I was drowning.
We were at Sippewisset Beach on Cape Cod and my mother and her neighbor Bertha sat on beach chairs. They wore one-piece bathing suits and thigh-length terrycloth robes. Bertha took her robe off. The sun gleamed on her bare shoulders and the one mole there. I walked down to the water’s edge and slipped in. I was a fish, a jellyfish or man-o’-war. I was plankton, innumerable, the lowest denominator. I floated into the middle of the current. For a long time, it seemed, I concentrated on swimming. Then I began to wave my hand. My mother and Bertha sat talking. Leonora, their other friend, had just arrived and was busily applying sun block to her shoulders.
I lifted my hand out of the water in a beckoning gesture.
It occurs to me that I had often made such a gesture, meaning “Watch this.” “Will you please watch this, please?” I would beg and my mother would sit up as I raced back into the water. But time had slowed. I was about to drown and so the natural world seemed very beautiful: a heron planed across the purple harbor, a sunflower grew crazily out of a rock. I let my arms go, I did the Dead Man’s Float, I saw tiny underwater rocks, drifting—I experienced an existential revelation. It wasn’t the rocks moving, it was me.
“Mom!” I shouted.
My mother nodded pleasantly, a little stiffly perhaps, the way she did when she was talking to her neighbors and didn’t want us to embarrass her. I was nearing the bend after which the Sippewissett current flows faster out to sea. I called out—I think my mother’s given name, Helene—and then the lifeguard had leaped into the channel and scooped me with a great splashing into his arms.
“You weren’t drowning for very long,” my mother said in the car going home. She said it again that evening when I was telling the story.
My father said, “Please pass the peas, please.” He wasn’t ignoring the importance of what I had just told him. He was allowing my mother to take charge of the conversation.
My brother looked up from his Popular Mechanics (in our family, we were encouraged to read at the table) and pointed out that the distance from our planet to our nearest planet-neighbor was 52,000,000 miles. Moreover, in the time it took for a light ray to reach us from our nearest star-neighbor, Sol, you could sail around the world a thousand times.
“Why would anyone want to do that,” my mother remarked.