Wednesday, August 15, 2012

naked

In the summer when I turned thirteen I swam across Long Island Sound to the lighthouse on Execution Rocks.

At thirteen there are nights when you cannot sleep. Not because of actual reasons for terror in the house, nor because of worries or pressures. And really not even because the hot, humid Gulf Stream air swamping New York is too still and sweat coats your skin. But because there are so many things to hope for, so many wishes, that your brain cannot file them all away fast enough to let the silence come. This was the morning after one of those nights, and perhaps, not just for me.

Ten of us, maybe eleven - it is hard to count or even know all the faces now - mostly boys but not all, mostly members of the YMCA's Swim Team but not all, stood in the long gazebo at Hudson Park which overlooked the beach and the Sound. Late July, and the early morning light mixed with the incoming salt of the rising tide, and the seaweed and fish and the plants of the marshes. The flag in the park hung limp, only showing flutters of life around its edges.

It began with a dare, because that is the way stories of thirteen-year-old boys usually begin. Someone suggested we swim across Echo Bay, the small enclosure of the Sound which held the city's municipal marina and rowing club, and which, 280 years before, had seen Huguenot refugees of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre arrive to form a new home in a new land. But Echo Bay seemed both too easy - maybe somewhere between a quarter and a half mile - and too dangerous - the other side housed the rich, we'd be arriving on some rich person's lawn - and too familiar - we swam every day at the Hudson Park beaches here.

"We should swim out to Execution Rocks," I then might have said. The kind of crazy statement I could make at times like this. Execution Rocks, which had held a lighthouse since the early days of the American Republic, was the farthest outcropping of the City of New Rochelle, lying more than two miles across the Sound, much closer to the Long Island shore than to any point on this side, and marking the shipping channel through our rock-infested choke point where the Sound became the East River.

Decades later, I would stand in a gourmet food store before a shelf of various sea salts and wonder if I could season my foods with memories. Could I use the salt from this particular branch of the Atlantic Ocean? Or from the surf off Coney Island? From Lough Foyle or the Forty-Foot in Ireland? From Cape Disappointment where the Columbia finds the Pacific? What dreams might those meals awaken?


A thousand yards out, that's 40 lengths of the 25 yard pool we swam in under the Y gym, where the low ceiling held the chlorine captive so you could not smell the difference between air and water, my arms felt fine but my legs were beginning to drag behind me, and I let myself pause, coming upright in the pond-flat green water, my legs in a slow bicycle pump that stretched the muscles in different ways. I was still in coastal waters, tiny Huckleberry Island, legend told us of an old "Shore Club" and a great fire but who really knew?, still lay over a thousand feet away. But here, I breathed as deeply as I could now and saw the world from that exact point we call "sea level," was a wondrously safe spot. I could still see and hear my friends on shore, they were waving, and I waved back - slowly to indicate that I was fine, not frantically as in a call for help - and thought of not returning. And then I turned and began swimming toward the little island's rocky point.

They had said the swim to the lighthouse was "fucking insane," and "really stupid," and when I had argued that neither of those things were true they had dared me to try it. So we'd gotten on our bikes and ridden down the hill out of Hudson Park, turned left onto Hudson Park Road, then left again to climb the little hill at the start of Davenport Avenue - we could have ridden the flat route along Pelham Road and Church Street but it was not going to be that sort of day - and curved around the long reach of Davenport Neck until we tore down the vast grassy hill of Davenport Park and came to the giant tumbled rocks at the water. I'd swim it, but I wasn't going to start an extra half-mile away. We all knew this was not just the closest spot, but that it also had an island sort of halfway, a safety factor of importance.

Here, further out in the Sound, a slight breeze cooled us, but couldn't ripple the water. And the tide was reaching its top now, creating the calmest waters. I pushed my Keds off, pulled my socks off, and dropped my jeans, leaving just the purple Y Speedos most of us wore under our pants that summer. My shirt had been off and tied around the bike's seat post since I'd gotten on it that morning. "Scream if you're drowning," Billy said. "Yeah," I said, and walked to the one spot on the rocks we knew was safe for diving at this moment, and jumped in. "You're buying me pizza when I get back," I yelled after coming up to the surface. "Don't race," Peter said, kind of softly, "just go slow." I turned and headed south.

Three weeks or so later there was a meet at Saxon Woods, a huge county pool up near White Plains, with 50 meter lengths and teams from Ys and recreation programs from all over and the heavy smell of Coppertone and girls, lots of girls, even girls we knew. That day too was way too hot, and between heats the sun would weigh on our skin, pushing against us, driving us into the narrow strip of shade along the bathhouse. The girls, we understood, were there to see us, not to see us swim. They stared at our groins the way we stared at their rapidly growing tits, with not quite fully defined fascination. We then became completely aware of our own bodies, in ways that those of us who choose to hide in the water could not yet deal with. In September of that year, sitting in Cindy's bedroom on a Saturday afternoon, she put her hand on my thigh and asked, "What does it take to get you, you know, umm, excited?"

As she found out, I remembered her looking at me that day at Saxon Woods. How had she gotten there? What, exactly, had she been looking for?

When I pushed off the Huckleberry Island rocks I felt good, if vaguely thirsty. From here, a bit more than a mile maybe, maybe more, I guessed it would depend how far the current pulled me off course - a hundred little corrections adds up in distance, and the target now was a tiny spot in the water, still, at this moment in time, occupied by a lighthouse keeper, and home to deep-voiced steam foghorn which sang me to sleep on the stormy nights of autumn. And here, beyond that coastal zone, the water rose and fell, forcing a change in stroke to make breathing a conscious decision every time, and the smells of land vanished, and the water temperature dropped, and the world narrowed to just me and this sea, both my closest friend and my mortal enemy.

I pulled myself up onto the rocks in full, but not panicked, exhaustion, and lay gasping for air and feeling like my shoulders could not rotate one more time. I closed my eyes and felt the sun, and the warm stone, and listened to the waves splash against those rocks. Those rocks, that was our Halloween story. It was called "Execution Rocks" our story went, because the British had chained prisoners to these rocks during the Revolution and then waited for the tide to rise. When I looked again, I was staring up at both the lighthouse and a man in a blue uniform, who held a large green thermos out to me. "Did you just fuckin' swim here?" there was no wait for an answer, "drink this you crazy moron."

He gave me a salami sandwich on dark brown bread and lots of water as we sat on folding chairs in the shade of the island's house. He asked about my swimming, where I went to school, what I knew about the currents here. He never asked my name, or where I lived, or why I had just swum two miles to his spot on the map. I refused the boat ride back, though there was no doubt that he would shadow me in his launch back toward Huckleberry. For reasons I could not name this seemed to be alright with me.

I climbed back out of the water at Davenport Park three or three and a half hours after leaving. Maybe it was four hours or more. Time is not a specific thing here. I pulled myself up the rocks to a lot of whoops and stuff from now impressed friends. And they wrapped their towels around me, and I looked out, and saw the lighthouse keeper in his boat, just beyond Huckleberry. He waved. I hope I waved back, and then I stumbled to the grass. And then I think I slept.

(c) 2012 by Ira David Socol

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