...you don’t think you’ll actually run into a shark...
It’s the final day of my stay in the Cayman Islands, and I’m a long, wet mile from my towel, a cold beer, or land. I can make out the small figures of my wife, sister-in-law, and nephews on the beach each time my head comes out of the water for air. I’m waving to them with my right arm, but they don’t seem to notice. I consider waving both arms to try to get their attention, but remember from the safety briefing that flailing your arms is the signal that you are drowning. And I am not drowning – at least not yet. I am participating in the 13th annual Flowers Sea Swim, renamed the Flowers Recovery Mile Sea Swim this year to focus on providing relief to the victims of Hurricane Ivan.
I had no intention of entering a swimming race here – planned to do little more than let sand accumulate around my feet – until I saw an ad on the television in the condo just five days ago. Perhaps it was my irrational fear of beach boredom, or the fact that I’d watched several people swimming that afternoon, or just the beautiful, crystal blue water of the Caribbean lying outside the door. I announced to my assembled family-in-law that I thought maybe I would do that. My mother-in-law, who arranged this entire vacation, is far too kind to do anything but express bemused and delighted interest at whatever nonsense I spout, but my wife looked at me like I’d been out in the sun too long – and I had.
It’s not like I had never swum long distances before. I swam “competitively” in high school and had gone on several short-lived, fitness-inspired swimming kicks in the many years since. The truth is, however, that the last of those kicks ended as many months ago as there are years since I graduated from high school: 20! And while I still knew that in theory I could swim a mile, the longest I’d ever gone without touching bottom or a wall was 25 yards – the length of a typical high school swimming pool. Swimming in open water was going to be a bit of an adjustment.
Lucky for me, this was no ordinary water. The Caribbean’s deep blue lured like a siren. I imagined gap-toothed pirates of old, whose parents had not been engaged enough to sign them up for swimming lessons, jumping from plundered Galleons to their deaths just to be in this magnificent water. If ever I was going to do an open water swim, this was the place. Even if there weren’t lane lines, the clarity and visibility of the water was better than any YMCA pool I’d ever been in.
The next morning I scampered down the beach and into the water as fast as I could in the hope that no one would notice I was wearing a Speedo. No one wants to look at a body that is anything less than perfect in such a thing, let alone one that is largely covered in hair. It’s perfectly fine, if not exactly flattering to wear a Speedo during lap swim at the local pool, but it is something altogether different to sport one at the beach. I didn’t want my in-laws thinking I was European.
I picked out two buoys that looked like they were about 100 yards apart. This would be my oversized swimming pool. I made sure one was close to shore just in case I had a heart attack or something and needed to stand up. The truth was, I was on the most perfect stretch of beach I had ever laid eyes on – Grand Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach – and I could have simply swum in either direction for an hour, or, more likely, as long as I could, and be assured of a mile or as close as I could physically come to it. Somehow, though, I found comfort in the idea of a defined distance.
As my wife’s family looked on from books, beer, sandcastles and games of Frisbee, I began my training: dunked my head into the muffled, isolated world that is distance swimming, ignored the burning sensation in my shoulders, putting one arm in front of the other, and slowly traversing the distance between the buoys. After fifteen exhausting lengths I called it quits deciding that a “metric mile” was plenty for my first day of training. I got out of the water and donned a pair of surf trunks before staggering over to where my father-in-law was sitting in the shade of a tree. He commended me on my swim and kindly offered a bottle of water. After slurping salt water for nearly an hour, it was the sweetest thing I had ever tasted. I asked him how far apart he figured the two buoys were, and was disappointed to hear about 75 yards, but since he’s an avid golfer, hunter, and football fan, I trusted his judgment. I would do better tomorrow.
The Flowers Sea Swim was started by a fifty-seven year old Grand Cayman business mogul named Frankie Flowers. The family business empire was built on bottled water, concrete blocks, and real estate. Surprisingly, given his home, it was running, not swimming, that was Frankie’s true love – surprising because there is a lot more water than road around the Cayman Islands. Knee trouble eventually drove the dedicated distance runner into the water.
