By Lynda Rutledge
I knew better.
The water was quiet, the coral gorgeous, so I swam beyond the shallow area for a better view. Without any warning, a wall of surf, instant and rogue, picked me up and thrust me toward the bleached and jagged coral between me and land, then reversed course and sucked me back toward sea.
Time stopped. My mind floated somewhere beyond my flailing body, detached, morbid, wondering if I were about to sustain an injury that would forever change my life. Then, with a violent thrust forward, water flooding my snorkel, time expanded again and my survival instinct finally kicked in. Frantically, I searched the reef hurling toward me for fire coral, that poison-tipped devil of the reef. As I hit with a wham, I learned all coral hurts when caught in a riptide. I knew that in a riptide I should swim sideways to shore, but had no way of doing it. The roiling waves were coming too hard, too quick.
The second big wave spun me upside down and around, ripping off my mask.
The third one rolled me over the top of the reef, scraping my legs along scores of stinging sea urchins spines.
The fourth one threw me face first against a dead staghorn, raking the top layer of my cheek raw, then tossed me past the bleached reef and onto the sandy shore.
That quickly. That deadly.
When I dragged myself out of the water, in one piece if minus a fair amount of skin, I stumbled back to the courtyard of the old sugar plantation resort and just stared at the manicured gardens and palm tree-lined walkways. The courtyard was peaceful, untouched, unmoved, as lovely as an hour ago, far more than I could say for myself. My own universe's stutter and shift hadn't even been noticed by the sky or the trees or the other visitors going about their perfect paradise day. And that seemed impossible, as if I were in the wrong world.
There's a small, odd sensation I have when returning from a strange locale. I step back into the house and marvel that everything looks the same. Nothing has changed, nothing except me. Shouldn't everything be different if I am? But it is always, only me.
That, though, was without a near-death experience. Standing stunned, stung, scraped, seconds after the closest of close calls, I felt this odd sensation again, but now it was big. I sat in the resort's courtyard for a long time, wondering how I could tell my husband, waiting in that world behind our hotel door, wondered if it would sound anywhere as large, as profound as it felt to me. And I recalled a time I had heard him try to express the very same thing. Calling home on the first night of a business trip, he sounded strange, a little distant, still in the trance of some event. Finally, in a sort of slow motion, he ever so casually told me what had happened. Walking across a busy intersection, he'd had to run for dear life when a car blew through a red light, heading his way. He was carrying a pizza and somehow held onto it as the car glanced the back of his heel and sent him spinning toward the curb. I had no way of telling him then, but I thought I recognized the sound of my sensation in his voice. He was spinning down again to the same speed as the world. But only after that day in the shallow coral could I hear the rest—he had been awed by his own life's stutter, slack-jawed at the what-ifs, aware that all the calls are close until they aren't.
As the palm trees
swayed above me, I touched my scraped face, my bruised thigh, and counted
my steadfast lucky stars. Then I prepared myself for re-entry, for the
sound of my own spinning down. And most of all, for the lack of change
I would see in his face as he looked at the change in mine.
authored/collaborated on over a dozen books (under Lynda Rutledge Stephenson).
Her travel articles have appeared in such national publications as the
Chicago Tribune, her creative nonfiction in such places as
River Teeth. An Illinois Arts Council award winner, her small
press novel Brave
New Wanda was published in 2004, and she's now hard at work
whipping a creative nonfiction memoir into submission.
photo courtesy of www.genkistar.com