Back in February, I screwed up all my courage to enter the following piece of writing in the CBC’s Canada Writes competition for Creative Non-Fiction. The shortlist was finally released at the end of June after months of waiting, but my name wasn’t on it. I was very disappointed (and maybe even cried a little bit in private), but I guess that just means I’ll have to try again. And get better at writing.
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. No matter how many times we do it, we persist in acting secretive. Casually, we make our way upstairs to undress and fight over my mom’s pathetic selection of ragged towels. There’s a rush to claim the big green one, the only towel that offers a decent amount of coverage, but usually Mom gets it because her boobs are way bigger than everyone else’s and she needs the extra material. Modesty prevails in the bedroom, which is surprising considering that we’ll all be naked together within minutes. We focus on wrapping our indecently short towels as tightly as possible because wardrobe malfunctions in front of one’s father and uncle would be far more awkward than funny.
Downstairs, 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, that’s ridiculous, we need as much darkness as we can get. A compromise is found by turning on the backyard lights, which illuminate enough of the path to get us around the house before entering the shadows leading to the dock. 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.
Once on the dock, someone loses her nerve. “Are you sure we should do this?” My mother ignores such questions. In fact, she’s already naked, green towel in a heap on the dock, glasses carefully tucked into her sandals. She heads straight for the ladder, turns to flash us all with her big breasts bared, and climbs steadily down into the water. Her gasps of shock at the temperature do nothing to slow her down. Within seconds, she has pushed off and is swimming away from the dock, calling out to us, “Oh, oh! It’s wonderful! Come on. Hurry! It’s glorious out here.”
The rest of us stare at each other. It’s an 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.
What the heck was Mom talking about? The water is chilly, even for July. I yelp and gasp, but the well-known secret is just to keep moving. I push away thoughts of the snapping turtle that was under the dock earlier in the day. Dropping myself completely into the water, I’m stunned for a few seconds by the cool wash of water that comes into immediate contact with parts of my body usually protected by a bathing suit. Then I swim toward my mother, freeing up the ladder for the parade of naked girls who now don’t want to be last. Each one hits the water with a shriek followed by contagious laughter that’s always accompanied by a round of loud sshhhing from everyone else. There’s not much point, I think. The cat is out of the bag for anyone with a cottage on this lake. We might as well announce our skinny dip with a megaphone from the dock.
Mom says swimming at night is harder work than swimming in the daytime, and even though that doesn’t make any sense, I think she’s right. 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 out of breath 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 centre of the sky. We huddle together in the deep water; no one wants to move too far away when it’s this dark, and gradually we 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 washboardy Four-Lump 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, though 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.
I start to shiver so I swim toward the dock. The closer I get to the ladder, the sooner I want to get out. My vivid imagination starts recollecting tales of Nessie and Ogopogo and suddenly I sprint toward the ladder, climbing up its slippery rungs and snatching my towel. The others aren’t far behind, though they’re more leisurely in their aquatic exodus.
Once on the dock, Mom can’t find her glasses. “I put them right here in my sandal. I know I did! Who took them?” There’s a frantic search as we fear the worst, that the glasses fell into the lake somehow, but it turns out Mom was looking in my cousin’s sandal instead. Vision restored to my mother, we parade 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 yelps as we race upstairs: “Don’t look!”
The bedroom, once a haven of modesty, is now more like a brothel in its brazen display of female body parts. Towels fall into soggy piles on the hardwood floor as we emerge like damp Venuses from our shells. The game of comparisons begins.
“Your boobs are so much bigger!”
“I wish mine were that perky.”
“Your nipples are so dark!”
“I waxed all my hair.”
“Oh my god, how much did that hurt?”
“What size bra do you wear now?”
“Check this out, girls. This is what you’ll look like after four kids.”
Loud laughter. We prance around, putting ourselves on display for a few seconds before rummaging for our clothes. The material sticks because my skin is still moist from the lake. The clothes feel like a prison of sorts, trapping limbs that only minutes before felt so free.
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 our nakedness and the tantalizing thrill of the skinny dip. I feel a hot surge of love for these strong, stunning women – cousins, aunts, grandmother, sister, and mother. 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 it’s done in this family. Because as soon as that loon call is heard wafting across the surface of the lake, none of us can resist dropping our clothes, heading for the dock, and perfecting this family’s art of the skinny dip.