“Salt Water” by K. Davern

Original creative nonfiction written in CW 205:  Introduction to Creative Writing with Dr. Carlos Dews — Spring Semester 2010


“Salt Water”

Should you ever decide to cram yourself into a very large washing machine, I imagine you would experience a similar feeling. However, you would most likely taste soap instead of salt water, which I would consider equally if not more unpleasant. The upside, however, is that you would soon find that you have the pleasure of opening the door to the washing machine to take a breath of air should your body ask for it. Unfortunately for me, the washing machine holding me on spin cycle happened to be the largest on the planet, something also known as the Pacific Ocean.

It’s an interesting experience; not knowing which way is up, laughing underwater until you realize that the air bubbles released by the squeals that usually accompany happiness do not behave like boomerangs. That with each somersault joy turns into anxiety, which turns all too quickly into terror. Clawing at a liquid is about as worthless as it sounds. It’s not until a piece of coral takes a bit of your shoulder that you can turn yourself around, plant your feet, and propel yourself in the direction of your lungs’ desire. Often you take your long awaited breath prematurely, gulping down exorbitant amounts of the enemy salt water, making your arrival to the surface almost as unenjoyable as your stay below it.

The band that penned the famous song, “September,” had it right. We love Earth, Wind & Fire because their name refers to all of nature’s forces that we have at least some idea of how to handle.  The fourth, water, is the tricky part. Fresh water is necessary for our survival, but the overwhelming majority of water contains salt. This added ingredient invalidates the one real use that we humans can employ. It is estimated that between fifty and eighty percent of life on earth exists beneath the surface of the ocean. The interesting thing is that humans have only explored ten percent of the 140 million square miles that the ocean covers. We do know that the all-encompassing ocean, unlike the land-bound reservoirs called lakes, is filled with salt water. If so much life can exist in this vast hypertonic solution, salt water must have qualities that go beyond its ability to drown us.

A day after the surgeons had finished creating four craters in the back of my mouth, I began my part: keeping the new holes from becoming infected. This required gargling a salt water rinse three times daily. Once inside my mouth, its job would be to reduce swelling and drive away the bacteria so hoping to find their home in the spaces that my wisdom teeth had recently vacated. The first day of this process was a mess. The rinse did not taste like coffee ice cream, and the sink was constantly stained with the stringy red mucus that comes as the child of salt water and blood. The quantities of the gooey muck waned as the number of days using the rinse climbed. By the end of the process, the salt water had succeeded in its mission of preventing my jowls from infection. It healed them.

Salt water can heal us emotionally as well as physically.  Not only can it keep bacteria from entering our bodies, it can heal from the inside out.

We may not be able to survive as a part of the ocean, but salt water survives within our beings at all parts of our lives. This fact manifests itself in the drops that issue from the corners of our eyes and slide down our cheeks when extreme emotions require something past emitting sounds.

The first time, I didn’t mean it. I didn’t think it was my fault. But he certainly did. So I said I was sorry. Maybe it would placate him and we could move on. But it didn’t work quite the way I expected. Instead, he took my apology as a confession. By saying sorry, he said, I assumed responsibility. After a lot of words were thrown at me, I started to believe him. Maybe he was right. Maybe it was my fault. Maybe I had more to drink than I remembered; maybe I really was flirting with that boy at the bar. Maybe when Anna assigned him, her friend, to walk me home, maybe I knew what was coming. Maybe my borrowed clothes had a v-neck cut too low. Maybe I was asking for it. I didn’t know anymore. I was lost in that wave again; I didn’t know which way was up. So I said I was sorry once more. And I meant it. A little salt water could have helped at that moment. My tear glands, unfortunately, were not willing to cooperate. To him, my words were insignificant when unaccompanied by any physical evidence of my remorse. His facial expression didn’t change. His arms remained crossed, his jaw set. His blue eyes that I loved to trace bore no warmth. It felt like an eternity that we stared at each other like that.

I sat on my bed at home, knees pulled into my chest, mind turning over and over every aspect of that night. I didn’t know who was right. I didn’t have any answers anymore. It seemed all I could do was stare. And then the water came. My eyes burned as it filled my lids. First just one line traced my cheek. And then my face was soaked. I couldn’t stop. I was drowning in my own tears. But it wasn’t terrifying this time. I hadn’t cried since my return from Syracuse. The rush of salt water was the release I had so desperately been seeking.

Dolphins are one type of animal that lives in salt water. They have developed a tough skin that keeps salt water from entering their bodies and drying out organs, and at the same time they spend almost their entire lives beneath the waves. Dolphins, like us, need air to survive. So every couple minutes, they come to the surface to start over. They release old air from their lungs for a fresh supply of oxygen, and with it, they dive back beneath the waves to begin a new underwater adventure.

I tipped the yellow girl with the umbrella upside down, watching her contents pour into the tub and mix with the steaming water. The big toe on my left foot was the first to feel its effects. Almost too hot: just right. I watched as the translucent water climbed up my calves as I slid into the tub. I lowered the rest of my body, knowing that it was going to hurt. It did. It found its way into the places on my legs where the skin had been pulled away by dirty fingernails. Layers of cover-up could not keep the salt from entering the thin, jagged lines on my neck, purple on the outside, still red in the middle. I shut my eyes and lowered my head slowly until the water finally, mercifully, covered my entire being. The salt water that burned into my damaged skin seemed to give me my answer.

For a moment, you can’t find the surface. You are reminded of your adventure in Earth’s washing machine. But it’s there, millimeters away from your burning nostrils. You move upward, this time certain that your sense of direction is correct. Your lungs are replenished with a new breath of that life-sustaining gas, and you rise from the salt water, healed, ready to begin a new adventure.

—written by Katherine Davern


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