The Scent of My Skin
Updated: Nov 30, 2021
When I decided to take my body back into the ocean I was feeling very calloused and dry. I hadn’t allowed myself anywhere near the waves, not even my feet and ankles, since a riptide in Santa Cruz had swallowed me years prior.
Growing up minutes from the Pacific my entire life has left a layer of salt on my skin that I can’t remove no matter how hard I scrub. Friends and lovers have told me that my flesh tastes like coconut - a scent and texture left over from years of sunscreen use. I am always trying to protect myself from something.
However many years ago I was sitting on a small beach while my boyfriend was surfing. I had a book in my hand and earphones in my ears and was sitting with my jeans on in the sand thinking and feeling like I could be peaceful. My boyfriend the surfer did not like me very much and probably didn’t treat me the way a boyfriend should. I was making my way through college in San Francisco studying a major that he had deemed “not real”, but it was around this time that I became a very good listener. That is to say, I was learning how to hear people and I was learning how to write.
This memory is fragmented. Some of it comes to me so clearly, I can taste it. Other elements feel like they are figments of my imagination, decorative aspects used to tell a story better. I tend to embellish, exaggerate, enhance. Every minute I’ve spent becoming myself I’ve learned through my stories and the way I tell them.
I remember seeing my surfer boyfriend make his way back to the shore, he waved at me, pointed towards the parking lot. I remember standing up, dusting the sand from my jeans, and walking in the direction of his pointed finger. I was still on the sand, the water still near my feet.
When I was younger I don’t recall loving the beach the way I felt like I was meant to. The scratchiness of the sand and the heat on my scalp and the incessant sounds of the waves crashing over and over and over made me feel small and hot and helpless. Different things make me feel that way now.
In my memory, I am above the surface one second, and I am below the water the next. I recall the sensation of being not just tugged, but yanked beneath the rolling waves. I had my purse on my shoulder and my earbuds still nestled in my ears before I got swept in, all of which were ripped from my body with painful force. I remember thinking, as my limbs jostled between rocks and I fought to get my lips just above the surface, that I was certainly going to die.
I did not die. Two surfers with their skin weathered from the sun and their hair bleached from sea pulled me out. They dumped me on the shore, panting. My boyfriend ran towards me, his eyes wide and wild. One of the older surfers handed me my wallet and my tattered book. I did not know how he had these items, I did not ask. There was blood on my feet and ankles and hands, and sand all over my face. I thanked the old surfers, and my boyfriend and I walked to his car and went home.
In between this day and the day I went back into the water, time moved forward unspectacularly. While I did not actively avoid the ocean, I kept my body far from the water. I never dipped a toe in, I did not even try. When people asked me why I mostly shrugged and said I didn’t like the water. In the rare instances I shared that I had once almost drowned, people would nod seriously, granting me the space I had crafted between the waves and my body. It is healthy to have a fear of the ocean. I graduated with honors, my creative writing major deemed very real by the university I attended. I moved back home to Southern California, where I felt consistently very small and hot and helpless. I got married, I quickly became unmarried. And eventually, something akin to a tugging but much more like a yanking took me back into the waves, intentionally this time.
I’d like to say that it’s because I had completed some kind of circle of healing, or that I was cleansing myself in the ocean and its forgiveness, but in this story, I am not a fisherman. I went out into the water because I felt insignificant. The ocean has many jobs, but this is one of them: to remind us that we are small and helpless. There were going to be so many more moments where things would be taken from me before I was ready. I was just embracing them now.
What I remember the most about being beneath the water, when I felt that my body was not mine, though I was trying and failing to save it, was that I was not afraid. I did not panic, I did not cry. Even in the car ride home, my jittery boyfriend kept glancing at me out of the corner of his eye, waiting for me to melt down, to ask for a hug or some comfort. But I didn’t. I went home and my roommate helped me make a new set of keys. I got another cell phone. I finished my book, its pages are bloated and weathered from its journey alongside me.
In the years between going into the ocean by fault and by choice, I attributed my cautiousness to a fear I did not truly feel. I was trying to rid the water and its grip on me, the salt of my skin, and the scent of my flesh. I wanted to become someone else; someone undefined by where their body came from or where it had been placed. Instead, I wanted to be seen and understood for my choices, for the things I had deemed real, for the stories I told. I was not afraid when I re-entered the ocean. I swam easily, I ducked under the waves. I held my breath, I welcomed fresh air.
I left California, eventually. Now, I occasionally walk alongside Lake Michigan or the Chicago River. They are more humbling, these bodies of water. They don’t chase and chide you, they aren’t pursuing you. I feel content, if such a thing is possible, to live near or far from them. I think it is safe to say that I feel more myself here.
Sometimes, my boyfriend snuggles into me at night and tells me that I smell like sunscreen. How is this still possible, I wonder. How am I still carrying this around?
Occasionally, people will ask me where I’m from, where I grew up. What is it like to live by the ocean, they will wonder. I want to tell them it is scary, it’s unnerving. It makes you feel small, hot, helpless. But I never do. It’s beautiful, I tell them. It’s a very beautiful place.