It began, as so many things strangely do, in the bathroom, man's eternal sanctuary, the natural shrine of contemplation. It truly is the one place to which he cannot go long without returning.
A serious, but subconsciously unhappy relationship had ended abruptly and on less than peaceful terms, in far less than appropriate circumstances; assuming there are appropriate circumstances for such things. But that's neither here nor there. All I want to say is I was left with the short end of the stick of a relationship, and was having trouble coming to grips with it.
That's why I was in the bathroom. In an attempt to come to terms with my heartbreak, taking place at about 5:00 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, I was performing what seems now almost like a tribal healing ceremony; cutting, burning, and flushing any once love-filled, now hateful, memorabilia from the cursed relationship. Now normally I'm a fairly rational man, but my frustration with life recently had pushed me over the edge, and I came to believe that such a spiritual rite might actually be necessary.
My roommate, one Mike Platinck, happened upon me in this state: my hair ruffled, my eyes red and strained, my composure stern and silent. Now, Mike had been more than just supportive over the past few months. Although we disagreed on many things, he had always been there to lend a helping hand.
"This isn't like you." He quipped from the door of the bathroom.
"Go back to bed, it's too early." I responded, having finished my ritual with a flush. I was not in the mood for conversation, Mike could tell, but he leaned back anyway and nonchalantly changed the subject.
"May Long this weekend."
"Yeah, I know."
"A group of us are going up to Clear Lake, you should come." The casual invitation was perfectly delivered. On the surface it would appear as whimsical as most male conversations, but he and I both knew what the trip was meant to represent, a way out.
"I don't know, man, give me some to time to thin-"
"Great! We leave at 4:00 on Friday!"
* * *
Although the lake, Clear Lake, lies within Riding Mountain National Park, it's once-pristine waters and shores find themselves dominated by human interests like cottage subdivisions and commercial establishments. The main town site, Wasagaming, is effectively a city of tourists that flourishes only when the sun moves north on the horizon, and the only ice to be found is a small berg floating in your cocktail.
It's a resort community, but it's not without its charm. Wasagaming is a scenic town site, littered with tall pines, flower gardens, and activities for all ages. Row after row of log cabin boutiques, restaurants, and even a movie theatre dot the main drive, normally bustling with activity. Of course all this activity means the only animals you see here, during busy season, are either of the stuffed or carved variety or the same animals you would see back in the city anyway. But then, who's to say what kind of "wildlife" the people come here for? Although the purists might object, they have to accept that something's bringing back the faithful year after year.
Clear Lake was a happening place any weekend, and it was especially happening on long weekends, and the May Long weekend was the most significant of all. This was the weekend that essentially launched the tourist season and generations of young people had been making the drive up here to celebrate the unofficial dawn of summer. It had gotten notorious as a place to find a partner. It even made it on an American talk show host's top ten list.
No doubt, Mike had this in mind when he invited me on the trip. He himself had invited Lindsay, who he (although it had never been released publicly) seemed to be quite interested in. Lindsay, for her part, seemed to be on the same wavelength, but she still had a boyfriend somewhere that hadn't been adequately dealt with, and this was stalling the progress for her and Mike. Both were too honourable, unlike my former, to do anything until Lindsay's previous relationship was resolved.
The other two passengers in the truck were Doogie and Anna, a young couple who were very much in love, and did little to hide this fact. Generally speaking, conversation with them usually led towards setting a date for the inevitable wedding, and what kind of flowers they would have, and so forth.
It was just the five of us in the cab of a pick-up truck, hauling a trailer up to the campsite Mike had booked. While Doogie and Anna gazed fondly into each other's eyes on the seat beside me, Mike tried hard to make me feel comfortable, but he was understandably preoccupied with the idle flirtations with Lindsay and maneuvering a truck and trailer at a hundred clicks.
I spent a fair amount of time gazing out the window, watching the gently swaying fields and contemplating the fate of my existence. As the wheels tumbled over the worn asphalt, I rested my head, eavesdropping occasionally on the two conversations and on the static-filled radio station, which rambled off countless songs about love from beneath the dashboard. My already melancholy attitude grew more pessimistic with every passing kilometer.
