The last time I walked by this lake was with Jenna and Margie. They were best friends and I was the awkward third, the boy who tagged alongside the girls because he couldn’t seem to get along with other boys. High school was ending and Jenna still wore tight jeans and her black hair long and believed in magic. She walked quickly and spoke fast and waved her hands a lot. She believed in fairies and read books about witches and wanted with an endearing desperation to be “different.” Margie, blond and cheery and ever the realist back then, would laugh along. The waters were clear and the days seemed to go on forever. Little sailboats bobbed by the docks and we always imagined they were owned by rich people. We were on the cusp of adulthood and it all seemed so mysterious.
Except adulthood isn’t so mysterious anymore. Sitting by the edge of the docks, I scroll through the latest Facebook feed on my phone. The boats are still here, though most of them look a bit worn, and the water is still clear. Mostly. Jenna traded her tight jeans for business suits and had two kids. Margie, who decided at some point that being a realist is no way to live, is now a starving musician in California. I fell in love with Jenna, then fell out of it when she married someone else. She moved away and I see from her occasional Facebook post that she now wears her dark hair short in a “mom bob.” We don’t talk. She’s busy. Occasionally I miss how she looked with long hair, but the feeling is fleeting. We’ve grown. I drive an Uber, and she no longer talks about magic.
The lake is lazily named Clear Lake. In fact, this whole town is named after it. The ocean is less than an hour’s drive away but here, in this town, people are proud of this lake for reasons I don’t understand. I moved away, then I returned, and now I find myself back by this lake after nearly twenty years, washed back like the tide.
My phone chimes just as I begin to grow tired of Facebook. A text message pops up.
Apologies for the wait. Arriving now.
No car is pulling into the deserted parking lot. I check my watch. The client is running roughly ten minutes late, which I normally wouldn’t mind except for the oddity of the location. I imagine they must be coming from one of the luxury condominiums across the way, where the boat-owners live.
I nearly drop my phone into the water. A woman has approached. I shoot a quick glance at the parking lot to see if her ride has dropped her off but, seeing it still stands empty, decide that she must have come from one of the houses down the street, quite a task in a wheelchair.
“Careful there,” she says with amusement. “I assume you are my ride?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I say quickly and start to take the handles of her wheelchair, but she brushes me off. “Please, this way.”
I lead her to my faithful old Camry and open the back door for her. She maneuvers herself with impressive dexterity into the seat and instructs me to fold up her wheelchair to be stowed in the trunk. Between the chair and her wavy silver hair, I initially take her for much older, though as I settle into the driver’s seat and take a good look in the rear-view mirror, I see that her face is dewy, fresh, and unlined. Her almond eyes are a sparkling gray and her lips are pearl-colored and full. I stare at her a moment longer than I should and she catches me.
“Do you like the way I look?” she asks. For a moment I think she is teasing me, but something about her earnest and curious expression told me different.
“Yes, ma’am,” I say politely. “If you don’t mind me saying so, you look very nice.”
She looks down at herself. “That’s a relief,” she says. Her accent is distinct but indiscernible in origin. “I feared I may I have dressed inappropriately.”
I glance back at her. Her dress, a light seafoam green, flowy Bohemian number that covered her from chest to toe, is a bit long, though it frames her form nicely. Loosely wrapped around her shoulders is a cream-colored shawl dotted with small, shiny beads. I can’t imagine anyone walking in the ensemble without tripping, but then that’s the advantage of being in a chair.
“You look lovely,” I tell her honestly. “Are you headed somewhere fancy?”
“Something like that. I am expected at the embassy.”
“The embassy? Which one?”
She gives me an address and I enter it into the GPS. The destination is deep in the heart of the city.
“I never knew there was an embassy there,” I say as I pull out of the parking lot, leaving the lakeside. “Are you immigrating, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I suppose you could say I am an ambassador of sorts.”
“Oh yea? Which country?”
She pauses and looks out the window as we head towards the highway. Her gray eyes hold a fascination that I rarely see and I can tell she is excited to be here in this town. “I do not know how to pronounce it in your tongue,” she says. “It’s not a sound that can be expressed in your language.”
“Try me,” I say, curious. She purses her lips and says a phrase that sounds half Welsh and half dolphin squeak. I laugh. “Alright, you win. I can’t say that. Is that where you’re from?”
“All my life,” she says, and continues to gaze out the window. “Have you live here long? It’s lovely. So . . . different.”
Though “different” is not the word I would use to describe the little town of Clear Lake, I guess that to a visitor from another country, it must seem as exotic to her eyes as she does to me. “It’s not bad,” I say. “I grew up here. I went away for a while for school but I came back. It’s a nice enough place to live.” I glance at the mirror. She is leaning against the window, looking with fascinations at the shops and office buildings passing by. “I’m Gary, by the way.”
“I’m afraid you won’t be able to pronounce my name either,” she replies, tilting her head upward to watch a plane go by. “But I was suggested a name in your tongue. It is Cordelia.”
“That’s a good name.”
“Thank you.” She points to the plane. “Do those pass by often?”
“Not a whole lot of planes where you’re from?”
“Not like this.”
“Well, I’m glad you find that interesting. There’s certainly not a whole lot of excitement here.” I shrug and jerk a thumb behind us and sarcastically add, “unless you count the lake.”
“I like the lake,” Cordelia says thoughtfully. “It’s a lovely little spot of water.”
“It’s nice enough,” I admit. “They used to take better care of it. These days it’s a little muddy, but people still sail on it.”
“There are caverns underneath the lake.”
“Caverns? Did it say that on the guide center brochure or something? I don’t know about that.”
