I’ll never know what it felt like to stand there. Something was happening in the pit of my stomach, but I couldn’t call it emotion then, and I am hesitant to call it emotion now.
Quiet. It really didn’t suit him. Loud, carefree – he had always drawn the conversations and attention towards himself. Even lying in the casket as he was, he still commanded everyone’s attention. But it was different. Not peaceful necessarily. It was just…quiet.
The priest circled around the casket a few times, chanted some phrases in Greek that I should have been able to understand but couldn’t. He swung the censor around the room and incense stretched out towards the crowded pews. I was told afterwards that my grandfather had played an important role in the church, but in all my years I had never seen him near one. Just as the quiet was wrong, so too was the location.
Maybe this is why I still struggle to describe how I felt that day. The quiet was wrong. The place was wrong. I was there, but was “there” even real? Could my grandfather have ever been so quiet, so near a church? No. And so, surely I wasn’t there, and any emotions that came up had to be less than imaginary. That is why, as hard as I try, I cannot know what I was feeling.
Family members came up to me afterwards and said that I spoke well. I must have spoken at the funeral then. I hadn’t realized. But I do remember watching others stand in front of the congregation and speaking.
First, my cousin, on behalf of her parents. Her years teaching in front of a classroom allowing her to stand with composure.
My uncle improvised as always, though the tears were unusual.
Father then. His mouth opened, then closed. Again. Then he gestured to my brothers and I. The three of us did our best to share with the crowd the life of our grandfather. We needed more than the five minutes we had.
Last was my grandmother.
“He would be so happy,” she said between tears, “to see you all here. He was such a kind and joyful man and touched the lives of so many people.” I glanced behind me. The pews were full, and the entranceway was packed with people. Such a sight would normally petrify me, but today, unlike everything else, it felt right. My grandfather would not go without a crowd to send him on his way.
He was buried in a Protestant cemetery. There weren’t enough Greeks this far east on Long Island to warrant a burial site of our own. It was just as well. Living Greeks were frustrating to handle in large groups, and I suspected that departed Greeks would have even more time to complain and yell at the person in the next grave over. A less restful group of people wasn’t known to me.
My grandmother pulled me and the rest of my cousins to her. “Your grandfather would be so proud of you. A doctor, an engineer, three aspiring lawyers, and Kelly, Nella and Theo.” It didn’t matter that I had no intention of going to law school. I just nodded and hugged her when it was my turn.
“If you need anything,” my oldest cousins said, “let us know. It’s almost summer, and we’ll all be around if you need anything.”
She hugged us all again. “I know.” Then she told us it was time to go.
We all marched to our cars and drove back to my grandmother’s house. Most of the people who came to the funeral had left, leaving just my cousins, their parents, my grandmother and my immediate family. When we arrived, there were trays of food that had to be eaten. There were pyramids of spanakopita, mounds of pastitsio, salad, shrimp, and even chicken fingers and fries for the kids (which, at 21 years old, I felt no shame in considering myself one). We laughed with each other, told stories, admonished my dad for his habit of eating raw fish whole (minus the bones, usually), and generally had fun. My grandfather would have been thrilled to see us smiling and laughing even though he couldn’t join us. He had always made sure we were all happy, and it would have horrified him if we had mourned him instead of spending the day laughing. Even so, without him there to crack jokes, it was quieter than usual.
It should have been louder. Though I generally prefer the quiet, in this case it caused me discomfort. After a few hours, I found myself stepping outside for a moment. The house was on a canal. My dad kept his boat there, and I would launch my paddleboard from there. My paddleboard was tied to the bulkhead. I grabbed an oar, put on my red life jacket without buckling it, stepped on my paddleboard, and paddled out from the canal.
Admittedly, this wasn’t my best idea, though it may not have been an idea but an instinct. The roaring wind dragged clouds across the darkening sky. As for my attire, my church clothes were not conducive to paddling, and it was hard to keep my dress-shoe clad feet from slipping on the board. Heels had certainly been a mistake. I undid the top button of my shirt to allow myself to breathe a bit more. All in all, it was a small comfort.
As I paddled away from the house, the noise of the gathering grew different. It was still quiet, but this was the kind of quiet that I reveled in, away from other people and surrounded only by the waves and my own thoughts. The wind rushed past me and tossed my shoulder length pink hair around my face and my tie over my shoulder. It was blowing hard, and if anyone else had asked if they could take the paddleboard out, I would have said that it was too dangerous. But I had paddled for years, and I knew that even dressed the way I was the wind wouldn’t trouble me too much.
The canal opened up to a creek, and the houses on either side were replaced by pockets of cordgrass rising from the sea floor. Osprey flew overhead. One tried to swoop into the water but was held in place by the wind. Great blue herons stalked the shore, peering intently into the water.
