When Mr. Davy parks the car at Rockhill Lake, Nathan promptly opens the car door and pukes.
“You couldn’t have made it to the bathroom?” Mr. Davy says. He opens his water bottle and pours it over the small pool of throw up, and chunks of bologna sandwich run in rivulets across the asphalt. He offers the water bottle to Nathan, who takes a swig, swishes, and spits it onto the ground.
“Sorry,” Nathan says.
“Nathan, honey, wipe your mouth,” Mrs. Davey says, “and put on some sunscreen.”
She squirts a palmful of SPF 70 into Nathan’s hand, and he smears it over his face and across his ghost-white torso. Against his neon orange swim trunks, he has the appearance of a reflective traffic cone.
Liam comes around the side of the car.
“Here Nathan, I’ll help you.” He puts his hands on Nathan’s stomach and rubs them around in sloppy circles.
“Get away from me,” Nathan yells and shoves him away. Liam laughs, rubbing his sunscreeny hands against his own smiling cheeks.
“Come here, Liam,” says Mrs. Davey. She kneels in front of him and rubs sunscreen down his small limbs, into all the folds and rolls of his toddler body. “Rub, rub, rub,” she sings, “keep away the sun.”
Erin is still buckled into her car seat. She giggles and starts singing, “run, run, run.”
Mr. Davey takes her out of the car seat and settles her on the pavement. “Good girl,” he says, grabbing her arms and pulling her along. “Let’s run, run, run.”
“NO, it’s RUUUUUUUUB,” Liam yells.
“Run, run, run,” Erin sings.
“Alright, you goofballs,” says Mrs. Davey. “Let’s go.”
Every summer, the Daveys make the 45-minute pilgrimage to Rockhill Lake. The lake lies low in New York’s Hudson Valley, in a town that regards the passage of time as a vague and distant concept. The years are marked only by the miniscule growth of pines and layers of fresh paint on the beach homes’ sand-worn facades. Even the long-time residents seem to stay encapsulated in age, never appearing older or younger than their 70-odd years.
When Mr. Davey was a child, his parents owned a summer cottage a stone’s throw from the water. The kids lived on the lake from early June to late August. They made for the water early in the morning, only emerging at midday to scarf down some lunch; then, sticky with watermelon juice, they dove right back in and swam until dinner. The moms, meanwhile, gathered in kitchens and on porches, catching each other up on the year’s goings-on, and later passing moments in blessed silence as they cut vegetables or dealt cards. No one knew what the dads did.
In the evenings, the kids ran through the streets, rounding up the neighbors to play kick-the-can, or to otherwise seek what mischief the small town could offer. Mr. Davey loves to tell one infamous story of the time he and a friend (in memory known only as “Crazy Bill”) found a snapping turtle the size of a bike tire in the spillway creek. They somehow managed to capture it by the tail and dangle it ahead of them on the half-mile walk home, narrowly avoiding a few bone-crushing snaps. They penned it in the live groundhog trap that Mrs. Davey Sr. had purchased for the garden, then snuck inside, dozing off right where they dropped on the basement floor. Around 7 am, they awoke to a loud shriek from Mrs. Davey Sr., and bolted from their sleeping bags when she burst inside with a shoe to chase them around the house.
The family has since sold the cottage. Now, the whole extended Davey clan crams into the home of an old family friend one weekend each July for two full days of sandcastle competitions, baby regattas, and Ms. Rockhill pageants.
But the thing that has stayed imprinted in everyone’s memory — long after Mr. Davey’s parents have passed away, and the children and grandchildren have dispersed across the country, and the size of the pilgrimage has grown smaller and smaller until one year, the last hangers-on will quit making the trip, altogether — is the high dive. The high dive is, in actuality, quite modest in size. But in memory, it soars. It rises, sentinel-like, off to the side of the lake: a monument to courage on an otherwise subdued horizon. Kid after kid has passed into pseudo-adulthood in the twelve-foot descent between the springboard and the murky depths of Rockhill Lake.
The Daveys, along with all the residents and regulars of Rockhill Lake, keep in unrecorded history the ages (and sometimes even the dates) of everyone’s first jump off the high dive. Mr. Davey first jumped when he was six-and-three-quarters years old, and his twin brothers when they were six-and-a-half. All of Mr. Davey’s friends were somewhere between six and seven when they made their first jumps, though “the real wimpy ones” were closer to eight.
Of course, those who married into the family were older on the occasion. Mr. and Mrs. Davey Sr. were 32 and 33, respectively, when they made their first jump. As the story goes, the first night in their new home, they hired their twelve-year-old neighbor to babysit at the rate of 10 cents per hour. They went to the beach to swim in the dark, alone, and climbed together to the top of the high dive, holding hands as they jumped off the side. This story has been passed down the generations by Nathan’s uncle, who first heard it from Mrs. Muller. The Mullers are known to be generous in all things, including their definition of the truth, so the story has yet to be officially verified. Whenever someone had asked the elder Daveys about it, they'd simply smiled and moved their heads in something caught between a shake and a nod.
Nathan’s cousin Alex was the first of his generation to make the jump at the age of seven years (and two months). When he tells the story to his younger cousins, he always adds, “...and I dang near lost my toe to a snapper down there. Just glad I made it back to tell the tale,” at which point the cousins collectively gulp (Nathan, too, though he doesn’t believe him— not really).