“The caverns lead to the ocean. They link together like catacombs, but they all lead to the ocean.”
“The ocean is an hour away,” I tell her. “If you have time after the embassy you could try hitting the beach. It’s no South Beach but it’s nice enough and you can see dolphins once in a while.”
“Oh, it’s alright,” Cordelia says dreamily as she admires a pair of garbage trucks driving by. “The land is fascinating enough.”
Cordelia’s directions take us to the museum district to a nondescript building I’d passed by many times but never quite noticed between the natural history museum and the aquarium. After I help her get situated in her chair, she tips me generously enough to make me wonder if she has some obscene diplomatic allowance. She asks if I could return in an hour and I agree, seeing how she just paid me enough to knock off for the day and still come out ahead.
Rather than driving off, I buy a ticket and kill some time at the aquarium. Much like the lake, museums and aquariums have faded out of my life with the passage of time and, not having had any children of my own, I’ve found no reason to return.
A school group is touring today, twenty or so kids about third or fourth grade of age are chattering away. Jenna’s oldest would be about their age now. I only met her once a month after she was born. Come to think of it, I never even met the second baby, a boy who must be at least five this year. I never thought Jenna would be the one to fade from my life. People come and go like river water, but I always thought Jenna would be the one who stuck around. Jenna with her dark hair and fairy tale books.
I wander aimlessly through the tanks of jellyfish and walls of coral and think about Jenna. I don’t like to think about Jenna often. It’s not because she reminds me of the past, or the fact that I loved her and she never loved me back. I have only fond memories of Jenna, but to think of her now and what she has done only reminds me of what I haven’t. I haven’t found a mate, I haven’t had children, and ultimately I haven’t left town. Hell, I haven’t even left my parents’ house. They were the ones who moved on, left for Florida and sold me their house. I still sleep in the same room I slept in back when she and I and Margie went walking by the lake.
She moved on from her daydreams of witches and magic and fairies, but I’m still here, the same now as I was that day. Like that goddamn lake that never changes.
Cordelia’s message arrives just in time to keep me from sinking into an unproductive spiral of depressing thoughts. I exit the aquarium and round the corner just in time to see her wheeling her way out of the embassy building.
“How did it go?” I ask as she maneuvers herself into my car.
“Well enough,” she says thoughtfully. “Preparations are being made for increased cultural exchange with my people. You’ll understand that I can’t go into further details. Most of it is being kept from the public for the moment.”
“Of course,” I reply. “Where to now?”
She hesitates. I see her gaze out the window longingly and bite her lower lip. A strand of silver hair falls over her bare shoulder and suddenly I am overtaken by spontaneity.
“Let me show you around,” I say. “My treat.”
I show her downtown, where the skyscrapers tower. I take her to the park at city center, where children and dogs run around tossing Frisbees. I wheel her around the shopping mall, where she looks in awe at the rows of beautifully bottled perfumes and decorative lights dangling from shop doors. I ask her about her country and she tells me fascinating stories of their traditions and lives.
“Our technology is different from yours,” she says as she marvels at the massive skylights arching over the ceiling of the mall. “Our energy sources as well. We do things another way, and I’ve always loved to learn how things are done in your land.”
“It’s not so fascinating,” I say, though her enthusiasm is infectious. I step beside her as she muses over a blown glass vase.
“It is when it’s not your own,” she says, running her long fingers over the vase’s surface. Her fingernails are painted in an interesting iridescent shade, glistening like scales of a fish in the light.
“I suppose that’s true.” I watch her pick up the vase and lay it gently in her lap. “You getting that?”
“I think so. We so rarely see anything like it back home.”
“You don’t have much glassware?”
She looks up at me. A small smile, almost smug, hangs on her lips. “And you do not have pearls.”
“We have pearls.”
“Not like we do.”
We end the day at the boardwalk. Though she was not terribly enthused about being at the beach at first, the boardwalk turned out to be an experience she much appreciated. I show her carnival games and shops and buy us both sweet drinks that bring the most entertaining looks to her face.
“How fascinating!” she exclaims. “We do not make things like this back in my country. We take the taste of water for granted. To flavor it seems somehow wrong. But this . . . it’s amazing.”
I sip my own. The taste of fake syrupy strawberry seems almost delectable with her joyful expression next to me.
As the sun sets, I wheel her to the end of the sea dock. Being a weekday, the dock is deserted, and I prefer it this way. We watch the sun slowly descend beneath the horizon.
“It’s different from here,” Cordelia says. Orange and purple light up her gray eyes.
“Yes. And everything really. It’s all so different. Same, but different. I must sound like I’m rambling.”
“Not at all,” I say.
“It’s hard to explain.” She’s fingering the rim of the glass vase, which she’s kept near this whole way. “But when something’s different, it becomes mysterious, almost like magic.”
“Magic.” I taste the word in my mouth and briefly wonder if Jenna’s children believe in magic like their mother once did. “Yea, I can see that.”
She wheels herself to the very end of the dock. I stick close. She reaches out and touches my hand gently. “Thanks for today,” she says. “Perhaps one day you’ll visit my country, once the cultural exchange program is ready.”
“I hope so,” I say sincerely. Evening has fallen now. The beach has emptied.
“You will like it. To you, it will seem like magic, like your land was to me.”
“I believe that.” I give her hand a gentle squeeze. “Shall I take you back now?”
“No need,” she says, and drops the shawl from her shoulders. “I’ll take the long way home. Good night, Gary.”
With that, she dives off the end of the dock, the glass vase in one hand, leaving me still holding one handle of her wheelchair. I peer over the edge of the wooden dock just in time to see her tail splash above the waves, glistening in the light of the rising moon.