“This town’s turning into a vacation town,” my father said sourly. “Famous Dave’s! Why? Why do we need chain restaurants up here?”
“I don’t know, Karl, I kind of like it,” my mom said, eyeing the new rustic-posh day spa as we drove by.
“Used to be just cabins and resorts, and The Bay Bar,” my dad grumbled. “Didn’t need all these stores and…coffee shops.”
The conversation was interrupted when my little brother shouted “Crack the window!” My mom let her window down a few inches and our Springer Spaniel bounced up off the floor and onto her lap. Her nose went to the open window and her tail furiously beat my father. It’s amusing every time. Dogs freak when they smell Northern Minnesota.
“Polly, down!” my mom commanded. Polly wagged her tail and licked my mom’s face. My mom turned around towards the back seat and asked me, “Josie, are you excited to see Keya?”
“Uh, yeah. I always am.” This year, I have to admit, I wasn’t quite as excited for the cabin as I had been in past years. I can remember the feeling distinctly, though. The waiting and waiting all school year to be reunited with my best friend in the world, then the nervousness that we would be different. The trepidation I felt when I saw my cabin crush, Grant, for the first time every summer. He was always equally hot, and I was more anxious every year. This year, though, things were different. I had a boyfriend this time. I think some deep part of me couldn’t wait to casually tell all my cabin friends that I had a boyfriend at home. What would Grant think about that? Also, I had great friends at home now, just as cool and exciting as my cabin friends had always been. Honestly, and sadly, the Jet-Skis were what I was most excited about this time.
These were the things going through my head as our mid-sized SUV followed a line of giant, boat-pulling SUVs down the winding, densely forested road that led to Manhattan Point. That’s sort of like our neighborhood. It’s a piece of land that juts out into the lake. All the families along the Point have been friends for generations.
There’s a unique culture in Minnesota, perhaps you aren’t familiar with it, of going to the cabin on summer weekends. The rest of the country goes on vacation down south, but we go north. Minnesota is very beautiful up north, with our treasured 17,000 lakes and wild forests. Nearly everyone in the Twin Cities has somewhere up north to go during the summer. Maybe a time share, a favorite resort, a summer camp, or a cabin if you’re economically privileged.
Our cabin belongs to my grandma, who has spent every summer there since she was fourteen. We’ve been lucky to accumulate lots of toys up there, golf carts and Jet Skis and a water trampoline. It’s paradise.
As we pulled into our driveway, I peeked at the neighbors’ cabins as always. No cars in Grant’s driveway, but Keya’s half-wrecked Lumina was sitting on her front yard. And next to it, Keya herself was tanning in a patch of sunlight, lying on a deck chair in a string bikini and sunglasses. She sat up when we slammed shut the car doors. Polly went sprinting full-speed across the street toward Keya, all her Springer energy bursting out of her after the three-hour drive. Thank god a car wasn’t coming at that particular moment.
“Polly-poo!” Keya said. (Side note: Keya is pronounced like Kia the car. Her mom named her Keyarrah, so you see, Keya is just the lesser of two evils.) A little dog perked up under Keya’s chair, grinding Polly to a halt. Polly sniffed tentatively at the little rat-like thing. The dog sniffed back, and they found each other quite likable. They started running around the yard together, Polly nearly trampling the thing.
I watched this from my yard, and waved to Keya when she looked my way. I left my duffel bag in the car and walked over to Keya. “Hey Keya.”
“Hello, my long-lost summer love,” she replied. She got up and we hugged.
“Who’s that dog?” I asked.
“This is my puppy BJ. Actually it’s me and Jason’s.”
“Your mom let you name your dog BJ?” I asked incredulously.
“Eh, you know, moms don’t get inna…innu…what are they called…”
“Yeah. And if they do know what it means, they totally hope you don’t. Moms like to think the best of us.”
“But she let you get a dog with your boyfriend?”
“Yeah, why not?” she shrugged. I guess Deanna was probably just happy Keya wasn’t engaged yet. That’s what happens around here when you turn 18. Oh, I forgot to mention that Keya was what we call a local. She didn’t vacation up in the glamorous north. She lived there year-round, endured all its brutality. She went to school with like 12 other students. She had to drive 40 miles to buy decent clothes. I felt infinite pity for her life up there.
“You look different,” I told her. She was skinny and tall as always, but her long red hair had been cut shoulder-length and bleached a harsh blonde. Her eyebrows were even thinner than last year, and one of them was pierced.
“You look the same.” It was true. I never changed. Mousy brown hair isn’t easily fixable, and make-up is superfluous on my forgettable face. I’ve stayed 5’2” since sixth grade and I wouldn’t call my fashion very thrilling.
“Want to go to the beach?” Keya asked.
