Swimming with the Sharks

beach chairs
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Linda L. Crowe

2015 should go down in history as the Year of the Shark. The Atlantic was eerily vacant of swimmers last summer because of all the shark attacks—even in North Carolina, where our family has vacationed every year since 1963, the year my little sister, Laura, was born.

“Are we going to swim this year?” I asked Laura in June as we planned for our August week at the beach.

“Linda, we’ve got to!”

In July I told her what my boss said when he called from his vacation at Baldhead Island. “It’s weird.” I imitated his soft southern accent and the way he emphasized certain words. “You look up and down the beach and there is not a soul in the water, as far as the eye can see.” Baldhead is not far from Kure Beach, where we go.

There are always sharks, my sister reminded me. But last year, the predators seemed to be a bit more aggressive. In fact, the number of attacks at North Carolina beaches in 2015 set a state record.

They bit surfers, of course, but ordinary swimmers, too. Even waders. They bit the arms off two teenagers.

And not just in North Carolina. Shark attacks made headlines in Florida, South Carolina, Malibu, Hawaii, Australia, and South Africa. Great whites were sighted off New York beaches. Cape Cod, too—the setting for Jaws, a book I first read on the beach at Kure when I was in high school. A great read, yes, but it did not keep me out of the water. It was fiction, after all.

In the newspaper and on radio and TV, experts cited theories on why the sharks were so bitey:

  • Climate change was making it hotter, so more people were spending more time in the ocean, upping their odds of getting bitten.
  • The sharks’ normal food was in short supply, so they were changing up the menu.
  • Low rainfall was making the near-coastal seawater saltier, which the sharks just loved.

I believed that the sharks were pissed off. That this was their well-coordinated revenge for all the fishermen who caught them, sliced off their fins, and threw them back in the ocean to die. One hundred million sharks a year are killed for their meat and/or fins, according to recent estimates. So many that shark populations are taking a dive. If the same number of people were getting killed each year, America would send in troops or provide air support to rebels.

The conspiracy theory made sense to me because what else can sharks do? They can’t make bombs. They can’t take hostages. If this is the reason, it serves our species right, I said. My sister seemed doubtful.

•••

August rolled around, and Laura and her gang made the annual trek on I-95 from Virginia over to Wilmington and down to the beach. I joined them a day later. By the time I arrived, everyone had been swimming, and no one had been attacked. I raced in, too, and the sharks did not bite me.

We floated, splashed each other, and frolicked in the temperate, briny goodness that is the ocean at Kure. But mostly we waited for just the right wave, then swam like hell to catch it the moment before it crested—our bodies stiff fleshy spears, shooting forward as the water surged landward.

At last we tired and, one by one, each of us rode one final wave back to the beach. Except me. I wasn’t ready to go up yet, so I treaded water alone and gazed out toward the vast horizon. A pelican hovered in the sky above me. I watched as it locked in on a target and folded its wings, then plummeted headfirst into the water and disappeared. Rising to the surface, it pointed its long beak toward heaven and gulped down a luckless fish. Just me, the pelican, and the distant horizon. And all that lurked beneath us.

I was not afraid. Or maybe I was a little, but the odds of a shark attack were miniscule compared to the wonder of bobbing in the ocean, salt on my lips as pelicans and gulls swooped and dived overhead.

Without the exertion of bodysurfing, I was soon covered with goose bumps, so I caught a wave in to shore. I dried off with my beach towel and plopped down in a canvas chair next to my sister. When she asked if it was scary out there all by myself, it occurred to me that she was watching me the whole time—once a lifeguard, always a lifeguard. Not really, I told her. It wasn’t that bad.

Laura was a certified lifeguard—the real deal—and this was how she made money summers during her college years. Even though I only took Junior Lifesaving, I’ve always considered myself to be a lifeguard, too, particularly where she is concerned.

•••

Maybe because my big brother ran out in front of car when he was eleven (he lived to tell about it), or because my little brother got shocked when he stuck his finger in the electrical outlet in the hall (he’s fine too—sort of), but I was always afraid that something dire was going to happen to my beloved sister, the baby of our family. And because a neighborhood kid was profoundly disabled by a hit and run car when their family was on vacation in Florida, I was especially nervous about our annual trips to the beach. How awful would it be for Laura—for the whole family—if she were maimed or killed while we were all enjoying ourselves?

