The water is cold against my belly button and I’m afraid a waterborne parasite will swim up my urethra. I cup a hand over my penis. I never thought a pond in the mid-Connecticut woods could be threatening, but the discomfort is probably only mine. Bruce, Olivia, and Belle don’t seem fazed — they’re looking ahead at the few hundred yards of water roiling beyond their naked forms, at the dirt and pebbles breaking over the water’s surface with every kick of their feet, and talking about the universe.
“The Big Bang,” Olivia says, now staring at the sky, “is literally magic. Nothing in existence except for this infinitely small singularity, and then — BOOM! The whole fucking universe is here. Makes you feel tiny, doesn’t it?”
Bruce gives his signature giggle that signals he’s in the mood to entertain one of Olivia’s philosophical outbursts. Belle is more enthusiastic, chiming, “Yes, it does!” as she leans over to bear-hug Olivia.
I feel out of place. Apart from thinking too much, I haven’t said or done anything in a few minutes, which means that the others have probably noticed. If you just stand here looking like a half-suicidal schlep, they’ll stop being friends with you, I think to myself. So I focus on what’s around me and try to summon up a witty remark.
Above me, there’s a silver moon that looks round enough to be full, but Belle classified it earlier as a “waning gibbous”, a term that reminds me of expired gelatin. Around that same moon is the usual New England canopy of pinhole stars, the dreg of constellations I used to be able to name but of which I can now only identify the Big and Little Dipper. Passing sluggishly in front of everything are clouds so dark and translucent they might as well dissipate into the blackness behind them. I point at the sky, turn to the others and say, “You know, if you look at the stars hard enough, you can just make out the shape of a dick.”
They laugh, and I do, too. In that moment I’m lifted out of my head and immersed in this wind-blown forest in which we decided to skinny-dip. I can smell the mild lavender shampoo in Olivia’s hair, can hear the caws of a lonely bird somewhere in the night. But I soon retreat back into my head, and the others go back to talking.
“Do you guys ever feel older than you actually are?” I hear Belle sigh.
Murmurs of agreement from Bruce and Olivia. I want to say something meaningful because I understand her sentiment far more than a fourteen-billion-year-old explosion of particles, but I can’t give much more than a grunt of solidarity. How the hell are you supposed to boil down the abyss of human feeling into words that have probably already been said before?
I’m back to staring at things. There are hundreds of naked November trees encircling the pond, all susurrating and bathed in a gentle astral light you’d never find in a city. This reminds me of when I first moved to Connecticut from New York, when I was shocked to see a sky unmarred by light pollution.
“You can’t even see that many stars here,” Tom, a Mainer friend of mine, once explained in response to my surprise. “You ever come to visit me, you won’t believe how many you can see at night. You’re basically getting a cross-sectional shot of the Milky Way.”
I always thought his description was funny, if not exaggerated, but thinking about it now, it almost makes me sad. Are other people’s experiences better than mine, or are mine just more uninspiring? Am I doing the things I want to do? Do I even know what I want to do?
“You okay, AJ?” Bruce asks.
I look over. They’re all staring at me.
“I’m fine,” I lie.
“You look like you’re thinking hard.”
“What about?” Belle presses.
I consider her question, try to glean meaning from my internal ramblings. It’s not long before I realize I don’t have an answer. It’s an even shorter time before I notice that, the whole time I’ve been here, I haven’t really been here. I suddenly feel guilty about ignoring my friends. But that doesn’t mean I can’t try to make up for it.
“Nothing important,” I say, trying to smile.
They nod, knowing that means it’s time to stop talking. We all look out over the water. I can see the sky’s bright reflection skimming across its windy ripples, and when I close my eyes, I can feel my feet sink deeper into the mud below me.
I’d talk about how beautiful I think it all is, but sometimes there’s no need.