“Sure, let me bring my stuff in the cabin and I’ll meet you there.” Keya didn’t live on the lake, but we let her family use our cabin’s beach whenever they wanted. So we met on my beach, her tiny string bikini making my bikini look like a tablecloth across my chaste chest. We lounged on the beach on towels and looked at the sparkling lake. The water was still too cold for swimming or water sports, but the beach was warm and sunny.
“So, Josie. Do you have a boyfriend?” Keya asked.
“Yeah,” I said, like it was nothing I wasn’t used to saying.
“I know,” she said with a grin, “I saw it on Facebook. What’s he like? What’s his name?”
“His name’s Christian. He’s really fun and- ”
“Yeah,” I said, laughing.
“Of course he is. You’re so gorgeous, Josie.”
“Yeah, girl. You get hotter every year!”
“Um, no,” I said. “So where are you going to school in the fall?”
“Uh, Itasca?” she said (that’s the community college of the north woods). Then she quickly said, “And you’re going to Marquette University? I saw that on Facebook too.”
“Funny. Yeah, I’m going to Marquette.”
“That’s Wisconsin, right?”
“Uh, yeah. Your public schools must have been shit if you don’t know what cities are in the next state over.”
“Well…” she said defensively.
“It’s funny. So you’re staying up here for school?”
“Yeah. Itasca’s like 45 minutes away, so I’ll have to get an apartment. But you know, it’ll be good to be close to home.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said. I didn’t know what to say after that. I’d suspected this, since she hadn’t listed which college she was going to in the fall on her Facebook profile. Yeah, I’d stalked her too. What else is Facebook for? We were both silent for a while as the sun hopefully colored our skin a little.
Eventually, Keya said, “You excited to see Grant?”
“Yeah, I guess. Have you talked to him lately?”
“Just online. He said he’ll be up after dinner tonight.”
“Do you remember when we were twelve and you were in love with Grant?” Keya asked.
“I was not in love with Grant!”
“Yes you were! It’s fine, I totally was too.”
“What! All those summers we both liked him and kept it a secret?”
“Yeah. But I hid it better than you did,” Keya said. I shrugged.
“Have you seen his profile lately? He looks goooood.”
“Still the preppiest dresser ever?” I asked.
“Oh yeah. ‘Hi, I’m Grant, I have beautiful eyes and I own the entire summer collection at Hollister, all in red to match my brand-new red Corvette.’” Keya teased.
“Does he really have a Corvette?”
“He does. He drove me around in it when you weren’t up here last Labor Day.”
“That’s ridiculous. Who buys their son a Corvette for his 18th birthday?”
“Bitch, your parents bought you a Jetta.”
“Yeah, but that’s a practical car. It’ll get me through the next twelve years.”
“I don’t know…I think anyone who gets cars for their birthday can suck it.” Oh no, there it was. The perpetually unavoidable conversation topic: suburban kids vs. rural kids. We were the bad guys, always. Grant and I, who had definitely not chosen to grow up in the “Cities”, always had to defend ourselves endlessly against poor-little-northwoods-Keya. It wasn’t worth discussing. I chose not to speak.
“So how’s Jason?” I asked eventually. I imagined he was exactly the same as the last two summers. Buzz cut, Fox racing jackets, chew rotting under his lips, and a dull personality.
“He’s great. Still treats me like a princess.”
“Where is he today?”
“At work. It’s the busy season for them.” Jason’s family owned a dock-installation service, which means rich lakefront property owners paid them to put in and take out their docks every summer. It was a pretty successful business, and Jason was going to inherit it one day, making him the most popular guy in the Brainerd Lakes area.
It scared me that Keya was making no indication of future plans beyond dating Jason and living on Manhattan Point her whole life. We had been planning on going to college together forever. But that year, I’d been too scared to ask her what she was planning on, somehow knowing it didn’t involve a four-year school. A part of me hurt really bad when I realized what different directions our lives were about to go in.
We chatted and tanned all afternoon. I tried to be responsible by putting on sunblock occasionally, but Keya teased me each time. Shocking. Eventually my mom called from the top of the bank, 30 feet above us. “Dinner’s ready, Josie! Keya, would you like to eat with us?”
Keya made a face. “Did she make some organic…poached…fishy…grime again?” she whispered.
I laughed and said, “Probably.” The truth was, my mom’s cooking was amazing. But Keya never seemed to outgrow the child’s taste in food. She would happily eat pizza for every meal.
Keya yelled, “I think my mom made a nice dinner tonight, but thanks anyway, Ellie!”
“Okay!” she replied.
“I guess I have to go up,” I said. “But you can stay if you want.”
“I’ll go home. But I totally think we should corner Grant tonight and force him to play night games with us like when we were twelve.”