A hard time would seem even harder if it happened on vacation, the same way it was worse if someone died on Christmas day. A tragedy must be avoided at all costs, and in my mind, it fell to me to keep Laura safe.

At age seven, my options were somewhat limited. I attended Sunday school and church, so I prayed that God would preempt any harm that might come to her. But our mother had told us of another neighborhood kid who had been killed when his bike slid under a steamroller, even though his mother had perfect attendance at First Methodist. To me this meant one thing: God might have his eye on the sparrow. He might be all knowing and all-powerful, but he was not to be trusted when it came to little kids.

As luck would have it, I was superstitious. Certain things had to be done each day without fail. Once Laura was big enough, I taught her how to leap onto the mattress from a foot away, so the cannibals who lived beneath our bed could not eat our feet. And how to shut the closet door at night so the man with the axe could not sneak out and chop our heads off.

The dangers of vacation required different strategies that I shared with no one. As the first week in August drew near, I would be especially careful not to step on a crack, drop a mirror, spill salt, or do any of the things that might bring bad luck. For additional protection, I developed a system where each night after I slipped beneath the covers, I’d select a number at random, then I would softly kiss my sleeping sister that many times. If she woke up, I’d have to wait for her to fall back to sleep, then start all over.

All of this, I believed, would weave a cloak of safety around Laura, providing that extra something which, along with my vigilance, would keep her from harm.

Obviously, it worked.

For fifty years, at least. But now sharks were biting people like their lives depended on it, and I needed a new strategy.

•••

It seemed disingenuous to pray for something when I no longer went to church. And I couldn’t very well sneak into my sister and her husband’s bedroom to kiss Laura a random number of times. Even if the thought wasn’t Manson-family creepy, I was too old for such superstitions.

Instead I armed myself with the various ways to avoid shark attacks, according to the experts.

  • Don’t swim after dark when sharks are most likely to feed. We used to sneak out late at night and swim in the ocean, so it was a wonder we’d survived to adulthood.
  • Schools of baitfish or pods of dolphins (which, like sharks, eat the baitfish) could be a sign that sharks are in the area, so stay out of the water if you see them. I wondered if the same were true of fishing pelicans.
  • Don’t swim near fishing piers, or near people who are surf fishing. We’d always obeyed this commonsensical rule, mostly to avoid getting hooked.
  • Stay out of the ocean if you’re bleeding. No duh.

I knew the rules. I also knew that, while extraordinary times called for extraordinary measures, there was no way the Lundquist clan was going to stay out of the water.

Once Lifeguard Laura took note that I survived my solo swim, we basked in the sun and relaxed into our read/doze ritual of vacation at the beach.

“I see one!”

Everyone sat up, eyes trained on the area just beyond the breakers. Erin, one of our gang, had spotted a shark. Or so she said.

Are you sure it was a shark? Not a porpoise? Not a dolphin? Erin assured us she knew what they looked like. Other families on nearby beach blankets shaded their eyes with their hands and looked seaward. Some swimmers got out of the water. I glanced toward the lifeguard stand, but the lifeguard had that devil-may-care affect that came with his certification card.

The shark was spotted once more before it vanished into the murky depths. Thankfully, it was late afternoon—time to head to the cottage to help with dinner preparations and line up for showers.

That night, we all walked up the beach to the Kure pier. We purchased ice cream cones and cotton candy and strolled down the weathered planks spotted with fish scales that gleamed under the lights. The air was redolent with saltwater, guts, and the occasional waft of cigarette smoke. We stood at the very end as we always did, and I felt the faint rocking of the pylons from the push and pull of the wind and waves. When we turned back, a crowd was gathered at the rail. We joined them to watch the phosphorescent glow of the breakers below and, just beyond, a large shark patrolled back and forth like a white ghost beneath the water.

We stared, fascinated. It wasn’t that far from where we swim.

“My God,” I said.

“There are always sharks,” my sister reminded me.

The next day, the whole gang headed back to the surf, making sure to arrive just as the tide turned and the waves started rolling in. Here comes the one that sunk the Poseidon! We all stampeded into the water and did the turn/swim-like-hell/catch the wave routine we’ve been perfecting since childhood. An hour later, the crowd thinned out as tired bodies migrated back to the sand. And then it was just the pelicans, Laura, and me.

