Drowning: A Summer Tradition
Ben was a boring, sugarless oatmeal type of a guy; he looked like he had been sitting cross-legged on a carpet square playing with a Rubik’s Cube his entire life. Savanna was sunbathing a few towels down from him, mistaking skin cancer for vitamin D with her back facing the sky, chest smooshing the sand, and top undone. She was the opposite of Ben. She was tough and independent and opinionated, the type of girl who loses her virginity reverse cowgirl to make some ambiguous statement about gender equality. I sat with the sand while the entire graduating class of 2011 moved across it. A group of former-football-players-future-bus-boy-applicants bumped a volleyball around in the sand, which naturally led to a game of everyone tackle everyone. The high school English teachers kicked off their sandals and pretended not to be high school English teachers. The wind whipped against the 10-foot waves and blew my necklace—a scrabble piece of the letter W attached to string—away from my skin. Beach towels tried to be kites. No one needed sunscreen. People wanted it to be a beach day, but it wasn’t.
They were there: Ben with his boring allure and Savanna with her confidence and the cool kids enjoying their last moments with the title and the teachers with their three-month weekend, the only thing they have to show for their nine month labor.
I was there with my flask and a necklace—no offbeat allure, no confidence, no cool. Just some kid who liked rum and the letter W.
It was a tradition for students to go to the beach and hang around Tower 2 on the last day of school. That year, our traditions overlapped. I sat alone sipping the medicine to my misery and waited for the perfect moment. I had done this four times prior and knew better than to do it sober. I suppose high school taught me to think twice about being sober. Then a man came up and sat next to me.
He took pictures of the ocean and the birds and the sky like they were new oceans, new birds, a new sky. His fascination moved past nature. He took interest in my necklace and asked me what the letter W stood for. I explained my unhealthy obsession. I told him how I liked the way W always moved forward, how W could be sharp or round, how W was undecided on whether it wanted to rise up or sink down. He listened.
Then I looked at his tattooed wrist and asked him what the letter P stood for. He went on to tell me how everything that mattered to him started with the letter P. His homeland: the Philippines. His passion: photography. His name: Phillip. I told him he should have opted for the letter F because all those things sound like they should start with an F. He chuckled and put his hand on my shoulder. I liked that about him. We passed the rum back and forth. He asked me if I was a part of the school, if I was there to celebrate the last day. I said no. Then I explained my tradition to him. He got a kick out of it. Then he stood up and took his final drink from the flask. He handed it back, touched my shoulder again, and headed off. I asked him where he was going.
“To go get a tattoo of the letter F”.
Even if he never got the tattoo, it was the most romantic lie I’ve ever been told.
He moved softly atop the sand in his roller blades. He drew his knees towards his chest and took careful and long steps forward, as if he were stepping over puddles. I looked down at my necklace and then gave my chin to the sky and let the rum free fall from my flask and down my throat. I was acutely aware of my discontent. I’d spent the last four years with these couple hundred kids on the beach and my best friend at that moment was Phillip. I knew his letter preference and he knew mine. That was plenty. I drew an F softly into the sand with my index finger and then slowly poured rum along the three lines of the letter and watched it run like a river. I had no ill will towards my discontent.
“Good luck drowning,” he yelled back.
Staring at me from inside the lifeguard tower was my older brother, Garrett. On a sunny day he’d be standing outside the tower with his shirt off and eyes on the water, ready to save lives for a generous two dollars above minimum wage. Tourists would walk up to him and ask if they could take a picture with him and they’d even touch his abs if they had had enough nine dollar drinks or were foreign enough to think a guy protecting the lives of sinking strangers was a tourist attraction. But there were no strangers in the water to save that day. His jacket was still on and his ears were wrapped up in a beanie. He smiled at me and mouthed, “Don’t do it.” He knew I was going to do it: drown and make him save me. Then he held up his always mustard-less sandwich and pleaded, “I need to eat my lunch, don’t do it.”
I stood up, got in an athletic stance, put my empty flask in my back pocket, and took a 3-step leadoff from my towel toward the ocean. My brother mouthed, “Don’t fucking do it. It’s freezing.” Maybe he meant it. I took another small step.
He loses hope in trying to stop me. He takes his jacket off and sets his sandwich back into his cooler. Then he reaches for his fins. I smile and walk back to my towel. He smiles and murmurs a thank you.
The second my butt touches the towel I spring back to my feet and take off.
I run so fucking fast. My feet conquer sandcastles. My panting laughter outcries the seagulls. I don’t turn around. The fear of freezing is dismissed by delight. My knees rise higher as the water turns darker. The wind presses into the waves, erecting them like soldiers. I dive in. They crash down. I’m the only one in the water; I put my head down and swim. Once I make it past the break, I flip to my back, I hollow out my stomach, let my hips drop, my feet sink, and flail my arms in the air requesting a fake savior for the 4th summer in a row.
There are two lifeguards pacing the shoreline, waving their buoys in the air. Savanna is on someone’s shoulders pointing out to sea as if I were a piece of undiscovered land. The teachers have their ankles in the water as if to say they are here for me. Ben is standing there being boring. A white truck emerges through the crowd. The door swings open. A lifeguard steps out and hops onto the hood. She yells STAY CALM through a megaphone that distorts any calm qualities she may have in her voice.
Why aren’t I calm? I’m usually calm. Maybe I’m afraid. My brother might not be able to save me this time. My peace with that possibility is unnerving. Maybe I’m lonely. Why are misfits so lovable on television? Whose shoulders is Savanna on? Is Phillip actually going to get the tattoo? How often must I drown? I’m not calm. I conclude it’s because I didn’t drink enough alcohol. I close my eyes and try to recapture my buzz. As if reclining in a chair, I press my back into the ocean, watch my toes raise eye high, and position my body parallel like a plank floating atop the sea. I open my eyes, look up at the clouds and let my ears undulate in and out of the water. I close my eyes and look for calm.
My mind drifts back to childhood. I think about the times my brother would sit on the porch of our parent’s house and count down from thirty out loud while I ran to hide. I’d go to the end of the cul-de-sac and crouch behind the mean neighbor’s lemon tree. I would hear my brother’s numbers getting closer to zero. The impatience of a kid—the anticipation of the seeking—sped up the count down. The final five seconds were always rushed; they were the l,m,n,o,p of the countdown. Then the mean neighbor would draw up his curtains, open the window, and yell. My brother would find me and lasso me with the yellow hula-hoop. Things are different now. It takes more to speed up the countdown. It takes more to make him leave the porch.
The red buoy flopped on my chest, “Saddle up mother fucker.”
“My hero,” I joked.
“Dude you’re shaking, are you ok?”
“I let Phillip drink some of my alcohol, I’m not drunk enough. I’m so cold.”
“Some guy who likes the letter F.”
About the Author: Practicing Writer in Arcata, Ca.