The city was a marshmallow of sticky smog and I wanted out. I carried bags loaded with beach towels and sandwiches down the front steps while George checked the oil of the old car. I had to step around a couple of languid coffee drinkers who’d spilled out of the café on the corner and made themselves comfortable on our stairs. Everyone was in my way. In the night, I got up to get a drink of water and as I stood naked by the sink, the fridge in the kitchen next-door opened, illuminating our neighbour, François, pudgy in his underwear. I’d ducked away from the window but he’d looked up and waved. That made it hard to pretend I hadn’t seen him, but I tried. I seemed to be the only one around here who needed privacy.
“Shree-eeet!” Marcus rode up, tooting the whistle he kept on a cord around his neck. My mood worsened. He wore a stretchy cycling outfit, and when he unclipped his shoes from the pedals, he click-clacked when he walked. “Gonna be a cooker,” he said. “Where you kids off to?”
George emerged from under the hood and straightened up. “Come for a swim? I see you’re already wearing your Speedo.”
“Coolio!” said Marcus, pushing off. “I’ll be right back.”
“It was going to be so perfect,” I muttered.
“Be nice,” George told me, giving the dipstick a delicate wipe.
At our secret lake the smell of cedars floated on the air, water lapped at a fallen tree, sun warmed the towels we spread on a huge rock. When we went there, we’d lie around in our old pilly swimsuits, or nothing, and not worry about sucking in our stomachs or making conversation. The day washed over us. One time, after a dip in the lake, George asked me, “What’s the opposite of déjà vu?”
“What do you mean?” My mind somersaulted as I tried to imagine what he meant.
“I’m seeing this in the future, like a reflection repeated in a mirror,” he said.
“Us on this rock, like old turtles?”
“Romantic, huh,” he nodded.
Days like that were rare and necessary. We’d been together a dozen years and a lot of the time we went about our lives not paying attention, or else scraping on each other’s nerves.
Bringing Marcus to our hidden spot in the Laurentians was like introducing purple loosestrife to the area; he’d invade. I wondered if George had invited him expressly to pique my bad temper, or if he was oblivious to just how much it would annoy me, and which possibility was more irritating.
With the car windows down it was too loud to talk. I sat in front, hot air blasting across my face and neck. When we parked and got out, our shirts were glued to our backs with sweat. Marcus crashed down through the ravine saying stuff like: “Man oh man, this is gonna be great. Oh, YES. Am I glad I ran into you guys. Maybe there’s a rope up there on that cliff to swing out over the water. What do you think?”
I scrambled over the fence and the Keep Out sign. As I was trespassing, I felt a new appreciation for private property and wished I had some of my own.
“I can’t wait. I’m in. Oh-oh, what a spot. Sweet! Last one in’s a…Mar-tha? What’re you waiting for?” He peeled off his shirt, kicked off his shoes, rocketing in with a big splash. “Oh. My. God.”
I sat down on the flat sloping rock with the bags of towels and picnic items. I’d made bagel sandwiches and lemonade, packed plums, chocolate cookies, and huge green grapes. I unfurled a blanket and got out my novel. George jumped in the water and he and Marcus paddled and sloshed like dogs. I waited until they were way out before I slipped into the water and floated on my back. Cool and perfect, the lake rested against my ears, blocking out all sound. The sun was so bright I had to close my eyes. I flipped over and dove down, opening my eyes to underwater topaz. When I got out, I whipped a towel tight around me.
Marcus hauled himself out of the water and shook his head, flinging water onto the pages of my book. “I want to go rafting up north this summer. Man. Did I ever tell you about my cross-country ski escapade up there? It was wild.” George looked out at the lake, ate a sandwich, and then reached for the bag of cookies, giving me a goofy smile as if to say, “See, isn’t this fun?” while Marcus filled the lakeside with a stream of chatter.
“Back country… telemarking… sublime… ” he was saying, kissing his fingers as I half-listened. Marcus had a slew of Gore-Tex action adventures on file. Stories of diving, skiing, hiking; man against bear, wolf, or hippopotamus outside the tent in Kenya. He employed a hostage-taking style of storytelling, forcing his listener to respond before he would go on. “My buddy…wham! ‘My leg, I can’t move!’ Holy fuckamoly! You know?!?!”
“Huh,” I said. The burden of listening fell to me because George, enviably and infuriatingly, lay back on the rock and closed his eyes, maybe following the story, maybe not. George liked Marcus but didn’t seem too interested in his epics. If they hadn’t known each other for ages I would have bet their friendship was forged on freestuff.com – they swapped software, hard drives and ripped documentaries rather than the confidences and neuroses I shared with my friends.
“Sit tight…I’ll ski for help…wind picks up, temperature drops like a mo-fo…”
“Mp.” I kept my murmurs abrupt to make it all go faster. I could tell he’d told this many times before. A lot of girls moved through Marcus’s life. Maybe because he had only a limited number of stories in rotation and had to keep changing his audience. Not that he seemed concerned about re-runs. He held his hands out, poised for dramatic effect.
“It was ass cold. By the time the park ranger and a medic arrived it was dark,” he was saying. “I didn’t know if we’d make it back to him before he got hypothermic.”
“But you did.” I reopened my book and glanced at George who appeared to be dozing. I tugged my swimsuit down and turned a page.
“Well, we had the skidoos! Turned out he’d broken his leg. Two bones, two breaks. Tibia and fibula. Brutal.”
Marcus lay down on his stomach on the rock and for a minute there was just the sound of a crow in the treetop and whirring dragonflies. “Speaking of fibulas, I ever tell you about that orthopedist I went out with? A brilliant scientist but she was just not interested in anything beyond bones.” He shook his head. “And boners, I have to say. I will give her that.”
