I heard a story once that Phil Collins wrote the song “In the Air Tonight” about a drowning he witnessed while fishing in a boat on a lake.
I think about that every time I go fishing. Except I don’t fish. I just sit in the boat hoping I can witness something like that. Maybe a murder will inspire me to become a great artist as well.
They say that trauma is one of the best inspirations, but suburbia doesn’t really have anything that inspiring happening. The worst thing that could happen is someone’s dad didn’t buy them the right color car, the right model television, the perfect outfit for that first day of school. The privileged are looked up to for the fashions of the times and the trends of the cool. God I hate that shit, but I am a part of it because I was born into money. My mother does my shopping, and my Barbie sister wouldn’t let me out of the house in anything other than designer jeans. Still, I do what I can to remain subversive, ripping holes whenever possible, and buying my tee shirts from the thrift store by the Video Box.
“Think of my reputation!” my sister, Joanne, screams at me. “What would they think if you went out in public, let alone to school, looking like that?” She flips her hair to one side as she turns to look at me. She puts one hand on her hip and points at me with the other, punctuating the words with a poke in my general direction… She looks like our mother. “I have spent years, no, my whole life training these people to know that I am the coolest, hottest, most popular girl in the whole county, and you go to High Valley High in a graphic T-shirt? Mexico Is for Lovers? Where do you find this shit, Aaron? On the side of the road? You’ve never even been to Mexico!”
High Valley High is not the elite private school that Joanne is making it out to be; it’s public school, plain and simple. High Valley High just happens to be in the Litchfield Hills, where Connecticut Money lives…where White Connecticut Money lives.
“High Valley,” I say. “A nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there,” I mumble.
“Well,” Joanne says, actually poking me in the chest hard enough that I stumble backwards. “You do live in High Valley, and you have to go to High Valley High. So deal with it, and me,” she says, flipping her hair back into place. “And,” she says while packing her lunch into her Hello Kitty lunch box, “you could make yourself more attractive, Aaron. I mean, aside from the t-shirt.” She brushes the hair out of my face. “Why do you hide behind that? And those, what do you call them, ‘Pork Chops?’ or something stupid like that. People know how handsome you are, Aaron, even though you hide behind all that hair. Girls talk, you know, and you are on The List.”
The list. The List. It’s rumored that The List is written on the wall of every girls’ bathroom wall in High Valley High.
“Great. I’m on the stupid list,” I say.
“Not only on it,” she says, “but at the top of it. You should be proud that you’re at the top; I know I am.”
What is it about beauty and popularity that goes hand in hand with stupidity? Or maybe it’s the other way around: those who are naturally stupid gravitate towards the popularity thing, I guess, like it’s the highlight of their little lives. I used to think that the teen years were the only time you could get by on looks alone. But I know that’s not true. And I’ll never use that to get by. Not now. Not later. I see the way the teachers look at these pretty, young things in clothes that barely cover their ass. What is left to the imagination when your goods are bared for the whole world to see? Batted eyelashes for forgotten homework or the threat of detention—“I see you baby, shakin’ that ass.”
Guys try it as well—with a wink, with a subdued voice, with a slight smile showcasing their unnatural pearly whites. Most of the female teachers don’t fall for it, but that doesn’t stop the guys from trying. Maybe they are hoping to wear the teachers down. Maybe they are hoping that one day the teachers will wake up and recognize their students “prowess.” Maybe those guys are just stupid. I believe in the latter.
“Don’t you know they leer at you when you bend over?” I ask Joanne, as we stand in the kitchen making our lunches.
“Who?” she says, suppressing a knowing smile.
“I know, dummy. I mean, which ones?”
I slam my apple down on the counter, splitting the bottom, juice splashing onto my shirt. “Does it matter? Is there someone’s attention you are trying to attract? Is there someone in particular who you would like to send to jail?”
Her sixteen-year-old eyelashes, caked with crap, flutter like butterflies. At sixteen she is, and I hate to say this, every boys wet dream: five feet tall, perpetually tan, long dark brown hair, big brown eyes, big breasts, and I don’t know exactly how much she weighs, but it can’t be more than a hundred pounds.
If only she were as innocent as a butterfly.
“There is no reason why I can’t look sexy,” she says. “I can, and I will. I have all the right equipment.” She wiggles her hips.
