looked exceedingly cool when she walked out onto the neighboring porch. Instead, there was only an underweight boy, all jangly limbs and ribcages, with fish guts splattered on his lenses, suddenly aware that his father was a caricature. Why can’t you be normal, I thought, and wished for my father to don a pair of slacks and a button-up shirt like those laughing fathers in Sears catalogs.
But there she stood, above me. She had long scarecrow hair, wisps of it escaping a pink hair clip attached high on her head, wisps of hair tucked haphazardly into an exposed bra strap, as if she had only recently, half-heartedly, dressed. Her translucent white shoulders, uncovered, seemed brittle, delicate. Handle With Care. She wore ornately patterned blue jeans, outlandishly flared, even though the summer’s heat sat atop the little village in the waning light. The jeans rustled as she carefully stepped down the stairs. She stopped beside me to watch my father, who had now lit the fire and, even lower now, with his chest almost touching the ground, was blowing gently on the kindling.
I looked over at her. She smelled of Tuesday mornings, of bakeries preparing to open their doors and dew-heavy lavender. She was holding a series of bobby pins between her inwardly-turned lips. One by one she removed the bobby pins and placed them strategically in various spots in her hair. To the boy, then, and even to the man, now, the pattern of bobby pin placement is an undecipherable mystery. But how deftly, how naturally, she slipped the bobby pins in her hair, precisely where they needed to be. Like the rooting of strawberry bushes, like the perfect randomness of stars in the night sky, with quick deft movements, she tucked and slipped the pins in her hair.
When she was down to her last pin, between pursed lips and without looking at me she said, “Making a fire? My parents will likely want to join you.”
“You are welcome to join, too,” I said. I looked at her. Her gaze was fixed on my father’s butt crack, which I wished would go away.
“I know,” she said, and plodded over to the shore to watch seaplanes land in the distance. The swooshing sound of her pants ebbed as she walked further away, and I strained to listen.
Her parents did indeed come outside; evidently they already knew my parents. Hugs were exchanged, beers were opened, and mustaches curled up in that way that Eastern European mustaches do – smiles given grudgingly, briefly, as if waiting to be snatched away. We built a bonfire, and we sat around it, talking until the buzzing and stinging of mosquitoes became unbearable, and we all shuffled off to our respective cabins, to sleep among the cacophony of chirping crickets and croaking frogs. I did not see Yulia follow, but she must have.
Here is the heater. Hear its ticking, its jarring snapping like a lit fuse preparing to unleash its violent heat, watch its electric embers glow, smell its insistent metal mingle with the cabin’s pine. Here is an expanse of granite. See it poke out through the quartz of the shoreline, feel its slippery texture refined over millennia by the river’s imperceptible flow. There is the loon rustling its feathers; watch it dip its cartoon head into the river, watch the droplets disturb the peaceful water and hear its pleading cry. Here is a dying perch. See the flick of its yellow tail and the ghastly gasp of its gills sucking in air uncut by water. Watch its eyes fixate on nothing as you bash its head in. Here is love. See its blossoming, watch it take root with a curling of pinky fingers, echoing over the lake, over the perch’s gills, rousing the loon from its drift as its head jerks at the shore.
My days filled with fish. Catching fish, netting fish, skinning and cleaning fish, eating fish. My fingernails smelled of fish. My palms were stained with the dark brown blood of fish. Before long, the silvery translucent scales of recently deceased bass clung to every article of clothing I owned. If a bear had been trudging by, its nose would have led it to me, having mistaken me for a boy-shaped fish. My dreams filled with images of fishing – the black and orange float being pulled underwater, the taut fishing line and the bending of my short rod, the thrashing of the unfortunate beast as it beat against the sides of the boat or on the rocky shore. I dreamed of these things in the same way one might dream of the rocking on a boat, might simply feel it in one’s knees, after spending a few hours on it – as if sea legs, once acquired, could not be shaken.
