I remember the last time I felt the ocean. It was at Port Isabel, near Padre Island, the week after spring break. The beach had a hangover: crumpled beer cans and cigarette butts, candy wrappers and used condoms. Herring gulls squabbled over choice bits of trash and cried as they wheeled in the sky. The sun was sulking under a blanket of clouds. An unseasonably chilly wind, greasy with salt, blew fitfully across the waves.
The sea spread out to the horizon, rippling like a vast sheet of gray-green satin. The easy roll of the distant swells turned to a surge of foam at the shoreline. The whispering roar of the waves was calling me, pulling my blood as the moon pulls the tide.
I found a clear spot of sand and stripped down to my swimsuit. The wind knotted my skin with goosebumps. I left my sneakers on; the sand was full of hidden fish hooks.
I crossed the beach and waded in, shivering and wincing at the first cold bite of salt on my legs. The current tugged at my ankles. I’d been warned about the undertow; it had dragged under dozens of unwary swimmers. I imagined the victims being pulled down, down into the dark water to become a feast for deep-sea crabs. But today, the undertow was no watery mugger; it was insistent but gentle, almost playful, like a man pulling his lover behind a tree for a kiss. I splashed out into the waves until my toes could barely find the sandy bottom.
I felt a sudden thrill of fear as the swell lifted me as though I were a sliver of driftwood. This was no polite suburban swimming pool. This water was powerful. It wasn’t just the force of sheer mass that I felt. Perhaps what I sensed was the kinetic energy of the rolling molecules, the innate force of the wet, heavy children of gases joined in explosive union. Perhaps what I felt came from chemical instinct, the miniature sea in my own veins faltering in the vastness of its ancient birthplace.
After a few minutes, the surges no longer frightened me. The rising, falling swell was the steady breathing of a sleeping creature. The rhythm lulled me, and I lay back in the water and let myself float.
I closed my eyes and let my mind drift. My thoughts left my body and spiraled up, up into the sky, through the misty sheets of clouds into outer space. I imagined I could see the earth spreading below me, nothing of human civilization visible. The sea wrapped the planet like a blue amoeba that had flattened itself around a grain of sand. The sea was moving, pulsing in slow, millennial currents around the globe.
I realized that the sea itself is alive, not just a soup of fish and salt and seaweed, but truly alive. All living things within it, from delicate crystalline plankton to hardy killer whales, are part of a vast, liquid body. The ocean’s organisms eat and breed and die to be reabsorbed into the system, life and death locked in a perpetual embrace, just like the cells in my own body.
I had never seen myself as anything but an individual before, but now I realized that I, too, was a cell in the salty blood. And someday I would be gone, broken down into nitrogen and carbon and water, nothing of my essence left but a few genes in future generations of cells.
I felt myself drift away farther into outer space until the Earth looked like a fist-sized white and azure jewel hanging against the blackness. I turned my face toward the heat of the sun. It was swollen, shining the wrong color, pregnant with disaster.
Then it burst, a shell of flame and shock ripping out across space. The fire tore across the Earth, tearing off its living skin, shattering its rocky bones.
I thought I could hear the beautiful blue creature scream as it exploded into cosmic steam.
I woke with a start, shaking. I was so cold I couldn’t feel my feet. My skin was white against the dark water. I swam back to shore, my arms and legs weak against the waves. I staggered onto the beach and found my towel and clothes. After I dried off and dressed, I jogged along the beach to coax the blood back into my chilled limbs.
I knew I couldn’t go back into the water without courting hypothermia, but I didn’t want to leave. So I spent the rest of the day searching for shells in the wet gray sand. The clouds broke in the late afternoon, and I hiked to the jetty to watch the sundown show of brilliant purples and delicate pinks and oranges.
After the horizon had faded to the blackest blue, the real show began. The night tide was thick with phosphorescent plankton that flashed in green alarm at any disturbance. Every crashing wave sent up a spray of ghostly fireworks. Glowing sea foam oozed like lava in the crevices of the jagged black rocks.
Finally, my eyes would hardly stay open, and I started to shiver in the night breeze. I turned away from the jetty, trudged back down the road, through the dingy trailer park to a rickety beach shack in which even the plastic had rusted. I drew a tub of hot, clear, uninteresting water, poured in perfumed bubble bath as faint compensation, and washed the sea from my skin and hair.
But it could not be washed from my mind. As I lay in my bed that night, I could still feel my body rise and fall with the waves, the sensation like phantom pain from an amputated limb.
This essay was originally published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet.