A bee landed on Crane’s forearm. He didn’t know much about bees. It wasn’t fuzzy but still small and yellow like a bee—at least he thought so. He didn’t move, more out of respect than fear of being stung.
It stung anyway. He watched it rear and plunge, flinching as the jolt spread like concentrated buckshot across his arm and under his ratty t-shirt before it limped away into the air. It hovered over the lake water a moment, perhaps dizzy from the effort, then sped off. He thought they were supposed to die after they stung.
Anyway, the beer was shit. That’s what the boys said. He didn’t want to tell them it was something like the third beer he’d ever had and he could in no way differentiate it from the others. So he’d agreed: yes it was shit, and he popped the top of each new one when they did, and they all drank the shit. It tasted like water that had gone wrong somewhere along the way.
It was only his second time at the lake but he liked the colors that danced around the corners of the water, refracting far-off headlights and potential energy. It felt like he was seeing something he wasn’t allowed to yet, something saved for people much better or more deserving than him, and he savored each view along with the intermittent spray on his face like caviar. Not that he knew what that was like, either.
“When are the girls fuckin’ getting here?” one of the other boys asked to nobody in particular.
“Soon,” another one, Alex, offered. “Promise. They told me 9 o’fuckin’ clock. Should be any minute.” It sounded less like a conversation and more like a chance to curse.
Crane sat and sipped, watching the liquid spill around the lip of the can as he set it back down. Between their brutish sentences he could hear the silence of the lake, humming along with the world like quiet toddler gibberish, a byproduct of idle thought. He heard Alex’s proclamation of how he could drink an entire can in one go and someone said the word shotgun; Crane didn’t know what that meant, but someone handed him a new can and a key and told him to get ready. Carnival of testosterone, come see the new attraction. Shotgun.
He followed the boys and keyed the can on the label and beer gushed out immediately, a waterfall directly onto his feet and the coarse rocks underneath. One of the other boys, Damian?, looked at him reproachfully out of the corner of his eye until Crane put his mouth to the incision and tried to drink but the aluminum was sharp and suddenly the beer tasted like blood and so did his whole mouth and he realized it was his tongue and the can fell from his hand and bounced pitifully off the grass, foaming into the ground. He wiped his mouth and looked down.
“Hey, losers.” Someone new had arrived, thank god—the girls, none of whom he knew but who had been the main selling point for all the others to even come. He had just happened to be on the outside of the conversation circle at school when they were talking and they invited him out of politeness, which was a lot to say for mostly sixteen-year-olds.
“Fuckin’ finally,” someone said and stood up awkwardly with the others as the girls approached. They numbered four to the boys’ six and were gorgeous, not that Crane would have said his opinion on girls had any objective merit. They each had their own individual style of short-shorts on, legs complementary to the water.
He tried to keep up with their names—there was Maria, Alex’s unofficial girlfriend, her best friend Lucy, and two other girls, Elena and Theresa. Crane did his best to keep up and introduced himself in kind.
“Like the bird?” Crane nodded sheepishly, a pastime he had inadvertently perfected over the years. Elena was dancing her way through the group, loose brown ponytail swaying, and he found his foot tapping to the metronome she added to the universe.
The girls had brought their own case of beer, assuredly procured from some new shady character who’d come down from college. While Elena ripped open a pack of cards with her teeth, Maria recanted the drinking games she knew and a couple precious stars peeked out behind clouds as all ten guessed numbers and shouted laughter like it was protecting them.
The evening progressed into nighttime and so did the teenagers. Most of the boys (even Crane, partly) were messy drunk by the time the moon was brilliantly known on the water’s shimmers and Lucy and Theresa danced around everyone else in circles till they all got dizzy. They had staked out an encampment only a little ways inward, so when Crane surreptitiously made his way to the thin beach nobody said anything. As he sat, he tried not to think about what it meant that none of them had even noticed he’d left. They were drunk, anyway. And they barely knew him, he shouldn’t expect them to care that much. And—
He felt the ground shift behind him. And shift again, now the pattern of footsteps. He kept his eyes forward and hoped that whoever it was wouldn’t announce the discovery that he was over here.
