The ocean in Nova Scotia is a bowl with steep sides. Go out a few strokes and it's forty feet deep all around, the walls of it riddled with rocks and dead whales and sunken ruined women. She-boats and other boat-like stuff washes up: pieces of ceramic, once teacups. Corroded nails and frayed rope and engine parts. It's a bowl of smashed-up remnants that, once immersed, give up and knock around with a resigned sort of lostness.
In North Carolina's Outer Banks—a two hundred-mile strip of island beaches just wide enough for a road and houses on each side—the ocean is an illusion. Its lack of ice and lobster traps and its wide sands, shallow shelf, and constant, five-set surf makes it look like frolic, at least when you're brought up on the coast of the North Atlantic. Like whee tra la la la.
North or south, slack tide is not a rest between a high and the next low. It's a confused, stressed sort of directionless jostling. On the Outer Banks, slack tide is a window of opportunity. The riptide is strong in a way that's instantly scary, even just up to your knees. At slack tide, you can stand. Could I swim? I didn't know. I won't drown in a backyard but my arms and legs are made of soba and udon. I stop at my waist. Pipes like that are postcards to look at while you sit there with a cold beer and your pants undone, but as soon as you're a few steps away, you don't want to go through them. All you want is a cold beer and unbuttoned pants.
Amy keeps walking cause she's from Jersey.
photo by Melissa Butler
A five-foot pipe crashes over her, and again, and again, and then her head pops up beyond the break. She waves at me.
I can't do that. This is not what I know. We don't get sets like that. Our edges are too steep. These waves roll and roll and roll and by the time they break they will cut you, bury you, drag you under, grind you like a little scrap of nothing into the sand. I can't believe that you can dive under it and not get cut, buried, dragged, and ground-up but there she is, on the other side, wondering why I can't.
She swims back, grabs my hand, and pulls me forward cause she's from Jersey. She yells over the rumble as the first wave approaches. This one's yours!
AAAaaaahhhhh crap crap crap crap
I dive and lose my sense of up. It's pure froth and crash and tumble, a growling blender, loud even underwater. It's what panic sounds like from the inside of your body. Up just enough to breathe and say holy sh— and there was another one. And again, and again, and we were out past the break. Twenty seconds of victory before I realized I couldn't touch the sand, then felt the riptide, then remembered my udon and soba, left and right. We had to go back or get sucked away from beer and pants.
I've never had to swim that hard. The waves pull you out more than push you in. It was uphill.
Eventually, I flopped onto the beach. Someone said Good thing you heard us yelling. (I didn't.) Pixie saw a bull shark.
One night around midnight, I sat on the beach by myself. The horizon was endless and I could see two storms in the distance. Sheet lightning, and a reply. I watched and listened, over and over, sure that Billie had already been to every place of mine as well as every place that wasn't yet mine but might be, eventually, wanted or not.
I sat there for a long time watching the water slam forward and recede in the inky black. I practiced breathing, harder work than it should be. I felt something there, a shadow, and turned. It was a coyote, a silhouette. I jumped. It jumped. Then it was gone.
Maya's typewriter went all day long. I added to the pages.
We wrote performance art. I borrowed a crab house. (The way to safety is flooded faster than you think.)
We laughed and cried and cried and laughed. We ate too much shrimp and grits. We looked up a lot.
I came home feeling stirred-up, hardly able to speak about it all for how it comes out. Squam was a big bang. It was a lot of sitting companionably with shadows, and playing, and hard work. It was unexpected. It was a company of women, sheet lightning that always flashes back.