Skinny Dipping

By Chris Kowalski

We went skinny dipping out at the swimming hole. I drove her way out into the cornfields. Way past the city limits and past the collar communities. Through towns that you wouldn’t know existed if they didn’t make you slow down to 25 mph for a few blocks. And then through towns that didn’t even bother.

She stuck a mix tape into the stereo. Music I hadn’t heard, but which blended well with the engine and the open windows. We were wearing our sunglasses and watching the open space of the country silently. I’d sneak a glance over at her as she watched the stands of trees pass. Watch as her hair was yanked about in the wind. Watch as the loose strands pulled back like little streamers and ribbons darting in and out of the window. Watch her tan hand absently sweeping to collect them from her face.

The air was warm and thick with hot summer humidity. The sky lay heavy with a grey overcast that deepened to dark blue towards the horizon. There were distant flashes and I could smell the storm in the air. We both looked left and right at the farm and country stores, but it’s hard to ignore a storm when you’re driving straight into it.

“How far are we going? Are we going to beat this thing?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said. “See there how the trees are all still in the fields. Feel that calm before the rain. This storm isn’t being chased by the winds at all. These are summer’s lazy thunderstorms that drift in and stay all day. They’re not caused by shifting weather patterns, it’s more...saturation. The sky’s full. It’ll need to spill a little.” I saw another burst of lightning and added. “But not before swimming.”

We were really close and the storm was still a long way off. I ducked the car down a side road I almost always miss and then jogged a short while past the lone grove of poplars where the witches supposedly held sabbats on full moons. Just before the bridge over the highway, I turned into a gravel road and followed it down into the low fields off the interstate. Down where the river floods sometimes and the farmers don’t plant. I drove straight to the “NO TRESSPASSING” sign and parked.

The highway was near. Through the bushes I could hear the sporadic traffic going by. The lonesome cars rumbling in from the distance like the soft thunder. Everything sounding louder because of the thickness of the air. Sound travels better before a storm.

Along the path, the yellow grasses of late summer were taller than my waist and crisp like old paper. Pale yellow weeds that would snap and snare in my toes as I walked through it. I kicked off my shoes and threw them in the front seat. The gravel of the road was hard on my feet, but I wanted to develop calluses so that I could go anywhere and not worry. The small pebbles would stick in the soles of my feet so that I had to brush them off on the inside of my thigh. There were two hard lines of gravel where the trucks drove and the weeds sprang up in the middle where the cars couldn’t reach. I walked on this where it was free of sticker plants, taking long steps to reach from one soft grassy patch to the next.

I tried to hold her hand as we walked along, but my awkward leaping made it ungainly. So I let her arm swing free, and let her go so I could watch her stroll ahead. The traffic breezed by. Someone honked their horn. I waved absently. It was a short little walk. The path dipped down to a creek where she had to take off her shoes too and wade through the calf-deep waters. On the other side, it rose again and topped off shortly above the swimming hole.

When you drive along the interstate, notice the local ponds and little lakes. You’ll see them every time you cross a bridge on one side of the road or the other. In the Midwest there’s not much landscape, and to scrape together the long earthen ramps of an overpass, it usually means you’re going to have to dig a hole. And it’s usually going to collect the runoff and rainwater. There are hundreds of these along the highway stocked for fishing or with a pontoon boat floating somewhere in the middle. But this one was out of sight of the highway. This one was forgotten by all the high-school kids in the area. This one was “NO TRESSPASSING”.

We stood for a moment at the top of the embankment looking over the dark water. It was perfectly rectangular and perhaps ten acres. Cattails grew lushly everywhere, choking the water’s edges except right in front of us. The grass was thick and soft and like a carpet after the gravel road, and there were two great flat stones where the reeds split. We stood there for a moment watching the water and the storm. The thunder was getting closer and the wind had started to pick up as we reached the water’s edge.

“Why is it when lightning strikes a lake, it electrocutes all the people, but none of the fish?” She was keenly watching the clouds’ reflections in the little lake.

“Because the fish are grounded.” I thought it was funny. My dad’s an electrician. She didn’t get it.

We watched the crisp gusts of wind shiver over the water in tight little waves and debated going in.

“Fuck it,” she said. “I didn’t come all this way not to swim.” And she pulled off her top and set it on the rocks. Her breasts were sweet and pale, and after a quick breeze swept over them, very erect. I pulled her close and kissed her, pressing tight so I could feel them against my chest. Then I swiftly shucked off my shorts and ran into the water.

It was terribly warm and muddy and my feet sank in up to my ankles as I walked in. The mud sucked at my feet as I pulled them free again and again, wading not even waist deep before letting myself float and swim out. There was a buffer of about three feet of warm surface water and then suddenly the thermocline where it became very cold. It was shallow enough that if I were treading water, I was dangling in it below my knees. Like being suspended between the bath and an ice bucket.

I kicked up and started swimming off. Paddling easily on my back so that I could watch her undressing on the shore. Perched atop her rock quiet and nude she was carefully folding her clothes into neat piles at her feet. And then she walked into the water until her breasts disappeared beneath the surface before she started swimming.