This was what quiet was supposed to sound like.
At my grandmother’s house, exhausting as it was, the noise was necessary. It was the noise of happiness, of good food, of love, of wholeness. To have that noise suddenly change was to have the entire world change. It would never quite be the same at the house. But out here, on a Sunday evening as the sun was going down, the lack of noise was right. The occasional guffaw of a seagull, the gentle lapping of the waves, the woosh of the wind, and the…the short cry followed by splashing?
That wasn’t right.
Maybe it was years of being a lifeguard, or maybe it was years of knowing exactly what sounds usually inhabited the creek at every time of day every day of the week, but I immediately turned toward the sound.
A yellow kayak floated maybe fifty feet from where I was paddling. It had been hidden behind some particularly tall cordgrass, probably an invasive called phragmites, so I had not seen it when I left the canal. Almost five feet from it, two arms poked out of the water, slapping at the surface. As I watched, the kayak drifted swiftly away from the arms.
I drove my paddle into the water and pushed with all my might. My left foot slipped a little, but I quickly regained my balance. The wind tried to steer me to the right with little success. I knew the wind, and I kept my paddle on the right so that every stroke brought me forward and countered its push. Thankfully it didn’t shove me away from the person in the water.
They kept splashing, though with less vigor with each subsequent splash. If they noticed me, I had no idea. I just hoped they held on for a moment more.
Each stroke of the paddle didn’t take me far enough. Why had I chosen such a slow vessel? Some silly notion of peacefulness I’m sure.
Finally, with one last shove with my paddle, I sped alongside the figure. Dropping to my knees, I reached out for his hands. My left hand missed but my right grabbed hold of their arm. With a tremendous effort in keeping the paddleboard from tipping me into the water, I pulled the person onto the board. I felt myself beginning to fall, and let it happen. I splashed into the water on the opposite side of the board. My hand still reached over the board and held the other person. I pulled them a little more so that their head rested on the board. To my relief, they were breathing.
There was nothing to be done while they regained their strength. The time to admonish them for being out in unfavorable weather and for not wearing a life jacket would come when they could breathe without gasping and spluttering water everywhere and were more focused. For now, I took off my heels, placed them on the board, and proceeded to kick toward the shore where the kayak now lay. It wasn’t too far. With the wind pushing us there and the board keeping us afloat (as well as my lifejacket), the journey was a leisurely one. I continued to glance around us to make sure that we didn’t stray off course, but I wasn’t too concerned. The person I saved continued to breathe heavily, their head laying on the board.
Near shore, I gingerly let my feet drop and felt mud. I walked us towards the sand, pushing my paddleboard unceremoniously next to the kayak, and dragging the person onto the sand. I moved some larger rocks away with my foot before laying the person down on their back.
Out of danger and out of the water, I looked down to see who I had pulled to shore for the first time.
They had short, straight, black hair that came to a small point above their forehead, like earth being held together by tree roots while the sand beneath it has been eroded away. A thin beard outlined their already sharp face. Water glistened on their dark brown skin. Unlike most kayakers, this individual wore a short sleeved collared shirt and khaki pants. On their wrist they wore a leather strapped watch. A quick glance told me that it was no longer functional.
With a few short blinks, the two eyes opened. They were brown. All of my family had brown eyes, but not like these. I tried to look away and needed to pinch myself in order to do so. I had been similarly drawn to eyes before. The blue eyes of my ex still came to mind when I was stressed or particularly upset, though my panic attacks had lessened.
I felt something stir within me that had felt too similar to the feeling that I experienced when I had used to look into those blue eyes before they grew cold. Despite the difficulty, I knew averting my gaze was the only real option.
“Are you alright?” I asked, when their breathing seemed to be near normal.
They nodded once, coughed once, then nodded again. Even with the wind blowing their hair remained in a point. “I t-think so…yeah. Man, I’m tired.” They placed their hands on either side of them and pushed up. With a sharp gasp, they managed to move themself into a sitting position.
I waited for a few moments so that they could continue to catch their breath. My fingers fiddled with the sand by my knees.
Their gaze turned to me, and I kept my eyes from gazing back into their brown eyes.
“You saved me, didn’t you?” They asked.
Obviously, I thought. But instead I just nodded.
“Thank you. I’m Asad by the way. He/him pronouns.” He reached out his hand.
I grabbed his hand with my own and shared my name, as well as my pronouns. Despite being covered in sand and having been in submerged in the cold Spring water, Asad’s hand felt warm. It surrounded my hand and raised and lowered it with energy he shouldn’t have after having almost drowned.
“It’s lucky you were around to save me. It doesn’t look like anyone else is out today. I wonder why not,” he said, gazing out at the empty creek.
