Over the Falls
Still I must on; for I am as a weed
Flung from the rock, on Ocean’s foam to sail
Where’er the surge may sweep, the tempest’s breath prevail.
—Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
Is this how it ends?
The thought burned through my head, surprising and unbidden. I was straddling a surfboard in a thrashing ocean, breathless and struggling to stay upright, my arms so tired and aching I could barely lift them. Looking up, I saw my friends waiting for me on the shore, but they and the palm trees lining the cliffs all appeared to be receding. I’d been trying to get back to the beach for what felt like an eternity, and every time I took a moment’s rest the heaving aquamarine waters tugged me farther away from the stretch of sand I needed to reach. I felt overwhelmed and small, as if in the clutches of a liquid bully tossing me this way and that, while wind whipped my dark, wet curls against my cheeks, salt spray stung my eyes, and surging water plugged my ears and gushed into my mouth and up my nose. The current was pulling me parallel to the coast, where bulkheads of razor-sharp coral and rocks could shred my flesh like a cat-o’-nine-tails. As my body started to fail, it dawned on me for the first time that I might not make it back.
Just an hour before, I’d been relaxed and happy. I’d arrived at the beach near the northwest corner of Puerto Rico with a friend, a feisty, green-eyed brunette I’d met back home as I’d haplessly tried to learn to surf over the past few years. She was not only my regular buddy in the waves but also one of the first new friends I’d made in a decade—part of the social life I was building as I slowly emerged from the wreckage of a divorce. Rented boards in hand, we were excited to escape the February chill of New York City and the rubble-strewn mess of my neighborhood in Rockaway Beach, still in recovery from the battering of Superstorm Sandy. Standing under the canopy of fanning leaves in the dirt parking lot overlooking the beach, we ran into a few friends from Rockaway who had just finished their sessions. Sure, it was a little choppy, with the swirl of the current making spirals of white foam amid the translucent peaks, but the waves were weaker than they looked, one of them said, and not much to worry about.
“Watch out for the current, though,” another friend told us. “Make sure you don’t let it take you out to the left. Just paddle at an angle the other way.”
Maybe I shouldn’t do this, I’d thought, eyeing the waves as they reared up and twisted before violently crashing toward the shore. But I’d quickly silenced that voice. As long as I kept to the right, I’d be fine. I’d always been able to handle myself in the ocean at home on the East Coast, and I was aching for the balm of wild water on my skin—I just couldn’t resist.
Plus I needed this break from the rest of my life, which felt in shambles. Over the past five years I’d been lashed by loss after loss—my marriage, my father, my chances of bearing a child. I was, in every sense of the word, adrift.
Surfing, despite my distinct lack of aptitude and struggles to find my balance in the ocean, consistently brought me joy and a sense of purpose. On a surfboard I could feel powerful and free and in tune with the universe, if only for an instant. The rest of the time I felt the opposite.
And now there was a clear and present danger confronting me. After I had stepped into the warm, inviting water sliding over the sand, I had focused so intently on charging through the walls of foam lining up in front of me that I hadn’t noticed the current, stronger than I realized, taking me exactly where I didn’t want to go: to the left.
So despite my efforts to paddle back, I was now stuck “outside”—the term surfers use for the zone beyond where the waves are breaking—and far from where I could safely return to shore. My surf buddy was nowhere to be seen in the water, having probably, and wisely, ditched the effort sooner. It doesn’t matter how many people you’re surfing with, I thought. In the end you’re alone, just you and the ocean.
What if I can’t get in by myself? I wondered as I contemplated my predicament. I closed my eyes and saw an unlikely fever-dream pastiche of lost-at-sea images: sunburned survivors found in life rafts, having subsisted on raw fish, birds, and their own urine; old-style paintings of half-nude women, shipwrecked and flung upon the sand; headlines about teenagers who’d fallen prey to rip tides, seemingly every year, in the Rockaways; the Andrea Gail, buffeted by mammoth seas before sinking; Gilligan and the Skipper losing control of the S.S. Minnow on what was supposed to be a three-hour tour.
I peered at the beach. I was even farther from my friends, who now looked like stick figures on the sand. Can they tell I’m in trouble? Can they call in a rescue? Can I hold on long enough, or will I get swept out to sea? Are there sharks out there?
Resting, I tried to tamp down the rising sense of dread, but I couldn’t keep other kinds of doubts from creeping in. Maybe I was just not meant for this. If I’d so wrongly assumed I was ready for this ocean, I might very well have been wrongly convinced that I could actually have a roll-with-the-swells surfer’s life—that I could, in middle age, pivot from my get-ahead, career-focused existence to something that seemed more meaningful. Maybe it was too late for that, just like it was too late to save my marriage, too late to get pregnant, too late to find another great love. I was clinging to a rented surfboard and maybe to a rented life—one I could dip into from time to time but couldn’t really make my own. I looked around and took in the spectacular beauty of the place, seeing how close to and yet still so far from safety I was. What a ridiculous place to die.
Suddenly something in me snapped. So what? So what if I didn’t have the answers, or a partner, or the picture-perfect life I thought I was building? I’d bought, not rented, this new life, and now I had to live it. You got yourself into this mess, and it’s up to you—and you alone—to get out of it.
I sat up and took a deep breath as I arched my back and stretched out my chest, squeezing my shoulder blades together and shutting my eyes against the brilliance of the sky. Overcome, I yelled out, “No, not now,” words that were immediately swallowed by the water’s roar. I flopped back down on the board and began pulling my arms through the chop, hardly able to hold up my chest and head but willing myself to ignore the soreness and near paralysis settling into my shoulders, arms, and back. “You can do this,” I chanted, over and over, like a mantra, cackling at how insane and uncool I must have looked—a million miles away from one of those sinewy surf babes I was trying to become. “Dig deeper!”
Eventually I cast an...