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Voices

Racing Like Turtles

by Zane Markosian

An essay from the Spring 2019 issue.

by Zane Markosian | Voices | Spring 2019

Image by Julia Friend

In the morning the air smelled hot and a little bit smokey. I rolled over next to Kirby, in the large and plump bed of the “second house.” We were in the smaller house that had been built years earlier—next to the real cabin—in order to provide more sleeping space at the lake.

The real cabin was like walking into a relic of the 1950s and like a hastily put-together set for a vacation dream. It was built of logs and the walls labored under the weight of the kitschy decoration, sagging all around the main room. There were snowshoes and replica skis and fishing poles and old coca-cola ads. There were also amusingly raunchy posters for movies from the ’80s and more than one stylized “gone fishing” sign.

I stepped out onto the porch, eager to get into the real cabin because I didn’t want to miss any summer revelry. The screen door slammed behind me as I walked into the other house and looked for signs of life. I didn’t really expect anyone to be awake though.

The day before, we had all driven across the state in order to get to Simone’s cabin, and we had spent far too many hours on the tiny gravel roads of eastern Washington. We were staying at Simone’s cabin in the Okanogan and we were celebrating the end of highschool. This was our big grownup vacation and we were lucky enough to be living in temporary opulence. She had driven over a day before us all in order to unboard the windows and to get the cabin ready for the summer.

Hayden, Kerry, and Dory all drove up in a red pickup truck with a canoe in the back, and myself Kirby, Emily, and Patrick followed. Emily had been trying to play the most summery pop music that she could find, and as we bounced over dusty hill, Patrick and I boldly made up words to the sections that we didn’t know.

It turns out that it’s very difficult to find a one specific valley in the middle of the Okanagan region. At the top of one pass, we had come to a t-intersection and Emily directed Kirby to the left but he hesitated. The road was cordoned off and a Forest Service ranger explained that because of a forest fire, we would have to make a detour. One other fire-induced detour like this one and a handful of more self-imposed navigation errors meant that it was late in the day by the time that we finally arrived.

I remember almost falling out of the car when we pulled up the cabin—I was so desperate to stretch out and I was eager to take in the surroundings. We were at the end of a narrow valley and steep hills rose on either side. Behind the houses there were woods, but it was dusk and it was difficult to see much beyond the immediate and pine scented clearing. The other car—with Hayden, Dory, and Kerry—had arrived hours before us because somehow they hadn’t been as messed up by the detours, and everyone rushed down to greet us and to welcome us to summer.

Standing there in the garishly decorated kitchen, I was so eager to get my friends up-and-going. I felt this restless urgency as I squinted through the window, but there really was no prescribed plan. I opened up a package of bacon while I peered through the decades-old panes of glass above the kitchen sink, and I watched some birds swooping across the lake.

It was really more of a pond than a lake. A dam had been added in the ’50s in order to create a reservoir for fishing. Back then, this whole place had been a fishing retreat. It was rented to wealthy businessmen coming from Seattle or Spokane. But that business had dried up (though the reservoir remained), and Simone’s dad had bought the land in the ’90s and built another cabin as well as a little garden plot.

We ate a breakfast that was almost entirely bacon and fruit, and we headed down to join the birds at the lake.

***

Down by the water, the noise was incredible. There was a constant hum of activity: cicadas in the reeds, mosquitoes hovering around our ears, dragonflies snapping their wings. In some effort to banish all this chaos, Simone brought down a speaker. She put on The Shins and we listened in the sun.

You led no celibate life
No skirt while chemicals danced

in your head
You stole the keys to this ride
And your fables are falling tonight

It was almost noon at this point and I was recovering from what had turned into a race against Patrick. We had set off leisurely at first from the edge of the dock.

We pushed into the cool black water and towards the far edge of the pond. I looked at him between strokes—alternating my head left and right with each motion of the arms. His shoulders bulged and even in that dusty afternoon it had been clear that he was a strong swimmer. I felt my heart pounding. We sometimes found ourselves competing viciously with each other and I never understood why. The calls from the dock came to us in between our strokes.

