I went to L.A. to visit my daughter Sue. I started to make a cup of tea. “Don’t use the water from the faucet, Ma,” she said. “It tastes terrible.”
I live in Guatemala. To avoid getting sick from the water, you have to strain it through a cloth or paper filter. This removes the cysts of the amoebas that boiling won’t kill. Then you boil the water for twenty minutes. Now that there is a cholera epidemic, you have to put two drops of bleach in each quart of water and let it stand twenty minutes. This strained, boiled, bleached water is what I drink. The water coming out of Sue’s faucet in L.A. tastes delicious to me.
The first night on the island, I left the excited jabbering of my family and our cool, pastel hotel room and walked alone on the shore. It was near midnight, and I was aware of the potential danger in being the sole person — a lone woman — picking my way across an unfamiliar beach in a foreign country. This thought stirred in my stomach a flip-flop nervousness that I interpreted as the thrill of adventure.
Soon I had left behind the bright strand of hotel lights, and I moved silently through the balmy, tangy air of the Caribbean. On the point of a rocky peninsula, I stopped. The tide was coming in, and roaring waves grasped at my bare feet with frothy tentacles. Brushing my hair from my eyes, I looked out across the ocean and saw only shades of black. Black sky, black sea; where they met I perhaps only imagined a charcoal smudge. Maybe they didn’t meet at all but were one, and I was gazing upon infinity. I felt what Columbus’s sailors must have felt, trusting in scientific proofs to belay the instinctual fear of falling off the edge of the world.
Contemplating this blackness with growing uneasiness, I backed away from the water’s edge until I stood among the rocks on a rise of pale sand, soft and clingy as damp baby powder. Suddenly, with a rushing roar, a great wave crashed toward me, swept over my perch, and swirled up my calves, around my knees. I froze in fear, afraid in some primordial way of water, and of monsters in the sea, and of being swallowed up by the vast, incomprehensible dark.
Raleigh, North Carolina
When I was fifteen, I lived in a small New Jersey town whose population doubled each summer. One day my brother Michael came home with an offer of employment, a lifeguard position at the Lakeshore Hotel on Brighton Boulevard. The Lakeshore was one of the few hotels that had a pool — a small deep pool painted in that shade of aqua they don’t make anymore.
Dad had different plans for Mike. He had gotten him a job in a popsicle bag factory where he could earn real money for college. The lifeguard position fell to me. I ran over to the Lakeshore and spoke to a man called Big Jim. Big Jim didn’t ask if I had a life-saving certificate, if I could swim, or even if I was afraid of water. “Start tomorrow at eight” was all he said.
In my third week, a large man came down early for a swim. He said he was on his honeymoon; his wife’s name was Lennore with two n’s. He was a good swimmer, and came up like a big whale to snort every few minutes. Then, he didn’t. I peered into the water and could see him frantically moving about. I immediately dove to the bottom, trying to see through the bubbles. The man had gotten his wedding ring stuck in the metal grate in the deep end.
I rose quickly, surfacing like a rocket, and screamed for help three or four times. Gulping as much air as I could, I went back down. The ring was completely jammed, his finger swollen with the effort of removal.
I shot to the surface again screaming for help. There was no one around. My mind was racing as I dove in again. How long had this guy been under? He was still flailing like crazy. I saw that one of the two long screws holding down the grate had given way. My lungs hurt but I tried to think only of unthreading the other screw. I thanked God for my long skinny fingers.
When the screw was two-thirds undone, the man jerked loose the grate with such force that I thought there’d been some sort of explosion. He surfaced with an inhaling yell, rising five feet out of the water.
My nose was bleeding profusely. I guess I’d been hit by the grate, which was still hanging off his hand. Where the hell was everyone? We just lay at the side of the pool, sputtering and gasping.
After some time he got up, the grate dragging along the concrete as he rose. I rolled over to say something, but he wasn’t looking at me. I heard him crying as he moved toward the hotel.
Sicklerville, New Jersey
I’ve often puzzled over the strangely popular phrase, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”
All of us, woman and man alike, owe our existence to a courageous fish who one day emerged from the sea, took a look around the land, saw that it was good but that transportation presented some problems which swimming would not solve, and who therefore built a bicycle.
In spite of all our imagined differences, whether of class or sex or race or religion, there’s really no getting around the fact that we all have a common beginning: the sea. There is no human being who is not ninety-seven percent more-or-less sea water. The very amniotic fluid in which we all swam for nine months before emerging from our mothers’ wombs is said to be even more like sea water than the water in our bodies. We may have left the sea, but we carry it with us wherever we go.
