Why am I even here?
The crisp summer wind dances across my face, its insensate yet delicate fingers dashing through my hair like so many horses in an overgrown field, their powerful legs cutting to and fro yet never breaking a strand. Much like the sea that stretches out to the red horizon before me, the gusts of air coil, crash, and tumble backwards and forwards, over and under, ever reaching yet never finding, ever grasping yet never holding.
I take a deep breath through my mouth, the cool air filling my chest and slowing my anxious heart. I close my eyes and the rhythmic roaring and crashing of the surf becomes even more immense than before, the ceaseless force of its aqueous blows steadily imprinting itself on my mind’s shore.
It’s been 15 years since I was last here. Doesn’t seem like it’s been that long—and yet, thinking back on that time now, it seems like someone else’s memory entirely.
A child sits in the sun next to her mother, dainty shovel and pail in hand, bits of sand caked in each of the tool’s crevices. The azure limbs of the ocean heave themselves against the granular edifice in hopes of establishing a beachhead, just as they’ve always done and will continue to do, but the girl pays the ongoing attrition no mind. She’s sculpting the surrounding slopes into a grand castle, a daring claim laid to the tractable world around her, the bastions of the natural world giving way in the face of two small hands and some bits of plastic. Her hair tied back out of her face, she thrusts the shovel into the sand, the delightfully salty tang of the sea filling her nostrils, while her mother thumbs through a pulpy romance novel she bought off a squeaky rotating rack in a dilapidated beachfront store, the garish cover unashamed of its own putrid banality. Both of them have badly sunburned shoulders, their skin practically boiling with pain and anger against the heat of the distorted, shimmering sun or perhaps against the pair themselves for their neglect. Neither seems to notice or care. Not yet anyway.
That was the day before it happened. Mom thought it happened because of puberty, but, at the time, I thought I had been cursed by some malevolent sea god who was punishing me for disturbing his sacred beach, unleashing his foul retribution upon the foolhardy child who dared to violate this holy ground in her supreme arrogance. Perhaps the real arrogance was believing that anything I did could affect such a being at all.
The opposite was certainly not the case, however, and so almighty Poseidon, petty as ever, decreed that this naïve usurper should henceforth be cursed with a preternaturally strong sense of smell. At any given time, I could detect dozens of distinct scents, fully experiencing each little hint of airborne flavor merged into a grand symphony of smells, their individual currents rising and falling, bursting with personality and power, be it a whiff of the salt foam crashing against the shore, the enticing aroma of a nearby cheeseburger, or the pungent odor of a lifeguard’s wet dog.
Sounds magical, doesn’t it? Sounds like something that would send you on a zestful lark through the nearby forest, yeah? My brain didn’t agree. So powerful, so severe were these scents that any one of them, even something as innocuous as sizzling bacon, could completely overwhelm me and devour my conscious mind whole if I indulged in it too much. Like an open flame before a pyromaniac, the scents possessed a nigh irresistible allure that my mind could not bear to pass up. I was as a helpless sailor facing the inexorable sirens, completely subjugated by the sheer, inescapable force of my own senses. So engrossed was I by this sensory overload that I would often become completely paralyzed by these aromas, unable to even stop myself from continuing to inhale them.
As a kid, I always thought this hatred born from the sovereign of the sea made me Odysseus, the grand, courageous adventurer who would one day overcome all odds, even the ire of the gods, and take my rightful place as a hero of legend despite my curse. That’s what Mom always told me anyway. She’d always loved those old myths of gods and heroes, and she believed that I was one such hero. After all, who else but I could have evoked Poseidon’s envy to the point of retribution with little more than a simple sandcastle? Surely, I was a one-in-a-billion talent.
Doctors were never able to offer much in the way of explanation other than chalking it up to an overabundance of olfactory receptors or some other scientific gobbledygook. The kids in my class said it was because I was half dog (among other less savory things) and proceeded to torment me almost as much as Poseidon himself did when he cursed me in the first place. Maybe that was his plan all along, although I don’t think Poseidon was renowned for the breadth of his sociological insight.
Regardless, his plan worked, and eventually, it got so bad that Mom decided that it was time to switch schools. She made me promise to keep my gift a secret this time because the other kids just couldn’t understand how special I was yet. I promised her that I wouldn’t tell a soul. And then I told my new best friend at 1 A.M. during a sleepover anyway. What can I say, I got greedy. Kids aren’t always the best at keeping their word, especially when they promise to keep a secret. My best friend was no exception, and by the end of the next week, I didn’t have any friends, much less a best one. No one wants to be friends with the weird girl who gets high from accidentally sniffing a Sharpie and has to be sent home.
