Sink or Swim

Photo courtesy of Deanna MacNeish.

Photo courtesy of Deanna MacNeish.

Here is a list of things I don’t understand: how to do my taxes, American politics, daylight savings time, how to cook perfect pasta, outer space.

Twenty years ago, I thought that growing up meant also growing out: out of your twin bed, out of your small town, out of your childhood friendships, out of your Northern Getaway zip-off-at-the-knee track pants. I thought it meant growing out of acne scars, of scuffed-up shoes. Out of insecurities. I thought growing up meant leaving all those things behind. I was wrong.

Now that I’m approaching 30, it seems that growing up presents a whole new batch of unexpected uncertainties, and I can’t help but feel like those little things from my past haunt me like teasing reminders of how simple life used to be.

Adulthood, as it turns out, is another thing I don’t understand.

My phone vibrates in the cup holder. The bzzt-bzzt pulls me from my reverie. I glance down and see a text message from my mother, asking me to call her when I have time. There is something about “chicken or salmon” near the end, but the thumbnail is cut off and I can’t see the rest of the message.

I have been driving north for some time now; so lost was I in my own thoughts that I had stopped paying much attention to the journey. I’ve passed through Gravenhurst without even realizing it. I find myself surprised by the sudden grandness of my surroundings, even though I’ve made this drive countless times before. Winding in and out of great rock faces soaring high above the traffic below. Canvases of grey, white, yellow, brown, and black. Blast lines run down their sides like tears tracking through dirt on a person’s cheek. Sunlight dapples the treetops stretching high above the grey scar of highway that rips through the landscape, lighting the yellow and orange leaves afire. My right hand fiddles with the radio tuner:

“3:00 and the weather is looking very promising for all those folks heading home for the – new evidence in the high profile murder case-turned Netflix hit docu-series reveals – I will wait, I will wait for you –”

My left hand, the knuckles taut and white, grips the steering wheel. I steal a glance at the single, solitary diamond that sits perched upon the band on my ring finger. It seems to wink at me in the soft afternoon light. A familiarly dark, heavy feeling washes over me. I suppress a shudder and quickly glue my eyes to the road ahead.

All around me, other cars rush by in bright blurs of silvers, blues, and reds. The constant sound of rubber whipping across tarmac roars in my ears and in the vehicle’s skeleton, vibrating deep in my bone marrow. I wonder, as drivers in their various sedans and SUVs and minivans whoosh past me: what if people could hear what each other was thinking? The man to my left in the black Honda might hear a thousand thoughts at once and then nothing at all but static, experienced at 115 kilometers per hour. The woman ahead of me, who’s feathering the gas pedal so lightly that she barely meets the speed limit, would hear the constant thrum of fears and doubts that trail behind her, crashing in and out of focus like waves on a rocky shore.

Once more, my present thoughts melt into abstraction and I switch to autopilot. My relentless worries and anxieties remain as white noise: humming in the background of my life like radiation.


The gravel road is barely wide enough for my car to travel along. Bushes and long grass and low-hanging branches brush along the vehicle’s metal exterior, tapping and scratching like so many tiny fingernails. I relish this change of landscape. The skyscrapers and office buildings of home that surround me, and suffocate me, are gone; now I’m welcomed by towering trees and thick lichens. Where harsh, packed asphalt would crunch beneath my tires, now a faint tapping from loose dirt and stone hitting the bottom of the car keeps me company. The blank sidewalks have been replaced by dark mulch and decomposing earth, and I can almost smell the damp sweetness of the decaying leaves littering the cold ground.

New scenery tends to erase what has come before; thoughts are reshuffled, filed, abandoned. Constant movement is the only reasonable excuse to not deal with my problems. I find solace in this forced meditation. And yet, I can feel my skin crawl as thoughts of planned dates, seating charts, invitations mailed, placating relatives, booking venues, colour-coded napkins, and feigned smiles hover over me like a storm cloud. They are the pieces of the buzzing avenues and bustling streets of the patchwork city that never seem to relinquish me.


Lately, I have begun to worry that I am slowly disappearing. Like one day a fingernail will vanish, the next day a tooth, a few skin cells here and there, and sometimes maybe a whole appendage all at once. I have simply been feeling less and less like me. Starting to think of myself as an actor playing a character in the TV show of my own life – I smile when I have to, speak when I’m spoken to, attend all the viewings and tastings like the good bride-to-be that I am. But at the end of the day I go home to my minimalist apartment, my average Joe fiancé, eating dinner in separate rooms, discussing things as simple and mundane as the weather, and going about our wanton business until it feels like this is all that we will ever do, for infinity. I am constantly searching for some glimmer of light in the darkness that surrounds me, some sign that everything will be all right, but I cannot. I am swallowed up, every night in that densely quiet apartment, by the fear of losing the girl I was twenty years ago, when all I worried about was when the recess bell would ring. I know that is not how I am supposed to feel; but there it is, haunting every action and every reaction as I drift through my rapidly changing life like a specter of the me I used to know.

