Derek T. Bell provides a follow-up to his piece Grand Haven, Summer 2013, which we published back in October 2013.
The helicopter came out of the sky, pushing water and sand before it. Three friends had swum out into the waves but only two had come back. A line was forming. Pulling off my shirt and kicking off my shoes, I joined, wading out into the water and taking a stranger’s hand. Others moved past, extending our reach into deeper waters. And then, on a whistle from the beach, I began to move with the others, shuffling along the sandy bottom, hoping my feet were not the first to touch flesh.
“Over here!” A shout from farther out. And then rescue workers running from the beach, splashing through the waves, huddling for a moment, then quickly moving back to land.
I cannot remember if we were urged to leave, or if we just instinctively knew we were no longer needed, but as I headed back to our cottage I saw the medics working on the young man, his body gray as the water they’d pulled him from. Wrapping him in blankets, they ducked their heads as the helicopter reared into the sky. Then, lifting together, they moved toward the waiting ambulance.
Sixteen years old, father gone and my aunt dying across the road, I turned and headed back to our final days together.
The water is warm this year, and Heath can’t get enough of it. At dusk we wade in. Hidden by clouds, the sunset is not spectacular, but it’s doing its best working with a gentler palette. Pastels rather than oils. To the north, stripped of its catwalk and fenced off for renovation, the pier is a line on the water, its lighthouse and pierhead stark against the sky, the excavator, surrounded by supplies, shadowed and sleeping. To the south, high and bright, the moon lights the sky and dapples the water.
Having started in the shallows, Heath pushes into deeper water, far beyond where he’s gone before. I’m out here with him, chest deep, and though it’s relatively calm, there is a swell, and when the waves wash up toward my head there is a giddy moment when I lose my feet and have to struggle, gently, to regain control.
“Heath, do you feel that?”
“Well I can swim, you can’t. If that was a little bit stronger we’d be in trouble.”
“I know, ” he says. But he doesn’t.
“Come on,” I say, “let’s head back in a bit.”
It takes me a moment, thrown by the outright defiance. But then I see what’s drawing him. The buoy, a little farther out, marking the end of safe water.
I wait, rising and falling. Then I say, “I’ve never been out this far.”
“Yeah. I’ve never touched that buoy.” I pause. “You should go first.”
And he does. Lunging forward three or four steps, up to his neck now, and grabbing hold. I come up behind him and touch it as well.
“You did it,” I say. He’s quiet, so I am too. The water’s still warm, but a breeze has picked up and the air’s cool. Dark now, the moon’s light is a path on the water, dancing gold that leads straight to us.
“Come on,” I say. “Let’s head back in.”
“No,” he says, turning away, but moving toward shallower water.
I glance up to the parking lot. The tractor is out, brightly lit, clearing away the sand.
“I’m not sure what time the park closes. They’ll be shooing us out soon.”
He hesitates, then continues on, saying, “Look, why don’t you walk along the beach and I’ll stay in the water until I get down to the car.”
Which seems fair, so I do, wading ashore, finding my shirt, and then following his shadow as it moves through the water.
On our way back to New York, we stop in my hometown for a small reunion. A sunny afternoon with my mom and her friends, who are, without fail, striking in the grace with which they have aged.
My old friend Terri stops by. It’s been almost thirty years but, surprisingly, this matters not at all. Talking of our lives simply reminds me what friendship used to be. It was everything. And despite all the time that has passed, we are little changed. Certainly, we are every minute of our ages, but we are also still sixteen. When we hug, I don’t want to let her go.
Driving away that afternoon, the sun low over the fields, the kids quiet in the back, miles from lake or sea, I think about waters. Those we come from, those we return to, and all the people, arm in arm, who see us through this life.