In my memory, we meet for the first time every year at the flooded quarry off Route 53, in Bethel Connecticut, in the damp warmth of spring. We swim through the dog days’ heat waves. We swim in late August, when the maples flex and whine in the wind, when the susurrus of the overturned leaves shushes the subtle grumblings beyond the ridge, when beaded rain plinks across the water. We swim through early autumn until a solemn chill crawls over the leaves’ paper curls under the sugar maples, white oaks, birches, hemlocks, and spruces spread around the rock rim of the darkening pool. On these sunless afternoons, in the quieted space above the water, between the trees’ dark stalks and the pale cliffs, we dip down slippery into the inky branches and the pillowed sky and sink like stones below the shimmering ripples and the dock’s empty creaks. I think it felt sweetest in the fall because I noticed it slipping away.
The quarry is just a location. It’s just a local swimming hole in the town where I spent my wandering teenage years. In the ’50’s, it was a limestone quarry. It flooded when some hammer or drill or piece of machinery broke through the bedrock, allowing the groundwater to dribble through the fissures and fill the pit, a common occurrence for quarries surrounded by wetlands.
I was ten years old, and then I was eighteen, and during this eight-year span I had at least three mothers, eight sisters, seven brothers. We wove our histories together beside the quarry, at Mr. Vitti’s ballroom dance classes, within Great Hollow’s nine hundred acre wilderness. It did not feel so ephemeral. Still, I remember, in the midst of it all, the slight twinge of change. We stopped visiting the quarry. We gradually abandoned our meandering route through town, past the old red train station, the bars, and the library, to our ballroom lessons. Virginia attended St. John’s College to study the classics in their original languages; Roxanne went to Vassar; Robby applied to the Air Force over and over and never got in; Nicole dropped everything and followed her unhappily married zoology professor into the forest to study box turtles, copperheads, timber rattlesnakes.
I have often felt that growing up is the worst thing that can happen to a person. That’s hyperbole. It’s not the worst. But the older I get, the more I leave behind. The quarry is now an emblem of my fractured family and our neglected traditions, our forsaken gatherings.
A narrow rock ledge runs along one bank under a few feet of water with a vertical cliff face behind and a forty-foot, underwater drop-off in front. According to legend, the rusty skeleton of a dirt bike lies on the bottom somewhere. On one end of the ledge, a steep stone staircase descends into the shadowy depths. I can walk down the steps until the water comes up to my neck, but then my body’s buoyancy keeps me afloat. Jagged rocks on either side prevent diving without goggles and light. The water is turbid green, dense with colonies of freshwater plankton.
From the quarry, my mind skips unpredictably across a familiar collage of shared memories. In the shallows, my feet sink into the cool leafy muck, soft like fur between my toes and around my ankles. Nicole and I dance tight, interlocked, rapt, our felt soles scratch across the rugged wooden boards in the municipal building on hazy summer nights. Red ants roil and surge out of their hill in the cliff and tumble in tangled clumps down into the water, twitching their thready legs. I remember her cluttered bedroom plastered from floor to ceiling with clippings from Vanity Fair and Seventeen. Treading the deep water stirs up refrigerated eddies that flutter over the tops of my feet, coil around my calves, cool the backs of my knees. Muddy eyed, her dark stretched helixes spill over gently bowed ivory collarbones. I feel the sunfish’s quick puckered nibbling at the ends of my toes. Light falls through the high warehouse windows and catches on thick curls of dust in the motor oil air, and the cellophane over the springy couch crackles under us like jaundiced newspaper into the shoddy microphone as she leans in to sing. From the dock’s musty weathered rug, we whip thick horseflies out of the air with foam noodles and feed them to the fish.
I wandered away, curious, just to make sure I wasn’t missing something. What I did when I wandered off is not important. The point is, I left the things that mattered behind me, and when I came back, everything that mattered was gone. So I keep mulling over the memories, trying to make up for lost time.
It ends here with Nicole, not because she mattered most, but because, over those eight years, I grew closest to her. I think you can only get that close to one or two people at a time. And that matters. It matters that she made me move so she could climb into the puffy armchair with me. It matters that we made a collection of false start recordings that I will transfer from hard drive to hard drive to hard drive until hard drives become obsolete like Polaroid cameras. It matters that she took me away into the family room next to the piano and made me pull my arm out from under my shirt so she could brush her fingers over the blue stitches in my carved up arm. It matters that I still have her letter, still in the envelope that she made out of an old calendar, the month of October, with a red maple leaf on the cover and my name scrawled onto the leaf. I still haven’t figured out what it all means, but I can point to things that mattered.
Matthew Werneburg is pursuing a BA in English at a small, private university in rural Ohio. When he is not in school, he lives, works, and writes in Danbury, CT.
© 2015, Matthew Werneburg