A splash. George was back in the water. Marcus dove in after him and they egged each other on to swim to the other side of the lake. As their arms windmilled across the water, the scuffs of their strokes got quieter. When they clambered onto the other shore they looked like flesh-colored figurines, small and delicate.
I went back into the water and a curious muskrat swam up close to get a good look at me with his shiny eyes. George and Marcus swam back and we all sat dripping on the rock, eating grapes and melted chocolate cookies.
“One time, when I was 17, my friend’s mom invited me on a secret picnic,” Marcus said, grabbing a handful of grapes. “I was so nervous.”
George and I both looked at him. Maybe it was this admission of nerves that got our attention. I said, “She asked you on a picnic date, just the two of you?”
“She did. And I had no clue what to do about it.” Marcus was scrunching up his face at the memory.
He had the kind of hair that tended toward frizz and his round shoulders were going pink with sunburn. It came to me that Marcus had been a hopelessly dorky teenager and never recovered. The endless stories of conquest and triumph over adversity were his way of overcompensating. Pinpointing someone’s insecurity always made me like them more, and now I looked at Marcus with some sympathy.
“I almost didn’t go, but I met her at the park. She was pretty and had brought real wine glasses in a basket. I could hardly eat. I kept thinking I saw my friend behind the trees,” he said. “I got out of there as soon as I could. What a waste. I definitely could not take advantage of the situation.”
George snorted. “Those days are over, eh?” He laughed and inhaled a grape. He coughed.
“Times have changed,” Marcus admitted.
I was still contemplating Marcus’s inner adolescent when George coughed again and made a strange squawking sound. “You all right?” I asked him.
He gasped and pointed at his throat.
“Water?” I put down my book and held out the water bottle to him.
He shook his head, got up. He smiled and tried to laugh.
“You OK, buddy?” Marcus asked.
George turned away from us, sucked at the air, made a loud wheezing noise before he turned back again. “Can’t,” he rasped, pointing at his throat as he walked into the bushes.
I almost stopped breathing myself. I looked at Marcus who stood up, his knees slightly bent, his expression alert. “He’ll be all right,” Marcus told me. “You OK there, Georgie? You just got to get that out of there. Need some help?”
I didn’t know what to do. George was making horky gasps. I felt queasy with panic. Time thickened and slowed. What was happening? George! “We have to do something,” I said, uniting myself with Marcus of the hands-on action adventure.
“Heimlich time?” he said.
I clenched my fists. “Do it.”
We went to where George stood hunched over a patch of ferns. “OK big guy, don’t worry. I’m just gonna give you a hand.”
I hovered. From behind, Marcus wrapped his arms around George’s naked torso. He fit one fist into his other hand and jerked below his ribs, then jerked again.
My heart slammed in fear and my head pounded.
George gave a retch and the grape flew out, dropping into the ferns. He slumped in Marcus’s arms.
“Better?” Marcus asked, moving to one side so that he could see George’s face as I put my arms around him from the other side.
Tears ran down his cheeks. He wiped his mouth, then his eyes with his hands. He cleared his throat. “Jesus.”
“I have to sit down,” I said as if I was the one who’d had the close call. The sudden peril made me shake.
“Thank you, Marco,” George said.
“No more grapes for you,” I told him. I packed picnics of the future in my head. Tupperware containers of applesauce, compote, custard, pudding.
“Those things should have a warning on them,” George said. “Hazardous, ages 1 to 100.” He shook his head.
“Marcus,” I said. “Heimlich Maestro. Crazy.”
We staggered back to the rock. I emptied the plastic bag of grapes into the bushes. A few rolled down the rock slab and made little plopping sounds as they hit the lake. They bobbed on the surface as they edged down the shore, floating on the water. Harmless baubles. You never knew what would spell the end. We were all just one grape away from disaster. It was so easy to forget, normal is precarious.
In our clingy damp swimsuits we lay down on towels. I shivered despite the warm air. Relief and failure coursed through my body. George lay next to me. I squeezed his hand and he squeezed back. A cold wave of regret washed over me. What if it had been just me and George here alone, the way I’d wanted? I felt spooked and fragile and useless. I was going to have to get Marcus to show me the exact manoeuvre. It occurred to me he hadn’t been making up that rescue stuff. Marcus, my hero, my new best friend. I raised my head to look over at him, tears jumping out of my eyes.
Marcus winked and gave me a thumbs up sign. “You know, one time my brother just about choked,” he said. “He was staying at my place and the phone rang in the middle of dinner. He answers for me and goes quiet for a minute and then coughs on his stir-fry and turns bright red. Finally he croaks, “It’s for you,’ and he passes me the phone. Turns out it’s this girl I know with a thing for spicy phone calls. She thought it was me and got right into it. Meanwhile my brother, he’s gasping for air with a bok choy caught in his windpipe!” Marcus laughed and clasped his hands behind his head.
“Oh, please!” I sputtered, irritation edging out gratitude and any thought of Marcus as vulnerable. “In your dreams, a wild woman calling you up desperate to talk dirty.”
“I swear to God. How do you think I got my Heimlich chops?”
“Yeah, yeah. Marcus, could you do me a favour and just shut the hell up?”
“Martha!” George protested.
“What?!” It was what I’d always wanted to say to Marcus. Weird how I could never do it until he saved George’s life.
“OK.” Marcus was grinning at me as he stood up.
I started laughing. It was OK. I poked George in the ribs, to show him we were all on some kind of different level now.
“I’m going to see if there’s a good branch up there on that cliff to hang a swinging rope from,” Marcus said, surveying the rocks, trees, and water of the special secret swimming spot like he owned the place.