The waves rolling in off of the ocean are high and rough and Cassie knows that she will look like a stupid American for getting in it. But she can’t help herself.
She strips off her clothes. She is a little self-conscious, because there are people milling about, but no one else is in the water. They are wearing long pants, most of them, and shirts that reach their wrists. A woman, much younger than Cassie with thick and dark hair, wraps her arms around herself, rubbing small hands up and down her upper arms, her lacquered fingers sparkling.
It is over ninety degrees. Cassie is wearing shorts (although her winter skin looks wan and sickly in the Caribbean sun) and a t-shirt that she bought yesterday from a man on the street corner, just two houses down from their rented apartment. It is a coral color and says Puerto Rico in large script over the picture of a setting sun on a white and sandy beach. It was only four dollars, but Rick complained about it anyway.
“I’m not sure why you insist on buying crap,” he said, walking a half-step ahead of her as always.
“It was only $4,” she replied, her voice remaining neutral.
“You can tell.” He looked straight ahead, not back at her, and she knew that she had irritated him, yet again. They walked the rest of the way in silence, until they reached the barbecue place on Isla Verde, where he had three beers and then after he paid the bill, he laid his chin on her shoulder and rubbed his stubbly cheek against her neck, smoothing his way back into her good graces. It was his way of saying, I’m sorry.
But when she put the t-shirt on this morning over her serviceable one-piece - just the type you would expect of a thirty-eight year old bank clerk - he rolled his eyes and rolled over in bed, his back to her. He only grunted when she told him that she was going out for a walk to the beach.
She takes the t-shirt off and notices that the applique of the setting sun and beach and three palm trees is pulling away from the shirt itself, although this is the first time she has worn it. She will not tell Rick.
She leaves her clothes and sandals in a neat pile on the beach, with a frayed yellow towel draped over them, making sure they are at least several feet beyond the highest water marks on the sand. She starts toward the water and it comes towards her fast and in just a second or two she feels it at her toes and ankles and it is much, much warmer than she thought it might be. She looks back at the girl with the glittery nails and although her face is turned in Cassie’s direction, Cassie can’t be sure that she’s watching her because of the huge sunglasses that take up half of her face.
Cassie walks out a few more steps and here comes the water again, a rushing wave and it comes up to her knees as it rolls in. It is silky against her starved skin and when it moves back out, the undertow pulls against her feet, sucking the sand from around where she is standing and causing her to momentarily lose her balance.
She rights herself and walks out even further, where the water does the same thing, this time to her thighs, which are too big for her own comfort – they look lumpy under the thin fabric of the dress pants she wears to work every day - but which put up a mighty fight against the water as it pushes and pulls against her.
She goes out even further, so that her chest is submerged and only her shoulders are showing. The next wave crests larger and larger before it ever reaches her. It hits her with some force, almost like a soft slap against her head and face and it pushes her under. She is surprised, but not upset, because she can really swim. She learned to thirty years ago in her grandpa’s hog pond, with her brothers and cousins and neighbor kids, because it was the only place for them to swim and they did not mind the stink and squeal of the pigs, only that the water was cool and light down to where their feet were stuck in the mud of the bottom.
This water, this ocean water is blue and very, very salty, and it floods her surprised mouth, warm and almost sticky. She swallows a little of it and as it fills her belly and nose, she floats and is pushed by the water, a little harshly but not terribly so and she remembers
(the salt lick, for grandpa’s pigs, looked like a block of ice in the pasture, under the scrubby pine tree that was good for nothing but pig shade. It did melt, not like ice, but from the hogs that laid their thick and stupid mouths against it, whittling it away with their tongues over the course of a summer. Her older cousin, Pete, as rough and course as a hog’s bristly hide, dared Cassie to lay her own tongue against the block of salt, and so she did because she did not want to seem afraid and she was surprised at its smoothness and coolness even though the air was hot and heavy and she licked it several times then, not trying to prove anything to anyone, but because she liked the taste and feel of it on her mouth)
She floats back in with the wave. The same one that takes her under also brings her back and she is washed ashore like a lonely starfish and she lays there against the water soaked sand, her arms splayed at her sides, until she realizes that she must look like she is in trouble and opens her eyes, shading them with her hand against the terrific brightness of the winter sun and looks around swiftly.
There is no one. Not even the girl with the crossed arms and glittery fingers and huge sunglasses. For a moment, Cassie is taken aback, thinking that she has been washed up on a distant and unfamiliar shore (although all shores would be unfamiliar to her as someone who grew up in a sea-starved place with nowhere to swim but her grandpa’s squelchy hog pond), but then she sees her faded towel humped up from the clothes underneath it like a small burial mound.
She pushes herself off the sand. It is hard packed, like scar tissue from the constant beating it takes from the water. The tide is coming back in and she crawls backwards from it, quicker than she ever thought she could, not wanting to spoil the memory. She stands, just out of the water’s reach and trudges back towards the towel, the water from her hair and modest swimsuit making tracks through the sand stuck to her thighs.
She towels off, brushing some of the sand away from her hands and legs. A man moves down the sidewalk, pushing a small cart. He notices her and waves, a smooth motion, and begins pushing the cart towards her. She dresses hurriedly, suddenly nervous, pulling her shorts over her still wet suit and struggling into her t-shirt, but as he pulls closer, she sees that he is only wanting to sell her something. He wants nothing more than that.
He stops with a few feet of her. He is in a long-sleeved shirt and jeans and the sun is hot, but not hot enough for him.
“Ice cream,” he says, and the teeth that he has – he is missing two in the front – are so white that she says yes without really thinking.
He points to the three flavors pictured on the front of his cart – like so many people here he does not speak very much English at all (and why should he?) – and she chooses the coconut, although she doesn’t normally like coconut very much but she is on vacation and she knows that she must try new things. That is what Rick says, anytime she turns her nose up.
He scoops three overly large scoops out of the inside of something that looks like an orange sports cooler. His forearms are thin, but ropy with muscle that strains as he digs, and when the cup is full he hands it to her with a little flourish.
“Four dollars,” he says, holding up four fingers. Cassie hides her smile by dropping her head and reaching into the pocket of her shorts to pull out a $20 bill, crumpled and now a little damp. She hands it over to him and he counts back the change in Spanish. Catorce, quince, deis-e-seis.
He flashes a big smile and hands back her money. As soon as she takes it from him, he is off, pushing his cart with a singular purpose and ringing his small bell merrily even though there is no one else around.
Cassie eats the ice cream alone, sitting on the concrete wall that holds the beach in from the sidewalk and the road that people drive down to gawk at the massive water, and it is very cold and good and light in her mouth, not too terribly coconutty and not overly sweet like the ice cream she is used too. She uses her t-shirt to wipe at the corners of her mouth. The ice cream is certainly refreshing, and she is glad to be eating it, but even it cannot erase the gritty salt that lays heavily on her tongue.