My father made me bait the hooks before we cast off. This was my job – to bait the hook, to choose a worm, pinch off a portion of its painstakingly grown body, to slip the writhing worm onto the sharp glint of the hook’s point. I close my eyes and see the worm twist and thrash its free end over the hook and wrap around my finger like a boa constrictor. I brush it off and lengthen the worm’s squirming form before handing it to my father. They say that worms have many hearts, so that if they are split in half, they might continue growing – new hearts and new bodies. Humans have but one heart. The whole body dies if severed. Sometimes I would reel the line in to find the hook almost bare, with just a few scraps of worm flesh clinging to the tip. I imagined a clever Walleye, an old veteran of the river whose golden scales had dulled with tarnish, who knew the human’s tricks and the folly of his brothers, who nibbled with small darts at the hook. He knew never to attack with force, but to prod tentatively at the unlikely offering of a worm in the water, that dubious gift.
Sometimes we used guppies for bait. Those small silvery fish swimming happily in their Styrofoam containers – I was responsible for their demise, too. Hook pierced through the eyeball with childhood fascination or cruelty and looped back and through the gills. Or leeches – the slippery obsidian muscle bundles attaching themselves to container lid – I hated them for the blood they stole, for the sharp blades that latched on and refused to let go.
Some days my father and I would awake before dawn and take the rowboat moored to the pier out onto the lake. he silence, the darkness of that place, then, frightened me. he boat rocked in the darkness; without the comfort of a horizon in the distance I felt unmoored, as if the rocking had no natural end, as if the boat could just as easily have capsized and spun on its axis indefinitely. But it turns out that the laws of physics apply even when you cannot see their evidence. Light and body are disconcertingly disconnected.
Other mornings, I would feign grogginess and and let my father go alone. Once I heard the sound of his oars scraping against the pier, I would get dressed and walk out into the waxing sunlight, taking my own fishing pole and a small can of worms on my way out. My mother still slept, her soft rasps floating out from the bedroom.
Yulia would silently follow me early in the morning when I went off to fish off the shore near the outcrop of rocks, about a half-mile from our cabins. I would wordlessly set up my rod, hooks, float, weights, working diligently with furrowed brow, and then cast off into the silent morning waters and wait for the float to bob. She would sit and listen to her DiscMan and watch me. Her legs tucked tight into her chest amid a folding of bright sweaters and loose shorts, her bare white kneecaps protruding far out from boney thighs. She would merely watch, and I would merely fish, and that was the extent of that.
Into our silence crept another thing, crept a wonderful thing. Words are meager when attempting to describe this thing. Maybe love is a lottery ticket. A long shot. A moon shot. Maybe we spend what currency we have, spend it until we are poor and jaded, left with only the cynicism at the bottom of our souls – we spend this finite currency we are all given at birth, hoping to cash in on this grand phenomenon of love. When we are young we do not know the value of our sentiment, we do not know to be world-weary. When we are young it seems like an infinite resource and we throw it at every Wheel of Fortune lottery ticket we can find. A less sardonic me hopes this is untrue, but the eroded adult insists.
The boy was not frugal, and the silence between Yulia and me filled the way only silence can be filled, untainted by experience. Futures imbued with mystery, possibilities unpinched. Untenable but delicious, like describing the taste of sunrise. After the fish’s early morning feeding frenzy, when the muskies and bass retreated back under their cool rocks and only smaller perch and jittering sunfish snapped at my hook, I would wind up my reel, gather my tackle and bait, and sit next to her.
The sun would be high enough to have burned off the morning fog; mirages of distant boats, my father’s among them, disappeared. The impressionist shimmer of the cool lake was replaced with the photorealistic sharpness of daytime. ulia and I would sit quietly and watch this shift, we would watch the world change together. We would feel the ancient boulders press into our boney bottoms, feel the Earth’s crust proclaim its presence to our meager young bodies. We would watch chipmunks skitter across the heating granite, the red-eared sliders flop loudly among the reeds or sunbathe on the shore. Antoine de Saint-Exupery said “Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.” If we had known who that was and what that meant, then, perhaps we would have recognized what we were doing. We were but children.
