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Dying to Live
“The view was awesome! We hiked for…gosh, like, forever since way before dawn so we got to see that sunrise glow. Oh my buhjesus….it was amazing.”
I study my friend as his eyes gloss over, overtaken by memories of the magnificent trip to Maine. My eyes twitch and I inadvertently shift my jaw into a wayward frown.
“Now that’s living…” he mumbles incoherently.
Living. What does it mean? According to all those cheery retirement commercials, it entails paddling around a random lake gaping at the beauty of nature or rambling through a sunny, generic marketplace inhaling the aroma of some ridiculously photogenic strawberries, or in my friend’s case, basking in the warm glow of the sun streaming through emerald layers of foliage. I sigh. My family and I are not very outdoorsy. As my mother retorts every time I ask if we can go fishing or camping, “We aren’t adventurous people, sweetie.” I would hardly call squatting by a pond trying to catch some fist-sized fish “adventurous.” You can only imagine her reaction whenever one of our friends tells her about scaling mountains. Her face would blanch and she’d shake her head solemnly stating, “Not for us.”
Recently, a new catchphrase has taken my high school by storm. “YOLO” my friends holler enthusiastically at each other every time they encounter a situation in which they feel obliged to express the carefree “I don’t give a crap” attitude. “You only live once” they say. In that case, I’m going to die without having camped, hiked, skied, rock-climbed, etc. So, you can imagine my excitement when my buddies planned a camping trip in the first week of spring break. I’d spent a great big chunk of my high school years sitting at home yearning to be with friends as they scoured Chile, biked around Europe, explored caves in Greece and gaining spectacular muscle definition. So I leapt at this opportunity. I resolved to downplay the trip as a “road trip”. After all, we technically had to take a “trip” on a “road” to get to the campsite. When I sheepishly approached mom, I held my breath, eventually letting out a rush of words, hoping that I sounded responsible: “Mom, I’ve always listened to your advice for the most part, and I know how much you hate ‘adventurous’ things, but my friends plan on doing a road trip around Philly and Pittsburgh…so, we’re going to stay within range of civilization. We’re not going to do anything risky, so can I please go?”
“What places you plan on visiting?”
“Museums, restaurants ‘n stuff.”
“Any other chaperones?”
“How many people?”
“Mark, Oscar, his dad and me.”
“What’s Oscar like? I know Mark…what a nice young man…”
“Oscar’s a cum laude, mom.”
“So I can go?”
I leaned in eagerly, my eyes widening in anticipation. Twenty seconds sluggishly dragged by as I analyzed my mom’s every move. Her brow furrowed slightly, and I felt my pulse quicken. She pursed her lips, and sweat prickled my palms. Finally she said, “Okay, you can go since this is your last year at home and I think you’re mature enough to go.”
A whir of excitement pervaded my entire being! It unrelentingly persisted even a week later as I was packing my bags. I managed to convince my mom to let me pack my own bags so that she wouldn’t ask when I got those new hiking boots and why I needed them. Finally I could feel like one of those strapping, fit young guys vaulting over craggy mountain crevices pictured in those inspirational North Face ads. Armed with a new Mountain Hardware sleeping bag and bottles of bug spray, I prepared to exterminate my image as a conservative, meek, suburb-dwelling Midwesterner. As I strutted out the door, I blocked out my mom’s endless slew of admonitions, humming to T.I.’s Live Your Life. “Don’t forget to charge your cellphone every night!” Just live your life, hey eh-yay, eh-yay… “Don’t lose your wallet if you have to take a cab!”…No tellin’ where it’ll take ya… “Don’t eat raw stuff in the restaurants!”…Just live your life, oh…
All was going great on our trip until we, well, got to the camping part. As we drove, the sun was shining while we blasted Springsteen on the radio with the windows rolled all the way down. The good weather held up for about an hour after our arrival. We got caught in an epic downpour right in the middle of my first hike. The rain came down in such great quantities that I had trouble inhaling. Every time I took a breath, water would spurt up my nose. Of course, Oscar’s dad and Mark, being the outdoorsy ones, exclaimed “How refreshing!” and continued walking along as if nothing was wrong. Or maybe they were just putting on brave faces. Oscar and I gripped each other’s arms as we struggled to maneuver around the slippery puddles that would inevitably send us skidding off the high hill we’re on. Finally, the vicious slap of the heavy rain lightened to a vague trickle and we found a small clearing near a quaint little lake to make camp at. Predictably, the next two days were torture. Thanks to the rain, the ground was a sopping mess. As we trudged through the shin-deep muddiness, mosquitoes gorged themselves with our liveliness. Cold, skin-wrinkling mud invaded my $220 hiking boots as we desperately searched for relatively dry wood to build at least a wimpy fire with. The steady drizzle of precipitation rinsed off most of my bug-spray and replaced it with mosquito bites. By nightfall of the second day, I collapsed on my sleeping bag, ignoring the permeating coldness and submitting myself to exhaustion. Covered in filth and sweat, I vaguely felt my eyes flutter weakly. My limbs felt stiff, like wooden pegs. My head spun with ebbing consciousness. I felt horrible. I felt defeated. I felt dead. It sure wasn’t worth dying to “live”.
