When I was twenty, my matrilineal side of the family held a family reunion at a small lake in Wisconsin. This small lake wasn’t chosen at random. It was a small lake exceptionally particular to my mother’s mother's side of the family. Every summer of my grandmother’s childhood, and into her adulthood, all of my grandmother’s family gathered there in morphing globs and bands—my grandmother and her brothers and, later, their spouses and all of their kids would summer there, spread out among three structures (one house, one cottage and a very large barn-type garage), all under the watchful gaze of their father, my great-grandfather.
In lots of unacknowledged ways, they all saw the lake as the wet loins of the entire sprawling family. Everyone—and eventually me as well, brought along by my mom—sailed and fished on the lake, bathed in it, took day-long walking trips around it, and swam across it to prove adulthood. It was an idyllic spot, and one canonized in my child’s imagination, this pointed fairy house nestled in the center of magic woods, dappled by sunshine by day and spark-lit by fireflies at night. After my great-grandfather's death, in a vexed decision over his will, the house and the grounds were sold to one of my grandmother’s brothers, who was married to a woman who at best mistrusted her husband’s siblings and at worst disliked them outright. The reunion could not be held at the house on the lake, so it was held near it at a small college campus. The lake anchored us.
Early that summer of my twentieth year, the summer of the reunion, I got pregnant. It happened on the carpeted floor underneath the dining room table of the guy’s parents’ house. He wasn’t a boyfriend, just a fuckbuddy, and we fucked there on the floor without protection. I warned him. I could get pregnant, I said.
“Let’s make a baby,” he said, and not believing, or not caring, or hating myself in superfluity, I assented. I let him fuck me protection-free (it was the very early 1980’s, when the worst I had to worry about was pregnancy), and indeed I got pregnant. I had the abortion less than a week before I was to go out to the family reunion.
“No swimming,” my Health Advocate admonished me before the procedure, and perhaps after as well. “And,” she said, “no sex.” Not for two weeks, she said. I agreed, and as I did, I felt the tug of the matrilineal lake, even though it was still hundreds of miles away. I left for the reunion at the lake just three days after.
It would have been a tough trip even without the recent abortion. My mom was extra brittle and glittery; her nerves were almost visible in her dieted-to-70’s-thin perfection. A couple of years later, she would confess to my father that she’d been having an affair for the past few summers with a man whom she had met at the matrilineal lake when she took her yearly vacation there with my grandmother and baby sister. In retrospect, my mom’s anxious shimmering made sense. But no question the recent abortion made her inexplicable shimmering worse, if only for me.
So naturally, what with the pressure of the big family, and my mother’s glitter, and my secret, within two days I had thrown my Health Advocate’s swimming proscription to the summer wind and let the lake buoy me. And within another day, I was fucking a cousin.
Technically, he wasn’t a cousin. Technically, he was a second cousin once removed or some other mathematical relationship. At any rate, he was the son of my mother’s cousin, which still made him a relative, but one distant enough to marry legally. Which was something my mother said repeatedly that week.
Everyone knew about our affair. Everyone knew we were fucking. I’m not sure how it happened—either the affair or people knowing. I probably told one person and he probably told at least one person and then as salacious news tends to do, it spread through the group in a kind of telepathic wildfire until everyone who was related to anyone knew that we were fucking.
It’s odd. I have a very capacious memory, but the only thing I can tell you about fucking this kid, who was about my age and from California, who is married now to a woman who is completely unrelated to him, and who has a couple of kids, is the time I didn’t fuck him.
In a campus teeming with relatives, it’s pretty hard for two kids to find a place to indulge in a little adolescent long-range incest. We did what we could and swam for it. We swam out to the large square raft that bobbed in the water about 100 feet from shore, and while we made out on it, our saliva swirling in each other’s mouths along with the slightly slick-sweet taste of lakewater, we just felt too exposed there, too much like we were copulating on a broad white stage. We knew everyone knew, but we didn’t need to give them visual evidence.
So we swam to the nearest sailboat, but given that neither one of us had the upper body strength to pull ourselves out of the lake, we gave that up. We tried, too, fucking in the water, holding onto the raft’s ladder, but lakewater makes a poor lubricant. Wet and frustrated, we left the lake and we undoubtedly screwed somewhere. I just don’t remember where or how or what it was like.
When I think about my cousin/cousine tryst of that summer, I find this slow worm still twirls in my gut. It’s not so much my fucking a distant cousin. It’s not even so much that I did it with all of my family’s knowledge. It’s more that I did it even though I knew I shouldn’t—and not because of the nominal blood-relationship taboo, but because this fucking could, and would, hurt me in my raw post-abortion state. And because I did it because I felt so lost, so alone, so burdened by the pain of that under-table fuck and its ensuing mess, and so much like my only recourse was to stick my chin up, give a defiant Fuck You to the world, and pretend like I didn’t hurt, like I wasn’t afraid, like I didn’t feel alone, awash and drifting like some small piece of tender debris, in the ebb and flow that was family.