“He’ll love that. Can’t wait. See you at nine?”
“Cool.” We walked up the forty-odd stairs to the top of the bank. I went in to my cabin, she went in to her house.
I helped my mom finish making dinner, salmon wrapped in prosciutto with mashed potatoes and fried eggplant. She asked me, “How’s Keya these days? It’s been a long time since you’ve seen her.”
“What did you talk about?”
“Boyfriends. Life. Her new dog BJ.”
“She named her dog BJ?” my mom asked in amusement.
“Yeah. How classy, huh?”
“It’s weird, I feel like we’re not…kindred spirits like we used to be.”
“Yeah, maybe it’s just that she’s not really going away to college like she always wanted to. I want her to get away from this place, you know? Like, it’s great to visit, but she deserves better than to stay here forever.”
“Didn’t you think it was unlikely that she’d go away to college?”
“No, she always said she wanted to go somewhere with me. We’ve talked about it since we were kids. I don’t get why she’s changed so much. Like college is the last thing on her mind.”
My mom stopped whipping the potatoes and looked at me. “Josie, I don’t think Keya’s changed at all. She’s always been like this. It’s you that’s changed. You’ve just grown up a lot. You’re starting to see the differences between the two of you.”
I was silent for a while. “So what do I do? Do I try to convince her not to stay in northern Minnesota her whole life? Do I let us drift apart?”
“You figure out what she’s really thinking. What her future looks like to her and how she feels about it. If she needs someone to convince her to do something more with her life, then talk to her about it. If she truly wants to marry that guy she’s dating and move into a trailer, then be supportive.”
“I just wish I could fix things for her.”
“I know,” my mom said. Then, “Dinner!”
My dad, Polly, and Nick came to the dining room. We ate our fancy dinner while across the street, Keya was probably eating mac and cheese.
After dinner, I played Sequence with my family, a game that is only fun at the cabin. Then we went down to the dock to clean the Jet Ski. Nick was dying to ride it, even though the freezing water would feel like a million needle pricks if you fell in.
I was leaning over the side of the Jet Ski, waxing it from an awkward position when I looked up and nearly fell in the lake. My heart painfully skipped a beat before my brain even registered that standing on the next dock over was my childhood crush. Grant Vilner shouted, “Hey Nicky!” My brother waved and said “Hey.” Grant saw me and waved. He gestured to the beach between our docks and I nodded. We met in the middle of the beach after clumsily trying to avoid stepping in the freezing water.
“How’ve you been?” he asked.
“Good. God, I haven’t seen you since like the beginning of last summer.”
“I know, it’s been a long time.”
“We’ll have to work on that this year,” he said. “It just sucks, I work a lot. I try not to work weekends, but you know….”
“Yeah. Where do you work?”
“Same as before. The golf course.”
“Hey,” I said, “Keya and I were thinking of forcing you to play night games with us tonight, like when we were all kids.”
“Oh that sounds cool. I don’t think my family’s going anywhere tonight, so yeah that’ll work. Nine-thirty?”
“Cool. I should go finish waxing the Jet-Ski.”
“Me too…lots to do this weekend.”
I walked back to my dock with my heart pounding a little faster than usual.
By ten o’clock, we were all running around in the dark on my property and Grant’s property. Nick and Jason and Grant’s two little sisters had joined us. We were playing Sardines, which is a variation on Hide-and-Go-Seek where you have to hide along with whoever initially hides once you find them. The last person looking is the next hider. Grant was hiding somewhere and so far it looked like no one had found him. I knew all his old hiding spots, and the places where everyone else tended to hide. I knew Grant would never hide in those places, but I quickly checked them anyway. Judging by his insistence on playing Sardines, he was clearly trying for the most unique spot ever chosen (although everyone knew the all-time best would always be Keya’s older brother up in the tree; it took us two hours to find him) so I walked around slowly, deliberately.
Walking through a dark forest is scary, no matter how many times you played night games growing up. My dog Polly leapt out of nowhere and I jumped and made a little shrieking noise. I heard a rustle toward the road. My investigation led me to the Vilners’ pile of unchopped logs. I had already looked there. Upon further scrutiny, though, I realized there were logs missing from the bottom of the pile. I crouched down and whispered, “Grant?”
“Hey Josie,” was the reply.
“Um, is this thing safe?” I whispered. There were logs above him and to each side of him. It looked precarious.
“Yeah. I built it this spring when you all weren’t up. It’s all nailed together and everything. It’s really structural. I am an engineering student, you know. Come on in.”
“Is there space?”