“That skirt isn’t even regulation length,” I say.
“I know,” she says, wiggling even more.
I hear how guys talk about her as I walk past them in the hallway at school; but I keep walking. She wants the attention, she likes the attention, but I am so afraid that one day she will get attention that she can’t handle, that she doesn’t want, that isn’t a game. Then what?
I really do fear for her.
My girlfriend, Heather, and my sister share this same self-centered ideology. Even though Heather is eighteen, she can’t seem to shake that superficial mentality. Joanne and she are both walking, talking dolls, waiting for someone to play with them. Heather is slightly taller, with long black hair, paler skin, a smaller chest, and doesn’t weigh much more that Joanne. When asked if they are sisters, which happens all the time, they cover their mouths, move their heads together, and giggle.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Heather, and I like to look at her, but the way she dresses brings all kinds of unwanted attention, and I get to hear about it…all the time.
“Did you see the way Mr. Parsons was staring at me today,” she complains at the end of school. “I was trying to understand what Whitman meant by ‘I stand somewhere waiting for you’ in that poem, and all he did was stare at my breasts. What a fucking perv!” Turning around in the direction of Mr. Parsons classroom, “I do have a brain you know,” she says.
I stop in the middle of the English hallway and look at her. “Did you call him on it? Did you say something? Anything?”
“Why the interrogation?” She smiles. “Is someone getting jealous?”
“Yes. Yes, I am.”
“Really,” she asks, hopefully.
The sarcasm has been lost. First of all, Mr. Parsons is seventy-five years old, walks with a cane and has a limp in his left leg. A purple splotch covers the right half of his face, from nose to ear. “A birth mark,” he says, slowly, when asked. It looks to me like an old burn, from Vietnam I think, but maybe not.
“Heather. You know I’m not the jealous type, right?”
“Yes, and sometimes I think it’s because you don’t care all that much about me. If you cared about other guys wiping their chins… Maybe even hint that you would fight for me…”
What do you say to something like that? “Why would you want me to be ‘that guy’?”
“I don’t want you to be that guy,” she says making big brown eyes. “I just think it would be nice if every once in a while you could let me know you are my guy.”
Time stands still. I see her mouth moving but can’t understand what she is saying. I strain to catch something, her words float from her lips and mix into the High Valley High after school noises. The wrinkles forming on her brow show that she’s saying something crucial, and I wouldn’t want to be unprepared for the following pop-quiz, but there is simply no sound. There is background noise: people talking, laughing, cars driving by the school, somewhere a bell rings. A dog barks. I hear footsteps of people walking slowly by us in the hallway, and end-of-the-day announcements come over the loud speaker. Your High Valley High Hornets’ varsity soccer team will be playing Edwards High this afternoon at 3:30 at Miners Field. I look at the clock right past Heather’s head. The Glee Club will be hosting a dinner and movie tonight at 6:30. They will probably serve pasta; they always serve pasta. They will be serving pasta and the movie will be…Bring it On. I have no idea who gives these announcements; it is always the same voice, but I can never place a face. I would walk away from Heather, take a few steps back, but she is holding me by the shoulders, shaking me. Suddenly hers is the only sound.
“…Can’t you listen to me when I’m talking? This is important. Goddammit, Aaron, sometimes it’s like you aren’t even here.” I think she is about to cry, but it’s hard to tell. The way she talks always makes it sound like she is about to cry.
“I think I am going to go fishing this afternoon,” I say. “I hear the fish are biting out there.”
She frowns. “I thought we could spend some quality time together,” she says.
“Maybe when I get back,” I say, shrugging.
“What does that mean? When will you be back?” Her eyes start to well up and I really think she is going to cry this time.
“Later. When I am done.”
There is something warm trickling down my face, out of my nose. I think it’s my brain; it has become liquefied from all this drudgery, all this dull conversation. Or maybe it’s from the cocaine habit that I think I have. I have never even seen it, cocaine, but I am constantly thinking about it, dreaming about it. It’s not that I think drugs will solve all the problems of suburbia, I just want to try it…just once.
I like to do things like that, try them once. I worked at McDonald’s for a week and a half last year. God that sucked. Heather was pissed at me because it was during the summer and got in the way of the quality time she wanted to spend with me.
“Why do you want to work at McDonald’s?” she asked sitting on the sofa in my basement bedroom.
