By Lauren Saxon
If details are what make a good story, I’m afraid I can’t give you one. There was a big group of us piled into a minivan that I can’t remember the color of. Long, wide surfboards, for beginners, were strapped to the roof.
Our instructor was named Jason. Just type “Surfer, Dude” into Google images, and you’ll find him. Tall. Tan with long brown hair, his toes out way too often. He’s probably still standing in the same spot, talking about how free the ocean makes him feel. (This story is not about him.) Jason drove us all to a beach in Maine I also can’t remember the name of. From the shore, the waves looked tiny. We wore black wetsuits. They were thick, as Maine waters hold a chill even in the summer.
It was my first time wearing one—a wetsuit. I was embarrassingly exhausted by the effort it took just to put the stupid thing on. I felt out of breath after yanking the material up over my hips, the rolls of my stomach, up onto my shoulders. I remember thinking, at least I look the part. With my borrowed board tucked under my arm, muscling through the sand. (This story is not about me, either.)
I only knew her name. It’s difficult to imagine this time. This time, during which I knew only what to call her. She was talking to other people, and I listened. Though the conversation wasn’t meant for me, I learned that she feared the ocean. It terrified her. This surfing trip was a “strong suggestion” from her therapist. Some type of exposure therapy.
As you can imagine, the waves turned out to be much bigger once in the water. I got the hang of paddling quickly and was proud. Since this story isn’t about me, let’s skip through the details of me catching my first wave. It was hard, and I never stood up on the board. Not even up on my knees. But I rode one—a wave—on my stomach. All the way to shore.
The others cheered for me, whooping loudly at my win. I was trudging back to them, wading through the shallow water, when I saw her to my right. The girl who is afraid of the ocean, bobbing up and down in the waves. I realized, after some time, that she was, as surfers say, “caught inside.” Meaning she couldn’t get past the breaking surf to the safer part of the ocean. She was stuck, already knocked off of her board, eating wave after wave.
We were so close to shore, though. The water was only up to my chest, so I waited for her to stand. She didn’t. I couldn’t understand why, until our eyes locked. I recognized that fear. That panic, and the subsequent paralysis that comes with it.
My run to her, slowed by the water, felt like hours. When I reached her, I picked her up with ease. She was smaller than me, I realized, once she got to her feet. I watched as she caught her breath. As she tracked down her board nearby, still attached to her ankle.
What happened next was nothing like a movie or romance novel. It was not the start of a beautiful friendship. We did not walk hand-in-hand, as the sun set behind us on the beach. She did not bat her eyelashes, say, My hero, and kiss me. What happened next was wave after wave of profanity: in this fucking ocean…Fucking Jason…shit therapist…great idea. She did not thank me. She stomped back to the shore, swearing up and down that she would never get in again. I laughed, and I think that made her even madder.
After paddling back out to the others, I failed to catch a wave again and again, until it was time to go home. I loved every fucking second. Once back on shore, almost all of us were friends now. Laughing at nothing in particular. Simultaneously struggling to strip off our wetsuits and change into dry clothes for the ride home. Outside of the mix was the girl who is afraid of the ocean, my damsel in distress. Her face was still angry, but her dark hair was once again dripping, which means, at some point, she had gotten back in the water. Good for her, I thought.
If details are what make a good story, she is all I can give you. I watched her as she kept her distance from the group. Watched her peel off her wetsuit alone. Beautiful girl. In her black, one-piece bathing suit that plunged down her spine. She tilted her head to each side as she dried off her hair with a towel, wet curls sticking to her shoulders. Beautiful girl, with her exposed fear and exposed back. A tattoo along her upper ribs. Only part of it was visible, then, but I would later learn its meaning. Graze the cursive with my fingertips.
I would later learn that this girl, who is deeply afraid of the ocean, prefers jumping into pools she knows the depth of. That one of her favorite feelings in the world is the sudden submergence of her head underwater. It needs to be fast, she explained to me, years later. How the noise of the world should be silenced quickly. How sometimes the jump quiets her thoughts, too.
I don’t know what else to say. I loved her, and I lost her.
After six months of silence, she broke it yesterday. Called to see how I was doing. Asked so sweetly in a voicemail, after I left her call unanswered. I’ve been caught inside ever since. Stuck in the swells, begging my legs to work. Trying just to stand up.