There was no need to follow his gaze. “Well,” I responded, “the wind is a bit strong today.”
“No kidding!” He exclaimed. “It didn’t look too bad when I was getting the kayak into the water, but once I started paddling it was impossible to move. One moment I was in the kayak, and the next I was in the water!”
Obviously, I thought again. Clearly, Asad was not experienced on the water.
“I was in the navy, but we were always on large ships closer to the ocean, not kayaks in a small bay like this.”
“Creek,” I corrected instinctively. I knew I was being rude, but I was frustrated. I had just come from a funeral and had rescued a beautiful idiot from drowning. Not only did I want to leave him and this situation, but I was annoyed that he had been kayaking in this wind in the first place, which he shouldn’t have been, especially if he was, as I suspected, not from around here and unfamiliar with the nuances of our creek. And yet he decided to paddle despite the danger and almost got himself killed.
“Not that I’m upset that you also decided to go paddling, because I’m not, but I am curious why you’re on the water if you think the weather is less than ideal? And…I’m not quite sure dress clothes are the best for paddling.” I felt his eyes on me and looked intently at the sand.
“I…well…we should really get you back to where you’re staying.”
The moment of silence and the even more intense feeling of his eyes on me told me that I was being judged. I chanced a quick glance at his chin. Simultaneously I wanted him to disappear and wanted to peek a little higher at his eyes once more. That would have been dangerous. I tried to imagine the blue eyes of my ex, showing myself what those brown eyes would become if I gave them a chance. I felt better when he responded, surprise and a tinge of hurt in his voice.
“I’m that house over there. My uncle lives there. I’m just visiting”
Asad got back in his kayak which I attached to my paddleboard with the strap that I would use to tie my ankle to the board. Slowly, we made our way through the wind to the house he had indicated. I made sure that he got back up to land and tied his kayak to the pier that jutted out into the creek.
As I turned to go, Asad raised his hand in farewell. “Thank you again!” He said. “I really can’t thank you enough for saving me. Maybe I’ll see you around the creek sometime?”
“Yeah, maybe.” Then I was gone.
I didn’t go back to my grandmother’s house. Instead, I went to the beach near the channel where the creek opened up into the bay. The sun had almost completely sunk when I reached the shore, and I watched it finish its arc from the top of a small sand dune.
For a while, I remained there. The sky was mostly clear, and I could see a multitude of stars. There were always more stars out here than there were at home. The farther west you went, the more light pollution there was on account of the city. Here, the sky was lit not by skyscrapers and streetlights, but by the stars themselves.
I was glad that Asad was safe. Even as inexperienced and foolish as he was in his decision to paddle in winds that were beyond his ability, it scared me to think what would have happened if I hadn’t decided to leave the gathering at my grandmother’s house. Just remembering the feeling of his hand around mine gave me goosebumps. Or was that the wind?
His eyes swam into my imagination. For a moment, I allowed them to stay, but then I felt myself starting to panic and quickly pushed them back out of my mind. Brown eyes weren’t supposed to be this scary. Only blue eyes, her blue eyes, were horrifying. I hadn’t pursued a crush since before she and I had started to date. In the three years since we had broken up, I had only had a few crushes.
The first I had acted on. It was a reminder that my life shouldn’t be shared in a romantic way. Each crush after that I had allowed to fade.
I’d have to wait this one out too.
I managed to get back into the house and change out of my sandy clothes without anyone seeing. They were confused why I suddenly sported jeans and a skirt and a t-shirt instead of my dress clothes, but they were less confused than they would have been if I had entered the house trailing mud. Despite our attempts to enjoy the occasion and each other’s company, everyone was a little out of sorts and willing to accept that I had stepped out for some air.
We parted ways, returning to our homes after hugging my grandmother and promising to visit her after classes ended.
Through every apocalypse, schoolwork continues to be assigned.
I packed my things, ready to return to school, but then was told to remain home. Though other nations had been experiencing its effects for months, the US couldn’t have been less prepared for Covid-19, a virulent virus. I unpacked.
Being at home while studying was both a challenge and a blessing. Studying became a little more difficult. Most of my notebooks remained in my dorm room at school, and classroom discussions lost some of their impact when they were conducted via the internet. But I was able to breathe easier at home. Junior year had been a nightmare. I had been so excited to return to my friends after spending the summer before in Virginia. However, when I finally made it back to campus, it quickly became apparent that they had decided to abandon me in favor of creating a smaller, more exclusive friend group. I spent that year hiding in my room, staring at my wall, wishing I had someone, anyone, who would knock on my door and ask me to go for a walk.
Being forced to complete the rest of the year at home was rejuvenating. I could focus on my studies, chat with professors over the phone, and forget how I had been hurt that year.