“You’re going to work at McDonald’s?” Joanne accused as she slowly walked down the stairs at that moment. She came into the room and sat next to Heather on the couch.
With an air of white, upper-class superiority in her voice, she said, “No upstanding person with money would ever do something like that. That is why they have minorities.”
She takes after my mother with her racist remarks. My mother says things about “them coloreds” all the time. Nobody in the world still says that, I think, but my mother. “Them coloreds are what’s wrong with this country. Them coloreds cause the drug problems. Them coloreds are all on welfare. Why should I pay taxes when their ten illegitimate kids don’t even know the value of a dollar? They just spend it on crack.” She says all this while drinking a vodka martini at breakfast. Fucking hypocrite. I know that she’s never had a job in her life, and spends all of her inheritance money on stupid, expensive, European crap. Italian leather sofas. French doors. Austrian throw rugs. Whatever her socialite friends are buying today. She thinks that everything is fancier just because it’s European. “Everything is fancier when it comes from Europe,” my mother says while holding onto her (fifth) empty martini glass and the railing simultaneously. Balance eludes her at eleven o’clock in the morning.
“Why do you get so many nosebleeds?” Heather asks while searching for a tissue in her oversized purse.
“My cocaine habit,” I say.
“You don’t have a cocaine habit. You don’t even drink.”
“How do you know?”
“I wouldn’t be dating you if you did.”
Janitor Wilkins walks by, looks at the floor, and shakes his head.
Tilting my head back, “Maybe it’s stress,” I say.
“What do you have to be stressed out about,” she says while pulling out a wad of tissues. “You have everything you want. And besides, you have me.” Smiling, she blots my nose. The bright red on the pure white of the tissue is erotic. “So are you going to go fishing?” She looks into my eyes with this question, hoping to tempt me. She wriggles under my arm and puts hers around my waist, grabbing onto the belt loop in the middle of the back of my jeans. “I thought maybe we could go and spend some time in your room.” She emphasizes the words “we” and “time.” “What do you think about that?”
“I got it,” I say taking the tissue from her hand and walking ahead of her down the hallway. “I don’t really feel like staying indoors. It’s beautiful out today, and who knows how long this weather will last. Soon it will be too cold to go fishing. Maybe I will take up ice fishing.”
“Look, I let you work at McDonald’s, remember?” she says, running to get in front of me. “I thought that was so stupid, but I went along with it. Now you want to—”
I pull her towards me, kissing glistening lips. She smells so pretty. All girls smell pretty. “Do you want to come with me?” I ask, after the kiss.
“You want me to come fishing with you?” she says, surprised by both the offer and the kiss (I don’t kiss in public). “You never want me to go with you. Why the change of heart?”
I would love to say “so you will quit whining,” but instead say, “I can feel it coming in the air tonight.”
“You can feel what coming? And it’s not even night. It’s afternoon.” She squints. “Do you want me to come or not?”
“Yes, sweetheart, I would like you to come fishing with me this afternoon.” I choke down these words, but she doesn’t notice the change in intonation or the fact that I didn’t answer her first question. She is just happy to be with me.
“When do you want to go?” she asks, clapping and jumping in the middle of the hall.
“But I cant go looking like this,” she says, pointing to her two-inch black heels and pinkish dress.
“I have clothes in my car that you can wear.”
“Are they clean?” she asks, knowing full well that they aren’t. “How long have they been in there? Are there going to be other people on the lake?”
“Look, the sun is setting earlier and earlier now, and I don’t have time for you to go home and put on your ‘fishing outfit.’”
She surrenders. “Okay, okay. Walk me to my locker then we can go.”
“I’ll meet you at my car.”
I hear her heels retreating on the newly waxed floor. Janitor Wilkins takes a lot of pride in his work to make it this shiny and she wears black heels that make scuff marks with every step. If I were the janitor, I would be pissed at all these kids fucking up my floor day in and day out. Maybe I should be the janitor. I would make them walk around in their socks. I don’t care how much they paid for their shoes. My back wouldn’t hurt anymore from scrubbing their damn black marks off my floor with a toothbrush.
