Between the Woods and Frozen Lake

Between the Woods and Frozen Lake

Between the Woods and Frozen Lake 1920 1440 Matthew E. Henry

The ice on the lake is so thick some truckers risk driving all 18 wheels across her glassy surface to save two hours, praying her back will hold their weight just long enough.  The roads that snake about the lake are slick with danger, but no more than usual. The frost heaves are no more treacherous than years past. But my alignment seems off—sliding left or right depending on which way I travel. 

*

That year I worked eight days a week at two jobs. Five days sitting with what passed for “at risk” high school students in a rural community. Three days of kitchen and maintenance duties at a retreat center on the shores of a postcard-worthy New England lake. 70 hours of in-school suspension (ISS), staring at disaffected youth, deflecting misplaced anger, learning the intricacies of Spider Solitaire and Minesweeper, occasional substitute teaching, washing dishes, cutting vegetables, chopping wood, scrubbing toilets, smiling at old white people who assumed I must play basketball, and attempting to stay warm. Somehow it felt like winter all that year.

Nicole is a bitch. This is probably the first time I have ever used this word to describe a person, let alone a female. But God help me, it fits. If she goes one week without pissing someone off, getting kicked out of class and landing in ISS, it would be miraculous enough to turn an atheist back into a Catholic. But here she is again, slouching anger into this tiny room. Permeating this suffer-box with her presence. This tomb barely holds seven desks, so nowhere is safe from her sneers and snark, or the acidic attitude that mirrors her pockmarked skin. But once again, I smile and ask her how she is doing. Attempt to see below her troubled waters. Once again, I’m met with shark teeth. 

Trapped in the white Northeast, I had to call somewhere home. The retreat center provided a roof over my head, occasional meals, and human interaction. Brian thought SpongeBob SquarePants was the anti-Christ: a satanic plot devised by secret forces to corrupt the pliable young minds of a whole generation. He was completely serious. He often walked around in only his tighty-whities. He treated the Bible like the Constitution and vice versa; in other words, the perfect roommate. Bonnie was a bubbly brunette, so ridiculously incompetent it was comical. But sleeping with the boss’ little brother had its benefits, the job in event programming I was promised. Tony tolerated Bonnie’s affection until the summer came. Mark wanted to sleep with Monica. Monica pretended she didn’t have an eating disorder. Bridgette was a racist, homophobic dictator who thought God only loved the same eight people she did. Susan’s singing still rings in my ears.

*

Convenience is a strange concept. Ease is not everything. Or always desired. Every day, lunch was a lukewarm, day-old sandwich and a juice box. I learned to avoid anything with mayonnaise or eggs from the open-air case. If I could find the extra fifty cents in the cushions of my car, a bag of chips rounded out the meal I ate at my desk. Mustard packets were free. Gas stations provide what they can. As with most things, what’s convenient is seldom healthy.

Marcus silently flipped a desk and disassembled it, removing each time-rusted bolt and washer, lowering all four metal legs to the ground. He was caught while reattaching the last of the supports. He lost track of time and the movie ended sooner than he thought. His teacher turned on the lights and saw what he was doing in the back of the class. I laugh as he smiles through his story, while completing his one-day sentence. We both know his punishment was born of embarrassment. The depths of his teacher’s inattentiveness exposed. His rebellion was harmless. There are far more dangerous things one could do with darkness and time. 

That year my ex showed up. The girl I dated for half a decade. The one I was going to marry. Her father ran the retreat center and she’d returned to restart her life in the place where we shared her first kiss. We passed on paths we had once walked, eyes facing the same horizon instead of our shoes. A constant reminder of what was lost and why. Roads not taken.

Susan and I have to get away. Spend our afternoons anywhere other than here. To breathe something other than woodsmoke and fake smiles. Sitting in the patio section of Walmart, people watching. Eating Chinese food in places where Asians are only seen on the bar TV. Driving without a destination through verdant hills, along dirt roads. Singing Lauryn Hill (“Adam lives in theory / trying to turn stone into bread / masquerading he’s got it figured out”) and Jason Mraz (“I’m very much aware of this madness when you talk…”). Singing Counting Crows: “I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell my myself to hold on…”

That year I learned the theme song to MASH has a title and words.

*

One morning I hit a patch of ice. My car snow-crabbed toward the lake, sliding sideways, as if heading home. Clutching the wheel, I corrected, maintained the road. Heartbeat in my ears, I felt it: peace passing my ability to understand.

Katherine is up from the middle school to be scared straight for two days. Yesterday I was told that she is a demon, the worst the school has seen in years. We spend most of her incarceration chatting about the Patriots and our favorite books. I’m unable to see the horns and hooves clearly visible to everyone else. As she waves goodbye, says she will see me tomorrow, the vice principal enters. He’d heard our conversation and he warns me about allegations she made against her bus driver the previous year, when she was the last stop on his late route. He said they investigated, but no one believed her story. How long after Katherine was not believed did they begin to see a monster?