Is this why I am here? Inching my black hatchback down this narrow precipice of a driveway to a place I haven’t visited since I was in high school. Did I come to find some way to feel like myself again? I am afraid. I’m afraid, because I do not have an answer.


Standing next to the driver’s side door, I take in the surrounding property. The trees and bushes are blanketed in the throes of early fall. At the top of the lot, just below the tree line that ascends to the road above, the “for sale” signs stares back at me. The bright blues and neon oranges mock me. My chest tightens thinking about this place becoming something that doesn’t belong to my family, to me, anymore; it will soon become something new, for someone new. I swallow the lump in my throat and travel quietly to the small cottage that stands near the lake, a solitary white beacon of my past, and a painful reminder of my ever-approaching future.

The spare key is in the left-side hole of a cinderblock at the northwest corner of the deck. The greying white paint is peeling off of the building’s wooden siding like it never has before. Years and years of seasons changing and careless visits from extended family are taking their toll on this steadfast skeleton of a cottage. I let myself in through the front door. The screen slams shut behind me. Once inside, I find myself abruptly in the jarringly familiar main room, everything as I had left it all those years ago. My sister’s crayon drawing of a mallard duck is still thumbtacked to the faded wall in the kitchen. The wood stove is much darker than I remember it, but it still stands erect in the far corner of the living space like a statue, waiting to be brought to life. Some new additions here and there from cousins and friends: but the memories remain the same, embedded in the walls and floors.

Here we are, the two of us seated around the three-legged coffee table, a puzzle scattered across its surface. There are colouring books haphazardly tossed onto the brown futon. Giggles and chatter fill the one-room living space, augmented with the slightly fainter sound of motorboats and Seadoos ripping across the surface of the lake at the edge of the property.
Eyes gleam across the tabletop; fingers grasp at puzzle pieces, trying to figure out where each one fits; stray sand crunches under young feet, squirming on the linoleum with unbridled joy.

Here I am, in this place again, trying to figure out where all the pieces of my new life will fit into the memories of my past. I wonder what I will lose forever. I mourn for the children who played here, and wonder what happened in the last twenty years that made things fall apart. The promise of a future I am not ready for yawns before me. It blooms from the peace of these memories and turns them grey, lifeless.


Standing back out on the deck, I try to feel something, anything. I try to feel the long drive here, weaving along the highway and all of the dwindling side roads. I try to feel the late-September sun warming my cheeks, chasing away the pallor of city life. I try to feel the bliss of wedding planning, that effortlessly happy feeling that has ceaselessly eluded me. I try to feel the center of the universe, that ever-constant fire that makes the whole world go ‘round. I try to feel the burning star that sits and spits radio waves in the center of a spiraling solar system, waiting to be devoured by a black hole millions of millennia from now. Devolving into a lightless, escapeless, dense vacuum. Instead, what I feel is a crushing sense of dread that I will lose myself to someone I don’t recognize. Growing up has been my void, adulthood my escapeless vacuum.

I kick off my shoes and leave them on the front step and sidle across the deck to stand at its very edge, leaning out over the banister to peer down at the water. Standing with my toes pressing into the cracks of the worn wood, the glassy lake far below me through the trunks of birch trees, I remember the cold bed sheets. The smell of Earl Grey tea drifting across the living room from the mug on the windowsill. The fishing boat at 7:30 in the morning.

I’m padding across the floor that’s dusted with sand, my feet making soft swish-swishing sounds. I’m opening the screen door, painstakingly slow to avoid the squeak of old metal and rust. That breeze. That late-august breeze that smells like spruce trees and bonfire smoke and bug spray and sunscreen and dirt. Its fingers feather my cheeks and my lake-water hair. Goosebumps rise on my arms and at the nape of my neck, and I shiver from this caress of a crisp summer morning.

I float out the door and down the steps of the deck, barefoot. I close my eyes and breathe deeply, forcing the sleep out of my lungs. Then I am running down the rocks around and behind the cottage, the way so familiar to me I could follow it blindfolded.