“Whoever gets to other side first can have my second Mike’s…”

“You can’t let him beat you like that…”

Patrick pulled forward a bit and I kicked harder. In an instant I was so mad. As I pulled the water past me I couldn’t help but catalog all the times that he had made people laugh more than I had. And I thought about the undefined—and yet dire—feelings of competition that whirled between the two of us when others were around.

Oftentimes, I brushed these feelings away with thoughts that it didn’t matter, that it was immature to even care what people thought about the two of us, that maybe no one else but me and Patrick sensed this silent perpetual war. But in the water, I could think of nothing else.

With a frenzied splash we both smacked the cliff of the other side. It had been an almost exact tie and the anger was all gone. We bobbed laughing, gasping for breath, and treading water. In a good-natured manner, we fought to shove each other into the rock and I laughed as I felt the cool stone scrape my shoulder and saw small streaks of blood on his. I felt big and I knew that he did too. We swam back together, laughing. Later we would split the promised Mike’s hard lemonade and then have two more together.

***

Emily lay down next to me on the edge of my towel. She curled her wet back over towards me and our arms pushed against each other. I twisted my own body a little bit to my right, away from her. My shoulder left the damp towel and rested on the wooden dock which felt like a thousand degrees. The white, rough wood had been catching the sun all day and it was hard to even walk across barefooted at this point. Still though, it felt okay against the back of my shoulder which was damp from the swim. In middle school I had had a little crush on Emily but now that we were older, and had grown into markedly different people, it felt natural to just be friends.

Simone sat next to us on the dock but because I lay on my back, it almost felt like Simone was sitting above me, hanging over my head. She flipped a page of her book. Without raising my head to look to the water, I kept track of Kirby and Dory as they paddled in a canoe around the little lake. They were circumnavigating it all and they were paddling lazily. In my hand I grasped the now-lukewarm last drops of a Mike’s and the sweetly smell of that drink mixed with the intoxicating smell of Emily’s hair.

Suddenly Simone shrieked and tumbled onto myself and Emily. She had—in an instant—drawn her feet out of the water (they had been dangling) and she laughed as she recovered her balance.

“It was a turtle! A huge turtle just swam up and rubbed against my toe—are there more?” We pulled ourselves up and bent over the dock. “Oh wow there’s another one… and a couple more!” Emily exclaimed while pointing out towards the center of the water. “They’re fast!”

“What happened?” Kirby called to us as the canoe slipped easily up against the dock. We hadn’t even noticed him and Dory paddle over, attracted by the wild shriek.

Mischievously, Dory reached down for a small net which lay in the bottom of the canoe and she asked “want to try to catch one?” Of course we did.

Kirby excitedly declared “Someone can come into the canoe with us and we can paddle while you use the net, and someone else can sit on the surfboard and help us corral one of these turtles.”

I pushed the surfboard off of the sand and I sat towards the back, with the front angling up and out of the water. I watched Simone precariously lower herself off the dock and into the waiting canoe. We were set.

Leaning over to put my chest against the board and my face close to the water, I was able to move forward by drawing my arms through the water. We were so effortlessly quiet—on the surfboard and in the canoe—as we smoothed over the water. The cicadas had persisted and now that The Shins were no longer playing, the late afternoon had become loud and chaotic. But it was much quieter in the center of the pond.

“There’s one!” I called to the others.

They circled gracefully over to my side. “Oh I see it!” But as they drew closer, the turtle startled and dived deeper. We followed in the direction in which the turtle had seemed to shoot himself and the four of us saw him surface a couple yards ahead of us.

Breathing softly so as to not disturb anything I said “I’ll circle around him and try to direct the turtle to you all.”

Dory back paddled in order to slow the advancing canoe, and I turned my board and pushed towards the center of the pond. I rounded back towards the reeds, keeping the turtle on my right side.

“Okay I see him.” Simone crouched in the center of the canoe and reached the net above her head. “What’s our plan?” She asked.

“Let’s get a bit closer,” Kirby answered, “and then go for it.”

“Zane, if it comes to you, you might have to use your hands.”

I really didn’t know if I would be able to touch a real live turtle with my hands. Everything around us stood still for an instant and then Simone plunged the net down. There was a loud splash—followed by a quick scream: “He’s coming to you, Zane!”