Sometimes Susan and I just sat—parked in a supermarket lot or at the base of a mountain trail— wrapped in the warmth found questioning religion and politics. We stared deep into the eyes of socio economics, held hands with concepts of honor and altruism, selfishness and sin. Despite the rumors, love was redefined, held close as my own soul.

*

That year I rose early. Dressed slowly and warmly. It gave time to make arguments and agreements—deals and bargains—instead of the explanations no one else would hear, because a note requires too much planning and energy before leaving for work.

Today my cell is empty. All the teachers are healthy and sober enough to stand before their classes. Students sit innocently at their desks. I have time to myself. Time to think through the things I’ve overheard. How Harriet Tubman didn’t do enough. The murmured “nigger” that landed Peter in ISS for three days last week. Time to remember having my own classroom, my first classroom, last year. Building relationships with my kids. Literature and laughter. First loves and longings requited. Breakups, abortion, and all the other deaths. I remember I’m a poet. I remember the trouble with words. How they reveal. How they become constant, eternal betrayers. 

I stumbled upon a Langston Hughes poem: The calm, / Cool face of the river / Asked me for a kiss. Much later, I read the title.

I can hear Susan outside asking someone where I am, if they have seen me recently. This has become a habit for her, a daily audit. Checking my car, the kitchen and dining hall, the lodge, the lake. 

*

That year my ex’s mother gave me a spiritual, self-help book. A “stuff-white-women-like-while-eating-brunch-and-gentrifying-Dorchester” type of book: practicing positive thinking, prayer, being present in each moment. The author sought purpose and joy, while buried beneath pot-scrubbing, shoe-mending, and book-keeping for others, despite an overwhelming desire to depart. I think it was an act of love.

Brad wants to cross the bridge and fight me in the woods behind the school. I ignore today’s spewing of rural white boy threats by slowly reading Catch 22. But I feel the grin growing between turned pages. I will not be back next year. No one would believe him, no matter what evidence I leave on his face. Besides, his jaw would be wired shut. But I don’t believe violence is the answer. Until it is. 

*

A New Englander, Frost understood that “the woods are lovely, dark, and deep” as the lake it surrounds. As are the promises. And the miles left to go.

One piece of paper for every class, for every student, is what they pile on the desks and chairs surrounding me.  Teachers enter my dungeon throughout the day and deposit their stacks. Some have the decency to introduce themselves or to hide their relief behind a good-natured “I wouldn’t want to be you” expression. Most avoid eye contact. I’m told the computer can’t do this or that, and the secretary has other things to take care of. There is no system. I must collect, sort, and collate, by hand, the grade reports for the whole school: one piece of paper, for every class, for every student. It’s a small school. There are only around 350 students, but each student has 6-7 classes. I have a dual degree in English and education, with a minor in philosophy. I refuse to do the math. I have a week to finish. 

That year my long-distance girlfriend called me. Manic, she’s convinced I’ll move across the county to be with her, but then leave her for Margret, her lesbian friend I’d never met. At least it wasn’t another call about Susan and how close we are and how we talk about everything and how pretty she is and how she doesn’t trust how she doesn’t know her and how much better for me she is than her or how hard this is or how tiring this all is.

*

My car won’t start. No lights. No sound. I knock on Susan’s door to borrow her SUV so I can slide around the lake in safety. To return in one piece. It’s most likely the battery. I don’t know what it will cost, but I fear it will drain what little I have left. 

That year, during a surprise visit, Susan confessed her secret to my long-distance girlfriend. Susan picked her up from the airport and came out of the closet over the course of the hour drive. Months later, after the side-eye and whispers, they found a way to fire her. They denied her request for a recommendation. Untrustworthy, they said. Her kind’s a danger to children, they said. She knew the risks before she met that plane and opened her mouth. She did it for me.

I’ve been reading Amiri Baraka: “Lately, I’ve become accustomed to the way / The ground opens up and envelopes me…/nobody sings anymore.”       

*

I hear the ice crack as soon as both my feet touch the shore. Turn in time to see my front wheels begin to go under, before the whole car disappears below the glass. At first, dry and confused, I was amazed by the strength of the ice, especially given the impact. The tires found no traction, no purchase when I attempted to drive off. I opened the door and thought of the trucks as I shuffled my car’s circumference, staring at the cracked surface. My cell phone is dead. I’d have to walk the three miles I’d travelled. Assemble a story for AAA. By the time my taillights submerge, red eyes dimming, I am laughing through tears. Of course, I say. Of course, the ice replies. Replies the lake. Replies a voice I know. All else is silent, save the sweep of easy wind and downy flake before the vision vanishes. I shake my head and come back to myself, approaching the most dangerous curve of the lake road’s body.

Header photo © Syreera Muir.

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