There isn’t much of a wind, which means an abundance of the mosquito-like greenheads and a shortage of people. I would like to say either, “that’s good” or “that’s bad” but really it’s more of a neutral, since there’s both good and bad and they balance each other out perfectly. Or almost; I reach down to slap at a pesky greenhead landing on my ankle and grumble to myself. The lack of wind is decidedly more bad than good.
I’m strolling comfortably along the length of the most beautiful beach in America that I’ve been to, smiling at the feeling of the sun warming the top of my head and the sand the soles of my feet. Still relaxed, I shift my position so that I’m walking on the line that separates the loose and scalding sand and the darker, moist sand. Nothing could be more perfect. This is a place where I know no one except my mother and my sister, and even my mother is far away, sitting on a towel somewhere, sunning herself. I can act however I want without retribution, I can pretend to be anyone I want, or I can just come to terms with myself, as hard as that might be.
“Look!” my little sister screeches, jumping back from the touch of the waves yet again. “My feet aren’t wet yet!” A moment later she shrieks in surprise and indignation as a particularly strong wave rushes towards her and knocks her backwards. I abandon my soothing world to rush over to her and see to it that she’s alright. She’s only winded and her back is soaked and sandy, but it doesn’t matter much since she’s wearing a bathing suit. “It got me,” she tells me mournfully, frowning in anger at the ocean. In the time it takes for your heart to beat out five throbs, she is on her feet again and determined to get her revenge. She’s still careful to leap back from the touch of the waves but now she has a handful of sand in her hand and she flings it towards the culprit, the water.
If we were anywhere else, if it was any other time, I would have smiled to myself and cheered her on. But here I frown at her behavior; why throw sand at the waves when they are the most wonderful thing in the world? They seem to invite me to leap into them with the way they lurch forward, searching for my feet. I wouldn’t say that I’m in a trance as I step forward because I know perfectly well what I’m doing; I’m in full possession of my body, my actions, my thoughts. My gaze, however, is transfixed on the hypnotic, frothing water and I couldn’t pull it away if I wanted to. But I don’t want to, I never want to. I want to stare at this ocean forever, let the waves reach out and tickle my feet.
“It’s touching you!” my younger sister cries out, staring at me in wonder. I pay her no attention. As she jumps back from the waves I move forward towards them, feeling the water rising up my body. Now it’s to my ankles, now it’s to my shins, now it’s to my knees…it’s cold and it stings all over for a few moments before I can’t feel it anymore. I wrench my gaze away from the blue-green horizon and stare down at my feet. I can’t feel them. I wiggle my toes and I can see them move but feel nothing; it’s as though they’re not my feet anymore. My shins are just as numb, and for a moment I’m scared: the ocean has taken over these parts of my body, claimed them for its own, snatched them away from me. But in the next I’m unspeakably grateful. Thank you, I whisper, thank you for releasing me.
Grinning in a way that must scare my sister, as she stares at me in astonishment, I walk forward until the water is to my waist. Calmly, I watch a wave rush at me, getting bigger and bigger as it goes, and I don’t flinch as it crashes down upon my head. Instead, I let myself sink under, let it carry me toward the shore, let it roll me around like a rag doll. The next moment I am in the shallow water, on my knees, which would have felt scraped and raw if I could feel them. “Are you OK?” my sister calls out, looking frightened. Again, I pay her no heed. Instead, I pick myself up and go back to the area where the water is to my waist.
Before another wave can roll me back to shore, I lift my arms – unpleasantly heavy and alive – above my head. Then, not letting myself question the wisdom of my next move, I dive forward into the water.
It’s like nothing you could ever imagine. I stay under for five seconds, then ten, lying unmoving on the soft sand at the bottom as waves crash about on the surface. My eyes are open and I can see everything around me: the forlorn pieces of seaweed, the sand I’m lying on, the bits of various plants and things on the surface of the water…As with the lower, my upper body hurts terribly for the first few moments before it sinks into merciful numbness and I can let my thoughts run free. I’ve finally been released of my cumbersome body; it’s only a shell but it has always clamored for my attention. Now it lies still and lifeless and I can, for the first time in my life, take my thoughts away from it completely and let them go where they wish. My imperfect, too-small chest doesn’t matter because it’s not part of me anymore. My rising stomach can’t keep making me feel guilty about not exercising enough because it has been silenced. My limp, mousy brown hair can’t make me feel ugly because I’m free of it.
Ten seconds have passed – the most relieving, unbelievable ten seconds of my life – and though I would like to stay here forever, I know I can’t. Under the rolling waves, submerged in the salty water, everything is different and all that matters is…well, nothing matters. It’s a separate place from the world above it, the world full of worries and petty cares that nevertheless manage to haunt you. It’s the only place where I fit in completely, as though this world had been created to match my idea of the ideal realm. After a while, some of the worries of the surface reach even here, to my perfect world. My sister is waiting for me to return, probably deathly pale and wondering whether to dive in after me. For ten glorious seconds I have forgotten all of that and have been separate from my body, which weighs me down, but now I know my time here is over. I can come again sometime, but for now I must leave to face the world that I have been born into. The world that, no matter how imperfect and sometimes horrible, I belong in.
I let my body rise to the surface, enjoying the last moments of my freedom and trying desperately to hold on to them so that they stay with me forever. All too quickly, my head surfaces and the harsh light of the sun makes me blink in confusion. I bob there for awhile, then lift my arms to my sides and, with strong, measured strokes, bring myself closer and closer to the shore, the waves pushing me along. There. I’m here, I’m back. The water is to my waist again and I turn around one last time to let a wave crash into me. It pulls me under as before and drags me unceremoniously to the shore, then leaves me there without caring what happens next. I lie still and stare at the sky, refusing to acknowledge the fact that the sand is sucking me toward the water again and another wave is soon to come. The water covers my completely for the last time, and when it pulls away it leaves sand all over me, not sparing my face. Slowly, I pull myself into a sitting position and then to my knees. Finally, I’m standing, looking like a sailor thrown into the sea and washed onto a foreign island.
“I’m OK,” I say softly, turning my back to the ocean and facing my petrified little sister. “It’s OK, I’m fine.” She doesn’t look convinced. “It was fun, even. It was lots of fun. And now I’m OK.”
We stare at each other and I know that she is afraid of the transformation that has been wrought in me in less than a minute. She doesn’t understand how the ocean has dragged me under and then returned me to her completely changed. It’s only then that I realize that I have been changed by my experience. But how? When she declares, weakly, “I’m telling Mom,” and I reply, “That’s OK,” I understand: I have been given the strength to live in this world. I have been given the promise of something more and the knowledge that, when things get too overwhelming, I can always return to the place that was made for me. After a while, I won’t need to return there as much, and, finally, never. I will have come to terms with the world I live in and I will feel as though I fit here as perfectly as I do there. My earthly body will be a blessing and not a curse. Even though I am something of an outsider at the moment, I am comforted by the knowledge that someday I will belong here and that in the meantime there is a place for me. And so it is with confidence that I leave the beach to face another day and whatever else may come.