I was a fearless child. I never got training wheels. I never wore floaties in the pool. I could swim before I could walk. And I walked pretty early. I laced up my skates and I hit the pavement without any kind of protective gear. I had lots of skinned knees and elbows from falls, but I never fell the same way twice.
“This has happened now,” my dad said on the first day that I learned how to ride my bike. I pedaled down the driveway, all by myself, those first few seconds of riding a two-wheeler all on my own, and then fell down onto the cement. “This has happened now,” he said. “And it will never happen again. You have fallen for the first time. It’s over now and you’re okay. You’re okay.” He held my hand and held my head on his shoulder.
Growing up by the beach, in Santa Barbara, I hit those waves hard. Usually, there were several of us kids in the water. There were several of us kids in the water. Usually. On my best day, I would duck under the breaking waves and pop up on the backside to watch the wave swell and crest toward the shore. On some days, I would catch a wave and ride it in to shore. On my almost worst day I got pummeled pretty hard and got dragged along the sand underneath a pretty brutal wave. I opened my eyes for a second and saw gray: the sand churning up into the wave, Earth and Water all angry with each other. On my very worst day, I got hit real hard, got lost under the waves, couldn’t breathe, and almost couldn’t find my way back up. I opened my eyes again, underwater, it hurt, and I moved toward the light.
I breathed again.
Years later, I lettered in Swim. Swim team. My dad bought me a school jacket for that patch. I missed a race once because I couldn’t hear the coach call the meet. But, I had great shoulders.
The shores of Athens, Greece were littered with cigarette butts. I don’t know if it was from all the Greek smokers, if they came up with the tide from the cruise ships, or if all the currents met at that one place and mingled up into the sand together, but the beach was covered in butts. We still call it Butt Beach. It was our second day in Greece. Mostly, the filters read ‘Marlboro’. But, we didn’t care. Not really. Because we had never seen sapphire water like that before.
She called me from waist-deep in the water, “C’mon!”
“I can’t!” I yelled out.
“C’mon!” she said. “We’re in Greece!”
“Sister!” I shouted, “That’s all the more reason! There are monsters in that water! Not like the ones I learned about it Marine Biology! Monsters from Mythology! Plus,” as my words got washed away by a breaking wave, “I don’t swim in water I can’t see through!”
And she said something that sort of sounded like But you’re a swimmer! or Let’s go! or whatever and then she took off into the Sea. I shouted something like But I’m scared of that water! Our mom sat in a chair under an umbrella and I looked back at her, wondering. It was only for a second. She had food to eat and some water to drink. I looked again at my sister, just a head and arms moving through the water. Our mom lit a cigarette and my toes sunk deeper into the Grecian shore. My sister moved away from me.
Our mom picked up an apple and bit into it.
“Sister! Sister!” as she swam away from me.
The water held me. The water in Greece holds better than the water in Southern California. Something about salt. The water held me and I moved toward her, fast. I had forgotten that I could do that. And there weren’t many waves. I watched her tread the Sea as I kept moving.
“You see?” she laughed when I got there.
“See what?” I was angry.
“Turn around,” she kept laughing. “Look.”
“Look at what? At what?! WHAT?!”
“Look!” she said, smacking me in the back and turning me around. “Look! And stop being such an asshole!”
I splashed water back toward her face. And saw how far I was away from shore. I pulled my feet up and grabbed them with my hands. The water was black where we were. “I’m scared, Sister. I’m scared.”
“You’re okay,” she said and she grabbed my hand.
“I’m about 10 seconds away from a panic attack.”
“You never had a panic attack in your life.”
The water below me was black.
“You’re a swimmer.”
Something about salt, and we floated. I kicked out my feet, and began to move toward shore holding my sister’s hand. I side-stroked back to Athens with her.
The water held half of me. I rolled onto my back, one hand holding onto my sister, and I looked up toward the sky, closing my eyes, feeling the Sea holding me up top. I tipped my head over toward her and she said
I got you to swim out far.
My head rolled back and the water drained from my ear. I flipped around, gripped tightly onto my sister’s hand for just a moment, and then dove down
and let go
into the dark water
my head under water