Though the most popular, fielding up to 600 swimmers, the Flowers swim is not the only or even the oldest open water swimming competition on Grand Cayman. The first organized swim took place in 1980, and was three miles long. Today the Flowers Sea Swim is considered a premiere event and attracts Olympic and world champion swimmers from the United States and beyond.
The second day of my training went much the same as the first, though this time I bumped into – literally – a fellow racer in training. Swimming is not a very social sport in that it is difficult to talk while you are doing it without inhaling a lot of water, so it was nice of this guy to stop and talk to me. His accent identified him as one of the surprising number of Irish living on the island. According to him, it was half a mile from the Governor’s house – a colonial vestige still hanging on in some capacity I was not entirely clear on – to the public beach just past our condo. He assured me the race was good fun. There is something about someone telling you about fun in an Irish accent that makes it impossible not to believe.
By the end of the week I was managing mostly uninterrupted miles in about 40 minutes and was feeling pretty good about my prospects. I had also managed an amazingly symmetrical sunburn pattern on my back that looked like Batman’s symbol. Between my training and snorkeling trips to “Stingray City” and other local points of underwater interest, my back had seen a fair bit of sun. Conversations with other swimmers up and down the beach bolstered my confidence that I could at least finish the race.
The morning of the race I felt nervous, a conditioned response from the swimming meets of my youth. Certainly there was nothing to be nervous about; I was absolutely capable of swimming a mile, and, according to the official rules of the race, though running along the bottom was forbidden, stopping to rest was perfectly acceptable. As she applied the initial coat of sunscreen to my back, my wife assured me that I didn’t have to do it if I didn’t want to, and that if I got tired I could just quit. This had the presumably unintended effect of making me feel rather old. Of course she was right, but now that I’d told everyone I was going to do it, I had to.
The race didn’t start until 2:30 that afternoon, which gave me plenty of time to accompany my father-in-law, brother-in-law and nephew on a snorkeling trip to Eden Rock, near the Georgetown harbor. A morning of snorkeling was probably not, I realized, the recommended preparation for a swimming event, but the underwater scenery of the islands was simply too good to pass up. Besides, this was vacation, and I had become resigned to the fact that I was probably not going to take home the $20,000 purse for being able to set a new world record that afternoon.
After a truly beautiful display of coral and creatures, including a barracuda, our snorkeling party removed our flippers and headed back home for lunch. This was a subject I had put some thought into: what would constitute a good lunch before swimming a mile in the ocean? Sushi seemed both right and wrong somehow, but unavailable in any case. A Google search of distance swimming training turned up an entire subspecies of geek-dom I never knew existed. Most of the entries were too boring to actually read, but the accounts of veteran Canadian marathon swimmer, George Park caught my eye.
A competitor in the 1954 Commonwealth Games and the 1955 Pan-American Games (he had to skip the 1952 Olympics after passing out due to illness in a qualifying heat), Mr. Park earned the nickname, “the Sea Wolf” in a twenty-eight mile race he won in 1964. If anyone knew what they were talking about, surely it was the Sea Wolf.
During a thirty hour marathon swim in Montreal, Mr. Park’s partner – himself a champion from Florida – was unable to continue due to the cold water. The Sea Wolf continued the race without relief relying on a mixture of chocolate, glucose powder, tang and chicken. Surprisingly, this concoction left Mr. Park, in his words, “not feeling too well.” Taking a well earned break, he happened to run into, “Pepi”, a friend and pizza parlor proprietor, on his way to a delivery. When he learned that Mr. Park was hurting, Pepi offered him the pizza he was delivering. He devoured the pizza and headed back into the water feeling, “like superman.” Mr. Park never swam better.
We didn’t have any pizza – or even chicken and tang – on hand, so I would have to make do with a salami sandwich. Somehow, I thought the Sea Wolf would approve.
