The Belizean morning is a little chilly. I hadn’t anticipated that, especially on the second of May. But we’re fifteen miles out to shore, so the wind buffets me ever so lightly, and I draw my arms around myself and shiver.
The breeze is gone as quickly and mysteriously as it arrived, and though the sun has only begun to rise, I can feel its needles of warmth prickling the back of my neck. Of the four people who currently inhabit this one-acre mound of dried coral in the Caribbean, I’m the only one awake. The palm trees move with another breeze; this one doesn’t cut to my bone and sneak under my shorts the way the other one did. The small pebbles, bits of formerly living things, are sharp under my feet, but I make my way down to the dock.
I had planned on a morning swim. Vacations are like this, when you hit them in the right mood (and don’t have any children). Sometimes, you rise unbidden, both surprised and not that your body didn’t feel the need to sleep in for a third day. Your body seems okay with it—even eager, like, “See, this is the life we should be living! Up and at ’em!”
So you get up, smile at your lover coiled up, and make your way through some chilly morning breezes and pointy beach sand to the dock. On the way, I think about going over to the cabana and grabbing a Belikin from the fridge—the guys on staff said we could help ourselves to beer whenever we felt like it, and this morning, I feel like it.
But I’m also in that dreamy vacation state, allowing myself to believe that some mystic force has pulled me out here this morning to watch the sunrise finish up, even though the dock faces west. The mainland is barely visible through an early fog. The water laps doggedly around the dock, its wet slaps like a drunk trying to play the steel drum with a soaked sock.
The water is dark. Green. The waves are high.
I’d come out here thinking I’d sit for a moment and then jump in, but something is holding me back now. The water seems too dark, the waves too high, and I suddenly realize that in order to jump in, I’m going to have to take off my glasses. This will leave me blind to any movement in the water. Sure, I’ll still be able to see the dock, and the island, but not, say, a barracuda.
Do they have barracudas in Belize?
My vacation Buddha smile vanishes. I stand, put my hands on my hips, and regard the water the way one might regard a flat tire when running late for work: brows crinkled, lips twisted off to the side, teeth baring down ever so slightly on each other.
You wanted a swim, my mind tells me again. There’s nothing to worry about. You swam yesterday just fine.
But the water seems active, alive, hostile, chaotic.
You’re not going to be able to talk yourself into this. Just do it.
I strip off my linen shirt and stand at the edge of the dock, every muscle in my back tensed and pointed at the water. In some part of my mind, I can see what I look like: a six-year-old—who has just turned thirty—afraid to jump in some water.
I imagine the staff watching me from the cabana. Fucking American is afraid of the fucking water.
I jump in.
There is the rushing sound, the cold, the salt. Something burns. I feel my feet hit the bottom. Something squishes between my toes. My leg jerks away before checking with my brain.
It was just seaweed, my brain says after I’ve surfaced and caught breath. But man, look at this water.
From within, it seems high and frenzied, the tops of the waves far above my head. I’m pointed out to sea, and all I can see is water—and not even for but a few feet in front of my face. I tread, I swim in a little circle, I turn my head to get a good look at the dock, only a few feet away, and the island only a few feet of foot-deep water past that. But I know that behind me is The Sea, the roiling blanket of water that covers the whole planet and into which I can be sucked and disappear forever.
I climb back up the dock and pull my shirt back on but do not button it. I stare into the water. Now I can see exactly how deep it’s not, how dark it’s not, how very threatening the whole thing isn’t. I feel ridiculous, like when I was a kid and kids would pretend to throw punches in my face to see me flinch. I always flinched; I didn’t want to, but it was what my body did. I never figured out how the other kids stopped themselves.
The hollow sound of the water lapping against the bottom of the dock sounds like laughter, like a sarcastic slow clap. I stand up again.
About thirty feet from the dock, diagonally to the left, is a bright patch of something underwater—seaweed, maybe, or bright coral. Even with my glasses, I can’t tell, as the water is moving too much for me to distinguish shapes underneath. Whatever the bright patch is, it’s not moving. Hands on hips, I stare at it for awhile.
In an instant, my mind is made up. I doff the shirt, throw it behind me, set my glasses down, and dive in. I swim like a crazy person, like a cat that’s been thrown in the bathtub. I forget all form I learned while swimming in college—my flat hands slap against the surface, my feet kick clumsily against the waves, my breath comes ragged and quick, sucking salt water across the roof of my mouth and into my sinuses.
I reach the bright patch. I tread for a moment. The view is even scarier now—I’m further out, the waves are higher, and everything in my mammal brain is screaming at me, get out, get out, get out, they’re coming, it’s coming, it’s going to get you, you’re going to be sucked under and out to sea and gone forever and this is how it’s going to end, get out, get out, get out, get out, get out.
I was raised on the prairie. On the prairie, you can see things coming at you from far away. The ground is underneath and while the wind is formidable, your animal sense tells you it won’t carry you away.
My animal sense is shaking apart like a defective carnival ride. I suck in a quick breath and do my crazy paddle back to the dock. I think I can feel an undercurrent pulling against me, but after what feels like several minutes and is probably only a few seconds, my fingers brush against the wood of the dock. I put my feet down in the sand and climb back up.
My heart is pounding. The breeze feels cold now against my wet skin.
I stand on the dock and stare in to the water, hands once more on my hips.
“Huh,” I say out loud, amazement like a little pop of color on a gray canvas, a light far out at sea, fading.