As a kid I could only dog paddle. I circumnavigated swimming pools clinging to their sides like a crab, fearful of rough housing children who might accidentally drown me.
In high school I liked to brag that I was captain of the apathy team. Any game involving an inflatable orb still brings out the sour loser in me. But after living in Hawaii for a year I’ve acquired a taste for the outdoors, especially playing in the push and tug of the sea.
My friends Judy and Sally, who hiked the two miles into this valley with me, are too cautious to enter these massive rollers. They work on their all-over tans on the nude side of the long beach.
I’m not a particularly skilled or strong swimmer. I just like to fool around in the waves, catching a short ride under a curving blue crest, sliding off the back before it breaks on shore in sandy, pounding chaos. Sometimes I dive under a forming wave, rather than riding it, so that I can imagine myself a sleek mermaid dolphin seal nymph sea creature. I love the feeling of weightlessness, the sensual slide of warm water over skin, especially without bathing suit straps pulling on my neck, or bottoms that creep and crawl.
I’m getting tired, and these waves are honestly a bit too much for me. I catch a wave hoping that it will bring me to shore, but it only takes me half way, a dangerous place to hang out. I paddle out to the break line again, catch another halfway wave, turn around and go back again. The next wave takes me halfway yet again, but I stay there. There’s someone near me, so I figure it’s okay. Verdant spires surround us, sliced horizontally by the rust-colored Kalalau trail. Another two miles up the valley, there’s a waterfall that I’ve never been to. The ocean recedes. It’s noticeably shallower, the color lighter. I should hasten out to sea towards the gathering power. I look at my fellow bodysurfer, who remains calmly in place. When I look back at the ocean, a huge, dark blue wall of water curves over my head.
“What do we do?” I ask in a panic.
“Dive under,” he says, launching his slender torso expertly into the bottom of the wave.
I dive in a moment later, at too shallow an angle, my one fin insufficient to propel me out of danger. I’m pummeled by an endless stream of punishing water which flips me head over heels, pelts me with sand, twists me around. This is what surfers call being “washing machined.” It feels exactly like what I imagine cartoon cats experience when they’re inadvertently thrown in with the dirty laundry. But it’s not funny. I’m stunned and scared. I know struggling is pointless, so I try to relax. I’m violently bumped and tumbled for a long time. No life review plays in my head. This seems like a good sign that death isn’t imminent.
Then it occurs to me that I no longer know which way is up. Fear seizes me, but I make my best guess and start swimming, flailing through the foaming turmoil. I worry my lungs might implode at any minute, or that I might be forced to breathe underwater, like in a dream, but it won’t be magically okay. I swim on for what seems like miles, suspended in frothy confusion. Suddenly breaking the surface, I lift my head to blessed air, sucking in a desperate gasping breath.
Shaking the bangs out of my eyes, I scan the horizon. Another powerful breaker curls ahead, ready to pounce. My lungs are still hungry, but there’s not enough time. I propel myself down. Underwater, I feel the force of the wave push me towards shore, in the opposite direction of my dive. Up again, gasp, dive under. Never enough air. Relax. Don’t waste energy. I’m being pushed towards shore, but not to the sandy beach. The ocean is going to smash me onto wicked black lava rocks! Abandoning the relaxation strategy, I swim clumsily away from the boulders, parallel to the beach, still ducking waves and gasping for air.
At last the breakers deposit me onto the shore. I crawl up the beach, wheezing loudly, to rest on the sand at the water’s edge. My mind screams at me. You’re such an idiot! Who do you think you are going out there with real surfers?
Solid ground is a comfort. The sun warms my back, non-judgmental.
I become aware of eyes on me. A family of tourists stares at me with dropped jaws. Oh, shit! I’ve washed up on the non-nude side of the beach. These small-minded prudes have obviously never seen a colossal naked half-drowned washing machine survivor. I stupidly look around for cover, as if a sarong might have washed up alongside me. All I have is one fin, which I remove, considering how much of me it could cover. Given no alternative, I assume an actor’s mask of superiority and pull myself up to my best “Yes, I’m over six feet tall” posture. I undertake the long trek back to the nude side of the beach with as much wobbly-legged dignity as I can muster, the fin dangling by my side.
It took a week for me to get rid of the sand imbedded in my hair and ears. Thirty years later I haven’t lost my respect for the ocean, or my sense of puny vulnerability. I did however, lose interest in all-over tanning and develop a fondness for bathing suits.