My stomach suitably filled, it was time to head to the start line at the still-under-construction Ritz Carlton. I was perfectly willing to walk what was probably three quarters of a mile along the beach, but my father-in-law wouldn’t hear of it. He didn’t want me to tire myself out needlessly before the race even started, and besides he was going to the store anyway; he would drive. Owing to its lack of roads, the traffic on Grand Cayman is surprisingly bad at times. This was one of those times. After crawling for nearly ten minutes, we had moved about 250 yards. We agreed that I’d make better time on foot. My ever generous father-in-law promised a cold beer at the finish line, and, thanking him, I bailed out of the van and scampered across the blacktop to the other side of the busy road. Strolling down the beach in my tight Speedo was not something I had been relishing, but now that I was running down the highway in exactly that – the blacktop burning my bare feet – the beach sounded good. Twirling my goggles nervously on my finger like a seven year old boy, I cut through a parking lot hopping on tip toe, then gingerly made my way through a construction site – more post-hurricane rebuilding – and was finally back on sand.
The start area in front of the emergent luxury of the Ritz was teeming with swimmers of every age. There wasn’t much of an air of competition about it. It seemed like a holiday picnic that no one had bothered to get dressed for. Whole families talked about who would be swimming with whom, and instructed younger members to stay with so-and-so. Gatorade and brightly colored swim caps were handed out and all were called to attention for the safety instructions. We were to keep our fluorescent swim caps on at all times. If we needed assistance (i.e. we were drowning), we were to flail our arms and a race marshal in a kayak or coastguard boat would come to help. This seemed an appropriate signal. It was okay to stop and rest on the beach if you needed to, but if you decided to drop out, you had to find a race marshal and report your number. The previous year a full scale search had been mounted for a kid who was actually at home playing Nintendo. There was a blessing and prayer that all the swimmers would be safe, and recognition that, despite the devastation of the hurricane and the number of people who had left the island over the past year, there were still nearly 400 hundred people competing this year. Finally, we were counted as we filed into the water.
In an attempt to avoid the crowd, I swam out about 75 yards, and awaited the start, treading water and fiddling with my goggles. I met a guy from Virginia who had lived on the island for about five years and worked for a swimming pool company. “You’re doing this on your vacation?” he asked.
“Yeah, I saw the ad on TV, and it sounded fun somehow. My family thinks I’m crazy.”
“It is fun. I bet there’s nothing quite like this in the world.”
I believed him. “We’re staying just up the beach, so if I get tired I can just get out, and I’m home.”
He laughed at my very first distance swimming joke.
Before I was ready, the air horn sounded announcing the start of the race, and I snapped my goggles into place and thrust myself forward. Suddenly, there was much less room in the water. You can simulate this by finding four hundred people, standing them up tightly behind a rope, and then having them all lie down at once. The tranquil sea was turned into a frenzy of churning whitewater and thrashing limbs. Something about it made me think of sharks.
There was no reason to; I hadn’t seen any sharks during my stay or even heard of any, but there was a dive site in my guidebook called “Hammerhead Hole,” and a bar in town called “Hammerhead’s.” Even without these clues though, I would still be thinking about sharks. It’s sort of a conditioned consciousness that comes with swimming in the ocean – you don’t think you’ll actually run into one, but you know they’re out there, like drunk drivers at closing time.
The Sea Wolf had experience with sharks. In a fourteen mile race off of Rhode Island billed as the world’s greatest marathon, Mr. Park was warned by a sign hung from the escort boat that read: “Don’t panic, there is a shark 200 yards behind you. Don’t stop or change your pace.” To ease his worry, they later added another sign informing him that the coast guard was tracking it, and would shoot if it attacked him – no doubt a comfort. The Sea Wolf claims the shark was fourteen feet long and that it followed him for the next ten miles, during which he did not stop or change his pace – even, apparently, for tang and, or chicken.
So that was it, for motivation I would imagine there was a shark following me. In hindsight, this was not such a good idea. Anyone familiar with long-distance (or at least long-time) endurance sports knows about endorphins released during physical activity causing what is referred to as a “runner’s high.” Though I wouldn’t call it a “high,” for me, swimming at times provided something like this. Not only were you working your ass off, but you were doing it in a strange environment, somewhat inhospitable to human life, that could double as a sensory deprivation tank. At its best, swimming could put me into a trance-like reverie of seemingly unrelated, but tenuously connected thoughts, images and memories – like the sleep between snooze alarms – during which I would propel myself forward almost unaware of my efforts. At its worst, it was like climbing through setting concrete.