Women need men as much as men need women.
As commonplace as it is, every birth of every babe is no less a miracle than the miracle of that first fearless fish flipping himself from the protective primordial sea to the potentially harmful and hostile land. In the bodies of men, millions of microscopic fishes are created every day; in the bodies of women, one fertile planet is created every month. In a river of salty fluid only one of those million male fishes will be allowed to penetrate the atmosphere of the one female planet, after which all the other fish must die. But it is the almost impossible union of the one lucky fish with the waiting fecund planet that creates the ocean of amniotic fluid in which develops the life of yet another male or female human being.
And it is the proximity of the Earth to the sun which allowed life-giving water to first collect and then cook and later coalesce into two distinct kinds of water — fresh and salt. Out of the salt water life emerged; without the fresh water that life would never have built even one bicycle.
Samuel Wilson III
Vashon Island, Washington
My earliest memory is drought. It’s 1947 in Athens, and I am not yet two years old. My parents bathe me in the bathroom sink because there is so little water, and what there is gets shut off by the government for most of the day. “You can’t possibly remember that,” my mother says. But I do. I remember the strange green-brown stain from the faucet to the drain and the narrow porcelain bowl holding my small body.
This year in Seattle, we are having a full-scale drought. Water restrictions went into effect in May — no watering lawns, no sprinkling gardens, no washing cars. Last week there was a forest fire up in the Cascades, which are normally under deep snow cover at this time of year. Now there’s talk of camping restrictions, too.
I was ready even before the restrictions began. My house is full of buckets. I run the water into a bucket while waiting for it to turn hot. The dishwater goes out on the potato patch and the flower beds. The toilet is flushed only when there is danger of clogging. The raised garden beds get soaked by hand late at night when evaporation is low. I wash my hair in the sink and wash my crotch with a cup over the toilet. When I do take a shower, I turn it as low as it will go, and tell myself, “Remember this feeling, treasure it for the days when we can’t take any more showers at all.” (Actually I’ve been saying this to myself in the shower for years.)
Right until the restrictions went into effect, some of my neighbors were sprinkling their lawns in full sunlight on eighty-degree days. There are still government buildings with toilets that keep running and running. Landlords and businesses downtown go right on letting their leaky taps run, and they air-condition huge buildings until people who work there have to wear sweaters. I’ve heard people muttering about how the city wastes so much water, why should they care? No one seems to think of the obvious, what Athens did back in ’48: ration it, turn it off at the source.
Sometimes I wonder what it will take for Americans to treasure the earth’s gifts. Our drought this year follows several years of horrendous floods — “one-hundred-year floods,” they call them, even though they’re not waiting even ten years to come around again. They are the result of our rush to tear down our forests to build more and more housing developments, and our eagerness to sell off trees to the Japanese. There are few things more devastating than water gone off its course, sweeping all of life with it, or water gone to salt or poison so that nothing can live off it, or water just gone.
It was just before dawn. In the stillness, I heard water rushing through the pipes. John heard it, too. The automatic sprinklers were off, and no one else was home. Then there was a noise outside our bedroom window. This got me up fast, and John bolted straight up in bed.
He lifted the curtain and we watched an elderly woman using the front-yard hose to water a faded, half-dead poinsettia plant sitting on the front porch. Our position allowed a complete view of the scene, but it wasn’t light enough to see who this stranger was. Then she matter-of-factly turned off the water, pulled up her collar, and walked away.
I had planned to put the poinsettia in the corner of the front flower bed. I had set it on the edge of the porch, hoping to get it closer to its destination. John called it sacrificing a plant to the sun god.
This stranger had noticed the neglect and gave the plant water. She came again and again, every two or three days. At first we would pull up the curtain to watch, then later we’d just listen to the water and mumble sleepily that the poinsettia lady was here.
She became a regular, always ahead of the light that was breaking earlier each day with the approach of summer. We stopped hearing her, but we still noticed water on the plant when she had been there. It was fully recovered from our neglect and had even developed new growth.
One morning in early April, John came in from getting the paper and told me the plant was gone. Imagine, she’d been caring for it just to take it! I couldn’t feel too bad, though. I figured she had earned it.
When I left for work that morning I saw the poinsettia planted in the corner of the front flower bed.
