There’s a deep, blue pool and a rope swing hangs over it. You can picture it in your mind. You can almost feel the cool relief of the clear water, as you and your best friend follow the overgrown trail, the tall grasses dry and bleached in the beating sun.
You’re hot. Uncomfortably, disgustingly hot. Sweat drips down the back of your shorts. Your drenched t-shirt clings. Your toes squelch in your shoes.
It’s an essential ritual of summer, this hike to the water. Maybe it’s a rock quarry or a high-altitude lake or a pond you pass by every day. Summer transforms them into magical escapes.
You head out to the trail with the annoying climb because there’s a perfect swimming spot on the way home. You travel three miles out of your way because there’s a hidden pond laying in wait in the trees. It becomes an all-consuming quest — always to be swimming, that’s all you want.
Your shoes send up dragon puffs of dust as you walk. You’re tired of the sun and the heat and the walking, but you’re tantalizingly close now. You glimpse the glimmering blue through the trees and imagine the fresh caress of the water on your skin.
A hawk circles overhead and a pair of songbirds squabble in a nearby tree. The cicadas sing.
This is the secret spot that everyone knows. You won’t find it on any map, no X marks the spot. Everyone just knows, everyone just goes—for lazy days and best friends and skinny dips and six packs. For first kisses and shared secrets and tentative fumbles toward ecstasy, nested in pine needles under the forest’s sheltering canopy.
You stand at the water’s edge a moment just staring, mesmerized by the boundless blue and by the way the light dances on the surface, a galaxy of glinting stars as bright as a midsummer night’s sky.
Do you dive straight in, clothes and all? Do you strip down part of the way? Or, all the way? In truth, there are few things better in life than a naked swim. The water rushes over your skin, sliding smoothly over you as you slowly submerge. There’s no one here to see except the fish and even if there were, no one with any soul at all would grudge you a skinny dip on a summer day.
There’s that one awkward moment, standing there naked and exposed, mud oozing underfoot. You slip and slide as you clamber down the bank to the water. But then you’re in it and your friend is splashing you and you’re splashing her back and you can’t stop laughing. The water flies through the air between you, shooting sparks in the sharp afternoon light.
You’re so alive in this joyous hour of light and laughter and water.
And then you dive down under and feel the water cool and darken. The intrigue of the deep tickles your skin. You imagine what it might be like to be a fish, just swimming around down here all day, the water magically becoming the air you breath.
We weren’t meant to live in water. Yet you can’t escape the sense that there’s been a mistake. You were meant to be here. You can feel it.
Reluctantly you begin to swim upward. Sunbeams glint through the water and you hold out your hand, watching the reflections shift and shimmer on your skin. The water’s lens captures the world of trees and sky and clouds in a bubble, recognizable but blurred and bent.
As much as you love the water, it’s a relief to surface in the bright clear air. You roll over on your back and float, gazing at the cerulean sky, just breathing.
Now the water’s chill is starting to sink in, but still you linger, reluctant to leave. Your friend is sitting on a rock, her bare skin golden in the sun. It looks inviting, so you clamber up the slick mudbank, which always seems steeper on the way out.
You grab frantically at the weeds, trying not to fall, suddenly ungainly on land after the weightlessness of water. Sitting there together, you revel in the perfection of this summer afternoon, the sun, the water, and the translucent blue sky over head.
You struggle to pull on your clothes and you laugh as your shirt sticks to your still-clammy skin. Hopelessly tangled, you can’t seem to find your way out. Slipping your underwear in your pocket, you slide your shorts up damp legs. Shoes tied, you walk home, the afternoon already sliding into the realm of memory, a faded polaroid image of the reality.
You walk back down the trail as the sun slides down behind the trees. There’s a hint of chill in the air, a foreshadowing of the coming dusk. There’s still hours yet before dark on a long summer day like this one. The light turns soft, golden, dreamy, as though it couldn’t possibly be real, but it is.
This wild, free, summer life of naked swims and blue skies and best friends and golden afternoons, this is what’s real.
A version of this story originally ran at Adventure Journal Quarterly.