Memories of Contentment
by Michelle Morse

From the writer: This short memoir is the product of a reflection exercise being torn to bits and stretched to its limits. It began as an assignment to describe a familiar place through a sense other than sight, but evolved into an essay exploring the connection between feelings of comfort and one's sense of self.

From the editors: Morse is able to carefully weave together the departures of her young life. The reader sees her leaving her home, leaving her boyfriend, leaving the captivating wilderness of the lake, and leaving an understanding of herself. Her imagery is inviting, and her openness reveals her emerging identity.

If you were a flower, what kind of flower would you be? Her voice sounds interested but matter-of-fact, as though she was asking if I had ever been to Disneyland. The question itself is silly and unimportant, but the answer tells you so much about the person. Succumbing to the warmth of the bonfire, every muscle I never realized I had melts away. Eyes open, I am swallowed by stars. Mesmerized by their depth, my heart aches to leave my body and float among them, shunning the pressures of Earth. But there are just so many of them—I can feel their weight pushing me down, keeping me planted firmly on the ground, secure in the body that seems to be a mismatch to my soul. That is what makes them so beautiful—their weight, their magnitude, their power to trap you exactly where you belong. A streak of brightness crosses my path, and a shooting star falls from the sky as if to assure me it would rather be where I am. Perhaps my wish had been too much for it to bear. Closing my eyes, I collect the sounds around me. Crickets humming, flames crackling, water being tickled by the cool summer breeze—every noise becomes a note as it hits my ears, and they blend into a symphony. I want to sing along to the sounds of nature, but instead find the words of a song stuck to my tongue, trying not to fall out of my mouth. It is the song of a friend who is strumming his guitar on the other side of the fire, a gentle song about a river. Let's you and me river, run down to the sea. Soft murmurs from behind the flames reveal that other friends are singing along. I know they are close, but they feel so far away. Hearing their voices makes me feel content, like I have finally found my way back to a home I had never known I was missing. Breathing deeply, I inhale the mixture of night air and wood-smoke that causes me to stumble through the hours as though I am drunk. A smile plays on my lips, and I can tell that my friends already know what I am going to say. I would be a daisy.

I was lost in the tranquility of a summer evening, and I could not remember when I had ever felt so at home. I wanted to share this feeling, to know that someone else was wondering if this must be Heaven. This was the first time he read my mind, or shared my thoughts—I never did learn how to tell the difference. Perhaps he had read my thoughts before I realized myself what I was thinking, because I suddenly became aware that his head was resting softly on my leg. I found myself wondering how long it had been there, and why I had not noticed it before. Maybe he, too, had felt a need for contact, had been seeking some sort of human connection to complete the night's comfort. I will never know what inspired that first touch, but will remember its impact forever.

The memory of that evening soothes my nerves the following summer, as I find myself standing at the edge of a boulder on the other side of the same lake. Wondering how I ever managed to get up here in the first place, I look ahead to see how far he has gone without me. I know what I am supposed to do. I am supposed to leap from boulder to boulder, as though I am trapped in some real-life game of Frogger. It is supposed to be fun, supposed to bring us back to childhood. His childhood. They used to leap from rock to rock, to see who could play the fastest and longest without falling off. Imagining myself in his childhood, I hold my breath and hop to the next rock. It really is not that far. Landing on the next rock is the hard part, making sure my foot does not slip on dirt or a pebble.

Suddenly, I am leaping along behind him, forgetting that I was ever scared in the first place. We come to the end of the line, and he stops to tell me that I am pretty good at this, for a girl. I smile as I realize I have faced my fear, and overcome it. I made a leap I thought I was incapable of making, and I did not fall, did not end the game.

I had made the leap because of him, because I could see him smiling and laughing in the distance. Now and then he would pause, then bang away on imaginary drums in time to the songs that formed the soundtrack of his mind. In between songs, he would look at me with his head tilted to one side and his lips pinched together, wordlessly saying that he believed I could make the jump even if I was not so sure—telling me he believed in me when I was too scared to believe in myself.

When the game is over, we walk towards his house. It is not a long walk, but we turn it into one. We stop along the way as he points out a lifetime of discoveries he has made: mossy patches in the shade of a tree where he does his best thinking; the tent he constructed in the hopes of camping out one summer years ago. He snaps a twig off a tree, and holds it to my nose. Laughing, I inhale as he explains to me that this is the only tree he has ever found that smells like root beer. We walk to the edge of the water, and settle ourselves into the grass. I tell him that this is my favorite place in the world. He smiles and tells me it is his favorite, too, and I think he is happy that I have found my home in his backyard.

Laying my head on his shoulder, I relax and let my mind wander. I find myself wondering how it is possible that the pieces of my life have fallen so perfectly together, finally allowing my world to make enough sense for me to actually want to belong to it. Looking around me, I try to memorize every detail of my magical surroundings. I feel like I have known this place forever, and surprise myself by remembering that in actuality I have known it only slightly longer than I have known the boy sitting beside me.

I was introduced to the lake on the first day of summer, following the eighth grade. It was one of those days when the air weighs down so heavily that it would take too much energy to peel off my clothes and immerse my body in water, escaping the humidity with a welcome shiver. I had walked to the dam with a girl who had not yet become my friend, and the thickness of the day brought us to exhaustion after our short hike. Intentions of swimming thrown aside, we settled for sunning ourselves like cats on the flat boulders that ran along the shore. There were no discoveries and no revelations, simply a desire to overcome the discomforts of summer.

Maybe it was the heat blurring my senses, shading my emotions, but I failed to recognize the beauty of my surroundings at that moment. I never would have guessed how many hours I would spend on the banks of that lake in the years to come, and how many more hours I would spend dreaming about them. I did not realize that many of the highlights of my deepest friendships would take place around this very lake, causing its image to remain in my memories long after the friendships had begun to fade, as the inevitable result of time passing.

