The strip malls and megastores pumped cars past the sludgy underbelly of the Hackensack River as I made my way down the Jersey Turnpike. I didn’t want to smell this water as the traffic carried me towards my destination ‘down shore’, as the natives call it. I hoped, dear God, that this water wasn’t spewing into the ocean as my swimsuit started wedging up my ass, the seatbelt digging into the scar where my port-a-cath use to be.
I had set my expectations low, as my experiences of the “Garden State” thus far had only been as a stinky gateway to New York City. Still, I deserved this vacation, damn it! I had come through the other side of breast cancer treatment and I was going away to the beach without my family, for the first time since before I was engaged or married over 15 years ago. Five of my favorite girlfriends and I were taking over Christie’s brother’s apartment near Ocean Grove. We were celebrating as another one of the pack crested her 40th year. Christie’s family had history on these shores and though sceptical of New Jersey, I trusted that she wouldn’t lead us to sands peppered with hypodermic needles.
First we were to stop in and drop off our stuff. I didn’t project much vividness or hope into the mental image of what would be in-store at Christie’s brother’s apartment. He was clearing out and letting us crash for free, so what more could we ask for? All I knew was that he was a 40 something bachelor, a recent divorcee. Something in that evoked wood paneling and dirty sponges, a rim of old soap and beard trimmings in the sink. Boy was I wrong! Opening the door to a wave of crisp air conditioning, the scene was tasty rockabilly with fine furniture in reds and blacks. On one wall, a quirky drawing of Elvis, and on another pristine skateboards were mounted like precious art. We came home to scented lotions and clean towels, everything in its place. No depression dust bunnies, no telltale piles of unopened mail. What a curious man, this brother of Christie’s, with Funeral Director diplomas on his wall. I learned that he owns his own mobile undertaking business, and my mind was filled with images of perverse food trucks with bodies in them.
With the perfect forecast for endless sunny skies and now this amazing pad, vacation was off to a promising start. We decided on Asbury Park, and the small concrete cube of ‘Madame Marie’s Temple of Knowledge’ was the sentry point. At the beach, my hesitation peeled off like my clothing. I planted my flag and staked out my space, a pastel rainbow beach umbrella to signal this few square feet as my turf in the sand. Soon we were joined by Christie’s family, her sister Suzanne with her two kids, her mother and brother Mike –the rockabilly undertaker. Now our beach claim was like a small empire, with chairs and blankets and multiple umbrellas charting this patch of sand as our own for the day.
There, was the expanse of water before me, but I didn’t want to seem too eager. I had to prolong this excitement, like good foreplay, letting my skin warm to just the right temperature before taking that first plunge. Sometimes the ocean has a foreboding feeling, the jellyfish just one wave crash away, the shells all angular and cutting the bottom of your feet. On this particular day, there was no imaginary shark frenzy just below the lip of light blue that gave way to the secret deep. The surf was just the right amount of surprise and surrender, playful without being a bully. I eased my way past the breakers, testing my upper body strength. In this salty buoyancy I found that I could still swim pretty well in spite of the lifting and rearranging of my pectoral muscles the previous summer. I floated on my back and imagined my breast implants as little life preservers carrying me over the waves.
Not long after the salt began to crystalize on my skin, Christie’s niece Anabelle, a cheerful and confident girl, looked me square in the eye and asked if I would go back to the water with her. She had that inexhaustible energy of a 6 year old and her enthusiasm for the ocean was contagious. The waves had begun to pick up as the tide shifted inward and the greedy oceanfront landholders were sent scattering further back, pushing us like a heard of seals closer together. We had to run as fast as we could to get from the umbrella shadows to the water, lest we be scorched by the fire walk across the sand. Anabelle squealed as she grabbed my hand to brace against the whitewater assault.
“Let’s pretend we’re mermaids!” she managed before diving under the next wave. “We’re mermaid sisters. My name is Coral. What’s your mermaid name?”
The image of a precious little sphere clamped safely in an oyster shell came to me. “I’m Pearl,” I quickly replied.
“We have special powers too. I can control the waves and call the other mermaids to us. What can you do?”
I paused for a moment and decided, “I have the ability to fight off sharks… and I can clean the pollution from the ocean.”
“I’m the big sister and you’re my little sister,” Coral declared. “I’ll say when to dive and when to jump.”
We frolicked mermaid style, our tail fins propelling us under or over each oncoming wave. At some point Coral told me that our parents had died and we enacted the scene where we desperately called for them. I ignored the stares of our fellow swimmers nearby as we lamented over the bloody upper half of our mother as it came washing towards us. I had to swim out and defend the honor of our parents, by killing the sharks that had murdered them.
I all our exuberance for the ocean, in our plight for mermaid survival and celebration of our special powers, I truly forgot myself and WAS a mermaid for that time. The most miraculous thing happened next. I could see a little hill of a wave forming, and judged that it would perfectly hit its peak by the time it reached my position. Instead of jumping over or diving under, I decided to do as mermaids will and flip backwards in the direction of the rolling wave. There was no time to overthink it, and in that instant my arms went pin wheeling backwards as I flipped my body over. The wave wrenched my arms back and but for the water in my ears, there would have been an audible tear as the scar tissue in my armpits shredded away. The shock of it made me grab my chest and for a whole 10 seconds I froze wondering if I had just completely ruined my breast surgery, undoing a yearlong saga of difficult healing. Then I had to fight through another wave, and I noticed that the pain was quickly dissipating. Was it just the cold water, was I in shock? I began testing range of motion and to my amazement I found I could reach my arms all the way up and around, my chest opening to the sun in the deepest stretch I had felt since the double mastectomy the previous summer.
What a gift the ocean had given me that day. I had let myself be carried away in this fantasy of freedom and strength, pure feminine power in the midst of the sea. I wish I could have peered into Madame Marie’s crystal ball a year ago, when I felt crushed by the pain of that surgery and could only see the oncoming wave of chemotherapy before me. I would have seen myself a year later, playing freely, still a strong swimmer in the ocean.
My circle of true friends, the welcoming apartment, the perfect weather, and the pure joy that Anabell embodied in the surf, transformed me that weekend. I was healed by those waters and the magical mermaid sisterhood of New Jersey.