The years have rolled by like so many summer waves. My sister tied the knot and had three kids a full ten years before I met my husband. As I navigate the sometimes treacherous waters of family life, it’s Laura I turn to for advice. I showed her how to avoid cannibals. She shows me how to be happily married.

While we floated up and down on the lazy swells, we caught up on hometown gossip, dissected our kids’ lives, and enjoyed easy silences.

Until I had to go the bathroom.

I ran up to the cottage. It was cold in the air conditioning, and my bathing suit was wet. I figured I was done with swimming for the day, so I changed into a dry suit before I headed back. It was so wonderful to be out of that damp suit, I could hardly stand it. I ran down the boardwalk to the beach and there was Laura—still in the ocean—looking out to sea all by herself. Just my little sister and the sharks.

I was warm and dry. She was a grown woman in her fifties, for God’s sake. With adult children. She was an excellent swimmer. There was a lifeguard, such as he was. I really didn’t need to look after her anymore. No one expected it. Least of all her.

Still…

I raced through the breakers before the sharks could get her. If nothing else, I could help fend them off. I feigned nonchalance when I finally made it out to her. “I didn’t think you were coming back,” she said, with a sidelong glance.

“Yeah, well…” Oh, what the hell—I might as well just say it. “I’m responsible for you.”

Laura just grinned and turned back toward the horizon. She knew that I knew that she was perfectly capable of taking care of herself. But after a lifetime of my holding her hand when we were out in the world and keeping the man with the axe out of our bedroom, this was nothing new.

Ever since the movie Jaws came out, my sister does this thing where she acts like she’s being attacked by a shark. She doesn’t scream, she just jerks like she’s been hit really hard under water, like in the film. With each lurch backward, her expression transitions from what the … to stunned terror. She does a perfect imitation and it never fails to crack us up. “I hope a shark does bite you,” our mother would say when she was still alive. “Then we’ll see how hard you laugh.”

We talked about doing it now while it was just the two of us, then decided against it. There had been so many actual attacks this year, we might start a mass panic. Not to mention the embarrassment we’d suffer if the lifeguard dashed in after us, as if Mr. Cool would notice. It pained us, but we decided to bag the routine for now. There’s always another summer. And we’ll be back.

•••

Because of their lifelong fascination with the Gordon Lightfoot song, LINDA L. CROWE and her sister have chosen the memorial to the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald as the destination for their annual sister trip this year. Michigan or bust! Linda lives in Nelson County, Virginia. Her most recent work may be read in Studio Potter magazine; she’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Read more FGP essays by Linda L. Crowe.

 

Pin It

Swimming Pools of the Rich and Famous

pool
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Laurence Dumortier

1. When I was a child, my family lived in the south of France, in the town of Aix-en-Provence. My father had been transferred there for his job. He worked for Shell Oil and had not yet learned to hate it. Later, when my brother and I were old enough to think seriously about what kinds of jobs we might have, he warned us away from working for anyone; he felt he had wasted much of his life in servitude to bland corporate life. He urged both of us to be our own bosses!, to not get stuck in what he considered the unimaginative hell of middle management.

The advice was mostly lost on me, but that came later anyway. This period in the south of France was before my father’s disillusionment. He was still a young exec in the early seventies and Aix was not an expensive city then. My parents found a second-floor apartment for rent that, while not large, was palatial in its high ceilings, tiled floors, elaborate moldings, and the most extravagant wallpaper in the living room. In photographs, though discolored with time, it is still stunning: a deep green background with bronze vines in vertical lines.

None of this was of much interest to me at the time, though. Instead, for my brother and me, the appeal of the place lay in the gigantic terrace. It still amazes me to think that this was where I learned to ride a bike. It was sized like a mini-mall parking lot. Except it was beautiful and sunny, with geraniums growing out of old planters and a wrought-iron barrier to keep us from tumbling into the street below.

Across from our building was a gated property. Though the house was not visible from the terrace, the garden was, and it had a pool. I heard it said that Alain Delon lived there. The name meant nothing to me then, except I realized it must belong to someone important or famous, because of the thrill I discerned half-suppressed in its saying. It was clear that to have a pool like this, you had to be important or famous or at least rich.

