The ocean… ah, yes, I believe I’m familiar with her untamable ways. She sits, very unknowably, at the beach. She’s actually always at the beach—she’s a total beach bum. And her unknowability and untamability is what makes her such a temptress, of course. She’s inscrutable, mercurial, ferocious… all of these words describe her well. And of course, she’s a temptress as well. Did I mention that?
Last weekend, I went to the beach. I went to Jacob Riis beach, which is next to Rockaway beach. Jacob Riis beach is named after a famous muckraking photographer who published a book called How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York. In this book, he turned the unflinching eye of his camera lens upon the downtrodden of the 1880s Lower East Side: they slept ten to a room, shat in buckets, and shared unverified media gossip at Clandestino.
During my fateful trip to the beach, I fatefully decided to go into the ocean, sealing my fate. My friend Maya and I entered the water like the US entered Afghanistan: trepidatiously, having thought through all the risks and contingencies. The waves were big, but that’s what makes it fun, that’s what makes going to the beach fun. We waded further in, enjoying the burning, rashy sensation of the NYC water on our torsos as thousands of microplastics wormed their way into our bodies, rendering us sterile and simple-minded. After a while, we halted, when the water was around chest height, and we let the waves wash over us, and it was pretty great.
“Wow,” I said, idiotically. “Imagine if you were lost at sea.” I gestured to the vast expanse of water in our field of vision. “This is all you would see.” I wish I hadn’t said that, due to the fateful nature of my fate that day. I could still feel the gritty sand beneath my toes as the waves got bigger. Maya told me she got pinched by a crab at Long Beach over Labor Day. The event played in my head as it must have occurred, cartoonish chomping sound effects when the pincers hit, a giant “YEEEEOWCH!” from Maya as she shot 30 feet straight into the air and came down with a massive, red, pulsing boil. “Wow, that’s crazy,” I said, sewage diffusing through my skin. I could no longer feel my feet on the ocean floor. The waves kept getting bigger. Maya turned around. I should turn around too. I did so, and was struck a sickening realization: Wow, I’m pretty far from the beach, and I’m pretty close to these fucking things:
I was nowhere near these wooden log things when I entered the water. Oh god, I thought, I’m moving really fast. Maya was trying to swim, but getting nowhere. I should get to her, I thought. I tried, but each new wave pushed me closer to the log things, and no amount of swimming was helping. I’ve heard people describe great swimmers by saying things like “When he gets in the water, he’s like a fish.” At this point, I was also like a fish: my eyes were darting, my mind was sluggish, my head was stinky, and I felt like I was about to die a stupid, pointless death. At least a fish can end up on a plate at Nobu.
I smashed into the wood pillars with the next wave and scrabbled at them hopelessly, but the wave carried me over, further out and into the next section of the beach. It was here that I hit my mental panic button. The waves were not letting up, I was moving at a speed that felt impossibly fast, and I started swimming full throttle towards the shore, Michael Phelps style. But I hadn’t eaten my requisite 12,000 calories at Subway that day, and my limbs grew weary after two minutes. I was still traveling pretty fast, parallel to the shore. I couldn’t escape the grip of the current. The waves kept coming, slapping me in the face. I was able to spot Maya; she’d grabbed onto a log and was hugging it tightly. Thank god, I thought, at least she’ll be okay.
I started swallowing water. This was when I really, truly, became convinced I’d drown. Each new wave seemed to drive the air out of me, and seawater began pooling in my stomach. This is how it happens, I thought. Every person that has ever drowned has said this is what drowning feels like after they drowned. Isn’t it strange that we have a word for “drowned” to refer to death by water, and “burned to death” to describe death by fire, but there’s no water equivalent term to “arson?” What’s up with this? Stop panicking. Panicking is really how people drown, I remembered. They drown in some sort of panic soup. So I made myself stop swimming, I attempted to float, and eventually, the current stopped pushing me as fast. I was able to paddle my way to shallower waters, and once I felt my feet touch the sand I was able to immediately transmute my panic into the twin emotions of relief that I was alive and disgust at the sedimented layers of used condoms and Fritos bags upon which I stood. Who even eats Fritos from the bag? I really had the thought, Oh my god, I’m going to live.
Maya, in the meantime, had handily clambered her way from wooden pillar to pillar, and once she saw I could stand, called out “Can you stand?” I answered in the affirmative, and she made her way over to me. And we made our exit from the ocean together, Baywatch style, having traveled an entire beach section away from where we first started. There were no lifeguards—they’d entered hibernation after Labor Day in preparation for mating season in the spring, but a concerned older couple came to us and told us they watched the whole thing and prayed for us to survive, which I found very touching. The husband of the couple spent about ten minutes telling me what to do when caught by a rip current. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the ocean is dead to me, conceptually, and I plan on never being in a similar situation for the rest of my life.
I’ve never quite been in this position before. I’ve had near-death experiences, almost all of which involve cars, but they were always so fleeting that the gravity of death didn’t really sink in. But this time, I was subjected to two or three entire minutes of my brain repeating I am going to die today, I am going to die from drowning at this stupid beach, I didn’t have to go in the water. I did this to myself. It’s a horrible feeling, the worst, to be convinced you’re going to die, and as cliche as it is it’s left me profoundly existentially shaken and asking myself big questions about Purpose and Happiness and Legacy.
I know it doesn’t matter, really, because I’ll be dead, but I think a lot about the kind of obituary I want. I am not particularly interested in leaving a “complicated legacy,” even though I, like everyone else, am a complicated person. I want what’s left of me when I die to be memories of warmth and joy and laughter, memories of great food, a love of the outdoors, an exciting, never boring, imagination, and endless curiosity. On a recent trip to Oakland, MD, I was struck by the obituary of a local train enthusiast, Daniel E. Offutt III, that I read on some information panel around town.
Dan would have described himself as a "farmer," but he was much more than that. Those who knew him would remember him (in no particular order) as a tennis player, traveler, sailor, metal sculptor, wood worker, fixer of anything, collector of everything, lover of projects, stock market investor, and a good friend.
Man, isn’t that all you can ask for? Fuck the ocean!!!!!
Truly harrowing stuff. This is why moms have yelled at their sons at the beach for centuries—but little do they know their sons will one day live to tell the tale in a Substack post…