My Lonely Heart Led Me to the Lake
By J. L. Thurston
In the Midwest, there’s a town known as Flanagan. It is but a speck on the map, but a speck in which I grew up. This tiny town is home to a little spot known as Legion Lake. It is not a lake, but a pond. Though it is minuscule, as all things in Flanagan are, it is beautiful. A paved sidewalk encircles the pond, trees separate the grass from the farmland, and a hill offers a magnificent view of the countryside.
Huge fish can be caught in the curious depths of the pond. Many childhood bikes have been lost beneath the murky waters. A chorus of frogs and locusts will sing a lullaby to the setting sun. It is a place for children to play, lovers to romance, potheads to smoke and lonely hearts to contemplate.
It is one of the few places in the world that can be truly silent. There, I have traveled in the middle of the night, eyes cast upward to the sky, heart empty and aching, and felt the embrace of the world. It had always been my retreat, my sanctuary, my favorite place. I could be found there after a fight with a friend or sibling, a bad day at school, a break-up, or an experience that sent my head reeling.
It was there for me after experiencing my very first party. I was 14 and ready to burst out of my shell. I had spent enough time listening to my friends’ epic tales of drinking and adventures between the sheets. I thought I was ready to earn a few stories of my own. But so far, no one had been willing to share their cigarettes, their weed or their booze.
At last, I had a friend who agreed to take me to a party. It was just like Dazed and Confused. We spent hours in her room prepping, putting weird shit in our hair, struggling to squeeze into jeans that were two sizes too small, wearing blue eyeshadow and glitter.
One of her friends picked us up in his car and drove us to a house less than two blocks from my own. There was music bumping; girls in nothing but thongs strutting around; someone was attacking people with whipped cream; the entire living room was a cloud of smoke.
I expected to walk in, hang around, drink, smoke and have some much-needed laughs. What I got was a collective gasp from all 50 partiers and exclamations of, “Jenni’s here? At a party?”
I knew that I should have raised my hands up, let out a cheer, kicked off my grand entrance with a hoot and cause for more drinking, but I was 14 and emotionally fragile. So, instead, I ducked my head and zipped into the closest room to hide.
It was a teenage boy’s bedroom. My friend followed me in, trailed by her horny boyfriend and a man I didn’t know, but knew he had to be in his 30s.
Watching Clockwork Orange, I sulked on the bed while my friend and her boyfriend made out behind me. The older man stared at me for several minutes and I did my best to pretend he was a piece of furniture. My efforts were thwarted when my friend nudged me with her foot and suggested I should go sit on that guy’s lap.
“Isn’t he, you know, adult?” I mumbled.
Overhearing us, the man laughed. “How old are you?”
I ducked my head. “Fourteen.”
“If it bleeds, it breeds.”
I had come for fun. So far, I had done nothing but scream internally.
I rose from the smelly bed, straightened my back and saluted that old creep with two middle fingers as I strolled out of the room. Nose in the air, shoulders back, I walked with lordly confidence on my way to the front door. I passed through the cloud of smoke in the living room, the two girls wearing nothing but thongs now grinding in the center of the room to the rapt attention of drunk children.
As soon as the front door shut behind me, I felt like an escaped prisoner. In the perfect fall air, the wind only whispered of the cold that was coming. The clouds gave the moon a halo, but did not imagine trying to obscure it. There in Flanagan, a 14-year-old girl could walk around at night and not even have to look over her shoulder. So, I walked.
My lonely heart led me to Legion Lake. I hugged my arms tight around myself as I curled up on the bench at the top of the hill. The pond reflected lamplight and moonlight. Somewhere in the distance the intoxicating fragrance of burning wood laced the wind.
I stargazed and waited until my soul felt settled. I would never call myself an intellectual, but I have never been able to escape my thoughts. And I did a lot of thinking that night.
I thought about what it meant to be a girl. To me, it was meaningless. To fucking creeps like the guy I just met, it was an invitation. I learned then that, because I am a girl, I would need to grow tougher skin and a better sense of humor.
I thought about my desire to misbehave, my teenage rebellion. I still wanted to get drunk, I still wanted to smoke pot and be stupid. And I knew that was perfectly healthy. But I told myself I’d wait. I’d wait for better friends, better places and better reasons to celebrate rather than to make Daddy sad.
I was filled to the brim with loneliness that night, feeling like more of an outsider than before. But I’m grateful for the experience and I’m grateful I had a place to reflect afterwards. Though I don’t have the hill to retreat to anymore, I can still find it in my heart. I can use the peace I gained there to settle my soul in times of doubt and upheaval.
My little pond, my silent sky, my hilltop.