We always left half an hour early to walk six minutes to class. Day one she stood still and stared out at the sea as she does and we were hopelessly late— I learned fast to account for the pit stop. There was a pier with an old rope ladder tied to a plank that she'd look off of with a poker face that could've won her millions. For a while I’d look off with her, trying to see what she could see. Then I’d drift, in a way I was baffled she could resist, to see the dogs pulling a man faster than he’d like, the child crashing his kite into a businessman’s soup bowl, and the two men a generation apart paused in their daily chess game to argue about the type of plane flying overhead while pointing and waving their arms around for emphasis. And she’d still be staring at the sea.
It was because she was born at sea, and so to the sea she must return. At least that’s the way I’ve always seen it— it sounds too poetic to pass up as the answer. But nah, I bet it was because of some childhood tragedy that has left her longing for the ocean. Not something so bad that she’d avoid the sea altogether, but enough to keep her at a distance. Maybe she’d almost drowned once. Or it could’ve been a fear of sharks. Or a fear of riptides. A friend could’ve been caught in a riptide. She might’ve seen a documentary on ocean disasters. She might’ve been interviewed for one.
Maybe she swam when I wasn’t around; maybe this was the closest she ever got. Maybe she couldn’t swim, but had always wanted to. Maybe she stared out in remembrance of the days she spent growing up in a fishing village. Maybe she was a retired scuba diving champion choking back nostalgia for all she once had— were there scuba diving championships?
Maybe it was more of a science than a fascination. Like, if her parents were oceanographers or if she wanted to be an oceanographer (what was her major again?) and she was looking out to learn all she could. It could’ve been the boats rather than the sea. Maybe her father was in the Navy. Maybe she just liked boats. She must see the sea as calming—she could be transfixed by the line where blue meets blue.
She’d eyed the rope ladder before— maybe she was contemplating whether or not she wanted to climb down right then and go for a swim. When she looked back up, maybe she was considering a dive off the deck. She wasn’t known to explain herself. She was a behavioral anomaly; psychologists would undoubtedly dismiss her as an outlier.
I bet she was a mermaid in a past life. Her hair was long enough. I could see her drowning sailors who slighted her, who threatened her reign of the seas. I could see her swimming, league after league, chasing ships or following jellies or talking to whales or making friends out of submarines. She’d peer through the windows and wave; disbelief would have the crew reeling, and she’d keep herself afloat in her own melodious laughter. Maybe she was a sailor in a past life, slighted by a mermaid and was now scanning the horizon for a revenge she didn’t fully understand. Maybe she had just seen a mermaid once, and no one believed her. Maybe she was just trying to prove herself. Maybe she just wanted people to believe.
Maybe she lost herself in thought. Maybe she needed to stop and adjust her breathing. Maybe it had nothing to do with the sea. But I think it has everything to do with the sea. I think she looks out there and sees all the possibilities. I think she stands there contemplating the mysteries of the universe until her toes are dizzy. I think she plummets into existential crises on purpose. The ancients looked at the sea as chaos; they thought if they sailed far enough they’d fall off the edge of the earth into nothing or into the underworld— that must’ve been what she saw. And like those past discoverers, the temptation of that unknown fueled her. She could always leave. That’s what she’d say to herself, steady on the pier.
I never asked until the end.
“Hey, why do you stare at it?”
“Hm? Oh, I just like the sea.”