A Memory of Sea
I arrive at the beach just as the sun is beginning to set. The powerful, titian red, relentless sun. The sun which I had been away from too long.
It is the end of a very hot and steamy July day, the kind that keeps the statisticians jumping for a new record to put into the temperature charts. It must have been at least 95 degrees during the day, but I don’t mind the heat, not one bit.
The beach is on its way to being deserted. Parents are gathering up their broods, putting away sand shovels and toys, folding lawn chairs and blankets, and dousing baroque embers.
I walk carefully on the still warm sand, feeling little shoots of pain around my knees and hips, of arthritis that many pills and treatments have failed to heal. My body, once trim and athletic, has succumbed to the ravages of age, adding too much weight that I now carry on my small frame and I stop to catch my breath, taking in all of the sounds and the scene around me.
Two young children, a boy and a girl, probably no more than 5 and 6, play by the water’s edge. They are gathering little seaweed puffs, the kind that make a popping noise when you squeeze them. They look at me with their direct gazes and I smile and pretend that I am not a very odd looking woman, decked out in hospital issue garb. I bend down to look and they shyly show me their prizes, all collected from the sea.
“See”, the girl said, holding out a bunch of the seaweed, “We found these in the water”. I take them, lovingly fingering the slippery fronds, holding them up to my nose, which wrinkled at the bitter, salty smell. “This is the finest bunch of seaweed I have ever seen!” I tell them. I then back up to a small rock, and turning it over discover a tiny crab. They squeal in delight as they add this new specimen to their collection.
“Carrie, David, come here, it’s time to go!” A tanned, red headed young woman calls to them from the edge of the beach. She looks at me warily, noting, I’m sure, my wan appearance and strange dress. She quickly gathers the children to her and they make their way up the beach to the car.
The children turn once to wave, and I feel a lump in my throat as I remember what it was like to be that young, that full of promise, and open to the world; and a pang of regret that I did not have children of my own. It seems unfair that as we age, we realize, sometimes too late, that decisions made, or not made are irreversible sealers of our fates. The once lofty and idealistic aspirations come tumbling down, an avalanche of leaves in an autumn storm.
I carefully take the discarded seaweed bundles and place them into the sea, as the tide is going out. There remains a bright, carmine sickle of a sun, succumbing to the inevitable turn of the earth.
Looking out at the calm sea, reflections of the sun on the tops of the waves become shifting flames. I feel the sand drawing me down towards the earth. The water laps at the edges of my feet, whispering the draw of the sea. I close my eyes and imagine being pulled away, to an earlier time, and a different, peaceful place.
The insistent force of the water makes my feet unsteady. It catches my legs, pulling me into the shallow water. I open my eyes, frightened, and then laugh softly to myself.
Suddenly, all of the things which hold me to the earth evaporate. Compelled and driven by the water, I step out of the thin cotton shift. The sky turns red-violet, the last vestiges of the day. Soon the total enveloping blackness will encompass all; the only other light being the pale rising moon.
The fingers of the sea are around my calves now, urging me onward. I loved to swim when I was a girl. Years roll backward to one summer night, much like this one. It is 1962 and Ches is due to ship out for Vietnam the next day.
Arms entwined, both of us look out to the water, lost in our own thoughts. Ches’s hand begins a slow, comforting massage on my back. He tilted my head up with his fingertips and whispers “Let’s go swimming”.
“Now?” I gasp. “At this hour? Why, we don’t have suits or towels or…” He is grinning in the dark. I see his profile, his dark hair swooping down one side of his face, the glint of his perfect teeth. He starts to undress. I sit there, momentarily shocked. Glancing at his smooth chest and flat stomach, I feel a flutter deep inside, and slowly stand to remove my own clothes.
Taking my hand, he leads me into the water. The waves climb to our thighs, then our waists. We cling together and the sea welcomes us. Lying on our backs, cradled by the water’s embrace, it becomes a soft mattress. We swim far out, away from the shore, beyond the tide.
He stops. Wet, black hair curls around his forehead. Turning to face me, he gently supports my arms with his. There is nothing but the deep water below us, which is life, and the vast sky above with the stars which hold our fate. Between two worlds, time stops for us, for a moment. The sea carries us, further than we had ever been before.
Two months later, the telegram came.
The black sky stretches before me, riddled with tiny points of light, promises of other worlds, other times, and lost loves. The sea still carried me, although now I gave back the years of frustration and loss, the heartache which only it could heal. Tears cloud my eyes, making the moon seem lopsided and two faced. Salt water flows into salt water, a gift back for a time remembered.
It is time to depart. Slowly I turn around and head back to shore, gulping in the steamy air as my arms and legs slice into the sea with perfect precision. My swimming abilities have not lapsed over the years.
Coming to shore, I step on the sandy bottom, my feet and legs feel leaden. Glancing down at my body, I note with surprise the sagging mounds of flesh and feel the tear of muscles which haven’t been used in years. Where had all the time gone? I feel cheated and alone. It isn’t fair. No one having gone through all of the pain of life should face their last years like this. I sit down on the shore, pulling the shapeless shift around me like a blanket. Little rivulets of water run from my legs and shoulders, and the sand feels prickly and rough.
A swirling red light announces the search party. I hear their voices and see the bobbing flashlights coming towards the shore. Hurriedly, I put on the shift, damp from the sea and the sweat of my body.
“There she is!” A voice cried.
I ignore them for a moment, wanting to drink in the last whisperings of the night, of the sea air, and of the recollection of love. What did it matter that I had it no more. For an instant, a moment in time, I had. And for that, I gladly have given the rest of my life.
I blow the sea a kiss, and then resolutely head in the direction of the voices.