The pool was shaped like an old-fashioned mirror, straight on the sides, and curving in and out at each end. I don’t remember ever seeing anyone swimming in it. It was just there, turquoise and sparkling, inviting but inaccessible.

Amazingly, my father put up a huge blow-up pool on our terrace, big enough for my brother and me to swim in. Now that I’m an adult, I can’t imagine doing such a crazy thing. The terrace was not built to hold the weight of that many thousands of gallons and might have collapsed. Or, if the pool had burst suddenly, I can only imagine the awesome spectacle of all that water gushing out and flooding our apartment and the one below. But neither of these things happened, and my brother and I splashed and shrieked and swam all summer long. It was nothing like the beautiful and stately pool across the street but it was still heaven to us.

Plugging the building’s address into Google maps, I am a little stunned to have a satellite view of the terrace, and, across the street, Alain Delon’s former garden with its cypress trees and Mediterranean pines, and its pool gorgeously intact. It is surprising somehow to see my childhood memories so unambiguously confirmed. We moved away from Aix when I was five so there is much about our life there that I don’t remember clearly. The terrace and the pool and the wallpaper, among a handful of other things, remained vivid to me but it seemed the vividness of a dream.

The convergence of dream and reality in this one memory sends a chill down my spine. Time has passed and so many things have changed, but this thing has remained the same.

 

2. Fast forward fifteen years. After my French schooling, I went to college in the U.S. My college boyfriend, though majoring in history, was a musician, almost famous at a couple of east coast colleges, including Dartmouth where his band played a couple of times a year and where Michael Eisner’s son went to school. The young Eisner had ambitions to start a record label or a management company—I can’t exactly remember now—and he wanted my boyfriend to be his first client. The summer after we graduated, he arranged for my boyfriend to play a showcase gig at The Viper Room. The club was legendary to me, because only a few months earlier River Phoenix had OD’ed on the sidewalk outside, which broke my heart for his family and friends, and for all that wasted talent and beauty.

I was living in San Francisco right after college, though I felt utterly adrift, struggling to find a job and a place to live. My mother had arranged for me to stay for a few weeks with a friend from her own college days. Instead of being grateful for this generosity, I resented having another parental figure and labored to hide my sullenness. By the time my boyfriend called to tell me that he was being flown out to L.A. by Eisner’s son and did I want to spend a few days with him in a hotel there, I felt desperate to escape the claustrophobia of my own fumblings and failure to get a toehold on adulthood. Yes, I wanted to go! I was too broke to fly and didn’t know how to drive so I bought myself a bus ticket to L.A.

This was by far the longest bus ride I had ever taken. It left at five a.m. from San Francisco and took almost twelve hours, through the Central Valley. No one actually wanted to be on the bus, but it was a fifth the price of a plane ticket, and we all had places to go. We stopped in Modesto, Merced, Fresno, Visalia, Delano, Bakersfield—towns with names that were intriguing and mysterious to me. I was new to California, and the Central Valley presented such a strange contrast to the foggy, winsome beauty of San Francisco. I was gobsmacked by this demonstration of how gigantic California was. In France, a trip that long would mean you had crossed into another country, but here mile after mile after mile under the beating, hard sun and still there was more road between the bus and L.A. With each stop the bus filled more until every seat was taken. Many of the passengers were older, and some were infirm. One or two looked like they might have just been released from prison. One woman spoke loudly to herself the entire bus ride.

When we stopped at the Greyhound depot in downtown L.A., I was relieved and euphoric to see A. waiting for me with a borrowed car. My lust for him woke me up from the grogginess of the journey. We hadn’t seen each other since I’d decided to move to San Francisco, and he had decided to pursue his luck in New York. While not exactly broken up, the distance between us had seemed to contain a resounding finality. And now we were here. Together. In L.A.

It was late afternoon but still very warm. As we drove, I noted that I liked L.A.’s wide streets. I didn’t mind that the traffic moved slowly since I had no particular agenda. I was happy sitting next to A., and I was interested in everything moving past my window—billboards, palm trees, convertible cars with their tops down. I felt calmed by the gentle weight of A.’s hand on my leg. I didn’t know what was going to happen to us in the long run, but here we were together now.