Three days later, I found myself numbly staring at a tin can of water, waiting for it to boil in this frigid temperature. As I watched the unmoving surface of the water, I was suddenly gripped by a fierce desire to take a nice, warm, shower. Immediately, I became hyper-aware of the dried, caked mud encasing my legs. The oiliness of my hair made my scalp itch. Oscar padded over and said pithily, “We traded sitting at home and watching grass grow for sitting here watching water boil.” “Yup…I’d kill for a shower or something, anything remotely civilized.” I uttered. Oscar nodded fervently, replying, “Me too…ya know what? We’re living by a lake. I’m gonna go rinse off in there and pretend I’m sitting in my bathtub at home.” “Sure…maybe I’ll do that too after I get the water boiling.” As I sat, I reflect upon our situation. Mark was sitting on a log trying to construct a makeshift fishing rod while Oscar’s dad was fixing a tear in the tent. Where was the enjoyment of nature? We seemed to be pathetically focused on subpar survival while being entombed in a dreary, gray world of rain and mud. I closed my eyes and took in the noises around me in a frantic, last attempt to enjoy the surroundings: the muted crackle of a paltry fire, the frustrated grunts of Mark sitting a distance away, the harsh, desolate call of a crow and… splashing water? My head swiveled in the direction of the curious sound. In the middle of the lake, a flurry of water appeared. I stood for a second in confusion. What could it be? “What is tha—?”
“Oscar,” I whispered, fear wringing my heart.
“Hey!! HELP!” I hollered.
Seeing that both Mark and Oscar’s dad were plugged into iPods, I reflexively dove into the lake. Pushing past the rush of coldness that knocked the breath out of me, I swam towards the figure in the water. After what seemed like an eternity, I reached Oscar. Not knowing what to do, I attempted to grab him only to be locked in his iron grip. His arms crushed my waist and I realized with dread that I was being pulled under water with him. I tried to swim to the surface only to bear the brunt of my friend’s hysterical kicks. Unable to hold my breath any longer and paralyzed with confusion, I felt water rush into me, filling my mouth and nose. My mind, hazy from lack of oxygen, registered the surface pulling farther and farther away. Then the harsh truth hit me. We were both drowning. I had to free myself. With frozen fingers, I tried to pry his hands off of me to no avail. I unsuccessfully struggled to wriggle out of his death-grip. Panic rising as blood pounded in my veins, I channeled a final burst of energy into a strong kick aimed at my friend’s stomach. Freeing myself from his hold, I burst through the surface coughing out irritating water and gasping for air. Treading water, I realized what I had done.
As I swam towards land, Mark and Oscar’s dad were both running towards the water. They shouted at the same time, “What happened?” Oscar’s dad followed with “Where’s Oscar?” I stood, unable to move, unable to respond. Finally, Oscar’s dad grasped my shoulders and gave me a gentle shake. “C’mon son, what’s gotten into you?” “He…he….in the w-water…I tried to save him, but—” I blubbered, my words tumbled into a choked sob. “He drowned?” Mark said incredulously. I felt Oscar’s father tightened his grip on me. His hands clenched my shoulders so tight, it started to hurt. “What do you mean you tried to save him?” he growled through clenched teeth. My eyes wild with despair, I felt a torrent of words rush out of my mouth, “I…swam to him since you both couldn’t hear and…I knew he was in trouble, so…I…I…he…he grabbed me and dragged me down…so…so…I couldn’t get him off me…the water…” “But you did get him off of you,” Oscar’s dad stated flatly. Before I could react, he shoved me onto the ground and sent a sorrowful, madmen yell echoing through the woods as he leapt into the water.
The world surrounding me darkened. I sat there alone, under a heavy cloud of guilt. Time had stopped.
“C’mere, man!” Mark’s call jolted me back into reality. I returned to the tent, finding Oscar sitting on my sleeping bag, tapping his head to clear his ears of water. I faint.
Minutes later, I awoke to find everyone hovering over me and beaming. “Wake up you lazy bum,” chided Mark. I stared at Oscar, not daring to move a muscle. I turned hesitantly over to Mark as if saying, “Do you see what I see?” He chuckled and explained, “Dude, Oscar swam out of the water while his dad was busy shoving you around. He came out on the other side which is why we didn’t see him.” Oscar said, “Hey…you said you’d kill for a shower and you almost did, man!” I grabbed his shoulder to confirm that I was not in a dream, and managed to reply, “I’m sorry.” “Naw…don’t be sorry! I’m the crazy one who almost dragged you down,” said Oscar. “The cold water got me. I had terrible muscle cramps and couldn’t move my legs,” he continued. “I panicked. When you kicked me, it somehow got the water out of my chest, and I woke up. Man, you saved me,” he hugged me. Oscar’s dad strolled into the room. I felt all the color drain from my face. He apologized for pushing me, then smiled enigmatically, saying, “Hey, but I’m still gonna punish you for kicking my son,” whereupon he procured a cellphone from behind his back.
“It’s your mother. She’s got quite a lot to say to you.”