It was overcast. I left my shoes on the stone steps beyond the beach. Just as I waded in, another swimmer, standing in the shallows, said to me, "There's a seal over there." I asked him the risk. He said that last year a seal had been out biting swimmers.
(This is the face of terror.)For the first ten minutes, I paddled breaststroke and refused to submerge my head into the water, lest my last view be a fatty, black shape materializing from the green murk to take a nibble out of the floating, flailing steak before it. Not that I could, anyway. The cold of the water was so shocking at first that putting my head into it made me breathless with alarm and fear. After a while, my limbs warmed. My fear subsided, and I was able to coax myself to swim five sets of freestyle for thirty strokes, ten breaths, before I called it a workout and swam in a diagonal line to the spot I had left my shoes. Earlybird tourists gawked at me when lifted myself from the water. I smiled in a manner that I felt to be inviting. This is an ordinarily early morning in my city, I wanted my face to say. And we are sharing it today. Some smiled in return. Others looked away quickly. I suppose my face was also saying, I am a soaking lunatic in a rubber suit walking barefoot on a city sidewalk. I will nab your footlong camera and run for the hills. Only on the drive there and back, in local traffic along Van Ness, did I let thoughts penetrate my mind. The noise of these I drowned out with a mixtape from 2008.
It's the drives that get me. I'm okay when with other people. Kevin asked a chimney sweep to come in and tell me about the condition of the fireplace - needs at least $350 in repairs, more if you account for the stacks on the roof. We stood near him and spoke about the upcoming appraisal in Chinese while the sweeper made clouds of soot with his industrial vaccuum cleaner and primitive scraping tool. The seller complained to me about something, and his freshly washed mini mutt danced all around our legs. ("Dr. Bonner's," he kept saying, "The suds are much easier to wash out.") All this time I was all right. There was a living room to consider, a window lock to be tested, papers that needed attending to.
But once I got back into my car for the long drive to Palo Alto . . .
It may just be my mood today, or this week. I've been looking backwards. Yesterday I had a Proustian moment applying a bright yellow highlighter to a page: neon shorts, mini-golf, dark arcades, riding in cargo bay of station wagon, dry California heat, mid-1980s. In the car home last night, after another grueling late night of uncertainty and zero communication from the partners and then sudden floods of work, Rihanna came on the radio and reminded me of the sharp tack of a woman who exited my life right around when that song was in fashion. I remembered sitting in Astor Place in late July, a house party, a peridot Monroe that I loved to kiss. And then this morning, just the memory of a seagull with a pine cone, a playground slide, the wooden interior of a tram on Market Street can do so much. It's like my brain cannot decide what era to settle down and cry in, so I swing between years, sniffling at everything.
(Once upon a time, a stranger gave me a dollar on this tram!)
Today's mantra, which I repeated over and over in a message to myself last night, is this: Find your spine. I meant it in the context of toughing out the stressful work/extracurricular week, but it applies equally to my weak heart. The MRI says there is foraminal narrowing in the C3 and C5-C6 area, but what I cannot see I don't believe, and so I know only that when the overstretched balloon of my heart temporarily deflates, the structure that keeps my body upright is my long, trustworthy backbone. The most private thing I am actually willing to admit is that I abhor weakness in myself, even though it is everywhere.
(The thing that ails me.)
So I turn the radio off. I don't need the falter in the singer's voice to send me on another trip. So I put the email away. I am not ready for this. So I look out the window. If the perspective is not in front of my face, find another view. So I put the memories away. I listen instead to a voicemail from Stern: twenty seconds of her meowing to the tune of "Let's Get Physical." I laugh. There. Better.