“Okay, Sam-MEE, are you ready?” Jose asks, his curls bouncing despite the weight of the water droplets splashing off them.
I nod. As I turn my surfboard around, I run through the steps in my head. I scoot back to feel my toes brush the end of the board. I open my shoulders, my arms perpendicular to my torso, palms flat, forming ninety degree angles with my neck and my limbs. I stare at the coastline, envisioning gliding smoothly to the shore.
It’s not my first time but I still doubt myself, particularly in new water. So I sign up for a lesson and welcome the extra eyes and low stakes banter that accompanies two hours in the ocean.
The board starts to drift back as the wave pulls into itself. My neck strains as I look back behind my shoulder to see it coming, and then forward again to check my pose. Feet. Shoulders. Palms. Legs.
“Paddle!” he shouts. I swing my arms, one after the other, hands cupped, pulling at the ocean underneath me. I need to go faster. The backs of my arms start to ache. The wave carries me up and right as I start to sink, I push my body off the board, muscle memory swinging my legs to the board’s center. I still don’t trust they know where to go, and my chin pulls toward my chest as my eyes gaze downward to check where those legs ended up.
I crash onto my knees and tumble off the surfboard, thighs scraping its surface, dragged under the water. My ankle pulls me, the tethered strap following the tide. I pop up to the surface and scan the waves behind me. I look desperately at Jose. He smirks.
“You looked down.” I slap the water in frustration because I know what he’s going to say next. “Need to look where you want to go.”
I pull the surfboard back to me by its cord and spin it around so the nose is in the front. I gently direct it back out into the water. As we glide deeper, I slide onto the top and start to paddle again. Jose swims up next to me and pushes the back of the board. “You are tired, I will help you.”
We face the ocean and see the waves rolling in aggressively. As they crest in front of me, Jose pushes my board up so the nose breaks the foaming water, the interrupted wave slaps me hard in the face. I fly up on top of the wave, multiple feet in the air, then crash down horizontally with my chest slamming into the board’s foam body.
These are bigger waves than what I’ve handled before. I turn over my shoulder to look at Jose, noticing how dark his brown eyes are as they lock in contact with mine for a split second then widen at the ocean behind me. Wordlessly, he pushes my feet into the water. I slide off the board, and my feet grace the ground for seconds before pouncing up and flailing furiously as the solid surface disappears beneath them. Jose’s fingers are angled and tense, toned arms flexing, he attempts to control the board and my ankle tethered to it. He yells something, but I can’t hear him before he jumps on the board with all his weight, and points its nose into the wave’s smooth center, dragging me behind it as the wave pulls me back to shore.
I paddle my arms towards what I think is the surface, eyes closed tightly and limbs outstretched, desperately searching for anything to make contact with. When I feel air on my fingertips, I kick harder so my face breaks the surface. I gasp for breath, blinking furiously. I feel the pull of the ocean draw me in again, and reach for my ankle, fingers fumbling with the velcro strap. I take a deep breath and prepare to be dragged into the ocean again when the velcro snaps apart and sends me tumbling backwards, legs over head, into darkness.
The anger comes suddenly. My eyes burn with tears and hurt, my chest is tightening, is it caving in? My breath is shallow and desperate, I’m gasping with my neck tilted back and jaw fully dropped, each breath unsteady and interrupted by pleading sobs. Is that my voice? It's deep and venomous.
I don’t know how I got here but I’m not in control. And I’m searching for it desperately, anything to relieve how overwhelmed I’m feeling. My fingers and toes are outstretched and contorted, my shoulders hunched and spine rounded as I draw my knees into my body, literally attempting to hold myself together.
It’s too much. It’s too overwhelming.
Suddenly, I know how to resolve it. I spring up. The change in my demeanor alerts Ben, who might have been speaking to me before but he looks fuzzy and his voice sounds muffled. All I hear is hope twinkling in the background of all this fucking pain. I walk towards the bathroom. Through the sliver in the door hinge, I can see my razor on the back of the sink. I need this.
Ben’s eyes widen and he grabs my wrists. He’s only tried to restrain me for play, when we’re figuring out who gets the last snack. He is surprisingly strong even as I attempt to throw my body behind my intentions. He pushes against my arms as we divert from the bathroom to the kitchen. He says no. His eyes are scared. He says how can I do this to him? But I don’t know how I’ve done this to myself. I crumble to the floor again, the feelings are heavy and their weight is only worsened by the residual pain of denying me what I need. I realize I am pleading.
