March 1, 2003
Frog hunting on the lake
by Hiyaguha Cohen
wo days before my fourteenth birthday, Mom and Dad crammed the family into the Rambler American, handed us each a box of Sugar Pops, and took to Highway 95. My butt stuck to the hot vinyl seat and the radio blasted some Benny Goodman thing from the Middle Ages, but the prehistoric music wasn't my big problem. What bothered me was the prospect of spending two boring weeks at Lake Cobbo-sseecontee hanging out with my younger siblings, because no kids my age ever showed up in Maine. I was about to turn fourteenfar too old for the unbearable agony of vacationing with the family.
I saw no evidence of anything that interested me that evening when we pulled into the long driveway leading to camp. Eight shingled cottages still hovered in a tight cluster around the lake, just as they had done the previous year, screened porches protruding like pregnant bellies overhanging the water. I sauntered down to the lake while the family unpacked. Mom called out to me for help, but I pretended I didn't hear her. Instead, I walked to the edge of the pier and sat brooding with my feet dangling in the water, watching heat lightning strike the nearby shoreline. Then, I heard footsteps behind me. I swung around.
Ray Bosch was walking toward me, his size-twelve feet making the creaky planks groan as he approached. "I think somebody's calling you," he said. In spite of his unwelcome words, I fell in crush with him at first sight. He was sixteen or seventeen, with long legs like a cowboy and blond bangs that swooped onto his forehead at a delinquent angle. A crack of lightning hit the water and he smiled at me, an easy grin that somehow lingered on his face even after his mouth relaxed. He stood a few feet away.
"Wanna share a Snickers?" he asked. I noticed that his eyes were even bluer than my father's, and his upper lip had a sort of permanent sneer that reminded me of Elvis Presley. I tried to think of something smart to say, but I couldn't get my mouth to work. Ray handed me half of his candy bar. My heart thumped forward in my chest.
I bit into the chocolate. "It's good," I finally managed. Ray nodded and sat next to me.
"What d'ya think causes it?" he asked.
"Heat lightning." He thrust his chin in the direction of the lake.
I shrugged. I had barely passed Earth Science.
"How long you here for?" he asked.
"Yeah. Me too."
I stared out at the water, unable to think of anything else to say. Once, I turned to look at Ray and he looked back at me in the same second. I felt dizzy, like I might slip into the water. I held my breath and gripped the edge of the dock. Ray didn't attempt much further conversation after that, but I didn't mind. Sitting in silence with him sure beat being cooped up in the cottage with my parents.
The next morning, Ray asked me to go frog hunting with him in the camp boat. He rowed us to a muddy inlet on the far side of the lake and told me to stay quiet. Then he reached a long arm into the muck and pulled up a frog with his bare hand. The creature's bulbous green eyes protruded out of one side of Ray's fist; its legs splayed out the other.
"Feel it," Ray said, holding the frog close to my face. I brushed my fingers over its slimy head and then jerked my hand away, gasping. Ray laughed. He caught another frog and let it go on the floor of the boat.
"You wanna go out?" he asked me.
"What do you mean?"
"You know, on a date. I thought we could go to the Winthrop Drive-In. See the James Bond movie."
The frog landed on my left foot like an exclamation point at the end of Ray's sentence. It was cold, and slick as seaweed. I screamed, kicking until the frog flew off. Ray looked away.
"The frognot the movie," I said. I could hardly breathe, no less speak. I'd never been on a date before, nor had I been so intimate with frogs. I did want to go to the movie, though. I loved drive-ins. My parents had taken us to see Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the drive-in the previous summer, thinking it was a kid's movie. It had been the best part of that vacation.
"Sure," I finally managed.
"You wanna go?" Ray asked.
The poor frog swayed in the bow of the boat, looking drunk. Its green cheeks puffed in and out as if it would hyperventilate. I willed it to stay put, but even so I felt sorry for it and a surge of regret swept over me. Maybe Ray also felt pity for the critter, because he scooped it into his fist, threw it back into the water, and rowed us back to shore.
My camp wardrobe consisted of only ragged shorts and a dress with polka dotsbut not those little Republican dots nice girls wore on their navy-and-white frocks. These were huge psychedelic blobs in garish shades of turquoise and crimson. The dress rode four inches above my knee and had a front zipper from neck to hem. I was so happy that I had brought along something fashionable to wear.
I zipped on the dress and told my Dad that I was going to the rec room to play ping-pong. I figured that he'd never let me go out with Ray if I told him the truth, and anyway, my parents would be in bed by nine o'clock and wouldn't even miss me. They certainly didn't notice the dress, and apparently, they didn't see us load into Mr. Bosch's Chevy: a long, shark-like vehicle with tailfins and red vinyl seats.
My bravado dissipated as soon as Ray backed up the driveway and drove out of camp. I sat crushed against the passenger door, terrified, mute. Ray didn't have much to say, either, but when the movie began, he came to life. He slid all the way over to my side of the car and looked closely at me. I couldn't believe that he had spent all that money on tickets, and now he wasn't even watching the film.
