Fiction in response to Life Below Water
By Ilana Arougheti
The first time you went to the beach was the first time your mind really went blank. Not in a scary or sad or science-fiction kind of way, just that the crash of the tide rumbled so insistent that there was no room for anything else. No matter how long you stared the horizon never stopped dancing, and no matter how far you floated the water never missed a trust fall, wrapping seaweed like a veil in your hair. You didn’t mind when salt stung your nose because at least it meant the ocean would linger. You didn’t mind when your feet sunk into the sandbar because at last it anchored you to the caves and the whales and the moon. Maybe you noticed bottles or shoes floating next to the buoy, but probably there weren’t enough.
Your mom wakes up nostalgic on a Sunday morning and tells you for the millionth time how close her house was to the ocean when she lived by the water as a teenage expatriate. She talks about early-morning walks with her own parents, water as flat as glass; picnic feasts of watermelon with feta cheese, tangy with coastal breeze; skipping gym class to race her friends out to the buoys. The light in her eyes when she talks about the water hints at something faraway. It’s like the opposite of a shadow. You think about what that coast town must look like these days, overrun with tourists, water packed to the brim with polyester bikinis and catamaran fuel.
She drives an hour and a half to the beach even on cold June weekends, packs the family into endless kayaks, floats amid the gnats on the lake besides her sister’s house, and every time the slip of pure homecoming in her eyes grows a little brighter. You start to realize that nature is identity, though you haven’t found the danger in that yet, just as you haven’t forced yourself to reconcile gruesome documentary stills of overfished nets with the snappers and silverfins that dart through the eddies of your summer camp lake.
Your dad can’t keep a hint of shock from his eyes when the ship pulls up to the glacier. Everything looks smaller when you visit it as an adult – drive by your old elementary school sometime and prepare for a nasty surprise – but the tour guide tells him he’s not wrong. The ice is shrinking, greying, lifting the water ever higher. Years earlier, he passed tree-lined, tranquil nature photos to the backseat all the way to Niagara Falls until your own road trip there ended in a neon overload, with so many flashing lights and arcade machines and overrun drive-throughs that you had a panic attack halfway to the edge of the actual falls.
You’re satisfied because you’ve seen what you were promised – craggy ice kingdoms glinting in dawn light, deafening spray plunging eternally into impossible ravines. Most of the passengers have seen enough for a thousand lives’ worth of postcards. Then you reach the Dead Sea and it’s already dying, on the brink of a salt flat. You leave the walkway hundreds of grey, cracked yards above the shoreline and realize that was once the water level, you stare into the distance at the banks of Jordan and realize the view was once much less hazy. You still see what every tourist bucket list promises you, still have the chance float in oily antigravity above velveteen mud. When your trip is over and you pledge to come back someday, you wonder if there will be enough of the sea left to even submerge your hands.
Beauty is not enough of a warning sign. You fly over the ocean on the way to visit your cousins and you’re so mesmerized by marbled jettys of brown and green that you don’t stop to think about what else we’ve lost with the pure blue. You write poetry about alabaster bays and aquamarine light and don’t once wonder if there will come a time when all you have left in your arsenal are garish colors because purer shades have long since faded from our maps. You don’t mind shoving past wrappers and cartons and twine on your dive for that perfect conch shell. You can’t afford to wait until you do.
Your childhood, your adolescence, your family history, your growing imagination, all owe a staggering debt to the mystique of the marine. Yet within the tides that pushed you forwards and filled your scrapbook, there has always been transience, always been a threat of corruption or fade.
This has been my story, but maybe it’s not one my children will get to have, nor their own children, nor yours.
I, for one, am not content with the concept of mere memory. The water I love renders happiness tactile, easy to return to, perfect to share.
I refuse to let go of the sea.