Our Atlantis didn't have marble columns or streets paved in gold. Like most places, our streets were macadam, potholed and sand-strewn. And marble, that was for the folks on the North Shore, who lived in A-frames and had private beaches for their backyards. Our Atlantis had acres of cranberry bogs and pristine pine barrens, where aquifers ran clear and deep. It had pizza parlors on every Main Street and ramshackle clam shacks that no outsider would ever think of entering but that served steaming platters of the best mussels and Italian ices with flat wooden spoons glued to their lids.
Our Atlantis wasn't a place though, so much as an age, a time when we walked barefoot and caught fireflies in cupped hands, when we snuck onto the beach after dark with blankets and beer, and swam in the choppy, moonlit waters. We. Kiri, Madge and me. Always.
And when I think of Atlantis now, I return to that last night before Kiri left for college on the mainland, when we crossed through the dark tunnel that led beneath the dunes from parking lot to beach, the slap of our flip-flops echoing from the damp, graffiti-covered concrete.
Madge and Kiri were my fellow Atlanteans, though they wore cutoffs instead of silken robes, and flip-flops instead of leather sandals. We'd been one another's constant companions since grade school, and the thought that it ended that night seemed just that to us, an ending that left us all melancholy and vaguely disoriented.
Emerging from the tunnel always felt like stepping out onto an alien landscape. The beach looked different at night, the sand raked into neat hills and valleys, footprints erased as if nobody had ever set foot there, the empty lifeguard towers like slumbering sea beasts. No matter how many times we snuck onto the beach after dark, it was something I never got used to.
Madge shook out a blanket and spread it onto the sand just over the high tide line, and we sat on the threadbare fleece, each of us taking a corner and anchoring the fourth with our cooler. Kiri passed around beer, stolen from the fridge her dad kept in the garage.
None of us seemed inclined to speak, though tomorrow hung over us like a sail, ready to pull us out to sea. Finally I said, "Are you ready, Kiri?"
She'd be the first to go. I didn't leave for another two weeks, and Madge would be staying local, commuting to a nearby university in the car she'd gotten for graduation.
Kiri tipped her head back and drank from her beer, her long, dark curls spilling across her shoulders. "I guess. I mean, who knows." Still, something about the brightness of her eyes spoke of promise, and I knew Kiri was ready to throw herself headlong into the future.
"What do you think it's going to be like?" Madge asked. "Making new friends and . . . everything." She stood and walked to the water's edge, where she heaved her empty bottle into the water. It filled and sank. Maybe years from now somebody would find its shattered pieces washed up on some shore, sand-frosted, the edges tumbled smooth, a relic of our vanished civilization.
None of us had an answer. Like Madge, we just looked out over the ocean, our gazes following the line of moonlight across the water. On the horizon, something brightened. It must have been a fire, a tanker ablaze or maybe a plane crash, but to me it was a city of golden towers, spires and arches. It hovered there atop the water, and then it began to sink, slowly, until all that remained was a glow on the water. Then that too was gone. Madge continued to look long afterward.
On the way out I spray-painted our names onto the wall of the tunnel—Kiri, Madge, Rhoda—in large, looping script.
Kiri left for college the next day.
In the following weeks, Atlantis appeared time and again. To me, anyway. I didn't know about Madge, really, since she said little even as she helped me pick out linens and lamps and tubes of the bright acrylics, with which I preferred to paint. I glimpsed Atlantis in the curve of a water glass or the bowl of a spoon. Sometimes it appeared in the puddles that collected after a rainfall, lurking just below their surface, untouchable, already lost.
The night before I left Madge and I sprawled across the bed in Madge's room with the stereo blaring, eating chips from the bag. Atlantis was everywhere. It shone from the dark eyes of Madge's stuffed bears and from the chrome knobs of the stereo. It beckoned from the stone in my class ring, and from the glass in the framed picture of Madge, Kiri and me taken the summer I'd turned ten. We saw it too in each other, a glow on our skin, shining in our eyes.
