The summer of 1999 lasted forever, twisting and shimmering in space and time, a dream, a nightmare, sunny days stretching themselves into cool nights in which we swam naked under the stars, smoked clove cigarettes, played music by firelight. Camp Harvey in Gibsons BC: I was 19, the nutty lifeguard; Jane was the camp director, my boss, my lover; Kevin did sports, Lois crafts, John and Heather were assistant lifeguards. Days passed languidly. We got to know kids’ faces, laughs, some of their names, before they moved on and another batch of shiny new ones rolled in.
On the night of August 14, the day that Alice died, Jane and I became lovers. After that day, I’d often run through the black or silver night, over dew-wet grass, tap on her window, crawl through it, into her bed, into her arms. She’d set the alarm for early morning, and I would bury myself in her warmth, afraid to be alone, shuddering; she would pull me close, whisper to me, wake me if she knew I was dreaming about it. If something came up in the night, as somethings often did at camp, I’d slip out the window, Zorro, and run back into the night.
After August 14, a spasm developed in my back and neck. It would hit me at any time, all the time; I would convulse and shiver, cold. It is far less frequent now, but it is there, under the surface, a scar.
On August 14, Alice was sucked into the propeller of a boat that her mother was driving. I have never fully come to terms with that day. I buried it inside myself, deep, as most people who live through horror do. After it happened, I called my mother and wept into the phone, unable to speak, each attempt to start over came out as a sob, my voice became raw, my body shuddered, tears dripped from the bottom of the phone. My mother cried too, although she didn’t know why. What, she asked, I cried, tell me, tell me, what, I cried, oh God. I hung up and concentrated on controlling my body, but I couldn’t.
I was conscious on two levels: on one, I cried for the horror of it, I cried for Alice, for the death I had witnessed, for her father who went mad before my eyes; on another, I watched, fascinated, as this body shook and heaved, as snot and spit and tears flowed out of control. I became embarrassed for myself, conscious of the nervous eyes that watched me from afar, conscious of my friends who told each other to give me time, and me, unable to do anything but cry. Alice was 11.
I was afraid to put my hands on my body in the shower that night. Maybe I had caught death. When I finally did, I scrubbed myself raw, I was obsessive compulsive, unable to rub hard enough, unable to wash it away. I cried in the shower, scrubbed harder, but she would not wash out.
The sun shone, and a new week was about to begin. Lois hummed in her craft hut; Kevin and Heather lay on the field; John and I sat on the stairs wearing sandals, talking about whatever we talked about before that day. New campers were arriving, some shy, some laughing, some I recognized: Erica! You’re back, Yeah, I’m going to be a counselor for the junior girls camp too, I know, Jane told me, is your sister coming to senior co-ed? No, she’s in Ontario at some gymnastics camp, Too bad…
At about that time, when nothing but summertime was happening, Alice died. Her little sister screamed from a boat about a kilometer from shore. There were three tiny people on it, one jumping up and down screaming (Alice’s sister), one running from the back of the boat, to the front, and back again (her father) and another who might have been a statue or a mannequin (her mother).
Good, I thought. A broken arm. Maybe a non-swimmer. A test I thought. Maybe a hero. We jumped in our rescue boat and sped out to their boat. We rounded a corner and there she was, naked, horizontal, impaled on a bent propeller, one blade sticking through her belly, body open, her bathing suit and lifejacket torn off, wrapped around her body and the propeller’s shaft.
Her father, Michael, screamed at the sky, begged God, pleaded, swore, “I knew I would be punished! God is punishing me! Oh God, Oh God, Oh God, Oh God, my little girl, Oh Jesus God, God is punishing me! I knew I would be punished, Oh Jesus, I knew you would punish me!” He bellowed, out of control, keening, weeping, insane. He ran the three paces from the bow to the stern over and over, screaming at God.
No pulse, no breathing, ghostly white little girl: an angel already.
It was a dream sequence with well-defined characters. We were “The Lifeguards.” “The Waterskiers” arrived before us and held her while she died. “The Doctor” pronounced her dead even before we lifted her off the propeller. “The Boats” circled like sharks, slowing down to look at the horror show. “The Counselors” helped us carry her into the sports hut where she lay alone for hours until “The Coroner’s Assistant” took her away.
She’s dead, said The Waterskier, cradling her, holding her head above the waves. He asked, are you a Christian? No, Well let’s pray for her, and he did. Alice’s empty eyes watched clouds pass as the Waterskier intoned prayers to a God that Michael had somehow betrayed.
After Alice died, the Id which resides in my belly, followed its forked tongue up through my chest, through my neck, and into my brain. It has taken up a new residence, unruly neighbor to my conscious mind. It spits and whispers insults and malformed ideas pulled dripping from the roiling, clotted soup of its being. Sometimes it convinces me that, in a century that smashed its way into history delivering death by starvation, greed, power-lust, war, and Holocaust, in a century that slaughtered its lambs by the million, I have no right to feel horror for the death of a girl I didn’t know.
It often accuses me of having let her die. She might have lived you know. You let her lie with the propeller for too long. What use is oxygen when there is no blood to carry it? You were too late.
Other times, it accuses me of indifference or of deriving some perverse pleasure at having seen Death. You didn’t feel horror, Id says. Remember, Id continues, how that very night, Id whispers mockingly, the very night that Alice died, you kissed someone, put your hands on a body, breathed in that smell, passed your hands over warm, living flesh, into shadows, Inside. And these words, Id continues, are too soft, too smooth, too forgiving. That night, Id accuses, your cock was hard, she was wet, you bit and sucked and tore at each other like animals because that is what you were, what you are.
The next day, maybe the next week, my Id has relaxed, has had time to think. It has had an epiphany, and it wakes me up in the middle of the night to whisper secrets to me. They’re related, Id whispers; Alice and Jane. I’ve been thinking about what you were dreaming about that flesh; the cold, white flesh that turned from pink to white four seconds after the propeller hit, blood flowing into the lake. And Jane, her warmth, her beating heart, her soft body, her love. You dream of them together sometimes, have you noticed?
You know, whispered Id, an aside, She’s still in that lake. The blood that was cut free of her veins flows somewhere now, one part per trillion, left in the lake, some evaporated, coalesced in a cloud, rained down on her mother’s face the day after. How much luckier than to be lost to the earth.
I am angry at my maudlin Id and accuse it of sentimentality: You were right before, I shout. I am an animal, I scream. Leave it at that. Let me get back to sleep.
You were delirious that night when you touched Jane, Id whispered. You were looking for something more than her body, but you didn’t know what. You were looking to bring Alice back at that first touch, when you felt the warmth of her arms around you. You kissed her cheek and forehead and lips and tears too many times, kissing Alice’s wounds closed, kissing her eyes open. At first I let you slip into this madness, like a warm acid bath, like her father had, but only for a moment. In the end I told you. Do you remember? “She’s dead” I said. And so you began kissing her goodbye, too many times, until the salt from her tears filled your nose and throat.
I remember, I said. What does it mean?
My Id smiled and said, This is my epiphany. In this horrible century, where so many have died like Alice, there has always been love. Have you not noticed? There is horror and love, and there will always be both, arm in arm, like you and me, one in the same, inseparable, antitheses, polar opposites, twins, enemies, lovers. You have to leave or take them both together. God, I’m glad you are deciding this and not me. You can leave them both, forget them, walk through life free of the albatross, but in darkness. Or you can open yourself, engage intelligently with the inevitable love and sickness in life, walk with Alice and Jane. The choice is yours. I wash my hands.
*Names and places have been changed