We all come from the water, and someday we will return to it. Our bodies will die and come apart, fragmenting into pieces of a once intricate puzzle. What’s left will wash away and seep into the earth, which will drink us up thirstily. And then new life will come forth, because we’ve given ourselves over to something greater. I never feel quite as small, quite as insignificant, as when I behold the ocean. I like to think of it as a calling to the sea within, an internal compass that reminds me of where I came from, where we all came from. Maybe it’s that feeling of obsoleteness that made me afraid of water for so many years – that, and a lack of faith in any sort of ordered design, in anything but existence borne out of chaos through chance alone like waves crashing into each other in an everlasting current.
It started simply with lakes – the still, black water and what lurks beneath. Something unknown grazing your calf as you squish muck between your toes, the malleable organic matter an illusion for solid ground.
The lake by our house was more of a large pond, thick with debris and ringed by tall grass and cattails that supported innumerable dragonflies. There was a floating platform out in the middle, tethered at its deepest point. You could jump off the dock and swim to it, then climb a ladder to perch atop its green turf in the heat of summer. I was terrified of the water, would barely dip my toes into it. I wasn’t a good swimmer by any means, despite many attempts at swimming lessons as a kid. I would just… sink, flailing in panic, sucking in chlorinated water that burned out my nostrils as I choked, gasping for air. My only stroke was the doggy paddle and I barely managed that one.
My friend, May, was much more fearless than I was. She would goad me as she treaded water just off the dock’s edge, demanding that I jump in, too. At some point, she’d give up the battle and swim away to the platform. Others would join her and I’d watch from afar, lonely in my embarrassment.
Then, one day I jumped in. Below the surface, I kicked my legs vigorously and grasped at the darkness until I shot up for air. Before I could start to sink again, I struck out, my legs and arms straining for that floating plastic oasis. May cheered me on from its safety, and for a moment I felt free. Until, the fear descended like a weight at my ankle. I felt a nibble on my shin, something soft brush against my stomach. The darkness surrounding me seemed to expand outward. It didn't help that the platform was tethered to an anchor, slowly drifting away from me as I struggled towards it. Fear propelled me, kept me going, in an inefficient grapple with the water. When I finally reached the platform’s ladder, I barely had the energy to pull myself up. I plopped down hard onto the turf, exhausted beneath the weight of my lungs.
I laid there for a while with May, basking in the sunlight. The wind picked up and we drifted with it. Dragonflies hovered and then zipped away, bullfrogs croaked at the shoreline, and birds sang in response. Cumulus puffs of white sat still against the blue sky, posing as cotton balls tossed upward, caught in the atmosphere.
With a loud splash, I snapped out of my reverie and sat up to see May calling me from the water. That’s when it hit me – I had to swim back. I begged her not to leave me for fear that this time I might really drown. She begrudgingly waited, in that way that adults do with whiny children. May swam slowly next to me, dumbing down her prowess to match my doggy paddle, and when we got back to the dock, she helped pull me up. The trip back felt much less daunting than the trip out. But still, as we sat on the dock eating PB&Js and drinking Coke, I knew that I had no desire to repeat that journey, with or without a partner.
The fear grew after that, bloating like sunken remains. I was already afraid of the ocean, but in the following years I became afraid of rivers and streams, of swimming pools, even hot tubs. It started somewhere real – the lack of control in a liquid abyss, surrounded by creatures better adapted to the environment – and then the fear transformed into something irrational and surreal. Alligators that hid in the swamps of the Floridian Everglades became invisible monsters in my Aunt and Uncle’s swimming pool. A glimpse of gray could be seen peaking out between the whirling jet streams of a hot tub, a fin on the edge of my periphery. And the ocean – it could pull you out in a riptide, never to be seen again, adrift in a very real nightmare, nowhere to go but down.
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