Between Us and The Water

Between Us and The Water

 

The summer I turned twenty-one was also the summer I spent readying myself to leave California, a process that mostly involved long days of forced breathing and memorizing the sounds of the laughing coyotes in the hills, and the two owls outside my bedroom window that spoke to each other each night in harmony. It was not the end of my growing up, but it was something that felt deep and wounding. Perhaps most difficult was leaving the Pacific Ocean, the body of water I felt so certain I belonged to. I had chosen to leave, and yet I could not tell whether the ocean had abandoned me or whether I was abandoning it. I could not, in other words, understand why it was that I needed so badly to go away, and that the ocean wouldn’t stop me from going. 

Just days before I left, I drove to the edge of the state to say goodbye to the ocean. I was with a childhood friend, and the day was a very specific Los Angeles gray: high skies, the air clouding with the memory of June Gloom, and probably smoke from fires to the North. The wind was thick. The ocean was the sky’s mirror, and the waves were high and proud and constant. I would later learn there was a surf warning on this day, a warning so severe that most surfers in Los Angeles County were avoiding the water. The girl I was with did not like to swim in big waves, and so I walked into the ocean alone.

 

When she was ten years old, my mother hit the bottom of the sea. She was bodysurfing on the North Shore of Oahu with her older brother, and she has not told me what the day looked like, but I imagine it was one of those glistening Hawaiian days that masks a coming violence, the way a sky brightens before a storm. It was starting to get dark, she says, which I imagine means that everything was turning blue. The water was still rolling with gold left over from the sun, and the mountain peaks looked like the heads of sleeping giants. She could no longer touch the bottom. She had been swimming a long time, and the waves were getting bigger.

My mother was a headstrong child, all muscle and pride, so when her older brother shouted over the slap of the sea that she had to go in, that the waves were getting bigger, she said, “I’m not going in unless you’re going in.Going in, I have always thought, is a phrase that says a lot about what it means to grow up alongside a body of water. To go in means to get out, but I have never heard any member of my mother’s family say they were getting out of the ocean. We are always going in, in reluctance, the way my father describes going inside to the dark, cramped house of his childhood after a long day of hide-and-seek in wide Ohio cornfields.

Her brother got mad, my mother says, and she tells me that she refused to go in because she was afraid to face the rising waves without him. Going in means you have to get tumbled, you have to brave the breakwater, and both my mother and her brother could smell that something else was coming with the night, and both were too proud to listen to the rising panic in their bodies.

Anyone who has spent most of their life close to the ocean will tell you that there is a distinctive moment when the water changes. It is something akin to a collision of the ocean’s body and soul, a roar from far out into the blue that thunders towards the earth and crashes there. In its wake it leaves crab shells and broken glass, surrendered bodies of fish, straws and seaweed, clam shells and wave prints. I once watched the body of a seal tumble to the sand in silence, on the back of a thunderous wall of water, a hush like a siren song enveloped in wind. 

It is difficult to explain how it feels to be in the ocean during this change. It is a kind of danger, certainly, and it is a sudden understanding of smallness. It is an offering of our lives to some endless and ancient spirit. It is a darkening of blue. It is the moment when the difference between water and land, human and sea creature, is torn open. More than this, though, it is a recognition of aliveness, not only of ourselves, but of the sea.

My mother tried to go in on the crest of a wave that was beginning to roar. The wave took her, and she tucked her scabbed knees to her chest and let it. She didn’t know which way to swim, could not make sense of where the sky was, or the sand. Everything was an earthquake of blue, and there was no longer any direction. She rolled. She hit the bottom of the ocean and heard a crack. It echoed, splintered the water. It was so loud that she thought something had smashed next to her and was certain she had landed beside a colossal creature lurking on the sand. I want to know if her eyes were closed or open, if she saw the sand rising around her when she fell, if fish and crabs scattered, if all of it looked like an underwater smoke cloud, but everything is slower in stories, fuller and wiser, and I know she did not see these things that day. There was no time to notice the sand rising around her. It was a flash of beginning and end. She hit the bottom and got straight back up, her feet finally finding the ground, as if the ocean had spit her back out from its center, had saved her, or banished her from its midst.

She tells me she did not feel anything or know anything was wrong until she rose from the water and saw her mother’s face, a mixture of panic and horror and confusion. It was then that she noticed her left arm was twice as long as it should have been, dangling like the ripped arm of a cloth doll. “I didn’t even notice I was hurt,” she says. “I was just alive.”