"At least," I said, "I'm not going too far. I can come home some weekends."
Madge only nodded. We said goodnight, but not goodbye.
I did come home some weekends, at least for a while. Madge and I would drive down to the docks and eat French fries and rainbow Italian ices, and watch boats come and go in the bay. We didn't mention the sinking of Atlantis, or that Kiri's letters and calls had become few and far between.
Eventually, my weekends home dwindled to once every few months. At school there were dances and parties, overnight excursions to the city and hours spent in the art cottages stroking paint onto canvas.
Sometimes, though, I painted Atlantis, mixing shimmering golds and oranges beside the colors of the sea there on my palette. I painted it in its glory, light shining on marble columns, arches that glittered gold beneath the moon. And I painted it there below the surface of the ocean, its structures distorted by the swells above, a phantom city, a memory. Sometimes I painted us there: Kiri, Madge and myself, perpetually seventeen, our faces tanned, our hair sun-bleached, our smiles contented.
After my second year ended, I stayed at school for summer session. Madge drove out to spend an afternoon. It felt strange to have her there, strange to sit with her on the steps of the dorm, looking out over hills rather than whitecaps, as if we were two different people in the shells of those bodies. Madge seemed to study the landscape. Her bare toes dug at the concrete until I was sure they'd be raw.
"Have you heard from Kiri at all?" I asked.
"I heard she's home for the summer but . . ." She shook her head and shrugged, and we fell into silence. After a few minutes, without looking at me, she said, "I'm not taking classes this semester."
"You're . . "
"No. Not this semester. My mom's sick. She'll need some help."
"Madge," I said, but she shook her head again and looked out across the hills where students moved along the winding pathways.
She left a little while later, her car disappearing around the bend in the narrow campus road. In her fender, Atlantis gleamed.
After four years I graduated and left the island for good, following my boyfriend to his hometown on the mainland, where the air didn't smell of salt and beach rose. I hadn't seen Madge since her mom's funeral, but I'd heard she'd never returned to school. She'd gotten a job in the office at the high school and was living in her old room at home. Sometimes I imagined her as she'd been that night so long ago, staring out across the ocean to where Atlantis sank.
I rode the ferry off the island for the last time on a Sunday afternoon in June, and I stood on deck as the boat motored away, watching the waters for some sign of Atlantis. But it was gone, as if it had never been.
I got the call two nights ago, Kiri's voice like a memory reaching through the phone lines.
"Kiri," I said. "My God! How long has it been?"
"Fourteen years. At least." I heard the smile in her voice, and the melancholy too. No matter how hard you throw yourself forward, the past never really disappears. "I hear you're quite the artist now."
"Yeah. And you, a lawyer, right? Wow."
"I know, huh. And sometimes it still seems like I'm seventeen." Silence held the line for a heartbeat, two. Then she said, "You haven't heard?"
The ferry glides across a glass-smooth sound, and I imagine that I'm not just moving across space but across time as well, that when we moor and I cross to the dock, I'll once again be seventeen and lingering in that summer between high school graduation and the start of everything.
Kiri meets me at the docks. For a minute I don't recognize her—maybe because I'm looking for a girl and not a woman—and then she's there, taking my bag and hugging me all in one smooth motion. And she's the same Kiri, even though she isn't, even though her curls are no longer long and wild, even though the angles of her face are different in some inexpressible way.
"I'm glad you came," she says when she lets me go.
On the way to the car we walk past kite stores and seafood dens, candy shops with taffy pulls right in the front windows, and boutiques where they sell cowry shells and tiny, dried starfish by the scoop. Jewelry stores display sea glass pendants and gold-dipped sand dollars, all these things at once so familiar and so alien to me.
Madge rides in the car with us, a pony-tailed ghost in the backseat. We don't speak to her and we don't speak of her, but still she's there. After a bit, we pull into Kiri's old driveway. Her parents still live there, and it looks mostly the same, though the rhododendrons by the mailbox, once straggly, now bloom with hundreds of purple flowers bobbing with bumblebees.