I was closer to the concrete end of the experience spectrum at the moment. Wending my way through the tangle of arms and legs, surging and stalling to pass or avoid running into my fellow swimmers, the race was as relaxing as I imagined driving an ambulance through rush hour traffic might be. The imaginary shark in my slipstream added absolutely nothing to the experience. Trying to get through the throng, I felt I had started out faster than usual, and I tried to concentrate on taking deep, even breaths when I wasn’t inhaling water or someone’s heel.
Gradually, I carved out space for myself and the bodies around me began to fade, the deep blue of the ocean filtering out the bright colors of swimsuits and pastiness of flesh alike. My lungs burned and my arms felt like rubber, but I concentrated on stretching out my stroke and taking in air, until, eventually my arms took on a life divorced from my own, pulling through the water and reaching back up out of it like the slow paddlewheel of a steamboat. I rode along, kicking when I remembered to.
I caught a flash of vivid blue off to my right. It wasn’t a shark, but a lone blue tang gliding along beside and beneath me (my father in law had pointed one out and told me its name during one of our snorkeling trips). About the size and the shape of a medium basket of fish and chips, it was keeping pace with me, or rather I with it, though it looked to be expending far less energy. I decided this was a good omen, and that I would keep up with the fish as long as I could.
As a child in the 70’s, I became, for a time, obsessed with the television specials of Jacques Cousteau. I would sit wobbling on a stack of pillows in front of the set watching undulating sea fans and coral, and not speak to anyone, as this detracted from my underwater experience. At some point I became interested and then fixated on the apparatus the “frogmen” – as my grandfather called them – used to breathe. Fascination eventually gave way to terror at the idea of a limited amount of air in those silver cylinders. I felt better when I saw them go down with two, but still not comfortable. Gradually I began to be aware of my own breathing; it became a conscious task that I was afraid I might forget to do. Rather than wonder, the shows began to produce in me a claustrophobic sense of panic. But still I watched.
Despite a fear of SCUBA equipment, and ear infections that kept me out of the pool for long, hot summers as a youngster, I eventually developed into a fairly good swimmer. As a high school freshman, the 500 yard freestyle became something of a signature event of mine. It was the longest, most grueling race in high school swimming, and it wasn’t that I was good at it, just that I was the kind of kid who didn’t realize you could say no to something suggested by an adult. No other race used lap counting cards to remind the competitors where they were.
In the early days of SCUBA diving, before Jacques Cousteau and his friends really figured out how things worked, they sometimes ran into something they called, “the rapture of the deep,” or, “nitrogen narcosis,” where a diver might forget what they were doing, which way was up, or even that they might eventually need to go up. It had something to do with breathing nitrogen under pressure.
The 500 took place in water that typically ranged from three and a half to five and a half feet deep, so there was no danger of rapture of the deep. Still, there was a sort of rapture of monotony that would set in. Lane counters rocked or shook the number cards underwater near the end of the race as a signal to pour on whatever you had left or at least to break out of your trance. Typically, at that point in the race, I was no longer entirely in the pool, but instead off on another planet thinking about homework I hadn’t done, tests I hadn’t studied for, and girls I hadn’t had sex with – this last category encompassing an extremely large group.
In a way, it was a lot like my algebra/trigonometry class. I had decided that past basic adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing – or at least knowing how to use these functions on a calculator – mathematics was a field of knowledge I could get by without. And it turns out I was right. My teacher, Mr. Krause, and I had an unspoken agreement: I would not bother him and he would pass me with a “D.”
Mr. Krause was a nuclear physicist who was laid-off when the state stopped building nuclear power plants in the 1970s. Through some strange confluence of forces that I didn’t understand, but undoubtedly factored in summers off, he decided that if he couldn’t be a nuclear physicist anymore, the next best way for him to contribute to society was to sit in front of a room full of teenagers and mumble to himself while writing equations on an overhead projector.
