Ocean: An Autobiography
by H. E. FISHER
Jellyfish floated in like Pop-O-Matic bubbles and dotted the shoreline—a sign that school was coming. One more year at Long Beach High, then done. I held my hand up to shade my eyes and gazed out at the sun baffling the horizon, intent on burning off the day. The late August ocean was filled with chop and scattered with patches of calm in variations of blue and gray, washing up and skirting the sand with froth: telltale signs of a rip current, when the water could steal you. As a young swimmer, I was taught how to fight it, to kick violently, paddle hard to unhook, and then speed break diagonally across the waves to the refuge of the shore.
Now the sand dragged out from under my feet, tectonically. Still, the ocean drew me to it: Swim now. I dove under, a natant creature in her habitat, swallowed and disoriented: a near perfect high. I let the seconds pulse and then paddled up for air, breaking the surface. Facing me was a five-footer, rearing, heaving, ready to crash. I was about to drill under when the wave hooked me to its tusk and threw me down. I sank, banking sand bed, and immediately felt the drag taking me. I willed my subaquatic body to kick and stroke, but within seconds, my knees were forced up against my chest and I was somersaulting, propelled by violent churn. I must have instinctively taken a swim breath before going under because my breathing was regular. But I was moving too fast, rotating, and frightened of being pushed into the jetties or tugged out too far. Seconds or minutes passed.
I hope my bikini top stays on, I thought with a voice like a sober news commentator. I hope the bottom stays on. I hope I don’t drown.
I was rolling, fast. I flicked my eyes open, or I think I did. Liquid gray filled with tiny particles of shell bits, fish shit, scraps of aquatic weeds, a floater’s world, sluggish, apathetic almost, and antithetical to the speed at which I was gyrating and torpedoing through the water.
I am drowning.
The next words came quickly, simply: Stop fighting.
I wasn’t testing suicide. This was pragmatism; fighting was futile. Better to let it happen, to acquiesce. For a while I rolled drunk with requiescence, revolving in grace.
Here. The thought came with delight. “Here” was the ocean and the ocean was home.
How long? Will it hurt?
My breathing changed, narrowed.
Something else was different too. It took a moment to understand—my legs were extended. My body angled, reflexively, jinking across the current, shooting off adrenalin, riding on a primordial draw to emerge. I was half bodysurfing, sidestroking, carving, scraping bed, coming up, banging out, until my body stopped so completely I wondered if I would ever move again.
I found myself sitting up at the shoreline, the ocean at my back, my legs stretched out in front of me like a lunatic without a beach chair, the sun reckless on my shoulders. My hands flew to my chest and bottom to make sure my suit was still on, which, by some miracle, it was, though it was filled with sand and comically misshapen. My eyes found the lifeguards up on the chair in their faded red trunks, Scolex smeared on their white noses, whistles strung around their necks on stretch lanyards, resting against their chests, not in their mouths, apparently unaware that I’d been drowning. It happened sometimes. When you knew a swimmer your whole life, you treated her like a family argument that you did not want to get between, better to let her work it out on her own.
I twisted around and crabbed back in, just far enough to dunk myself and wash out the sand, seaweed, and seabed detritus from my bikini, and then winged out, jogged to my towel, patted off, and sat down on the striped blanket next to the bottle of baby oil, menthols, Bic lighter, Zig-Zag rolling papers, and canvas beach bag, where my blitzed-out friends were sunbathing.
Ocean. This is my autobiography, so be hush.
I started in the wet of my mommy's belly and swam in you, raced, swallowed you. My skin burned in your silver reflection. I dove into your churn and you delivered me.
The birds in your spray feasted in your swells, called to me.
When I walked on tiny feet, barely out of diapers, you took custody, feet over head, and pulled me out. I thought it was hilarious, turned myself around and swam back to shore. Mother never knew. I was your goddess, your child, your conspirator. There was nothing I feared. I collected shells. They were my child toys. I lifted seaweed from the August swells and draped it over my body, made costumes of sea water, leis of foam. I sifted sand in my palm and counted the grains, over and over, delighted by my encounter with infinity.
I danced backwards from oncoming waves, laughing. You can’t catch me! Ocean is my mommy too and I love her and love her for playing this game with me.
Ocean ebbs and flows and returns with strength. Not so my mother’s blood with its troubled circulation, which can stop. Sometimes it stops. That is how it is explained to me by my older brother who says too much or not enough. The information makes me think of the Long Island Railroad, the double-decker train pausing for commuters to on-board or off-board.
Heart failure makes her weak and unreliable. I don’t rely on her the way I do the tides. I find her in her bed. Not a bed made of sand, but a mattress covered in sheets with delicate violet flower patterns to match the powder blue walls and white painted dresser from Great-Great-Grandma. She says there is sand in her sheets and tries to smile because it is February. There is always sand in the sheets.
She moved us to Lido, at the east end of Long Beach, from Queens, to be near the ocean. (My father preferred his garden where he grew roses.) She covered herself in oil and bathed in the sun, not in the water. (I never saw her wet.) She got brown. My skin was like my father’s, fair and freckled and burned easily. She covered me head to toe in sunscreen. Waterproof protection had not yet been invented and I had to be re-covered often. I hated it when she called me out of the ocean to be re-covered. When I was old enough to go to the beach without her, my skin worried her. It burned often.