With the extra time now available to me, I went on hikes on the local trail. Early on during the pandemic, no one really knew about this one particular section of the trail. I had it largely to myself. Alone, I could revel in the shade of the trees, rejoice in the humming of the bees, and lose myself in the songs of the birds and the gently swaying trees.
When I wasn’t hiking, I was reading. Some of the books I had never read before, like Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, but other times I would reread stories that I hadn’t revisited in years, like The Ranger’s Apprentice series by John Flanagan, or Eragon by Christopher Paolini. I began to reread Harry Potter, but then stopped as Rowling began to rant about how transgender people were wrong somehow. I picked up the books again after discovering a podcast about them that embraced differences across gender in a way that I didn’t believe Rowling could.
I also planted my own garden. My dad had wanted to tear up a patch of lawn that had been overgrown with an invasive species of grass. Instead of replacing the area with sod, I convinced him to allow me to make a new garden, and soon I had planted potatoes, seeds I had found on a yew tree, blueberry branches, cardinal flowers, and even a small redwood sapling that I had found abandoned in a garden that once belonged to an ambassador to a different country.
All of these things kept me occupied. Lost in my garden and in the pages of whatever book I happened to be reading, I forgot all about Asad until I heard his voice calling my name two months later.
The rest of my family had taken the boat to the beach, as was usual. And as was my custom since junior high, I declined the offer to ride with them, and instead took my paddle board. I pulled it up onto the sand so it wouldn’t float away in the rising tide, and then lay my towel next to the chairs my parents, grandmother, uncles, aunts and cousins had set up. While they spoke to each other, I pulled out the latest book I had been reading – Wisdom Sits in Places, by Keith Basso – and did my best to focus on the printed letters rather than the voices around me.
When my name was called the first time, I waved my hand but continued to stare into my book. After the second time, I looked up to respond to who I would assume to be a member of my family, only to see Asad walking over, his white, unbuttoned shirt flailing behind him in the wind. He stopped a few feet away from me, beaming widely.
“Oh, hi, umm…”
“Asad,” he said. “It’s so good to see you again. Thank you again for saving my life.”
The rest of my family had been watching with mild interest as he walked over, and suddenly turned to look at me as he said that.
“Umm,’ I replied, “yeah, no…no problem.” I wanted to say something else – what, I had no idea – but before I could manage to articulate anything, he turned to my family and began to tell them how I had showed up at the last minute and scooped him out of the water to bring him to safety. My cheeks glowed scarlet as he spoke.
“Why didn’t you tell us you had rescued someone?” asked one of my younger cousins.
“Yeah, you’re a hero!”
“Umm…” I mumbled, but none of them seemed to notice.
For the next half hour, Asad spoke with my family, mostly responding to questions fielded by my grandmother. He had returned to visit his uncle for the duration of the summer. He had had a job lined up, but the company had closed due to Covid, and he was left stuck in Poughkeepsie. Living with his uncle on the water would allow him to at least spend time outdoors. He had one sibling who was stuck on an aircraft carrier off the coast of Senegal. He too had been in the navy for four years, and now was majoring in international studies at Vassar. As he spoke, his brown eyes glinted, reflecting the sun just as well as any school projector. I did my best to avoid looking at them.
When the time came, he said his farewells and turned to leave. I released a breath, then inhaled sharply again as he turned around.
“My uncle is planning on barbequing tonight. You’re welcome to come by. Of course, it’s not nearly enough to thank you for saving me, but it’s a start.” He glanced around at the rest of my family before looking directly at me. I silently prayed for my grandmother to decline the invitation.
“That would be lovely!”
Asad left and was soon followed by my family. I remained on the beach, digging my nails into the sand, moving my hair out of my eyes as it whipped around my head. A fiddler crab walked over my foot. It’s pointy legs tickled as it went. Two piping plovers ran around me in wide circles, foraging along the shore.
All the while, I tried to keep my breathing steady, and avoid thinking about brown eyes, lest they become blue.
I kept my eyes open. Hers were right there, staring at mine. Blue, but not like the waters that I loved to swim in, nor like the sky that I liked to climb mountains to reach. Nor were they blue like the glacier that I had learned once covered most of Long Island. They weren’t the blue of a new pair of jeans, or of a tear as it fell onto the page of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
They were a blue that I could only attribute to her. Once I was drawn to them. Now, they commanded me to stay.
“Are you okay?”
I didn’t answer. I blinked a few times, my body shook. Was I cold? Maybe I should put on a shirt.
“You can say no.”
I didn’t answer. My lips tried to. They tried to form the word. It was only too letters. But they trembled slightly as her lips pressed into them.
“We don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”
I didn’t answer. Her hands had been on me before. They were still on me, but not how they normally were.
