Hearing the rustle of the stones on my driveway makes me want to fade into nothingness. Beep beep is followed by an enthusiastic dragged-out holler: “we’re hereeee.” I sigh in distress. It wasn’t until I peeked out the window with only a quarter of my eye that it sunk in. I wish I had said no to the whole thing. Any half-lousy excuse would’ve sufficed: I promised my aunt I’d go hiking with her. My little sister needs a ride to the dentist and my parents are out of town. I told the neighbors I’d watch their dog this weekend. I have the stomach bug. Anything. But now I’m standing in the doorway like I’ve forgotten how to walk.
It’s that car. Seeing his 2002 forest green Subaru feels like summers driving to the Cape, belting Elton John for hours, high school tailgates, and soft serve cones with rainbow sprinkles for him and chocolate for me. Now it reeks of pitiful country music, morning commutes, black ice air fresheners, and her gym shoes in the back.
I pet Pickles goodbye and grab my grandfather’s duffel from my kitchen counter. I can’t waste any more time pretending I’m in the bathroom. Plus, I won’t be that girl who’s perpetually late. My duffel bag swings against my leg as I drop one hand from its side to wave hello to Graham, Sophie, and Jackson. I can hear the blaring country music as I approach his car. I fake a smile passing by the passenger window and hop into the back. There is no awkward tension, it is a play we’ve already rehearsed. Out of habit, Graham switches the radio from Cat Country and pops in an old mixtape I made him years ago.
“Last minute packing?” Sophie asks, referring to the extra two minutes spent waiting in the driveway. I refrain from rolling my eyes in case she sees my reflection in the rear-view mirror. I shamelessly lie through my teeth.
“It was that darn Pickles…he always chooses the most inconvenient times to go out.” Graham’s face brightens up as he is reminded of his undying love for Pickles, my beagle. The four of us kill time through tone-deaf sing-alongs, where Sophie messes up about eighty percent of the lyrics. We somehow end up having a heated debate about whether or not a fruit could be crunchy. We all share tales of our newly professional lives: chatter about the workplace, coworkers we despise, and the exuberant feelings of leaving work five minutes early. This lasts for two hours until grocery stores, shopping centers, and streetlights disappear.
The one thing I don’t regret about coming on this Labor Day getaway is the solitude and serenity that a trip to the cabin brings me. Septembers to Graham are weekend trips to Salisbury, New Hampshire. His great-great grandparents bought a bunch of land on a lake when it was dirt cheap. Since then it has been passed down from generation to generation, yet the integrity of the land remains the same. It’s a warm hidden oasis where you don’t feel silly for staring into the night sky or laying in a field of grass for hours. It’s where I saw my first shooting star and where I’ve seen sunsets that elicit silent tears. I’ve never been able to fully articulate to Graham how much this place means to me, despite all of my blurbs in the guestbook.
This is Sophie’s first visit to the cabin. She never struck me as a down-to-earth girl who loves to hike, but she ought to learn or at least fake it if she’s serious about Graham. It’s a running joke that Graham knew how to hike before he knew how to walk. I wonder if Sophie has ever caught wind of that one. I’ve always thought that he’s so in tune with nature because it’s a reflection of himself: pure and organic. He’s a crunchy-granola type.
When we arrive, we all help unload the car and wander into our respective bedrooms. After throwing my clothes into the dresser, I toss on an old sweatshirt Graham gave me and follow the pebble pathway down to the lake. It’s been years since I’ve sat in front of Lake Riga and I’m happy to have her all alone. Sitting on the end of the makeshift dock, I breathe in nostalgia and exhale my anxieties.
After an hour of journaling by the lake I rejoin Graham, Sophie, and Jackson. Jackson asks where I’ve been but before I can open my mouth to explain, Graham spits out the words for me. He remembers my ritual. I just smile and shake my head.
“Well… there’s your answer.” Sophie abruptly shifts the conversation.
“Want one?” she asks while grabbing a few bottles of Corona from the cooler. I nod my head yes. She cracks each of them open using her teeth even though there’s a bottle opener in the kitchen. This party trick is too daring for me, but it grants Sophie all of the attention. As orange melts into pink above us, the boys begin to build a fire, leaving Sophie and I to prep for dinner. We walk into the kitchen with lanterns in hand. Her lantern flickers on and off as we are squeezing a lemon onto uncooked chicken. I head blindly into the next room to fetch some batteries.
“Don’t you need a flashlight or something?” she asks.
“I got it,” I respond as I’m already fiddling in the desk drawer for spare AA batteries. I replace the batteries as she holds her bottle up. Clink. Between dicing tomatoes and roasting chicken, I have my first genuine conversation with Sophie.
“Now I know why Graham won’t shut up about this place. It’s beautiful.” She says this while mindlessly glancing out the kitchen window at the evergreens. She adjusts her gaze to me and asks, “When was the first time you came up?”
Pretending not to know I say, “Hmm…it was in middle school, either sixth or seventh grade. Sometime during our awkward years.” I lied again. I knew exactly when I first kayaked on the lake. I had braces and bangs when Mrs. Traub invited me to their Fourth of July celebration for the first time.
I continued: “I actually remember stuffing Sudoku puzzles, a pack of UNO cards, and three bags of elastics for my braces into my red L.L. Bean. I think I brought more games than clothes.” I pause. “And that was that. I went at least once a summer from then on. After a few years this place felt like a second home.” I say trailing off. Another pause. I shake my head and snap out of nostalgia. “Sorry, sorry I’m just rambling now.”
I desperately wanted to go on about our midnight swims, that first shooting star, playing Bullshit until we couldn’t see straight, and afternoons spent passing around a joint under the sun. But I refrained. I could see a melancholy look behind Sophie’s big green eyes.
Still looking down at the diced tomatoes on the cutting board, Sophie says, “You’re lucky Charlotte.” Her gaze remains on the tomatoes.
I froze for a second and tried not to look perplexed; that was not the response I was expecting.
She went on, “You know where they keep the spare batteries, you have some sort of ritual for after you unpack. I mean, for shits sake, Charlotte, your name is carved into a tree.”
I stood speechless, now also hanging my head down, staring at the plate of raw chicken. Sophie had always been the territorial girlfriend, never showing signs of weakness. And I could never blame her, considering my history with Graham. Yet here, my name is forever marked on the tree where the old hammock used to hang.
But she had already won. Her trophy held her by the hand. That same trophy patted me on the back. I was the one you played video games with, split meals with, the one your mother calls her second daughter. She was the one you take to the North End, the one you surprise with flowers, the one you talk to me about. I have always loved this place but it was never mine. And it would never be mine.
“You’re pretty lucky too.” I say, this time looking directly in Sophie’s green eyes. That night, we get drunk on Coronas and eat s’mores until our stomachs growled. In the morning, the sun wakes me up and I go read on the hammock. Taking a break from Catch 22, my eyes are drawn to the evergreens. I squint my eyes in the distance and see the old familiar tree marked: “Graham, Charlie, Jackson, Owen, Ivy, Sammy 08/21/2007.”I grab the sharpest stick I can find and head over to a nearby tree. I start with “S.”