Our class was divided into uneven thirds. In the front of the room were the few kids who actually got it. They watched what Mr. Krause wrote on the overhead eagerly and checked it against their own papers, nodding emphatically at the correspondence. In the middle were the kids who didn’t get it, but hadn’t yet given up, and thought diligence might help. Finally, the largest third took up most of the back half of the room, and consisted of the kids, myself included, who didn’t get it and no longer cared. In a way, Mr. Krause wasn’t so unlike us.
Not all of the kids in the back were parties to the agreement, though. They weren’t going to get the “D”; they were going to fail. I wondered what would happen to them; how would their lives turn out? It seemed to me that an “F” on your report card was surely the first step on a path that lead eventually and inexorably to a career in a muffler shop, crime, and then prison. But no one else seemed concerned.
Erika, who was clinging to the last row of the middle group – those who still cared and thought they could figure it out – leaned forward over her desk to compare her notes to the person sitting in front of her. Behind her, solidly in the back third of the room, sat Steve McSorley, a kid I’d known since fourth grade when my family moved into a house down the street from his. At some point early in our fourth grade year, Steve had begun to think about sex, and had never stopped. Erika bent over the desk in front of him was predictably irresistible. He stood up in his own desk and reached forward pretending to hold onto her waist and then began pumping his hips, simulating intercourse. The pinched expression on his face broke to a maniac grin, as he let one hand float up above his head like a bull rider.
Our third of the class erupted into fits of laughter as Steve thrust faster into the air above his desk. I laughed and shook my head wondering about my friend, and unconsciously believing that asses would always be as perfect as Erika’s. Soon the disruption, if not the laughter, had spread to the rest of the class, infecting even those who were genuinely still trying to master trigonometry, undoubtedly in the interest of someday building bridges or causeways that would improve all our lives. Only Mr. Krause soldiered on, paying no attention to the chaos growing around him, mumbling and scribbling numbers on the transparent overhead sheets as if he was in a different classroom somewhere far away full of graduate students.
At a time later in the same hour, but when the class had once again been so subdued by the hypnotic, monotone mumblings of Mr. Krause as to seem like a different day, our collective trance was broken again by the crackle of the intercom speaker. It was our principal, Archie MacAllister. He was a big, barrel-chested man with giant, meaty hands, a fleshy neck and silver crew-cut that never seemed to grow. It was impossible for me to tell how old he was, but he seemed to belong to another era – an era long before salads came in bags, in which men killed chickens before dinner, went off to war like it was college, and didn’t have a different pair of shoes for everything they did.
Just the week before, he had addressed the student body about what was apparently an epidemic of uninvited groping in the halls. I hadn’t realized there was a problem, and wondered if it truly was an epidemic why I wasn’t a part of it. Archie assured us that he knew what it was like to be a teenager, and that once in high school he had “touched something that didn’t belong to me.” I wondered what it was like when he was in high school, and imagined him racing a supped-up jalopy on a straight stretch of deserted highway that seemed always to exist outside of town in the movies. “Her name was Margot Johnson, and she was one of those big Scandahoovian girls.” I had never heard the term “Scandahoovian” before – and haven’t since – and had no idea what it meant. “She turned around and slapped me so hard I fell on the floor. And I deserved it.” It was unclear whether he was advocating violence against the gropers, but he did say that people “should keep their hands to themselves.”
At first it seemed like it would be the same type of announcement – and as ass-grabbing was about as likely to stop as smoking pot in the parking lot, no one really bothered to stop whatever they were doing to listen – but as Archie began to speak, there was something new in his voice. He didn’t sound nostalgic this time; he wasn’t recalling glory days and Margot Johnson. He sounded tired and a little sad.
