That kind of drowning feeling. The air is all around your face, if you could only breathe it. Ilana said, —The first breath you take again always hurts.
She is an experienced drowner and I am just starting out.
—This wave, she says. Yelling, —Come, no, here by me.
She gets it right. Knows exactly where to stand for the wave to pick her up and throw her. Carry her. She can surf some right back to the shallows. I keep getting hurled below. See the Gisborne sun rippling through all that green. And I’m not sure whether I’ve opened my eyes underwater, or if I never had a chance to shut them.
Ilana grabs my arm but I duck when the wave comes.
Then she tells me about the first time, when she was seven. Her mum’s dinghy capsized and whenever she came up for breath she hit the hull instead. She says the sea was holding her down, not ready to let her go. And then it turned and it pushed her up, shot her face first, full of air. She’s the one who keeps pulling me up today.
When I look at her, I think: the ocean will never again be so in place. It shudders and slurps and turns—no two molecules will be together for long. No two molecules will find each other again. Or at least, it’s unlikely.
Then Ashi joins us.
Ashi doesn’t catch as many waves as Ilana, but she catches some. I keep surfacing to see them tumbling into the spray together. Sometimes, Ilana puts her hand on Ashi’s arm as they wade back out deep.
—What is it? Ilana says to me.
Water is furling itself on the horizon, creeping forward.
—Stay here, she says. —It’s a big one.
I’m sucked in before it’s even broken. This time I can hardly see. The ocean floor has been tossed into the wave—I blend with the sand and the seaweed and the dappled sun. Then I feel the break, and know I’m being pushed deeper.
For me it isn’t slowed down, like Ilana said, but sped up. A flash of light, greeny brown, something above the surface. The whir. The spin. The sea gasping, in and out, one giant lung that expands and compresses. When you’re beneath it, the ocean is the only thing that breathes.
My cries are tiny silent bubbles. Even they refuse to rise. I don’t know which way is up. When my arm finds air, it’s a fluke. The wave has lost its clutch on me. I am no closer to the shore, but way off to the right. Ashi and Ilana are in the distance, adjusting their bikinis and lining up for the next one. The water here is over my head. I keep sinking hopeful toes towards the bottom, but I don’t touch anything. That’s when I realise I’m not still, but drifting, being pulled. And I hear it, the sound of NOS, a ringing that suffocates even the waves. My vision tunnels away from me. I scream at Ilana, but my voice comes out weak and guttural. I try to paddle in their direction. My legs are like tree trunks, waterlogged, heavy, moving independent to me, or not at all. This is a rip, I tell myself. This is a rip. The one thing I remember about rips is that you’re not supposed to fight them. I go limp in the hands of the current.
The next wave is the one that saves me. It casts me back to sand. Exhaustion has made me a stranger in my own body. Everything I touch feels distant, as if someone else is touching it, and I am just watching them. I can hardly see. I can hardly stand. But I don’t want to collapse in front of the others.
—Going in? Ilana calls after me.
This would be the perfect time to cry. The rain would hide it.
When I get inside, I shot gin to get the taste of salt out of my mouth.
A third of our genes aren’t fixed. They get coded—in the womb, in life. You can pass them on, those genes. You can pass on your fuck-ups, your hang-ups, your heartbreaks. You can pass on trauma. You can pass on guilt.
I made that up. I don’t know if it was a third, or a quarter. I can’t remember where I read it. But I imagine it like the sea and its salt, infinite. Floating, mixing, rearranging. Churning up bits of the past, bringing them to the surface. Or pushing them deeper. But unlike the sea, this isn’t erosion. Taking from the shells and the stones and the glass bottles, breaking them down. Making sand. It’s the opposite. Our DNA pieces itself together, into something hard, into another layer, a more solid ocean floor.