I craned my neck back and watched the first black-sheep cloud drift by overhead. A vanguard in advance of the flock. The lightning was still a few miles away, but out here in the country the thunder really carried. Above me everything was still and grey except for these stray puffs of darkness propelled across the sky, bits of broken rain cloud spilling across the sky.

She swam out to me. There was some splashing near me and I could hear her voice. “Let go,“ she coaxed. “Let your feet free from the bottom. Fill your lungs up with the storm’s breath and let your body rise to the surface like the tiny bubbles the fish spit out. Let it float away. Can you feel? I have you. You won’t sink.”

She held one hand beneath my neck and the other in the small of my back, barely touching me, barely supporting my weight. Like her hands weren’t there. Like fingers on a Ouija board. Light as a feather she guided my body out into the deeper water. I shut my eyes to the sky and listened to her voice as the lake wrapped its arms around my chest and throat. I took slow deep breaths and held them so that I was buoyant in her hands. Buoyant as she steered me towards the center of the lake. Deeper and up to her neck until she kicked her ankles free of the timid shore reeds and started swimming out with me towards the center. Pushing me ahead like an air mattress. Like an inflatable toy in the pool.

“See how light you are? You’re a child again. Lying naked in the wading pool in your front lawn. Surrounded by flowers, and your eyes pressed tight against the warm press of the sun. Steaming it all to bathwater. Can you feel it?”

“Yes, I can,” I said. She held my body in the first few bathwater feet of the lake. The air was hot and moist and it blew across my face with a sense of urgency.

“It’s warm,” she whispered. “Warm like the sidewalks in June. Warm like a hot chocolate. And your skin is soft and young again. And your heart and lungs are small and full of life and it pulses in the water and your belly. And the flesh is warm and tight and it’s all around and it’s your swollen belly full of baloney sandwiches. And it’s your swollen belly full of hot dogs. And it’s your mother’s swollen belly full of you. And you fill her up from within, and you curl up tight and hide amongst her ribs. Embracing her insides. Feeling her breath. Feeling the rhythm of her heart.”

The storm belched out a choke of thunder as I floated. We paused and listened to it roll away like a gutter ball at the bowling alley. It rippled over the surface as the lake’s tiny storm waves were lapping at my cheeks. Splashing over my face and collecting in my eyes.

“The water is everywhere. The flesh is all around. Wrapping you. Holding you tight. Swaddling your head and legs until you’re bundled up so tight that you can hardly move and you’re stuck. You’re stuck there so warm and so tight that at first you resist and test your muscles against it, but then you tire. And you relent your body to this persistent hold. Holding you tight. Holding you down. And when it starts to unravel, it seems as if it’s your body that’s unraveling. One layer at a time. Very slowly. A thin ribbon of gauze unwound. A knot untied. The knot in your mother’s stomach. So subtle that you don’t notice it at first. It just seems like a lessening of the tension. You breathe a little easier. Begin to stretch as the pressure relents. But soon it’s just all coming off until you don’t know where it begins and ends because it simply doesn’t hold you down anymore. It doesn’t hold you close anymore, it doesn’t hold you tight, and in the gaps it gets confusing. Does this space belong to you? To your body? And you watch the space closely, waiting to see if it’s you or if it’s just the space you were watching. Watching the darkness so close. Waiting for yourself to emerge, and then suddenly you just realize that your body is gone. It was never there. Just the space you were watching. And this is terrifying at first, and you’re disorientated, but after a while, this is normal and you stretch out to embrace all of this and fly. There is no flesh to hold you. There is no world to bind you. You’re free as you always were. Like it’s always been and the body was just a dream. Now that you float free. Let this world go. It isn’t yours. You never belonged here. Aren’t you unfettered? Free. Open. You are full of the space. The gap. It just goes on forever. And so do you. You just stretch and never stop reaching in the space. And you’re thin. And you’re cold and perfect and free.”

I felt her hands slip away from my body as I floated, eyes closed. My feet swung down beneath me and I sank. Dipping my toes into the cold undercurrent that dragged my body deeper into the lake. I took one easy breath and then my face slipped underwater.

My body was so relaxed. Everything was perfectly still as I drifted. I could feel my body slide deeper into the cold water as my ankles and then legs fell into the thermocline. Sliding in so slowly like when you lower yourself into a cold pool by inches. It reached my groin and then my chest and then it swallowed me up. Cold and gripping. Silent and sure.

All sense of motion had stopped. I felt suspended. Like I was in limbo. Like I was packed in styrofoam. The surface of my skin was alive with the sweet chill, and then I felt it permeating me. Growing colder. The blood would be leaving my toes. My fingers. My lips would be blue and my skin white. I had an awareness of my muscles getting colder. After the thermocline there was no feeling anymore. Just the cold constant pressure. Uniform and unchanging and persistent.

