Write about a time you went into cold water—a lake, pool, shower, or rain. Write about how your body reacted. Was it delicious relief from the heat, or a shock that caused goose bumps and made your lips turn blue? Or write about the cold water as a metaphor.
Ever since Laurie, I can’t write about cold water as a metaphor. I can’t write about it is anything but what it actually is, what it actually did. The cruelest way to die.
I hate being cold. I would never intentionally go into cold water. I like warm baths and ocean water the temperature of bathwater—in Belize, say, or on Maui, on a 90-degree day, I’ll run into the water and splash and sit on the sand waist-deep in it. But that’s as far as I’ll go. Right now, for instance, the mornings are getting colder in San Francisco. Our house is in the 50s when we wake up, and it takes a mountain of willpower for me to throw the covers off and get out of bed. I reflexively reach for an ugly black robe and fuzzy slippers (“Foot Duvets,” the store called them) to go from comfort to comfort, from warmth to warmth, to avoid the cold.
Every summer until I was thirteen, my family went to a camp near Big Bear, in the San Bernardino Mountains of southern California. Since it was a family camp, we all stayed together in one big cabin—Smith Cabin, with a fireplace and a big porch out front. During the day, when the adults were listening to my dad preach, the kids would go up to the lake. We would pedal the paddleboats around the lake’s circumference, send each other flying off the Blob, squirt each other with giant water guns until we were dizzy and sandy. And one day of each summer week, there would be a Polar Bear Plunge.
Last winter’s snow turned into icy streams rushing down from the mountaintops, even though we were in southern California in the summer. The bravest among us would jump right in, their feet clad in the water socks their parents had remembered to bring, slipping over moss-covered rocks and holding their breath for ten seconds in the freezing runoff. Some of the rest of the group took convincing, and camp counselors were more than happy to give pep talks to draw them in: “C’mon, you can do it!” yelled tall, tanned young men and women with nicknames like Cooter (seriously) and Captain. “Just ten seconds! You can do anything for ten seconds!”
Even at thirteen, I knew this was patently untrue. I couldn’t go naked into space for ten seconds, for example, or be shot in the heart for ten seconds. I couldn’t stand in ten seconds worth of fire and emerge unscathed. Their platitudes were not for me.
I stood in my South Barrington Swim Team bathing suit on the hot rocks outside the water every year, and every year I was the only person not to go in. “You’ll wish you had!” Cooter meant well. “It can’t hurt!” I shook my head for the umpteenth time, wishing I had brought sunscreen. I was red-haired, pale, and gangly, another set of things that set me apart from this tanned, blond, athletic group of kids. “I don’t like being cold,” I told him, and he shook his head back at me. “Your loss!” His lithe body disappeared under the water as the campers shouted, “ONE! TWO! THREE!…”
We lost Laurie in the water. She had lost herself long before that cold March day, but with all the ways to do it, I will never understand why she chose the water. They found duct tape in her car, or so I heard, for her mouth. So that when her body betrayed her, when her lungs burned for a gulp of air, she would retain control. Her will would be done.
March in Chicago is a terrible month to be alive. Everything should be sunny and blossoming, but nature in the Midwest rarely cooperates and instead it is a month of gray, of disappointingly bitter temperatures and unexpected snowstorms and slushy ice piled up against the curbs. To be outside, in the air, in a warm jacket and boots, is already a cold endeavor in Chicago in March.
To be in the water? To jump from the frosted grass outside the Adler Planetarium into Lake Michigan’s murky waters, in a month when the lake’s average temperature is 37 degrees? I want to find Cooter now, whatever his real name is, wherever he is, and point to her and tell him, “She did it. She did it better than you ever did, and look where it got her.” I want him to look away from me in shame for all the times he tried to get me to take the Plunge, because the Plunge has never done anyone any good and it has done my friend a world-ending bad.
It’s not fair, of course. It was seven years after we stopped going to the camp that Laurie killed herself, and as far as I can remember, she and I never talked about cold water. But I can’t think about cold water now without thinking of her, and I can’t write about cold water as a metaphor for anything because it was the weapon that killed her.