Issue One - June 2001

In the Arms of the Ocean

By Leta Currie Marshall

A mild insanity has taken hold of me lately: an obsession with beaches. Warm, sunny beaches. Warm, salty oceans. I fantasize about snorkeling over a reef confettied with bright tropical fish, or walking barefoot in the sand somewhere, anywhere, my pant legs rolled up, friendly wavelets fizzing around my ankles. I stand in front of the tropical fish tanks at a big mainland pet store until my husband comes to ask me if I’m ready to leave yet. Fire coral, sea fans and bright yellow fish decorate my computer desktop.

I grew up on the Gulf of Mexico, near the Sabine river border between Cajun Louisiana and cowboy Texas.

When I say “on” the Gulf, I really mean “in.”

My cousins owned a cabin up the coast from Galveston. It was built on a cheap lot half a block from the beach, but in 1961 Hurricane Carla turned it into waterfront property when her tornadoes and storm surge swept away the whole first row of cabins.

On the flat coast of Texas, people never used to put much money into houses built on the sand. Funky weekend getaways stood in rows between the highway and the water. Most were set high on creosoted stilts; besides being less likely to wash away, they had a better chance of catching any little breeze that happened to wander by.

My cousin Julie was two years younger than I and lived within an easy bike ride. Her widowed mother, and her mother’s widowed mother, kept the cabin even after Julie’s father and grandfather died. Cousins and friends would carry paint, tools, and lumber down to Crystal Beach and fix things around the cabin in return for using it. We only went when Julie and her family were going too; we all liked being together, three generations, and Julie and I continued the friendship our mothers had enjoyed their entire lives.

The single big room was filled with cast-off furniture and fixtures hauled from home, odd lamps and mismatched dishes from the junk shop on the highway, glass fishing floats and other novelties found on the sand. There was minimum privacy but maximum air circulation for stifling summer nights. At least half a dozen well-worn beds stood along the walls. We each had a favorite we claimed as our own. Mine was the squeaky double in the northeast corner facing the beach, with windows on two sides. The mattress had two parallel valleys, wallowed into it over the decades by various pairs of bodies sleeping side by side. When I woke up in the morning I would have rolled into one depression or the other.

My senior year in high school, we went to the beach the weekend of the prom. I had no date, and told myself and anyone who would listen that I would rather spend the weekend at the beach with my cousins anyway. If that wasn’t entirely true on Friday night, it was by Saturday evening. The timeless sounds and senses of the beach made sure of that.

It was already barefoot weather, and Julie’s family and my family–two parents, older brother and me–had packed our cars and headed down the highway. We stopped at the usual supermarket to stock up on Cherry Cooler cookies, Fritos and Dr Pepper.

For us kids, our first and only real chore on arrival was to carry all the boxes of food and towels and coffee, the bags of flip-flops, paper plates and crossword puzzles, up the bare wooden stairs. We hurried past the scary spit-devil bugs that always seemed to be waiting on the wall near the back door, and dropped our loads in the appropriate areas of the cabin. Then we raced back downstairs and toward the water.

Evil burrs that would be rebuffed by summer-tough feet come August embedded themselves in tender soles in May. We slowed to a hop just long enough to pull them out and then kept going. The welcome of the waves was irresistible–we had been away so long.

“Don’t go in,” our mothers admonished, as always. “It’s almost lunch time.”

“We won’t,” we hollered back over our shoulders, as always. “We’ll just wade.”

We all knew that within five minutes Julie and I would be soaked and sandy after “accidentally” stumbling over a wave and falling into the surf. It was tradition. It was our birthright.

Sun and moon, tides and crickets kept the time. Young and sleek in our faded swimsuits, we walked for miles and miles along the shore, knowing we could never be lost, not caring how far we had to walk back. After dark we knew the shapes of light shining through the windows of our cabin, where the grownups would be playing Keno and talking.

As we had grown into teenagers, walking on the beach became a ritual of seeing and being seen by our peers, comparing our own bodies to those laid out on beach towels, and checking out the boys playing frisbee.

But our chief business was still with the waves. We played the games we had played all our lives, and still invented new ones.

We swam, my cousin and I, for hours on end in the blood-warm sea. We were intimates of the ocean. We knew when the man-o’-wars were about and when the mullet schooled through waves the color of café au lait, bumping against our legs. We knew when there was a treacherous undertow, and when it was okay to go out up to our chins and beyond, all the way to the sandbar. We knew no fear. Imaginary pearls decking our imaginary tails, we were mermaids at play.

Surfboards were for Californians. We had our bodies. Counting and waiting for that just-right wave, we stretched out our arms like Superman and flew toward shore until our hipbones grated on sand, then stood up in ankle-deep water.

When the midday sun grew too ruthless even for us, we took refuge in the soft, cool sand under the cabin. We played at being master chefs, creating exquisite sand tarts on the half-shell and sand pies decorated with coquina shells and weed sprigs. We added water and built sand castles, or rigged fishing lines for our next trip to the jetties.

After lunch the silence of siesta descended on the house, but only for minutes. Soon a chorus of snores drifted out the screened windows to join with the buzz of insects. The grassy dunes muffled the sounds of voices, surf, radios, and revving engines. Our brains settled into a happy, half-melted stupefaction.

