It is the summer solstice, and Elizabeth and I sit at the shore of Lake Superior.
The June sun crested hours ago, but it is still full daylight. I’ve brought a new journal, two cigarettes, a lighter, and a pen. Elizabeth called me to say that we had to celebrate the marking of summer, and I acquiesced despite the fact that I’d rather be at home, alone, like every other Friday when my husband works an overnight shift and I watch movies and eat too much ice cream.
Elizabeth studies botany; it’s a hobby for her, but just like her quote-collecting hobby which has yielded dozens of notebooks containing observations, insights, and simple facts that she’s uprooted from a lifetime of reading, she tackles botany with an obsessive attention to detail. Marquette, Michigan is her playground, and she goes into its woods for replenishment, sustenance, and communion. She makes tinctures and tonics out of the long, skinny stems, flowers, and twigs she pulls while hiking.
Tonight, however, there is no need for alchemy. Instead, we are supposed to pause and reflect on the natural world.
“Write down what you’re grateful for,” she tells me. “And write down a goal for the next year.”
In silence, we scribble on small sheets of paper. We don’t share our ideas with each other; we burn them after digging a small crater in the sand to catch and conceal the ashes.
“Now, let’s write in our journals.”
I follow her lead because this is her world, coming to the lakeshore to actively acknowledge the changing of the seasons. I am her guest.
In a month, we will hike the Keweenaw Peninsula’s Estivant Pines Sanctuary, one of Michigan’s few remaining old-growth forests. Despite the fact that I spend every summer visiting this tip of Northern Michigan, I have never been to the Sanctuary before; Elizabeth insists that we must go on her second visit to the quiet peninsula. We will search for the ancient trees, thirteen to fifteen stories tall, that mingle among younger pines. And when she gets a bug bite that swells instantly, and she picks some Plantain to mix with her spit before applying it to the irritated skin, I will be impressed to see the swelling go down as we’re walking out of the woods.
We first met as graduate students sneaking outside during Teaching Assistantship training; “I’m not a real smoker,” she said, taking one of my hand-rolled cigarettes out of an Altoid tin. “I just bum them, but I’ll buy you a pack after I’ve bummed a bunch. I promise.” Initially, we misread each other. To me, she was capricious, random, maybe even airheaded. To her, I was rigid, practical, maybe even prudish. Eventually, we realized we were the same in most ways that matter. Eventually, she would buy me numerous canisters of American Spirit tobacco.
Sometimes Elizabeth annoyed me. I might be discussing an unsuccessful lesson strategy as we walked across campus, or a disagreement with my husband from the night before, and she’d essentially disappear, her mind suddenly consumed by a small weed growing among the grasses lining the wide university sidewalks. Before I could voice my frustration, she’d exclaim, “Pineapple weed! Here, smell this,” plucking the yellow ovular bud from a cluster of stems and pinching it between her fingers.
Other times, she annoyed me because I saw on her a scar—revealed only in the specific illumination of telling moments: midnight after too many pints. But this isn’t about Elizabeth and her perceived impossibility of reciprocated love. And this isn’t about how she can commandeer a situation leaving me unfocused and, perhaps, uncomfortable. No, this is about the way she is my friend: A subtle force that pushes me outside of my analytical, bookish world.
In another year we will be separated. She will work as an adjunct instructor in Western Michigan, and I will move to Minnesota. Far removed from this city on the lakeshore, we will seriously consider corresponding, sending letters back and forth, but we will not follow through. Instead, we’ll realize that we have the same cell phone provider and that the minutes spent discussing misbehaving students, Margaret Atwood, my new graduate program, her two adjunct positions—those minutes will be free. And so we will talk.
I will notice pineapple weed in the grass as I walk around my new town. Every now and then, I’ll bend over to pick a yellow bud, squeeze it between my thumb and forefinger, and bring it to my nose.
Sarah Johnson is a writer living in Lansing, Michigan.