A daring nighttime escapade has become a permanent tradition for the women of my family.
Just as the loon call and the distant whine of motorboats are indicators that summer has arrived at the lake, so are the conspiratorial whispers of my female relatives as we plan our evening skinny dip. It’s a family tradition, and one that includes any other female friends who want to join.
After undressing and wrapping ourselves in towels, there’s the usual argument about the outdoor lights. My cousin wants them on so we can see our way to the dock without tripping over tree roots and rocks. My mother says no, we need as much darkness as we can get. I don’t mind the darkness because I could walk that path with my eyes closed. I sidestep the flat silver rock beside the hammock, the grey pyramid rock, and the bony birch roots that stick up through the pine needles. I duck under the white pine branch that dips low, brush past the iris plants, and hear the hollow thump of my footsteps on the wooden dock. Behind me, the breathless, grinning, pale faces of my family materialize out of the shadows.
On the dock, we’re faced with the awful choice between jumping in, which draws public attention to what we’re doing, and going down the ladder, which means putting everything on display for the cousins to see. The ladder wins out for me. I drop my towel and make a beeline before someone else does. The only thing worse than flashing the rest of the family is standing awkward and towel-less while someone else goes down the ladder first.
Swimming at night feels like harder work than swimming in the daytime, even though that doesn’t make any sense. It must be the laughter that keeps bubbling out of our mouths, amplified as it floats over the surface of the still lake. Soon I’m breathless from treading water and my eyes have adjusted to the darkness. There are so many stars that the sky is more silver than black and the Milky Way is a celestial superhighway in the sky. We huddle together in the dark water and gradually become quiet, listening to the sounds of the lake on a summer evening.
A porch door slams, Sherri’s dog barks next door, and Kelly has her old Led Zeppelin record playing across the water. A car rumbles down the washboardy hill and pulls into the Thomsons’ driveway. A boat motor splutters to life at the main dock and I know the Little sisters have arrived for the weekend. As comforting and familiar as these sounds are, I listen for the most dreaded sound of all – the clunk of wooden paddle on wooden gunwale that signals the approach of a silent, unwelcome canoeist encroaching on our secret ritual. So far we’ve been lucky, although there are a few notorious tales from older women around the lake who tell of toothless Phil, who used to appear in his canoe at inopportune moments. The naked women would be forced to tread water indefinitely, making small talk until he paddled on his way.
Once on the dock, Mom can’t find her glasses. “I put them right here in my sandal. Where did they go?” There’s a frantic search until the glasses show up in my cousin’s sandal. Vision restored, we tiptoe back to the house, skin tingling from the cool water and evening air, heads giddy with our daring escapade. Whistles greet us in the house and we reciprocate with self-conscious shrieks as we race upstairs: “Don’t look!”
The ritual has bonded us women together again. Any awkwardness felt after months apart, living and studying far away from each other, has dissolved after sharing the tantalizing thrill of the skinny dip. I feel a hot surge of love for these strong, stunning women – cousins, aunts, sister, mother, and dear friends. We’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember and I’ll continue till I’m old, stooped, and wrinkly, teaching the next generation how the skinny-dip is done in this family.