I leave the cottage and travel down the stone steps toward the dark, lifeless lake below. There is a small square of grass stippled with brambles and moss, enclosed by a rocky retaining wall that holds the water at bay. I unzip my jeans and peel them off my stubborn, sweaty legs. They fall to the mossy ground with a pwuff. I remove my denim button-down, then my underwear, and stand naked while the autumn air wraps me up in its cold embrace. The clothes lie in a pile on the green-brown earth, soaking up the moisture in the ground. I stare at them. A small frog, revealing himself from the camouflage of the grass, hops onto a sleeve of the shirt that pokes out of the heap, hesitates, and continues on his way. I blink down at my clothes. Suddenly I feel like a reptile, like some sort of exotic lizard who has just shed its skin and left it behind, to decompose.

Breathing out a fast puff of air, I right myself, straighten my spine, and drift across the marshy ground to the retaining wall at the shoreline. I sit down on it. The stony surface is rough against the backs of my thighs, but is warm from the afternoon sun in spite of the chill in the air. Swinging one leg over, then the other, I face out toward the vast sheet of black that repeatedly licks the rocks and mortar with languid tongues; lethargic, yet cruel. My toes dangle in the cold water. The red-and-yellow boathouse across the lake looks almost aloof above the ripples. Reserved. Proud, like the years that have weathered its wooden stilts have done nothing to reduce its stoic resolve. It is the Viking that conquered the hostile shore.


I am knee-deep in the water. Just standing here. A cloud of shimmering minnows tenderly kisses the sand in the shallows along the bottom of the rock wall, before retreating to the black depths before me. A flash of memory, a whisper from years ago:

We are standing in the water. Bending at the waist, we plunge our arms up to our armpits into the lake and dig our disruptive fingers into the coarse sand at our feet, and emerge with a lake-clam or two clutched in our fists. We beam at each other and toss each respective catch into the yellow bucket with the blue handle that sits on the retaining wall behind us.
I like to imagine I can hear the clams go Weeeeeeeeeee! as they sail through the air and then c-c-clatter into the pail to join their comrades.
Then we skip them like stones. From breakfast till lunch, this is our determined task, and we hardly ever tire. When it’s time to go inside, we splash out of the lake and stand dripping on the grass as we dry ourselves with towels adorned with various cartoon characters. The smell of chicken noodle soup drifts down from the open door to the kitchen, calling us in.

I wade into the water until the cold ripples lap against the pale skin of my ribs. The wind whispers across the lake’s surface and tickles my shoulders. I shiver. I fold my arms across my bare chest in a vein attempt to shield myself from the creeping chill of fall, and glance down at the white gold band on the fourth finger of my left hand. Now, in the waning sunlight, it looks almost grey, as if it too is slowly decaying like my shadowy autumn surroundings. As I gaze down at it, it seems to grow heavier and begins to shrink around my finger. Like a noose being tightened, it cuts into my skin. It feels as if it is made of lead. It begins to throb with an uncomfortable heat that spreads from my knuckle along my wrist, and creeps up my arm. I am afraid. I feel like the air around me is getting thin and something is pressing down on my chest, making it hard to breathe. As the panic builds, I pry the metal noose from my finger, ripping it off with such force that I stagger in the water. It sits in the palm of my hand like a hot stone, ready to burn a hole right through me. For a brief second I feel like I can’t move. I am made of marble, eyes forever locked onto this small thing, this innocent ring that symbolizes the end of my life, as I know it. And yet, slowly, I twist my hand upside down. The ring shivers across my palm toward the edge of my hand and lingers there for a moment before, with a small plop, it tumbles into the black water below and sinks to the bottom of the lake.


I barely touch the water with my hands; bare, they rest on the surface like two white leaves that have drifted to the cold, dark September earth.

Gradually, so that I feel every inch of my body submerge below the surface, I lower myself into the water. My fingertips, then my fingernails. The backs of my hands follow, then my wrists and my forearms. The goose bumps crawl up my skin like insects and I shiver in spite of myself. Next are my elbows, triceps, and chest.

I falter. A cloud passes over the sun and plunges the world into a wash of muted grey, making the lake even more black than before. I am standing in the water with only my head, neck, and shoulders poking out of its molasses-coloured waves. My breath catches in my chest from the cold. In the distance, I hear the faintest sound of a boat motor chugging to a start. I hear the murmur of wind through the leaves on all the tress. I hear the warbling, doleful cry of a loon ring across the water. I hear the slow, steady lap of the lake against the lonely shore.

Standing here, my pale skin almost blue against the darkness of the water, I breathe out through tight lips until I have released all the air from my lungs. I tilt backward and lower the rest of my body into the lake, like a second century art piece falling from its pedestal. My ears fall under the surface and suddenly, the roar of worries and anxieties and memories and fears and uncertainties and things I don’t understand are quiet. All I can hear is my own heartbeat, pounding in my temples.

It says, sink. It says, swim.