I sat behind Karen in Miss Rhinehart’s second grade class: Sabaska, See. She asked if she could borrow a comb; I told I’d never used one. She looked at my frizzy hair and laughed. That was forty years ago, and we’re still best friends. We’ve known each other through bad plaid and stoned-washed denim, unfortunate haircuts and worse prom dresses. We have spent enough time with each other’s parents and children that we worry about them as if they were our own.
Four years ago I moved to a cabin directly across the lake from the house where Karen grew up and where her parents still live. We joke about running a zip-line between their front porch and our deck for easier visiting when Karen and I are old ladies.
The summer I turned seven, Karen and I were swimming in front of her house, and I went under. She pulled me out of a sandy drop-off by my hair. The next year when Jaws caused a “don’t go in the water” craze, she scared me with just a few beats of the theme song. Da-dum. Da-dum. I’m convinced she saved me from drowning just to terrorize me with shark threats a year later. No matter that all I might feel brush against my legs in Lake Hallie was an overgrown carp or a colorful box turtle.
Last winter was the coldest one on record since 1978, the year extreme temps and a heating oil shortage meant that at Holy Ghost Grade School the thermostat was set so low kids wore mittens or gloves in class. I still remember trying to hold a pencil in my homemade mitts and do timed multiplication tests, like changing a pillow case while wearing boxing gloves. Perhaps only in Wisconsin could we be so worn down by winter that I’d use a vacation day in late April just to stay home because the ice finally thawed.
This Friday morning I paddle around the entire lake for the first time of the season. As I come around the bend, I spot Karen’s car in her parent’s driveway. I call her cell phone. “Come out and talk to me,” I say.
I sit in my kayak in the ankle’s deep water, and she stands on the bank a few feet from me. For not the first time, she teases me about wearing a lifejacket on one of the shallowest lakes in Wisconsin.
She looks beyond my kayak. “What’s that?” she says. “Behind you.”
I shrug. I’m guessing it’s another turtle, but I don’t say anything.
“I wouldn’t worry,” she says. “I don’t THINK it can chew through a plastic kayak.” Same intonation and expression as when we were kids. Once when we were chased up a tree by a neighborhood Doberman, she made this face right before we both ran. The Jaws theme extended to dogs as well. Da-dum. Da-dum.
“You’ve been doing this to me since we were seven. Stop it,” I say.
She giggles. “What?”
“You’re not going to scare me anymore.”
She lets out the biggest howl of laughter I’ve heard in a long time. She tries to say something but she can’t form words.
“Well,” Karen says finally, “just look how strong it made you.”