I climbed over the railing and stood on the edge of the pier, towering 50 feet above the chilling, murky green waves of the Pacific ocean. The back of my neck tingled. My chest pounded and my mind went numb with fear. No!! it screamed. NO!! It protested, shrieking like a wild animal about to die. But my left foot took a step and then, ever so gracefully, followed by my right, my body ignored its desperate pleas and I fell through emptiness.
There are those moments in life when you will experience transitions. When all your best laid plans go straight down the shitter. When your life looks and feels nothing like you imagined. You feel like a failure and it’s almost impossible to keep this broken record from repeating over and over again in your mind: you’re a failure, you’re a failure. In early spring I was offered a fully funded graduate research assistantship in South Dakota. I planned to pursue my PhD studying disease ecology in herpetofauna (my dream). But life is never so simple.
I learned very soon after visiting the small college town that the position fell through because of a grant that would not be funded until 2016. Sorry, my prospective advisor wrote in a quick I-don’t-feel-like-dealing-with-this email. Sometimes these things work out, sometimes they don’t. All I could do was stare at the computer screen with my mouth open, my heart wrenching. My life plans for the next five to seven years were completely ambushed and I lost all direction.
Fast forward a couple months and I’m sitting on a bus on my way to San Francisco. I’m living with my parents because I can’t find a job, and these trips to San Francisco to visit friends had become a bright spot in my life in what I had seen as an otherwise dark existence. But on that bus ride, I kept thinking how tired I was of being an underdog, how I just wanted to quit life if I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, so I just sat there and watched my whole life go by helplessly on that bus. I saw my life go from not getting accepted into a school in the middle of nowhere South Dakota, to inevitably living as a homeless bum. Yes, that would be my fate, I was sure of it. And I sat there feeling sick with melancholy and dwelling in self-pity. I delved into a selfish black hole of loathing and contempt; I could feel my heart and my gut churn as it turned from a cheerful, healthy pink to a dark, gross black. Negativity must have been spewing from all sides of me. I’m sure other passengers could smell it and I’m sure my host would be able sense it as well. But somewhere, in the very depths of my mind, buried deep and out of sight, I could hear a muffled voice trying to talk me out of my wallowing, I tried to listen: happiness is a choice, it whispered, I think. But maybe I chose to be sad, to be angry. Maybe I was tired of always putting on a happy face…maybe I’m also schizophrenic.
Kate picked me up late from the bus stop. She just got her PhD in physical therapy and was starting to look for jobs in San Francisco. I stood on the corner in down-town San Francisco. It was oddly warm for coastal northern California. The temperature had soared to over 80 degrees and I was wearing jeans and a scarf. Nonetheless, I waited patiently on the sidewalk and watched as Giants fans walked to the stadium and transients pushed shopping carts filled with their entire lives. I could be that person, I thought as I watched a disheveled, weathered man push a shopping cart past me. I appeared to be invisible to him. I could live in San Francisco, unknown to anyone, nameless. …Just one bad decision away, I thought.
My thoughts were interrupted as Kate pulled over on the side of Townsend street, cutting off a couple of taxis. We exchanged pleasantries, Kate was in a hurry and it always seemed like she invited me to visit when she had no time for visitors. “So I have this swim tonight.” Of course you do. “Ok.” I didn’t think anything of it. Kate was an open water swimmer, an endurance athlete, she swam across channels, competed in Iron Mans. She would do her evening swim, I would take a nap, I thought. Everybody wins. “It’s a full moon swim, so we should get you some reflective gear or lights.” “Ok.” I mimed mindlessly, tired and dehydrated from my trip. “…wait, what? I don’t swim in the ocean.” “But you said you’ve been swimming.” “Not your kind of swimming.” “Well, it’s really more of a float, the worst part is the jump.” “You’re not convincing me. This sounds like you’re describing my unintentional death.”
A couple of hours later, I was on my bike zooming down the hills of San Francisco headed towards south beach for a swim. It was Kate’s birthday, after all, so I acquiesced, at least to meeting her friend Rainy for a margarita before moonrise.