I didn’t answer. And if I did, I don’t think she would have heard me.
“That was nice.”
I didn’t answer.
Her eyes were open. They looked at me. But they didn’t see me. They didn’t see me tremble. They didn’t see my arms wrap tightly around my own body. They didn’t see everything my eyes betrayed. They didn’t see that I didn’t want to be there, that I couldn’t do what she wanted me to do, even as she did it.
Her eyes closed as she kissed me. For a brief moment I relaxed. The eyes were closed.
Then they opened.
They were brown.
I woke up, trembling the way I had when she used to be there with me.
By the time I got back to my grandmother’s house, I had just enough time to shower, tie my hair into a single ponytail, and put on jeans and a light jacket. Nothing too fancy. That was probably for the best. I had been contemplating doing an elaborate braid, but my dad knocked on the bathroom door and told me to get out or we’d be late. We all piled into the boat and headed out of the canal and across the creek to Asad’s uncle’s house.
It was the first time I had ever really noticed the small house. The single-story building nestled in the trees along the edge of the creek was unassuming. It’s walls were painted a pale yellow, and small flower boxes held an assortment of purple and red flowers.
Asad stood next to a grill with a man who must be his uncle. As we pulled alongside the bulkhead, Asad waved and walked over. He wore dark pants and a forest green collared shirt. Though I tried to keep the thought from forming in my mind, I couldn’t help but notice how cute he looked.
“Hello!” he exclaimed, smiling brightly, “glad you could make it!”
He helped us tie the boat to the bulkhead. Once we were on shore, Asad walked us towards the grill. His uncle smiled and waved at us all. He too had dark brown eyes, though his skin was slightly lighter than his nephew’s, and no beard adorned his face. Curly hair rambled down well past his shoulders.
“My uncle, Ridwan.”
“It’s so nice to meet you all,” Ridwan said after Asad had introduced us all. He turned his gaze to me, and I lowered my eyes. “Asad has told me all about how you rescued him from the water of course. We can’t thank you enough. I’m quite fond of my nephew,” he pulled Asad close and ruffled his hair.
I mumbled in acknowledgement and pulled my jacket a little tighter around me.
With an excited, “Come, come!” Ridwan led as all to a table that had been set out on the lawn while Asad watched the grill, flipping burgers and vegetables, until they were charred through. After the first round of vegetables had finished cooking, he grabbed some corn lying on a plate next to the grill and placed a few ears next to the burgers.
“Isn’t that right?”
With a start I glanced around. Ridwan was looking expectantly at me. My family members were also looking at me, waiting for me to answer.
“Um, I…sorry, I dozed off for a moment.”
“No worries! I was just saying…”
But what he had been saying, I wouldn’t find out. Asad swooped in as if from nowhere carrying trays laden with food. “Here you are,” he said, grabbing an ear of corn with tongs and dropping it on my plate, beaming as he did so.
“Thanks,” I said, avoiding looking at his eyes. The corners of his mouth may have twitched, but looking at the corn now on my plate, I couldn’t be certain.
The evening went on with laughter and a plethora of food. The corn and vegetables were good, though I didn’t try the hamburgers as they were all beef. My older brother and uncle seemed to enjoy them, guzzling down at least three each. Even my grandmother, who liked to claim she no longer had an appetite for heavy meats, had at least two. Her vegetables lay untouched on her plate.
Ridwan entertained us all with stories about his family. He had grown up in Hama, Syria with his parents and Asad’s father. They left after their parents had been killed by Syrian troops in 1982. “Thankfully,” said Ridwan, “we managed to get out and come here. We worked in the city for a while, but eventually I was able to make enough money to come out to Southold and live on the water. It’s beautiful here. I can fish whenever I want!”
Thus began a long conversation between Ridwan and my father about fishing.
At intervals, Asad would join in the conversations. “We used to take smaller boats out of naval bases and go fishing when we weren’t patrolling,” he told us. “I remember, one time we were about three miles out with our fishing lines, and a crewmate of mine spotted a shadow in the water. We all thought it was a shark, but it ended up being a whale! Imagine that!”
Everyone let out a small “woah.”
“Have you ever seen a whale before?” Asked one of my cousins.
“No,” Asad replied. “I grew up in Louisiana – my father moved there from New York – and I never went on the water until I got into the navy. That whale was so amazing. The other crewmembers told me it was a fin whale. I’ll never forget seeing it swimming towards us.”
“Whales are amazing. I saw one in the bay out here once,” said my grandmother, gesturing to the water.
Ridwan gasped. “No, really?”
