“What was that?” My father spun around again.
I was getting dizzy.
We reached the car and my father unloaded me into the backseat. My mother climbed into the front and slammed the door.
“And you,” she said, swiveling in her seat to face me. “What were you thinking, going into the deep end without your life vest? You just made me look like the worst mother in the world! Well . . . second worst.”
“I didn’t mean to,” I said.
She looked at me hard for a moment as if she was trying to decide if she believed me. Then her face crumbled and she began to cry. “Oh, kids,” she said. “Don’t ever let me be a mother like her! It’s my worst fear . . . It’s . . . Oh God, promise me I won’t. Promise me you won’t let me turn out like her.”
“You won’t!” Matthew and I both assured her at once, believing with all our little hearts.
“Really?” She wiped her face and looked hopefully into Matthew’s eyes.
“Yes,” he told her, “it’s impossible!”
“But how can you be sure?”
He thought about this very seriously for a second. Then he said, “Because, Mom, you do the worst British accent I’ve ever heard.”
My mother giggled, then did a double take. “But wait a second! So does she!”
“Oh well,” Matthew said, shrugging. “I guess we’re screwed then.”
They both laughed at this and she grabbed his hand and squeezed it. “Oh, Matty. You always make me feel better.”
Then she turned to my father and her voice turned colder than I had ever heard it before. “I’m telling you right now, if you don’t get me out of this hellhole for a proper vacation—”
“Yeah, Dad!” I said, shoving my head through the space between the front seats. Already I was learning to want only what my mother wanted, to want it with life-preserving desperation. “Let’s go somewhere fun!”
My mother turned and stared silently out the window while I continued to plead with him all the way home, believing somehow that a vacation could fix things, that my father, of all people, could save us.
TWELVE YEARS LATER, there is no Uncle Billy to rescue me as I move farther and farther from the shore, wondering if this is really how I’m going to die. It’s like I’m watching the whole thing happen from outside of myself, completely detached and not terribly surprised.
I’ve always had this vision of how my life would end. I wonder if everybody has an idea of their worst imaginable death, an image so explicit you could almost wonder if it is prophetic.
Back when things were really hairy, I used to have this story play out in my mind so often that it feels like I have already lived it: Someone is drowning, someone I love, and I race out to help them. I’m a good swimmer, unafraid of the ocean, confident in my ability to rescue. I reach them quickly but the victim is panicked. Their arms lock around my neck and in their desperation for air, they try to climb me, pushing me under. I shout at them to stop, but the word itself gets drowned. I go under and they follow. We are almost face-to-face. I grab at their arms to calm them, to make them look into my eyes and see what is happening. But they can’t see past their own distress, can’t see me as anything more than a buoy to put their weight on, do not care that in their efforts to survive they are killing me. I try to kick them, punch them, but it’s no use. I can’t get free and there’s no more air and we sink into the darkness, fighting each other the whole way down. It’s not like I made that up either. It’s something that really happens to people. I just never imagined the person I’m trying to save would be me. Somehow, I always thought it would be her.
I start to swim hard, remembering what I’ve been taught about riptides: to move parallel to the beach, away from the channel. Only when I try, I can’t do it. The current is too strong, too fast. I paddle desperately, but the Atlantic has an umbilical hold on me. I tell myself not to panic. The panic is what kills you. As soon as I start thinking about the panic killing you, I start to panic.
The wind is up. A fog sits. The brick buildings of Dunton College disappear behind it. My mouth fills with salt when all I want is air. My hair is in my face, eyes and mouth. I tilt my head back, frantic for breath, for someone on the shore who can help me.
No one sees. No one is there.
My thoughts spin in a whirlpool, sad and angry and frightened and pointless. Mostly, I just want to go home. Mostly, I’m just wondering why I always screw everything up.
The ocean has me by the legs. I can barely keep my head above water. That’s how quickly the fatigue of drowning hits; it hits all at once, like I’ve been swimming my whole life and I’m just too tired to take another stroke. I want to cry, but know it will only make me drown faster. I think of how easy it would be to surrender, how drowning would take me like sleep. They say it’s quite peaceful once you stop fighting.
Then suddenly, I hear a voice in my head again. Only this time it’s my own—a little, quiet voice that somehow breaks through the chaos and struggle and self-flagellation and tells me quite simply that I will be okay. I have no reason to believe it, but my thoughts quiet anyway. And in the momentary quiet of my mind, I remember something else I once learned about riptides: that sometimes, the only way out is to quit fighting, to let it take you back and back and back until the current emancipates you.
I bring my legs up and let myself float, watching the reach of shore expand with terrible regret, an aching good-bye in my chest. Back and back and back I go, being asked to trust that this will save me when every part of me wants to do the opposite, to break free by moving forward. I think of my suitcase sitting on the sand, waiting for me to return to it. At least someone will know I was here.
Then it happens so slowly that I’m not sure if I’m imagining it, but I start to feel the sea releasing me, like a roller coaster easing gradually into the gate. My arms are both heavy and without bones, and I’ve swallowed so much salt water, I could puke up a whale. But as I start to move inch by inch diagonally across the ocean, I see the arch of waves in front of me, the brick buildings of Dunton College reemerging beyond that, and this new hope lifts me out of myself, shifts my perspective. I can hear birds and the lap of sea, the distant roll of breaking water. I find new energy to swim, which drains and pulses again and again. The distance is so much farther than it looks, and it is not until I feel the catch and the rise beneath me that I’m sure I am among the waves. One carries me, delivers me into a dump of white water where I am buried again, fighting to keep my chin above the whirlpool of froth. Another comes and I am drilled into the sand.