In another half hour, A. and I were in Michael Eisner’s pool. I imagined the dust of the trip washed off by this pure and cool water and was pleased at this image. In the back of my mind I was a little horrified at how rag-tag I must have seemed to the Eisners, sweaty and rumpled and dazed from so many hours of sitting in one place. But this was only in the back of my mind because in the front of my mind was A. We stood in the shallow end of the pool, facing each other, skimming the surface with our fingertips. I didn’t trust myself to touch him, but I could feel the water conducting the electricity between us. How perfect it would have been to fuck in this perfect pool. But the whole Eisner family was inside, and in another half-hour we were going to sit down to dinner, and however bold I wanted to imagine myself, I wasn’t bold enough to do that.

I don’t remember much about the dinner, except it was lovely and generous of them to host me and A. Michael talked to his son, giving him advice about dealing with the music bigwigs who were coming that night. I had no idea how to interact with anyone in this particular situation so I was quiet. All I could think about was going back into the pool with A. and having the whole place to ourselves. It no longer seemed incongruous for us to be there. I didn’t consider us out of place. If anything, everyone else seemed out of place, superfluous. Such a beautiful pool only needed two people, in love with each other.

 

3. A few years later, I moved to L.A. Despite our best efforts, A. and I broke up, and I made new friends to distract myself. One of them, Jason, was a production assistant on Ted Danson’s short-lived TV show Ink. Jason had become friendly with Danson and his wife Mary Steenburgen, and they’d entrusted him with their house and pets while they went out of town for a few weeks. Jason found a way to insert “Ted and Mary” into his every other sentence, which I liked because I would have done the same thing.

One evening Jason invited me to swim at Ted and Mary’s with a couple of other people. When we got there Jason led us through the back gate to the pool area. He went inside the house to get towels, saying, “You guys stay here.” We hadn’t particularly been planning to go inside, but at his admonition, we teased him by coming up to the French doors. We found he’d locked them behind him. We were faintly outraged at his having done this and teased him—“Jason, we’re coming in!” we shrieked softly, rattling the doorknobs for effect.

I glanced at the interior, which looked cozy in an English-countryhouse-via-Beverly-Hills kind of way. This was a popular decorating style for a certain Hollywood crowd, I guessed, but when I thought of England I didn’t think swimming pool. It was thinking of the south of France, and of Aix, and the mirror of water across the street, that put me in the mind of pools.

Soon enough we were bored of pestering Jason and instead we jumped into the luminous water. At night, pools are mysterious and alluring. With the lights turned on they have an eerie, glowing beauty. The deep shadowy places where the light doesn’t reach makes them a little bit frightening too. Movement at the water’s surface is magnified. Light breaks apart and comes together again. Planar geometry makes its own strange kind of sense in the refraction of moving light. Bodies glow in a way they never otherwise do.

The setting was so beautiful, it seemed to call for some flirtation and it seemed wasteful to pass up this opportunity. I began to banter with a boy in our group.

A few years later, I would marry him, but I didn’t know it yet and just then such a thought would have seemed ludicrous. At that moment we were simply making jokes and observing each other from this new vantage point. We were buoyed by the water and by the sense of having stepped out of our ordinary lives. A few steps away there was a cozy interior but the doors were locked and we were out here in the eerie luminescence.

 

4. In Santa Monica, right off the Pacific Coast Highway is the pool that Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst built for their beach getaway. Now it exists as the Annenberg Beach House, and it’s open to the public in summer. On Sundays I often go with my guy and our kids around five o’clock. The air is still warm then and the pool is heated to a decadent eighty degrees. What a crazy luxury to swim in the late afternoon in clear water that is almost bathtub-warm, with the scent of the Pacific around us and the entire sky overhead. The pool is spectacularly beautiful, its perimeter tiled in a Greek key pattern and its bottom encircled with mosaics of ocean life. Speckled green and blue and yellow fish swim among the octopi and the billowing seaweed.

The main house, designed by Julia Morgan, was torn down in 1956 but I can imagine, floating in the dreamy water, that it is still there and that Hollywood intrigues are just out of earshot. I think of Marion Davies who is so often reduced in popular imagination to her caricature as Charles Foster Kane’s untalented, complaining mistress in Citizen Kane. Watching the real Davies act, in The Patsy for instance, she deploys her charm and her comedic chops with a dazzling ease. She gives side-eye like a boss, she pouts adorably, and she transforms herself in quick-witted imitations of her contemporaries.

