There were many bikini-clad college ladies at the lake that day, and they had their choices of many muscled, intelligent, and dangerous college men. We all knew what was at stake. We were at a private lake about a half hour away from the nearest town, and we were there for the entire weekend. It was a summer bash where everyone was expected to make poor decisions and the probability of winding up with a girlfriend/boyfriend was pretty high. It was a very exclusive party; the organizers only invited the social elite. Everyone there was beautiful and well connected. I’m not sure how I was invited; perhaps the Post Office got their Steve’s mixed up. I was a Freshman in college, socially awkward, and I only knew three of the other guys at the party. I was out of my element, sure, but I had a few things going for me: I looked good in a swimsuit, I had a good sense of humor, and I was a great story-teller with a fresh audience. Still, the guys outnumbered the girls about 2 to 1, so I had to play this right.
I knew I had stiff competition from Al. Al was a beautiful man, a lumberjack with bronzed muscles shining like Adonis in the sun. He was extremely charming, quick to joke, amazing conversationalist, had a contagious laugh, knew everything about popular music and culture, and was dressed like he belonged in a Sexy Fireman Calendar. But on top of all that, the thing that made Al irresistible is that he was a bad boy. He rode a motorcycle, smoked cigarettes, had a reputation of sweeping ladies of their feet, and rebelled against authority at every turn. The man was charisma incarnate. I once saw Al walk into a liquor store with no money, charm the lady behind the counter to loan him $10, and then walk out of the liquor store with a six-pack and two dollars. That was normal for Al. (He did go back the next day to give her $10. She gave him her number.)
The parents were all at the lake before we arrived. It was normal for them to get the party started and then leave before sunset. They acted as a social catalyst, getting all of their children talking to each other before they gracefully bowed out and left us to our own devices. We were young, scantily clad, well aware of the desirability of those around us, guaranteed privacy late into the night, and we had enough beer to float a boat.
This probably sounds like a stupid idea to you, because you are intelligent. This sounds like lighting a flare over a powder keg. I didn’t understand why they did it at the time, but a couple of theories have surfaced. My best theory is that this is how the powerful and wealthy elite of the county kept their circle small. By throwing all of their children into this Petri Dish and adding significant stimulant, the rich and powerful were guaranteeing that their sons and daughters would wind up with someone else that was the offspring of someone rich and powerful. They kept all of the undesirables out of the genetic pool while exposing their offspring to the best breeding the county had to offer. We’d all form the tightest of social bonds. Their daughters would inspire desire, upon which I’d develop friendship that could never be betrayed because my heart would always remember that it desired them at one point. Their sons I’d learn to respect and admire as we all competed for the affections of the same women. We’d all be a group, our own society, and no outsider could break in because we were already so close. We were the up-and-coming elite. Our parents’ legacy would continue through us, but only if our parents thrust us into the fire to forge these kinds of alliances.
That’s just a theory. Maybe our parents were stupid.
I arrived late, because I didn’t know where the location was. This story happened before smart phones, before GPS, and before any kind of printable internet map. I was given directions such as “go to the Smith’s old place, take a left, past the tracks, right after the Barn House (you’ll know the one I’m talking about), keep going, and then left on the dirt road before the cow fields.” It’s a skill that MidWesterners have, giving directions using no street names, and I’m decent at finding my way around, even when I don’t know who the Smith’s are, but I needed a guide this time, and that guide was Al. Al rode his motorcycle, and as we came onto the property he revved his engine and nodded at the ladies. He wore gigantic sunglasses (very stylish in the 90’s), so every single one of the girls thought he was nodding at them. He then popped a wheelie and stood on his bike, balancing it perfectly, and slowly wheeled toward where the girls were stationed. It was a great move signifying his mastery over the motorcycle, control, care, grace, and he had to flex his arms to maintain the wheelie. I drove to where the cars were parked and gave myself a pep speech, because I was obviously outmatched.
