Saturday, August 18, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: Kissing Kate

One of the most wonderful experiences in life is the impossible happening.  Perhaps it is an amazing coincidence or an incident that defies the laws if time and space; perhaps it is an unexpected moment of fame; maybe it is a miraculous cure or a cheat of death that should never have been able to happen.

Whatever the circumstances it seems that most people have had at least one impossible happening in the narrative of their lives, whether real or imagined.  I think that such happenings are at base romantic.  We yearn for them, seek them out and even create them because in romance – in the broad sense of the word – we find meaning that affirms the richest parts of our humanity.

The luckiest among us might experience an impossible happening that is romantic to the core.  I had such an impossible happening a few years ago and as it turns out it is an Adirondack story.

When I was growing up the best part of life was our family’s regular summer trek to Blue Mountain Lake.  My parents loved to travel, consequently our Adirondack vacations occurred only every other year, alternating with trips to other places.  This was terrible for me; instead of heading to paradise each July I sometimes had to endure going to locales such as Florence, Amsterdam or Davos.  I must admit these European trips were wonderful, not to mention a tremendous privilege, but on the balance I would rather have been jumping off of Rock Island or exploring the old lumber camp on the other side of Bluff Point.

We had a regular place at Blue Mountain Lake, a private rental that became such a steady fixture in our family lore that we thought of it as our own.  It was a large frame cabin as charming and rustic as could be imagined, owned by a wealthy family and part of their larger estate on Blue Mountain Lake’s northern shore.  Set off from its neighbors by beautiful forest, the cabin was positioned on a steep hillside maybe eighty feet from the water and thirty feet above it.  The front of the cabin had a full length porch framed with fir logs, the bark left on them in traditional Adirondack fashion.  This porch commanded a perfect view through the pines and birches across to Osprey Island and beyond to West Bay with its far rock-studded ridges and spectacular sunsets.  Below us was the silky, crystal-clear water of Blue Mountain Lake into which a small dock extended over a sandy bed good for swimming and diving.  The dock often harbored a small sailboat.  For a few days of our stay it might also hold a rented speedboat for waterskiing.  But the omnipresent feature was a canoe, the cornerstone of our life at the lake.

Every morning someone would take the canoe out into the misty stillness.  Usually it was my father and I, following a morning routine that became a foundational part of my adoration for the Adirondacks.  We would almost always make our way around Osprey Island, seeing all the sights in the silence, striving to paddle as noiselessly as we could, letting the momentum of the canoe carry us past shoals and logs and lilies.  In the evening my parents might disappear just as silently into the gathering darkness, paddling with little consideration for unity or form but always with reverent regard for the descending quiet.

In the afternoon the canoe was fair game for whatever adventure I might have in mind.  Often it would be a journey down the shoreline towards Hemlock Hall, the incomparable resort nestled on Blue Mountain Lake’s northwestern edge.  The mandatory requirement for this trip was to have my dog Corky with me.  Corky would stand with his front paws propped up on the bow, surveying the route like Horatio Hornblower.  This had two benefits to me: his weight up front helped balance the canoe and his heroic pose elicited many admirable comments from the various shore-bound spectators we passed, especially those on the beach, dock or swimming platform at Hemlock Hall.

I cannot exactly recall when I started noticing girls at Blue Mountain Lake but knowing myself as I do it was probably not long after I was born.  At any rate when I was eleven or so two girls in particular entered my sphere of consciousness in that influential kind of way unique to shy teenage boys.  One was a local, so far as I could tell.  She hailed from a camp a good way east of our cottage, a large log house with fast speedboats, constant activity and a distressing number of well-muscled shirtless boys.  She was a striking sight, with long blond hair and a sort of feral athleticism.  She could water ski quite well and although I never once spoke to her she seemed a little fierce, a bit coarse, maybe a little bit of a delinquent.  To a shrimp like me (at the time, despite being eleven, I had the appearance of a seven-year-old with puberty nowhere in sight) she was incredibly intimidating, thus intriguing.  Really, she was quite out of my league.  I would watch her from afar with a certain fascination, but truth be told she wasn’t really my type (if a pre-teenage boy can be said to have a type at all).

The other one was a different story.   While the local girl was worthy of observation and provoked my curiosity, this second girl entered my dreams.  She was definitely a visitor like me and I only saw her when our visits overlapped.  Fortunately this happened a lot over several years.  We would usually stay at Blue Mountain Lake for three or four weeks.  Her family’s visits seemed to be of shorter duration, for I distinctly recall that sometimes I would have to wait a week or two for her to show up.  But most summers she did arrive and always at the same place: Hemlock Hall.