It is easier, though, I suppose, to see Davies as the “mistress.” An untalented hack, in other words, for whom a smitten Hearst bankrolled pictures. It is easier somehow to reduce her to that narrow role, than to take in a whole person and her complex relationships to others. Hearst was older than she was. He was by far the richer of the two. We believe we understand what this means. “Oh, it’s like that. Of course it is.”

As I rise and break the surface of the water, I think of the trajectory of my own life, of my early childhood in the South of France, of the life I’ve made in Southern California, of how, if I were rich or famous of the object of any curiosity, it might be read in this way or that, to make more sense, or at least to make easier sense. My choices so far have been rather conventional, but even so each one was made for its own particular reasons, generated by circumstances and emotions that take root in the mix between the personal, the cultural, and the societal. My life is not scrutinized, but I loathe that famous women’s choices so often are, and then reduced to categories of convenience.

Plunging underwater again, the sound of my own blood throbbing in my ears, my mind wanders. I think of Alain Delon, who said recently about his love affair with the beloved Franco-German actress Romy Schneider, that while he still grieved her death at only forty-three, it had at least preserved her beauty: “It’s difficult to admit, but I wouldn’t have wanted to see her at 70. It’s better she went this way.” I turned forty-three this year, and while far from possessing Schneider’s beauty, the thought that in any universe it would be “better” to die at forty-three rather than to age—as we all must if we are to live, as Alain Delon himself has—strikes me as obnoxious in the extreme. Can there be a starker example of reducing a multi-faceted person to a mere surface? If Delon loved her, how could he not take in that she was more than just her physical beauty? That Schneider had depth beneath her surface loveliness, that she was more complicated, more flawed and more profound, should not be so very difficult to understand.

 

5. If I ever figure out how to have a pool of my own, it will be like a David Hockney painting. Sparkling and rippling in the sun, a nude figure emerging from its cool clearness.

When my children are teenagers and have their friends over, I will leave them to their youthful splashing. They will be surprised, and a little annoyed perhaps, at how much skinny-dipping there is when my friends are over, though. They will hardly be able to believe how comfortable we are in our middle-aged bodies. At least that is how I picture it all when I daydream my pool into existence.

I think of growing older with M. How impossible this was to envision when I was a young adult—a lifetime spent by another’s side. How easily I picture it now—now that we have almost two decades together under the bridge.

I think of our children growing up and the pools into which they will dip their own toes. The choices they will make, the paths their lives will take, and the nostalgias they will carry with them. I think of us swimming together in Marion Davies’s old pool. I think of the long summers of their childhood and try to picture where they will choose to make their lives. I imagine the possibility of some far-off day holding grandchildren as I wade with them into welcoming waters somewhere—perhaps even in my own backyard. I am wistful contemplating the adventures my children will undertake, and the unguessed ones still ahead for me, for M., for all of us.

•••

LAURENCE DUMORTIER writes essays and fiction. She is finishing her PhD in English, with an emphasis on gender and sexuality. You can find her online at twitter.com/ElleDeeTweets

What Living Feels Like

ocean cliffs
By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

 

By Susan McCulley

My husband, Frank, and I read about the island of Dominica in the travel section of The Washington Post. The article touted the island as relatively undeveloped without much tourism, but with uncommon natural beauty and variety—from beaches and rivers to rain forests and volcanic hot spots, spectacular hiking, and snorkeling in Champagne Bay, a warm cove bubbled by an underwater hot spring. We were intrigued. After our first visit, we were in love. At the end of our two weeks of exploring the island from beach to mountain, we sat in the tiny open-air airport, drinking local beer, absolutely furious that we were leaving. I had been sad and even a little depressed to return home after a vacation before, but at the end of our time in Dominica, I was pissed.

We scheduled our return trip almost immediately.

One of the things that makes Dominica special is that the two sides of the island are vastly different. The west coast is on the Caribbean Sea with calm waves and smooth beaches. It’s great for snorkeling and it’s where cruise ships dock to briefly discharge their passengers for trinket shopping, beer drinking, or whirlwind three-hour touring. The Atlantic Ocean is on the east side and has inlets of craggy beaches with wild, crashing waves. We loved the east side. On our first visit, we played in the rough, exhilarating ocean until we were waterlogged and breathless. When we planned our return, the east side was where we wanted to go.