Instead, Elena just plopped down next to him with all the indelicateness (and yet, the kind of subtle grace) that enough drinks afford a person. Her hair was still done up in the bun it had been in when she arrived but a few spare brown curls draped down intermittently, bouncing as she moved. As he thought about her, Crane realized that she hadn’t stopped smiling the whole night, even if it had been only slight at times. It was somehow the only real emotion there, and she made it infectious.
“Wanna help me finish this?” She tilted her beer toward him and he accepted. If there were ever a language without meaning, it was embedded in the careful tips and trades of the can back and forth.
“I guess this is one of those awkward silences.”
“Come on, it’s only awkward because you said so.” She punched his arm playfully. “That just makes it worse.”
“I guess,” he laughed. Then, after a moment, “You know, I lied before.”
“You shouldn’t do that,” she said with a wag of her finger.
“I know. It was about my name. It’s not Crane like the bird. It’s like the construction equipment.”
“Your parents named you after construction equipment?”
“No. I was little and saw a huge thing building a skyscraper, asked my mom what it was, and she told me it was a crane. I said it was the coolest thing I had ever seen and that I wanted to be one, so she started calling me Crane. I guess I never told her to stop.”
“Hmm.” She never asked him his real name. Perhaps her mind turned to it but her eyes studied the water, watching the folds and mirrors perform a euclidean show.
“If you look at it from far away,” she said, nodding to the lake, “it looks completely still, like carpet—you can see the patterns on the surface. But not from here. From out there, it only starts to show itself when something moves it, a boat or something.” If she had been the lake, Crane would have wanted nothing more than to be a boat.
“It’s only my second time here.”
“Ah, I’ve been here a million times. And a half. You have to start finding new ways of looking at it otherwise you go crazy,” Elena said, and she knew the world.
“Like carpet.” And in the same moment as Crane’s only want was to see what she looked like from a distance, she leaned into him and his lips met hers and they shared a small, insignificant, invaluable corner of the world.
“You taste like blood,” she said.
“You taste like beer.”
“I win,” she said with a wink. They finished the beer. Elena crushed it under her flip-flop so that it formed a perfect aluminum disc and looked up at Crane like she had just gotten the brilliant idea to rob a bank. She stood up and knelt in front of the tree trunk nearest them, recently chopped down, and shoved all the pebbles on the ground away, burying the disk can.
“It’s not hurting the environment if it’s a memento,” she promised, and moved all the rocks back on top. Crane wondered if he would ever see it again.
“It’s bullshit, right? The party?” He offered once she sat back down.
She furrowed. “Why?”
“I don’t know.” She smiled at him and moved closer as he collected his thoughts. “It’s all so cliché, I guess. A bunch of teenagers drinking beer at the lake. Two of them having some deep, existential conversation separate from everyone else.”
Elena laughed. “Yep. Yeah, probably. Maybe a necessary one, though.” She extended her arms behind her and leaned back on the ground like a folding chair next to Crane. Almost quicker than he could detect, her face changed completely and for the first time in the evening she wasn’t smiling. Crane worried he had done something very wrong.
“I know what you mean, though,” she said finally.
She nodded. “But it’s more than being cliché, it’s like nothing you even feel is fucking real, right? Nothing you see, do. Cliché or not, it doesn’t matter. So you start looking for something real and you do one of two things—you try and find some place finally bigger than itself, with real things and real people and real emotions and just bigger than anything you’ve ever known but once you get halfway there it’s so fucking terrifying you just come right back to the lake every summer. Or, once you’re back there, you look deep, real deep at the tiny things, smaller than anything you could ever know, down to the baby ducks, but there’s no room for you there.
“And it gets worse—your brain says that anything is better than now, anywhere, especially your memories, but you look back on it all and realize that none of it was really that good after all. I’m going to feel that way about this moment, right now, someday. That it was all fucked, all along. And maybe it’s better not to have any nostalgic feelings at all but I don’t know which is worse. I mean, you can pick out the beautiful moments, like this one, but they’re just moments. If happiness is the exception, not the rule—if love is the exception, not the rule—then I can’t do this. So even if it’s the most terrifying thing I could ever imagine, I have to think there’s something more out there, right? For the ducks?”
Crane was silent before asking the question he wanted to ask the universe but Elena seemed like a good enough surrogate: “Do you think there is something more?”
“I don’t know.” As quickly as it left, she wore her smile again, but the darkness was just enough for Crane not to know for sure.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
She sighed. “Not really,” she decided, and took her shirt off.