“Yeah, a little.” I wriggled into the black tunnel, unable to see what was ahead of me. Grant’s shoe hit me in the face, but then I found the way. We were lying on our stomachs, shoulder to shoulder with no extra space. I was afraid of the perfect darkness that prevented me from even seeing his face. I was terrified that I would move a log and they would all crush us. I was scared that no one would find us, and I was scared that they would.
“I hate to think what bugs are crawling on me right now,” I said. Grant chuckled.
“You like my ultimate hiding space?” he asked.
“I do. But I don’t like being in it.”
“Yeah, it sucks that I’ve created the best hiding spot ever and now I don’t get to have fun running around out there at all. It’s going to take all night for them to find us.”
“Yeah we definitely have some time to kill. They weren’t even close at all.”
“So…” he said. “Where are you going to school in the fall?”
“Cool. Wisconsin schools are far superior to Minnesota schools.”
“You’re still at Madison?”
“Yeah, love it. I thought you’d come visit it sometime and see me.”“Oh, I did visit it. I guess I didn’t think to call you.”
“Oh. You didn’t like Madison?”
“No, I did. I just decided to go to a private school in the end.”
“Cool.” There was an awkward silence.
“So, did you meet Keya’s dog BJ?” I asked. We were whispering as silently as we could to avoid giving away our position.
“BJ! That’s awful. No, I haven’t. That’s such a…”
“Like a white-trash name, right?” I said. Then I gasped and quickly added, “I didn’t mean that.”
“It’s true, Josie. Keya’s not getting any classier.”
“I just want to get her out of here.”
“Yeah. That would probably be good for her.” Grant’s hand moved a little so it was touching mine. I think it was accidental. Neither of us flinched to remove the sudden contact. “So she’s still dating this Jason guy?”
“Yeah. Like two years now. He’s way better than that other guy she was with, but I still think she should get away from him and this town for a while ’cause that’s the only way she’ll ever get out of here, you know, if she does it soon…” I was talking (whispering) too fast in order to distract myself and Grant from our hands touching.
“Are you dating anyone?” Grant asked.
I paused before I whispered, “No.” Visions of my wonderful boyfriend at home swirled through my head. Then visions of countless summers of Grant wiped away any thoughts of Christian. I don’t know what I thought would happen if he thought I was single.
“Are you?” I asked.
“No. My girlfriend’s studying in Barcelona next semester so we broke up a month ago.”
“Is that a good thing?”
“I don’t know. Yes and no.”
“It’s kind of cozy down here,” I said.
“Ha. Pretty fuckin’ dirty, though.”
I could feel his breath on my face but I couldn’t see where it came from. This whole time, my pounding heart was trying to make me aware of the significance of this moment. It told my memory to never forget one detail of this night. I breathed it in.
There seemed to be nothing more for us to say, so we laid there in silence. Sometimes it’s too difficult to say something that will make a certain thing happen. Those words don’t come when you want to say them. There were wordless thoughts of what I wanted to happen, but no easy way to make them happen. My mouth stayed closed and my face didn’t lean towards his. I wondered if his brain was having a similar battle.
Suddenly, there was the sound of footsteps crunching toward us. Our moment was gone. Grant’s little sister knelt down by my feet. “Hi, guys.”
“Hi Brit,” I whispered.
“There’s no way I’ll fit under there,” she said a little too loud. More footsteps appeared, then a few minutes later, everyone had found us and I had to wriggle out from under that dirty, cobweb-y, centipede-infested trailer. None of us older kids were up for another round, so we sent the little kids in to bed and walked down the steps to the beach.
Keya kept giving me significant looks, like “I saw you two were hiding in that tiny space together, now tell me what’s up.” I ignored those looks.
Grant set off some fireworks on my dock. Jason and Keya cuddled on the beach. I sat drawing circles in the cold sand and watching Grant. When he came back, he sat by me, deliberately turning his back on the couple that was annoyingly making out by this point.
“I do have a boyfriend,” I blurted out. “I don’t know why I told you I don’t.”
“Oh,” Grant said, drawing a circle with a stick. Then I didn’t know what to say, because I had sort of just admitted I had feelings for him, thus meaning I had probably always had feelings for him, and that is never not awkward. We were silent for a long time, looking at the stars and the water lapping at the beach.
“Want to go rent a horror movie?” Grant asked eventually. The glint in his eye told me the awkwardness between us had run its course during our extended silence. Now it was time to get back to old cabin traditions.
“Is the rental place still open?”
“The gas station should be.”
“Sweet. Keya? Jason? Want to come with us to get a horror movie?”
“Hell yeah!” Jason said. “Better be a ridiculously bad slasher movie!”
“What? Josie’s still not too snooty for a slasher movie?” Keya teased.
“Well, there’s time for that when I get to college. I’m sure I’ll get totally pretentious there. But here? It sounds perfect.”