* * *
Within an hour of our arrival, the site was set-up, a few people someone knew from work came by, and the booze began to flow like the natural spring that feeds the lake. Not normally a heavy drinker, I now found I could not bring so much as a cooler to my lips. Mike urged me on, suggesting it would help me let off some steam, but I just was not in the mood, and as the evening wore on, and inhibitions were lifted, his focus fell solely on Lindsay, though from what I could gather they were always simply talking.
Throughout that evening, there was drinking, moving, and discussion, and a never-ending stream of strangers, made all the more friendly by the celebratory atmosphere. But I had distanced myself from the festivities, and although Wasagaming was ranked among the top ten places to meet girls in North America, the girls I ran into failed to spark any genuine interest. No more would I search for simple flings and one-night stands, I yearned only for a certain kind of love. I had this vision of a girl in my head, albeit a blurry one, pretty but no supermodel. Just a gal that you could have fun with, but at the same time one who gives you a smile when the world takes a shit on you.
Now this gaggle of drunken faces wearing clown-faces of make-up, they could be a lot of fun, but would they still want to hang out on a dark day when the liquor and the hormones wore off? If I woke up with cancer tomorrow, would they stay beside me? Would they even come to my funeral?
I shrugged and tried to desperately to make idle small talk with the dizzy blur of faces. I think I met a couple Jens, maybe a Tracy, probably a Krista or two; I was never good with names. Besides, none of these girls had captured my heart. To be honest, I had become quite bitter, and was soon straining to keep up a somewhat friendly persona.
Finally, Mike decided to start a drinking game called "Never, Never," designed to push players into telling truths about themselves and things they have done. Not big on the drinking, and embarrassed by a rather, well... unexciting past, I decided to join a group of fellow strangers that had gathered around a nearby campfire. After finding an empty chair, I settled down and joined the conversation.
"So how's it going?"
"Oh not bad, not bad. We were just telling some ghost stories."
"Ghost stories?" I laughed. "Haven't told ghost stories around a camp fire since I was a kid."
"Well you ought to do it more often," one of them chuckled. "Kids are wiser than we give them credit for." He smiled, his lips revealing a disjointed mouth surrounded by a ragged beard.
"So as I was saying, I grew up around Onanole -- " we had passed through it, one of many glorified truck-stops, just 5 minutes before arriving at Wasagaming " -- living so close to the lake, you know pretty much what's going on up here. I mean, when we were kids we'd sneak up here when hardly no one was here and fool around, especially in the off-season." The storyteller grabbed himself a beer, paused to see if anyone else wanted some, and then continued.
"Anyways, surprisingly enough, for such a small place, there's more than its fair share of supernatural reports." The storyteller went on to talk about an axe murderer who used to live out in Grey Owl's Cabin, who supposedly died when it burnt down, and continues to stalk unwary hikers on the trails up there. And the bear-man that lives out by the Moon Lake campground that transforms into a bear and opens the sides of tents with his claws. High-caliber stuff.
"That so?" I sipped on my rye and coke; these stories were amusing but hardly frightening. In a place as busy as Clear Lake, you'd think they'd have a wider creative pool to draw from.
"Then, of course, there's the lady of the lake herself. An Aboriginal spirit who died here long before any of these resorts sprang up. They say she was the daughter of a chief, who wanted her to marry a brave but cold-hearted warrior. In the interests of finding her true love, she objected to the marriage, and when the chief tried to force her, she snuck out the night before her "wedding," jumped into a canoe, and tried to paddle for the other side. A dream vision had told her to wait out on the lake, anchored as best as she could, until the dawn came with her destiny. Of course, though, a storm or a big wave or maybe just an angry groom-to-be caught up with her, and she ended up disappearing beneath the waves, never to resurface. Some of the people say she still comes out at night, searching for the true love that could bring her peace..."
"Good luck lady! That ain't easy to find!" I quipped, surprising the group and myself.
* * *
Later on, as the social festivities peaked and began to decline, the evening took on a more cool philosophic tone as a chilled night breeze came trickling in from the lake. With the drunken couplings retiring to their quarters, including Mike and his successful objective Lindsay, I found myself alone amongst the rubble of empty bottles, dim party lights, and smoking campfire embers. Half-empty chip bags and bits of green broken glass littered the hard-packed soil, and my nose detected a nearby mixture of grenadine and vomit near to my right.
