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Episodes: Nightswimming


Emily VanDerWerff

May 10 2016

8 min read



The summer after my high school graduation, I did whatever I could to slip loose of the bonds that had thus far held me.

If I could find an excuse to leave behind the home where I had grown up, I took it. I found a job in a town 45 minutes away. I dated a girl who lived across the border between South Dakota and Iowa and spent inordinate amounts of time with her. I stayed in hotels, even when I didn't need to. I drove everywhere I could, to see friends scattered as far away as possible and took "last time ever!" road trips, because in some corner of myself, I knew.

I even tried to rent an apartment, and I don't know if my mother sounded more amused or hurt when she found out I had been unable to.

What was I running from? The same thing I am now, I suppose, which is to say, I don't know.

That was also the summer I discovered REM's Automatic for the People. I had purchased the CD as part of some BMG Music Club deal several years earlier, but had never listened to it. Yet when I popped it in that summer, it suited my melancholic mood. The first time I heard "Nightswimming," which quickly became my favorite song from the album, I was rolling down the Missouri River river hills, watching as the sun, low in the western sky, caught the prairie grasses and made them ripple. It felt perfect. It felt like the end of something I didn't yet understand.

I became obsessed with the idea of night swimming as a literal thing, with the idea that somehow, going out into the moonlight and swimming in the river or a local lake would force a kind of closure onto an experience that refused such a thing. I had grown up in a town of 750 people, and graduated with a class of 16. Of those 16, 13 of us had been together from day one of kindergarten. The friends I had, I had had for years and years, and even if I was (perhaps too) excited to leave town, I was still terrified and seeking a kind of baptism.

I could never make it happen, though, until Hannah.

I often called Hannah my best friend, though I don't know if this was strictly accurate. I recognized her, and I think she recognized me. We were a friendship to be declared later.

We were both adopted, and though we never talked about it, there was, between us, the contours of an incredibly deep, lasting friendship, which is enough when you're 18. We grew up some distance apart from each other (the girl I mentioned dating earlier was one of her friends), but after we managed to find each other (no easy feat in this life), we spent long hours on the phone and made excuses to see each other.

It's here I have to be careful, because what I've described above makes it sound like we were infatuated with each other, and though I definitely was with Hannah, she never was with me. Friendship, yes. Anything else, no, though she left that possibility just open enough (or I thought she did) for me to become convinced it was out there. Even though I dated her friend, even though the limitations of geography and timing kept thwarting us, on some level, for all the time she was a presence in my life, Hannah was always the person I was truest to.

This made it all the harder when that summer, she went away to stay with her grandmother in the middle of nowhere Minnesota. She lived on a lake (which is a thing pretty much everybody does in Minnesota), and Hannah was going to get a job at one of the local resorts, have a life different from the one she was living, if only for a few months.

Maybe you can see where this is going.

One weekend in July, I took a Friday off of work, and I drove north, up through Minneapolis (where my uncle and aunt gave me a taste of what city life could be like that I never entirely shook), then on to the lakehouse of a woman I'd never met, whose granddaughter was the only bond we shared. We met at a McDonald's, so I could follow her back to her home. She had her dog along. I had no idea what I was doing.

Hannah was busy much of that weekend. She had taken a little time off work, but not much. She was saving, for college somewhere else, so racking up hours and tips was important. But she took that Saturday night off to hang out with me, with the unspoken subtext that there would not be too many more times when it was just us, if there ever were again.

And there was a lake, and there was the moon, and we built a fire, and then we swam.

It was, truth be told, anti-climactic. It didn't provide me with the answers I was looking for. It didn't make me feel whole. It didn't make Hannah fall in love with me, and it didn't give me the assurance that I would figure it out later. It was just wet and a little cold, and slippery in the way that only northern lake water can be, where you come out, feeling like a smooth, polished stone.

What I have from that night, then, are memories. The way that I had the good sense to not try to tell Hannah I thought I loved her (because I was 18, and I felt things too intensely, and I probably didn't). The way that we didn't even talk, eventually, just watching the fire burn out, her head resting against my side. The way that her grandmother's dog gruffed slightly at the sound of loons somewhere in the distance.

The next day, I left. Fog hung over the Minnesota spruce forests, a blanket closing us in. I gave her a long hug and got behind the wheel, off to North Dakota and then back onward toward home. I want to say I listened to REM the whole way, but I know I didn't. Probably, I listened to something stupid.

I have seen Hannah maybe all of seven times since that weekend so long ago. Some of those times have been significant stretches of a day or two. But it's never been more than those couple of days, and though we always promise to keep in touch, years will slip by before one of us reaches out again. It's neither of our faults. We just swam to different corners of the lake in the dark, and got out on different shores.

My friendship with Hannah remains this unrealized potential in my life. I know, now, that I wasn't going to marry her or anything. That seems, increasingly, a childish fantasy to me. But I do know that she was someone who knew me, and I was someone who knew her, and the older I get, the more I realize you get maybe 10 people like that in your whole life. Maybe one becomes your partner. Maybe others become lifelong friends. But most likely, you have a snippet of time, and you make the most of it. If you're lucky.

What Hannah and I had, maybe will always have, was a placeholder. A promise of something to come. And then, because the world is vast, no matter how small we make it, it became a glimmer, disrupted by waves.

And yet... when I call her, when I write her, when I just say hello, it snaps back into place, if only for a little bit. That's the other side of this, I think. That you can drift as far as possible, but when you find that person, you'll always, always have that connection on some level. You just have to dig it out.

I might see Hannah again in a few weeks. My travel schedule will intersect with hers, and we might get a few hours. I hope.

For now, though, it's late. Outside my window, in the California night, a group of people yell and splash in my apartment complex's pool, the lights glowing up from its bottom to turn them into silhouettes of themselves to those of us who look down from above. I think, sometimes, of where I grew up, of how centered and whole I could feel, even as I knew it was not the right place for me, would never be that. I think of how lonely I can feel, every day, surrounded by millions of strangers. I think, sometimes, of swimming in the pool at night, but I never do.


Episodes is published at least three times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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