You remember the first place. Your knees bouncing against your skull, soft side up, rocking, all of you the size of an eggplant or a bottlenecked melon. The heaving and sighing as you hovered in that briney lifeliquid. There were nine months of this. Don’t you ever miss the silence before you learned to want anything? And then the release.
Birth is a sticky, loud thing, I’m told. My mother was twenty-four. She was milky smooth and I came early, eager for something. My legs splayed open, unfurling like I was midstroke. I wore braces to reign my hips in. “You weren’t exactly a cute baby,” says my mom into the phone, a thousand miles away, “but you were mine.”
Before I believed in the natural order of things, I believed the world was created from the Spirit of God hovering over the water. On certain nights, when I’m first in love, four inches off the sidewalk, giddy with cocktail hiccups, I still do.
Water is our first mother. Reach into a pool, pull back, and all you feel is being held. For a moment, you are in the purple womb, again. For a moment, you are caressed in midair. What has always been true will continue to be, in unstoppable waves. It’s all so familiar.
When I could walk, I wanted to swim. I was landlocked, but I built my own oceans. I sat by the marsh in the backyard, writing in the notebook I buried under a mossy rock. The words melted between pages, dripping into new words. I dried them on the heat vent and taped leaves over where the paper wore thin. In late summer, I stood on the dock, teetering over the murky lake, anticipating the mossy give of its floor, the anonymous tickles of plants and fish and driftwood. I was always scared, always uncertain, until the second I jumped. I had to be dragged out and dried off at sundown for dinner.
My first time at the ocean, I ran. I left my family and sprinted in and outside of the sizzling shoreline. I collapsed on the dark, wet sand and laughed until everyone caught up to me. My dad bought a CD of Ocean Sounds when we got home. I played it after he died, hoping the waves would do the work of water–the filling, the overcoming, the sanctifying. They rang hollow. I wished some things could be less eternal.
Because water, on its own, has no purpose, no sound. It has to be consumed or drowned in or boiled or frozen into meaning. At least that’s what I thought.
And then I fell in love with the emptying. It happened when he muttered into the phone line or she clung to the door frame, backlit. It never had a name. It was not longing, because at the very height of it, there was nothing I could imagine wanting to possess.
When I heard “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys, I felt it. My stomach swirled before it flushed fast and for a suspended second, held nothing. It was a pure quiver, delightful emptiness, my ribcage well, shaking. I stared at the popcorn ceiling, dizzy, as I watched light leaks from the window arrange themselves into constellations.
At summer camp, girls weren’t allowed to walk around with wet hair. “Boys will imagine you naked in the showers,” our counselor explained. We dangled our heads off the top bunk, spraying the girl working on her Bible verse memorization on the bottom bunk. The boys could never imagine the way we danced around each other, opened our swimsuits to the metal-y cold showerhead, and looked right into each others soapy eyes, barely blinking. Let them try.
The moon dropped to earth, dragged across the soil, marked the land and on one Wednesday morning, I started bleeding. The pleating of the land at the altar of the unstoppable. “Looks like you’re a woman, now” said the nurse, handing me a cottony pad, shrugging. I didn’t feel like a woman. I felt all the way animal. I smelt the sour sting of the womb and felt seasick, out of control. But I nodded as I thanked her and drove home. In the bath, I curled up and listened to my new Woman Body.
She spoke in waves, screamed like a bat and laughed like a jungle cat. “We take the shape of whatever we hold,” Woman Body told me. I flipped to the other side and floated and then slept.
This spring, I was caught in a flash rainstorm, breathless, stunned by the silence the dryness under an awning on Broadway provided, when I heard his voice. “There’s no way you’re getting back to Brooklyn tonight,” he said. We leapt over puddles, made our way across town. I avoided glossy, glass windows. I wanted to believe it was us. I looked only to the puddles for reflective confirmation.
A person I assumed I was dating fell asleep during The Shape of Water. I thought it was honest, borderline charming, until he broke up with me on a bus. “I have never, ever, hated someone enough to leave them alone like that in a movie theater,” I spoke between tears, on 110th street. “I didn’t leave,” he shrugged, scratching his shoulder as rain toppled from the dark sky, “I just fell asleep.” He was never really there.
The first time I met someone like her, I wrote “the underwater glow of her skin,” in my notebook after a night of cigarettes and bar snacks. I put it an essay because I could. My professor wrote, “I can’t figure out of what you’re trying to say.” The more I thought about it, the more I felt my body rocking between confusion and certainty. I cut the line, wrote her a postcard, and let it go.
This is about how there was a time when I actually thought the ocean would be better if it wasn’t salty. This is about how every year I resolve to drink more water and come March I am a body of water. It’s about boiling points and dilation and realizing I have never been baptized.
Erika Veurink is a writer living in Brooklyn by way of Iowa. She is currently receiving her MFA from Bennington College.
Featured Imaage Credit: Erika Veurink