Everyone else had hit the sack, but I was still uncertain as to where I'd rest my head. I was alone, without shelter, surrounded by leftover party crap. As it stood, I wasn't tired anyway, and a heavy forested path banking off to my right, piqued my curiosity. Grasping my lukewarm beverage, now consisting of little more than ice water and booze residue, I headed off down the treed path, the plethora of party lights fading beacons in the distance.
It was those eeriest of hours, when the dark of night somehow gives way to light of morning and yet you still find yourself awake. In the darkness through which I wandered, I heard the conflicts of rhythm, the distorted ramblings of left-on ghetto blasters mixing with subtle melodies of the neighbouring nature and the drumbeat of nightly waves. Following the scent of the misty air wafting from the lake, the meandering path exited onto a small rocky peninsula along a roughly hewn shoreline. The beach, if one could call it that, was vacant. Human sounds came only from the sparse dottings of parties still clinging to life. At this distance, they bore no social comfort, the space between being a metaphor for my separation from my fellow humanity. They were as stars reflecting off the water, distant curiosities one could never hope to reach, and yet the subject of volumes of deliberations.
I took a seat amidst the chaotic rocky amphitheater of nature, aspiring, I suppose, to analyze the stars, both heavenly and earthly, and to look for the bright lights and the expected patterns, perhaps to see if any had a black hole to match mine. The mist soon grew heavier, however, and the lights became difficult to see.
As my pupils tried to readjust themselves, the shape of a figure flashed for a moment out on the lake, standing in the water where I knew it was over 30 metres deep. Under different circumstances I might have been frightened, might have even ran, but through the course of the evening, I had lost my interest in doing such things. The figure was deadly still, and as it happened so was I. In time, I broke the silence. Raising my glass as though to toast, I spoke the pivotal icebreaker that had served me so well in the past.
The figure disappeared beneath the waves, the mist encircling like a royal gown. My ears felt the prickle of water droplets settling down. The fog vanquished all the lights and stars. I sipped my drink.
Then she appeared before me. A beautiful buxom woman, clothed only in the still water, and with a solitary feather hanging from her bang. A celestial aura hung about her, glowing like the reflection of moonlit waves. Her eyes met mine, searching for my soul.
"Hey," she said.
I took my glass, now basically empty, and scooped some lake water.
"Can I get you a drink?"
* * *
My eyes opened the next morning to a bright sun shining through the windshield of Mike's truck. Somehow I had wound up back at camp and stumbled into the truck's cabin for some heavy-duty shut-eye. I recalled the woman, but could not distinguish my memory of her from that of a dream. At any rate, it wasn't her face waking me up.
"Hey dude, time to get up. We need to get in the truck."
Slowly I pulled myself forward, aching from the pains one gets for sleeping in a truck that wasn't even properly designed for sitting. I grabbed my things and let Mike get into the backseat where he had stored one thing or another. The camper door left ajar, I took the opportunity to go inside and freshen up before dealing with the others who stayed the night in the camp.
They had all collected around a low-burning fire, where some zealous morning-goer, Lindsay to be exact, was still trying to fry breakfast. A collection of the wounded, recovering from the activities of the night before, sat sporadically on the picnic bench and haphazard folding lawn chairs. Next to last evening's jubilation, their heads could have been pushing-up sandbags. Even Doogie and Anna, the hallmark couple, had lost their perkiness and found the value of silence. I myself, inexplicably, was feeling rather spry. Possibly due to limiting my intake the night before, or perhaps just a peak in my metabolic cycle. Mike came back from the truck with whatever he was looking for, and went to help Lindsay.
"So, what's on tap for today?" I asked him. Anna, from Doogie and Anna, answered.
"We're going horseback riding."
"No shit," I said without a hint of sarcasm, and then turned to Mike, "what about you two?"
"Lindsay's got some bad cramps, might have to go back to town to get some medication."
"Well, you can always come horse-back riding with us!" offered the Anna-Doogie couple.
