Red Indians' Chief
We wore moccasins all summer, like Red Indians, and as little else as we could — t-shirts and shorts, our bathing suits. It was hot that summer, weeks without rain, and we tanned dark as Indians, too — a tribe is what we were. Annie Collins was our chief — Annie who, if she had lived, would be our ages now, the rest of us, sixty-ish, that summer far behind. The Twist was still popular back then. We danced whenever, wherever we could — dances by the pool at the club and at the roller skating rink that was a dance hall, too, at the amusement park across the lake where, clear nights, high on the Ferris wheel, you could look back across the lake, see the lights of our cabins there.
College boys danced with us by the pool at the club, Bermuda shorts and polo shirts, and pressed against them when the bands played slow songs we could dream we were their lovers, gone to dance with them at their fraternities, coed weekend queens of their campuses, their Lehighs and Bucknells, their Lafayettes and Penns.
The boys at the skating rink across the lake were a different crowd, cigarette packs rolled in t-shirt sleeves, combs for Elvis hairdos in the back pockets of their jeans, holding us roughly as we danced in their mechanics' arms. They smoked more than the college boys, too, tobacco on their breaths as they kissed us, hands exploring us like they'd tear down a carburetor, fix the brakes on the cars that they preferred, you'd think, to girls.
And all the boys were glad to buy us beer. We were seventeen and drank with them to let them know that we were not just high school girls but grown-ups, too — our virginity, you have to understand, negotiable. (When we'd tried our hands at definition-writing in Mrs. Barnhill's English class, our class clown Bobby Phipps wrote a prostitute was a woman selling what high school girls trade for a date to the prom. Mrs. B., not amused, had him suspended for three days, but we knew what he meant.)
Bobby went to college after high school, and law school after that. He's semi-retired now, almost bald.
We're all old now.
Only Annie Collins is still seventeen, exactly as she was that summer long ago when we were her Red Indians and she our chief. "Let's— " she'd say. She always had a plan. Her plans were ours. All of us were always careful to take the trail she blazed, to follow where she led.
It was hot that August — a dry heat, the adults said — and the hot pine smell in the woods behind our cabins at the lake was a bordello's musk. Lying in the pine trees' shade that offered no relief from the heat is where Annie planned — for her, for us.
"Let's swim across the lake," she said.
There were four of us in Annie's tribe — Annie, of course, and Caroline, Betty, and me. Caroline's figure was the best, Betty's the prettiest face. I got good grades in school. Annie was our engine, spark plug, fuel.
"Across the lake?" we said.
Annie's chief's thoughts came to her so alarmingly sometimes it took our breaths away. Like sunbathing in the nude on the float out on the lake — and that just after Memorial Day, the summer barely begun. (We all got terrible burns there on the float and suffered them in silence, afraid to let our mothers know where we had burned, the secret places where the sun had been.) Skinny dipping had been Annie's idea, too — swim naked out to the float to watch the fireworks that the club set off to celebrate the Fourth. (She hadn't told us that there'd be naked boys there, too, so that was a surprise, but nothing happened, really. We all drank beer the boys had brought, looked at each other's crotches when the fireworks lit the sky. The boys studied our girls' chests, too, I'm sure, and then we all swam chastely back to shore.)
"It's almost Labor Day," Annie said. "Summer's almost over."
"So?" we wanted to know.
"Well, you know," Annie said, "how when it's winter and it's cold and dark and everything?"
We knew. Who hasn't been a girl in high school, dateless, schoolwork done, lying in her bed at night and shivering, cold wind outside mocking the security of her parents' house where no one understands how lonely she is, how afraid?
"So?" we said again, unsure where this was going.
"So when it's cold and dark like that, what you need is to have done something so you can say, 'Hey, remember last summer, at the lake?', and it'll be warmer and lighter."
"And that's why we'll swim across the lake?" somebody said — not me. Caroline or Betty. They always needed to be convinced, a little, to go along with Annie's plans.
But I was always ready, never a reason needed.
"Sure," Annie said. It was her assurance I always envied.
"Are we going to have to take off our clothes again?" one of them said — Caroline, I think, unaware of the irony. Take off our clothes? When it came to boys, Caroline and Betty both had driven off down that road much farther than me, and Caroline the farthest — lip kiss to tongue kiss to outside feel to inside feel, petting to heavy petting. Betty was past inside feels, I was sure, but Caroline was already heavy petting, accelerator to the floor. And how I envied her, too. How many nights had I surprised myself thinking yes, I'd go all the way if the boy I was with just made the right move. But none ever did, and I wasn't Annie enough to push it.
But "Annie enough"? What does that mean? We always assumed that Annie had done more with boys than Betty or me — than Caroline, even — but what did we know? Was that true? She never said. We never asked. We saw her hand on the neck of a t-shirt boy in dungarees, touching the way his duck-tail curled as they danced at the roller rink, her chest pressed into his, and we assumed, is all. And weren't she and that boy down to the lake from Colgate for the Fourth in the water together, naked, for the longest time?
"We can wear what we want," Annie said. "It's doing it that matters, not what you wear."
"Oh," someone said.
"Well?" Annie said.
"When?" I said, always ready, like I said.
"Forty years," Caroline is saying.
"Forty-five," Betty says, correcting her.
We're at the lake. It's Labor Day, and the conversation has come around to Annie again. It always does.
"Right," says Caroline. "Forty-five."
Have you ever had the experience where, whatever age you really are now, you're suddenly feeling, for no good reason you can tell, eighteen again, or seventeen? And then you see your reflection in a mirror, a store window, or you move the wrong way and your arthritis reminds you of the awful chasm between now and then, the present and the past? Sure you have.
I know I have.
"I wish I'd gone with her," I tell Betty and Caroline.
But none of us did.
Our chief swam alone.
"What was she thinking, doing something like that?" Betty says. I don't know. But I want to imagine how it was — not what Annie was thinking when she swam, not what she had been thinking before she began, but just the feel of it, lake water still cold after all the summer heat, the cool night air with the pines' perfume mixed in, the full moon beaming across the lake like a silver highway, the small white lights of the cabins and the bright whirls of the amusement park's lights across the way. I want to feel how Annie's arms felt growing heavy, each stroke coming harder than the one before until—
"You couldn't have saved her," someone says.
And I know that, of course. But she, perhaps, could have saved me. Maybe, if I'd been swimming the lake with Annie that night, she would have let me follow her yet again, sliding down, down beneath the silvered surface of the lake, down into the deepest darkness where the two of us, me and my chief, could have found together a perfect peace — a peace that I imagine Annie found, a peace that's always eluded me since then.