I used to really feel it.
I can tell. It’s like they say, there’s been a sea change. I don’t know exactly when.
But the numbness washed over me somewhere.
Somewhere between the homeless guy who maybe is or isn’t dead on the street and “your uncle’s dead” “your dog’s dead” “your dad is dead” phone calls.
Somewhere between the receiving line, handshake after handshake after handshake, little nod after slightly larger nod, the water got in there, wove between all those mourners and had its turn with me, and instead of shaking my hand, swept me away.
We moved to the beach during the pandemic and on my walks to the beach my husband would always warn me about riptides. “Don’t get swept away” he’d say just before I left the house.
Don’t let the tide take you. But I couldn’t help it if it did. I’ve learned by now that if you’re caught in a riptide, you’re not to swim against the current.
Stay calm. Swim parallel to shore until you’re not being pulled.
But if all the gravity of the earth and ocean wanted to take you away, I guess I had my doubts about the parallelism technique. I never told my husband that. “I’ll be safe!”
A riptide doesn’t pull you down, it only pulls you underwater.
I’d been pinned to the bottom of the ocean before, surfed and scraped my abdomen white like bone. Pleasure, pain. Pain mixing with pleasure. Stinging seawater mixed all red and white with fresh skin. But to float along without ever catching a wave at all? To hover incidentally? Take it or leave it.
A rip is strong. It cuts through the lines of breaking waves like a river running out to sea.
“I don’t know anyone here.”
People are lined up — 200, 300 — to view the body. Everyone keeps calling him “him.” It makes me laugh every time. I don’t laugh every time. Except in my head. Sometimes I do laugh out loud. I blame it on “A Moveable Priest.” Who cares? Who are they?
I laugh again. Who even are they!
Don’t get carried away. They’ll think you’re hysterical.
The best way to survive a rip current is to stay afloat.
I walk into the Eighth Avenue Port Authority Bus Terminal, past what are not-so-likely cigarettes and not-so-friendly faces hanging about the scaffolding. I hurry my way down the stairs for the E train, avoiding laid down bodies, alive, today. A few winters ago I gave one a shirt but he didn’t have any arms so it turned out he needed help dressing. But I don’t do that anymore because if my husband found out he’d be mad and say it’s too risky and he’d be right because when dressing a limbless homeless man no one’s watching your back, side exposed to purse thieves and pushers and all.
So now I just, am just walking, eyes up and unbothered up the steps as fast as possible, through the smudgy glass doors, not tripping over this or that homeless man or woman trying not to catch any garbage or poop on my shoe.
The bus terminal’s full of backpack wearers, wanderers and too many people sitting on the floor, but I’m flying by anyway down the escalator for the E train downtown or A train express if I’m lucky.
You would think that it was all the death that did it: that made the sea change, that stuck you in amber. You’d think that once you see someone turn from pink to grey to white back to pink — too much pink can we make him a little more white like the pictures? — you start to feel your own pastiness too: a clay molding between wet fingers until hard. That something got you somewhere, that you’ve been poked or pulled by the same needle too many times that you’re desensitized to it. But really it’s not that at all. Really it’s—
I had an appointment. And the doctor, if you call her that, was a little too eager if you ask me.
I hadn’t ever really given much thought to needles until they were being shoved into my head: an inch-long into my scalp, a couple behind my ears, into my jaw, a few between the eyebrows, the same spot I’m told is for cosmetic purposes, if I were to inject Botox.
Stop the dizziness with needles.
Lights off, space-blanket and my body lain supine, I’m alive, healing in the acupuncture clinic on the eighth floor tower block downtown. Little porcupine scalp, all aimed at my brain, I’m becoming electric. Between my thumb and pointer finger, the only body part that can move: clutching a red button: they give you a little button red button just in case.
Call and wave for help.
If only I were drowning. But I know how to swim, and anyway, when you’re walking, you’re not swimming at all. You’re already on shore, already parallel to the ocean. And, anyway, the tide can still sweep just your ankles. So the signs don’t even know anything.
You only ever really stopped to think about it when you had to: a tetanus shot when you’re 14 or when you step on a cactus and have to pull each needle out of your foot.
Every day I walked by someone on the city street, cement arms marked black, or maybe even dotted red. Where’d they really gotten the markings? But none of it was ever really important until the wave swept you too close and you had to remember how to swim. Or until now, and I had 20 minutes to lay there and think about it.
But lights off, new needles in my head. I could really feel the needles penetrating my head. Was that normal? I wanted to heal. But was the burning a part of it?
A few paces just outside the 99-cent pizza every now and then I’d even see someone doing it or passed out right there among the tossed-aside paper plates. They never bothered to throw out the hypodermic needle into the overflowing trash bins. I’d once seen someone more than passed out. Maybe once or twice, twice or maybe more.
Now it was actually starting to burn. But wasn’t that the exercise? I wasn’t sure if I could press that button even if I wanted to.
A riptide could take me in, I suppose, if I told it to. But it was better than ever again becoming ignorant to the ocean. And who wouldn’t, if given the choice, wish to swim?
Or, even if prodded by dog’s teeth, would still rather have baby’s skin?
The door opened and the acupuncturist came back in the room.
“How was it?”
“Fine” I say.
I make my appointment for next week.
Jacqueline Cassidy’s essay received an honorable mention in this magazine’s 2022 Young Alumni Essay Contest. She graduated Notre Dame with an honors concentration in creative writing and studied with NYU’s Writers in Paris program. Her novel manuscript received a silver medal from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Her short stories and poems appear in New York’s Best Emerging Poets 2019 (Z Publishing), Calla Press and Re:Visions Literary Magazine, among others.