The moment lasted for what seemed like forever. Time gets lost so quickly in the confusion of sensory deprivation. It began to be measured in the permeation of the cold. How cold I had been underwater. It was measured by the air in my lungs. It was measured by these two remaining gauges. And by the cycles of my mind as it flitted from one to the other. Monitoring. Watching the trickle of feedback it had left. The motherboard had gone dead. The control panel went black and there were just two lights blinking. The deepening cold. The dwindling breath.

It felt like I hadn’t moved in so long. It felt like hours. And I wondered if my body would respond at all going quickly numb. No feeling and suddenly so ignored and removed that I had to look to find it. That I wasn’t sure if it was there anymore. Certainly I’d be feeling something.

And then I thought that I was still sinking. I had no clue how deep I was. I was in the middle of a cornfield. At the bottom of a lake in the middle of a cornfield. But I was dropping still. Dropping, and it was dark and cold and by now I couldn’t feel a thing.

I was afraid.

Afraid of not having a body. Of slipping away. Of drowning.

But most of all I was afraid of touching the bottom.

The filthy, muddy sucking bottom. The rotting reeds that had been collecting for years. In the shallows it was plenty creepy, but this was the dead, cold, lifeless bottom of the lake bottom. And I was waiting to touch it. Waiting for my numb not-there toes to feel the first touch of clay that would never see the sun. And suddenly I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible.

I kicked. One leg. And then the other. My body jump-starting slowly. It was a frozen second before I moved my hands. And as my senses slipped into awareness, I did the quick tour, and was startled at how little air I had left myself and hoped I was close to the surface. What started out as a lazy kick to the surface fast became frantic with fear. I didn’t think that I would die. I thought not of death or life, but was obsessed with the terrible fear of where I was. The place disgusted me, this bottom of the lake, and I wanted to leave it as quickly as possible. I began to swim furiously, my arms cartwheeling in the deep like I was spastically trying to climb a ladder.

And the water was still cold. And I was sure I should have been on the surface a minute ago. Now there was really very little air left, and I was trying to evaluate how much longer I had. I was wondering if my vision would begin to fade. And if in all this blackness I would notice it. And still no surface. And still the cold. And could I really have drifted this deep? I wasn’t under the water this long. All my thoughts were suddenly moving terrifically fast, and I was thrashing forward with my arms although I couldn’t feel my hands, and I was wondering if I hadn’t mixed it all up in this daydreaming and was actually diving toward the bottom, and then I hit the warm water.

I gave one tremendous last heave to get to the surface, with the last of my strength.

And I was still underwater.

So I found another one and then there was sound. Thunder strong and powerful, drowning out my desperate gasp of breath. The wind was quick on my cold wet body, making me shiver so that when I fell back into the thin layer of warm water, I stayed there but for my choking mouth.

The storm had arrived while my eyes were closed, and by now the sky was black and boiling over with the fury of it. Lightning, nearly overhead, made me blink and the thunder was instantaneous as I watched the retinal burn fade.

I stuck my head above water.

She was waist deep on the shore and going for her clothes. The wind was beginning to whip the waters of the lake with fast short waves, peppering over the surface, now black and angry, reflecting the face of the heavens. I could feel it as it washed over my face cool and swift.

I kicked up and started swimming, but I was still a long way off, racing the storm. I wasn’t sure I’d make it. But there were still no drops as I felt the first ensnaring lengths of underwater weeds graze my knees and belly. Unfortunately, she was nearly dressed as I pulled my dripping body from the lake.

“I didn’t think you were coming up,” she said as she looked me over.

“Would you have gone down after me?”

She shrugged non-commitally and started climbing up the hill.

I shook all over like a dog and wrung out my hair as the first warm drops began to hit. The first patter of the rain is one of the most beautiful sounds in the world. It happens everywhere at once. I watched as the splotches accumulated on the rock. Watched them hit the mud and grass. The first soft speaking of the storm before it bellows forth. I almost slipped in the mud reaching for my shorts as the rain dribbled on my back. The sweet blessed showers of summer.

“Shit, we left the car windows open.”

We ran back together, laughing as it really began to come down. I was completely nude, but we didn’t notice until we were in the car with the windows rolled up.

We both glanced beneath the steering wheel with the gasping laughter that a sprint can give you. Looking for what was half revealed beneath the dash. Then I leaned over the stick and kissed her. Her mouth was wet and furious like the storm, and my hand got tangled in her hair as I pulled her towards me.

“With the windows fogging, it makes me feel like I’m in high school again,” I gasped.

“I hated high school,” she said.

I agreed, so I started up the car. We wiped the fog off the windows with our hands and got on the road.

On a dare I drove all the way back naked.

“Look at that poor guy walking in the rain,” I said, teasing. “Maybe we should pull over and offer him a ride.”

“Want to stop and get gas?”

“Want to hit a drive-thru?”

We finally agreed on ice cream.

“I’ll buy if you go in like that.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Okay then,” she said. “You buy.”

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Copyright© 2003 by Chris Kowalski.

Image: Paul Chabas.

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