Hemlock Hall has a diverse collection of accommodations, from the lodge itself to cabins ranging from small to spacious, peppered about the hill upon which the resort is perched.  One of the best rentals is the second floor of a boathouse, with lovely windows and paned-glass doors opening onto a large porch that hangs literally over the water.  It was in this boathouse that the girl and her family would stay.

My canonical shoreline canoe trip with Corky would take me beneath this porch twice, once on the way out and again on the way back.   Every time I neared it I would tingle with anticipation.  Would she be there?  Would I glimpse her above me?  In my memory she was very beautiful.  Her features were fine, her body lithe.  Her hair, also straight and light, was even longer than the local girl’s.  But everything else was different.  She seemed quiet, self-aware, sophisticated.  She read books.  Her face appeared kind and intelligent.  She affected me with a sense of depth, of mystery.  How much this was an amplified product of a young boy’s fantasies I cannot say, though I admit my imagination was in full thrall.

I will never forget the feelings this mystery girl created in me.  I would think of all kinds of things, charmingly innocent scenarios as I look back: canoeing together, shy talk, warmth.  I would envision a tentative, accidental brush of our arms that might lead her hand to seek mine; with a wanting that surpassed my fear I would accept it and we would walk along the road, hand in hand.  I would imagine just being near her; this I could almost feel.  In reality she never seemed to notice me and closest we ever got was perhaps twenty feet from canoe to porch.  But I developed a longing for her that was as stirring and deep a thing as I had ever felt.

My yearning coalesced more and more around a specific thing, forbidden and frightening beyond any hope: I wanted to kiss this girl.  Never was my desire overtly sexual, even as I reached high school age.  But then that would have been superfluous.  I believe it was Bertolt Brecht who wrote – and I paraphrase here – that a kiss is the most powerful act there is between two people, for it contains in one perfect moment everything that was before, everything that is and everything that is to come.  That is how I remember my longing.

When I canoed with Corky it was always with a private motive.  I hoped every time that my admirable dog would do for me what I could never have done for myself, what loyal and honorable dogs have done for men for centuries: start a conversation with a beautiful woman.  Surely this time my mystery love would see my noble companion standing proudly in the prow.  How could she fail to notice him?  How could she fail to compliment him to me?

I do not know how many trips it took before my hopes finally prevailed, but eventually the wished-for event occurred.  I remember that it was on a return trip and she was sitting in a chair, her beautiful hair falling around her waist.  She was looking over the water and her eyes came to rest upon our canoe.  She spoke.  I do not remember what she said but it was something along the lines of “I like your dog.”  We had a brief exchange – I remember being embarrassed at the likelihood that I was flushed or stumbling or otherwise entirely stupid.  I said something or other and she replied.  As she spoke she smiled at me, shy and radiant and impossibly magnetic.  That smile, in contrast to all other details, is crystal clear in my memory.   I paddled on, awash in wondrous feelings.

My brief exchange with the girl of my Blue Mountain Lake dreams tripled the intensity of my desire to kiss her and emboldened me to scheme of a way to arrange a more involved interaction.   I decided to invite her for a canoe ride, though the knowledge of how I would work up the courage to ask her something as outrageous as that was quite beyond me.  The next day I left the dock with a pulse like a racehorse, Corky in place and my most flattering T-shirt adorning my skinny chest.  But alas she was gone, apparently for the summer, and my plans came to nothing.

Over the next two or three years I would see her from time to time but we never spoke again.  She seemed to always be occupied and she would not notice me.   The Corky magic had already happened, a one-shot deal, so having no other resources I was left to my glimpses and my dreams.  At some point during my high school years she disappeared.  Either her family changed the dates for their visits or they stopped coming, but I never saw her again.

Eventually I stopped coming too, at least regularly.  College came, then marriage and work and all the rest of adult life.  Blue Mountain Lake remained central to our family but vacations at the cabin faded into memory as our focus turned to tent camping and big family reunions became less practical what with our various lives having dispersed us far and wide.  I had children, divorced, remarried, raised a family.

My love affair with the Adirondacks is now centered at Lost Brook Tract and Blue Mountain Lake is rarely a destination any more, though we usually pass it on the way in.  To see it never fails to bring a flood of emotion and remembrance.  When we do spend any time there the one indispensable activity remains the canoe ride.  I often take the old route around Osprey, still a present experience and not itself passed onto the world of nostalgia.  On occasion, for old time’s sake, I cross to the northern shore and paddle my youthful route from our cabin to Hemlock Hall, reliving the old feelings, reminiscing about Corky, kindly Mr. Anderson, Hemlock Hall and, most of all, the girl.

