Thursday, June 2, 2016

Return to the Sea

Years ago I received some advice from a wise old Native American. I had just moved back to Gainesville after spending a year in Atlanta delivering food and felt that I had basically wasted a year of my life. I didn't like Atlanta, but in truth, I didn't really give it much of a chance.

"Remember," he said, in a voice resonating with ancient wisdom, "Never live somewhere that isn't within a half hour of water."

Technically, that ancient Native American was really just one of my friends, and there was a very good chance that one or both of us were drunk on King Kobra malt liquor at the time, but I've remembered his advice ever since.

I'm no "Salt Life" guy, but I can't deny that the ocean has a pull on me, a calming effect, probably from growing up near it. Again, if I grew up in Nebraska, I'd probably be waxing philosophical about the meditative effects of wheatfields, so take my psychological musings with a grain of salt. It's one of my homemade therapeutic tools, along with punk rock and the healing power of a good drunk

The past few months, hell, past the year or so has been full of death and a strange, nagging feeling similar to waking up from a bad dream - you can't really remember what happened, you just know enough to realize you should feel bad or upset somehow. Then you wake up more and the feeling fades away.

A friend's dad had recently passed away. He was one of the few adults in my teenage years who treated me with respect and interest, even when that respect wasn't actually earned or deserved. Coming closely on the heels of losing another friend, this sort of seemed like a psychic last straw.

Since I am an unattached grown man who can take time off from work, I decided to take a trip. I didn't really have an idea as to where I was going, I just felt the urge to go somewhere.

I ended up in Bradenton. I didn't tell anyone, mostly because it wasn't planned, and partly because once I ended up there, I felt like being anonymous. Sure, I can be anonymous just as easily in Jacksonville, but it wasn't the same somehow.

I didn't shop around. I got a room at the first place I saw close to the beach. I bought some trunks and walked into the Gulf of Mexico. It was warm, and I could see little transparent fish swimming near the shore. It felt right. I felt like the kid at the end of The 400 Blows when he finally makes it to the ocean. Except of course, I knew all about the Gulf and that kid had never seen the ocean. Thinking about it, maybe I wasn't anything like that kid at all, and the only thing close to the French new wave were the European tourists gazing in disbelief at my pale, almost translucent skin.

The song "Drowned" off the Who's Quadrophenia kept running though my head in a loop as I swam and floated around for about an hour.

Let me flow into the ocean. Let me get back to the sea

I didn't think I was stressed, but floating out there in the Gulf I could feel the anxiety leaving my body and floating away in the water, probably out to Mexico.

I got out to get some food. Driving around the island (which is what we called the beach), I was struck by how many ghosts inhabited it now. That's where my first girlfriend and I used to go to watch the sunset and mess around. That's the channel where my dad and I would fish in. Both of them are dead. I was playing Quadrophenia and thinking how I had probably listened to this album on the same beach probably 25 years ago.

I ate middling fish tacos and listened to poor renditions of Bob Marley, Jimmy Buffet*, and Van Morrison while I drank a fruity drink and watched an angry sunset. I listened to the tourists and thought of ways to butt into their conversations just so I could insert some lie about being a tourist from the Midwest finally getting to see the Gulf.

See, I told you it was angry.

I came back hours later after the sun had set. The night was cloudy. The water was cold but I needed to get back in. I acclimated and started swimming.

I wanted to feel something. Something more than just the absence of stress from earlier. I wanted to feel my muscles burning, my lungs aching for breath, and hopefully avoid any Jaws or Kraken beneath me.

I swam out as far and as fast as I could, then stopped and treaded water. I panted in the cold water for a while, then dove as far down as I could before my sinuses threatened to implode or a Loch Ness Monster noticed me, then flew back up. I could still see the white sand of the beach, so I knew I was OK, even if I was starting to realize that maybe this wasn't one of my smarter ideas, what with the sea monsters probably starting to wake up.

In The Postman Always Rings Twice the protagonist wants to swim as far as he can in the ocean until he can't muster any more energy and just sort of let nature take its course in a sort of passive suicide. I didn't have anything that drastic in mind, and plus, I hadn't helped murder a diner owner to get with his wife, so my conscience was clear.

I swam back, walked to my motel and spent the rest of the night watching cable in bed, feeling worn out, both psychically and physically.

The next morning I got up early and drove home after a great night's sleep. Once again, I had stumbled on to a perfect homemade therapy - something to do with salt water, anonymity, and shark avoidance. Someday the American Psychiatric Association will recognize me for my services. I'm not sure where exactly my statue should be erected, but I have several majestic poses already picked out.

* Trick question! As a native Floridian, there are no good versions of Jimmy Buffet.

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