Meet Me by the Water

January 9, 2008
By Nikki Valentino, Deer Park, IL

I had walked this path so many times before. Scurrying down the side of the street eager to get away from the hustle and bustle of town. It was late afternoon in sleepy Ephraim. Everyone had already been to church and eaten supper and now the town was silent. The only thing I could hear was the jingle of the horse drawn carriage as I walked down the street and fondly remembered nights as a child drifting off to sleep.

The last thing I would hear would be those bells, those damn bells that now, kept me up at night. I always complained to Shawn about how after a long night of studying, my eyes were burning from staring at textbooks and all I wanted to do was fall asleep. As I fell backwards on my bed, too exhausted to get under the covers, I could hear those bells. But now, as my time in Ephraim is dwindling down, I can’t help but look back at all the memories I have as a kid.

Growing up in Ephraim, Wisconsin is probably a dream to most people. It’s a town of 250 located on good old Green Bay where you can hear the church bells ring every hour on the dot. Everyone knows everyone because we all go to the same places. All the children take sailing lessons at Ephraim Yaught Club, mostly during the summer when days drag on. The pier is ancient and the concrete crumbles like ruins on the corners but they did get us a ping pong table, so who really cares about the structure? I sure as hell didn’t and either did the other kids. We all spent our mornings playing ping pong and waiting for lessons to begin at the end of the pier, and this is where I met Shawn.

I must have been eight years old when Shawn moved into town. Just like any good Ephraim resident would have done, his parents enrolled him in sailing lessons. When I first saw him mosey to class with his long, shaggy red hair the first thought I had was that he was different. He was different from me and every other kid that had been born and raised here in Ephraim. Somehow we had all been manicured like soldiers to have crew cuts and standing there, looking at Shawn was like taking a deep plunge in the icy water of Green Bay.

I approached him and stuck my hand out like my father had always done when he met someone, “Hi, I’m Kale. Where you from?” I asked suavely.

“Eh, New York,” Shawn answered taking my hand but looking quizzically at me the whole time.

“Like, New York City? Do you live in the city? I’ve never been anywhere near there but I’ve seen pictures and my ma has told me stories, mostly bad ones, but I still want to go there,” I rambled on and on but he gave me this very coy smile.

I probably would have lost cool points with any other kid. The thought of having someone here who had seen other parts of this country or the world intrigued me. Ever since I figured out there was something else out there, I’ve wanted to get out of Ephraim.

“No, I’m actually from Ithaca. It’s a little town on Cayuga Lake…not much different from here,” he added slowly.

But once I had admitted my aspirations to get out of here, we instantly bonded. Shawn had a similar plan to mine, just to get out, wherever he was. For him, it was more of a rebellious act against his parents but for me, it was purely to further myself.

Now I wandered off of the paved road, kicking gravel to the side and watching the faint dust rise. I hopped the broken down wood fence with ease. It gets a lot easier when you’ve done it countless times. As I landed, my converse sneakers caught me and I dragged my feet along the beaten up grass. I was approaching my destination now and I was dreading it for the first time in my life. I had never been afraid of going to the pier.

The pier was the place we always went to talk about anything and everything. In the summers we would go out and bring blankets and sleep under the stars. Just staring. I would just start talking and I wouldn’t be able to stop. I could go on and on about the same subject, beat it to death, and it never got old because Shawn would give me some new input. He has always been the better listener.

But now, as I slip off my shoes and push them to the side, I look out at the beach, separating me from the pier, and I think of how he’s always been better in a lot of things.

I’ve always been a good student. I’ve made sure of it. When I was younger I saw a brochure for Northwestern University in the library. I tucked it into my jacket pocket and took it home. I spent that night and many nights after that fantasizing about the stone buildings and what was contained within them. In my mind, from that point on, the key to getting out of Ephraim was a higher education.

I never was the smartest kid in the class but I can tell you that I worked just as hard as the smartest kid. I would spend nights in the library studying human anatomy and physiology, psychology, and calculus. I read the newspaper every morning to stay up on politics and current events. In my mind there was no way I was going to fall behind in this world even if I was in my own secluded world that is called Ephraim.

