Travel and Transformation Gold Winner: Beneath the Surface

by Lucy McCauley

At a pond outside of Boston, everything changes in an instant.

“Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man.” Henry David Thoreau, Walden

We drove to Walden Pond that day to escape an unseasonably humid Monday afternoon in June. I knew that Fareed and Samir weren’t particularly strong swimmers, but I didn’t give that much thought at the time. They had grown up in other countries and were now at MIT, working on their doctorates. I wanted to be the first to show them Walden.

We walked the path along the shore until we reached that bend that opens onto a small cove and where you can just see, if you know it is there, the trail to the site where Thoreau’s cabin once stood. The late afternoon hung heavy and overcast, the evergreens a smoky-blue smudge against the sky.

When I remember that day, I think about how the place where you arrive can look so different from the place you later leave. How experience transforms the shape and color of things. The life-guarded beach and its few clusters of people lay far behind. We had this secluded beach to ourselves, watched only by pines, birches, and oaks. We spread the blanket, shed layers of clothes down to bathing suits, used a toe against each heel to coax off shoes.

I watched Fareed watching me. I watched him back: long brown legs; a smooth, ample chest; a kind face. I first met Fareed on a dance floor in a club downtown. I was captivated by his eyes, which shone with visions my eyes had never seen—of ochre-colored deserts, of marketplaces alive with mirrors and lamplight. When the dance ended, like a child Fareed took my hand and led me off the floor. So familiar it had felt from the beginning, his hand cradling mine.

In the pond, the water was cool but warmed as we moved, making our way across the cove, the three of us talking and treading water. We would pace ourselves, take this slowly. Samir had learned just that year to swim, taught by an uncle in the gulf at Beirut. At some point, surprisingly close to the shore, the water turned suddenly frigid and I knew the bottom had dropped out beneath us. After maybe twenty minutes Fareed fell behind and I half-consciously watched his broad arms arcing as I swam, talking with Samir.

And then Fareed was gone. A rippled empty surface where his body had been. Me, treading water, not ten crawl strokes away.

Then he sprang into the air, a graceful whale breaching. Ah, I thought, he was just teasing. But then I saw his arms slapping water like the wings of a wounded bird. A still surface again, one perfect ring marking like a bull’s eye where he’d been.

Go! Samir shouted. And as if shaken from sleep I darted toward the ring, just as Fareed resurfaced briefly. I saw the black outlines of his eyes, flung wide.

Then, empty water. Water that I grabbed but that did not contain the shoulder I reached for, the hand, finger even, the bunch of hair. Unthinkable, the idea that he could not resurface, yet that fear tore at my ear, mocking me.

Then he was there again, and this was my chance to coax him onto his back, like some fumbling magician trying to levitate a body.

Later Fareed would speak of looking up at water the color of baby moss. It was almost too easy, he told me. Just to rest at the bottom looking up at that moss-green water. His whale-like catapult in the air was his last call for help.

*

I grew up trusting water. We spent summers at the Carolina shore, my father teaching me to float, balancing the small of my back on his palm as the waves tossed me.

Fareed never learned to float. He told me that, growing up in Pakistan, he had learned a few strokes, but never got a chance to know what it felt like to be tired in water, to learn when it’s time to get out.

These are things we discovered about each other only after that day at Walden. Until then, all the unanswered questions had still danced between us, and we’d only begun to grapple with the more difficult ones. Fareed was seven years younger than I, but most problematic for us, his family was devoutly Muslim. Although he considered himself an atheist, he told me he could never go against his family so profoundly as to marry a Westerner.

Yet early on, I think we each tried on the possibility of opening, just enough, in the direction of the other. But we always bumped up against the reality of where we were in life: he nearing the end of graduate school and ready to travel the world, while I was established in my career in publishing, thinking about having children.

Even so, during those months that led to that day at Walden, we became constant companions: hours spent browsing bookstores together, drinking tea in Harvard Square cafes, nights and nights in each other’s arms. I came to know his every expression, to memorize the lines and angles of him.

That day at the pond, however, none of that seemed to help or matter. His body in my arms became a stranger.

*

I knew vaguely what to do; a boyfriend in college had been a lifeguard and once showed me how to save a person from drowning. But for a moment I forgot everything, and Fareed’s long-boned arms kept pulling him down like anchors.

Then, impossibly, from behind me I heard Samir splashing around, yelling, “Help!” He too was going down. By then I had Fareed on his back and was churning water with my free arm, just a few feet from shore—trying for a place where he could stand—while behind me Samir shouted “Help! Help!” in a breathless staccato.