We rented a small cottage at the top of a tiny east side village. There really wasn’t much there except the astonishingly riotous beauty of the steep, rocky island plunging into the sea. We could not wait to be in it.

The moment we arrived, we ditched our bags and followed the path to one of the beaches near the village. Even the walk to the ocean was intoxicating. The green in Dominica is not just green but glossy, luminous, achingly vibrant green. In back yards and along the road were trees heavy with fruit that we were used to seeing in mesh bags at the grocery store: bananas, mangos, grapefruit, and avocado. Most houses had a garden of (mostly unfamiliar) crops that betrayed the generosity of the soil. Every inch was fragrant, lush, and full of life.

As we walked through town, a boy bounced along with us. Skinny and excited, with huge brown eyes, he looked about ten years old. “Are you going to swim in the sea?” he asked.

“Of course,” we said, and when he asked if he could come along, we were happy to have him join us. He ran ahead, occasionally looking back to make sure we could follow the steep path down to the ocean whose deep, rumbling waves we could already hear. As we wove down the trail, we caught glimpses of deep blue waves edged with white froth against jagged black rocks in the cove below. We could barely keep up with our impatient child of a guide.

As we wound down and around, we could see a small curve of black sand tucked into an imposing rocky coastline with a fresh water river snaking down from the mountain into the sea. The Atlantic crashed, rhythmic and thunderous, against the rocks and sand. It was just as we’d remembered. We dropped our towels and ran into the water.

The water, sharply salty, cold and churning, felt like something alive. We dove into the relentlessly pounding surf, shouting to each other over the roar. We stayed just a few meters from shore in waist-deep water so we could keep our footing on the constantly moving sand. I kept my eyes on the open ocean to evaluate each wave. In the raw power of the ocean, I knew that one unexpected breaker could toss me ankles to armpits, completely disoriented in a swirl of sand and sea. Even with my vigilance, I was knocked off my feet and caught a nose-full more than once. It was thrilling to scout each wave, one after another, and make the split-second decision to jump up and over it, or dive into its base. The three of us hooted and swam, diving and jumping over each successive wave, then coming up again to look out and see what was coming next.

It happened fast. So fast, so suddenly. All at once, I realized I couldn’t touch bottom. I looked toward shore and saw that we were too far out. Way too far. Frank and the boy were just beyond me, also unable to touch. Frank clasped the boy’s hand and started swimming hard toward shore. I turned toward the curve of beach and swam as hard as I could against the harsh pull of the rip tide.

I’m a strong swimmer. I’ve been in the water my whole life and have taken lessons, done laps, and completed life-saving courses. I’m competent in the water, and I’m strong and healthy. But this? This was a whole different thing. Enormous waves kept pounding over my head, leaving me coughing and blind. A pause from kicking and stroking for even a second whisked me quickly even further away from shore. I watched as Frank struggled with the boy. I poured myself into every stroke but the beach kept getting, little by little, further away.

Frank and the boy were just a few feet away from me but I had to shout. “I’m not getting anywhere!”

Frank looked at me with wide eyes. Glancing at the boy, he screamed, “He can’t swim!”

We were in a powerful rip tide that was shredding us. The waves were impossible to swim in and threatened to throw us onto the rocks on either side. Swimming as hard as I could, I was getting nowhere. And now, this child, this boy we’d brought out to the sea with us. This boy can’t swim. “You’re the stronger swimmer,” yelled Frank. “He’s pulling me down. You have to take him.”

The boy shrieked in terror and pleaded with Frank, “Don’t leave me out here!”

Frank got closer to me and shifted the boy in my direction, “I’m not going to leave you, I would never leave you, but she’s a stronger swimmer than I am!” What he didn’t say, and what we both thought was, “I would rather drown than to have anything happen to you.”

I know what to do with a frightened non-swimmer: hook your arm under his armpits, and swim on your back, pulling him using the strength of your legs and the opposite arm. It’s the most efficient and powerful way to swim someone to safety and prevents the panicking victim from pulling you under. I knew what to do … and I didn’t do it. As Frank handed the terrified child to me, I had this thought: “If I take him in the life saving tow, I’m admitting this is a full-on emergency. I’m admitting that this situation is really, really bad.” I was already scared. Admitting how bad it really was was more than I could take in. So I grabbed him by the forearm and dragged him through the surging water with everything I had.

