LETTER TO A STRANGER:
TO THE GIRL AT THE RIVERBEND
BY HOWARD AXELROD
It was an excursion from an excursion from an excursion. And all the excursions were firsts. My first summer away at overnight camp, my cabin’s first overnight at Baker River, and my first sojourn away from the group: my first walk down the river alone.
I was 12; this was nearly 30 years ago. I’ve never written about you, never spoken about you, not in the weeks afterward to daydream with the boys in my cabin, not in the years afterward to seduce late-night friends with mystery, and not in the decades afterward to revive some lost feeling of youth.
But I must have stowed the memory in a kind of shoebox in my mind, one that has traveled with me through countless cities and languages and bedrooms, until I was ready to open it and try to understand. There’s no reason why you’d remember me—unless that moment in the river helped you later in life to consider your life, too.
That morning, my camp group had packed up our tents, eaten breakfast, and hiked upriver along the sun-bleached rocks in our sneakers. There were clouds of gnats, golden in the sunlight, odd piles of shipwrecked branches, and smooth lips of stone with their purls and eddies. Reaching the swimming hole a few miles upstream felt like an achievement. The water shocked and ached. Our towels laid on the smooth slabs of rock, we swam, lazed in the sun, swam again. My one friend from home, Josh, had told me to bring a Walkman. He liked The Police; I liked Michael Jackson. We were just learning to be cool.
Before lunch, my attention wandered to the bend in the river. The possibility of being out of sight of everyone intrigued me. I wanted to see how deep the river was beyond the bend, but I also wanted to see what would happen to me there, how it would feel to be unseen, alone in this beautiful place.
When Josh put his Walkman back on, I meandered into the trees as if to take a piss, then waded into the water away from the group. The river was waist-high, the current a steady push on my legs. As soon as I turned the bend, you were there.
You held your palms just above the water, making small circles, as though casting a spell. Off to the right, there was a jutting rock, white water rushing around it, and two girls stood on its far side, holding their elbows, talking with each other.
To turn around would have looked strange, so I kept wading, nervous, not sure what to do. It wasn’t until I was maybe ten feet away that you looked up.
“Hi,” I said.
I came closer, glanced at your friends as though for permission to approach, but they ignored me. “What are you doing?” I said.
With the current, the shadow of your hands looked alive, like silent creatures fighting to stand still. Your bathing suit was orange and black, like the helmet for the Cincinnati Bengals, and your arms were deeply tanned, with little golden hairs. You were my age, maybe a year older. I had no idea what I was feeling, only that I’d never felt it before.
“To the fish, maybe it looks like an eclipse,” I said, instantly regretting it. So uncool.
“Or maybe like kind birds. Birds who hover and watch.”
Eclipse, kind birds—that’s all I remember of what we said. Your eyes were green, luminous, like the sunlight in the shallows, the way it seemed to emanate from the sand. I knew how the beginning of a crush could set off flickering lights below my throat, knew how those lights could make my voice go quiet, knew how to calculate who I was supposed to be.
But what I felt with you was different. I was aware of a part of myself I’d never seen in a mirror or in anyone else’s eyes. It was all around me—there in the current of the river, there in the flying shadows of our hands. It seemed time was moving through us, racing through us, and we were together standing still. Maybe we talked for five minutes, maybe ten, I don’t know. It was a different kind of time.
Soon, voices upstream would call me back for lunch, I’d return to camp, switch to private school in the fall, have my first girlfriend, lose my first girlfriend, go to college, suffer a freak accident and lose vision in my right eye, graduate from college, live out of my car in the Southwest, cloister myself away in northern Vermont, and try to find something like that sense of myself I’d first found with you— a reflection that didn’t need surfaces, an orientation I could trust beyond vision, a timeless self to start from.
It was time for lunch. We said goodbye. We never asked each other’s name. As I waded back upstream, I felt heavier and lighter, and older, in the way only a young person can suddenly feel older, like you’d given me an important present, though I didn’t yet know what it was.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Howard Axelrod met his stranger at Camp Walt Whitman, where he spent four childhood summers as a camper and two more as a counselor. His critically acclaimed memoir, The Point of Vanishing, takes place one state West, in the woods of Vermont. It was selected as one of the best books of 2015 by Slate, the Chicago Tribune, and Entropy Magazine, and as one of the best memoirs of 2015 by Library Journal.
Photo from Flickr Creative Commons.