The school lockers all look the same, the only difference, and the only way I know where I’m going is to look at the numbers. But I have to do this consciously, and my dreams of being a janitor and enforcing the ‘punishment rules’ for those who fuck up my floors make me lose track of where I am. 314. Too far. Back down two hallways I find my locker. I put a barcode sticker on the top left corner so I can find it if I forget the number, 287. On more than one occasion I had to go to the office and ask for the number. Twice they’ve even had to cut the lock off because I forgot the combination. I am on my third lock of the school year, and it is only October. I used to write down the number in pencil on the bright blue locker in case I forgot, but I kept writing down the wrong numbers. Now I have a key lock. The key stays in my wallet, which makes an impression in the leather. Maybe if I lost the key, I could take that to the locksmith and have a new one made.
I grab my books and find the hallway that takes me to the outside by the student parking lot. I reach into my pocket for my cigarettes and lighter. With my other hand I pull my hair behind my ear so as not to burn it. Then I remember I don’t smoke. Heather is waiting at my car, a 1985 lime green VW Fox Station wagon, talking with my sister, who is sitting in the driver’s seat of her black 2008 VW Golf.
I have tried to get Joanne to carpool with me, but she likes to drive. As I am walking up to them, they stop talking and look at me.
“Damn, you’re slow,” Joanne says, revving her engine. “School was over ten minutes ago. What did you do, get lost again?”
I try to suppress a smile, but it is too funny.
“Aaron, you are an idiot.” She gives me the finger and pulls out, tires squealing.
Heather stands there looking at me. “Are you going to let me in?” She puts on her sunglasses, shielding the look of death.
“It’s open,” I reply, getting into the driver’s side. The keys are already in the ignition. “So that’s where I left them,” I say, looking down at the keys, “I thought I lost them.”
“Someday someone is going to steal this car,” she says.
The car starts up with a whine.
“I think my car is going to die,” I say.
“Good,” she says. “I hate this car. I don’t know why you bought it in the first place. A lime green, two-door station wagon; what a stupid car.”
“Anything else?” I ask.
“Yes, as a matter of fact. It smells…like shit.” She says this as she opens the window. The crank on her side is hard to move, I should probably spray it with WD-40 but I don’t.
As we pull out of the school parking lot, Heather jumps into the back seat to change.
“You should clean your car out. There is so much garbage back here I can’t find the clothes.”
“They are way back,” I say, looking in the rearview. As she leans over the back seat into the wagon part, she loses her balance and falls head first, over the seat, her legs kicking in the air, panties showing. It’s the black pair. The ones she wears when she has her period. I start to giggle.
“What the fuck is so funny,” she screams. My muffler is protecting my ears from the brunt of the attack, but I hear her all right. “If you drove like a normal person—” This critique, too, gets old. I drive fast; makes me feel…dangerous.
The drive to the Crystal Lake takes about twenty minutes from school. It’s only ten miles, but then you have the dirt roads to contend with. If it has rained in the past few days, there could be puddles as deep as the tires, or there could be protruding rocks that weren’t there before, suddenly appearing from the washout. We are lucky though; there hasn’t been any rain in High Valley, or anywhere in Northwestern Connecticut, for weeks. The roads are dry and dusty and I can’t see behind me because of that.
We get to the place, the secret place where my boat is moored. It’s only a little boat, with a tiny eight horsepower engine. I used my “McDonald’s” money to buy it at a tag sale. The paycheck wasn’t enough, so my mother gave me the rest. She also gave me the money for the all-day Boating Class that I had to take in order to operate the boat safely… and legally.
I gently help Heather in and shove off. I like that term, “shove off.” If I were to add an “Arrgghh!,” which I frequently do, I would be able to pass for a pirate. Whistling “Yo ho yo ho and a bottle of rum,” I paddle us out far enough so I can drop the motor in without it catching the bottom. Heather looks beautiful in the afternoon sunshine. Her hair is blowing in the breeze that comes with being out on the water. Long black strands fly off, wrap themselves around my face and neck, still carrying the traces of her apple shampoo, and move on. I think they are trying to tempt me, the same way she is. Her body is arched between the prow and the first seat; she looks comfortable, hand trailing in the water as she leans to look for something. Maybe her reflection captures her attention. Maybe it’s a frog.
I turn the motor off as we get close to the island in the middle of the lake. It’s more of a rock outcropping, or up-cropping, or something like that, rather than an island. The island consists of one dead tree and rocks—lots of rocks. Maybe this used to be a quarry, or maybe the rocks just like it there.
