Vacation Part Two: Swimming

I’m still on vacation. We spent the whole morning sitting on the beach. Every twenty minutes or so I’d go into the ocean to cool off and go for a swim. I started thinking about swimming, how it’s this natural state of being that I rarely get to really experience. I fill my lungs up with air and bob along the surface of the ocean, paddling in, lunging out.

Whenever I swim in the ocean, I get all of these crazy thoughts. I at once recognize the vastness of the sea, how tiny of a blip I am occupying this planet, the cosmos. I’ll go out a little bit, the water’s only ankle deep. Then it’s waist deep. And then I’m on my tippy-toes, bouncing up and down, enjoying as close as I’m going to get to weightlessness in my life. And after that I’m in over my head.

There’s always that urge to see how far I can swim out. And I’d love to. I mean, I’m a distance runner. I’ve run like eight marathons. I like to think that there’s a very high upward limit for what my body is capable of sustaining physically. And so I wish I could have a controlled environment, maybe a boat sailing next to me, making sure I don’t cramp up and drown. I’d love to know just how far I’m able to swim out before actually not being able to take any more punishment.

I’m sure it’s got to be hours, I’m pretty good at rationing out energy. And yet I’m never able to swim out more than five minutes or so without getting spooked and heading back to the shore. I always panic. I always think, what if I can’t make it back? When we were living in Ecuador, we’d head to the beach every month or so. There was this one spot that we frequented, and way out past the breakers there was a giant buoy. Every single time we’d visit, I’d mentally challenge myself to make it all the way out there.

Maybe I’m being a little dramatic. Maybe anybody who swam in high school or college would look at this buoy and call me a total wimp. But it was maybe twenty minutes of swimming once I got past the point where I could no longer touch the ocean floor. I know it was twenty minutes because I eventually wound up making it out there. It only took a year or so of mentally preparing and then actually committing myself to the challenge.

I made several unsuccessful attempts, the first dozen or so times I’d get maybe half of the way out there before freaking out and turning back. I’m saying freaking out, but what does that really mean? I’d think, even though I know that I’m physically capable of doing this, out here there is absolutely no margin for error. I’ve never had swimming cramps, the kind of debilitating pains you’d associate with the word charlie-horse, but they have to exist, that whole don’t-swim-until-twenty-minutes-after-eating rule has to be there for a reason.

And so it was always this self-induced mini panic attack. I’d get out there, I’d start thinking about cramps, about accidentally swallowing some water, of maybe some weird type of a sea animal brushing against my leg – no joke, one time I saw a sea snake in the water – making me freak out. And just the idea of me freaking out made me start to freak out. My deep breaths would become increasingly shallow. I’d feel a burning throughout my body, not a real burning, but a good enough of an imaginary burning to let me know exactly what it would feel like to run out of gas right there, nobody to save me, slowly realizing that these breaths would be my last.

Like I said, eventually I made it out to that buoy. It’s all about getting past that point of no return, when you realize, look, yeah I’m freaking out now, but I’m closer to that buoy than I am to the shore, and so if I’m really concerned about survival here, I might as well swim all the way out. And so finally I made it. It was a little deceiving, because even though I thought I was halfway out, it was probably more like only a quarter of the way out. I guess the vastness of the horizon played some tricks with my depth perception.

When I made it out there, the buoy was much, much bigger than it had appeared from the shore. And there wasn’t anywhere really to grab on, the whole surface of the object was corroded, like the government dropped it in there twenty years ago and figured, yeah, we probably won’t have to replace this thing for another fifty years. I looked back at everybody back on dry land, and it really was way too far.

But knowing what I knew, that I made it out there, that I didn’t have a panic attack and die, it spared me from suffering a similar fate on the journey back. And so it was the only time in my life where I was able to go for a really long swim, a distance swim, and just enjoy it without being way too conscious of my impending doom.

And I’m thinking about this because I tried to go for really deep swim today here in Puerto Rico, but I couldn’t. It was the same deal as always. I got out there, maybe like one or two minutes past where I could stand up, I chickened out. I treaded water for a minute or so and then immediately headed back. This time I just kept imagining a stray wave, something that maybe formed months ago miles out, a gust of wind over a still patch of water, it started rolling, started heading toward the shore, where I’d be, swimming, vacationing, and it would carry me all the way out, one mile, two miles away from the sand, and I’d be out there for how long, alternating between on my back and treading water, hoping that I had the strength to make it back alive. No thanks, I went back to the bar and ordered another Mai Thai.

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