C . S. Rogers
My apartment is the entire ground floor of a two-story house. I moved here two years ago from a tiny three-room place in Manhattan, and it still seems like a mansion to me.
The second-floor tenant, who has a separate entrance, is quiet and keeps to herself most of the time. We have just one problem: water. Linda claims that when I run the water, she can’t get any.
I rinse out my coffee cup. The phone rings. It’s Linda.
“Are you going to be using water for a long time?”
“No. Actually, I just rinsed out a cup.”
“Okay, because I want to take a bath.”
One day I was washing a sinkful of dishes when the phone rang.
“Are you planning to use a lot of water?”
“Enough to wash my dishes, Linda. I’ll be through in twenty minutes or so, and then you can have your bath. Okay?”
“Well, no, not really. I want to take a bath.”
“Let’s see. Tell you what, Linda. I’ll leave the dishes for now. You go ahead and have your bath, and I’ll finish up in half an hour. How’s that?”
“No. I want to take a bath!”
“What else can I do, Linda? I can use water now. I can use water later. I can’t not use water.”
She hangs up on me.
I mentioned the problem to a friend of mine who’s a therapist. Alex said Linda sounds like a classic obsessive-compulsive. In other words, it’s Linda’s problem, but I have to live with it. I try, but I seem to have become a little obsessive-compulsive as well. I let the dishes pile up and the toilet go unflushed. I go thirsty. I wait until I hear my neighbor leave and then I wash everything in sight, including myself.
Yesterday, I finally cracked. I needed to shower before an evening meeting, but being busy, I had put it off. Hearing Linda come home, I raced for the shower, turned it on full blast, stripped, and jumped in. I laughed like a lunatic as I showered, and showered, and showered.
Summer here is full of water: the humidity steaming up from the clay all day, to come crashing down each night in boiling thunderstorms; the sugared water, steeping into deep brown in the sun-tea jars on kitchen windowsills and back porches; the dew of sweat on every upper lip through all of August.
I went down by the river in a thunderstorm, in order to walk bare-chested in the woods in the rain. I’ve always envied men their freedom to feel the rain on their skin. Tonight I felt safe from rangers and fishermen, and strolled and finally stripped and stepped into the James. Not even mid-June, and the river is warmer than the rain that washes over me. I stand in the twilight and welcome the coming summer.
Melissa M. Capers
The pictures show me building sand castles on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, at age one or two. I’m wearing a red-and-white polka-dot bikini bottom, and I’ve got that Coppertone tan and a grin wide and sublime. In other snapshots from my childhood, I see bewilderment, already something lost. Yet when I’m at the water, the beauty and innocence of youth prevail against loneliness and pain.
Thirty years later, I still consider the ocean my first teacher and dearest friend. Whatever mood I bring her, she can hold, expand, heal. If I feel joyous, I can dance on her shores, waves clapping over and over again at my feet. When I bring sorrows, emptiness, grief, my tears mingle with her own salt water, and I feel unconditional love, received and given. I accept whatever face she wears, whether sea glass green and still, or churning with the gray waves of a storm brewing. I love her at high or low tide, full moon or new. Being with her is like dancing a pas-de-deux with the most elegant and flexible of partners. The ocean was my first, and most faithful, lover.
Two days from now my father and I will go back to Long Beach Island. It’s too built up there. The houses sit on top of each other, the beach is crowded. Still, when I see the water (taking off my shoes as we drive over the causeway), when the wafts of sea breeze first come through the window, I am at peace — as close to whole, as close to my heart, as I ever get.
As my grandson Shayne pulls off his shirt, his pale blond curls shoot up toward the ceiling with a will of their own. I know that if I had keener senses, I would see brightly-colored rockets of energy; I would feel shocks of electricity; I would hear crackling as I bend to kiss the top of his head and help him over the side of the tub.
He slips into my bath with much greater ease at age two and a half than he did last year, when he would come running, tip over, and slide in head first.
When Shayne comes to visit, our worlds mesh. We struggle over who gets to play with whalie, experience deep-sea diving vicariously through our bath animals, make up songs about my special soaps as I allow him to open two new bars at once (a privilege I don’t extend even to myself), and show him how to catapult them from our hands into the underwater world.
I know that we are separate, but sometimes when we are in the water, I feel that we share a common ancestry beyond his having come from the womb that came from my womb. We are descendants of the first sea creatures, and of those who first walked the earth then ran back to the ocean.