Feeling pulled in two directions, I took one more flaccid stroke and then shoved Fareed away from me. We were in shallow water now. He could stand if he just got his feet beneath him. I swam away, looking back until I saw Fareed struggling to shore, legs buckling. I swam hard to Samir, clawing my way to where he was dog-paddling, a panicked look on his face. I tried to grab him but his arms would not stop moving. Just six feet to shore, less even, to reach a point where I could stand. I went under once, beneath one muscled arm; I swallowed water.

I screamed to Fareed on-shore, still bent at the waist, gulping air. And like some sea creature he lumbered back into the water that had almost swallowed him. He reached out one long arm and Samir grasped hold.

*

Afterward, all of us collapsed on-shore, breathing hard. No words. Then, after a while we stood, grabbed our clothes and quickly moved away from that cove.

Halfway around the pond, the view to the cove blocked by low-hanging limbs, we stopped and gazed at the water. It was as if we needed to look at the pond from another angle, where we could reclaim illusion. A good pond, a fine wood. An ordinary day.

I think that is why they began skipping stones. Something to ground them again. Samir tossed one or two rocks and soon they both were pelting a torrent of pebbles that leapt across the glassy surface in the late afternoon light.

Then, when we gathered our things to head for the car, Samir already ahead on the path, Fareed took my shoulders in his hands, looked at me eye to eye. “Thank you,” he said.

There was no false bravado here, no denial of what had happened. Yet if I had to choose a moment when I knew without a doubt that our relationship would end, as it did a few months later, it was there at the pond, Fareed drawing me in too tightly, his voice resonating off-key in my ear.

Later I would wonder: Was it just too much? Had what happened somehow tipped a balance between us that could never be set right? Fareed’s voice full of relief and apprehension, thanking me as if I’d had a choice. And here’s the truth: before that day I’d have liked to believe I would help someone in danger–but secretly I doubted that I actually would.

So while Fareed was thanking me, what I couldn’t articulate was the wonder I was feeling inside. Truly surprised wonder, at myself. I wouldn’t have wished on anyone what Fareed had been through. But it did happen, his near-drowning, and as a result I felt something I can only describe as gratitude: that day I’d been given a chance to find out what I could do.

Still, for a long time I sometimes dreamed of drownings. One night I pulled Fareed from the water by his hair.

*

After he finished grad school, Fareed worked a few years for a Boston consulting firm. But then 9-11 hit, and the Patriot Act, and he began to find life in America so offensive that he returned to Pakistan well before his visa ran out. Today he’s consulting again, based in London and traveling, as he’d always hoped to do. And every few months I’ll get one of those international calls that sound like the person’s in the very next room.

On a trip to Boston not long ago, Fareed met my husband and my small daughter, Hannah. He smiled down at her and then like a gentle giant he scooped her up and swung her high in the air as she squealed. After awhile, as he almost never fails to do when I see him, Fareed mentioned Walden. Had I taken Hannah to the pond yet? He asked, and I said I had.

We smiled silently at each other a long moment before Hannah was asking to be lifted into the air again. He reached for her and I found myself thinking back to that day. While trying to cross the pond we also had crossed into a place apart: a threshold experience that changed the course of things forever. A life—or two, even three—might have been taken. Fate chose otherwise. Yet in the same moment that we were spared, who we’d been to each other was lost.

I had always thought of that loss in a negative way, as something from which, I once believed, I would never quite recover. But watching Fareed lift my daughter in the air, I began to understand what happened differently. The drama of his near-drowning had simply brought to the surface an inevitable parting, the cool water of the pond slapping us awake from illusion. Until that day at Walden I had tricked myself into believing that we could traverse the barriers between us without a price.

But there was Fareed in my living room, and I looked at where his life had taken him and where mine had taken me—each of us having found our way toward what we’d wanted most deeply. And in that moment it was as if some unclosed wound I’d nursed far beneath the surface was gently and finally coming together. My daughter was laughing and Fareed was twirling her around and around in the air, and something inside me grew whole.


Lucy McCauley is a writer and editor whose essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Los Angeles Times, The Dallas Morning News, Fast Company, Harvard Review, and Salon.com, among other places. Her first documentary film,“Facing the Nazi Era: Conversations in Southern Germany” premiered at the end of 2011 in Canada and Europe. She is the editor of eight Travelers’ Tales books, including five books in the Best Women’s Travel Writing series. This essay, Beneath the Surface, was the Gold Solas Award winner in the travel and transformation category for 2012. She lives in Dallas with her husband and daughter.

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