We motor away from the mountains and toward the cloud-filtered sunshine and rolling brown hills of the east. Lake Tekapo seems to be a popular stop, and as we get closer I can see why. The lake is even bluer than Pukaki was and the town along the banks is a pleasing slice of civilization.
But we don’t stop there like I thought we would. Gemma keeps driving until we come to a turn-off and then she’s gunning it toward the lake. On one side of us the road curves along pine trees and holiday homes; on the other there is a stream and a picturesque stone church surrounded by snap-happy tour bus groups.
At a gravel lot at the very end, not far from the shore, she angrily slams Mr. Orange into park and jumps out of the bus. Instinctively I do the same, jumping out after her.
As I stand there watching, I know the memory is being ingrained into my head. The van is still running and “Comfortably Numb” is blaring from the speakers as Gemma strips down to her underwear and runs to the edge of the lake. She’s barefoot and she doesn’t even slip on the rocks as she goes. She’s running from something, she’s running to something. The water will be ice cold.
It’s just what she wants. She wants to be numb.
I’ve listened to this album enough damn times now to know that “Run Like Hell” will play soon. So I do. I run like hell toward her. I leave Amber in the back of Mr. Orange, puttering on Lake Tekapo’s shore, and I’m sprinting toward the water, unwilling to let her out of my sight.
She’s already splashing into the water, like a mermaid returning to a kingdom of blue milk. If the cold is shocking her, she doesn’t show it, it doesn’t slow her down. The lake splashes around her in Technicolor brilliance, her darkly tanned skin shimmering from the reflection.
In seconds she is diving under and I hold my breath as my legs and blood pump me forward. I’m bizarrely, acutely, aware that she might not come up again. I think about what she told me, huddled in my rain jacket. I think I ache for things I may never get. I long for purpose, for life and yet sometimes I think I’m too afraid to live.
My fear is in not living.
We need to meet in the middle.
So I go into the lake after her. I’m stripped down to my boxers and T-shirt, my dusty jeans and flip-flops discarded somewhere between me and the bus, in a patch of purple and pink foxgloves.
It’s so cold I think I’m going to die. My lips open to yell, “Fuck me!” but my mouth is more intent on chattering my teeth together. Each step stabs stones into the soles of my feet and jagged knives of ice water into my legs until the feeling—all feeling—subsides.
I’m breathless, surrounded by ice blue, a color I’ve created myself when I’ve touched too much eggshell into too little cerulean. The shores are granite, a soft warm grey, peppered by the unimaginable greens and pinks of foxglove and whatever plants happen to spring up in this country. I’m swimming in a painting, numb, and I’m going for her, the bronze mermaid who wants to swim forever.
But she’s not mythical. She’s very real. It seems to take forever and eventually she breaks the surface, shrieking out in surprise and agony from the cold. It doesn’t numb her after all. Perhaps in this case, the number you are, the closer you are to death.
Though she swam for a while under, it doesn’t take me long to catch up with her. I used to be an avid swimmer for years.
“What the hell?” I say to her between chattering teeth, spitting out lake water.
She stares at me, wide-eyed, her head above the surface as she treads water. Her wet, dark hair is slicked back from her forehead, an inky wave between her shoulders, her cheekbones highlighted by sun and water.
“I told you I wanted to come here,” she says, as if suddenly abandoning your van and stripping to your underwear in public is the norm.
I can’t help but smile at how blasé she tries to be about it. “A little warning would be nice.”
“Don’t worry about me, Josh,” she says.
I pause because something in my heart has swelled. “But I do.”
Oh god, how I fucking ever.
She holds my gaze and my fingers itch to reach through the water and touch her. A few days ago I wouldn’t have, not in public like this. But I want to see just how numb she is.
My hand glides forward, sluicing through the water in slow motion until it rests on her light and silky waist.
She stares at me, her eyes glowing white against her brown irises, and her brows thread together in contemplation, as if she’s trying to unravel me, uncover some truth. I know something is bothering her and I know it’s about me more than anything else. It should be a good thing that it bothers her because it means she cares.
I want to tell her that she’s all I’ve ever wanted. I want to show her.
She relaxes into my touch for one sweet moment of victory before she slowly ducks her head under the water. I’m not sure what she’s doing so I take in a breath and submerge my head.
The cold shocks my face and when I open my eyes under water they seem to immediately freeze. Gemma is a hazy vision of pale blue, her hair swirling around her. She is so beautiful it makes my chest ache more than the cold does.
Her eyes hold mine and I see that yearning in them again. She reaches forward, grabbing my face and pulls my head toward her. She kisses me, full on the lips. It is so warm against the cold and I’m afraid I’m about to drown from happiness. I want this and I want more than this.
I don’t know how long the kiss lasts – we seem to float through time and space – but our bodies foolishly decide oxygen is equally as important. She breaks away and I am left sucking in ice water before I break through the surface.
I gasp in the dry air, fingers touching my lips as if I can’t believe it, but she’s back to the way she was before. Impassive. Immovable. Numb.
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