Riptide: a short story
There’s sand filling my lungs. I can’t breathe, I can’t see, and the world is spinning as I tumble underwater.
At last, I surface, taking the biggest breath I’ve probably ever taken. I’m coughing non-stop, trying to get every last drop of salt water out of my mouth while I try and breathe in fresh air for what feels like the first time in minutes, though realistically it was likely only a few seconds. My eyes sting, my head shakes, and I’m breathing so hard I’m nearly hyperventilating.
My inclination is to swim back to shore, but I can’t turn back. We’ve been instructed to swim the furthest we have so far, and I can’t back down from an assignment. Failing is not in my blood.
As soon as another wave comes, I take a huge breath, shut my eyes, and hope I’ll surface without getting caught in the wave.
I’ve never been scared of water before this moment. I started swimming before I could walk and, for as long as I can remember, water has been my safe place. Pool, ocean, bath tub — it doesn’t matter. When I’m in or under the water, I feel calm, safe, at home.
Not anymore. In this moment, my love of the ocean — of water — rushes away.
When I make it past the wave break to a place where I can tread water without the fear of getting caught under a wave, I have a silent conversation with the ocean. I make a one-way pact that says we will have a truce until I make it out to the swim point and back to shore, and then we’re done. I give up without giving up, a workaround I’ve learned works well.
Before today, the beach was a welcome respite. Growing up less than a mile from one of California’s most famous beaches, I spent countless hours of my childhood on this mile-long stretch of sand watching striking sunsets, smelling the salty air, and attempting to pet every off-leash dog that crossed my path.
Other than surfers who brave the cold, vast Pacific Ocean, most locals and tourists who flock to the beach wade in the water but avoid going deeper than their knees. Maybe it’s the signs loitering the pathways warning of strong rip currents, which we purposefully ignored as we ran into the ocean this morning.
In this moment, as I’m treading water, attempting to calm my out-of-control breathing, I understand why people are scared of the ocean: the fear of the unknown. Of drowning, of dying, of involuntarily being dragged away from the comfort and safety of solid ground into the deep, dark emptiness.
The fear overtakes everything, making me swim harder and faster than I ever have in my short life.
Somehow, I make it to the designated buoy and back to shore. Once my toes touch the sand and I can stand freely, water rushing past my ankles, I breathe a deep sigh of relief.
“I am never swimming here again,” I promise myself.
I haven’t since.