In the Warm, Salty Water

Shelley Blanton-Stroud essays

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“If a great white got into this cove, man, its jaws would chomp our whole family! All of us! We’d just be bleeding all over, screaming under water.” My oldest son, Seven, waved his arms in the air, writhing in slow motion. “That would attract a frenzy of sharks!” Now Seven whipped around, chomping his teeth, a shark devouring the boy version of himself.

Five’s face contracted. “Mommy?”

“There are no great whites in this lagoon,” Husband answered, matter of fact, answering only the first layer of Five’s question.

“Wife, just help me get the boys geared up. I'll take them in.” Husband didn’t look at me. “You don't have to go in. I've got them.”

I looked at Husband, so responsible. So willing to take up the slack when my fear prevented me from joining.

I generally passed on adventure. I could see the ways things could go wrong. The mountain bike could careen off the trail. I could slip under the rail of the ski lift. I could find myself stuck between rocks in the lagoon and drown. I knew bad things happened and frankly I was surprised Husband didn’t understand that, our first son having died in childbirth. What’s wrong with Husband’s reflective capacity? I wondered.

I looked at Seven, so noisy and cheerful and adventure-ready, though prone to disaster – broken arms, bee stings, unannounced spelling quizzes. He was a terrible judge of danger. I could never take charge of Seven in the lagoon. I was not a strong swimmer and he was likely to get us both in trouble. No. Husband had to snorkel with Seven.

But it wasn't right to send Husband into the water with both boys. He couldn't follow them both. It would be unfair. Also, I distrusted Husband a little. He minimized danger. Seven had to get that from somebody.

I looked at Five, at his soft, round face with the dark brows drawn low over chocolate eyes, tan back bowed, feet in flippers, one pointed north, the other east. He looked at me knowingly. Five knew I was afraid of the ocean. And most things.

Five also knew he was at risk of having to wait on a beach towel for Husband and Seven to return from the first shift before he could snorkel. In our family, age was an organizer.

Husband raised his eyebrows at me. Are you gonna say it or am I?

I remembered when he used to think I was fun and spontaneous, a long time ago. I remained silent on my knees on the towel, organizing plastic and rubber bits and pieces.

“Five,” Husband said. Five’s head immediately dropped, like a puppeteer had released his strings. My heart dropped with it. “You and Mommy need to …”

“Seven and Daddy have to use the blue gear,” I interrupted. “Five and I hate blue. Red’s better.”

“Hey!” Seven hollered. “Why do we get the blue?”

“Yeah, yuck blue!” Five yelled. He threw his arms around my shoulders and tucked his face into the sweaty folds of my neck. When he lifted his face, his cheeks were wet. He returned to the nestling spot and wiped tears on my neck, his salt on my salt. “Red’s our favorite.”

“Are you sure, Wife?” Husband’s eyebrows turned up, dubious.

“I know how.” I sat to help Five put on his gear and put my own on, too. I pushed off my knees and took Five’s hand. “Let’s walk backward into the water, Five. With the flippers, it’s easier that way.”

“Meet back here at 1:00. Okay?” Husband called as we wobbled to the water.

I nodded and marched with Five, two backward birds, finned feet flapping.

“Be careful, Five,” I said, as I stepped into a pail-shaped hole, falling backward into the sand, a good twenty feet from the water.

“You okay mommy?” Five put his soft warm hand on my knee.

I wasn’t. I’d scraped my rear end on a plastic shovel sticking out of the hole and it stung. I wasn’t even in the salt water yet.

“I’m just being funny.”

“You are funny.” Five patted my cheek, throwing me an emotional Skittle.

I pushed against the slope of the beach, onto my knees and then used my hands to stand. I smiled and took Five’s hand again. We continued our backward march into the warm salty water.

The slight waves made me nervous. The sand would drop off surprisingly – I had read that – and I worried about falling again.

“Let’s just dive under, Mommy.” I continued snaking my body into deeper water, dimpled knees scraping sharp coral, as he rushed in and dove.

The water was warm and salty and my scrapes burned. I worried the snorkel wouldn’t work, that I would inhale water. I craned my head up at the packed lagoon, full of young families. None of them acted like they sensed the danger. I saw the huge rocks that stopped the ocean from roaring into this space. I also saw waves crashing on the other side of the rocks and wondered if they didn’t sometimes rush over, carrying unexpected things.

I looked up and didn’t see Five. I took the snorkel out of my mouth and was about to yell when I heard “Mommy! Over here! A sea turtle!”

I swam to Five, just behind me, and looked down.

He was floating over a big, slow creature. I gasped in the snorkel but swallowed no water. Would it bite? It swam away, slow and elegant. How surprising, I thought. Big, slow and elegant. I followed Five around the lagoon, trailing the turtle to a spot near the big rocks, where it found three friends. Was it a family?

Five swam effortlessly around the lagoon, seeing fish, pointing at them, darting after them, gesturing to me, so that I could see them too. My neck hurt because I swam flat on the water with my neck craned up, so I could watch Five.

I tried to picture myself as another kind of person and I pointed to some purple anemones on the big rocks between the lagoon and the sea. I liked the way I floated. I noticed my hands looked light and glisteny under water, like a mermaid.

Then on my shining left hand, I saw no wedding ring. My hand had shrunk –the water was cooler than I realized. I swam in a circle, over and over, looking down to the sand. In that position, my neck relaxed. I breathed through the snorkel and thought, It’s just a ring. It’s not the marriage. Then I saw light pouring down into the water, onto a flat platter of a rock. My ring on a platter. I swam to it and put it back on my finger, where it belonged. My throat tightened.

I turned around toward the beach and didn’t see Five. Now this is it. This is when it will happen, I thought. You do everything right, everything you can to keep it at bay, but you can’t stop the bad thing. What was in my throat threatened to rise up to my mouth. I ripped off my snorkel and went vertical, treading water. “Five!  Five! Five!”

“Mom!” Five waved his arm up at me, closer to shore, smiling with his mask on, snorkel dangling. “C’mere!”

I reapplied my gear and swam to Five. I couldn’t see how it would work to cry in a snorkel, so I didn’t.

When I reached him, both of our heads were below. I could only hear my own breath, thick and full. All these people and all I heard was myself, my breath through the snorkel and my own rhythmic pulse, like I was swimming in myself.

Five pointed down at a huge fish, yellow and black with a little bit of red. Five held still so it could swim up and around Five’s legs. Five was good at this.

The sun shone through the water on the fish. I was with my son, not on the sand, pretending to read a catalogue while scanning for disaster.

I was floating in warm, salty water with my baby.

Five looked down at his wrist, at the plastic waterproof watch we’d bought him for this vacation. He looked at me and pointed up then pointed back to the beach.

Five remembered what we’d told Husband, that we’d meet him at 1:00. Five was so young – he was five! – but in that moment I saw who he was and would be. On top of all the better, more important things about him, that he was loving and kind and smart and intuitive, Five was also capable, so capable of adventure. My heart swelled up in my chest rather than my throat.

My baby was going to be all right. I thought maybe I would be, too.


About the Author

Shelley Blanton-Stroud

Shelley is a college instructor and novelist with a cruel streak, having forced both her sons to make their own book clubs, which they did, from middle school through high school. Mean mom.

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