She nodded. “Oh yes. My husband and I were fishing, going for porgies, you know, and a whale came up to the surface right next to us. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“We’ve gone on a few whale watching expeditions,” added my dad. “We went to Prince Edward Island in Canada, and Maine. What kind of whales did we see?” he turned and looked at me.
“Umm…right. Atlantic right whales. I think.”
My dad patted my arm energetically. “Yeah, that was it. The right whale. What an amazing experience.”
“Oh I’m sure…”
In what must have seemed like no time at all to my family, but took ages for me, it was time to go. Ridwan had wrapped some of the deserts and given them to us. We all thanked him and Asad for their hospitality and headed back toward the boat. Asad walked beside me.
“Hey,” I heard him say. “I just wanted to–“
“Thank you so much for inviting us for dinner. It was really generous of you.” I interjected. He nodded, and opened his mouth to say something, but I jumped in the boat. He waved, I think.
Five minutes later we had returned to my grandmother’s house. It was pitch-black out. While the others filed inside, I stole over to the pear trees in the center of the lawn and climbed up one of them. The tree wasn’t too tall, only about twenty feet.
I stayed there for a few minutes. The tree’s branches hid most of the stars, but a few managed to peak through the leaves. I stared at them, trying to focus on their brightness, and the sound of the wind around me, and the thump of a pear as it fell from it’s branch, back to the ground. The thought that I had been struggling against all evening swam to the fore of my mind, though I tried my best to push it down. Once, I had the same thought about a different individual, and she had turned out to be the worst memory I had. I tried to remind myself of how much pain I had felt knowing her, thinking that the pain would prevent the voice in my head from giving this new thought any power.
Asad had looked cute tonight.
It’s not that I can’t remember what I felt as we left the barbeque and got back to my grandmother’s house. I do. Remember what I felt, I mean. Along with the realization that Asad was cute, maybe even pretty, came my absolute shame at the way I had treated him.
He had met me when I saved him from drowning. He must have felt scared, thinking that no one was coming. It had been windy, I think. Far too windy for most people to be out that evening. How long had he struggled against the wind, trying in vain to move forward through a force that kept tossing him back? Afterwards he had explained that he wasn’t used to kayaking. Even for an experienced paddleboarder like myself the wind could be fatal. What must it have been like for Asad?
And then I had come. Asad must have been confused when he ended up on the shore. Relieved? He was probably too tired to be relieved at first. We had lain on the shore for a while. When he started talking, he seemed grateful. And not only then, but every time after that.
And I had done my utmost to stay away from him. I knew why of course, and I knew why I would have to continue keeping my distance, however rude it seemed. No matter how kind he was, no matter how much I wanted to believe he was good, no matter how much I wanted him to be able to look at him and not be afraid, I knew I always would be.
Because she had made me scared.
When she had left for college, I didn’t know what to do. She seemed so excited. Every time we spoke, I heard all about what classes she would take, what she hoped her roommate would be like, and anything else that she could think of. We never talked about my plans for the coming year, though as I was going into twelfth grade, I assumed that was fine. The fact that she was starting college was a much bigger deal.
And then she went.
The days were different. We used to meet before classes and hang out in the hallway. Now, I sat on the floor reading a book. At lunch I sat with our old friend group. When I first met her, we had all had lunch together, but when we started dating that had changed. Sometimes we ate with them. Most of the time though, we found our own table outside, or went into the art room. Sitting with our old friends again felt strange. After lunch, I walked to class chatting with them.
As I sat on my bed after finishing my stats homework for the night, I decided to text her. Nothing too crazy. I just told her about my day: how classes went and how lunch was really fun. I also told her that I missed her, and that I hoped college was going well.
When I turned on my phone the next morning, there were no new messages.
She must be busy with classes, I thought. College, surely, was challenging.
But when I texted her again, wishing her a good night, there was still no response. Nor was there a response the next night. Or the next.
Finally, after a week, worrying that maybe something had gone wrong, that I had bothered her, perhaps, I decided to leave her be. That night, I went to bed without texting her, hoping that she was okay.
The next morning, I had several new messages.
Why didn’t you text me last night?
You could have said goodnight.
It’s not like you’re too busy.
Or doing anything that could possibly distract you from wishing your GIRLFRIEND goodnight.
Text me tonight.
That night, I texted her. The next night as well. And the night after that. And every night for two weeks. But she didn’t respond to those texts. She only responded on the second night when I failed to send her a goodnight text.
And so the cycle went.
When she told me that she was coming back home to visit, I thought maybe we would finally be able to talk again. She was planning on visiting the high school. Things would go back to the way they were before she left. That night, I stayed up late, trying to figure out what I should wear. A blue vest? No, it was too dark. Maybe green? That wasn’t much better. Finally, I settled on a bright orange flannel, and went to bed.