I think somebody brought the dead tree out here and “planted” it.
Sometimes I see bald eagles around here, sometimes osprey and once or twice I thought I saw a falcon, but I don’t know enough about birds to really say. I watch them play with each other, like birds, and I watch them hunt. I once saw a tiny bird catch a fish and start to fly away with it. Then from out of nowhere, two bald eagles came and started fighting with it in mid-air. The tiny bird was scared, but it didn’t let go of its tiny fish until one of the eagles made a swipe at its head, forcing the tiny bird to drop the fish to defend itself. The other eagle just swooped down and caught that fish before it hit the water. To the victor go the spoils.
The tiny bird, which had spent all his energy fighting the eagles, landed on the prow of my boat and looked at me. It was so sad. I could see the sorrow in his little eyes. What could I have possibly done to help you, little guy? I remembered that I hadn’t eaten lunch that day; it was still in my bag. I pulled out the sandwich and looked at it. “Tuna fish,” I said with a start. “Today is your lucky day buddy.” I ripped the sandwich in half. Before I could throw it closer to him, he came and sat right in front of me. I handed him a little piece, just big enough for his tiny mouth, and he ate it right out of my hand. I gave him a little more, then a little more, until the sandwich was all gone. “All gone buddy,” I said to the bird. “You ate it all. I’m not sure where you put it, but it’s gone and you’re full.” The bird looked at me. He didn’t seem so sad anymore.
“When are you going to start fishing?” Heather asks sitting up and arching her back. She moves to the middle bench and looks me right in the eye. “I’m getting kind of bored sitting here with you not talking to me.”
“What do you want from me?” I ask. “Can’t you just enjoy this without having to do anything?” I know that I snapped at her, but I didn’t yell—I never yell.
“What the fuck do you mean, ‘what do I want from you?’ You invited me to go fishing with you. And all I want to know is are you going to fish or not?” I know that if we were standing she would be tapping her foot, incessantly, on the ground. “When are you going to start fishing?”
I look around and see no one. Nothing. We are the only two people out here today.
“What are you looking for,” she asks, her voice a little calmer. “Are you expecting someone?”
I look around again. This time my neck cracks and the sound echoes back at me, at us, only somehow distant.
“Are you going to answer me, or am I just going to listen to myself? Are you going to fish?” she asks again. This time with less of an accusatory tone to it.
“I don’t fish,” I say, looking around some more.
“What? What did you drag me out here for?” she screams as she stands up quickly. Too quickly.
The boat starts to rock in the exact opposite motion that she is. I try to steady the craft by grabbing onto the sides, but all she sees is me trying to make her fall.
“Fucking quit it,” she yells trying to grab the rails to try and steady herself. “Stop,” she screams and falls over the side of the boat.
Now I know that she can swim, but the way she is thrashing her arms around, you would think she was a two-year-old who has never been in the water before. She struggles up to the surface; her head is barely above water.
“Help me,” she gurgles as water goes down her throat. “Help.” Her head goes back under again, this time longer than the last.
Words try to come from my mouth as hers fills with water again. I think I heard the first two letters of “help.” But I’m not sure. I look back to Heather, expecting her to be hanging off the side of the boat, but she is not there.
“Quit dicking around,” I say. “I know that you can swim, so stop pretending.”
I look for her on both sides of the boat, but there is nothing. She just isn’t there.
I throw off my sweatshirt, kick my shoes off, and dive into the water. Just before I hit, I hear giggling from the other side of the boat.
I feel a tugging at my left leg as I come back up, and then she is next to me. She has taken off the sweatshirt and is now pressing her skin against mine. She giggles in-between deep breaths.
“Do you think it was Phil Collins’s girlfriend?” she asks, wrapping her leg around mine. “He would have gone after her, if he loved her.” She punctuates this last statement with a kiss on my cheek. “You’re mine and you know it.”
I’m glad there is water streaming down my face. This way she can’t see me cry.
Jon Page earned his M.F.A. in Professional Writing from Western Connecticut State University. His work has appeared in Helix and Caged. His play “Which Way Out” recently won the First Playwright’s Prize from the New Theatre of Meriden, CT, where it was performed.
Jon lives in Ellington, CT, with the two loves of his life, Danielle and Roxy, a rescue pit bull.