What is Drowned Can Never Die
Full Circle. I was drinking water and coughed a little, and some water went down my throat and some water went up my nose. Just a little. And in that micro-sensation of my air passages being full of water and needing to clear them, my brain brought me back to 1987.
I am 8 years old, giggling with joy as my father (claiming in the moment to be a Sea Turtle) swims lap after lap across our backyard Florida pool in the Summer Sun. He smells like chlorine and sunscreen, but the world smells like chlorine and sunscreen. I am a mermaid, taking a free ride on his “taxi service” across the sea.
He’ll reach his arms behind his back every so often in a backwards hug, and sort of barrel-roll, and occasionally I’ll get some water up my nose. I never learned to pause my laughter properly to avoid swallowing pool water — a deficiency which would continue into my professional career as a Pearl Diver at Florida’s Sea World. (I’d partially drown every time a co-worker made me laugh; all my survival skills out the window in beautiful sacrifice to the more spiritually critical belly-laugh.)
When my Dad would spin, the world turned upside down and that SUN crinkled through the cellophane surface like Life Itself where you could feel the warm rays all the way down to the nether-depths of 8-feet deep.
Later as I got older I used duct tape to secure a garden hose to an empty milk jug so I could be a bell-diver. ( I thought I’d invented it but I was late by 300 years or so.) I’d terrify my watchful mother as she’d peer nervously over a sinkfull of dishes, making certain I surfaced every few minutes or so, which was torture enough just to drag myself away from the deep-sea view of the the world beyond that laser-cut surface. Each bubble I sent up was a missive to my mom: “see? I’m OK! I really AM a mermaid, see?”
I’d scare her further by tying my ankles together as a practice-fin. (This was ironic since the Pearl Divers at Sea World were encouraged to swim in this graceful “legs together” style.) All my Science never built up my lungs, so I never had the capacity for the 2-minute Champion Prizes my co-divers won, but we laughed so much on those languid Summer Shifts. And I swallowed so much chlorine.
Later, on my 30*coughcough*th birthday out in California, I decided it was time to make peace with the Pacific and cross Surf Lessons off my Bucket List. I figured as a former professional Pearl Diver, and a professional Stilt Walker, my balance and aquatic prowess would prove a successful combination and ohhhhh boy howdy was I wrong.
“paddlepaddlepaddlepaddle” shouts the Surf Guru but my T-Rex arms are no match for the mighty sea and I feel an impact similar to the times I’ve been in a traffic accident. Just yanked from my thrown, from space and time and from whatever agenda I had and dragged 4 or 5 feet to the bottom of the sea where I am rolled, mauled, scraped and pinned until the wave is good and ready to be done with me.
Meet George Jetsam, I claw gasping to the surface and try to find my legs as another wave, just to make its point, bitchslaps me in the back of the head back to sea level. Stumbling like a newborn, red and raw from my exfoliating adventure along the sand, I clamber to find footing and scramble gracelessly back to my board, giving the World’s Fakest Thumb’s Up to the Surf Guru. He’s not fooled and I’m too beat up to care.
This process repeats itself for about 5 more times. I paddlepaddlepaddlepaddle and I SUCK and I’m not faster than the laziest wave, but even the lazy ones hit me like a wet watery freight train and suck me face-first to the nearest hardest sand.
I trytrytrytry to force all the air out my nose but the pressure of the wave-rush is so intense and I end up drinking a ton of sea water in through my nostrils despite my best efforts. I am the very worst.
But in the drowning, in the sensation of water in my breathing passage, I am reminded of laughing with my work friends on a sunny day at a theme park 3,400 miles away.
In the same non-breath, I am reminded of tan skin and the glossy brown of my father’s wet military haircut. The freckles on his back that would one day be mine, and the scars from a surgery I’ll never know. His muscles and the feel of my raisiny fingers pressed into them as he swam, ferrying my 90-lb. (dripping wet) noisy, squealing, squirmy mermaid childhood back and forth a hundred thousand times under the warmest sun. Patient Turtle that he was.
As I tumbled like some worthless not-gemstone rock on my final attempt at surfing, the back of my head hit the hard sand beneath the waves on Venice Beach California.
And I looked up.
My Dad had brought me here, to Venice Beach, once when I was 14 — we’d taken in the local wildlife and had a sandwich at a corner cafe with a red and white check tablecloth, and it was on this trip that I knew irrevocably that I wanted to be Californian forever. More than I’d wanted to be a mermaid, and more than I wanted to stay a Pearl Diver.
When my skull slammed the bottom I ran out of air to force OUT my nose so it all came IN my nose and I drowned just a little — just for a little tiny microsecond, and in that moment I tasted the ocean and saw the same hot sun burning through the thin veil between sea and not-sea, between Life and not-life, giving energy to all things but mostly little girls and DIY-bell-jars and nervous moms washing dishes and sea-turtle dads.
And in that fraction of in-between-ness, I swear I smelled chlorine and sunscreen.
And if this is what it is to drown then I shall fear no sea.
At the end of my Surfday/Birthday, I shore did wave as I cheered my Fiancee on from sandy safeness. Although he was considerably better at not drowning, he offered to join me, but I was happy to perch and watch the sun kiss the water from the flip side. It was a perfect day full of technical failure and absolute near-death joy.
Tonight, in my Revenant Reverie, I finish my glass of water and head to bed, happier, dreamier, still 3,400 miles away but eager to call my dad in the morning.