"Southie Meets SoCal"

When I say that I was little afraid, I mean that I thought I was going to die.

It didn't have anything to do with walking off the plane into the El Paso airport and finding an unexpected group of fellow college students waiting with my missionary friend, Bruce.

Or with our drive through Juarez en route to Chihuahua as Bruce did his best to convince us that it was normal to hear stories in Mexico of white children being kidnapped and held at ransom, even if they were the kind of stories that I both wanted to believe but at the same time wished I'd never heard.

It wasn't the result of watching Chihuahua melt behind us into the dusty haze or seeing the foreign, red-dirt sun bury itself in the horizon, even though I wondered if, right then, back home, there were clouds over Catalina, waiting for their sun.

It was because the following afternoon, after a good night's sleep at the roadside church with the swamp cooler, I would find myself, floating, face up, wishing there was something I could do to feel my arms.

***

The next day as Bruce parked our twelve-passenger van alongside a hill of boulders, I realized he'd managed to find the only shade-bearing trees this side of the lake. With Chihuahua a scorching five hours north of us and the village town of Creel just a thunder clap away down the road, our college minds longed for the cool waters of Arareco Lake like we'd found some kind of holy Mexican oasis.

The poorly-air conditioned van emptied as soon as the doors opened, and all five girls gathered at the back of the van to pull out the chairs and coolers.

Davis jumped out, landing legs-spread and yelling, "Shoe-ah!"

Bruce was rolling down the windows, to keep us from baking when we got back in after lunch. Even with the promise of swimming hovering in the air, I was not looking forward to packing back into that van. "Can I pick a good spot or what?" he asked.

"Better than any of us," I said, the last student out of the van. "We'd have ended up at one of those taco joints you warned us about."

Bruce is the kind of pastor you love spending time with. His conversation has depth, his laughter contagious. Eight years ago he left our church to start a new one in Chihuahua. I'd been wanting to visit him, but things hadn't work out until now. With the way that drive through the desert plateau eats up a day, it made sense for him to wait until another group was coming down from Boston on a mission's trip. It just so happened they were all college students as well.

Why it took me so long to notice, I'll never know, but it wasn't until I saw everyone brooding around the ice-chest-turned-kitchen-table at the center of our circle of chairs, trying their best to make that sandwich Mom used to craft in the kitchen, that I realized I was the only one in the group without an accent. Bruce's familiar Spanish-English combo was at least competition with the Boston drawl all eight of my new companions had remembered to pack with them. Almost immediately, it started out me against them, a friendly competition of east coast versus west, Tea Party toe to toe with Surf Contest.

"I sweah," Renaldo said, popping open the mayonnaise jar and dipping the knife. "No way you've got an accent." He passed the jar down the line, three of the girls in a row looking at the white waves of sandwich lard but deciding "not today."

"He's right," Jason said. "You guys nevah do."

"You're all full of it," I said, topping my lettuce, tomatoes, and slices of ham with a roof of wheat bread.

"Seriously," Renaldo said. "Take English, strip away all the diffrances, and that's you."

"I think it's in the tone," Jason said.

"Or the rhythm," one of the girls piped in. "Something with the rhythm."

"What does that have to do with my accent?" I asked, smashing the ingredients closer together between the slices of bread. "You saying my voice is boring or something?"

"Not boring, just normal," the girl said. "I doan wanna call it plain eithah because it's not plain, but then it is. You knah?"

Davis, the third of the Boston guys, swigged a mouthful of soda, grabbed his double-layered sandwich in one hand, and scuttled to the top of the boulder pile. "Why doan you put your accent where yah mouth is?"

"What?" I forced myself to ask, even though I wasn't finished with a bite of ham and wheat.

"Wanna go? How bout when you're done, I beat you ount tah the island?" His finger pointed beyond the mound of rocks toward the lake, which I couldn't see from my reclining lawn chair.

Instead of saying something, I tried to imagine an island peeking its head out of the center of the lake. Wouldn't it be something if an island was just a mirage and people on shore saw it and decided to stroke-stroke-breathe, stroke-stroke-breathe, only to find out it wasn't really there?

