Miscellanea and Ephemeron
04/04/2006 Archived Entry: "J LHLS 9: Lake Anita"
Late one night, driving cross-country, my friend and I stopped at a campsite in Lake Anita, Iowa. The attendant had already fallen asleep, so we drove our station wagon slowly over the gravel drive, past the admission gate, and up a winding road to a hill overlooking miles of low, dark countryside.
Later, when my friend was asleep, I slipped out for a walk. I was eighteen then and deeply romantic -- about the world and about myself. Whenever I was alone at night, walking home from a party or a late club meeting at school, I would look into the sky, whether it was starry or shedding snow or simply black, and I would be overwhelmed by the certainty that I was going to be famous someday, and, more important than all the possessions my celebrity would bring me, or the comfort for my ego, it would allow me to meet, dazzle, and marry the woman of my dreams. I couldn't see her, but I knew she would be a superb paradox: gentle and tough, sensual and distant, wise and impulsive -- like no one I had ever known. Walking home through summer wind or over autumn leaves, I would do all I could to suppress the great cry of anticipation that rose in me, like a child's hands reaching up to be carried.
That night in Lake Anita I stood on a rock ledge and gazed up at a flawless yellow moon, and, without thinking, I unzipped my pants. Like the creative acts all egoistic youths, my onanism that night was entirely self-conscious. I saw myself in grandiose terms: I was a pagan at prayer, a young artist aspiring to metaphor. With the moon as my goddess and mirror, I was christening my voyage toward a brilliant destiny. My friend might have woken up and surprised me -- anyone might have seen -- but I didn't care. There was only my longing and the innocent target of the Midwestern moon.
I had rarely thought much about that night in Lake Anita until ten years later when I was on a bus trip to Maine. I was waiting for my connection in Boston when I noticed a young woman in line ahead of me. She caught my attention because, unlike those of the other hundred or so distracted people around me, her brow was pushed hard into a book. She was in her own world and content to be.
Later, on the bus, I spotted her sitting a row ahead of me, across the aisle, still reading, and I noticed that she was lovely. Her hair swept past her soft profile in glimmering strands that went from honey brown at the roots to yellow at the tips. Her skin was tanned and uniformly smooth. Her eyes were narrow like a wolf's. She was sitting next to a gum-chewing girl of about twelve -- her kid sister, I assumed -- who was flipping lazily through a teen magazine. Unable to control my curiosity, I rose out of my chair until I could see what the older girl was reading. When I saw, my heart stopped.
The Communist Manifesto.
Soon we pulled into the town where I was to switch buses. I lugged my suitcase into the aisle. The older girl glanced up at me, her eyes sparkling and very blue.
"I just want to say that I admire the juxtaposition," I said. "Seventeen magazine and Karl Marx."
Lines appeared in her cheeks and near her eyes and she broke into unrestrained laughter. Her sister did not bother to look over.
"Why are you reading that?" I asked, touching the cover of the book. "For a class?"
She shook her head.
She grinned and shrugged. "No. Just for myself."
I was barely able to contain my excitement.
Three minutes later, I stood on a cement ramp, sipping coffee, my body knotted and perspiring. Below, in the tinted window of the bus, the girl's silhouette was visible. She was looking out at me, seeing me see her. I turned away, angry and ashamed. She had liked me, but I had hurried away like a coward. Why? My bus wasn't leaving for another twenty minutes. Why hadn't I spoken to her longer? Why had I escaped?
A decade had passed since Lake Anita, but I realized that I had never really left, never outgrown the quixotic notions about love I held when I was a teenager. I was still aching toward the unreachable, still sustained by impossible longings, still loving my dreams more than I do life. Of course I had escaped.
That young woman with her nose in a great book had been as beautiful to me as the moon, as distant and as purely golden.
Allison Burnett, a Los Angeles-based writer and film director, can be reached at www.AllisonBurnett.com. His debut novel, "Christopher", reviewed at J LHLS, was a finalist for the 2004 PEN Center USA Literary Award in Fiction. His second novel, "The House Beautiful," will be published this September, by Carroll & Graf.
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