Besides the lake, the one common amenity the cabin community boasted was the small wood-burning sauna that sat squat and jangling off to the side of the shore, steps from the lake itself. It smelled of pine and ash, and looked as ancient as the lake itself, as the Earth itself. In the evenings, burly Russian men, and their meek wives, would emerge from their cabins, bottles of clear spirits clutched against their bushy barrel chests, and begin preparing it. My father, who prided himself on his fire making abilities, would invariably snatch responsibility away from whatever half-wit was fumbling with the cast iron stove inside the sauna. his was a man’s job, he seemed to suggest, and you are a poor variety of man.
On one such night, while my father tinkered in the sauna and my mother tsk’ed apologies at the other women, the younger women, Yulia emerged from her cabin wearing a swimsuit. I had never noticed a swimsuit before other than in the periphery as I walked to the Lego section at Zeller’s. But in that moment, it seemed like the most urgent of observations. She is wearing a swimsuit. It was not particularly noteworthy, I don’t think, because I can only recall her joints: her tender shifting clavicle, the jutting bones of her lower back, and the tiny marbles on her pelvis that suggested hips. Her bare feet toed the pebbles of the shore as she strode by me.
I bolted into the cabin and changed. When I ran out, she was already in the water, stepping stork-like into the placid river. My father, who had come out of the freshly-lit sauna, grabbed me by the arm and, glancing over his shoulder to ensure my mother did not see, handed me a Starvoprammen – “Only good beer is Czech beer,” he’d been known to say – and I cracked it open and took what I perceived to be a large swig. My father indicated with his hands that I should finish the beer before my mother noticed, so I gulped it down as fast as I could. The taste of malt, this bitter gauntlet, ran over my tongue and down my throat. I gagged and stood up straight; the world cropped and rotated, the trees swayed against the breeze. I turned the empty bottle upside down and looked up at my father, who knuckled my chin and walked back to the sauna, his kingdom. I walked to the water’s edge.
Yulia was facing away. She had waded far enough that the water covered her hips, crept up over the curve of her lower back, up towards the clasp of her top, between her shoulder blades. Timidly, like a dove edging towards an outstretched hand, I approached. The water felt arctic, having drifted down from colder tributaries and settled between our infant bodies. She still did not look at me, but stopped and treaded. When I was close enough to feel her warmth in the water, she spun around and faced me. She smiled and dove backwards, arching her back, plopped like the red-eared slider into the water behind her. I swam towards her; my head, reeling from the beer, followed suit.
I dove under, my eyes wide open; I felt the fluttering kicks of her legs on my shoulders and swam under her. I emerged on the side of her furthest from shore, and tapped her shoulder. She squealed and began to swim away. I followed. “I’m training to be a lifeguard,” I told her, and showed her my best backstroke. Like seals we skittered around the water, churning it, turning our ribs up to the rising moon, whose light shone brightly on the shadowy river. We barely touched.
Pike have the right idea. Pike are long, lean aggressive fish. Their scales shimmer in the dark clear water of the Moon River; you can see them darting from food source to food source, unthinking, unhesitating. See food? Attack it! Propel yourself! Swivel your body, align your fins, rush at it with every ounce of your pike strength. Perhaps the worm will contain a hook. Perhaps the hook will pull you out from your home and dash you against an unyielding shore, leave you gasping and gaping at unfamiliar stars. You must eat. The wise fish is not one that thinks this will surely be my end; I will abstain but the one who knows this truth but feeds nonetheless, who expires on the shore knowing that he had feasted. The old Walleye with his tarnished scales nibbles at the periphery and tastes bits of worm flesh but never swallows. He never swallows the tinny hook; he is never caught; he drifts forever, treading water next to shadowy rocks like a shy sixth-grader pressed against the padded wall at a church dance.
After our dusk frolic in the shallow waters near the river’s shores, Yulia and I spent much of our remaining time together. Our parents would gather early each day in the shade of pine trees; they would recall planting potatoes at their ancestor’s dachas, feeding chickens, baking bread, and foraging for mushrooms in the cool forests aroung St. Petersburg. Meanwhile, their children darted off to create their own memories. Instead of fishing with my father every morning, I would walk over to Yulia’s porch and wait for her to emerge. I could tell by the slouch of his shoulders that my father was unhappy with his son being snatched away for unknown trysts. But he knew enough not to stop it. Instead, he seized Yulia’s father for lessons in line assembly, casting, and trawling.