Al’s parents were not the social elite. His father worked developing construction equipment and his mother was big into New Age trends. Despite his pedigree, the designers of this experiment understood what Al was: an unstoppable charisma. Al would become something big in this county with or without the help of the “Old Money”. They needed to draft him to their side to ensure that Al would stand with their children as opposed to against them. Al was critical to their children’s success.
I wound my way down to the party, which was in full swing. I maintained a constant flex of my abs while walking; it’s something I used to do when I was younger, shallower, and much better looking. It may sound desperate, but I knew what I was up against. I was up against Al. Al already knew everyone here. I sort of knew everyone here, I went to elementary school with some of these kids, and I knew their parents from long ago, but I hadn’t kept in touch. The girls I knew in elementary school were now women. Beautiful women. Some of them sort of remembered me (I was a rather boisterous class clown, hard to miss), but I was never really close friends with any of them…
… except Gabrielle. While walking to the beach where everyone was gathering, I got my first good look at the ladies. One stood out in particular. Tan, thin, the scoliosis stance that super-swimsuit models tend to favor, designer flip flops, freshly painted pink finger and toenails, impractical sunglasses, radiant smile, calculated hair that looks like she put in three hours of effort to make it look like she put in no effort, tactical make-up, and she was very good looking. It took me about ten seconds of absent-minded staring to finally pull myself together and wonder, is that Gabrielle? Gabrielle was a girl who liked soccer, could run decently fast, had a list of funny jokes, and enjoyed the same games I did. We spent many hours together when our parents had parties, and I considered her a good friend. She was pretty much everything I was looking for as a 2nd grader. Now that I was older and much more shallow, she was ‘interesting’. Love-at-first-sight isn’t something I believe in. I actually preferred ladies to be witty, snarky, intelligent, able to navigate an interesting conversation, able to tell a story, full of new and brilliant ideas, hopes, dreams, and determination. That isn’t something you can tell by first-sight. So maybe what I was looking for wasn’t so shallow, but that doesn’t mean that “keen-interest-at-first-sight” wasn’t a factor for me in my college days. There was only one problem with Gabrielle standing there on the beach, and that was how she was making googily eyes at Al while casually touching his bicep.
The party got underway. I introduced myself to all of the parents, giving the fathers a firm handshake and nodding respectfully at the mothers. Word had gotten around that I taught ball-room dance, and so many of them demanded a demonstration. I was happy to oblige, knowing that treating the mothers to a quick dance was high-elite diplomacy. The mothers would then introduce me to their daughters, or if I miscalculated whose mother they were, I’d get introduced to their son. The sons weren’t ever impressed by the dance, but the ladies saw from afar. They saw that I knew how to dance, that I could make their mothers laugh and smile, and that wherever I went people were happy.
It’s important to note that I wasn’t letting on with my internal rivalry with Al. Al was my friend, after all. It’s just that I didn’t like feeling inferior to him. I was here because Al invited me, not because I belonged. The ladies flocked around Al as their knees became weak and their eyes became soft. The “Old Money” all complimented Al on his start-up business and were impressed by his decision to skip college and just start being successful by owning a company that employed fifty men. A deep and dark part of me just wanted to show that I was on the same tier as Al. For once I wouldn’t be known as “Al’s friend”, but as “Steve, the guy worth knowing on his own”. So the performance there on the beach was not an act to fool people into thinking I was a fun person. That was the genuine me. I just always felt in the back of my head that I was losing some unspoken popularity contest.
The party migrated into the lake. I had formed a conversation with Al, Gabrielle, and two other gals, and three other guys. We kind of drifted about the pond the way that MidWesterners tend to do on summer days. The unnamed folks in our group were all interested in each other, but Al was clearly interested in Gabrielle, and she was clearly interested in him. I just did my best to be friendly and interesting, waiting my time. I was evaluating Gabrielle, seeing if she was any fun to be around. She was, and it turns outs that I was to. I could make Gabrielle laugh, smile, and most importantly, engage with the conversation. Maybe I had a chance out here, however slim it may be.
