In loving memory of my niece Gabi Coben
Our wonderful little Myszka…
Small said, "But what about when we are dead and gone, will you love me then, does love go on?"
Large held Small snug as they looked out at the night, at the moon in the dark and the stars shining bright. "Small, look at the stars, how they shine and glow, some of the stars died a long time ago. Still they shine in the evening skies, for you see, Small, love like starlight never dies…"
– Debi Gliori
Right then. Before we start, I'd like to introduce the band:
Editor extraordinaire Beth de Guzman, as well as Susan Corcoran, Sharon Lulek, Nita Taublib, Irwyn Applebaum, and the rest of the prime-time players at Bantam Dell
Lisa Erbach Vance and Aaron Priest, my agents
Anne Armstrong-Coben, M.D. Gene Riehl, Jeffrey Bedford, Gwendolen Gross, Jon Wood, Linda Fairstein, Maggie Griffin, and Nils Lofgren for their insight and encouragement
and Joel Gotler, who pushed and prodded and inspired
Elizabeth was quiet for our anniversary drive, but that was hardly unusual. Even as a young girl, she'd possessed this unpredictable melancholy streak. She'd go quiet and drift into either deep contemplation or a deep funk, I never knew which. Part of the mystery, I guess, but for the first time, I could feel the chasm between us. Our relationship had survived so much. I wondered if it could survive the truth. Or for that matter, the unspoken lies.
The car's air-conditioning whirred at the blue MAX setting. The day was hot and sticky. Classically August. We crossed the Delaware Water Gap at the Milford Bridge and were welcomed to Pennsylvania by a friendly toll collector. Ten miles later, I spotted the stone sign that read LAKE CHARMAINE – PRIVATE. I turned onto the dirt road.
The tires bore down, kicking up dust like an Arabian stampede. Elizabeth flipped off the car stereo. Out of the corner of my eye, I could tell that she was studying my profile. I wondered what she saw, and my heart started fluttering. Two deer nibbled on some leaves on our right. They stopped, looked at us, saw we meant no harm, went back to nibbling. I kept driving and then the lake rose before us. The sun was now in its death throes, bruising the sky a coiling purple and orange. The tops of the trees seemed to be on fire.
"I can't believe we still do this," I said.
"You're the one who started it."
"Yeah, when I was twelve years old."
Elizabeth let the smile through. She didn't smile often, but when she did,
, right to my heart.
"It's romantic," she insisted.
"I love romance."
"You love goofy."
"You get laid whenever we do this."
"Call me Mr. Romance," I said.
She laughed and took my hand. "Come on, Mr. Romance, it's getting dark."
Lake Charmaine. My grandfather had come up with that name, which pissed off my grandmother to no end. She wanted it named for her. Her name was Bertha. Lake Bertha. Grandpa wouldn't hear it. Two points for Grandpa.
Some fifty-odd years ago, Lake Charmaine had been the site of a rich-kids summer camp. The owner had gone belly-up and Grandpa bought the entire lake and surrounding acreage on the cheap. He'd fixed up the camp director's house and tore down most of the lakefront buildings. But farther in the woods, where no one went anymore, he left the kids' bunks alone to rot. My sister, Linda, and I used to explore them, sifting through their ruins for old treasures, playing hide-and-seek, daring ourselves to seek the Boogeyman we were sure watched and waited. Elizabeth rarely joined us. She liked to know where everything was. Hiding scared her.
When we stepped out of the car, I heard the ghosts. Lots of them here, too many, swirling and battling for my attention. My father's won out. The lake was hold-your-breath still, but I swore I could still hear Dad's howl of delight as he cannonballed off the dock, his knees pressed tightly against his chest, his smile just south of sane, the upcoming splash a virtual tidal wave in the eyes of his only son. Dad liked to land near my sunbathing mother's raft. She'd scold him, but she couldn't hide the laugh.
I blinked and the images were gone. But I remembered how the laugh and the howl and the splash would ripple and echo in the stillness of our lake, and I wondered if ripples and echoes like those ever fully die away, if somewhere in the woods my father's joyful yelps still bounced quietly off the trees. Silly thought, but there you go.
Memories, you see, hurt. The good ones most of all.
"You okay, Beck?" Elizabeth asked me.
I turned to her. "I'm going to get laid, right?"
She started walking up the path, her head high, her back straight. I watched her for a second, remembering the first time I'd seen that walk. I was seven years old, taking my bike – the one with the banana seat and Batman decal – for a plunge down Goodhart Road. Goodhart Road was steep and windy, the perfect thoroughfare for the discriminating Stingray driver. I rode downhill with no hands, feeling pretty much as cool and hip as a seven-year-old possibly could. The wind whipped back my hair and made my eyes water. I spotted the moving van in front of the Ruskins' old house, turned and – first pow – there she was, my Elizabeth, walking with that titanium spine, so poised, even then, even as a seven year-old girl with Mary Janes and a friendship bracelet and too many freckles.
We met two weeks later in Miss Sobel's second-grade class, and from that moment on – please don't gag when I say this – we were soul mates. Adults found our relationship both cute and unhealthy – our inseparable tomboy-kick ball friendship morphing into puppy love and adolescent preoccupation and hormonal high school dating. Everyone kept waiting for us to outgrow each other. Even us. We were both bright kids, especially Elizabeth, top students, rational even in the face of irrational love. We understood the odds.
But here we were, twenty-five-year-olds, married seven months now, back at the spot when at the age of twelve we'd shared our first real kiss.
Nauseating, I know.
We pushed past branches and through humidity thick enough to bind. The gummy smell of pine clawed the air. We trudged through high grass. Mosquitoes and the like buzzed upward in our wake. Trees cast long shadows that you could interpret any way you wanted, like trying to figure out what a cloud looked like or one of Rorschach's inkblots.
We ducked off the path and fought our way through thicker brush. Elizabeth led the way. I followed two paces back, an almost symbolic gesture when I think about it now. I always believed that nothing could drive us apart – certainly our history had proven that, hadn't it? – but now more than ever I could feel the guilt pushing her away.