Wednesday, July 14, 2010

If You're Keeping Track, This Is Near Death Experience #2

Yesterday I got up and checked the weather. I'd been craving beach--ocean beach--since I got back to Maine, and I was bound and determined to go. The weather report for Phippsburg, Maine--home to Popham Beach, one of my favorite places in the world--was simple. It said the highs would be in the 80s and there might be some fog. The tide was high at 1:00, and the tide would be at its lowest around dinner time.


We got to the beach at 3:00, when the tide was still receding. It had shrank back enough to unearth the craggy island that it swallows at high tide, and lots of people were out exploring the tide pools that had been left behind. So we set up our blanket, stripped down, and headed off.

The water was freezing. The water is always freezing. But it didn't matter because the weather was warm, and I was happy to be at the ocean, and The Lady-Killer was happy to be exploring the caves and fissures between the rocks.

"I'm Maine's answer to Steve Irwin!" he said after he had words with a seagull, chased a crab, and dug through the tide pools to snatch up a translucent (and tiny) crab skeleton that had been molted away.

When we'd walked out to the island, when we'd started our exploring, the weather had been clear enough. There'd been fog and mist, sure, but it hadn't been anything alarming. But over that hour and a half we were on the island, the fog really rolled in. Before I knew it, I was turning to look back at the beach and it wasn't there. I couldn't see a quarter mile into the distance.

This was no big deal. I knew the situation with the tides. It wasn't like we needed to worry about getting off the island and back to shore before high tide washed in; it had just been high tide. There were plenty of people around--tourists with cameras, fishermen casting off the rocks, children splashing through the coves--and everything was normal.

But eventually I got hungry, I got thinking about the peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches I had in my backpack, I got to thinking about that bag of Doritos I had, and TLK had explored himself right out, so we climbed down off the island and started back.

We were leisurely about it. TLK did a few brave dives into the waves as they peeled off the sandbars, and he came out shivering every time. But it was getting hard to see him each time he went running out into the water. It was getting hard to see anything.

I've been to Popham Beach about a bajillion times in my life, and I'm familiar with its layout. It's an interesting beach because it's cut in two by run-off from a river that gives the water, when it comes in, some interesting tug and tow, which makes it good for surfers. This pattern makes it a little more tricky than a standard straight-shot coastal beach. It also makes for some interesting mini sand spits--tiny little islands, really--when the water is coming and going. On a sunny day, all of that is as plain as day, and you can make your way to and from the island without so much as getting wet.

But when TLK and I were heading back, I started to get nervous. I was sure we were on the stretch of sand that led back to the beach, but as we walked through the thick fog--and by this point we couldn't see ten feet in front of us--I could see the land shrinking, narrowing.

"I don't get it," I said. "The tide's not supposed to be coming in. It's supposed to be going out. This doesn't make any sense."

And then suddenly there was no more beach, and we were standing ankle-deep in the freezing water.

"Baby," I said. "Baby, seriously. What's going on?"

"I don't know," he said. "It's okay. It probably comes back up there. Let's just keep walking a little bit."

I nodded and took his hand, but already there were bad things kicking around my head. I had a really awful feeling in the pit of my stomach. Something was not right.

Soon, we were up to our knees. I could feel the hungry lick of the current under the water, and I began to panic.

"I'm scared," I said. It was the first time I'd said it aloud, but I'd been feeling that for minutes now. "I'm really, really scared."

"No," TLK said. "No, it's okay. Don't be scared. It'll be fine. I mean, there are a ton of people back behind us. We can just walk back that way."

That didn't make me feel any better. I imagined the other people back on the island still exploring, still taking their pictures as the water rolled over the sand between us. We would be stuck. We would be trapped. And there was no way anyone could see that we were trapped.

Or, if not that, then this: We would walk back to the island, yes, and we would find everyone gone--or suddenly surprised at the turn of events, at the water that was filling in and cutting us off from the mainland, which we couldn't see, couldn't even begin to imagine anymore--and we would all climb to the very top, the very tip, which was the only part of the island that didn't get swallowed by the ocean during high tide.

Or if not that, then this: We would walk back to the island and it would be just me and TLK, and we would sit there, waiting to be rescued, waiting for the Coast Guard's chopper when the lifeguards were closing up shop and found an unclaimed beach setup. There we would be--clutching each other in the dark, in the cold, in the mist from the waves that slapped around us--and our teeth would be chattering, and we would be freezing, we would be dying, and they wouldn't get to us in time, and then for years we would become the cautionary tale every Maine mother told her children when she sent them off to the beach with friends.

Or if not that, then this: We would decide that we couldn't be too far off coast and that we could swim it. I'm not a very strong swimmer--Amy once had to save me when I choked on a wave and then, predictably, started drowning on a choppy day at Long Point, and I haven't been confident in my abilities since--and so I could see TLK having to calm me down, drag me along, pull me like a lifeguard pulling a child from the deep end. I would be too scared to help, and I would panic, and I would make us drown.

I was certain of one of those outcomes. It was going to happen. We were done for. We were toast.

So we turned around, and I held the TLK's hand tighter than I've ever held it, and I thought about his mother and how much she was going to hate me for killing her son.

TLK was very quiet. I was very quiet. We walked back to where the sand started and widened, where he'd been diving into the waves. We walked and walked and walked. We couldn't see anything. We couldn't hear anything.

But then, coming through the curtain of fog, was a woman and her son.

I was near tears, and I leaned into TLK. I wondered if she and her son were doomed, just like us. "Do you think I should ask her?" I said. "Maybe there's another way back to the beach."

And then I was turning to her, excusing myself, asking her if she knew how to get back to the beach. Then, delicately--because I didn't want to alarm her, her son--I said, "We thought we were headed back there, but when we got up ahead everything's flooded in."

She smiled. Oh, that smile! It was heaven! It was salvation! She wasn't going to smile at me if she was suddenly realizing that she and her son--and the two people standing in front of her, hands linked so tight their fingers were turning white--were minutes from certain death.

"Oh yes," she said. She turned and pointed into the fog behind her. "Keep going back this way," she said. "Eventually, you'll see a ribbon of sand to your right. That'll take you back to the beach. Right now you're on a little peninsula that extends out from it."

And she was right. Maybe twenty feet away from us, there was a meandering sand path back to the beach, which we had missed when TLK was going in-out-in-out of the water and I was laughing at the way he ran into it--wide-armed, spastically. When we cleared the thick hang of fog and could finally see our stuff, we walked to it quickly, collapsed on it. I had never been happier to see my beach bag.

We stayed that way--face down, shivering--on the blanket for a long time. We didn't even move to eat our sandwiches; we simply raised our heads enough to get them into our mouths. It's just that we were so happy to feel dry earth, to know we weren't about to be swallowed up by the sea, swallowed up by the call of the lighthouse fog horn, the last lonely sound we'd hear before we let the undertow take us.

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