My first real body of water was a lake in Maine
with a soft mud bottom & plenty of leeches.
I am too young to swim, but I love watching
my mother, so slow on land, slice
through the small waves while seeming
merely to recline on her right side.
The lake is large & not to be trifled with.
In the winter, it turns to stone — my first desert.
I cross it slowly, seated on a sled,
Mom pulling my brother & me in her snowshoes.
I am four & a half, & already fit
the dreamy stereotype of my birth sign, Pisces.
My mother is hugely pregnant,
& my older brother & I decide to play
a practical joke: I hide myself in the deep grass
on the back slope above the pond,
while Steve bangs in through the kitchen door:
Mom rushes past me, frantic, calling my name,
& I leap to my feet: Here I am!
Later, I sit inside staring numbly
out at the grass, wanting to be missed
again like that, wishing I could still be
hidden there, curled up like a comma
in that green sea as the wind moves through.
Oceans with stone beaches, thundering surf.
In an old black-and-white photo,
Steve & I pause in front of the iconic
Hopewell Rocks at low tide,
clearly impatient to resume our running
over the Red Sea-miraculous floor
of the Bay of Fundy.
Fifteen years later, we happen to be
in Taiwan at the same time, & meet up
with some friends for a picnic on another beach
dotted with wave-gouged menhirs.
Steve swims out to a small island, then calls back:
Come see the geysers! And when I hesitate,
Hurry, it’s spectacular!
A typhoon is churning somewhere
off to the east, raising mountainous waves.
Somehow I fight my way out, & it’s worth the effort:
smoothly sculpted sandstone as if
from the American southwest, undermined by the sea
& pocked with hollows just the right size
to lie down in. I feel like St. Brendan
innocently beached on a whale’s
barnacled back. Its blowhole shoots spray
high into the air with every wave,
each time giving rise to the same rainbow.
After a while I hear faint voices:
Come back! Come back!
& realize I’m alone on the island. I dive in
& paddle as hard as I can for shore,
but the shore recedes. Never a strong swimmer,
I soon reach the point of exhaustion
& slide down under the waves,
into that sudden blue-green silence.
I struggle back to the surface —
noise! spray! — then sink again.
Steve reaches me just before I go under
the dreaded third time.
Stop swimming, he says, & stand up
in the water — there’s a shelf of rock
we can rest on. I quell my panic
& feel for the rock with my feet, my chin
just barely above the troughs.
I time my breaths to avoid inhaling
any more ocean. Here’s what we’ll do,
Steve hollers in my ear. Put an arm
around my neck, but don’t strangle me.
If I paddle & we both kick, I think we can make it.
Steve has been lifting weights for five years,
& fueled no doubt by adrenaline,
pulls both our bodies straight back
against the rip tide.
Later, in the taxi, we marinate
in our separate swamps of self-disgust:
I would’ve died without his help.
I almost killed him.
Back then, I was too skinny to be buoyant.
Now, I’m unsinkable.
Adrift in my skin boat —
hide stretched taut across the ribs,
the sea on the wrong side —
I float through my days.