To the Water

By Justin Daugherty

Essay

1.

The way to Hidden Beach is down, down, down. Drive out on the highway, through the endless Upper Peninsula woods full of birch and pine. There are no signs. Past Sugar Loaf Mountain, past the rocky outcrops that crowd the highway. Pull off of the highway at just the right spot, where you can finally see all the way to Lake Superior from the road. Colin will tell you when. Remove the old blanket from the trunk, the raw hamburger, the Doritos. Others take out their tents, which you don’t have. You walk a bit through those beautiful woods, the long, thin pines rising far overhead until you see it, far below. I can’t get down there, this is insane, you think. But, stop that, you can get down. You might scrape an elbow or smack your head on an uprooted tree leaning almost in line with the horizon. In fact, you will cut yourself on the way down, repelling in the mud and grass and grabbing at loose branches that fall away as you reach for them. That’s nothing, bruises and scrapes fade. Others will take the hard way to the beach, climbing down the sheer rock wall. Take your time. Admire Anna’s poise and the ease with which she moves toward the beach. Make sure each step is firmly rooted in the ground. You will shake and pull at trees and roots before you hang from them or use them to swing around to a more manageable route to the sand below. Lake Superior will guide you, will call to you, and unlike Odysseus, follow her siren song despite the danger in it. Rocks will tumble away beneath your feet, you will slip in the mud and slide down the steep decline. You will attempt to throw the blanket to the beach, it being too awkward to carry on your shoulders, and it will float and snag on an out-of-reach tree. You will curse the tree, the blanket, but be calm. Take your time. You will look back toward the car, to the highway. Smell the lake, the fresh water scent rare in Nebraska. Inhale. Look to where the land levels out, to the sand. Look at the tide as it rolls. You will make it to the beach and there will be blood. You’ll make it. Just head toward the lake.

On the First Date of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

One of those waxy, chocolate-crunch foil-wrapped Santas. We were seven. He liked to read as much as I did – we even co-won a reading contest. I knew right then that we should get married, because that’s what love was: reading together and eating candy.

 

On the Second Date of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

A kind word. I was in fifth grade and had to wear this awful orthodontic headgear that looked like the inside of a football helmet, and his first worry was that I had been in a terrible accident and was I going to be okay? And then he defended me when all the other kids pointed and called me ‘Jabberjaw.’

 

On the Third Date of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

Nausea. We were playing Spin the Bottle at my eighth grade Christmas party. I was terrified that he didn’t like me, or wouldn’t like me, or thought I was fat, or stupid, or both. So rather than make-out with him behind the drawn curtain, panic-stricken, I told him that I was sick and quite possibly contagious. So we stood there like two idiots until it seemed plausible that we had been frenching.

 

On the Fourth Date of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

The honor of being the first person he came out to.

 

On the Fifth Date of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

A Godfather marathon. I was home from college and we started from separate ends of the sofa, but by the time Fredo was praying his last Hail Mary, the two of us were a tangled mess on the middle cushion and nothing but the deafening screech of the auto-rewind on my parents’ VCR could stop us. And then we went to the movie theatres to see Godfather III – our first “official” date – but all I remember about that film was that we played with each other’s fingers throughout. Well, that and Sofia’s nose.

 

On the Sixth Date of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

An official NHL hockey jersey. No, seriously.

 

On the Seventh Date of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

One of those Verse-a-Day bibles. Same guy.

 

On the Eighth Date of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

A complex. After years of friendship, peppered with on-again-off-again relationship attempts, rather than simply tell me that he had met someone else (with whom he would eventually fall in love and marry), he ended things by reporting that it was, in fact, me and not him.

 

On the Ninth Date of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

A perfect first kiss. One of those idyllic kisses, where the guy walks you to your car and stops you just as you reach for the door handle. He spins you around and pushes you firmly, yet gently, against the car door as he drinks in your eyes with his. One of those kisses where he gently traces the line of your jaw with his fingertips and brushes your cheek, and right as he leans towards you and you think your heart is going to explode – at the precise moment your lips meet – tiny snowflakes begin to fall.

 

On the Tenth Date of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

A vibrator. I was alone that year and my date was me.

Best. Christmas. Ever.

 

On the Eleventh Date of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

Silence. Alone again. Batteries? Dead.

Worst. Christmas. Ever.

 

On the Twelfth Date of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

Anticipation – for the date that’s yet to come.

There’ll be no bibles or hockey jerseys. No movie marathons, no kind words, no frenching. No batteries. But neither will there be rude awakenings or callous dismissals.

I’m not exactly sure when my next date will be, or where.

But I have hope that wherever, whenever, with whomever, there’ll be stacks of books and heaps of candy.