It isn't until we're sitting there in the driveway with the car still idling that Kiri says, "Do you think she did it intentionally?"
I sigh. "I don't know, Kiri. I don't."
"She had one of your paintings hanging on her wall, did you know? I went to see her a few years back, and she had it hanging over her bed. It was beautiful, Rho, these young women—girls I guess—standing in the gateway of a golden city."
She doesn't say Atlantis. Maybe, I think, I was the only one who saw it that way. Still, I nod.
"They're us, aren't they?" Kiri asks. "Those girls?"
"Yeah," I say. "They are."
Sneaking onto the beach after dark isn't hard. Local kids know the right places to park, the unofficial paths that weave through the scrub pine and deposit you beyond the access road where the police hide at night, drinking cups of coffee. Madge knew. We'd done it often enough ourselves.
In the tunnel, only our breath echoes in the darkness. I stop where once I painted our names, but a decade and a half's worth of other names cover the spot where ours once were.
Kiri touches my arm, and we continue walking until we emerge onto the sand and stand beneath the incomplete moon. Madge would have stood here too, only days ago, a towel draped over one arm, her flip-flops dangling from her hand. We too take off our shoes and set them to the side.
We leave footprints in the sand, and my muscles remember how it feels to walk on the shifting hills and valleys. The lifeguard chairs sit empty. If nothing else, the beach is the same.
Kiri and I walk to the water's edge. The tide is going out. Shining stones and bits of broken shells tumble in the surf.
I can imagine Madge spreading her towel onto the sand just above the high tide line, where the dried-out egg cases of skates tangle with seaweed and the plastic connectors from six-packs.
There are so many memories here that my heart beats too fast, too hard. Kiri's lopsided sand castles and Madge emptying beach glass from her pockets. There's the day jellyfish washed up all along the beach like discarded bubblegum and the day that Kiri nearly drowned, when lifeguards had to pull her from the water. And there in the dark, Atlantis is all around me, shining and familiar and so bright that it burns my eyes.
Only three days ago Madge would have stood here, looking out across the ocean while the cold water rushed over her ankles and sand pulled back, leaving hollows beneath her toes. I can picture her. Only it isn't the adult Madge I picture, the face from the black-and-white photo in the newspaper article. Rather, it's the seventeen-year-old Madge that threw her bottle into the waves that night so long ago.
I think of Kiri's question earlier today: Do you think she did it intentionally? And anger wells up in me when I think of her looking out at the horizon and yearning for the golden city that lay there just out of reach. Did she plan on just a solo swim at midnight, a small risk to remind herself that she was still alive, an individual instead of just caretaker for her father now, and worker in a dead-end job? And maybe she just got a cramp or the water was rougher than she'd thought and she couldn't make it back to shore. Or had she swum in a straight line toward Atlantis, not understanding that it was gone forever, something to be watched from afar but never reached again?
I don't realize that I've waded in, the water nipping at my calves, my thighs, until Kiri says, "Don't."
I turn until we're facing each other. The icy water drains my anger, sucks it away with the tide.
Kiri's half in the water now too. Our hands steady each other even as the currents pull and pull. When something sinks, there are always currents, waiting to pull you down and back, to take you under with it.
With one hand on my arm to steady herself, Kiri reaches into her sweatshirt pocket and pulls out two yellow roses, their stems clipped away. She hands one to me. "I just thought . . ."
"I miss her," I say. "I know I hadn't seen her in years, but I just miss her."
Kiri nods. "I do too."
She sets her bloom down onto the surface of the sea, and I place mine there as well. The retreating tide takes them, carrying them toward the place where Atlantis waits, where maybe it always will. We watch until they vanish into the dark, and then we emerge from the water and head toward home.
Originally published in Family Circle magazine, March 2010.