June 16, 2016

The Broads

On the pontoon boat were Dave, Eddie, Stigg, both Andrews, and Rachel. The little fishing boat held just me and Audrey, with Mark behind the wheel. Audrey was a slight blonde with a visible cold sore just below her mouth, and she really had to pee. She’d been talking about it ever since we left the dock at Mark’s place and tandem-launched in the middle of the moonless night.

I had to pee, too. The decision to head for The Broads has been made suddenly, drunkenly, and like all decisions of a frivolous and life-threatening nature, without time to stop for bathroom breaks or the benefits of thinking through. But from the moment we motored out into the dark, it became clear to me that we would not be turning back until someone took off her pants and peed into that frigid, inky water in front of everyone. I was determined it was not going to be me.

Mark had already peed off the side of the boat with the carefree ease of the man holding all the cards. He’d promised me a boat-driving lesson over the weekend, but this being our first night out at the lake, he had yet to deliver; the only thing keeping me from being completely at his mercy was that Audrey had even less leverage than I in the situation. I’d known Mark for years, and over time had come to trust him in a way that only became clear as I sat huddled behind his seat, trying not to panic, waiting for him and his friends to have fun at someone else’s expense. The fishing boat moved much faster than the pontoon, so we had a few moments to ourselves as we waited for the second craft to make the rendezvous point. Mark cut the engine and let us drift, so much the better for me to appreciate the exact proportions of the silent watery expanse surrounding me in every direction.

“How big is the lake, again?” Mark was always at his best when called upon to provide facts and figures, particularly those in relation to the lake where his family had owned their summer home for decades. You could see him to warm to the role of native custodian, forgetting for the moment his greater imperative.

“Well, Central Park is about one and a half square miles, right?” Mark had swiveled his captain chair to include me in the circle of those-in-charge, leaving Audrey desperate and alone on the opposite side of the boat. “The lake is about 71 square miles.”

There was nothing to do but trust him, and count on Audrey to be weak. “And we’re going into the widest part?”

“That’s right,” he said, appreciative of my uptake. “Nine miles at the widest part.”

The Broads. As in, the opposite of the narrows. As in, catnip for bored, drunk, young men, irreverent to the life that had been handed to them and so deadened by privilege that they could only quicken their existence with the public humiliation of a defenseless girl.

Rachel was safe. The only other female out on the lake was wisely situated on the pontoon boat and being supervised by her boyfriend, Dave. Though she couldn’t have been older than I was, Rachel had the steady, complacent air of a girl who made the right choices in life and attached herself to men based on their consideration of her needs. She’d likely been informed of the boating party with enough time to use the bathroom and grab a sweater and pull up a really good seat to witness this death battle between the two free-agent females at the party. Audrey’s relationship to the group was unclear; she’d come to the weeklong party that was taking place at Mark’s lake house, but she didn’t seem to be a part of the core group who were all old-time friends from an upstate boarding school. Neither did her male escort, who had not been invited or insistent on accompanying her out into the depths of the night with a group of drunken men. Likely she was a friend-of-friend who had somehow scored a free pass to the party. Fresh meat, in other words, because nothing in this world comes free.

I was the wild card, of course, this friend of Mark’s from New York—unconnected to the group as a whole, not even a native of New Hampshire. But I was at least a guest of the host, had a year or two on the 25-year-old median of the group, and bore the authority of my camera and the confidence of a summer spent traveling. All this gave me at least a slight advantage in the situation. I looked at Audrey – so small, so desperate, and so inappropriately dressed for the cold night air – and knew that, but for a few less beers, a little more experience, and an iron bladder-reflex, I was looking at myself.

I’d spent all my life standing up for people like Audrey with nothing to show for it, beyond the conviction that better treatment for her was better treatment for us all. Over six dehumanizing years in New York City, as I watched cash and prizes offered to women who were calculating and manipulative, I was forced to realize that my only reward for trying to bring women together would be a life spent alone. My heart could ache for Audrey, but my bladder made a better case for looking out for myself tonight. I wondered how it was for Rachel, if her vantage from the pontoon boat was as smug and impervious as it felt to me, knowing herself to be an entirely different breed of female, or if somewhere in her heart she felt a twinge of empathy for we, the entertainment.

I had been drunk back on land, but it hadn’t taken long for me to sober up out there on the water. The beer I’d siphoned off of cheap sixers piled in coolers and scattered around the backyard had worn off completely in the surprising chill of our late night ride across the lake. The pot I’d smoked, on the other hand, was mixing badly with my growing sense of mistrust and desperation, delivering paranoid revelations one after another. In the grip of cannibus-driven solipsism, it dawned on me that this was the moment that would determine what kind of woman I was: either a Rachel or an Audrey. A lot of my life had been an effort to occupy a wholly separate classification of woman, one who could take care of herself—but all that had flown away the instant I stepped onto a vehicle I could not operate and allowed myself to be surrounded by nine miles of lake in every direction. There would be no getting out and walking home.

Audrey shouted over to us, strain evident in her voice, even above the sound of water and wind, and the faint buzz and distorted voices that signaled the approach of the pontoon party, “Say, where are The Broads, anyway?”

They’re right here, Audrey. Everybody’s looking at ‘em.

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