Carefully stepping out of the car in her bare feet, Elizabeth watches as the silhouetted figures scramble and stumble over to the water’s edge. It’s always darkest before the dawn, she reminds herself and wonders how much of the stumbling is caused by the roots and rocks hidden in the deep darkness of midnight and how much of it is caused by the alcohol. Then again, walking on sandy roots and rocks can’t be easy in heels, she thinks, suddenly feeling glad that she left her shoes in the car.
Passing between the thick oak trunks, she smells the woody aroma of the rough bark and smiles, glad to be away from the lights, smells, and sounds of Atlanta. A cool summer breeze whispers through the trees, plays in her hair, and drags away the stagnant heat of Georgia summers. Elizabeth takes a long look at the bright stars, grinning as she finds Hercules and the Swan, usually hidden by the bright lights of cities. She looks around her and feels at peace when she sees the lake is surrounded by tall oaks like a mighty green wall protecting the lake from outsiders. She is shaken out of her reverie by the loud hooting and hollering of her companions.
The crowd of spontaneous strangers begin stripping and ripping clothes off, clinking bottles and stumbling their way into the rounded lake. In nothing but their underwear, the five foreign strangers and Elizabeth's three new hall-mates wade in the still-warm lake. She stands on the sandy shore, staring down at her feet digging into the soft sand. Surrounded by the strong oaks and the owls hooting midnight like grandfather clocks, Elizabeth keeps forgetting the lake ebbing and flowing in front of her was made by man instead of nature.
“Aren’t you going to come in?” Justin says, his words slurred together by an endearing Irish accent.
He patiently waits for her in the shallows while the rest wade further away from the shore. She nods yes to his smile and begins to walk toward the lake. In the distance, a group of nighthawks warble their songs into the quiet of the night.
“Aren’t you going to undress?” he asks, gesturing to his green-striped boxers.
“No, it’s okay” she says, one foot hovering over the water, not quite sure why she is here.
This isn’t like me, I don’t know him. I don’t know anyone here very well, and tomorrow he’ll be gone and...but it’s okay, nothing’s going to happen because we’re just going to talk and swim. I bet the water’s divine.
“Wait, what about your dress?” he asks when she is already knee-deep and the water has begun to lap alluringly at the hem of her little white dress.
“No, it’s okay; it’ll be fine.” She flashes him a smile to soothe his worries.
“Are you sure?”
“It’s fine. It’s an old hand-me-down, so it doesn’t really matter.”
“Are you sure you want to swim in your dress? It might be uncomfortable.”
She runs past his wading body and dives headfirst into the chest-deep water. Under the water, Elizabeth releases every stress and anxiety about this evening and reverts to her childhood self for a second. Giggling and blowing bubbles, she resurfaces a few meters away and stands on one of the moss-covered rocks that litter the lakebed.
“How’s that for being sure?” she challenges him and swims out further.
“No fair, wait for me,” he says and grins, already swimming after her.
Elizabeth swims past the others with their clinking bottles and slurring lips. She swims past the little island with the fallen tree trunks and looks behind her, hoping that she’s lost him and that he found a more interesting girl to chase. Maybe he likes girls who drink. Feeling her heart dropping, she frowns and finds herself hoping that he has come after her because everyone wants to be liked and sometimes chased. A late summer breeze sends a chill down her spine, and she sinks a bit further into the comforting water, holding her dress down around her.
“I’ve got you,” he jokes, his head suddenly emerging from the black depths, his hands still on her calf.
“Justin!!! You... you... scared me” she says, gasping for air, slapping at his arm playfully, and he keeps laughing.
She notices the way he laughs so wholeheartedly, his head thrown back. The others are too engrossed to even ask if she’s okay. For all they know, I could’ve been eaten by a gator, and they would’ve been too busy drinking and talking about sex to notice. Justin would’ve saved me... right? Justin’s laughter quickly becomes infectious, and soon they’re both laughing. She splashes him while he isn’t looking.
“Where did you learn to swim like that?”
“Like what, Justin?”
“So fast, so well, under water? I’ve never been able to swim well.”
“Oh. Well my parents taught me when I was really young. They decided I had no choice but to be a good swimmer.”
“And you are.”
“Did you never learn to swim?”
“Only well enough to doggy-paddle. It’s one of my few regrets.”
“So,” he says, “what’s it like to swim in a dress?”
“I’m free,” she says, smiling, and disappears below the surface, self-conscious of his near-nakedness and her white dress clinging to her body while reveling in the rush of water making its way between the fabric and flesh.
She surfaces, giggling, only to find her dress trapping air bubbles and rising above her waist. Quickly, she smooths it down and allows the bubbles to escape, hoping her lack of underwear hadn’t shown when she was swimming.
“Right, well, that was a lot more of Elizabeth than I thought I’d see tonight,” he smiles and pretends to cover his eyes.
“So, is that why you didn't want to take it off?”
She blushes sheepishly, and he smiles.
“Don’t you worry, you have a lovely body and tan. I’m this pasty white everywhere all year.”
He wades closer and flashes a captivating smile. Panicking, Elizabeth looks away, forces a laugh, and splashes him. He tries to dunk her, and she swims away, trying to catch him off-guard to dunk him. If he’s noticed her shying away from intimacy, he hasn’t let on.
Giggles and laughs become inevitable as the splashing becomes more childish.
Splashing and trying to dunk each other is harmless play; maybe then you’ll stop thinking about how nice his lips are. Why do I keep blushing? If you kiss him... well, just don’t. I have to remember to keep this dress down... But his lips look so inviting...