Thank you, Randi, for organizing this event! Thank you for editing, as well. You amaze me. Thanks, D, for the constant feedback.

the ocean
can calm itself,
so can you.
are both
salt water
mixed with

-Nayyirah Waheed

July 26, 2003

The day I nearly drowned was a beautiful summer day.

Before I’d left for vacation with my friend and her family, my mother had warned me to be careful. Lots of sunscreen, she said, and watch out for the current. The waves were especially dangerous on that stretch of shore, she warned. I listened to her as closely as most girls listen to their mothers when they are that age.

When we got there, families covered the beach with brightly colored umbrellas and coolers, encouraging their kids to flock together and make sand castles. My friend’s parents rubbed lotion onto each other and stretched out on their towels. Her brother dug into the endless sand, babbling to himself. We deserted them and skipped down to the shiny ocean, delighting in the beautiful day.

At that point in our lives, we were just tasting the heady flavor of being teenage girls. We felt flirty and cute in our bikinis as we tried to draw the eye of boys who were too old for us. We felt ourselves dangling on that perilous but exciting line of becoming women. We weren’t halfway close to being women, yet, but we didn’t know any better.

We giggled as the waves slapped the shoreline and cold water sprayed our sun-warmed skin. She was a better swimmer than I was. She looked so at home there under the sun with her tanned skin and flowing black hair. I was white, too white, with honey hair that whipped in my face.

“Let’s go deeper,” she laughed.

My mother had ensured I took swimming lessons, mostly because she couldn’t swim and didn’t want me to be at the same disadvantage. I practiced the movements faithfully and could duplicate them after many tries, but there was a strange block in my mind. It never came naturally, and I didn’t enjoy the burning sensation of chlorine up my nose. I eventually stopped going. I could doggie paddle rather well, and I decided that was enough.

“Come on,” she insisted. She waded deeper, leaving me behind in the shallow water.

I took a few bold steps forward. Nothing happened, except the the waves seemed to charge towards us more forcefully. My mother’s warning about the choppy sea floated back into my consciousness, but then I saw my friend diving into a wave. My heart dropped until I saw her dark head pop up through the foam.

“It’s fun! Come on. Try it.”

I shook my head and hopped over a wave. That was as much excitement as I could handle. Then an edgy wave smacked into me, its force nearly knocking me off my feet. I coughed and tried to meet eyes with my friend to laugh, but then was hit by another violent rush of water. This time it did knock me off my feet. I tumbled gracelessly beneath the surface, my big toe merely grazing the unsteady surface of sand. My arms went above my head, seeking air, seeking anything to grab onto, but they only held more water.

I screamed into the ocean but made no sound.

Suddenly, I was dragged closer to the shore on an even more forceful wave. My head popped up, and then my shoulders. My feet found precarious footing and I sputtered as I tried to open my eyes and breathe. The sun shimmered too brightly against the water that was all around me, all over me, all inside of my eyes and mouth and nose. Then I realized my friend was shouting at me and I tried to scream back, but my throat was raw.

Again, the ocean yanked me under. It wasn’t through with me yet. My body was thrust deep below and pulled out deep into the current. There was no way for me to get my bearings, no way for me to even attempt the awkward movements of swimming.

No instincts kicked in, other than panic. No one ever tells you that about nearly dying. You hear about all of the white light nonsense, or how a person’s life flashes before their eyes, or maybe they see a loved one who passed waving at them from a distance, but it’s not really like that. It wasn’t for me, at least. There was nothing but saltwater above and below me, nothing but darkness and confusion. Defeat and surrender.

It wasn’t until later, after I was saved and stared up at what felt like hundreds of concerned or fascinated or absolutely terrified faces hovering above my gasping form, that I thought about how frighteningly easy my body had capitulated to the sea. How simple it was for me to sink into the depthless water, no matter how hard I kicked or loudly I screamed. The ocean took a piece of me that day, and even though I walked away with my life, a voice inside me wondered if the ocean won, after all.

I contemplated this often, usually right before I drifted off to sleep. I had nightmares about it for years. There was a part of me, it seemed, still submerged beneath the surface, drowning and screaming where no one could hear.

It was terrifying because of how natural it was to just submit to the ocean. Dust to dust, they say, but then again, we are nearly 60% water.

August 2, 2014

“Aunt Presley! Watch!”

My heart stopped as my little nephew jumped into the pool. My sister, Ruby, cheered him on and gave him pats on the back when he got out of the pool. Her husband barely glanced up from his phone.