I swept my arm through the water, trailing a frothy disturbance behind my spread hand. I had completely missed and my hand swung up empty. The turtle had slid under my board and out to the other side.

The surface of the water became a chaotic frenzy as we all madly tried for the escaping turtle.But we finally got him. From the dock, Patrick, Hayden, and Emily whooped and cheered for us. Dory held her paddle above her head in triumph and Simone dropped the turtle into the base of the canoe. She was afraid of its snapping beak and so as soon as the turtle was extricated from the net, she let him fall.

This went on for hours. In all we probably caught about five poor turtles. At some point Kirby paddled back to the dock in order to grab Hayden’s nalgene and he used the water bottle to scoop some pond water over the turtles in the bottom of the canoe.

Dory was done and while Kirby grabbed the Nalgene, she climbed precariously out of the boat and onto the dock. This led to a grand reshuffling: I stepped first onto the dock and then into the canoe, and Patrick—who until then had been sharing a Mike’s with Emily—pushed himself onto the surfboard. I noticed that she touched his arm as he got up from the dock.

The two-craft flotilla set out for one last conquest. It was a waiting game and while we waited for the turtle to rise back towards the surface, we drifted towards the point that we had seen the turtle last. Then we tried to position our two crafts around the swimmer and we came to the critical moment.

Patrick paddled well on the surfboard and as I swept the net through the water (Simone and I were taking turns), Patrick back-paddled deftly. He could see that the turtle would startle and would shoot between the two of us. And he was right, the turtle darted away from the canoe and towards the center of the pond, and patrick was able to be exactly in the right place. He had timed it expertly.

From the splashing chaos, he drew his hand up. And in his hand, he held the turtle. He was triumphant—and he was the only one of us who had caught a turtle with his own fleshy hands. I had caught at least two with the net, but the net absolutely provided some kind of a distancing.

Patrick tossed the little guy into the canoe and simone scooped some more water to pour over the crawling mess of turtles. We had them all and we began paddling back. Not to the dock but, this time, to the beach. We pushed up the canoe and Patrick stepped up off the surfboard, into the shallow water.

***

I looked back to the beach and I saw Patrick greet Emily with a little smile plastered across his face. Just hours earlier we had been straining through the water side-by- side and I had been intent on beating him. Somehow it was always like this.

When we had been younger, a year- or-so before the cabin in the Okanagan, we had gone up to Lost Lake to spend the night. It was the most haphazard of plans—within a couple of hours, we all had decided we were going, packed some backpacks and set off. And the trip really had been driven by some summertime sense of audacity.

Our tents were on a tiny island in the middle of the lake, and there were narrow little planks going back to the shore, offering a muddy walkway. We wanted to do something big before dinner and so we slid across the planks back to the shore, and set off to circumnavigate the lake.

Almost halfway around we ran into a towering boulder sitting on the side of the water. Moss made a sheen all the way over the water side of the rock and I thought it was crazy to even consider us sliding past on that side. Instead I proposed that we head to the right—away from the water just a little bit—in order to get back around to the left and to get back to our dinner. Patrick balked and I remember myself immediately going on the defensive: “well what do you think we should do? Do you want to slip down the rock? Try to come up with a better plan.”

He smirked. “All I know is that I don’t think we need go all the way around.”

We finally did go my way but it ended up being a much longer detour than it seemed. By the time that we made it back to the campsite it was dark, we were hungry, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how smug Patrick must have been. Remembering back to that day, I’m not even sure that he had been gloating—but I remember thinking of the feud as inescapable.

It was this same strange resentment that floated over my head as I watched him hold a turtle out for our friends to inspect. I also felt a little bit bad for the turtle; his little legs spun, unproductively in the air and there was nothing else he could do.

***

Looking back into a boat full of desperate scrambling amphibians, Simone had an idea. “What if we draw a line in the sand, release the turtles up there by the grass, and place bets as they run back into the water? I can take these ones.” Simone pointed to the three turtles in the front of the boat. “And you guys can have these ones.”

We all loved the idea. I had bent over to reach into the boat and, with a canoe paddle, started to shunt the remaining turtles away from the ones that Simone had claimed. Patrick had joined me by my right side.

“Let’s call this one Escobar,” he pointed to the biggest of our team.

