Late, by myself, in the boat of myself,
No light and no land anywhere,
Cloudcover thick. I try to stay
Just above the surface, yet I’m already under
And living within the sea.
(Mewlana Jalaluddin Rumi)
Along the island coasts of the Pacific Northwest, I had assumed there was a neat order to things, and so I was taken aback that afternoon among the rainbowed rocks and ebbing tide when death came dragging in. Everywhere around me, tidepools bustled with customary traffic: submerged barnacles paddled their frilly feet in swift and rhythmic scoops, like French maids batting their dusters. Rocky ledges rattled with the glasslike skitter of crab claws. Long regiments of aggregating anemones fought wars against their neighbors with clean and ferocious efficiency. But where the rules of rock gave way to the sway of the sea, I saw a thing that had no tidiness about it. It was purple and gold and it disarranged itself in shreds among the sharp limpet colonies onshore. When the waves stretched it thin, I could see through its gelatinous skin, could see its chambers of light, arterial fingers of shadow. I think whatever makes jellyfish fold and open with life had already left its violet body, or had it? The waves heaved it time and again against the inflexible rock, ripped at its edges, tattered the rust-orange mane until the tide filled wide with the lace and fringe of the animal’s own self, and still its shoulders lifted and curled like a single lung. I was young, and didn’t think to ask the question that sifted in with the wreckage: where does life end and sea begin?
It is easy to like the ocean: to walk the salt shore and celebrate the treasures nudged aground; to splash in the mirror-like sand that the loud breakers have steeped in quiet water; to spend long minutes watching the perfect horizon. But to fall in love with the ocean, you need to give yourself away. When I was 19, I shipped out to sea for the first time. A year and a half in, I was already tired of college life. I wanted fewer words and fresher air, and what better, more romantic way to rush out into happiness than jump onto a boat? I spent a semester on and near the ocean, and I remember learning how to sail—how it felt like an immersion program in language, a swimming lesson off the deep end.
There were systems aboard a ship. We kept watch schedules: sleeping for a handful of hours at a time, while on-duty crewmates breakfasted or swapped quiet jokes on the other side of the bunk curtains. Sometimes my watch would be around to steer the boat through daylit turquoise waters, shot through with columns of light; other times, at night, we’d handle lines under the unhurried moon, while everyone else rocked in their sleep below. Every line had a name; every hour had a duty. I rigged nets for plankton tows and lowered claws and capsules below the boat to take samples of the deep sediment beneath us. I logged the changing temperature and salinity of the sea, washed dishes.
During the day we passed drifting blue schools of jellyfish-like Portuguese Men o’ War and, occasionally, other solitary ships. Clustered in the deckhouse, we found them by radio and spoke through the static to whoever would respond. Once, a captain told us through the squelch about the twenty years he’d spent working with the Merchant Marines, a lilting accent mellow in the back of his mouth. He reminisced about changes and losses. His holds carried hundreds of tons of chocolates and fine cheeses and chemicals. In only a month this massive container ship had traveled from Texas to Germany to England and back down the Atlantic coast. When we set down the warm radio to peer over the railing, we could just barely make out the ship’s lights as it chugged away on the rim of the ocean. I shivered and looked up at our own sails, taut with wind, pushing us westward into the dark night waters.
When bad weather came, the sea would wash up over the railing and knock us across the deck as the ship pitched from side to side. Long nights left us greasy and nauseous. My legs ached for action. From bow to stern, the ship was only 98 feet long. I could walk across her deck in a dozen strides. I paced the cramped quarters, sticky in the Florida heat.
But in the troughs between cramping and chores, I fell, somersaulting, in love with the beauty of the sea. I watched a crewmate catch a glistening barracuda from over the side of the ship, slit open its belly with his rigging knife, and spill its quick blood across the deck until the fish thrashed and shuddered, all tooth and scale, in a pool of its own fluids. I climbed the thin shrouds to furl the tops’l, the ocean distant below, the wind nudging me like a leaf on an autumn tree. When quiet settled over the deck after sundown, save for the sound of the bow cutting through the water, time slowed. At day, in just the right light, a brilliant, translucent indigo would open up at the top of a towering wave just as it crested. In the heart of a storm, bursts of bioluminescence spat and sparkled in the froth next to the ship. Tattered sea birds came to rest in the scuppers of our quarterdeck on thin webbed feet like refugees from someplace off our Atlas. Spinning around on the foredeck, empty horizon in every direction, I thought I knew the freedom of the ocean. I was happy and mistaken.
Freedom is not negotiable in a relationship with the sea. The sea: expansive, violent, tender, entrapping. Put yourself into the lap of a love larger than you and you are taken, carried.
This night for example: I am 27 and we are tied up at the dock this evening because of the winter wind. I still work on boats. I’ve dug out my running shoes and I am on a straight road leading away from the water and the stars are brilliant and I am running. Running until my lungs hurt, running like a sailor, running because I know when the streetlights peter out on this little road leading out of a Mexican marina, when I jog, wheezing, back to the ship, it will be the water moving me again, and not my legs.
