A shipwrecked boat sat tantalizing close. We eyed it from the beach, from the water, from the street, and over the course of a few lazy days, discussed the best way to get to it. An opportunity presented itself when T took the kids in for lunch, leaving L, N, and me to our own devices.
The beach stretched and curved and offered tons of space. Shells and deep grooves in the black sand from previous tides littered our path. We dragged our feet through the water using it as a natural source of air conditioning.
Ankle deep. Knee deep. Waist deep. “How good of a swimmer are you?” L and N asked me.
I shrugged. “I mean, I can swim, but I never took official proper lessons.”
At their questioning looks, I nodded and away we went.
N, who spends his work days on the water and who runs more often than not, quickly separated from us. L and I swam slow and steady. I alternated between a piss poor formed freestyle stroke, breast stroke, and elementary back stroke.
I kept my eyes trained on N, L, and the boat, but soon focused solely on L and N because the current wasn’t taking no for an answer and I didn’t want to see how far off course I was. Doubling down, I began the side stroke, repeating the movements in my head as I imagined what my camp counselors used to say.
I tumbled between the different swimming strokes, as varied and hurried as my breath.
A sharp lash stung my cheek. A jellyfish I thought and swam faster and a little away from where I was. Ugly but effective strokes. I began to make progress. Somewhat. It depended on your definition of progress.
L: I’m not going to be able to make it.
Me: You okay?
L: Yeah, but yeah, not making it to the ship.
Me: Okay, no problem. I’m happy to stop. Let’s go back.
We signaled to N who was nearly to the beached boat. The current was more ferocious now, but it was coming in, which we used that to our advantage. L and I checked in with each other using “okay?” “okay” and hand signals as we tried to conserve our breath. She was dragged behind some anchored boats while I and my camp memories sliced through the water aiming for a point higher up the beach.
It was an arbitrary point, but I held on tight to it. Side stroke all the way now. It was less strenuous and seemingly more effective. Summer campfire songs and the Wabansi lake and all those years I attend Camp Nyoda filtered through my mind. Just another day at summer camp, I thought.
A helicopter appeared above the beach where N was and circled in the general vicinity of L and me. The water flattened and pulsed around L, as I chanted to myself “don’t make any signs of distress. You’re not in distress. You’re fine.” I side stroked on.
The helicopter made one more pass and disappeared as suddenly as it appeared.
I licked my teeth. They tasted of salt.
A man walked out of a little cabin as L and I dragged ourselves onto the beach. We each formed a point of a strange triangle.
L and I met up and she confessed her terror and her plan to hang onto one of the anchored boats for rest. I apologized for not realizing her mental state, as I certainly would have angled closer to her for comfort, support, familiarity if I’d known how badly she needed it. I laughed at how weirdly calm I felt. I confessed I’d been channeling my childhood summer days spent at camp.
By then, N had searched the boat and began his way back to us. He walked up and out as far as the sand allowed and slipped into the water. L choked back more fear as we studied her husband’s strong, but fruitless movements, and I softly talked to her about square breathing.
In for four counts. Out for four counts. In for four counts. Out for four counts. Break. Repeat.
The sound of a motor boat starting up pulled our attention away from N. The boat reached N in 15 seconds and he deftly clamored in. Once on the beach, N briefly conferred with the man who had reached the beach when L and I had, and then he ran over to us.
L: You okay?
N: Oh yeah. I’m fine. I could have made it, but I’m not about to look a gift horse in the mouth. Miguel, the boat driver, said something about the current. And tiburóns.
L and me: What’s a tiburón?
N, our best Spanish speaker of the bunch, said: I think, sharks.
The calm facade I’d been cradling cracked and trickled down my body along with the salt water dripping off my bathing suit. I’d thought I’d come into contact with the only danger in that part of the sea – a jellyfish – but the realization we’d been swimming with sharks sent my adrenaline surging faster than the tide coming in.
We numbly began the trek back to the house. L and N had a quiet, sharp conversation while tiburóns swam in my head larger and louder and more real than they’d been while I was in the water.
L turned her ministrations to me as she took in my ashen face and mute voice. She repeated my earlier words about square breathing. In for four counts. Out for four counts. In for four counts. Out for four counts. Break. Repeat.
We were on dry land. Nothing here but the echo of our bad decision.