How the Lake Saved Me

Nonfiction Rachel Toliver

I used to be a young girl, only 18, who had left the East—where I had neither much sinned nor been much sinned to—but had been often tired, and often had been the girl who did not raise palms when the others raised palms, who did not flay under a spirit-hook

I used to crave the lake, and its air became the silvered lungs I could use, and its waters felt smooth like mercury—like mercury edging that wrong Chicago with the limning gray grace of the East. I used to be a young girl, only 18, who had left the East—where I had neither much sinned nor been much sinned to—but had been often tired, and often had been the girl who did not raise palms when the others raised palms, who did not flay under a spirit-hook. In my 18 years, I’d lived with my two parents, a paid-for life that went neat and mute as well-shelved library books. And there were the slots for youth group and Bible club, but the choruses of praise songs, whether twice or thrice-sung, only spun in my mouth—cogged and sprung and device-like—a fulcrum of nothing like need and nothing like love.

So I went to Chicago, to a house, where the pastors and sinners all shuffled their living around, and the money ladies gave us pop money to use in the machine, and the men were called brother, and the women were called sister. The brothers and sisters and pastors all bore pasts like gashes, and the Cincinnati or Dallas they came from involved blue tarps stretched for sleeping or dread-handed families or hunching over wrong powders. Their conversions had come in lashings of lightening, and so I gave myself to that place—its huddled, breathy befores and back theres—its smitten windows and folding chairs and whoosh of industrial kitchen and clothes-washing—hoping for a little bit of that, a little lashing, a little foaming blood on the lips—a little, just a little, electrocution.

But soon, where I wanted to be was never that house, and was never Chicago, and sometimes where I wanted to be was never awake, and sometimes where I wanted to be was never anywhere at all—not in the banana-smelling snack room, or the daycare, or the lobby’s greasy fake-wood gape. I would never say I’d had enough, but in that house, there was too much of everything—too many intervening prayers over grody breakfast, too many children and children’s scabs, too many hairs in the pastors’ beards, too many socks and strange, tangled skirts in the cast-off box. The proliferation of that place—its fug of human breathings, its insistent humid sins—adhered to my skin, and there were too many alleluias in too many heavy metal songs playing behind too too many grimy-handled doors.

The lake, though, was slate-colored and singular and disinterested in our doings. The lake never asked of us, but sometimes soothed into cerulean, sometimes misted off aloof, until its breathed distance eased into the East itself. And so, supplicating the lake, cast through the weathers, I’d go, going along walking with one girl or two. Or I’d go to those waters with the house’s girl multitude, going along with the single-girl thronging. But never alone, for even the pastors themselves never strode out alone—for eroding was known even to them, known to those past pastors, gone now, scoured down as if by God’s own salts. It was true, too, that girls had strode off into sin, together and alone. The one who’d packed her things, and another’s things, in garbage bags during the night. The one who called from the highway to say fuck you all. The one who sold her blood at the junkie plasma place, on the sly, till she could save enough to get away. The ones who went back to the flesh, to giving head, to jobs in Walgreens in Ohio.

With the girl who was my German friend, or the other girl, who was from grief and from the South, I’d walk the damp flagstones, look out into the ponderous, gray invocation of waves. All the prayers that were not in my mouth seemed to reside in that lake, sunk like stanchions, pitted with barnacles, keeping company with the inscrutable lake-rot. But o! the clean days when the seasons were in their hinges, the way I wanted to lie down in that lake, to live not in the house where the pastors with their boots scared me and the Christian punk rockers scared me and the sight of everyone scared me so that I stayed mostly in my room. But o! when there was even an inkling of blue, how I could feel the East like a cool hand during a fever. And how the words that I could speak back East—the words that I could not speak in that house—came like a zephyr to me, new and cool, off the lake’s polished surface.

Despite the lake, so much of that Chicago seemed wrought simply for never letting me in. Outside the house, there were ruinous gulls—all rag and beak and hunger—gabbling and scuttling through the gutters. Beneath the L platform, there were things rusting covertly, corroded loops bolted into concrete, rungs of miniature ladders, terrible rivets. Even downtown, where we girls would go for ice cream or an OK’ed movie, seemed too broad-shouldered in its buildings, its pavements too wide, too plain-like, too swept. None of the East’s shady nooks there, barely a graffiti’s kink for camouflage—only expanse, only dread plateau. Too easy to be witnessed, it seemed, in that open, glib Midwest—witnessed with my measly sins: a thought of that one brother’s angled spine, my Ani DiFranco albums, the things that I might do next year at the secular college.

As if that eye-bald Illinois weren’t enough, there was the house, and the dread, always, of being seen. The money ladies with their plastic thumb-guards for the counting of filthy bills—seeing—the young and sheepish detoxers—seeing. The pastors seeing from beneath their rad-pastor caps, seeing in the too-gracious way that pastors saw, their way of seeing and already bearing an awful forgiving. The girls, even—seeing—and the worst girls, the pastors’ daughters—seeing—eyelashes laminated onyx with mascara, lids drowsed about by lavender or snake-emerald or a precocious kohl—wondering always why I hadn’t made better catastrophes of my 18 years, why I’d failed to crank out even one decent sin. Those girls—all edgy with ready, fledgling guilt, the entirety of their little histories cramped up in that house, in their berth-size beds. And I—I from a real high-school, where sins stuck like gum under the desks—had done nothing. And so it was, that their nudges of curfew? and dates? and prom? proffered nothing from me, till they turned, bored, to see if the money ladies would give them ten bucks for shoes, to see if the dubious, brooding new brother would pay them any mind.

But unto the lake even these—the pastors’ daughters—would come, sometimes, and the lake would cast its flat, cobalt apathy back on them. At the lake and always—while mid-laundering, or slotted, near to sleep, in our triple bunk beds—there were girl confessions, for confessions were what girls did. O, the girl confessions! O, the sins lapping into sins! I was stumbled by the hair on Brother Jim’s knuckles; we backslid as soon as we saw each other, backslid over and over in the 7-11 bathroom, and it felt good at the time; I am afflicted by nicotine, by the remote control, by thoughts of the heat of mouths. And how that narrow-halled house—its black-gunk carpet corners, its bleak plaster—was what had saved them. And how they wouldn’t ever go back, how the house—in all its strictures and burnt-out bulbs, in all its mop-buckets and portioned poverty—had saved them from going back. And how the going-back was all my longing, how the confession of this could never spool out from my lips—how I ate food-bank day-old gumbo and sloughed plates through the dishwasher and watched Disney VHS and never, never said it.

And how the lake saved me, all the days I lived in that house. Unto the lake’s opalescent irreproach, and unto the girls, I had nothing to confess—nothing but studying too much, being too untouched, too unlike all of them. The lake—through all that obdurate and metal-tongued Chicago—was my portioning of home. When all we earnest girls would pace its hoary, light-scaled bounds, it was the lake I’d venerate. Enfolded in the waves lay some untarnishment of sterling, some unknown surface of the gracious East. Confessing, if I were to, would be something like this: O, God, I hate this place. I thought you led me here, yet each of my days, I wake unto dismay. These girls are not my people, nor are the pastors, nor the pastors’ daughters, nor the brothers, nor the sisters. They are your people; this they believe, and they belong to you in ways I never have. O God, I am faroff. Oh God, I am faroff faroff faroff.



Rachel Toliver has work published or forthcoming in Brevity, Alligator Juniper, Literal Latte, and Third Coast. Toliver teaches English at a public high school (which also happens to be her erstwhile alma mater). She lives in bucolic West Philadelphia, and disagrees with all the nasty things people say about Philly.



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