We drifted to the far side of the lake, and that’s when things changed. Al nodded to the trees and said “hey, check this out.” We all started to swim over to the bank. A steep hill went straight into the lake at this spot. It was a thirty-foot incline with a flat spot at the top. Trees were everywhere, but I saw what Al was up to. A single rope hung down from one of the taller trees. It was a thick hemp rope, long enough to barely grab from the shore. It had a small circular wooden platform at the bottom where a person could sit. This was a rope-swing.
The group each took a turn, except for Al. We would climb the hill, do our best to line up a path that would avoid any trees (not easily done), and then jump. The swing would go down 30 feet, up thirty feet, and then you had to let go and drop into the water. Riding the swing back wasn’t a choice, as it would invariably crash a rider into the trees. I went first, and other folks followed. Al stayed behind, helping folks onto the swing. After all, he had built the rope swing.
Conversation between the guys shifted to “The Next Dimension”. Should we show them “The Next Dimension”? Will the parents get mad if we pull out “The Next Dimension”? Are we too drunk to pull off “The Next Dimension”? This unexplained event was generating a lot of hype, until Gabrielle finally asked “What is ‘The Next Dimension’?”
That is what Al had been waiting for. “Here Steve, hold this.” At the top of this thirty foot hill, there was a tree. Al monkey-ed his way up the tree quickly and effortlessly, his lumberjack skills displayed for all to see. He climbed to a rather sturdy branch about fifteen feet off the ground, and walked across it, balancing with his arms outstretched. He then turned and faced the rope I was holding.
I looked down the hill. Directly below was a very steep drop off, and at the bottom was a collection of sharp pointed sticks and jagged rocks. If Al missed this, he’d fall about thirty-five feet and then die. I looked up at Al, holding the edge of the rope. “Watch this” is all he said, winking at Gabrielle.
Al jumped into the air, hands stretched out above his head, thirty-five feet above certain doom. His body completely horizontal as he crossed the necessary seven feet to even have a chance at grabbing the rope. His hands grabbed it with ease, his feet planted squarely on the seat. The rope snapped out of my hand, and I saw Al go. Careening through the trees faster than I’ve ever seen a swing go, Al was a streak of brilliance. The swing crested on the other side over the lake just as Al let go. His feet stayed on the platform as he backflipped off the platform with practiced ease, his arms stretched out to the sides at full length, his legs fully extended with pointed diver’s toes. At least fifty feet in the air, he rotated backwards once, twice, three times before he slowly raised his arms above his head in a perfect swan dive.
The other lake goers didn’t know about this. They just saw Al comet out of the forest like some kind of aerial champion. Everyone cheered and yelled. The swing came all the way back to the top of the hill where I caught it. That was incredible.
I looked over at Gabrielle, to find her already looking at me. Her breath had been taken away, clearly, it was the hottest thing ever done. But her eyes were interrogating and playful, her bottom jaw flirtatiously quirked to the side, her smile devious. “Think you could do that?” And with her challenge, she took one finger and stroked it alongside my arm.
The next thing I knew, I was struggling up a wet tree. Al had the advantage of two years Lumberjacking and a dry tree. I had sure determination and ego, and both were wearing out. I managed it, but it wasn’t graceful. It was described as “climb-humping” the tree. I had tree bark stuck on my chest and scratches everywhere. Gabrielle stood at the top of the cliff of certain death, holding the swing for me, smiling sweetly. I stood on the sturdy branch, still braced up against the trunk of the tree.
This is where I did some thoughtful introspection of the situation. Gabrielle clearly knew that I liked her. Despite my clever plan of trying to remain friendly and unflirty, she knew that I was interested. She pulled one string and I performed masterfully as her puppet. She wasn’t being cruel though. She was clearly enjoying that I was going to such lengths to impress her. She was open to flirtation. Maybe she was into me. Maybe she was just caught in that both Al and I were interested in her. Maybe she was just naturally flirty. Maybe she was toying with my heart and was ready to crush it at a moment’s notice. It was hard to tell. Climbing the tree was probably a bad decision, and I wasn’t thinking straight, but standing on the Branch of Fate (as it was called) did clear my head a bit.