Aedan made his way toward me and climbed into my lap. “Did you see how I jumped?”

“I did. You’re a brave three-year-old.”

He pointed to the floats I’d carefully wrapped around his arms. “Aunt Presley, I’m not brave. I just knew I wouldn’t sink.”

I smiled and hugged him close. “Well, you don’t see me jumping into the pool, do you? You’re brave. Trust me.”

Aedan’s face lit up with my favorite smile, the one I saw less and less of ever since his parents started fighting.

Nick, Ruby’s husband, stood and lazily ran a hand down his chest. He watched me with gauzy blue eyes that would have been beautiful if they held any emotion. His lips were quirked in a private little smile, as always, and his dark eyebrows lifted with mock surprise when he noticed I was staring back at him. It was a shame he was such a horrible beast, because he was genuinely attractive. I remember feeling something close to envy when Ruby brought him home for the first time. The sensation quickly disappeared once I exchanged a few words with him.

I didn’t like the way he was eyeing me, and it was on the tip of my tongue to say so, but I didn’t want to rock the boat. It was the first nice afternoon we’d all shared in a while, and I refused to ruin it.

Ruby, of course, noticed Nick’s roaming eyes and poured herself another martini. “Be a little more obvious, Nicky.”

My brother-in-law just grinned. “Your sister is a very pretty woman. You know I’ve always thought so.” Nick grabbed another beer and sank back onto his seat. A cruel sneer twisted across his face. His hand squeezed her ass before giving it a little smack. “You’re the vainest bitch I know,” he snickered to my sister. “Can’t even take my eyes off you for a second. It’s like you have an alarm system inside that tiny brain of yours.”

Alarm pulsed at the back of my head; a blowup was imminent. “Aedan, why don’t you show us how to do the backstroke. You just learned it, right?” I was desperate for a distraction, and I also wanted Aedan as far away as I could get him.

“No, honey, come here.” Ruby tossed me a glare and then gave her best beauty queen smile to Aedan. “Let Mommy kiss you.”

Aedan eyes swung from his parents to me. He was a smart kid, and he knew something was wrong. He walked over and gave her a big kiss on the cheek. “Mommy, can I go back in the pool now?”

She gave him a little push towards the pool. “Sure, hon. Have fun.” Once Aedan was happily splashing again, my sister’s angry eyes returned to me. “You think I’m stupid, Presley? You think I don’t know what’s going on here?”

“Here we go,” Nick spat out.

“Don’t start with me, Nicky, I’m….”

“Okay,” I cut in. “It’s been a lot of fun but I think it’s time for me to go home.”

“You’re letting your sister run you off?” Nick let out an unpleasant laugh.

“Watch it,” I warned. His smile faded away slowly as he probably remembered the last time he and I got into an argument. It had ended with a pen sticking out of the side of his thigh.

I waved goodbye to Aedan and collected my things, ignoring Ruby. She was drunk and dissatisfied with her life. It wasn’t personal, even if it hurt.

“You just show up here and fuck things up every time! You make Nicky nervous, which makes him try to be extra charming to you. It makes me sick.”

I looked my sister over. She was five years older than me, tall, with strawberry blonde hair and the most beautiful complexion you’ve ever seen. She could have had anyone and anything she wanted, but she chose Nicholas Gallagher and this sad unfulfilled life. I pitied her, but I tried to hide it so she wouldn’t fly into a rage. As much as I felt sorry for her, a distinct type of loathing burned in my chest when I thought about how selfish and destructive she was. Part of her, a larger part than I liked to admit, fed off of the drama. She loved causing fights, egging on arguments. She thrived off of them, in fact, paying no mind to what it all did to her beautiful boy.

I heard Aedan’s panicked shout, and Ruby and I jolted. We ran out into the backyard and saw Nick in the pool with him, holding him down underwater.

“Not so smart now, are you? Huh, little shit?”

“Nick! What are you doing? Stop it!” I screamed. I made it as far as the edge of the pool, but then overwhelming paralysis took hold of my body. I was thirteen again, stuck beneath the murky surface of the ocean. I could smell the salt, feel the weight of the water against my skin and the assurance that I was going to die.

Ruby threw her drunken body into the water and swam over to her husband. She kicked and shrieked and pulled. I stood there, watching them. Doing absolutely nothing. When I looked back on it, once the whole horrible thing was done, I wondered why I hadn’t just called the police. Fear had owned me that horrendous afternoon, and I hated myself for that.