Mom tried to put me in another school after that, but it didn’t exactly work out. If there was one thing I had learned at that point, it was this: humans have a precisely honed capacity for cruelty and the only way to avoid that cruelty is to shrink yourself down as small as possible and pray they don’t notice you. Don’t play with them, don’t speak with them, don’t touch them, don’t look at them. Then, when that inevitably fails, all you can do is take shelter in the black, bottomless pit of your own mind until they leave you alone. Any friends you may have had before will have fled to protect themselves by now, so don’t go expecting a savior to rescue you either. After all, it’s easier to stomach the pain and the jokes when you don’t lie to yourself and pretend it’s going to stop. Simple enough. As long as you know how to dispose of evidence and hide bruises anyway.
Mom was not very pleased with this stratagem when she found out about it. She could barely speak she was crying so hard. I remember thinking to myself: Dad would be able to make her stop crying if he were here. I begged her not to go to the teachers or the principal again. That only made things worse, like unloading buckets of chum when there’s already blood in the water. Thankfully, she listened to me. Few arguments are as compelling as blood, I guess, especially when your child is the one bleeding.
From then on, it was the home school life for me. I was finally alone, exiled with nothing and no one to distract myself from the feeling that I was forsaken in a world that hated me, and the only relief from that despair was distraction and feigned ignorance. It was at this moment that I realized the truth: I wasn’t Odysseus. I had never been Odysseus. I was Calypso, cursed to isolation for eternity on a secluded island with no hope of escape, forever to be enticed with the promise of acceptance only to have those hopes jauntily dashed upon the rocks by fate itself.
My life has been a bit of a haze since then. Lots of school with Mom. Lots of video games. Lots of laundry. Lots of eating. Lots of sleeping. Lots of working. Lots of thinking. Lots of thinking about thinking. Lots of thinking about thinking about thinking.
When you get into a routine, you’ll find that your life slowly morphs into little more than 1’s and 0’s you repeat day-in and day-out, and you begin to feel as if you’re losing yourself, like you’re controlling your hands from beyond the bounds of your own body. Time becomes fluid and slippery. Days and weeks vanish into the void in the blink of an eye, and you suddenly snap awake while stocking shelves at Target and think to yourself: Holy crap, I’m turning 18 tomorrow, even though you just went to see The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway with Mom for your 16th two weeks ago. Choices become little more than preprogrammed responses. Words become little more than endless, obligatory strings of listless code. People become mannequins. Music becomes white noise. Your home, your job, your car become the impregnable bars of an invisible cage, and you long to smash them, but you have not the will nor the courage to do so for fear of what could be beyond them. The course of your very life itself becomes nothing more than a dull beige brush stroke on the canvas of the universe, the endless, monotonous paragraphs of silence in a book written by nothing for no one. Before you know what happened, you have become the Second Person.
So why am I back here? Was it an insignificant whim? Did something call me here? I curl my toes in the sand, its grainy texture giving way to the pressure, just like it did 15 years ago. I haven’t been here since I was a kid, especially not since I moved away from the coast after finishing school. I don’t even remember what the ocean smells like anymore. Don’t remember what most things do for that matter.
Maybe some part of me wants revenge, to spit in the face of Poseidon for damning me to this prison of my own flesh and for destroying my faith in my fellow man with little more than the vitriolic words of ignorant little twelve-year-olds and the irritated glances of strangers when they hear me breathing through my mouth. Maybe I came to scream up at the sky for spiting me with its contemptuous winds or to thrash against the currents of the crashing waves for assailing me with the alluring aroma of their brine.
Perhaps I came to wallow, to drown myself in the depths of my own misery and self-pity in hopes that at least someone, some stranger passing by would hear my plea and take pity on my pathetic wretchedness in lieu of the ever-vengeful god of the murky waters beyond.
Maybe I came back here because this is the place where my life changed forever. Maybe I felt like I needed closure or understanding or self-actualization or something. Maybe this place is my last hope, my last chance to face the invisible demon that’s been destroying my life ever since that day. Maybe if I don’t beat it here, I’ll never again muster the courage to challenge it, and I’ll sink into the cracks of the earth, never to rise from my personal slice of Hades.
I step toward the ocean, approaching the expansive line where the ocean had previously dared to encroach upon the land, leaving behind little more than bits of seaweed and smashed shells. I pause for a moment and take a deep breath, the brisk air rising from the undulating surf ahead. Looking around, I see a few people walking toward me a way’s away down the beach, about three minutes from where I stand. I hop up and down for a moment, swinging my arms to dispel the nervous energy. Okay. I can do this. I can do this. This won’t kill you. Probably. Not with people around. Come on. Do it now or you lose. Do it now. You have to. If I can do it here, I can do it most anywhere. Screw those kids. Screw Poseidon. Screw my brain. Now!