"You're on," I said. "But you guys couldn't beat me if you wanted to. I'm from Cali." The way he blinked his eyes, all fast like they'd just caught a bug, let me know that the way I'd said the word "wanted," like I'd lived in Boston my whole life just like he had, had really ticked him off. I found it easy to mimic their speech patterns, their exaggerated ah's, their dropped r's.

Standing there atop boulder mountain, he laughed, and I imagined him notching his hands on his hips like Robin Williams and trying to fly like the Pan of old.

To this day I swear if I'd seen the multiple sewage pipes draining into the lake, there's no way I'd have gone behind the rocks and changed into my board shorts. And I sure as hell wouldn't ever have dove in. I guess you could call it lucky that Bruce didn't find out about them until after we reached the island.

But I dove right in.

And so did they, which in a strange way made it all okay for me.

For everyone except Renaldo, the swim out to the island was a race. I guess he could have thought he was a part of it, neck and neck with us, but he wasn't. When he stopped to tread water either no one noticed or no one thought to care about him. But the second time, he yelped, "Wait up, guys," and I decided to give him trouble.

"Renaldo, those are quality diapers you got back there," I mocked.

"Yeah. Come on, baby." Jason joined in, which caused me to gag on a mouthful of water as I tried to laugh..

"Shut up, gawys," Renaldo defended. "This is kinda far. Don't yah think?"

He was right, but none of us was going to say anything. We just soothed ourselves by unsoothing Renaldo.

When we reached the island, me first, Davis second, Jason third, the three of us stood bent-over-like on the shore and waited for our fat friend, who didn't beach himself until a good two minutes after the race was over.

"That wasn't so bad," I lied, my abs throbbing more than usual and my biceps feeling like they were filling with some kind of gel. If I'd known what eight thousand feet of elevation would do to me, I might have even thought twice about a short swim like this one.

"Nah," Davis said, panting and wringing the spinach-colored water out of his shorts.

"You know I won, right?" I asked.

He didn't give me the pleasure of an answer. Figured he wouldn't. What could he say?

Instead, he asked, "Jason, how you doing?"

"Yeah," he said, like an answer to the wrong question.

"Check them out." I pointed toward shore, where Bruce was waving his arms above his head. "They so want to be us right now." I looked around at the guys. "Wouldn't you want to be us right now?"

"Whaddya mean theah, Chowdahead?" Davis asked. "We ah us."

"You know what I mean," I said, looking down at the dark green algae coating the shadowed portions of the rocks between me and Renaldo.

"How long d'yathink that took?" Davis asked.

"Two hundred twenty seven strokes," Jason said.

"Didn't I just ask how long? I thought I asked how long." Davis said. I'd only known Jason a day, and already I could tell he had a knack for saying things that didn't fit the conversation. "Maybe twenty minutes," I said. "But what do I know. I was too busy learning how to swim from Huggies here." I stretched over the algae rocks and smacked Renaldo's still-dripping thigh.

"Get awff it. Ah'm serious," Renaldo said.

"Oh, serious now ah we?"

"Calm ya livva down there, would yah? Check that out ovah theah." Davis pointed off toward the horizon, which didn't seem as far away as it did back on the shore but loomed large with dark iron clouds. "That worry you at all?"

"You think it's getting closer?" I asked.

"They'ah clawds," Jason said.

"What, you don't have clouds back in Boston?" I asked. "Yeah they're closer. Probably be here in a couple minutes." I leaned back on my hands. "Yeah, I'm right. Ten minutes tops, and they'll be here."

"You always think you'ah raight," Davis said.

"Always? You just met me yesterday."

"You look like an always kind of guy."

"They'ah dark clawds too," Jason said.

And they were. They were that water-in-the-bottom-of-a-well dark. For once, the guy made sense.

"You knah, he's raight," Davis said, spinning immediately my direction and looking past me as if I wasn't there. "Was that lightning?"

I wasn't going to look but decided I should, just to make a point. "Yeah right," I said just as the peal of thunder decided to crack and send chills through my wet shorts. Just like that a sheet of light answered back by highlighting a single cloud at the front of the storm.