Over the next few years my days as a beach baby changed. We college kids packed real beer instead of root beer and boys instead of toys. When Julie started college in the neighboring town where I was already a student, we’d make the drive with our sorority sisters and brothers to a different beach closer to home and stay only for the day.

With this boyfriend and then that one, I explored new seaside wonders: my bare arms and legs brushing against longer, stronger arms and legs, and kisses wetter than the ocean, wet like oysters. Instead of “mermaids” we played at chicken fights, girls sitting on boys’ shoulders, wrestling each other off into the water. The tickle of my trusty steed’s ears against my thighs was a new sensation altogether.

One day a young man came along who hated going barefoot. He told me about a place where the ocean was clear and clean and green, not brown and spitting up tarballs. He wanted to take me there. I married him.

We lived for months in the Florida Keys, scrubby white islands baking in the sun, populated by pirates, pot gardeners and rat race refugees. A few grand would have bought us a canal lot that we could retire on, but at the time, we had nothing, wanted nothing except to be where we were, doing what we were doing: diving for treasure.

The heat and sun were just as fierce as we had ever known back in Texas. The same familiar giant cockroaches would sneak into our motor home and drop onto the bunk or table, setting off an instant frenzy of grabbing weapons and swearing. Power failures often meant nights of no air conditioning, spent slapping at tiny biting no-see-‘ums that came right through the window screens.

Our reason and refuge was, of course, the ocean.

We worked for an old friend who was looking for his pot of gold at the bottom of the sea. His noisy aluminum boat took us out to the reef every decent day. From the flying bridge our captain and his crew of one or two hired divers scanned the white sea floor for signs of shipwrecks. My husband was the ship’s archaeologist and I was responsible for making lunch, which most often consisted of peanut butter on cheap white bread, washed down with black coffee, usually consumed by the divers while standing half in the water on the dive ladder.

I spent countless happy hours floating on the ocean, breathing easily through a snorkel, watching whatever was going on twenty feet below me, free-diving down for a closer look. Air bubbles from the divers’ regulators rose and expanded into great shimmering rings that broke over me in billions of tickling bubbles, like warm green champagne. With my prescription mask I had perfect underwater vision, and I pointed out things the others missed–cannonballs, bronze ship fastenings and other artifacts encrusted with lumpy coral.

Strapping on an air tank, I ventured to the bottom and hung out with the bright fish that nibbled at sea fans and gazed back at me with innocent eyes. The ocean surged gently over the reef, moved by a great heartbeat, and I was just another mote suspended in it.

One day my husband and I were snorkeling together behind the reef when we realized that a school of large barracuda hovered between us and the boat, feeding on what the current carried past. We glanced at each other, then swam slowly over them, holding hands, acting as if we were the biggest, baddest two-headed fish in the ocean. The bluff worked: although they rolled on their sides to look up at us, the barracuda stayed where they were. We had just staked our claim.

That was another life, another me. We moved back to Texas and then to another island, as far away from the Keys as we could go and still be in the continental U.S. The ocean that surrounds us here in Washington is a different goddess altogether. Dark and cold, fatal to the foolish or unlucky, to me she offers warning, not welcome. There are wonderful creatures that live in these waters, but it is their home, not mine.

Beautiful and beloved as this island is to me, even after fifteen years it’s an alien environment. The lambs and the lilacs say “spring,” but still I shiver. My hands are always cold. I am tired to death of wool, bored with sleeves, sick of socks.

Long ago, in that other life, my father took one of his favorite photos of me at Crystal Beach. I was a blonde waif with a gap-toothed grin and bare feet, sneakers in hand. On the back he wrote, “She loves to wiggle her toes in the sand.”

Those toes miss the earth. My feet have forgotten what it’s like to be tough, brown and free. I miss the bright hot sunshine, baking my skin to a dangerous red that now mysteriously returns as dark sunspots on my arms. I miss having sand in my hair, sand under my fingernails, sand in my shorts. Most of all, I miss surrendering to the primal currents of the original womb, warm to the marrow, relaxed, at home.

If only I could crawl back into those warm waves and let the sand scour the dead cells from my skin, let the salty water, rich with life, salve away years of cold desiccation. I want to gaze out over a blinding sea, hypnotized by shimmering heat waves, and forget what it is to be a grown-up.

I didn’t realize when I moved to this new paradise that I’d leave the old one so far behind. I didn’t know I’d miss it so.

Warm ocean is only a plane ride away. Maybe it’s time to make a reservation.

Once I thought nothing of jumping overboard into the open ocean. Maybe I’ve grown too old and scared and fragile ever to do that again, my risk-taking self packed away with snorkel and fins, frisbees and flip-flops. Or is that golden, freckled girl still in me somewhere? Is warm seawater still the cure-all as Julie’s mother, the nurse, firmly believes? Would my heart grow strong again as I kicked and pulled my way to the seafloor to visit my little fishy friends?

What would happen if I turned those questions into statements?

Yesterday I took a stroll on a dock in a quiet bay. The sun filtered down into clear green water, flashing on schools of tiny fish. I knelt to watch them, and suddenly I knew: if that water were warm, I’d be in it.

© Copyright 2001 Leta Currie Marshall