I remember everything from that evening as if seen through a filter—golden, idyllic. The lake slid over and around me like velvet. Not a ripple on the surface, except for what my body made, as I stretched one arm over the other, my legs fluttering—one-two, one-two—somewhere behind. It was dusk, a warm summer night, and the lake glowed like polished copper. I was seventeen and my sister Jessie—keeping pace by my side, rowing the big Rangely—was fourteen. We were partners in an important endeavor: to regain, for the family, the record for swimming the length of Lake Christine. It had fallen the summer before to some Yale hot shot, a boyfriend of one of the girls from the cabins across the lake. This was a personal affront to my father who believed the record should stay within the family. He had held it at one time, as had his brother, and his father, and so on, for as long as Rockwells had owned land and spent summers on the lake. It was a family tradition going back over a hundred years. And now it was up to me. I was a high school swimming star, All-State, and felt I had a good chance at taking back the record. I felt the support that evening of my entire family, of tradition, as I set off from the public beach.
I moved effortlessly and fast, gliding through the water in what athletes today call a zone. Occasionally I lifted my head—I could allow myself this luxury—to appreciate the sunset, particularly over Edgar’s Peak (named after my great-grandfather Edgar, whose head it resembled, including his bald spot—a granite patch near the top), where the sky had turned crimson, as if Edgar’s remaining hair had caught fire.
The sky slid past. Bugs alighted on the surface. Below me I could see dark shapes—browns, rainbows and suckers, big ones—moving lazily, then rising abruptly to a fly at the surface, attracted to its infinitesimal struggle. I crossed over their dark, silent world, making hardly a splash or sound. There was only my breath, the sudden gasping intake, one side alternated with the other, rhythmic, life-affirming. The soft splash of my hands and arms reaching, the satisfying pull downward through the water, followed by my body sliding with the least resistance. And the oars creaking, moving in their oar locks, and the faint groan of the wooden hull. I remember the water’s subtle taste, like iron—the aftertaste of spinach—but sweeter. Fed by mountain streams, deep hidden springs, the lake was crystalline, pure, and fiercely cold. Now and then I would pass through an unexpected pocket of warmth, as if a forbidden pleasure, with half a mind to slow down and linger. And every few minutes Jessie would consult her stop-watch, scowling like my coach, and call out the times. “Come on, Christopher,” she would yell, “get mean, man!” And I’d up the tempo.
I was about two-thirds the way across, my shoulders warm and rolling nicely. The shadows of pine and birch trees crept steadily across the water. Lights blinked on along the shore; blue twilight had begun to set in. I could see a few of the cabins coming into view and felt as inspired as if I had spotted the New World. There were twelve cabins in all, twelve families bound, more than anything else, by their love for the lake.
I could just make out the large rocks rising from the water at the end of the lake—my finish line—and on the largest one, the wooden pagoda (granddad’s curious display of oriental beauty in the New England wilderness). I could imagine the fanfare waiting for me at home: a fire burning in my honor, dad slapping me on the back and handing me a shot of gin, mom wrapping me in a towel and fervently rubbing, and Jessie telling our story, turning it into family legend.
I shortened my stroke, picked it up a little, as Jessie began to fall behind. I remember her sitting there, dwarfed between over-sized oars, tugging hard, her freckled, pudgy face flushed from the effort, her reddish hair damp and hanging limp to her shoulders—so determined to keep up with me. In that instant, I adored her.
As the water grew shallower I could see the great trunks of fallen trees passing beneath me—a tangle of dark, ominous limbs—and I knew that I was almost there, well ahead of schedule. Mr. Yale hot shot would soon be history. Then I heard my father’s deep voice booming across the water: “God damn it, son, that’s the ticket. Bring it on home!” I looked up to see his outline a few hundred yards ahead. He was leaning back against the railing of the pagoda and applauding, his legs crossed jauntily at the ankles, still showing no signs of the cancer. A pinpoint of bright orange embers flared before his face, then subsided, then flared again, as he puffed away on his evening cigar.
Over the last stretch I pushed hard, my lungs burning, arms gone slack and flung murderously at the water, while my legs drove me steadily forward. For some moments, then, I felt nothing, no discomfort, not a trace of the workings of my body. I was wonderfully removed yet present, watching this frenzied activity as if it were in some way not related to me. My mind as still as the bottom of the lake.
And then I touched rock and everything came abruptly to a halt.
I reared my head and gasped, sputtering water, then turned eagerly to look at Jessie to find out the time. She was drifting toward me in the boat, still breathing hard. A trout jumped nearby. She held the stopwatch close to her face, scrutinizing it with great seriousness, milking the moment. She looked over at me then at dad perched on the rock above me. “Forty-eight minutes and thirty-four seconds,” she said (it was more than two minutes faster than the old record), “put that in your pipe and smoke it!” Exhausted, I stood on the muddy bottom and took a long, satisfied breath.
I could see it was already time for cocktails (or as dad liked to call them, cockballs), a glass of his trademark gin-and-tonic on the railing of the pagoda. It was nearly dark. A three-quarter moon appeared just above the trees. Dad’s hair shined ghostly white. I could tell he was a bit drunk as he moved unsteadily to the edge of the rock and stood wavering above me. He was in grand spirits, though, chomping proudly on the end of his cigar. I couldn’t remember a time he seemed more pleased with me. He took a wide stance and, extending his right hand, reached down to help me up. “Put ‘er there, my boy. You did it.” In that instant, I was convinced that the reign of Rockwells would never come to an end. I reached up and grabbed my father’s hand.
Jay Kauffmann is the 2010 Writer-in-Residence at Konstepidemin in Gothenburg, Sweden, and holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College. Nominee for Best New American Voices 2009 and the 2010 Pushcart Prize, he has new work out in Mid-American Review and Upstreet. He is currently at work on Mannequin, a memoir about his years as an international model.