"Thanks, but I'm allergic to all things equine." I lied, not because I don't like Doogie and Anna, just because I can't stand them at the moment. "Besides, there's a few things I want to do around town here."
"Suit yourself. See you tonight at the beach party."
"Wouldn't be anywhere else."
* * *
The town site of Wasagaming, as I mentioned before, is a log cabin litany of gift-shops, boutiques, and various other retailers of highly useful merchandise. After picking up a sandwich and a waffle cone from one of the local establishments, I happened into a grocery store that doubles as a video-rental outlet, laundromat, clothing store, and probably an insurance broker if you went down the right aisle.
As it happened, I had been looking for someone, the girl from the night before. I figured that Wasagaming had the biggest mass of people and therefore the best chance of her being there. I looked from face to face, trying to find that starlit sensation that I before had noticed, but only with the occasional whist of hair and shared facial feature did I see any semblance to that goddess of goddesses. She was a dolphin amongst the whale-shark throngs of vacationers, disappearing beneath the day's activities.
In the laundromat or grocery store or whatever the hell it was, I had my best sighting. The sound of her voice, reverberating like the waves themselves, came across from the clothing section, as I stood meekly by in the video rentals.
"I think he'll like this." It said.
I whirred to the source of the sound, the startled eyes meeting mine and then vanishing. One of the clerks ventured out with a red tank top.
"...This is one of our most popular items -- hey, where'd she go?"
I turned and left.
* * *
Mike caught up with me later that afternoon, sitting by the giant chessboard, my feet resting on one of the black rooks.
"Dude, where you been man?"
"I've been looking all over for ya."
"Lindsay get her meds?"
"Oh yeah, she's all good now. Listen! We're going to eat at one of the restaurants in town here, before the beach party. It's an Italian place, called McKay's or something."
"Sounds very Italian."
"S'posed to be good, man."
"Well only if it's s'posed to be."
* * *
McKay's was good and rather popular as well. Mike had to pull some strings to get us a reservation. The Anna-Doogie shared veal parmigiana, while Mike had a manicotti, and Lindsay the vegetarian special. I had noodles and cream with garlic toast.
"So, dude, I heard you talking to some chick by the lake last night, what happened there?"
I paused. I had no idea Mike was even awake at that the point.
"What was she like?"
Sipping my McKay margarita, I answered "Y'know the mist that was blowing up from the lake."
"That was steam."
We shared a chortle that was broken by the last person I wanted to see at the moment. My ex-girlfriend had stumbled in with her new beau; standard issue, goatee'd spiky-blonde-haired creep from your local nightclub. Mike motioned for my attention.
"Sounds like she was some woman, this chick from the lake."
"Unbelievable man, bloody unbelievable," I said as I finished my noodles.
* * *
A band on the beach is a peculiar thing. First, because it means people doing something other than swimming, second because it means mixing human vibrations with those of nature, a super crest or super trough of rhythm at its utmost.
Of course, the band actually played in the gazebo, which was separated from the sand, and the water beyond, by a significant stretch of green-space. The cover band played an assortment of music, an anthology of classic rock mixed with some more contemporary hits. The drummer was fair, the guitarist smooth, the singer off one note too many. Critical analysis aside, if one let one's self go, become in-tune with the music, whatever that music might be, one could have a good time of it. Good for you, one.
Mike, Lindsay, and the Anna-Doogie were infinitely wise in the "having a good time" department. As it stood, my fun-factory was still renegotiating contracts with the strikers. When they started up the slow songs, and my ex and company took the floor, I told Mike that I was going for a walk to clear my head.
The strangest idea struck me. It was a bit far off, but I figured I'd walk back to that little peninsula where I saw the woman of my dream. Perhaps she'd be there again, I thought. At any rate, I'd get some time to clear my head.
This night was different. The lake was far less misty; the party was still in full swing. Nevertheless I sat by the shore, waiting, waiting. I might have even skipped a few stones. My eyes stared out at the lake longingly, and I was about to holler, "Where are you?" when I heard a voice to my side.
"How 'bout that drink?"
It was her all right, only this time she was fully clothed, wearing the garb from the laundry grocer place. Gone was the feather in her now so modern apparel. She could have camouflaged herself as just any knockout in the crowd, but not from me though.
