Lately, more so than usual, my thoughts are tidal. Maybe it’s the moon or the tropical storms, but they flood everything until they don’t, and I’m left delirious and without proof, wondering how anything could have filled a space so vast, so fully, only to disappear a few hours later. I prefer low tide, but I also can’t reconcile with it.
They’re tides like love that hits me so hard my eyes water. It burns hot and fast, smoldering into fear and longing, which cool to a steely logic and resolve. Or confidence in my career that dissolves into paranoia, fear, exhaustion. Questions swirl, always. Coming back from a big trip always leaves me a little curious and adrift. The last time this happened I looked at my husband of 8 years and said, “Do you ever wonder about the purpose of life?” and he dismissed me cruelly, then came out to me as gay a day later and left me. I realized that day my concerns were in the way. I was in the way.
You can’t blame me. That post-travel spell is what kicked off this whole other crazy journey I’ve been on the last three years to figure out who the hell I am, what makes me happy, what I need and what I want. Not what anyone else wants, for fuck’s sake, what I want. I’m tired of what everyone else wants.
2018. Sleepless nights are as common as listless days, which I guess is just part of being an adult. I keep going to sleep every day of my life but I somehow never get better at it. The personal stuff I need to spill builds up until I need to write it down and get it out but I can’t get it out—I have to write so much for work I have nothing left. Those involuntary tears during my first spin class the other day were likely only part endorphins, part heartache and exhaustion. I know because they came again today when I was swimming alone out in the ocean.
What’s the old song? Smoke gets in your eyes? I guess salt got in mine.
My dad probably always knows what’s best because I was hunched over my laptop writing on the floor with Eli curled up by my hip when he came in and ordered me to get over to the ocean for a dip. “It’s beautiful down there right now,” he said without removing his glasses. “Hot, but perfect. Try and get over there if you can.” It didn’t take a lot of prodding. I checked the clock and saw 1.50 until a pending call, wrapped my open draft and changed into my suit. I waved from the driveway, the heat encircling my gestures like expanding foam.
Walking down onto the sand it occurred to me how much I needed this. Hello, sea. Hello, sand. I hear you, waves. I remember you, depth where the waves stop breaking and turn to swells.
It occurred to me how much I needed to be on the sand and in that place alone without the normal shit: No beach bags full of stuff, not worrying about the cut of my suit or how my stomach looks after a big breakfast. No one to impress. Just me and a good swim, my keys, and my towel. I needed to remember what it felt like to swim in my ocean—cause that stretch, that stretch there is mine.
Or, okay, I guess it’s ours. Was ours, for a month and a half. And that was the mental dunk I took and didn’t want to take, the memories of our arms windmilling around us in the murky green water under that sun for hours—for days. A bright orange Coast Guard helicopter chewed through the air over my head and I eased into the memory—slowly. The hard way, the wrong way for cold water and for cold thoughts.
Smells always work on my memory, but I didn’t realize colors did too until today when I bobbed in the brown-green water totally alone, the sun glinting white hot and the rhythm familiar. Waves left hollow spots for words that I couldn’t hear but I could see them being spoken, the wide mouth in crazy laughter, pulling up at the sides of his face in the way I once drew for him on the lid of a styrofoam takeout container.
Back then I spent hours in those gentle waves trying to unravel the mystery of him, while working through actual “mini-mysteries” he’d tell me—one a day, so they’d last us weeks. “A hiker finds the bodies of Adam and Eve frozen in the ice of a glacier. He knows it’s them just by looking at them. How does he know?” Some took me hours to figure out, so long that mystery carried us from the waves to the shore where we’d sift sand through our fingers while we spoke, eyes cast down, then back to the tidal pools until I’d have a revelation.
Revelations came early for us, then very late—too late.
He was so unapologetically himself, but so incredibly reserved. I wanted to pull him, slimey and taught and fighting, from his shell like the tiny coquinas that burrow into the wet sand. And I did this, without invitation. I need to stop going places where I don’t belong.
It’s important you know that I’m aware that I’m talking about a gay man who I’m no longer remotely interested in. He was remarried this past weekend, to the guy I never liked or trusted. It’s like that, but it’s not like that. Longing takes many forms. He rejected me, erased me, replaced me. But once upon a time, he chose me. And being chosen is about the most delicious feeling if you’ve had it. It seals up cracks and seams and it’s real—don’t let them tell you otherwise.
I remember how the salt water played with the hairs on his arms, how his cuticles turned white against the deep tan of his hands. How he was so firm in his being adrift in life, I’d never met someone so comfortable being lost. And I was comfortable, too—in my own skin, for maybe the first time. I was self-conscious of nothing that summer with him, something he’d later note to our therapist up in Vermont. “She was larger than life,” I think he said, or maybe she said it. Either way, I think he must have meant my sunglasses, not me. I was already so far along in coalescing into what I thought he wanted me to be, who knows who I was.
Maybe that’s the rub, and the answer—all in one. I loved who I was and in the blink of an eye who I was went from being the best thing to not enough anymore. You carry that with you, as a person. You carry that with you and it casts long shadows.
I came out of the water blinking the salt from my eyes, twisting my hair around my wrist above my head. I looked up to see the fit, young guy I’d seen touching his toes on the shore, walking toward me smiling. “You’re pretty brave, swimming out there alone,” he said. “How’s that?” I asked, squinting. “Oh I guess that’s really just morning and evening,” he said as I dabbed my towel on my face, “when the wildlife comes out.”
Sharks. I wondered if I’d missed a recent news report, but then again, I don’t live here anymore. “You know it occurred to me,” I replied, “but I guess I made it out alive.”
(Did I make it out alive?)
Maybe it was the zit I’ve had brewing on my chin or the face of someone who’s in her late thirties and not her late twenties. Maybe it was the way I talk to strange men now, being someone who’s already with someone else—with my defenses up. Or maybe it was the sadness in my voice. He politely wrapped up the conversation and jogged up the dune.
And I thought, “Shit. I’m a John Irving novel. I’m a sad divorced woman on a beach reminiscing, scaring off young men who thought I looked better than I do from afar. I’m a widow for three years.”
In my stories you can see what’s coming, but you can’t see everything that’s coming.
It’s weird to open the door in the floor and peer back into a memory, live it again in the half-light of your mind. That ocean hypnotized us, didn’t it? His mystery hypnotized me. I wanted to save him from himself and it became all that mattered. But that’s what falling in love is, right? You choose to choose someone else.
Above the shimmering pavement of polished neighborhoods where tanned ladies garden with retirement dollars I wonder if anyone worries still. If anyone worries about dormant mysteries unraveling and revelations, and the errant possibility that something else, someone better, might come along.
Wrapped in my towel I find a handful of shark’s teeth in under five minutes and cluck a bit in spite of myself. They said the shells were out today but the teeth weren’t.
Maybe they’re just not as good at finding them as I am.