"Shit," Jason said.

"Shit's raight," Davis answered.

"Lead the way, Huggies," I said, trying not to slip as I got to my feet.

"Already?" he whined.

"Yes, already," Davis said. "That lightning's coming raight at us."

I didn't realize it at the time, but the coasts had just embraced each other, Davis taking my side, a silver opportunity, not quite gold but good enough for the podium. I would've called him on it if the approaching storm, their overweight friend, and the swim back hadn't been filling my foggy head with thoughts like these that I didn't say. 1) What if the lightning hits the lake? 2) What if we're in it? 3) Do they even have hospitals around here? 4) Does Renaldo have enough left in him? 5) Is there enough time?

"Fine," I said, my feet now ankle-deep in water that felt colder than before. I wasn't waiting around for them. "Do what you want. I'm going this way. I think it's closer." Without waiting for them to respond, I dove in. After ten-or-so underwater dolphin kicks, I I broke stride and treaded water for a moment to check if they followed me. Ahead of me, the shoreline to the right of the rock jetty was definitely closer than going the other way. Sure I'd have to walk around the lake to get to the van, but I'd be alive to do it.

I'd be a liar if I didn't admit to stealing a glance behind me to see if they were following me, and when I saw that they were, I felt better.

When I resumed swimming, it didn't take long for my muscles to begin to fail me. Freestyle wasn't going to get me to shore, so I rolled over in the water and measured up my situation for what would end up the last time. Halfway to shore. Muscles failing. Guys from Boston floating on their backs like barrels of tea.

So I did the same. I flipped over on my back, legs frogkicking beneath the surface, arms reaching back and thrusting water toward my hips. I tried to calm myself, to relax and breathe in deep so that I could somehow get oxygen to my fading muscles. I watched a V of birds shoot across the navy sky, their instincts telling them to spend the next few months at the time share up north, their conversation probably about the four college guys struggling to make their way to shore.

I can't imagine drowning is really all that bad when you're ready for it. When there's nothing else you can do. If I were to imagine myself in a burning building with a blockade of flames and heat between me and the exit, I know things would be different. I'd grunt and yell and charge into the fury like a Viking warrior. But in the water there wasn't anywhere to run. No way to be brave. All I could do was keep my mouth above the water, hope the arms I couldn't feel anymore were still swinging blindly at my sides, and wonder who would save the kids from Boston.

Then the gravel scraped across my back, the sweet gravel, and my arms continued sweeping the water for a few moments until I told them to stop. I wanted to leap to my feet and dive into the water to save the guys, but my body wasn't ready to move. At eight thousand feet, the lactic acid moved into my bloodstream and wasn't leaving without thirty days notice. As the oxygen slowly moved back into my blood, it brought with it a foreign prickle like none I'd ever felt, the re-awakening of a limb the closest thing I can think of.

I sat up just as Davis struck the gravelly shore, Jason next, then Renaldo.

Lightning blitzed across the darker-than-navy sky, and I realized that somewhere in the lake I'd forgotten all about the storm.

"Get the hell outta wahter!" I yelled, scrambling up the shore on all fours. Without meaning to, I'd done that accent thing with "water."

Their Boston arms squirmed under their oxygen-starved bodies, but they managed to drag themselves from the water onto the dirt shore riddled with roots of trees and rocks.

"Oh yeah," Davis said, "Y'wanna staht right heah? When these things staht working." Sitting up now, he flopped his arms, which looked ridiculous enough to earn laughs from both of us.

All that happened after that -- them recovering on the shore, the clouds rinsing us off with their steady bulbous drops, us staggering over the rock jetty, our friends clambering out of the van with towels to wrap around our shoulders -- it all made me realize just how far away familiar was. The mountain ridges up ahead past Creel, the stretched-out tortilla plateau between us and Chihuahua, the size of the rain -- they all had a wildness that I couldn't put my finger on. It all made me wonder just what that place would sound like, what accent it might have, if it ever decided to speak.

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