My heart beating faster than a jackhammer, I shut my eyes, and, for the first time in years, I take in a deep breath of air through my nose.
Biting notes of salt. Giant waves rise in the distance and race towards the coast, their ever-shifting edges lashing out at anything that dares stand in their way. A distinct bit of human sweat. A girl dances back and forth in the sand, shovel in hand. Some pungent trails of meat and acrid smoke. An umbrella sits upright nearby, its owners circled around a small fire cooking hot dogs. A sweet hint of vanilla. A young surfer passes by, licking a cone of ice cream. A whiff of aged paper. Mom turns a page in her book, the ancient spine protesting quietly.
The mighty aromas and their ilk convalesce into a spiraling, intertwining mélange of supremely enticing and overwhelming strength. As one, they shoot their electrifying tendrils into my mind, each setting off its own distinct euphoria, leading me down a string of forgotten moments. Come on! Don’t slip! Don’t slip!
As they push ravenously against my conscious mind, I fight back, taking intentional note of the other sensations across my body. Coarse bits of sand between my toes. Cloth against flesh. The wind pulling my hair across my face and tickling my cheeks. The crash of the waves. The perpetual cries of seagulls. The distant chatter of people on the boardwalk. The laughter of the approaching family. The scents keep coming, drowning out the competition, but I remain cognizant. I take a step forward as the edge of the water glides past my feet. It’s cold. Very cold.
I breathe in again, and again, the piquant scent of salt in the air forces itself onto my nerves and into the depths of my mind. Cold water pulling on my ankles. Sand sliding out to sea. The newfound gap sucking my heels deeper into it. I take another step. Then another. The water is no longer at my ankles. I wait eagerly for it to return from its recession. The aromas mount another assault, their all-encompassing stimulation overcoming my cognitive processes. Sand… gulls… laughter…
Cold! The water roars back with a vengeance, waking me from my delirium. A pointy shell poking my big toe. Seaweed brushing up against my lower leg. The escalating roar of the oncoming tide. Emboldened by the surge of energy the water provided, I keep walking. I keep inhaling. The water’s almost halfway to my knees now. Fire. Meat. Deodorant. Oil. My mind yearns to pursue them; it has to pursue them. The brisk water begins to move back out where it belongs, and I begin to run in pursuit of it as the smells grow stronger, drawing my head toward the beach. Desperate for something to fight back with, I open my eyes and see the brilliant red horizon stretching across the sky, its sanguine glow dazzling me with its splendor. Crimson sun. Crimson eyes. Mom’s eyes. I keep running and running and breathing and breathing until the water becomes too deep, and I crash heedless into it, my body submerged in the inky expanse.
My hearing is muted. My breathing is halted. My eyes are screwed shut. All I can feel is an odd sense of semi-weightlessness as the whims and wants of the ocean toss my fetal body about, my clothes thoroughly saturated with moisture, my limbs shivering.
I did it. I almost don’t believe it for a moment. I thrust my feet down into the shifting sand and launch myself out of the water, my arms raised to the sky. “Yes!” I cry and punch the rippling surface of the Atlantic. “You like that?! Huh?! Yes! Yes! Yes!” My eyes shining with unfettered delight, I run out even further and slice through an oncoming wave, its force impotent against my unadulterated exuberance. I take a huge breath through both nostrils, but the chill of the ocean, the warmth of the skyline, and my own excitement drown out the impression.
Tears begin to roll down both cheeks as waves continue to press against me to no avail, their watery residue marking my face just as the pulsating waves do the distant shoreline. I did it, Mom. I did it. It wasn’t perfect. It’s never going to be perfect. But for now, I beat him. I escaped.
I walk back to shore, wiping the tears from my eyes as the family I saw passes by. The young girl with them waves, the plastic shovel between her fingers cutting through the air. “Hi!” she cries. Her parents smile and wave in support.
I wave back as a smile crosses my face. “Hi!” The tears keep coming. The water’s only at my knees now as I near the shore.
The family keeps heading down the beach, and, by the time I’m out of the water, they’re at least 50 feet away. I wipe the tears from my eyes again, ignoring my soaked clothes. I shake my head back and forth, hoping to dry off a little before slicking my hair back behind my ears, the heavy strands slapping against the back of my neck. On a whim, I glance after them. The little girl rides atop her father’s shoulders, her tone-deaf yet utterly confident singing sweeping through the area. I chuckle in spite of myself and inhale deeply, trying to catch my breath.
Maybe someday, someday soon, I too can learn to be that fearless little girl again.