Monday, September 12, 2005

Swimming Lesson After Dark

After a week of lying in bed sick or recovering on unsteady feet, I slipped back into my running shoes for the first time in seven days and headed out to meet the setting sun on the sand. The run itself was uneventful. I invented a few crises just to keep my speed up -- won’t let those guys catch up! There's someone chasing me! -- but it was basically the usual plodding slog up to the Arab fishing village and back down to the southernmost rocks and then back again to the lifeguard station. What's new is that, now that I know sea turtles choke and die on plastic bags they mistake for jellyfish, every unnatural glimmer in the sand is an interruption. I stop, stoop, scoop, and soon enough have a handful of wet sandy sacks, which I have to carry the length of the beach to a trash bag at one end or the other. It's a pain and the odds are unlikely, but what if I save one turtle's life? I skip plastic cups and bottles, because turtles probably can't swallow those, and I'm hoping that plasti-foil popsicle and chips wrappers look too unnatural to be tempting.

So I had my 45-minute run, and when it was done the sun was long gone. A few lights twinkled on the beach and at the power station, but the water and beach were dark. I left my shoes, socks, and glasses by the unmanned lifeguard tower, and sallied into the drink. A week ago, as I'd walked into the water at much the same time, unnaturally morbid thoughts had swarmed heavily around me, provoking a sense of finality, of solitude, of my last walk into an ocean ever. It was like living my own Joy Division song. But the swim had gone well, and I'd emerged more because of boredom than anything else. That was a week ago.

Tonight, the dark thoughts hovered again as I walked into black water under a deep purple sky, but I brushed them aside. The waves were stronger than usual, even aggressive. One slammed into my crotch, which didn't hurt, but hey, fella -- what's the big idea? I hadn't ever swum here at so high a tide, and because of the sand's steep angle, high tide seems to strengthen the waves more than it does at the shallow-approach Santa Monica beaches where I grew up.

Another difference: The water is so warm here that diving in requires no fortitude at all. I used to resent the tub-like easiness, but now I'm used to it. You just dunk in like a dolphin, no jaw-clenching required, and start frolicking or swimming. Which I did. I swam submerged for a half-minute or so and felt three waves suck me sharply upward as they passed. Then I surfaced, did a lazy breast stroke out to sea for a few minutes, and finally stopped to see where I'd ended up.

Far away. The silhouetted lifeguard station was much smaller than I wanted it to be. Imprudent to remain so far from shore, I thought. Time for a real breast stroke back, just to stay within a comfortable distance, and set to work at a moderate pace. I expected to close the gap with ease. But when I paused again to check my progress, there seemed to be none. I tried to gauge my relationship to the illuminated power station chimneys on my right versus the half moon just above them, but wouldn't you know it -- I'd left the sextant on shore with my tennies. So I started swimming again, with more conviction this time, and after a minute or so paused again to see how far I'd gone. Still no visible progress. I mulled the possibility of panicking. Talked myself out of it and went back to swimming. Stories about recent drownings at this very beach swam up to greet me in the turbid waters, and I put more muscle into my stroke. Kept it up for two or three minutes, all the while wondering how exactly one drowns: Does water suddenly flood into your nose when a wave hits just as you're inhaling, thus provoking a coughing fit that floods the lungs? Does fatigue take you down after the tide has taken you out? How mediocre a swimmer do you have to be to lose it in a non-stormy ocean? How mediocre a swimmer am I? What about sharks? Motivational thoughts like these kept me stroking away as a series of big, loud waves crested around me. When I finally dared to stop again, my feet still didn't touch bottom. OK to panic now? I mean, WTF? This doesn't happen to me. I'm a good swimmer ... aren't I?

Started swimming again. I didn't want to put all my strength into it, just in case the tide was so strong that it was truly pulling me out and would force me to maintain strength-conserving survival strokes for hours. So, panic rising, I swam at an easy pace for three or four minutes straight and then looked up to see, finally, the station looming a comfortable distance away. Panic subsiding, I swam to where I could touch the bottom, swam a little further, and then walked right out of the water. Not shaking. On my way out, a freakishly strong little wave, like a midget wrestler, slammed into my back in a jovial, obnoxious way. Same to you. I was glad to be out. It’s been a long time since I felt anything like real fear in the water.

I was nine or ten the last time I felt true terror at the beach. Though I spent every weekend of my childhood at Santa Monica beaches, one afternoon a wave or three swept me out farther than I was used to going. I started flailing and yelling and thinking I was dying, and just as my young life seemed to be drawing to a watery close, someone materialized to hoist me up and restore my footing. The lifeguard forbade me to go in deeper than my waist for the rest of the day. I disobeyed, of course.

Acting as my own lifeguard tonight, I went straight home.


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