My heart started to beat quickly when she walked up the path to the front door of the school. She looked no different than she had before she graduated, though she appeared different. Had she gotten her hair cut? I wasn’t sure.
She noticed me and walked over.
“Hey,” I said. Never having been one to initiate hugs, I waited for her to extend her arms. She didn’t. “How are you? It’s so good to see you again. I missed you.”
She glanced around as she responded, calling out to friends who were walking by. “I’m doing fine…Hey Lorrie! Yeah we’ll catch up later…You know, just back to visit the school. College has been great…Mr. Osborn! So good to see you!” She turned back to me. “Hey, do you know if Miss. Cole is here yet? I’d love to see how she’s doing.”
She didn’t tell me she was visiting for her winter break. I was in the orchestra classroom, tuning my bass for the winter concert when she walked in. She walked around the room, greeting people with hugs, telling them that she was so excited to see them perform, and that they would be amazing. She walked over to me.
“Hey,” I said, no longer waiting for the hug I had learned not to expect. Just like how I had learned not to expect her to text goodnight.
“It’s good to be back. Wish I was playing though. Too bad Mr. Krans is retiring this year. Anyway, gotta go find my seat!” She ran from the room.
As I stood on the stage during the concert, waiting for the conductor to bring his baton up to start the song, I couldn’t help but begin to tap my foot on the floor. I couldn’t see the audience. Spotlights focused on me. Had they always been that hot?
Had they always been that shade of blue?
After the concert, I walked into the entrance hall. Parents milled about, congratulating their children, presenting them with flowers. Friends hugged each other as best they could while balancing all sorts of instruments.
She walked around, hugging and congratulating her friends. When she got to me, she said, “what a great concert. It was so much fun being able to watch.”
“Hey,” I said, unsure of what had come over me. I held my bass with both hands, leaning against it ever so slightly. “I was just wondering…can we…I don’t know…talk?”
She smiled. She was also looking over my shoulder. “Hey!” she called. “Tarra, is that you?” She looked back at me, her blue eyes staring directly into mine. “Nice talking with you! Remember to text me goodnight, okay?”
I nodded, and she ran off to embrace Tarra, asking her friend how she had been.
My bass slipped, falling onto the floor with a crash. Mr. Krans said it didn’t look like it had suffered any serious damage, but I never thought it sounded quite the same.
What was one more tear drop to the ocean? Did the water rise? Did the eel swimming under my paddleboard notice that one drop of water was not quite like the rest?
I don’t think I’ll ever know.
When I told my parents that I was going paddling, they didn’t say anything. Thankfully it was normal for me to take my paddleboard out after dinner, and in the morning. Whenever I had a chance really. As the sun began to sink, illuminating the undersides of the clouds with orange and pink rays of light, I rounded the corner of the canal and headed out into the creek.
Not much stirred at this time. Or maybe it just seemed that way. The local swan and her hatchlings swam through the switchgrass and began to trundle up a muddy peninsula. Some piping plovers zipped along the beach near the entrance to the bay. A turtle even poked its head up for a moment, lounging at the surface until I paddled too close to it. But the swan, plovers, and turtle were all silent, as if they were holding vigil over the creek. It was always quiet at this time of day. It almost made me wonder if different amounts of sunlight coming to the earth at different angles impacted how sound traveled. Maybe the setting sun just wasn’t as conducive to sound as the noon sun.
After I had reached the beach, I grabbed my paddleboard and dragged it up onto the sand. No one was on the beach. No one usually was at this time. A few boaters were speeding off to their moorings, and one kayaker was making their way along the coast, probably aiming for the next creek, but no one else was out.
Without really knowing why, I stepped into the water.
I took a few more steps. At some point the water was up to my knees. Soon after that I could no longer stand. My arms began to move, pulling on the water, dragging me forward. My legs had started to kick. The left was a bit awkward, as it always was, but the right struck out at the water, pushing it even further behind me.
A jellyfish stung me, and I stopped swimming. “Ouch!” I almost said, as a wave shoved me away from the jellyfish and caused me to choke. As I coughed, I looked up at the sky and realized that I could no longer see it.
There were no stars. The moon was hidden from view. Clouds must have been accumulating in the sky. The sun was completely gone. And the land…there were pinpricks of light where buildings dotted the shore, but was that the shoreline that I had come from? There were some dark patches where there were beaches instead of houses, but I couldn’t tell which dark patch was mine.
The night suddenly seemed loud. The wind whistled above, and the waves crashed all around me. With every movement of my arms, droplets of water flew into the air and fell into the bay again. Each water droplet seemed a waterfall. My heart thundered in my chest.
Turning at random to a light in the distance, I resumed swimming. I fell into a breaststroke so as to keep my head above the water.
Why wasn’t the light getting any closer?