I took a breather because climbing the tree was hard. From the Branch of Fate, the collection of sharp sticks and rocks looks more like a churning meat grinder. To successfully grab that swing, I’d have to fully commit to jumping over certain doom. Folks in the water were splashing and clapping now. Some had started chanting “Next Dimension”. I had somehow become the center of attention for the entire party. They weren’t taking any more stalling. One of the guys said to Gabrielle “Do you think he’s going to chicken out?”
And before he had finished the question, I had leapt.
I remember the jump very well. In order to make it to the rope, I had to clear seven feet horizontally, and had about fifteen feet vertically to do that in. In the air, there was no time to look at the certain doom beneath me, as all five of my senses were focused on that rope swing. The air was electrically cool against my wet skin as I flew through it. My muscles were all tense. My face had the calm of Buddha, with a slight smirk that sparked when I snuck a quick peek at Gabrielle. My hands brushed against the rope.
That’s when everything went horribly wrong. Gabrielle let go of the swing early, my hands were touching the rope, but I didn’t have a grip. I didn’t get my hand placement as high on the rope as I wanted. Al’s previous attempt at ‘The Next Dimension’ had left the rope wet. The platform for my feet had already started to move away and I could not wrestle my feet onto it. Instead I just slid down about four feet of rope, my hands clutching for dear life despite the sudden rendering of flesh on my palms. I looked panicked at the collection of death spears and rock macerators below me when suddenly my view was blocked. The foot platform had snapped back like a whip and clobbered me in the face. I was knocked senseless. All thoughts of death below, the Branch of Fate, my stupid unspoken competition with Al, even thoughts of Gabrielle had been shattered by the platform collision. Only one thought remained. “HOLD!”
My hands cinched onto the ropeswing. The foot platform stopped my slide to certain doom, and I choked the ever-loving salvation out of the rope. My vision had tunneled to mostly stars and black, but I could still barely see, and the moment I knew that I was over water I let go.
I did not gracefully soar high into the clouds like Al did. I looked more like a cat shot out of a canon. My legs were both higher than my head in some kind of uncontrolled karate kick. My arms flailed about, all control lost after using every last bit of strength to keep me from dying. I rotated on three axes like a rag doll, completely out of control. Where Al had pulled an Olympic 3-rotation swan dive, I had achieved a hideous monkey roll. My horizontal momentum was impressive; I remember seeing the lake water flashing past as the rotation slowed. I saw my reflection, as if I was standing in the air horizontally, my arms casually at my side. And then I fell into my reflection face and belly first. An audible crack reverberated through the party as I rebounded off of the water tension, which sent me hurtling through the air again spinning like a top. CRACK! That time my back had bounced off the water tension, and again I was sent toppling over in a flurried ball of arms and legs. Another loud crack sounded, but this time the lake had mercy. The water tension let me in, ending my experiment as a human skipping stone.
Under the water I heard laughter. Maybe it wasn’t real, just some delusional hallucination brought about by facial bludgeoning, but I still heard it. I remembered thinking “You know, rather than face Gabrielle, you could just die here. It might be easier.” I stayed for a good ten seconds to regain my composure, and then kicked to the surface.
I had decided that I wasn’t beaten.
I broke through the surface with my hands raised in triumph. I had succeeded! I had survived. I acted like this is what I meant to do. Clapping erupted, punctuated with the staccato of cheers and laughter. I looked up the hill and smiled. Gabrielle was there, holding her hands over her face in a bit of horrified shock. Her eyes were large and guilty. I called out to her “you let go a bit early.”
I managed to swim to shore. My face was covered in blood and so were my hands. I kept my hands and face out of the water to avoid getting any more lake water into my blood stream. Profuse bleeding was not a good way to impress any of the ladies.
I did not end up getting a girlfriend that trip. At one point, Gabrielle and Al disappeared off into the woods together and I sort of gave up. Come to think of it, Al disappeared off into the woods with a lot of the girls, which made a lot of the fellas give up. I still had a lot of fun.