I took a step and felt my foot sink into the chilly sand. I stared down at it and rubbed my toes together, feeling the ancient rocks scratch in between them. This was it. I walked through the sand up to the start of the pier. As I stepped onto the pier, the aluminum thundered and Shawn turned around. He had been gazing dreamily out onto the water, staring at Horseshoe Island and the circling light of the lighthouse. It has been over two months since he told me he was going into the army. And I still refuse to accept it.

As he turned around, I could barely recognize him. Standing there, he was dressed in uniform: camo green pants, black shiny shoes, and that military jacket. What I couldn’t believe though, was his crew cut hair. He stared at me, waiting for a response, and he got one he probably wasn’t expecting.

I laughed, “What the hell happened to you?”

“What do you mean? I had to look respectable before I got on the bus. If I waited until I got there they might have shaven my whole damn head!”

This banter was what I had come to love about our relationship. And as I grinned to myself I couldn’t help but bring this up again.

I paused because I knew I shouldn‘t, but I asked again anyway, in my head believing that he might change his mind, “Why do you have to go and do this Shawn? There’s still time you know, you can just come to Chicago with me and go to a community college…” but before I could say anything else he cut me off.

“I thought we were over this Kale. I’m going. It’s done, I’ve decided. You know I have to do this,” he said this sternly, and I knew he meant it but I’ve never been a good listener.

The day he told me, I thought he was joking. He’s never taken anything serious in his life, so why would he make this drastic decision. I stared into his clouded blue eyes and saw him clench his jaw and his muscles tensed. I’d never see him like this, he was being serious. I took a seat on the bench on the pier, its cool touch permeating my skin as well as my whole mood. I sat with my hands running through my hair as my head hung low between my knees. I needed to take this in and not be rash but my mind was racing.

I looked up and saw Shawn standing, waiting for my reaction. I locked eyes with him and I knew he was begging for my acceptance, he wouldn’t get it.

“What’s your big plan then? Go into the army, get shipped off somewhere… die? Is that what you really want to do?”


“No, you’re getting out of this, you’re going to college, you’re not going into the army,” I said sternly.

“Kale, it’s done. I’m getting out of Ephraim just like you…. “

“This is not just like me! I’m going to college, not war! I can’t believe you would do this!” I hit the bench with my clenched fists and stood up.

“What were you thinking? I mean, seriously Shawn…”

“I was thinking I’m doing something with my life and I’m sorry if it doesn’t measure up to your standards but I’m doing this. Be proud of me, I’m getting out of here.”

I always remember this moment when we were standing on the pier, looking at each other. It brought me back to reality and how I still haven’t given up on him.

“You don’t have to do anything! Hell, I know you don’t want to be stuck in this town but this isn’t the only way to do this.”

“I’m not like you Kale, I haven’t got the grades, I haven’t got the ambition, I’m not you.”

The look in his eye got me here. It was the same one that he gave me when he told me that he had enlisted in the army. He had given me this same look with his eyes, pleading me to understand, but I just couldn’t and I still can’t.

We stood there, facing each other until I finally walked away to the rail and let my forearms rest on it and my head fell through my arms. I was staring at the pier and the water, just thinking how this could happen to me.

“Kale, you just gotta accept it. Just do me a favor Kale and accept and move on,” this was Shawn pleading again. Trying to be the people pleaser he always has been. Unfortunately, I’ve always been a pessimist.

I see him dieing. Dieing for a cause many people probably don’t care about. He sees himself dieing for a country he loves. We’ll never agree on this.

I felt Shawn approaching me.

“Everything’s going to be alright Kale, it really is,” Shawn whispers quietly.

We stand there, overlooking the water, as our thoughts meld in our minds. The sky was that reddish glow that happens right after sunset and I knew that it would be time soon.

Shawn initiated it, standing perfectly straight, turning towards me with precision. He put out his hand. I thought about our first encounter with each other. A handshake was such a manly offering. I stared up at this face with an expression that was so foreign to me, it was stern. I tried my best to be strong too and I put my hand out. Our hands met in a sturdy handshake. I stared into his eyes and realized that this was it. This could be the last time I see him.

I rip my eyes away from his as the sting of oncoming tears accumulates in my eyes. Our hands release and Shawn ends our good bye in a perfect manner I will always remember him by.

“You’ll always be my best friend, no matter what. And if you’re ever thinking about me, just meet me by the water. I’ll be there.”

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