I have never forgotten her.  All the years of my life I have thought of her, she being in many ways my first experience of feeling in love with someone, even someone you never get to know.  I have always thought of that kiss, never to be, unsatisfied by my fading imagination.

There was, in the end, only the most fleeting interaction: one conversation, a smile.  I never knew her name nor did I meet or learn the name of her family. Neither my parents nor anyone else I knew ever made their acquaintance.  Indeed I never learned a single detail about her and there would have been no way ever to find her.  Somewhere in the late 1970’s she disappeared and drifted off into the large, complicated world, leaving me able to do nothing more than to remember the kiss I had longed for and wonder who she had become.

Thirty years later, on a sunny afternoon in the heart of Greenwich Village, I experienced an impossible happening: I kissed the girl of my young dreams.

Here is how it happened.

I have a good friend, Patricia who I met in unlikely enough fashion in Chicago some years ago.  We happened to sit next to each other at a symphony concert, struck up a conversation and that was that.  Over time Patricia’s life led her to Madison, where I live currently.  There she met a man, had a baby, then another, moved back to her hometown of New York City, became a single mother and faced the task of raising her children mostly by herself.   After she moved to New York I saw her infrequently, the city no longer being the regular destination it used to be for me.

In Patricia’s efforts to provide the best for her children she found a wonderful school in the East Village in Manhattan and even though she lived on Staten Island she got her son accepted to the school and committed herself to “schlepping the kids” on the long commute from home every weekday.  Her daughter was not yet school age so Patricia would spend the day with her in the city, frequently hanging out in Washington Square Park where there was a great playground.   While at the park Patricia met another mom who was a regular visitor.  They began to talk, discovered they had things in common and became friends.  The woman’s name was Kate.

One day perhaps five or six years ago I scheduled a business trip to New York.  I wrote Patricia and we planned a get-together.  She was enthusiastic about her new friend Kate and wanted me to meet her.  Almost as an afterthought she mentioned “Oh, she knows the Adirondacks.  Her family used to vacation there when she was younger.”  Patricia has been to the Adirondacks with me and knows as well as anyone my love for them so this rated to her as an important coincidence.   I did not think anything in particular of it… at least not yet.

As the date approached Patricia and I spoke again.  She was excited to confirm a meeting with Kate and had more information.

“Where did you vacation as a boy?  It was Blue Mountain Lake, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“That’s where Kate’s family went!”

“Oh really?”  To this point my interest was innocent of any possible import, but the coincidence had gotten more fun.  After all, to meet someone who has vacationed regularly in the Adirondacks is not a very narrowing criterion, leaving the intersection in the tens of millions; however to meet someone who has regularly vacationed at Blue Mountain Lake reduces the intersection by six decimal places or so, as Blue Mountain Lake is (inexplicably) not that popular. Almost off-hand, out of simple curiosity, I asked if she knew where they stayed.

“Yeah, she said it was called Hemlock Hall.”

Now I am the type of person whose brain is always going, always making connections, calculating possibilities, speculating or figuring things out.  My head never rests, to the point where my inability to turn it off or even control its enthusiasm is sometimes frustrating.  At hearing the words “Hemlock Hall” it was off like a shot, sifting through the possibilities and conditions under which this friend might be the lost girl of my youth.  There was hardly any reason yet to think that she was, the odds were still ten-thousand-to-one against it, but my consciousness had gotten ahold of it and wasn’t going to let it go for anything.  So out came the questions.

“P, how old is Kate?  What does she look like?”

Back came the answers: “Well I guess she’s about your age, she’s older than me.  She’s tall and thin, with long light brown hair.”

“How long?”

“Oh pretty long, almost to her waist and very straight.”

My pulse began to recall the racehorse of long past and my calculations began to abandon speculative imaginings in favor of convergence upon a matter of fact, of proof or disproof.

“P, Hemlock Hall has lots of places to stay.  The next time you talk to Kate can you ask her exactly where they stayed?”

Of course you know by now that Kate informed Patricia it was the boathouse.

By the time I arrived in New York more information had been exchanged.  I knew that Kate spent much of her youthful summers at the Hemlock Hall boathouse, often in July, the exact time frame of my experiences, and that she frequented the porch.   In turn Kate knew from Patricia that I resided down the shore and thought that I might remember her.  But I had asked Patricia to say nothing more.

