Saltwater Girl

In his epic book Shantaram, one of Gregory David Roberts’ characters says, “When a woman makes a baby, she gives it water, inside her body, to grow in. That water inside her body is almost exactly the same as the water of the sea. It is salty by just the same amount. She makes a little ocean in her body. And not only this. Our blood and our sweating, they are both salty, almost exactly like the water of the sea is salty. We carry ocean inside of us, in our blood and our sweat. And we are crying the ocean in our tears.”

I’m not sure of the scientific accuracy of those claims, but the sentiment behind them is beautiful to me. I have been called to the sea my entire life. I often joke that I believe I was a mermaid in some former life. Beside or in the sea is the only place I feel whole, at home, at peace. The rhythm of the waves matches the beating of my heart and soothes my soul.

When I had barely turned five, my parents had put in an in ground pool in our backyard. I swam in it like a fish and loved diving from the low driving board and flying headfirst down the slide into the sparkling water, but it was always a poor substitute for the ocean.

When I was a young child I looked forward to the week we always spent at the beach in summer and the semi-regular Thanksgiving weeks spent there like no other event in our lives. Barely sleeping for several days prior, I was amped up on anticipation and joy. We didn’t reach Darlington, the halfway point, before I was asking, “Are we there yet?” By the time we reached Conway, my brother and I were glancing down every side street on the right hand side of the road, hoping to catch a glimpse of the sand and surf.

Before the car was fully unpacked, my brother and I were begging to get in the ocean. I remember dancing at the edge of my mother’s rented lounge chair in front of The Shorecrest Motel while she lathered me from head to toe in Sea & Ski Suntan Lotion, then turned me loose. To this day, I can conjure up the exact smell of that elixir, even though I haven’t seen a bottle of it since Hawaiian Tropics got huge in the late 1970s.

My brother, Curtis, and I rode the waves on blue and yellow canvas floats rented from the lifeguard station in front of the motel. We fought the waves to get out to the break line towing our floats, then jumped on top of them and rode the crests back to the beach over and over. When we were worn out (or our four hour rental ran out), we sat in the edge of the surf digging up tiny, colorful Coquina clams, then watching them burrow back down into the sand or building elaborate sandcastles as the caressing waves slowly filled out bathing suit bottoms with sand.

The only thing that could pull us away from the ocean was the call of our growling stomachs. Lunch was usually sandwiches in the motel room. I suspect now that Mom’s rule about not swimming for a half hour after we ate was just a ploy to get a little time for herself out of the heat and sun, but it was a hard and fast rule. As soon as the time was up, we were back in the ocean. Prior to the movie Jaws, I can distinctly remember times when the lifeguards made us get out of the water due to shark sightings. I can also remember asking over and over, “Can we get back in the water yet?”

When I was about ten, I learned the trick of body surfing in the waves. It was easier to make my way to the cresting waves when I wasn’t towing a float behind me. Curtis and I would dive under the nearly spent waves coming at us once we were in deep enough water, fighting our way to the break line. Standing in waist deep water, we kept our eyes glued to the deeper ocean. Suddenly, I would feel the surf sucking me out as it drew strength to put together a cresting wave. Struggling against the undertow, we ran a little towards shore, then threw ourselves into the crest of the wave and let its force shoot us to the beach, our hands pointed out in front of us to keep out faces from being driven into the sand. The confused power of the waves could sometimes be more than I anticipated and the feeling was like being inside a running washing machine as I was tossed and tumbled through the rushing water. The thrill was better than any roller coaster and far less predictable. I loved it!

On calm seas days, I’d float on the top of the ocean, lying back as if on a lounge chair, buoyant in the salt water. I had learned this skill from my mother in our pool at home. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t teach most of my friends how to float. I trusted the sea to hold me up as long as I relaxed into it. I’d hold Angie or Charlene in my arms and entreat them to trust the water to hold them when I removed my arms from beneath them. Immediately, their butts would start to sink and they would hustle to get their feet on the sand again, fighting the water. Frustrated, I would demonstrate, floating like an empty bucket. “See! It’s easy!” I would say, entreating them to try again. It never worked because they did not trust the sea to hold them like I did.

Year after year the pull of the ocean has drawn me back to it. I’ve laughed in it, wiped out by a wave while distracted by a steamy kiss, filled with happiness. I’ve cried tears in it, mourning the devastating loss of my mother, who loved the sea as much as I do. I’ve sat beside it and felt my worries melt away. I’ve walked beside it and felt the burden of the most profound loss of my life lift as I watched sea gulls frolic at the tide line and felt my mother near. The ocean soothes me like nothing else I’ve ever found.

So, I believe that passage from the book. I think my love of the ocean started inside my mother before I was ever born into this world. Salt water courses through my soul.

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