I laughed. "So I see you go on land too."
She leaned forward, gesturing her legs. "Gotta use these for something." The movement of her leg was an epiphany all its own.
"Why aren't you at the concert?"
"Why aren't you at the concert?"
I stood up, dusting myself off.
"Well how 'bout that drink then?"
* * *
"Dude! Dude! Dude?"
Mike intercepted us on the way back to the concert. Faithful as always, he had gotten worried about me again and headed off as the one-man search party.
"What'd I tell ya? Unbelievable!"
She introduced herself; her name was Kashea, by the way. A still-stunned Mike nervously shook her hand. As she walked forward onto the party he leaned over and whispered to me.
"And to think I was worried about you. She is... she is... wow."
By the time we got back, the band had already started their second set and the mob, which had been building steadily, now approached gale force.
We found Doogie and Anna admiring the vines on the gazebo, when I introduced Kashea. Anna politely introduced herself, before returning at once to her wonderment of the vines and rhetoric thereof. Doogie, for the first time all trip, didn't follow suit.
"Doogie," Anna stammered, as he ignored her arms pulling, focusing straight on Kashea.
I led Kashea away. I'd done all the damage I intended.
I never saw my ex for the rest of the evening, either because she left or because Kashea eclipsed her. At any rate I was no longer concerned. Kashea was the object of my desire. With her hand in mine, I lost my inhibitions and together we joined the celebratory masses, cheering a queen none of us had known.
Just before midnight, Mike came forward with a radical plan. A friend he knew from work had access to a yacht, and he had run into him at the concert and together they hatched a plot to go for a midnight cruise. The moon was bright, the lake had already given me great bounty, and Anna-Doogie, who were now quarreling, had both left the party in a huff. Mike assured me that they did this all the time.
When Kashea smiled at the idea, we all took off for the docks where the yacht had been moored. While I had never sailed, Mike's friend, whose name was Kurt, had won multiple regattas. He promised us that the gentle night breeze would bring a smooth voyage.
Kurt was a man of his word. He manipulated the craft effortlessly, cleaving the waves with the bow, demonstrating the grace of a ballerina. The mast supports rattled with the rise and fall of the waves, serenading us as I held Kashea tight, drinking our rye-and-cokes. I had forgotten what it was like to hold a woman so close, but then this was no ordinary woman, and there was no experience like this with which to compare it.
At one point Lindsay and Kurt's girlfriend (one of the many Jens of the world) called Kashea into the cabin of the boat to help them with something. Alone for a moment, I took the opportunity to wander to the front of the craft where Mike sat lazily staring out at the waves.
"Unbelievable," he said, and I nodded. "You guys just met on the shore."
"So where's she from?"
"Don't know exactly."
"Better find out man, this one's a keeper."
"So how are things going with you and Lindsay?"
"Good, good. She's a lovely one too, let me tell ya." Mike took a breath, "So yeah, I proposed to her."
I spit out my drink, and I didn't even have one.
"Dude, are you serious?"
"Listen man, you've seen the dating game. So much lies, deceit, heartbreak, I'm sick of it. Lindsay makes me happy, that's all a man can ask for."
"Wow, this is big man, I'm happy for ya. Man, I never thought you'd-"
"Neither did I, but here I am, and here we are. Hey, listen! This is what we're thinking. We drop anchor, and overnight on this bad boy."
"Is there enough space?"
"Sure, we'll get the bow compartment, you guys can have the cabin. Kurt and Jen want to sleep under the stars, so they'll be staying on the deck."
I shrugged my shoulders. "Why not? Just let me check with Kashea."
Kashea by this time had re-emerged with a new drink and was now listening to Kurt telling one of his sea tales. "...Well they say she still lives in the lake, all these years, waiting for that one love to come by."
"That so?" Kashea said mockingly.
"A girl after my own heart." I added as we returned to our casual embrace.
"So has Mike told you the plan?" Kurt asked me.
"Yes, the one about anchoring overnight?"
Kurt nodded. "You ain't seen a sunrise until you've seen one on a lake."