When I returned in the springtime from my first stint at sea, I remember learning how to walk on land again. Floors swelled toward me, lunged away, jarred me with every step. The ocean still moved inside of me. I awoke clinging to one side of my bed as if we had tacked in the night and the sharp turn had pitched me against the bulkhead. I figured it out eventually. I trained my steps for the solidity of dirt. I took long hikes and I rolled down hills.
That summer outside my California hometown—close enough that I could hear it snap and buffet—I stopped to watch a hot air balloon fight its own death in an unused field. It was beautiful, like a circus tent, like a dancer’s skirts. A flame sputtered at its base, and little people scampered and shouted under its shadow, tossing lashings to one another, urgently, as if they had thrown a single harpoon into the side of a beast still filled with swift hatred. It luffed and listed in their hands. Even then, as its lungs emptied, it still pulled with a storm-like fury toward the sky; still it billowed with what might have been life. I wished I had seen it in flight, that I hadn’t come upon it now, at the end. I was still 19, and I liked metaphor. The balloon became my emblem of liberty. Maybe, I thought as I jogged on, I would learn to fly one of my own, let it expand and journey over treetops like a great bird, untethered. Instead, I returned to sea.
There is nothing small at sea, or personable, or petty. Even the tiniest plankton, rising and falling with the changing light, signify a larger something at work in the belly of the sea. Looking at them under a microscope, I’d often catch them locked in each other’s jaws, fragile things lost in the arms of war. I remember watching a film of a mother sand-tiger shark as she was drawn from the sea and spread open. Inside her pinkish-white womb, her one surviving infant was still hard at work eating the remains of the siblings it had killed, struggling for dominance and survival even before birth. In a litter, only one sand tiger shark ever fights its toothy way out of that violent darkness and into the wider sea, its stomach already round with food. In the give and take of tide, under the hungry lash of wind and in quiet realms of deeper current, the ocean fills endlessly with egg and blood, curls around cliffs, prowls like a restless thing.
If the ocean is at once constraining and boundless, so, too, is the sea of human love. When I returned to work on boats, I met a boy who treasured the ocean as much as I thought I did. We laughed together with our whole bodies, made urgent, easy love, and slept tangled in each other’s salty arms. When we parted ways to return to land life, I still had the taste of his lips on my tongue, and, in an inopportune snap of latex, too much of him still inside.
That flight was the longest I’ve ever taken. Night rolled out behind and in front of the plane, and somewhere in the busy slap of the following day, between meetings and due dates, I found a pill—two, in fact—and took them.
They were little things, white, small enough that I could scarcely tell if I’d actually swallowed them. That night, I faced my body. Fear tautened my every fiber. In my sleep, I slammed against walls and twisted my ankles on a lurching floor. I had limbs that could cramp and canter, a soul caught up in ocean’s net, skin hungry for not just anyone’s touch. But this, too: a body capable of more than I wanted to grant it, maybe working against me even at that moment, splitting, multiplying, building something unwelcome. By morning, whatever might have started never began, but in those dim hours before dawn, I thrashed in limbo, for once wanting things to stop moving.
When I took a class on fish, I learned how much of the sea we still carry within ourselves, learned how we shed our gills for ears, our fins for elbows. Our blood still shares the same salinity as the ocean, and when we are born, when we leave that watery salt womb, each of us repeats our ancestors’ primordial journey from the deep. When we listen for the sound of surf inside of shells or awake from dreams in which we drift and fall on dark tides, we long, perhaps impossibly, for a return to that oceanic origin.
That night, in the boat of myself, I fought against that origin with all the might of those two pills, flushing it out of me. But still the floodtides of my own body cast me deep. As I curled and rolled in my sleep, I struggled against current and drift. My sheets creased and dampened. The window blurred with hot breath. I felt myself shredding like a jellyfish flung into shallow water, felt my body strain toward roundness like the silk balloon. I wanted to fold, to exhale; to stop this widening process.
Tonight, I am 20, and geese rustle disinterestedly on the riverbank beneath my window. Three thousand miles away, a shaken boy crafts a letter, edging it with hearts. In another two years, he will ask me to marry him. A year after that, he will leave me. My belly, emptied of child and filling again, hesitantly, with hope, rises and sinks with each breath like land still liquefied in the moments after an earthquake. I will return to the sea, the same way I will return, in time, to love, which is maybe the same thing. Perhaps we can choose which oceans to worship, but we cannot fight the tide. Out of sight of shore, a container ship heavy with cargo plows toward the horizon. Across the continent, little purple jellies have washed up in thick masses along the tideline and have baked clean under the western sun. Their dried bodies skit along the sand like cobalt candy wrappers, crisp and light in the loud sea wind.