We are, in fact, separated by one generation and 250 miles. His mother sends a snapshot of us looking out at her from my tub, and for the very first time I can see that our smiles are the same. I know he will one day forget our fun times in water. He will have only pictures, and might be embarrassed to show them at a certain age.
I can’t help but wonder, however, whether someday, after I’m gone, he might gaze into his bath water, and, seeing himself, have the same experience as I had recently: upon gazing into a mirror to apply some lipstick, I had a flashback of my favorite aunt, now dead, and thought to myself, “How could I miss her when I have her mouth?”
Pamela L. La Bonne
New York, New York
I am three years old, being taught to swim. Throw her in the river, they say, she can swim. Maine, cold, gray rocks, short blond hair bitten by the wind. I hit the water with a smack. I gulp river water, struggle to the shore. They throw me in again. The smack is cold and wet, expected, and I flail my arms, knowing they will support me. I struggle to shore. When they throw me in the third time, I keep my eyes open and swim purposefully to shore, toward their hard, dark eyes.
Fifteen now, Long Pond. Three rocks off the island. I can swim to the first one, the second, the third. At the base of the last is a hole. I wear a mask; down I dive, water ringing in my ears, down, down, into the hole in the rock. I shoot up through the dark bracken water on the other side, up as the water turns yellow from the sunlight, out into the air, dripping like a lake goddess.
At eighteen, I’m walking to a newly built pond. April, early spring in New Hampshire. Ice chunks still floating here and there. “I could swim across it,” I say.
“Then do it,” some grownup says scornfully, knowing I won’t. I plunge in. The shock of the cold is like that first time I was thrown in the river. Adrenalin singing in my ears, my heartbeat speeding up, I strike out for the opposite shore. In ten minutes, I’m tired, as my energy pours into heating my body. Stroke, stroke, I can do this. Stroke, stroke, I can do anything. Grownups don’t know everything, kick, paddle. I get to the other side and start swimming back. I feel my feet numbing, my hands like ice.
My hands and legs are turning blue when I get out. I run in a circle telling myself I’ve done it. I look at the grownups as if I’m seeing them from an enormous height, as if I’m flying and they are mere specks on the earth’s surface. My clothes cling to my skin but I can’t feel them.
Kate Gale Harper
Van Nuys, California
It’s been five years since I witnessed the birth of my brother Joey. It was an incredible experience for me, being only ten years old and watching my mother giving birth in her own bedroom. Of course, it was all planned out that Mom would have a home birth. It was to be very simple; just she, her family, the midwife, and no one else.
I awakened to discover that Mom had been in labor all night. I rushed upstairs to find her rocking back and forth on her knees, sweating and breathing deeply, with blood stains on her nightgown. The midwife was there, along with my stepfather and a couple of my aunts. Awestruck and confused, I stood there gaping.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I demanded.
“We didn’t want to wake you” was the answer — which to this day I find a ridiculous excuse for missing out on any of it.
Two hours passed, and I sat and watched my mother in agony. She would kneel against my stepfather on the floor and clutch him hard enough to crack him like an egg. The midwife was calm and comforting. She would place a disposable diaper dampened with warm water against Mom to ease the stinging. No one spoke above a whisper. It seemed that the power and concentration emanating from Mom poured over us all.
She had been pushing for a while when the baby’s head was sighted for a split second. I crept closer to watch the birth more clearly. Suddenly, the head began to crown, and the midwife placed my hand against it. I was holding birth in my hand, feeling it with small fingers. Suddenly, my mother’s water burst and came gushing out, soaking the birthing pads beneath her. The rest of my baby brother followed quickly. He lay in the midwife’s arms — slimy, purple, and half-asleep. I’ll never forget that moment of hearing shouts for joy and Joey’s newborn wails, seeing blood and tears, and feeling the warm birth water on my hand.
Pacific Grove, California
The wilderness ranch was home to our commune of about thirty people. Thanks to our well, it was a green oasis of crops and pastures in the midst of thousands of acres of manzanita and dusty chaparral that comprise the Los Padres National Forest. But the well was only for washing and irrigation, its high boron content making it poisonous to drink.
We hauled drinking water in huge tanks from a well miles down the canyon. It was a half-day ordeal as our old army truck lumbered across ten creek crossings and then back, more slowly, tanks brimming. The creek’s water was too mineral-hard to drink, but its summer trickle through waist-high pools gave us some relief from the heat and drought.