When Yulia appeared outside, we would walkoff in any direction. Sometimes we walked to the general store attached to the adjacent campground to talk to the dusty fishermen in rubber boots buying bait. On the way back our knuckles would knock together as we swung our arms in exaggerated arcs. Other times we’d end up at the shoreline where she had watched me fish; but I wouldn’t fish. e would instead clamber over the rocks and moss, and hunt for chipped chunks of quartz. We imagined they were valuable, and that quartz watches were, in fact, carved out of these unlikely fragments.
At night we parted ways. There was no question of sleepovers, though perhaps there should have been. She stepped lightly into her cottage and I slunk gravely into mine. I listened for sounds of Yulia’s undressing – a faint rustle of clothing, the desperate snap of a bra clasp, the thump of her Nirvana belt buckle dropping to the ground with her wide-bottomed pants. But all I heard was the infuriating chirping of crickets. I wished there was some way for me to tame them, to bring pattern to their seemingly arbitrary singing. I watched the light through the curtains of her rooms for a flicker of movement, for shadows performing interpretive dance routines that might communicate affection. But all I saw were empty beer cans stacked on the window sill.
Soon the brief summer came to an end, and it was time to leave. It was time to return to our faded realities that seems like horribly vague dreams. On the way home, we shared a car. Yulia’s father had loaded so many coolers with fish – far surpassing the daily limit imposed by the Ministry of Natural Resources, mind, but Russians have never been known to abide by fish and game laws – and stuffed them so high up to the ceiling of his Camry, that there was nowhere for Yulia to sit. I suggested she ride with us back to the city, back to where we were no longer thrust into each other’s company. My parents agreed. On the two-hour ride, we huddled together in the back seat, steeling ourselves for our return, to be prodded into a reality for which we were scarcely prepared. But we sat close, our elbows brushing, and she handed me her headphones, instructed me to put them on. ”Fly Like An Eagle” by Steve Miller played; I did not know this song. I did not know any songs other than the ones my parents sang at birthdays. The next song played – “The Winner” by Coolio. Hip-hop. I knew nothing of this either.
“Cool,” I said.
“It’s the Space Jam soundtrack,” she said. “The movie is sort of lame, but the soundtrack is good. You like Cypress Hill?”
She did not respond, but instead shifted closer to me so that the headphone wire lay slack on our laps, our arms no longer simply touching but pressing urgently. I took the headphones off and gave them back, but she did not move away. Her moon-white hand crept toward mine, encircled my wrist, inched down to my palm; her fingers entwined with mine. I felt the lapping of waves over the granite shores on my knuckles. I felt the roasting paths of the sandy ridges we walked together. I felt my knees scraping against pine needles as we fished for discarded Frisbees under the cabin porch.
We sat in silence, holding hands. Her heat traveled through my palm, past my funny bone, over my shoulders, into my aorta, where it eventually settled as a mass in my throat. I was unsure if my heat was my own, or only borrowed from Yulia. Like the pitching boat in the pitch dark, I fumbled and scraped against this feeling, losing my sense of horizon, capsizing and righting all at once. I thought of the land we were leaving – the scampering of critters, the drifting heat of the shoreline, the crickets that spoke as emissaries between our bedrooms. I felt her thoughts were the same. For two hours we sat like this. When we pulled up to her house, less than a kilometer from our own apartment, she unwound her fingers from mine and stepped out of the car. My hand sat limp on the seat as she said “bye” and walked towards her life.
I suppose I could have looked her up. Our parents were acquainted, now. But it was as if they – our parents – too, knew the unsullied nature of that summer. Before we had become our parents, before I could boast and before she could bemoan, we had done this thing. Before we had dug protective moats around our souls, before we knew any better, Yulia and I had this experience that only children experience – truly unrationed affection. We had scarcely spoken a dozen sentences to one another.
Out of the river it swelled. Back into the river it went.