Eventually, Nick let go of Aedan. Ruby tugged him over to the steps and pushed him at me. “Give him CPR! Hurry!”

Finally, I could move. I pushed away my shame and started CPR. A few seconds later, Aedan was throwing up water and coughing like crazy. He peered up at us with frightened eyes. Ruby gathered him into her arms and sobbed along with him. Nick wisely stayed in the pool, but the rage I felt couldn’t keep him safe from me. I walked over to his bottles of beer and flung them into the water, one by one, aiming for his head.

“Stop that,” Ruby snapped. She marched over and knocked a bottle from my hand, still clutching a hysterical Aedan to her chest. “Haven’t you done enough today?”

“Me? Are you,” I took in a heaving, uneven breath and realized that I was crying, “serious right now?”

I picked up my things again and stared at my sister as she soothed my nephew. She also kept begging Nick to come out of the pool.

“Don’t call me the next time everything goes to shit again, which will be in the next five seconds,” I warned her.

“Fine! I don’t need your help.” She opened to her mouth to continue shouting, but I held up my hand.

“Enough. It’s enough. Even Mom can’t deal with you anymore. I never want to hear from you again. For Aedan’s sake, I wish you the best.”

I turned my back on her, ignoring her name-calling and curses. I meant what I said. I wasn’t going to save her anymore. I wouldn’t swoop in the next time Nick nearly landed her in the hospital and nurse her back to health if she was just going to run back to him and screw everything up again. I was done.

Until two weeks later, when she called me sobbing. He’d broken her orbital socket. It took me roughly thirty minutes to get to her house, and I held her until she fell asleep.

June 23, 2016

Hot air blew against my bare legs. I lifted my hair up off my neck and forced my way through the crowd. A man texting on his phone bumped into my shoulder and hardly glanced at me, let alone apologized to me. That was the thing about New York City; you could push as hard as you wanted against it, but it pushed back even harder.

My date looked over at me and wordlessly grabbed onto my elbow to steer me along beside him. He was good like that. Paul was the kind of man I’d only read about in romance novels. I wasn’t sure if men like him existed until we met at a wedding and hit it off. He wasn’t gentle, I’d never call him that, but he was purposeful. He didn’t touch my body like he owned it, or that I owed it to him, yet he knew what he wanted, and he went after it with a single-minded determination that made my toes curl. We weren’t “serious” yet, but I saw the potential. I was too afraid to ask if he did. He seemed to like me well enough, but there was a distance between us that worried me. He held his feelings close to his chest and wasn’t a big talker. Neither was I, honestly. He knew about my tumultuous relationship with my sister, but very little about my parents.

My parents were hippies when they had us. Mom was a good soul, but she didn’t know how to deal with us, especially Ruby. She wasn’t much of a comfort. I remember trying, in my younger years, to confide in her and ask her advice. She’d just pat my hair and say, “Oh, dear,” a few times. She’d never recovered from my father leaving her when we were little. She remained single in a little home in the suburbs with a bunch of dogs and one or two righteous causes she posted about online every week. Dad had stabilized after leaving Mom. He married a well-to-do woman from Long Island and took up a job in banking. He shaved his beard and stopped speaking in theoretical riddles. Whenever I visited with him, I wondered what had happened to the man who named his two daughters after Elvis Presley and The Rolling Stone’s “Ruby Tuesday”.

Paul reminded me a little of my father when I was a girl, though he was much more grounded and normal.

“Heels slow you down,” Paul said once we were out of a dense group of pedestrians. “They make you look great, though.”

I flashed him a grin and tried to hide my embarrassing pleasure that he’d complimented me. “Thus their purpose.”

“I’d still rather not worry about losing you in a sea of strangers.” He wrapped his arm around my waist and pulled me tight against him. “I know it’s hot out, but this seems to be the only way to ensure you don’t get lost.”

“Is that so? My hero.” It was unbearably humid outside and my light blue dress felt like it was sticking to my body. His shirt was damp against my arm, but there was something indescribably soothing about the warmth of his body pressed against my side. “We should probably pick a place to eat soon. Benefit from some air conditioning.”

A few minutes later, we slid into a booth in one of our favorite pubs. Paul watched me with a smile as I nearly downed my first glass of beer. I shrugged. “It’s hot outside.”

