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.
Put your beer in a laundry net and tie it to a log. Float it out into the lake to keep the cans cold. Enjoy your time with Anna, enjoy this moment. Look at her, pay attention, talk to her. Join Colin at the beach. Drink and talk about the lake. Bond like men, drinking and witnessing something you do not understand, something bigger than you.
Climb again, up and up and up, to get firewood. It is much easier. Colin will join you and you will both be drunk. Hurl pieces of wood from a rock outcropping and yell like lunatics as the logs rain to the sand.
Anna will show you how to build a fire, what pieces are the best kindling, how to properly create a pit. This is why you fell for her. She will place a large stone in the fire, because you neglected to bring a skillet for the hamburger, and let it get hot enough to cook on. The burgers taste a bit like sand and stone, but dig in anyway. You are ravenous.
When you go for more beer, the laundry net is gone. Colin looks down the beach and the net floats and bobs like a strange buoy. He sprints down the beach and into the water, returning with the beer and his clothes soaked.
By the time Krysthol and Liz arrive, the sun has disappeared, giving way to a peaceful dark. Attempt to guide them down, down, down with your voice. You are drunk and try to create a torch, which is really just a small stick that you place in the fire. The fire goes out during your run to the rocks. You are ridiculous. Don’t be embarrassed. This is part of the night’s mythology. You will include this part of the story every time you talk about Hidden Beach in the future. The ladies make it down to the beach with Colin’s help and they eat sandy hamburgers and you all laugh about the makeshift torch. Anna nudges you and smiles. This night has become part of your story. This is part of your life.
You do not know yet that in one year’s time, you will tell this story referring to Anna as your ex, referencing a different life in another time. You do not know yet that in one year’s time you will look back on tonight and see yourself, see Anna, as someone other than you are now, as imperfect, as unfinished.
Shotgun beers with Anna and Colin. Poke holes in the bottom of the cans and press your lips against the new spouts. Race to see who finishes first. This is Anna’s first time, so naturally she finishes last, spilling much of the liquid on herself and in the sand.
Before the night ends, before you go to sleep on the sand and wake up soaked and shivering from a twilight rainstorm, before Anna slips and skids down a rock face, shredding the skin on her stomach and forearms, as she climbs up in the morning, Colin will suggest that everyone participate in a makeshift sweat lodge. He will pile stones in the fire and you will all sit in a circle in the sand. When the stones are white-hot, Colin will pull the stones from the fire with heat gloves and pile them in the middle of your circle. You and the others will pull a tent fly down over you and sit on the edges, trying as best as you can to seal the dome. Once you do this, Colin will pour water on the stones and great plumes of steam will rise and dance. You will sweat. The plan will be to run to the water and jump in, but only once everyone is at the point where they can longer handle the sweat and the heat. In a fit of impulse, Anna and Krysthol will quietly discuss the possibility of running to the water while shredding their clothes in the pitch black night. Everyone will be ready and you will release the tent fly and let it flutter in the breeze. There will be cackling and yells as the women shred their shirts and bras and shoes. Colin and Erica and Liz will join in and follow them to the water. You will stand and wait, toes digging in the sand. You will watch the naked forms of your friends, of Anna, outlined in the moonlight. Don’t hesitate.
In a year, you will tell this story as a single man. You will have to learn how to talk to women again, how to flirt, how to be okay with the awkwardness of trying to break the ice. Stop doubting yourself, focus on your craft. You will have to face dating again. This will be scary, but you are young. Remember, confidence is sexy, so exude it even when you are full of doubt. Write. When you meet a woman you find attractive, just talk to her. Smile. Say funny things but do not be crude. Don’t get angry at rejection. Be yourself. Figure out who that is. You are not yet the man you will become.
When they all sprint naked and drunk toward the water, forget about doubt and embarrassment. Forget about how this will look later.
Listen to the siren song. Follow the group, and while you are running throw off your shirt and shoes and glasses and boxers, and, staring at the moonlit road ahead, head to the water.