I was oddly calm on my bike as we almost literally flew down the hills of the Presidio past the Bay Bridge, even with the moonlight swim in the back of my mind. There is nothing like the chance of death while balancing on two skinny wheels, riding down 60% grades, that will force you to focus. But really, what did I care if I crashed? I had no dreams, no goals anymore, no ambition…might as well shift into higher gear and go faster.
Across town, The South End Rowing club smelled of salt water and raw wood. Beautiful kayaks and sail boats made of balsa and red ceder sat lined up perfectly in a large room just past the front door. The floor creaked as you walked on it and wind sang through the rafters that were vaulted at least 3 stories high. The nearly hundred year old building didn’t feel old really, but it felt rife with tradition. Kate and I sat our bikes in the back of the building by the docks. “No one will bother ‘em.”, said a friendly middle-aged man in swim trucks and a polo shirt. As someone that grew up in the Midwest I was used to families that never got too friendly with their neighbors and people that never managed anything more than a “hi” and maybe a smile at the grocery store. The people at the South End Rowing club are almost too friendly to believe. But they live in San Francisco and come to work out at a gym that is steps from the ocean and decked out with hardwood floors and sailboats; what do they have to be grumpy about? They’ve made it, so to speak. “Molly’s going to swim with us tonight.” “I think I’ve foreseen my own death” I quipped with a straight face. The man smiled politely, “We’ll take care of you.” “I’m not sure what that means.” I said blankly.
“Hello!” a boistrous voice rang out from a locker room within the hall-like first room. “It’s Rainy!” Ah, I thought, the woman that is buying us alcohol…well, Kate anyway, it’s her birthday. “You wanna go get a margarita?” Without waiting for an answer she starting heading for the front door of the club. Rainy was about 60 years old and a long distance, open water swimmer. She just got back from an endurance swim in the southwest (there are several large lakes in the dry, south west desert).
We followed her out to the boardwalk and she walked into the first bar she saw. The stout, tan, wild haired woman brought me a margarita after we took a seat at a tall table surrounded with bar stools. After one strong drink all I wanted to do was stay at the bar and drink more. What I did not want to do was jump off a pier and swim in the open ocean. “I’m afraid this is how I’m going to die.” I told Rainy, a high-school teacher. No one was taking my claims seriously.
“So,” Rainy started, “You’re done with school?!” She directed her question to Kate, and ignored my fears. “I’ve never really swam in the ocean before…you know other than just playing in the waves on the beach.” No response. “I am done! And now I don’t know what to do with myself. It feels horrible.” Kate responded. “You’re just in a transition period.” I said, surprisingly empathetic. “It’s true,” Rainy agreed, drink in hand, “and they never really go away, those transitions. I’m 60 and I still go through them, sometimes they last years..it’s life.”
I sat there in that bar already buzzed, hoping to get pleasantly drunk, contented by Rainy’s comment. I felt validated. I felt like I was sitting there watching my friends graduate high school, get accepted to college, graduate college, get accepted to grad school, graduate grad school, and have a well paying, fulfilling career waiting for them without any hassles or hang ups in the middle. But I was in some kind of transition, waiting, waiting like my life would actually change for the better, but never having anything work out.
I like Rainy, I thought. And at that moment, I felt it was alright to be flawed. At the same time I felt my heart rate sky-rocket. Fuck it, why not go jump off a pier and swim a mile and a half in the ocean, what do I have to lose? “Here, I’ll show you,” Kate whipped out her phone and showed me a map of the bay as we finished our drinks and our conversation turned to swimming. “We walk 6-and-a -half blocks and go to this pier, we jump off and swim back to the club. Oh, here is where you have to be careful” she pointed to a pier in the middle of the route, “or else you’ll be fucked, you know because of the tides.” “uh….OK,” was literally all I could muster; I started to shake a little. “I’ve never really swum in the ocean…other than in the waves.” I announced again. “Oh don’t worry – you’ll be fine!” “OK,” I squeaked.