In the winter of 1978 our peaceful creek became a different creature. After two years of severe drought some commission decided to have the clouds seeded to refill the reservoirs. It rained six inches in twenty-four hours. All day we watched as the creek became a river, and the river spread its banks to fill the lower canyon, its roar pulsing through the valley. That night we woke to the sounds of boulders rolling against each other and branches tearing from uprooted trees as they hurtled past.
We woke the next day to find our ranch an island. The creek had risen fourteen feet, and somewhere under that roiling muddy torrent was our road. When the sky cleared, we sent a homing pigeon to town to request a helicopter with supplies. It was more than two weeks before the water settled enough for us to send a donkey train on the first long trek through hip-high water and over the mountain ridge to town. We set up rainwater cachements for drinking water and plumbed a hand-cranked wood-burning forge for hot showers. We got a taste of self-sufficiency that was both exhilarating and oppressive.
Finally we were able to begin repairing the road, a job that took weeks with a bulldozer and shovel crews. When the first truck broke through from town, we cheered as if it had returned from the moon.
There was a time when I was scared to death of water. When I was four or five, a friend of my dad’s decided he was going to teach me to swim by throwing me smack into the deep end of his swimming pool. He didn’t count on my panicking, madly flailing for the nearest object, which just happened to be his five-year-old son. Karmic retribution was swift as I nearly drowned the poor boy. Fortunately, his dad was still standing nearby and jumped in, clothes and all, to rescue us breathless and very scared boys.
Several months later, we took a family trip to the beach. My uncle decided to acquaint me with the Pacific Ocean by lifting me over his head and walking out to sea, despite my kicks and screams. I think I peed on him.
Because of these experiences, I couldn’t pass my swimming test at the age of seven. I enjoyed the shallow water — anything less than head-deep — but when it came to doing the required jump off the diving board into the deep end, forget it.
About a month after that embarrassing swim test, my mom took my sisters and me on vacation. We spent our first night at a motel with a swimming pool. There, we met a slightly older boy who suggested going to the deep end. “No thanks,” I told him. “I’m scared.”
Unlike the adults who had given me my first lessons, he calmly suggested I go as deep as I was comfortable going, while hanging on to the edge of the pool. “I can do that,” I thought, and went to the point where my feet could no longer touch bottom.
“Now let go,” he said, “and when your feet hit the bottom, push yourself back up and grab the side of the pool.”
With his encouragement, I continued this letting-go, bouncing-off, hanging-on process, going deeper by increments while my confidence grew by leaps and bounds. It was wonderful, and it was so easy! Within minutes I was in the deep end, treading water like I’d been doing it all my life, and feeling like I was king of the pool.
Los Angeles, California
My brother hit a tree doing a hundred miles an hour on his motorcycle and wound up strapped to a kinetic bed in the trauma unit, unable to be transported to a hospital with a dialysis machine until his condition stabilized.
When he first hit the tree, the impact shoved his hipbone up into his body, damaging, but not destroying, many of his vital organs. Then he hit the ground with such force that his hip cut through the nerves and muscle and tissue of one leg. All of this, however, was initially undetectable to the paramedics and doctors, who were focused on the more immediate task of bringing him back over the edge the twenty-some times he died that night.
At the wreck, the paramedics couldn’t get a blood pressure reading from his arm, so they cuffed his leg, unknowingly saving his life by cutting off the flow of blood to his already-filled leg. The wreck happened around midnight, but the staff were so busy keeping him alive that they didn’t realize until 5 a.m., when they took off the blood pressure cuff, where all his blood was pooled.
Then his kidneys shut down.
Over and over the nurses stressed that he could have no water. But when he regained consciousness, he begged for it. As his tongue grew too large for his mouth, finally cracking down the middle, his bargaining turned to anger. He shouted, Give me water, bitch, or if you love me, you’ll give me water. Finally he just sobbed, please, just one drop. I remained firm, escaping to the waiting room to smoke and cry until I felt strong enough to return.
That was his opportunity. While I smoked a cigarette, he broke through the leather restraining straps, ripped off his IV tubing, tore open the respirator pump, and drank the water out of it. I returned to a cacophony of shrill warning beeps from the machines. Several nurses struggled to hold him down while he thrashed on the floor, oblivious to the blood pouring from his wounds, shouting, water.
He didn’t drink water for three more weeks.
Angela L. Williams
Durham, North Carolina