Was it getting even darker?
Make sure to breathe…
Where…where was the light?
My arms felt heavy. Though I pulled on the water as hard as I could, I felt like I was no longer moving. Occasionally, I noticed that my legs weren’t kicking, and I would force them to continue, not noticing them stopping only moments later, dragging me even more.
I rose as a wave passed by, and then fell as it departed. My body fell further than it should have, and my face went underwater. I was underwater. I gasped, and immediately water flooded my mouth. I tried to cough, tried to get the water out and go back to the surface. But my arms weren’t moving.
It felt like I was being grabbed. Was that what drowning felt like? A literal weight dragging you deeper and deeper?
But I wasn’t going deeper. I was…not underwater? When I coughed, some sort of sound came out of my mouth. I could hear it. I felt air. It rushed into my lungs as I gasped. Something hard was pressing against my head. Something was there. Was it holding me? I wasn’t holding it.
Something else, softer this time, was thrust under my arms. I leaned against it, using the weight of my body rather than my arms to hold onto it.
“Hey, you’re okay. Just hang in there for a minute. We’re almost there.”
I didn’t think I had said anything out loud. But no, that wasn’t me. That was…that was…
Sand tickled my feet. The scraping of a kayak against rocks came to my right.
“Here,” said the voice. A hand grabbed mine and helped me to my feet. I stumbled, but the other person held me, and together, we walked onto the shore.
By this point, I was breathing easier. A few feet from the shore we dropped to the ground, and I lay on my back. Though still exhausted, I knew I was safe, and I knew who had saved me.
“Don’t mention it.” He didn’t press on. He just sat there, staring out at the dark water. How on earth had he found me? Had he been the kayaker I spotted earlier? Even if he was, he couldn’t have recognized me from that distance. Somehow, he had been out on the water and found me, and I would just have to be grateful.
After a few minutes I managed to sit up. “Thanks,” I said again.
Asad nodded. “Can you make it back to your grandmother’s house?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I can…hey, where are you going?”
Asad had started walking towards his kayak. He grabbed his life jacket and put it on. “Back home. You’re okay, so I figured I’d go.” He finished buckling his lifejacket and moved to step into the kayak.
In one reality, I stood on the beach watching him go. He disappeared into the darkness. His uncle would tell me the next day that he went back to Poughkeepsie. I never saw him again.
If I hadn’t spoken, maybe that would have happened. Instead, he turned around when I said, “Asad…I’m sorry.”
He looked confused. His eyes scrunched up, one eyebrow slightly raised. His short beard moved as his mouth formed a frown. “You don’t have to apologize for almost drowning. It happens. I know.” He started to turn again but I stopped him.
“That’s not why I’m sorry,” I fought to keep my tears back. I didn’t know if Asad could even see my eyes in the darkness. What did he see when he looked at them? Were they…alright? Either way, he didn’t look at my face, but instead stared out at the water, watching the moon rays being caught by the waves. “I’m sorry because…I mean...I’ve been a jerk. You’ve been kind. You invited me to dinner. You asked me questions. You tried to thank me for saving you. And I was…you deserved to be acknowledged at the very least, and I couldn’t even do that.”
“It’s fine.” He looked as if he were thinking about turning again, but he didn’t.
“No,” I started to cry, almost laughing. “No, it’s not. Asad…I understand if you don’t want to hear it, if you want to just go home and never think about it…But I really…thank you. For saving me.”
He looked up. The moon was brighter than I had thought. I could see his eyes. His dark brown irises were almost black. For a moment I thought I saw a star reflected in his right pupil before it suddenly disappeared. For a moment I felt cold. I shivered, and I almost broke eye contact. But I didn’t. A moment passed. His eyes seemed to glow briefly, and then I felt warm.
“You’re welcome,” he said.
“Would you like to sit with me?” I sat down on the sand, and he walked over. He sat down on the sand next to me and looked up at the sky.
“I never see this many stars in Poughkeepsie,” he said.
“Really? There’s no place where you can go and get away from all the lights?” I asked.
He nodded. “I mean there are, but I’ve never really gone to those places at night.”
“Well I’m glad that you can see them tonight.”
“Do you know where the big dipper is?”
“Do you see those stars there?” I pointed up at the sky.
“I don’t think so…you mean those?” he pointed as well.
“No, those,” I moved my hand slightly. It bumped into his. We looked at each other. We didn’t look away, but we continued to see the stars.
I hope you enjoyed this story! If you did, I would really appreciate it if you left me a review. I’m an aspiring author trying to put my writing out there, and every review helps. Thank you so much! Also consider checking out my other stories here on Inkitt, and you can find my creative writing podcast - Determination, Deliberation, and Dragons - wherever you get your podcasts.