The beach town was salted and the salt rusted and corroded and sterilized. The salt air is what I loved most. The light too. It was light that spent its time on water, astringent; it moved from right to left like a Hebrew reader, and from horizon to dune. I could tell the time of day by the light. All the schoolchildren at Lido Beach Elementary School learned to read the clock and tell time by the light. They had one mother whose name was printed on their birth certificate and another who could be heard washing the Earth nearby. And they grew up believing that one mother would die and the other would outlive everyone. Those were the facts we grew with, and they tamed us.
Ruby is at the shore facing the Atlantic. Tall ships are messing with the horizon. It is like any other day at the beach on a summer holiday, though of course no two days in the ocean are ever alike. Nature constantly reinventing itself is a warning. Imagine a tree changing every day. We’d never tolerate such a thing. As a child, Ruby spent summers at the beach. “We summered here,” she says, sounding highborn.
Something comes in with the tide and wraps itself around Ruby’s legs. Around and around and around. She stumbles, rights herself, and glances down in near panic. To our amazement, yards of Victorian lace have wrapped around her like thread on a bobbin. Ruby studied costuming for theater and knows her tatting. “Handmade,” she notes, appreciatively. She gently unwraps the cloth from her legs and lays it out on the sand to dry. It is shaped like a scallop shell. “A wedding veil,” she observes. “In perfect condition.” Maybe the bride had been in a boat wreck, we speculate. Or perhaps it was stowed in a hope chest that went down with a ship. Ruby takes it home, washes it in Borax, and keeps it.
Ocean. Filled with miracles and history. The amniotic fluid of things.
In the 1960s, there were galvanized metal trash bins with diamond-shaped links dispersed every fifty yards or so in the sand. Silly because the smaller garbage would slip out through the openings and fall to the sand, leaving a pool of discarded things around the bottom rim. The bins may have been a hundred years old, from the time when Long Beach first became a resort town, though everything looked antique thanks to the island’s salt air. My parents taught me the beach was sacred and to throw away my plum pits, Creamsicle wrappers, and anything left behind by careless beachgoers.
A flat wooden spoon from a sundae bought at the snack shack; a mustard-colored filter of a cigarette ringed with pink frosted lipstick; a Band-Aid with its wound pad bleached clean; a rolled tube of Bain De Soleil, its perfume escaping like a genie, oiling my hand orange; the pine-colored metal handle of a child’s sand shovel left in the sun so long it was too hot to grab without my towel; a pale green Coca-Cola bottle, the logo abraded by sand; a swim cap decorated with rubber gerberas, some with torn leaves and a missing chin strap. I added this vivid garbage of my childhood to the receptacles, proud of my civic duty.
Now I scroll through photos capturing argosies of plastics in the ocean. I marvel at the catastrophe. If I were its goddess, still, I would ask the ocean to rise, roll its waves into great swells and batter these shores, punish us. We are punishing us.
I wonder, too, at how small my gestures were, cleaning up the sand.
Thursday, September 13, 2001, my brother takes me, my husband, and our two children to the beach near his home on Long Island where we have gone to get away from the poisonous air in New York City. He climbs the scaffolded lifeguard chair and stares out at the Atlantic, gray and rolling with breakers.
There is a photograph of my brother in his high school yearbook, Echo ’68. He is wearing white jeans, penny loafers, and a peacoat with its collar turned up, Phil Ochs-style, his hands warming inside the slanted woolen pockets. He is just eighteen, sitting on a scaffolded lifeguard chair, gazing toward the horizon. This being a yearbook photo, he is, of course, looking toward his future, and so it is doubly heartbreaking on this day, as it is here.
My children, four and almost two, saw the smoke from their bedroom windows, and now run up to and away from the September tide, teasing it, and then dash across the sand, setting sunshine in a race, handing off the chilled wind like a baton, winning.
Now and then, the ocean met the bay, during hurricane season. Dad taped the windows. We lifted precious items—the stamp collection, the 78s, baseball cards from the 1920s and 30s—off the concrete floor in the cellar and put them on wood shelves in the old ice box. We braced ourselves.
A day or two after Halloween in 2012, I see a picture of a great mountain of sand on the cover of a newspaper, the Times or the Journal News. It is a snapshot of a desert, in Iraq or Saudi Arabia, I assume. The caption corrects me: “Long Beach, Long Island.”
There is no electricity where I live, north of New York City. I charge my phone in the car and watch footage of the waves storming in and dismantling the boardwalk until it is stacked like bonfire wood. Houses flood. The great mountain of sand, I see, is in fact located in the center of town, near the train station and the shops, bulldozed there by the ocean’s force.
Ocean. I am on to you. You have no maker.
You are so clogged, you can barely hear thunder and wind. Where is your strength? Of all Nature’s sisters you were the strongest. You, in cahoots with the moon, lifting your skirts, shaking your hips, drawing back your lips, arching your back. You are pools of hammers dancing with gravity and yet you cannot beat back our human damage? Unless you destroy us first. When you seize. When you tidal. When you launch your tsunami, and spit at our towns.
I walk into you no more than waist high, or more often than not, sink my bare feet into your foamy coastal hem, joining the shells drying under the sun’s attention. There is no mother or lifeguard to protect you. My shame of the human damage is holy in its value. I bend, lift a shell, hold the curl to my ear and hear the S.O.S., a faint breathy echo.
Ocean. Denatured. My autobiography is cast anew. I have immigrated to the same shore upon which I’d been born.
H. E. Fisher
H. E. Fisher is a writer, teacher/mentor, and health literacy expert. She is currently working toward her MFA in creative writing. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Hip Mama, Wild Violet, and Parent Guide News. Her website is https://www.hefisher.com/.