“People,” – he always started with “people” as if unsure how to refer to us, deciding to go with the most general category he could think of – “I need to talk to you today about something that has come to my attention which disturbs me a great deal.” The tinny acoustics of the small wall speaker and something about the way he spoke made him sound like a radio broadcast warning of the threat to our way of life from “Red China.” “People, it has come to my attention that some individual has been . . .” He paused a moment as if to gather himself. “Someone has been defecating in the drinking fountains of this school.” There was an excited mumbling in the room as people checked and confirmed that yes, defecating did mean “shitting.” “People, this is unacceptable. It poses a health risk to all of us and it is simply wrong!” His voice sounded thinner than usual, as if he were addressing the microphone from across his office. “It’s not just wrong,” he continued, straining. “It’s sick! And the individual who is doing this to our school is sick!” He was back in front of the microphone. In fact, it sounded like his lips were brushing up against it. “I want you to know,” he was yelling now, screaming, starting to lose it; you could almost hear the veins on his thick neck bulging under his crisp, white collar. “I want you to know that when I catch you – you phantom crapper – you’re going to wish you’d never set foot in this school! You’re going to wish you’d never lived, you goddamned sick son of a bitch!”
Now it was silent, like all of the air had been sucked out of the classroom. All around the room we looked at each other as if we might float out of our seats and into the vacuum of space. A panting, almost wheezing, sound came from the intercom speaker, and I think that Archie eventually continued, but it was too late. You could no longer hear what he was saying. The air rushed back into our class and our lungs with a giant whoosh, and the entire student body, assembled in classrooms across the campus, let out a collective, “Bwaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaagh!” followed by shrieks of, “phantom crapper!” and uncontrolled laughter. Even Mr. Krause could not shut out the riot engulfing him. The kids who were still in their desks were turned around talking to other kids, the rest were up, capering in the aisles looking for something to hurl out of the windows. The inmates had taken over the asylum. If there had been a drinking fountain in the room, there would have been a line to defecate in it. Our principal had broken down, and we thought it was the funniest thing in the entire world.
An absence of color brings me back to what I’m doing – churning the water one arm at a time, tilting my head to the side as my right shoulder passes my mouth, taking wet, gasping breaths, and periodically remembering to kick. I can no longer make out my family – the waves are too big, and the blue tang has disappeared. I’m flying over an empty desert of sand. I wonder what happened to the fish.
I wonder what happened to the “Phantom Crapper.” How does a guy who’s shitting in the drinking fountains in high school turn out? What does he go on to do? How do any of us turn out? When do we turn out? Aside from seeing who is fat, bald or still cute, these are the reasons people go to their high school reunions, and it’s why I recently went to mine.
I asked my mother-in-law, who was visiting us in Seattle at the time, to iron my brown, sort-of-shiny shirt, busted out the blue corduroy blazer I bought in Buenos Aires, and did my best to arrange my hair, all pretty much out of curiosity. Parking a mile away in order to save three dollars on parking, I arrived at the baseball stadium banquet room dangerously close to breaking a sweat. After the danger of perspiration had passed, I went in and was immediately confronted with a barrage of strangely familiar faces that I could not instantly match with names. This brought about a mild sense of panic, which in turn brought about the sweating I’d been working to avoid. Thankfully, I ran into my friends, Mike and Gaje, who, instead of not seeing for twenty years, I see pretty much every weekend. I was so flustered, I couldn’t remember their names right away either, but “dude” and a nod is sufficient between us.
Once I had chatted a few minutes and regained what I pass off as composure, I was ready to face my former mates. Mike and I almost immediately ran into Lucy, one of the best looking girls in our class. She continued to be great looking, and I was surprised she was talking to me, as I don’t recall her ever doing it in high school. It sort of made me feel good – maybe I was cooler than I remembered.
“Mike, you look great, you haven’t changed a bit,” she gushed. Mike beamed, and I looked sidelong at him thinking about disagreeing with her. “Pat, what happened to all your blonde hair?” I smiled and nodded like an idiot, feeling my face change to a deeper shade of red, and remembered what a bitch I thought she was. From there it was sort of a blur of trips to the bar and reconnecting with old friends – friends I’d forgotten I ever had, and couldn’t believe I hadn’t talked to every day for the past twenty years. They were Microsoft millionaires, Air Force fighter pilots, and Montana fly-fishing guides, but mostly they were just old friends. Erika was a fitness guru, and lived somewhere in the Arizona desert. Steve McSorley was there; he was just fine, and I still loved the guy.
