Conscious of my painted toenails, I did not emerge from the river like all the others. I instead bobbed up and down with the gently rolling current. Staring at my slightly denuded chest, I had been earlier experimenting with the removal of body hair. My intention was to reach a more feminine ideal, a standard that always felt more biological to me than cultural.
While swimming or dog paddling, one learns to avoid the beds of fresh water mussels. The pressure of toes and the balls of the feet cause shellfish to slam shut. The first time it happens to you, your body jerks in surprise. After a time, one adjusts, but it’s always a bit of a fright.
My girlfriend at the time implored me to swim closer to the shore. She never divided in headfirst as I did. She never hid her toes or the hair on her legs. Easing her body into the water, little by little, she kept running commentary. A tilted rock, just the right size, was concealed by the level of the water. It entered, unexpectedly, giving her a jolt.
That was… intimate. She chuckled nervously. Past partners would not have called attention to the violation, but this was not how she was. For her, the world was an everlasting scavenger hunt. While walking the woods, she would leap for the latest specimen, grabbing for the ends of tails and wings. I found bugs generally creepy and disgusting, but she had no such reservations. Her entire life had been lived in the outdoors. It was where she came to recharge and where I came simply to be with her.
Being with me took a lot of convincing. At the outset, I held her hand while she cradled the framed picture of her ex-boyfriend, sobbing. I probably should have been more bothered the way she transposed his personality traits and perceived strengths onto me. I wanted her with a kind of mad desperation and dogged persistence. In workshop, I’d fallen in love with her short stories and now wanted the person whose mind had crafted them.
Returning from the creek, we drove back to her house, talking of nothing in particular. I was devising another strategy to keep her from pushing away from me. The eight years that separated us in age was often cited as a reason why we needed to no longer see each other. Like a comedy duo, we kept returning to the same exchange, the same routine.
Do you see that picture on the wall? I indicated that indeed, I did see it. That was me when I was your age. She didn’t look that much different then as she did now. Perhaps she seemed less comfortable with herself and a little more unsettled and indecisive. Each time with this call-and-response conversation, she smiled, self-satisfied. I suppose, to her, she felt better being the old wise soul and me the baby.
For all her indecisiveness, or belief in her intellectual superiority and maturity, she returned to me, consistently. I was simply grateful for what I received and did not know yet what I truly deserved. Even so, I still find myself citing in words and in conversation some of the wisdom and insight she shared with me. She is part of me. The frustration is gone. The picture on the wall is now mine.