Drowning in the Shallows

I had never seen the ocean before my twenties. You didn’t just drive by the shoreline when you live in landlocked Oklahoma. Tornadoes were more common than a beach trip, unless you had money, which we didn’t. So to date someone from a coastal state, North Carolina, meant learning to meet one of their most precious relationships: the ocean.

I admire John’s eager love for the beach, the ever churning ocean waves, and the recklessness of swimming to far out islands and buoys barely visible from the sandy shore. A wildness comes out in him at the beach, when the sun is high and hot, the water cold and rushing up past your shins. He’s extremely playful like a Labrador set free in a dog packed dog park, but I was so timid and downright terrified when first standing in the damp, cool sand.

When the water rushed in, coating over my bare feet, I felt the sand sink beneath me, and if I stood in place for a few cycles of waves, I realized I could sink deeper until my knees were down to the ground. I never imagined so much liveliness from this aquatic scenery, like its waves pushing in and sinking back out were its breath and blood, and I was a meek visitor that it very much could wipe out with a single wave.

And it did.

John was far out into the water, farther than waist-deep, a level I refused to follow him out. I never believe for a second that John would ever risk my safety, but I do believe he overestimated how much knowledge there is to know what to do or what not to do at the beach.

Like stand exactly where the waves break, for instance. And I did exactly that.

One moment, the blue endless sky was above me, the cold ocean water brimming with seafoam swirling around my legs, and the marshy sand squishing beneath my toes. The next, the world literally turned upside down as a fierce (okay, maybe not fierce but at least medium-sized) wave crashed into me, sending me upside down. I remember the swirls of blue and green as I opened my eyes underwater, nose filling up before I remembered to hold my breath. Water punched into my ears and my mouth filled with salty water choking down my throat. I reached up, trying to find the surface as my knee scraped painfully against the sharp surface of sand.

A hand grasped mine but it was hardly pulling. Instead, it was shaking.

John had come to rescue me but at the sight of me half-drowning in the shallows, he was laughing too hard.

My twisted face finally broke through the water’s choppy surface, blessed air touching my slick skin, and I screamed at him, “PULL ME UP!!!”

Finally, John found his strength again as he tugged me hard and effortlessly, putting an arm around my waist and guiding me out of the ocean and to the hot yet soft and dry sand. He brought me to our blanket where I sat in a daze, water seeping out of everything, from my ears, to my stinging nostrils, to my agape mouth. I choked for minutes before my breath felt smooth. I could taste nothing but salt as it coated my tongue and teeth, my lips, and I stared in a daze at the otherwise calming picture of the waves coursing to and from the shore.

“You okay?” John grinned down at me, dark hair slicked back wet. He looked perfectly at ease while I looked like a soggy sponge that would never be dry again.

I didn’t answer him. For years, I still berate him for barely trying to help me up when I kept doing somersaults under the water.

“I’m sorry,” he tries to say, not holding back fresh laughter every time. “But every time you would try to get up, another wave kept pushing you down.”

“Yes, John. It’s hilarious.” Though I smile a little, too. His laughter is that infectious.

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