My last stop is in South Lake Tahoe, and it’s the day before my twenty-ninth birthday.
I’ve always been a birthday/anniversary/holiday/celebration type of person, but I’ve been looking forward to this birthday in particular. Not necessarily for the small list of accomplishments that I’m happy to have already completed in my twenty-nine years, but for the simply ridiculous reason that on this day, and only this day, I will be able to truthfully say, “Yes. It is my twenty-ninth birthday.” Any other birthday that I say, “I’m twenty-nine,” will be a joke, a lie, a fantasy. But on this day, I am officially twenty-nine, and that seems like something to celebrate.
Against financial responsibility, I decide to honor my birthday by crossing the state line into Nevada and book a night at Harvey’s Hotel & Casino. I’ll track sand across the marble floor when I check in, and I’ll throw away my oatmeal, warm carrots, leaky honey jar, and moist bread, and I’ll order room service right before midnight—an ice cream sundae. I’ll think it’s the best eleven dollars spent on the entire trip.
But before that, I head down to the Pope Beach. It’s noon and the middle of the week, but I’ve yet to let it sink into my head that it’s summer, so those two former facts don’t matter—there’s still a lot of people on the beach. There’s only a few, however, in the lake. The water averages about fifty degrees, unless you go out farther to where the boats are, where the water is deeper, and the temperature there is about thirty-nine. Tahoe is the only place I’ve been where I can be extremely hot and extremely cold at the same time. Whether I’m in the water or on the beach, the sun and sand are scorching, and the wind and lake are freezing.
I plant myself in the yellow sand that’s pierced with pine needles, and I sit back. A man and a woman, both in black bathing suits, wade into the lake holding hands. They spend five minutes ankle-deep, looking down and waiting for their toes to adjust to the water. Then they take a few more steps, the man’s shoulders tense and the woman’s arm becomes straight and rigid. They’re up to their calves.
There’s a tan little boy walking on a log that’s rolled down to the shoreline. The waves are folding into the piece of pine, soaking it, and I’m grinding my teeth waiting for this kid to slip. A few feet away there’s a toddler. A little girl weighted down in the wet sand by her diaper. She’s with her mother, or sister, or cousin, or female watcher. The woman hands the toddler an apple. The toddler sticks it in the cerulean water to wash it. The woman snatches the fruit and tells the toddler, No. “Don’t do that. Gross.” She thinks the water is dirty.
Everyone else is camped out on the beach away from the lake’s tiny waves. Groups of teens with magazines and BBQ flavored chips. Families with coconut sunblock and umbrellas. Couples with sunglasses and white paper cups. Once in a while someone will go to water, either curious or on a dare, and stick his or her toe in and run away. A dad holds his son’s hand as the boy bends down to touch the water. “I can see your lips turning blue,” the dad says to his son.
It’s hot on the beach and I haven’t swum since Florida, and even there I didn’t swim for that long. I take my keys out of my bag and bury them in the sand under my towel, then I stand up and walk down the burning beach into the lake. I have Goosebumps on every part of me, but I keep walking—there’s people possibly watching me and I’m using them as my peer pressure. I don’t stop walking until the water is at my shoulders when I’m about to go under and realize then that I still have my sunglasses on. The cold is setting into my legs. I’m adjusting to the water, and I don’t want to get out just to toss my glasses onto my towel. I don’t really care if they are Ray Bans. I look down. My legs are whiter. There are specks of gold reflecting on the lake’s floor. There are pieces of pinecone, a bubble gum wrapper, and my shadow. I bury my toes in the sand, which is warmer than I expected, and I keep walking, shuffling my feet along, kicking up clouds of sediment.
With each step I feel my skin ripple on top of my muscles. The water is to my chin. I turn around and glance at my stuff on the beach—my towel and tote bag/purse. No one is near it. I lift off, swim a few strokes, and dunk under the water with my eyes open and my sunglasses on my head.
I pop up, satisfied with being completely soaked. A man in a wet suit a couple hundred feet to my left surfaces too. He’s combing the lake for litter, and I kind of want to tell him about the bubble gum wrapper. I keep swimming, dunking under and up. A couple of years ago, I had ear-tubes in my ears and couldn’t go under water. When I finally got them removed, I was already living in Boston, and good places to swim were hard to come by. (I’m often jealous of people who like to run because it’s easier to find place to run than places to swim.) I love swimming.
I swim out past the buoy and stop. The water is dark and I can only make out a hint of my shadow below me. I turn around and face the beach. There’s a young guy– seventeen, eighteen –swimming towards the buoy. The couple in the black bathing suits is up to their waists and bobbing in the water. The tan little boy is still on his log. The toddler and woman caregiver have moved back from the shoreline. And there’s a man standing a few feet away from my bag. He’s eating from a small bag of chips, as if he was standing in a kitchen, and he’s looking out at the lake.
I think about what’s in my bag—my small digital camera, my phone, a couple of credit cards, twenty dollars, a book, a pen, a bunch of Post-its with notes written about the people on the beach, and my shorts. (My ID and the rest of my cash are in the car.) I imagine someone walking by and gathering up my towel and my bag, pretending that it’s theirs. I wonder if I would holler at the thief from the water. Swim back really fast? Probably not. I’m too far out and wouldn’t get there fast enough. I contemplate for a second if I should swim in, at least be closer to shore, and then I think, what does it matter? I wouldn’t drive home just because my bag is gone because the worst thing that would happen is I’m stuck in Tahoe without a cell phone. And I don’t need my cell phone. I don’t need to talk to anyone. I don’t need to do anything. I don’t need to be anywhere. In fact, I’m quite content with where I am.
Still facing the beach, I lean my head back in the water, stretch out, and bring my toes to the surface. I see off to the side the teenage guy who had been swimming towards the buoy. He’s almost as far out as I am. I bring my head back up and my feet back down, then turn away from the beach and swim a few more strokes.
It’s my birthday. I want to be ahead.