Nathan’s Aunt Katherine is the youngest of the Davey children, with three older brothers. In a truly astonishing display of chip-on-the-shoulder-hood, she made her first jump at the age of five, securing her spot as the youngest Davey to accomplish the feat (though it was rumored that a kid down the block did it one month shy of his fourth birthday).
Hairs are split between months, even days, of age when a jump was made. The kids whose birthdays came at the beginning of the school year were at a distinct disadvantage, as a whole year would pass before they had another opportunity to jump. “Them’s the shakes,” Nathan’s Uncle Roy would say (his birthday is in mid-June).
Other categories matter, too, though not as much. Accolades are given for height, style, rapidity, etc. Tommy Shelton will never be forgotten for his most spectacular belly flop (a photo of him hangs in the clubhouse to this very day), which is said to have splashed the lifeguard sitting 20 yards away. But all one has to do to get their name in the record books is to make a simple descent from the top of the high dive to the waters of Rockhill Lake. In fact, no one in the family has ever not jumped. Uncle Steve’s wife was touch-and-go for a moment, but her fear was outweighed by pressure when the entire family started chanting her name.
Last year, Mr. Davey stood patiently on the dock for ten minutes, waiting for Nathan to jump. And for ten minutes, Nathan teetered on the springboard’s edge, legs and chin quivering, before bursting into a choking fit of sobs and crawling back down the ladder.
But that was then, and this is now. Nathan is eight-years-old now, and things are different. This year is his year.
The Daveys land on the beach toting an alarmingly large array of beach equipment: coolers, towels, chairs, umbrellas, buckets, blankets, and foam noodles. Mr. Davey starts setting up while Liam and Erin run straight for the water— Mrs. Davey tagging close behind, yelling at them to wait for their sunscreen to dry. Nathan stands apart, eyes fixated on the silhouette of the high dive looming in the distance. His emptied stomach churns.
“Nathan, you want a Capri Sun?” Mr. Davey asks, pulling one out of the cooler.
Nathan does not answer. Instead, he marches unblinkingly across the sand, like a sleepwalking soldier stalking into battle.
Twelve steps lead to the top of the high dive. Nathan plants both feet on each rung before moving reluctantly upward. A girl in an Elmo two-piece has already jumped and swum to the ladder, and he is only half way up. His legs are quaking. Hand-hand-foot-foot, he ascends. Now there is a crowd. They wonder why a kid like this is on the high dive. They wonder why a kid like this is, at all. Children are supposed to be reckless and impulsive. What jokester designed this one?
Nathan is now at the top of the ladder. The round faces of fifteen pre-adolescents glare at him through the noon sun. The crowns of their heads loom dangerously close to his ankles. If the mood struck, they could jump up and pull him down to the dock. Nathan is aware of this fact— more aware of it than are any of the children. He looks out into the oblivion of the springboard, which blurs into the horizon. He holds his breath, and with stuttering steps, crouches to the edge of the board.
A shot of ice laces through his veins, and his young joints become suddenly arthritic. He is frozen, hunched one foot from the edge of the board. Ten seconds pass, and a low mumble rolls through the crowd below.
“What the heck is he doing,” demands a nine-year old, throwing real venom into his “heck.”
Looking out, Nathan sees his dad standing on the dock twenty feet away, just where he stood the year before. Another fifty yards down the shoreline, his mom is building a sand castle with Liam and Erin. Nathan watches them. They are an embarrassment. Their baby guts are bursting against their too-tight swim suits, and Erin is tottering across the sand on jiggly legs. Her knees buckle in an ankle-deep drift, and she goes down. Her big, diapered bottom knocks out the left tower of the castle, and she starts to cry. Liam reaches over and gently pats her ear. The cries fade to deep, shaking inhales, and fifteen seconds later, Erin is laughing while Liam is covering her legs in sand.
Nathan feels pity for his brother and sister, so graceless and juvenile— and yet, he wishes he could be there with them, showing them how to construct reinforced walls out of wet sand. But before him is still the matter of the high dive. Nathan knows that this year, there is but one way down— and that he will arrive there a changed man. He makes the final step forward, and curls his toes around the edge of the board.
Gathering an inhale, he looks toward his dad for one final encouragement. But instead of patiently waiting, Mr. Davey is shaking his head and walking away, striding down the beach toward the rest of his family. The glint of his bald head in the sunlight has the appearance of an unblinking eye, staring Nathan down in shame.
A surge rushes through Nathan, and in one (albeit ungraceful) stroke, he bends his knees, plugs his nose, and leaps. The leap is spectacular. His small, angular body becomes a wide parachute, which soars down down down then slap, breaks the taught surface of the water. The slap fires like a gunshot through the crowd, and they all cringe. Nathan surfaces, holding back tears, but also smiling. He climbs onto the dock, and his white torso is bleeding pink sunrise outward from his navel.
Nathan rejoins his family on the sand, where Liam and Erin are in the midst of constructing another lopsided castle. Mr. Davey gives him a rough pat on the head, and with a proud smile, Nathan kneels next to his brother.
“Next year, Liam, that’ll be you.” In response, Liam mushes his hand into the stinging pink blotch on Nathan’s stomach.
“Liam, be gentle,” Mrs. Davey says. He pulls his hand away, leaving in its place a small white handprint. It stands out for a moment before the pink encroaches on its edges, and it disappears.
By Mary-Kate Burns