Later, I found myself talking to Danielle, another of the prettiest girls in our class – she was still pretty, not a bitch and never was – though she did once tell a friend that I was cute, so it was too bad I was such a nerd. A guy named Jerry, whose last name I still can’t remember, managed to awkwardly join our conversation. If I was something of a nerd, and I don’t deny it, I at least had a visa that allowed me to visit the land of the cool kids. This was not the case for Jerry. In the hierarchy of nerdiness, Jerry was a superhero compared to me. This guy had math club, rocket club, and Dungeons and Dragons club credentials. I’m not saying that I didn’t roll a few twenty-sided die in my day, but I had relegated that fact to a shameful secret by high school.
Danielle was silent, staring at Jerry, as I single-handedly ran through the questions politeness dictates. It turned out he does something that I completely don’t understand, but has to do with the 911 system for the city of Renton.
“I get to work with electronics and all kinds of cool toys. You know, basically living every guy’s dream.” He said this with so much pride that I believed him. Maybe he was. I didn’t know the guy, I barely remembered his face, but I was glad for him, and I was proud of him. He was doing it, whatever the hell it was.
My impulse to shake his hand, or hug him, or give him an oversized high five, was distracted by Danielle’s soft, sweet voice addressing him: “You know this is really weird, but I have absolutely no recollection of you. I think maybe we never hung out, which is weird since we were in the same class . . .”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. She wasn’t trying to be mean; I’m pretty sure she was serious. She actually thought it was weird that she, possibly the most gorgeous girl in my school, never hung out with Jerry from the rocketry club. That’s what was so beautiful and terrible about her – she wasn’t trying to, but she was, nonetheless, crushing the dream. Jerry, had finally achieved it, he was living it, and had come here tonight to shout it out, and Danielle, beautiful Danielle, was unconsciously, unintentionally, and relentlessly – like a force of nature – dismantling it. I wouldn’t blame him if he’d turned, and crapped in the nearest drinking fountain. Instead, he stood and smiled, nodding, undaunted, a resilience no doubt born of hundreds of hours of role-playing games in massive multiplayer online universes that I’ll never know exist.
What is every guy’s dream? How do you know when you’re living it? I’m floating in the wine blue Caribbean (yeah, I stole that from Homer, and the Aegean) as far away from land as I’ve ever been without a boat. In the fading distance, on a tiny island of sand and scrub covered with luxury condominiums, is my beautiful wife and her beautiful family. They have invited me in, and they treat me like their own. They care about me and care for me. My wife is smart, funny and accomplished, and, not only did she decide to talk to me one day, she decided she loved me and to marry me. I am lucky beyond words.
For this to be my dream, I would have to have dreamed it, right? – probably while not paying attention in Algebra class – but I don’t remember any of it. I don’t remember what I dreamed. They should tell you that: right after “be careful what you wish for,” they should tell you, “remember what you dream.” As far as dreams go, this is a good one. I’d say it’s even better than working with electronics for City of Renton, but it doesn’t feel familiar. Should I be worried?
They are standing on land waving to me. They have towels and cold beer, but I am still swimming, and I don’t know if I can stop. I feel like Seymour Glass – what are bananafish anyway, and what the hell was that all about? I’m not sure how I’m going to turn out – I can’t remember who I was going to be. If it doesn’t happen soon, will it be too late? Swimming this course, I will end up in Cuba, cutting sugar cane and drinking rum with Che Guevara and Fidel. But Che is long dead, and I would hack my shins to bits swinging a machete.
A string of orange, inflatable buoys is gently, almost imperceptibly, funneling me toward the finish line and the safety of the shore. Swimmers, who managed to disperse into their own isolated spaces of ocean, have begun to converge once again in a thrashing of limbs, and I become aware of people around me for the first time in what seems a very long time. I am being drawn back toward land, where I will emerge from the sea crawling, stand up, and walk, wobbling at first. I will gratefully take the cold beer from my father-in-law, and do my best to keep becoming. Even if I’m not living every guy’s dream, I am comforted by the thought that, surely it must be someone’s – maybe even mine.
If you would like learn more about George Park, please visit swimmingdownhill.com. All information about, and quotations of Mr. Park are taken from swimmingdownhill.com, and I assume no responsibility for their authenticity or veracity.
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