I still come here every time I visit home. The words play on my lips, threatening to escape my thoughts. I want to tell him this, but half-expect the nervousness in my stomach to have affected my vocal chords, and decide to say nothing. Getting out of my car, I close my eyes and breathe deeply, as though the air here would somehow fill my lungs differently, overpowering the unhappy air I had been breathing over the last two years. My vision blurry from the darkness, I walk towards the edge of the water. His arm reaches out to steady me as I stumble over a small hill—I do not remember there being such a steep embankment here, and am embarrassed to be unsure of my footing in such a familiar place. My stomach tightens as I notice his stable movements, more confident than they had been before. My jaw clenches as I realize that his grip on my arm is stronger than I remember.

Spreading the blanket, I pretend to ignore the tension between us. I sit first, and try not to notice the distance he leaves between us when he sits beside me. I watch as he opens two bottles of beer using his lighter. I wonder when he learned this trick, and bite my bottom lip to smother the urge to ask who taught him. He sees the way I am watching his movements, and asks if I can open a bottle like that. I want to lie—to say yes—as if knowledge of this simple maneuver would make him think that I had changed as much as he had. Instead, I give in to the truth, and try to concentrate on his efforts to teach me. But I am hindered by a fear of hurting my hand—a fear that even he can not alleviate—and my throat aches as I abandon the desire to learn from him again.

Avoiding my eyes, his hesitant remarks appear to be directed towards the bottle in front of him, and not really at me. Desperate for a distraction, I turn my gaze towards the sky. Relief washes over me as I find myself held captive by the stars once again. Permanent and dependable, their twinkling brings me comfort and eases the shock of feeling misplaced in his life. Back aching, my heart begs my body to lean against him. I try to settle against the ground and relax. Refusing to cooperate, my arms tighten their grip around my knees as I try to remember when this stopped feeling like home.

Looking across the water, my eyes rest at the bottom of the hill in his backyard. It does not seem possible that so much time has passed since we sat there together, reassuring one another that friendship can overcome the challenge of distance. As we sat there that day three years ago, the uncertainty of my future was unsettling. Two weeks later I would be leaving for college, while he would stay behind making new memories without me.

Returning my attention to the boy beside me, I ponder whether he would recall that day as I did. Would he remember walking me back to his driveway, or wiping the hysterical tears from my face as the thought of leaving became too much for me to bear? When had he forgotten that by pressing his lips to the top of my forehead, he could make all of my worries vanish? My breath catches in my throat as I realize that he may have lost our memories. I glance at my watch, as though suddenly aware of the passing years, and consider the possibility that I, too, have allowed time to throw shadows over my past. Pushing the thought to the back of my mind, we fold up the blanket and make our way back to the car.

Driving home that evening, my thoughts returned to the idea of forgotten moments, and my mind became crowded with images from the days before I met him. I found solace in remembering that the enchantment of the lake had not always been dependent on his presence—that there had been others who had shared my attachment to its magical atmosphere.

Now, years later, it sometimes takes a moment to recall the faces of some of these close childhood friends, but the lake still gets clearly painted in my mind. And sometimes, when the memories are painted very carefully, I can hear the happiness in our voices floating out over the water.

How do we wear "the fabric of our lives"? A contest featured in the Reader's Digest asks for pictures to be submitted of people wearing cotton. Natural, my friends say. It was like the word association game, and cotton automatically triggered natural. Natural . . . nature . . . comfort . . . jeans. Words fly out of our mouths too quickly to write them down, and our picture begins to form itself in our minds. We can all wear jeans and plain white t-shirts. In our typical teenage uniforms, we are going to personify cotton. Nature . . . comfort. Just the mention of the feeling whisks me away. We should shoot it at the lake. There is a tree that hangs out over the water that we can all sit on. Maybe some of us will stand if we are brave, maybe some of us will hang if we are strong. We will put our arms around each other, and we will laugh. We will smile genuine smiles that make our eyes sparkle, because we will be happy. We will be content. We all strike the poses we plan to assume from our perch on the tree. I wonder what we will win. My friends wonder, too, and someone allows her thought to escape. We're going to be famous.

I wonder now if they would have published our picture. To this day, every time I hear the phrase "fabric of our lives" float through my television, I think of that tree. I wonder how many of us it would have held before surrendering, sending us tumbling into the water below. I sigh as I realize my questions will never be answered. We would have been content; we would have been happy, and we would have grinned and laughed until our cheeks and bellies ached had we ever taken the picture. But like so many of our plans that fall, growing up just seemed to get in the way. High School security allowed some of us to make more memories together, while college plans swept others away to whole new lives.

It has been a long time now since I have wandered the shore of the lake and felt as though I belonged there. But, in my dreams, I still sit for hours on brisk autumn afternoons, surrendering myself to the cool breezes that float off the water and stroke my skin. Closing my eyes, I can always feel the sunlight bouncing off the water and warming my eyelids, or the choppy waves licking my toes. On the most perfect days, I can feel the familiarity of a close friend so relaxed beside me that his shoulder grazes mine, and neither of us feels a need to move away, to lose the contact that has become a sense of comfort over the years. These are the days I feel when I remember perfection; days left unspoiled by the obstacles of growing up—days when my body found itself exactly where my heart wanted to be. Days that were simple, beautiful, and familiar, just like I had wanted my life to become.

Pulling into my driveway, a voice calls from the back of my mind. I can almost hear the familiar laughter as it asks that silly question from years ago: If you were a flower, what kind of flower would you be? Staring at my house, the answer comes as easily as it had six summers before by the fire. Resting my head on the steering wheel, I recognize my own voice as I answer the question aloud: I don't know.

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