“What’s wrong with your arm?” my grandmother said, and wrapped her up in a towel and sent her upstairs to lie down, because the sun hadn’t finished setting, and she wasn’t ready to leave the beach yet. My mother lay down and waited, unmoving, with a book on her knees, her arm like rubber beside her. She was very cold, a strange sensation for an early Hawaiian night. She was shivering, she says, wrapped in a blanket to ward off the creeping chill. When her parents and brother and sister finally returned home, almost three hours later, her mother seemed surprised to see that her arm still lay there, lolling next to the rest of her. In the thick and buzzing dark of the island night, the cracked roads hopping with frogs in their headlights, her father drove her through the flatlands to the city hospital. There, the doctor’s discovered that her collar bone was broken in two.

When she tells me this story, nearly forty years later, I sense that my mother can still feel it in her bones, a moment so real it exists not just in her mind, but in her blood and heartbeat, in the back of her mouth. What she tells me at the end of our conversation is something like this: “I will always love the ocean, but I was humbled by it that day, in a way I couldn’t recover from. I had a new respect for it. I realized I had been arrogant, and when I hit the bottom, I knew that no one could get to me, no one was going to come save me. It was just between me and the water.”

My mother’s family moved away from Hawaii not long after that, across the ocean to the grayer, more damaged, and arguably more mysterious Los Angeles seaside, the coastline where I grew up. When I was young, her story did not scare me. At most, it entertained and awed me. Almost all of my childhood memories revolve around being in or near the sea; it was so a part of my blood, so tangled with my curly hair and tanned skin and calloused heels that I found no shade of fear in its currents and crashes. Like my mother, I felt those currents under my skin. I do not think I was ignorant of the power of the sea—my mother has spent all of my and my brother’s lives reminding us that the ocean is a living thing, and that it can be unexpected—but I did feel deeply that I was alive because of the ocean, and so I was alive with it, and so there was nothing to fear. For the entirety of my childhood, I was under the very serious impression that I was a sea creature, made prisoner by land, meant someday to return to some underwater kelp kingdom of blueness and silence. In many ways, I still believe this.

 

What I remember is that I had trouble getting past the breakwater that day. The water was heavy somehow and pressed against my ankles as I walked. Nothing was still. The waves crashed down hard, and it stung my skin to go through them. I did anyway, and on the other side, the sea was rocking and alive, and I surrendered to its currents on my back. I said goodbye aloud, let its salt mix with the salt from my own eyes. I remember feeling like water was seeping through my skin. I sat up from time to time to wave to my friend, and after about twenty minutes started to notice that her figure was getting smaller, was almost invisible, and then I knew that when I tried to stand, my feet would not meet the bottom. I tried twice to find my footing, pushed my feet down to more and more ocean beneath me, and then I started to swim in, and I felt in the ocean a force I had never encountered before. More than a wall, it was like a blue roar, and I knew the water had changed. I was in the presence of something big, and I realized, very suddenly, that I was not a sea creature, and that I could not speak the language of whatever it was I was faced with. I kept swimming and went under again and again. It was a rip current. The ocean hammered against my chest. The waves were sea giants, but I rode them, and felt the water press hard against me, as if it wanted to go through me, and could not understand why I was blocking its path. The harder I pushed against it, the less I seemed to be getting anywhere. And then—this is what I remember most clearly—I turned to face the sea. In my chest rose a sudden calm, as if I had reached the eye of a storm, and everything was still around me, and I watched the approach of a cresting wave, a thunderbolt of water with a thousand currents and limbs, and it was about to crash over me, and in the stillness I had time to breathe in and—I remember this—time to recognize that I was going to die.

I gave my life to the sea. I remember with such shocking clarity the way I opened my arms, and the volcanic pain that enveloped me as I became a part of the wave. I rolled. My mouth filled with the bottom of the ocean and its sand scraped down my throat. I wanted to open my eyes, I wanted to be witness to my own drowning, but the water was too strong, and I sucked it into my mouth. I tumbled so much I had no sense of land or bottom, was, finally, a lost piece of the ocean. For a long time, I erupted with its roar, choked with its heartbeat. I heard in my ears the beginnings of the world. And then my feet found the ground, made contact with the sharp rock of the shore, and I was standing up and my head was breaking out of a swarming white froth of water and sand was bleeding down my lips and I was breathing in California, thrown back onto a land I was certain I had left, delivered, abandoned, to the earth. I ran out of the ocean, still holding my breath. I turned back to face it, let its salt drip down my bruised skin, and stared in astonishment at the place I had come from.

When I could breathe again, I called my mother. I told her I understood what it meant to be alone with the sea. “No one was going to save me,” I told her. And for a long time, we sat in silence, breathing on the phone, both aware of an aliveness that extended far beyond us. Finally, she said, “It was just between you and the water. No one will ever really understand.” And I wanted to say something, felt some meaning rising from my skin, but I could not speak it. It was only blue.

 
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