He moved his face so near mine that I felt his breath on my neck. He smelled like pine needles. I thought I would faint, but before I did, he stuck his tongue in my mouth.
"What are you doing?" I squealed, pulling away.
He grabbed me again. I didn't want Ray to know that I had never kissed like that before, so I tried to follow his lead.
"Jesus," he said. "You bit me."
"I thought I was supposed to."
Ray explained French technique to me with the assurance of Don Juan. "You have to keep your mouth open," he said, "and rub tongues." It sounded disgusting, all those germs.
"Are you sure? How do you breathe?"
He pulled me toward him to demonstrate proper methodology, this time wedging his hand near my neck. I heard the sound of metal on metal before I realized that he had pulled my zipper all the way down. He stuck his hand inside my dress, groping at my training bra. My lack of womanly substance must have disappointed him, because when I screamed and pushed him away, he withdrew his hand without objection. I zipped my dress back up and we went back to kissing, but I couldn't get over my aversion to spittle. I bit him a few more times before the movie ended.
The following morning, we rowed to a hidden inlet and fished. We didn't catch anything, but Ray tipped the boat over on purpose so that we had to swim to shore in our clothes, which seemed much more fun than catching bass.
We never discussed the date. Instead, we went frog hunting every day, complained about our siblings, and practiced tongue kissing when our parents weren't around. We exchanged phone numbers before heading back to our respective homes, but once we left camp, I saw no reason to call him and I guess he felt the same way about me. Our experience had been complete.
Three years later, out of the blue, I got a call from Ray. He had just received a draft notice and would probably be sent to Vietnam.
"What are you up to?" he asked.
"I've got a boyfriend now."
"I just got a new motorcycle. You wanna come visit me before I go? I could teach you how to ride."
"I don't know." I tried to recall Ray's face, but I couldn't. Instead, I visualized his long legs in denim, his maroon flannel shirt with an elbow patch and his woodsy smell. I didn't understand why he wanted to get together. I had been a lousy kisser when he knew me, and I long ago had outgrown the memorable dress. Anyway, he lived five hours away. I had a busy social calendar.
"We could go to the racetrack while you're here," Ray said. "You ever been?"
"I've been thinking about you a lot. That was something, what happened at the lake."
"Yeah." I wasn't sure what Ray was referring to.
"Do you still bite the guys you go out with?" Something in Ray's tone made me remember his easy-going smile, and then I remembered how the air had smelled so much like summer when we first met, so green and alive.
"I've never known another girl like you. I keep wondering what you look like now."
I heard a horn honk. My boyfriend had pulled into the driveway. I looked out the window and saw Buzz walking toward the front door, wearing a pink ruffled shirt and a beret. He rang the bell.
"I gotta go, Ray," I said. "My boyfriend's here."
"What about getting together before I ship out?"
The bell rang again.
"I don't know, Ray."
Buzz pounded the door; then he called out my name.
"I've really got to go, Ray," I said. "Let's talk later." I needed to think about what to do. I didn't want to hurt Ray's feelings, but I knew that I couldn't cheat on Buzz. Anyway, I didn't think things would work out with Ray. I was against the war. All the guys who I liked had long hair and planned to go to college so that they wouldn't get drafted. I couldn't see going out with someone who rode motorcycles and wore a uniform.
Even so, when I kissed Buzz later that evening, I found myself remembering Ray's eyes, how they had looked almost cobalt from a distance, but more like the color of the lake when we kissed. And then I remembered kissing him on the dock our last night in Maine, sitting shoulder to shoulder with our feet dangling in the water, watching heat-lightning illumine the sky one last time. I mailed him a stuffed frog and a box of Snickers with a nice card the next day. He never wrote back, never called again.
In July of 1986, thirteen years after the war ended, my sister sent a news clipping about a tornado that had struck Lake Cobbosseecontee. The event posed something of a mystery not only because strong tornadoes rarely hit Maine, but also because meteorologists had failed to detect the twister in advance. "Remember Cobbosseecontee?" my sister's note asked.
Two weeks later, I saw a documentary about Vietnam on PBS. The next day, I got in my car to go to the supermarket and just kept driving south, over the Maine border, through Massachusetts and Connecticut, all the way to Washington, D.C., where I found my way to the Vietnam Memorial. It was a sweltering August afternoon, the sun so bright that I had to squint to read the names on the wall. As I got to the year 1970, a woman my age knelt on the path in front of me and began weeping, pushing against the monument with both hands. She removed a photograph of a smiling young man from her purse and leaned the picture against the wall. His clear, sympathetic eyes seemed to follow me as I stepped over a trio of red roses wilting on the pavement. Sweating and dizzy, I looked down the list of casualties for Ray's name. To my great relief, I didn't find it.
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