By Taylor Bathel
I had never seen the ocean. Images of deep blue water reaching toward the sky before arching into a torrent of white foam only existed in my memory as frames from movies. My lack of familiarity was acceptable for many eight year olds, yet simply implausible for a New Englander living in "The Bay State."
My best friend Sarah went to Maine every summer. She always returned with a new collection of seashells, which she would sort by color while telling me of the violent waves she conquered on her body board. I pretended that I understood her foreign words: the jetty,the undertow, a "shoobie." She told me of another planet, one that required you to brush sand out of your hair, and where finding starfish was a daily occurrence. My family went to Disney World every summer, and I had yet to encounter a rollercoaster that granted me the same thrill I watched grow in Sarah's eyes.
Sarah and I gladly strayed from the definition of average girls. While the other kids in the neighborhood traced each other with sidewalk chalk in the cul-de-sac, we spent our days hiking in the woods while creating detailed plans about finding Bigfoot and catching toads. This was largely due to Sarah's dad, Dave. Given a competition between Dave and Bear Grylls, Dave was by far the best bet. He once fell from a two-story ladder, gracefully stopping the drop with hisforehead on the blacktop driveway. He stood right back up. Dave was superhuman, and Sarah and I were determined to recreate his strength in ourselves.
We welcomed summer by completing the same ritual year after year. We deemed it "toughening up." The blacktops of the street and driveway soaked up the sun and became hot plates below our weak, winter feet. Dave cooked an egg on the driveway once to display the heat. Obviously, Dave strolled shoeless on the blacktops devoid of any pain, leaving Sarah and me with a perfect illustration of what we should be able to do. So the first week of summer, we always forced ourselves to walk barefoot laps on the driveway while enduring the fire beneath us. "Give it a week and you won't even feel it!" Dave cheered while leading us in our laps. We bit our lips and followed, forcing ourselves to continue the laps even after he stopped leading. Mind over matter.
The first day of summer always began a new era. Sarah and I would make plans for the coming months while Dave advised us on our drafted adventures. But the summer after secondgrade was different. Instead of Dave encouraging us to build a dam in the stream, he threw usinto a shrieking fit as he told of plans for a weekend getaway in Maine. Goose bumps darted across my skin at the thought of feeling real sand, and finally understanding the world that Sarah had painted in my mind for so many years.
Sarah and I spent the week approaching our trip making endless lists of necessities and planning designs for sand castles. We'd lie in the damp grass at night, listening to the crickets and daydreaming - three more days, two more days, only one more day. The night before our journey, my excitement outweighed my ability to sleep. We told Dave we wanted to leave at six in the morning, and of course he complied. He taught us to be early risers in order to get out there and seize the day.
Six o'clock finally rolled around. I wore my bathing suit underneath my clothes and spent a solid twenty minutes applying sunscreen. Dave lectured us all about the dangers of the sun. "You don't want to grow up to look like Grandma, do you?" he inquired, alluding to Sarah's leathery Floridian grandmother. We always faithfully shook our heads back at him, as he smiled saying "smart girls," and patting our backs.
We filled the car with our usual singing of "Home on the Range," and endless giggling during the three-hour ride. As we got closer, the sun shone brighter and reality sank into me like a brick. The excitement turned into a fear that I couldn't fathom. My father's friend had lost his life in the wrath of the ocean waves, and I found my thoughts wandering to the last moments of the man's life. I abruptly felt in over my head.
We made our first stop at the grocery store. Sarah and I scampered through the aisles to find our only two desires--Lucky Charms and Fruit by the Foot. We piled back into the car and soon the tires were turning again. Sarah kept pointing out landmarks to show how close we were getting, and I snacked on the cereal to help ease my tossing stomach. Then I saw it. An endless blue spread out before my eyes, and the smell of salt slapped me in the face. It was toobeautiful to be real. I couldn't believe I had ever lived a life without witnessing this. The fact that I couldn't see where the ocean ended sent shivers down my spine.
I copied Sarah's every movement. The fear of being an outsider in a place I so strongly wanted to belong was taking over my thoughts. We stepped into the sand. The heat snapped at me like Sarah warned, and I was glad we had done extra laps on the driveway to harden our feet. We staked our place in the sand and Dave pointed out landmarks to be our northern star.I couldn't even pay attention as he spoke. The water beckoned me closer with every crashing wave.
A thousand knives pierced my legs when I took my first steps into the ocean. I wasn't expecting to be greeted with such cold, or to see Sarah and Dave already fully immersed in the icy water. "Just jump right in; you'll warm up in no time!" Dave encouraged me. I listened to him, and within minutes the cold became a figment of the past. We floated in the waves. The coolness of the water and the heat of the sun juxtaposed perfectly. The pruning of my hands and feet didn't faze me. I never wanted to leave.
Dave returned to solid land after sharing a quick lesson in navigating the water. "Dive right under the waves," he taught us, illustrating with a clean dive and watching us imitate him. My life at the present moment was euphoria, and I closed my eyes against the sun as I returned to floating. Suddenly I was somersaulting against my will, and gravity offered me no indication as to which way was up. A wave had wrenched me under, and I was completely at the liberty of the overruling water.
The hurried rush of the ocean filled my ears and I could see light reflecting in every direction. I frantically clawed the water trying to find Sarah for help, but my searching hands never met hers. My body tossed around as if I were a piece of seaweed and no amount of effort could restrain the beast that seized me. I knew I was going to die and I prayed it would be painless.
As quickly as the wave dominated me it released me. I was free, I was alive, but most of all I was angry. I had almost drowned and Sarah had made no effort to save me. I found my footing and looked around, but I couldn't find her in the crowd of people. I looked towards the beach to find Dave when Sarah's head popped up in between waves. I prepared myself to yell, but she beat me to it.
"Why didn't you save me? I almost died!" she ranted as I stood, flabbergasted.
"You almost died? I was underneath a wave and you wouldn't even grab my hand!" I replied angrily. We went back and forth like this for a few minutes before we realized we were in the same boat, and fighting wasn't going to ease the anger that was born from our fear. Honestly, I didn't care anymore. I was too fascinated by what had just happened.
Within my first steps into the ocean I learned of its dominance. My mere presence had no impact on the wave that had now passed peacefully by, completely unaware and unaffected by me. The water that flooded my lungs moments before was now replaced by something radically different: admiration.
We had to find Dave and replicate our horror to him. After sprinting to our spot, we could hardly speak between our heavy pants. We retold the event from each of our perspectives, flailing our arms to add drama. Once we finished, we stared at Dave for a response. He simply chuckled and shook his head before saying, "Never fight with nature, girls. Nature will always win."
Dave's teaching now held greater depth, and his intentions were as clear as the water that stretched before me. Every minute lesson had been formatted so we would respect the authority of nature once we met it on a greater scale. My jostled mind began to recall the event with detail,trying to comprehend and appreciate it in its entirety.
I had been completely submerged in the water. The feeling of certain and inescapable doom had filled my body as my muscles tightened in preparation. Then something remarkable happened--the wave passed and I was suddenly free. Liberated.