"Sunset. Anchored." Kashea all of sudden seemed rather uncomfortable.
"Kashea, what's wrong?" I asked.
"Nothing." She replied, and then casually sipped her drink.
* * *
That night, as I lay beside Kashea, I had a horrible dream. The boat was rocked by a horrific storm, the supports rattling violently, and yet all remained asleep except Kashea and myself. Kashea was as terrified as was I, and we clung to each other while the boat tossed and turned. Eventually a huge wave tossed us over, the collision separating us in a haze of frothy bubbles. I cried out for her, saw her go overboard, dove in, and was lost.
I woke up with a start, perfectly dry, and still secure within the enclosed cabin. Kashea was nowhere to be found. Frantically I crawled out onto the deck, waking Kurt in the process.
"Hey man, quiet, some of us are still trying to sleep!"
"Kashea! Kashea! Where's Kashea!?"
"What do you mean where is she?"
"When I woke up, she was gone."
"What? Impossible! I've been leaning against the door all night, I never felt anyone come out."
"Well she's not with us," said Mike's voice from the bow room. "Can barely fit two people in here."
"But, what? How?"
We all looked at each other, sharing our disbelief, and then the emptiness returned.
* * *
The police did everything they could, I must give them that. It wasn't easy shutting down Clear Lake on the busiest weekend of the year to search for a body nobody ever saw nor heard from, except a handful of drunken party-goers. Kashea had left no evidence on the yacht, and as far as the police were concerned she might never have been on it. Kurt, after much hesitation, admitted to having had a little to drink before setting off on that voyage, as did Jen, Mike, Lindsay, and myself. It was theorized that we all had more than just something to drink. Anna didn't recall meeting any Kashea, and Doogie would not admit to looking at another woman. It wasn't long before they sent a psychologist to talk to us about group hallucination.
"Now, first this guy here," he indicated me, "hears a story about some lake maiden, yearning for the same thing he is yearning for. While he knows the idea is too good to be true, a part of his subconscious wants it to be true so badly, he actually creates a vivid picture of it, which explains the events of the night before." I had told the police about our initial encounter.
"The dreams become so vivid and so real that the dreamer actually begins to believe in them, and his testimony is so strong that he captures the imagination of his peers, who also desperately want him to meet this fulfillment. Add alcohol and who knows what else to the equation, and the idea of a group hallucination is not altogether unimaginable. Nor is it unprecedented..."
He then went on to describe previous cases from around the country, including a couple who both thought a ghost was stealing food from their freezer, until video surveillance proved it was the husband doing it while sleepwalking. A group of young people, eerily similar to our group of young people, gave eyewitness testimony that the house they were partying in had been opened for them by a man at the door, who later turned out to have not existed at all. Some town in Italy started dancing like spiders, and even an entire busload of college students came to believe that their bus driver was a talking skeleton. In all cases, the hallucinations were proven false.
The man's arguments were very convincing, and Kurt, Jen, and Lindsay soon could not verify that they had actually seen Kashea on that yacht, or even at all. Mike, on the other hand, was a little more hesitant to disbelieve himself, or perhaps he just wanted to support me as a friend. As for me, I knew what I saw.
My personal assertions aside, the world continued. The lake was reopened to revelers and the search for Kashea was all but forgotten. In time, even our collection of friends aspired to clean up and head back to the city. Mike was the one who came to tell me.
"Dude, I think you should know. We're gonna be heading back to the city soon."
"She's gone, Mike."
"I know, man. Maybe its best just to let her go."
I was on that peninsula again, waiting for her. Still looking onto the lake. Still trying to make sense of it all.
"Just give me a minute or two."
Mike patted me on the back and then headed back to the campsite, now a sad empty field a symbol of a dying weekend. I looked back at it, it seemed so sparse, so much being taken down, closed up, so much coming to an end.
Turning back to the lake, I saw a figure in the glistening clear water. At first, I thought it was my reflection, but then her heavenly form materialized in the water below.
"Hey," I said.
"Hey," she said. "How 'bout that drink?"
So I leaned forward, my lips touching hers in the water. I'd say we made a couple vibrations of our own.
One thing's for sure, after that last drink, there was no more thirst.