There was something in the deafening sound of the waves and the jagged dangerous-looking rocks on either side of us that gave the ever-smaller beach straight ahead a hypnotic pull. A wave would crash over the boy and me, and I just kept my eyes on that little crescent of sand and kept pulling. Frank called out, “We’re supposed to swim to the side!” He was right. I knew that when caught in a rip tide, the way out is, counter-intuitively, to swim parallel to the shore to get out of the current. But here, in this narrow, rocky cove, to swim parallel to the shore meant to go straight into the teeth of rocks on either side. I squeezed the boy’s arm and swam harder. But as a concession to the whole “swim parallel” thing, I aimed on a slight angle: rather than directly at the beach that I so desperately wanted to get to, I oriented us a just little to the left. I pulled and pulled the whimpering boy behind me.

It didn’t seem that I’d moved at all but as I made a big scissoring kick on my new, angled trajectory, I felt sand. Incredulous, I dropped my feet and found solid ground. My body and heart surged with relief as I stood and pulled the boy’s body into mine. I could feel his warm, slippery, skinny limbs, his pounding heart. And I could feel my own heart hammering hard against my ribs. I squeezed the boy even tighter, looked to my still-struggling husband, and shouted, “Frank, put your feet down!” He told me later that at that moment, just a few feet from me, he couldn’t touch the bottom. He desperately reached his long toes and felt the sand, then swam another stroke and stood.

The waves were still deafening. The water surged around us. The rocks were dangerously close. But we were standing. In a small, staggering line—woman, boy, man—the three of us walked slowly and unsteadily in to the little black beach. We wrapped the trembling and silent boy in our towel, and he sat on the sand and ate a crushed granola bar. Frank and I stood behind him shakily drinking water and watching as the disinterested waves continued to pound the shore.

The days that followed had a paradoxical combination of feeling both dream-like and surreally vivid. Mangos were some kind of crazy, sensuous, cacophony of sweetness. The sky was so beautiful we could barely look at it. The water tasted like life itself. We would squeeze each other tight and say, “We’re here. We’re okay. We’re alive.” My mind would reel and I’d look at him and say, “Frank, we had that boy with us. What if…” I was unwilling to complete the thought. Frank just shook his head. And then, in his precise way, he would say, “I was seventy-five percent sure I was going to die.” We mostly just held onto each other. We were dumbfounded to find everything from the papaya trees to our land lady’s garden so perfectly normal and yet so extraordinarily extraordinary. The vivid island landscape felt simultaneously unreal and hyper-real. This is what living feels like.

Word of our brush with death flew through town before we even made it back to our cottage. God was praised. Prayers were said. We were invited to church. We nodded and agreed and wore our best clothes on Sunday—the only white people in that pink sanctuary singing praises. We were grateful. We were so deeply grateful for being alive, but also for every taste of food, every bird song, every wave from someone on the road. In a way that I never had before, I felt the intense sweetness of living and the absolute connection we have to each other. In some ways, that day is with me every day. The reverberation of it isn’t as intense, but it’s still there. I still remember. I’m still awake to the wonder that we have every day.

Frank says he took the boy back into the water, just for a few minutes so he wouldn’t fear the sea, but I don’t remember it. I don’t remember speaking at all as the three of us picked up our clothes and slowly walked back up the trail to the village. I don’t remember anything about that walk except placing one unsteady foot in front of the other. If I ever knew the boy’s name, I don’t remember it. But I do remember, as we came to a turn at the top of the trail how that boy, our boy (and he will always be our boy), turned and waved almost imperceptibly and disappeared into the village.

•••

SUSAN MCCULLEY is a mindful movement educator and a Black Belt Nia Instructor who has been dancing and moving, traveling and teaching since 2000. Her blog, Focus Pocus: The Magic of Inquiry and Intent (www.focuspocusnow.com), is dedicated to taking body~mind practices from the studio into life. Her essays have been published on Elephant Journal, and she is working on a book. She lives with her husband in Charlottesville, Virginia.