I need all of this intensity to translate into something else or it's never going to go away. I need something sharp, piercing and physical, just momentarily, because as the intensity subsides then my emotions are able to too. Ben is holding me back from this. Ben says just to calm down. I don’t know how to calm down or I would have done that already.
I notice my breathing and realize my desperation must be what’s signaling him. I attempt to even my inhales and exhales, I sit up straight again, wipe my running nose, snot all over my face. I push all the feelings to the very bottom of my core, they sit like a rock in my stomach. I just need to pretend they’re not there long enough to convince Ben I have to go to the bathroom. He will love me again when I am calm, when I get rid of this bad side of myself.
His grip on my wrists loosens and I think this is my chance. As I plant my feet to stand up, Ben swings his body around me. He is small but his shoulders hunched, his arms around mine, his forehead on my neck, legs wrapped around my torso. In his effort to protect me, he becomes my shell. And he becomes my restraints.
The anger starts in my toes and my arms tingle as it reaches them. No, but I need this. I look around frantically. A bottle of wine on the ground. I slip my arm out of the shell and grab the bottle’s neck and swing it high overhead before I smash it on the tiled floor. I picture the red wine splashing everywhere, and pieces of the bottle jagged on the floor in its place. But it stands intact, it just vibrates with a ringing noise that fills the room.
Ben is mad now. He pulls me up by my arms and takes my shoulders and directs them into his room. I crumble again to the floor. He lays on top of me as I continue to gasp and plead for what feels like hours. I shake my head as he weighs me down, looking frantically for a clock. How long has this been? How long have I been this bad for?
Every time it starts to fade, I realize what I have done. I have shown the darkest part of myself. It is my trough. The desperation pulls me back into the darkness each time I start to paddle out. It’s not pain anymore, it’s sadness. I crawl out of the bedroom to get a glass of water, too ashamed to stand on my feet. There’s a crack in the tile. The bottle sits next to it.
“But I don’t know how to sit with my emotions,” I say. I feel the tears behind my eyes. Jennifer looks at me forgivingly, she nods. Her presence alone is validation, the intent in her eyes, could that be understanding?
“That sounds so incredibly hard,” she says. I reach for a tissue on the side table. Did it make sense?
Of course, she says. I realize her eyes are blue. They don’t break contact, they don’t waiver or scan the room. They aren’t angled to signal disappointment, they aren’t furrowed in frustration.
She asks if I recognize when the feelings are coming. They come in so aggressively at times, they are too big for me to handle. She tells me feelings don’t last forever. I know that, but I don’t care. When they are so bad, I need to find my way out of them at any cost. She asks me if next time I can try to figure out where they came from. Take the time to process them, slow them down. Because they don’t last forever. They crest and swell but eventually they will level out again and you can find the space to be gentle.
"You can ride it out," she says. "It’s just like a wave.”
Her phone vibrates quietly on the desk behind her, signaling the end of our session. I look up at the clock, it’s been forty minutes. She spins her swivel chair around to shut it off and makes eye contact with me one more time. The words out of her mouth are a goodbye, but they are a promise to sit with me again once more. “I hope you have a good week, I’ll see you next Monday.”
My butt slams into the sandy coast and that’s how I realize I’m back at shore.
“Damn, Sam-MEE!” I hear behind me. “That was a crazy one.” I push my tangled hair out of my face and see Jose is running against the water. It splashes against his legs as it gently drifts in, hits the shore and glides back out to the ocean again. He holds the board in one arm, balancing it against his chest, the ankle tether dragging passively in the sand behind him. He asks if I am okay.
I look down at my legs. My knee is scratched, my thighs are sprinkled with tiny, pink bumps that tickle, bordering on a slight burn. I huff the air out of my nose and sharply crack my neck to either side.
His left arm crosses his chest as he looks at a worn plastic watch on his wrist. We only have fifteen minutes left, should we call it a day? I turn my head to look at where I want to go, back to the ocean. No, let’s keep going.
I take the board in two arms and slide it across the water. Once the surface of the water hits mid-thigh, I prop myself up on my stomach and start to paddle. Jose comes up behind me, and lightly directs me and the board until we again reach cresting waves. But behind them, the water is calm. He pushes the nose through them again, they slap me familiarly in the face, and we continue until his chin is barely above the waves.
Here, the water is gentle. Here, we sit peacefully. We aren’t afraid of the inevitable waves we know are coming.
Sam Yeh (or Samantha when you're mad at her) is currently social distancing in upstate New York but usually reads, works and hugs in Brooklyn.