“And let’s call this one Julio,” I answered.

Emily brought down some generously sized tupperwares from the kitchen and we had been using these to transport the turtles. I felt Escobar repeatedly throw himself against the side, in an effort to get out.

The day had become colder very quickly. As soon as the sun dipped behind the wall of the valley, it was as if a curtain had been drawn on the show. After spending hours laying on the scorching pale wood of the dock, I was actually chilly and so I was eager to get these turtles released and back into the water.

Opposite Simone, I scooped the first leathery turtle out of the “boys” team’s tupperware. Julio squirmed unexpectedly in my hand and I almost dropped him. I reached down and held him inches above the wet sand, watching his feet swirl through the air. He must have been so desperate to get back into the water. It didn’t seem totally fair that we were forcing these turtles to race—especially when just an hour earlier they had been happily swimming.

We released the turtles in pairs. There were three races in total and each race was accompanied by screams and cheers from the two teams. The turtles scrambled headfirst towards the safety of the water—an instinct which must have been programmed deep in them.

***

Later that night, we sat around the table and laughed while picking over our remnants of dinner. The pasta was still in a bowl on the table in front of us and I set down my fork, in favor of—instead—just using my fingers to pick out some cherry tomatoes.

I think we were prouder of ourselves back then than we really deserved. Earlier Simone had worried about how salty the pesto should be because her mom usually made it one way. We were all still trying to be like the grownups. She licked her spoon and mused, “you know—I think we nailed it.” Patrick reached across to give her a high-five and we all laughed.

We sat for awhile, content to just laugh and talk over the food on the table, but after while Kirby got up and he came back with a deck of cards. He dropped them on the table and suggested that we play hearts.

“Hearts, really?” Dory asked.

“Yeah—come, on let’s okay,” Patrick responded. Somehow it had become his idea, to play, and he grabbed the cards from Kirby to begin shuffling.

Hayden got up to clear the table and I slinked after him into the kitchen. “What is it with Patrick?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” Hayden asked.

“Well I just feel like there’s always something to prove.”

“Are you guys still talking about the race?” Dory asked as she walked into the kitchen with a stack of bowls from the table.

I shot Hayden a grimace before heading back out to pick up more dishes.

When we were all back around the table, cards in hand, I looked down and realized that I could maybe shoot the moon. I worried about being too bold but there in front of me were the cards: a run of high hearts, some high diamonds, and the King of Spades. With a subtle little

shrug of my head, I played my first card. Someone slipped in a low heart and I played everything off as if—“oh shucks I guess I can roll with that.” But really I was thrilled.

Patrick reacted to me stomaching a heart and what he said was: “Oh yikes that’s okay, Zane.” But what I heard was “you must be so embarrassed.”

Hearts is one of those games where points are bad—but what’s special is that if you somehow have the gall to take every single point, then you actually win. This is what I was trying to do: take every single heart, as well as the queen of spades.

I tried to hide what I was doing. I asked Emily about her plans to run cross country in college in order to distract from my taking the eight of hearts. I asked Dory how she felt about moving to California while I took the four, two, and seven. I asked about the future because that was the biggest distraction that we all shared and I hoped to deflect from my plan until it was too late to be stopped.

But with every point I took, I felt little jabs from Patrick. Even though I wanted to keep my head down and to just play my cards, I couldn’t help but to engage in the back-and-forth a little bit. Trick after trick, the two of us teased each other and tried to appear bigger than we actually were.

Simone put back on the Shins album that we had listened to earlier. As we went around the table, putting down cards and picking at food, Patrick and I kept making small comments. I was eager to laugh a little too loud when he spilled a Mike’s and he was quick to teasingly ask me about how I had cried while cutting the onions for dinner. Our back-and-forth continued throughout the night. We were listening to the same song that we had been while down at the water. But this time a different part stood out to me.

The dust from a four day affair is
now landing
All over the floor and your brown
legs
The gold-plated legs of my rival
Whose eyes had no reason to fall

I still had those lines running through my head as a I fell asleep later that night, next to Kirby. I knew that in the morning we would wake up and do it all over again and the air would still be hot and smoky. We would still be wrapped up tight in the beginning of summer, and Patrick and I would still be racing, just like turtles.