The first time the man on the right in this photo (heretofore referred to as “Uncle B”, not his real name) said to me, “cenobyte, you need to learn to water-ski”, I said, “Okay! That sounds awesome!”
It didn’t *feel* awesome. It felt terrible. I’d watched *him* ski, and my Da, and I’d watched woman after woman try (“did they try and fail?” “They tried and died.”), and it seemed like something only a chosen few could actually do. Then my aunt got up and stayed up. Then, Uncle B said, “it’s your turn!”
“We’ll start,” he said, “in the shallows, so you can get your skis on.”
“These bloody things float all over the place!” I hollered. My skis were flipping catawompous, banging in to each other. The lifejacket was bulky, gathering up under my chin, the zip poking me. The lake was chilly (but “like glass. Just like a mirror,” Uncle B said. Apparently, that was a good thing. Less surface area or something when you crash at speed.) but not cold.
Uncle B’s boat was white with blue stripes, and a window that opened. If you were very, very good, he might let you sit on the hood of the boat up at the prow, and hold on to the rails while he drove. There was a little step in the split window to let you do just that. If you were very, very good.
“Keep your skis together!” he called.
“I can’t! They’re like magnets at opposite poles to one another!”
“It’s difficult. They keep flipping around,” I edited myself. I was, after all, only eight years old.
“They’ll straighten out once we start to pull you.”
“Great!” I called. Great, I thought. They’ll straighten out when the boat starts pulling me. That propellor churning up the weeds and fish to a great roiling bubbling green mass. Then the skis will straighten out. Then I will stand up out of the water like Venus on the half-shell, and I will cut through the mirror waves and be free and powerful and a skier. Great.
“Bend your knees!” He called (He being Uncle B., not God. Well, God *might* have called out ‘bend your knees’, it’s difficult to be sure about that. What with the sound of the engine and the waves lapping and the shivering and the skiis knocking together and my teeth chattering and wondering why the hell I’d agreed to do this stupid, stupid thing).
“They are bent!”
“Like you’re sitting on a chair!” He hollered.
“I have the idea.”
“Do you remember the signs?” He called.
“Show me ‘faster’!” He shouted. Thumbs up. “‘slower!’” Thumbs down. “‘I’m okay!’” Hands over head in a pointy little arch. “Go home!” I just about gave him the finger, but chose instead to pat my head. The proper sign for ‘go home’. “Okay. Keep your knees bent!”
“We’ve been over this!” I shouted back.
“Rope between your skiis!”
“Keep your skiis straight!”
“That’s becoming increasingly difficult!”
“Umm…” Wait. Was that out loud? What had I just shouted? Did I shout, as I wanted to shout, did I shout, in fact, you know what? I’ve changed my mind. I think I’ll take these skiis up to the dock and just stand in them and pretend I’m skiing. I have a very active imagination. Really. I can learn to ski next year. Is it *imperative* I do this now? I think the skiis and I just aren’t seeing eye to eye. Foot to boot. If you will. No. That is not what I’ve shouted. I’ve shouted “HIT ‘ER!”, which in skiish means “Go! Go like the wind! Go like a bat out of hell! Go! Go! GOOOO!”
The engine burbled. It cut the water. I felt the boat pull me.
“I’m going to tow you a little ways first. Hang on! Don’t stand up until the boat goes faster!”
I clutched the rope in white-knuckled fingers. The skiis cracked together. The tips crossed. What did they tell me about the tips crossing? I couldn’t remember. Shit! I couldn’t remember. They’d told me something Very Important about the tips of your skiis crossing and it was gone. Something about if the tips of your skiis cross, your throat will be instantly slit when the one safety mechanism inherent in water skis (they float) fails because of the…don’t cross the tips, they said. Don’t cross the tips.
I wrenched my ankles around. Tips officially uncrossed. The rope was tense, sitting up out of the water as the boat pulled me. Like the Titanic, I rolled in the boat’s wake. Side to side, awkward. Clutching the rope. Feeling my feet, strapped to three feet of wood, pushing against the water. Against the water. Not slicing through it. Not skimming it. Pushing against it. Against the solid water. I heard the engine cough once, twice…the rope leapt into the air. I pushed against the solid water, pushed, extended my legs…
I realised I was holding my breath. My eyes were closed. I felt the spray from the boat against my face. Opened my eyes. Everything was green. I took a breath. Mouth full of water. Weeds slapping against my face. The rope went slack. I bobbed to the surface, sputtering.
They’re laughing. In the boat. They’re laughing.
“You didn’t let go of the rope!” Uncle B., says. It’s half-question, half-disbelieving statement.
“You told me to hang on!” I cried, coughing.
“Yeah, when I’m towing you. But if you don’t get up, you have to let go of the rope! You were skiing on the bottom of the lake!”
“I noticed.” My face flared. Had I not been submerged in cold lake water, it would have flushed. Anger burst into my chest, pushing my heart hard against my ribs. “This is stupid.”
“Try again,” he said.
“No.” I said.
“Come on,” he said.
“No.” I said.
“Just let go of the rope if you don’t get up.”
“No,” I said.
Everyone in the boat stared at me. They had expectations. They could all water ski (well, not my mother. She couldn’t do anything that involved water, speed, heights, or physical activity/co-ordination except dancing. Also, my grandfather couldn’t ski. He was blind, deaf, and had breathing problems. Also, 78. Neither could my grandmother ski. She was busy dying of cancer. But everyone else could ski).
I wanted so much to be like them, to be part of the family that shared my mother’s maiden name. They’d had pictures done once, and I desperately wanted them to ask me to be in the photos. “What about me?” I’d asked in my excited six-year-old voice. “When’s my picture? When do I get to sit with you?”
“You can’t,” my mother told me. “It’s only for the Cs.”
“But,” I said, not understanding. “But I’m half C!”
But I was never really a C. They’d say, “oh, she’s so much like a C,” and then I would be part of their club. I would be a full-fledged member of laughter and fun and merriment. I’d have STORIES told about me. I’d tell stories one day. I was a C! But if I couldn’t ski…if I couldn’t do it, maybe I wouldn’t be a C. All the Cs could ski. Except for the above mentioned people, all of whom Cs. My Da was a B, and he could ski. My uncle, a T, and he skiied (he lost his glasses, rings, watch, and damn near his trunks when he bailed once, but he still skiied). They could ski with the Cs.
“Fine,” I spat. “I’ll try it ONCE MORE. Do you have any other great advice for me you’ve forgotten to share?”
Uncle B. grinned. “Yeah. Let go of the rope if you don’t get up.”
And so, I skiied.
Not that time, not the next, nor the time after that, nor the time a
fter that, nor the time after that. But eventually, I got up. And I skiied. And I was a C…better than that, I was a B, and I could ski.
This is not a photo of me skiing. This is a photo of Cousin Ess. He is also a C, which is still important, but in a different way.