In the locker room back at the South End Rowing club Rainy handed me a blinky light, “This will keep you safe.” She said. “OK.” I said. I didn’t realize the power of invincibility was contained in blinky lights. Rainy snapped a yellow swim cap over my long blond braid and I followed a group of swimmers in speedos decked out with glo-sticks and lights, mindlessly. My face was blank, my mind was blank, I was panicking on the inside. Somehow, like in a bad dream, I was screaming inside, yet I had managed to stifle the urge to yell out “I’m not doing this! Help!” I could barely speak. My thoughts focused on the map Kate showed me, on the jump in the dark ocean. “It’s only like 50 feet. It’s the worst part.” “K,” I said, feeling my hands start to sweat. As we walked down the boardwalk that was crowded with people staring with gaping mouths at the half-naked swimmers, I forced a smile..inside my mind was running the other direction, running back to safety, to the bar with the margaritas.
My body felt helpless, my hands felt tingly and sweaty. Anatomy made no sense to me anymore – my heart was in my stomach and my stomach was in my feet. I could barely breath – I should take a breath though, a big gulp of air before I jump. “It’s OK, Molly!”I heard a voice from below. I looked down and saw several yellow-capped swimmers being tossed up and down in the waves. It’s ok….I thought and I took a step and then, ever so gracefully, another step..and I fell through emptiness. I fell long enough to take another breath, to feel my heart sink even deeper, to meet my stomach in my feet.
Sploosh! I was embraced by the cold vigor of the bay. The wind was knocked out of me. The air was so warm and I was sweating while sitting in the rowing club, but the water, the water was so cold. No one was wearing a wet suit…not even me. And then, at that moment, I realized these people were insane. I opened my eyes to nothing but olive-colored murk. I felt waves, I tasted salt and I reached for air.
I bobbed up and down in the ocean like buoy. Fuck, the water was cold. Somewhere in my mind, I knew the Pacific was so cold, but I trusted all these people in speedos and bikinis and glo-sticks and blinky lights. Why were they doing this? I gasped for air, I struggled to put on my goggles and Rainy handed me some flippers she had jumped in with. “You’re OK,” Rainy repeated over and over. “You’re OK.” “Are you OK??” She finally asked. “Yea, I’m good.” I stated. I treaded water in the ice cold bay of San Francisco and tried to digest what exactly just happened and what exactly I needed to do in order to get dry and warm as I saw the rowing club’s kayak about a yard away. I flipped over on my back and watched the sun sink behind the Golden Gate Bridge and saw sea lions dance in the last golden rays of the day. And I floated in that freezing water and didn’t feel like so much of a failure. Adrenaline was also surging through my body after a 50 foot drop into a 50 degree choppy body of water.
It had been a long time since I had felt that happy when I reached the shore. Safe and exhausted and proud of myself for accomplishing something. Proud of myself for jumping off a pier and swimming in the cold Pacific ocean. There are times in our lives when we think less of ourselves. When we think we can’t possibly go on. When we think we’re failures. “This was your first time swimming in the ocean?? And you just jumped off the pier and went for it?? You’re hardcore!!” a seasoned swimmer in the sauna practically screamed at me. Where were you before the swim when all I could talk about was how I had never swum in the ocean? I sat there naked and in shock remembering the trials of my swim before I answered her: a swimmer pushed me into an area of swirling water under a pier called the Jacuzzi and I was told to swim for my life after we got too close to a barge. “Ha ha, hardcore…or maybe just determined.” And maybe it’s those random, crazy, impossibly insurmountable moments in life that help remind you that everything in life worth doing is not without difficulty or fear or torment.
Kate and I finally left the rowing club after we ate dinner with the rest of the swimmers. “Come back and swim anytime!” a swimmer, still in her swim suit, told me as we left. “Ha ha..yeah ok,” I said, honestly. Kate and I hopped on our bikes and rode them back up the same hills we came tearing down earlier, muscles aching and exhausted, with half a smile on my face.