Patricia and I rendezvoused in the Village and at the appointed time we made our way to Kate’s apartment.  My skeptical side, well aware of my capacity for wishful thinking and exaggeration, was briefly ascendant.  “I’ve made too much of this,” I thought to myself.   As Kate came to the door I considered that all this fuss might be a little unfair to her.  After all, she was a complete stranger.

But then the door swung open and there revealed to me was a part of myself, an intrinsic piece of the makeup that has always been me in my deepest nature, has always been wound and knitted into the love I have had for the women in my life.  It was her, there was no question of it, my recognition was total and immediate.  This girl I had so longed to kiss was now the woman who was stepping aside to allow me into her home.

Somehow I found the patience to pace myself through the pleasantries and small talk.  We got on to the Adirondacks, to Blue Mountain Lake.  All the details matched, one after the other.  When I told her I was the boy in the canoe with the dog she admitted she did not remember me.  I told her I was not in the least offended but assured her that I remembered her, that there was no doubt in my mind that she was the girl I had spoken to three decades before.  I asked her for one final confirmation.

“Kate, might you have a photograph of yourself from that time?”

“Yes I do,” she replied, and she disappeared into another room.  She returned with a small Kodak print and handed it to me.  To say it was a time machine is a tired cliché, but that it what it was.  There she was, restored in perfection from my past to my present, a beautiful girl.

My emotions welled, threatening to get the better of the situation; I had no wish to make Kate uncomfortable.  But I had decided upon a course of action and though I felt trepidation I began.  I told her everything, the entire story as I write it now.  I told her of the longed-for kiss that held at the center of all of it.

I came to the end of the story.  “Kate, I don’t want to make you feel awkward or unhappy, but I have waited thirty years and I must ask you: may I kiss you, just once?”

Her eyes were warm and shy but there was a hint of wonder in them.  ‘Yes,” she said.

And so I did, on the cheek, as tenderly as I could.

We age, we carry with ourselves all that we have been and done, we hope to feel complete in some way.   We wish not to die with too many loose ends, sloppy and frayed and unfinished, yet we know that fate will demand it.  No man is ever a finished product.  But that day something deep and innocent and important was given its final commencement.  You could say that it was no more than the unsophisticated, idealistic wishings of a boy.  But it is as a boy, carrying my innocence and my romances as close to me as possible, that I hope to end this journey someday.

It is on this lasting hope that I must thank you, Kate, for your immeasurable gift to me.

Photo: Kate’s porch at the Hemlock Hall boathouse, courtesy

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

5 Responses

  1. RegB says:

    You know, I usually don’t comment on things, but I had to with this story. I too was once a young boy with romantic tendencies – not so much sexual, but romantic. This story brought back a lot of memories. Reading it brought that young boy back to the surface. Extremely well-written, my wife and I enjoyed it very much.

    Thank you, Pete.

  2. Big Burly says:

    Thank you Pete for all your writing of these dispatches.

    I met my bride in fourth grade and fell in love at first sight. We were great friends. Our first kiss was in the jail at Fort William Henry on a Yorker trip and I to this day have the same trembling feeling and racing heart when we kiss good morning or good night. After a practice marriage for both of us, our friendship of youth kindled a love affair that has grown stronger each day of the past 31 years, 5 months and 6 days.
    Today we live in the ADKs we love and cherish. Thanks for stirring the romance yet anew.

  3. Bob Meyer says:

    Pete, This story is a quintessential Adirondack experience and though the details differ, my experience in its essence is very similar. The women in my experience is now one of my dearest friends whose voice is presently being heard through the screen door. What memories! What a wonderful life!
    Bob Meyer at CAMP.
    Near Pottersville in the Park

  4. em paris says:

    Wow, what a story! I am a believer in a story like this and one about the Adirondacks is incredible and steals my heart. I wonder if “Kate” has any idea how special this story is…

  5. Tim says:

    Ah…the archetype of the summer romance. I, too, experienced one but, unlike you, we were very good friends. She was way out of my league, though. She was a year or two older (which might as well have been decades when you’re in high school) and had a school year boy friend. Fortunately, he didn’t summer on the Jersey shore like we did. Patty was beautiful and I was very shy. I would walk 2 miles to her house early every morning where we would sit together on her porch swing, drink tea and talk about everything. This went on for several years. The most I ever dared was holding hands but one night, walking on the beach, I summoned the courage to kiss her. My whole being jolted with electricity and I literally saw stars. It was only once and we later lost touch. I never saw her outside the wonder land of summers on the beach.