“You’re sexy when you’re thirsty.” He picked up my hand and started playing with my fingers. “So, I have to bring up something that might make you unhappy. My mom is bringing up vacation again. This time she’s talking about the Jersey shore. My aunt has a place down there and we could stay all summer, if we wanted to. Sometimes it pays to be a teacher, right?”

My heart thudded unhappily in my chest. I tried to play off the crushing anxiety pressing against my lungs. “Jersey? Well that’s a dealbreaker.”

Paul smirked and shook his head. “Funny. Listen, we don’t even have to go down to the beach. We can just stay in the house. No big deal.”

“Paul, you’re adorable and everything, but you know I can’t. We both know that doesn’t look normal and I really don’t want your mom thinking I’m crazy.”

His intense green eyes flashed. “She doesn’t think you’re crazy at all. She wants to meet you. She doesn’t care about your phobias or anything like that, okay?”

“Phobia” was an understatement.

Just then, I noticed my sister was calling, and that was never good. I paused to look over Paul, who seemed to be readying himself for an argument, and answered. “Are you okay?”

“Presley, I’ve been calling you for over an hour!”

I looked at Paul. He knew automatically who it was. I could tell by the way his expression closed down, and the eyes I found so incredibly expressive became shuttered. “Sorry, Ruby. Is everything okay?”

She hesitated long enough to make me sick. “It’s Nicky. I really wish you would have answered earlier.”

“I said I was sorry. Do you need me to come over?”

She was silent for a minute, making me want to scream. I counted to ten and repeated my question.

Ruby started crying. “Yes. We’re at the beach house. I’m sorry. I know you hate it here, but…. Can you please come as soon as possible? We had a fight and Nick…. Just please come, Presley. I need you.”

“I’ll leave right away,” I promised. I hung up and met Paul’s stare.

“Want me to come with you?”

“God, no. Thanks, though.” I fidgeted beneath his gaze. “I should head back.”

He didn’t answer, but he tossed some bills on the table and followed me out of the bar. He hailed me a cab without speaking. One pulled up far faster than usual, which didn’t give me a lot of time to say bye to him.

“Thanks.” I waited for him to kiss me or hug me, but he just held the door opened and waited. I sat in the cab, feeling a mixture of self-pity and choking worry for my sister and nephew.

“Presley?” I looked up at Paul, who stared at me with an unfathomable expression. “When you get back, we need to have a talk.”

I folded onto myself and tried to hide my devastation. That didn’t sound good. “Oh?”

“Yeah, ‘oh’.” He reached over and tucked a piece of hair behind my ear. “I had a whole night planned and your sister ruined it.”

An embarrassing grin spread across my face. “She needs me.”

“She’s a grown woman. She needs to learn how to fix her own messes.” He leaned into the cab and kissed me, without any fuss or fanfare. I wrapped my arms around him, but he pulled back before it got interesting. “You’re a grown woman, too, and you have your own life. Don’t forget that.”

“I won’t,” I whispered.

“Will you at least think about vacation? For me?” He didn’t wait for my response. “Where are you headed?”

“My sister’s beach house.”

His eyes widened. “Her beach house? So you’re willing to face your fears if it means busting your sister out of another self-imposed crisis?”

I felt incredibly small in the back of the cab, and for a moment I toyed with turning my back on my sister and sinking into the night with Paul. But I just couldn’t. “She needs me.”

Paul rolled his eyes at that, but said nothing. “Address?”

I gave it to him. Then he turned his attention to the cab driver and asked what the fare would be, producing more than enough money once he found out the amount, ignoring my protests. “Just take care of her,” he told the cab driver. Then his eyes locked with my own. “Take care of yourself, okay? And if you need me, call me. Whatever time. Promise?”

I could only nod. He kissed me one more time before pushing away and closing the door.


It was completely dark by the time the cab pulled up my sister’s long, winding driveway.

“Here is good,” I told the driver.

He gave me a look like I was crazy, but took my money all the same. He sped away as soon as I was outside, and I was grateful for the solitude. I knew it was going to be pandemonium as soon as I saw Ruby and Aedan, so I held onto the precious moments of peace as tightly as I could. The stars were out and there was a light breeze. If I wasn’t so sick with worry, I would have enjoyed it.

I heard the music before I saw the house. “Nights in White Satin” was blaring, which was one of our favorite songs. Usually the plaintive notes hit by the singer soothed my soul, but tonight, the sound became oppressive and ominous. The music was so loud that I couldn’t hear the waves of the ocean, which made me relieved, though I could still smell the salt in the air. I climbed over the last hill on her property and saw the house, completely lit up.

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