I'm a big believer in marking transitions, not least because it gives me a great excuse to make ritual visits to my first home. I was only twelve when we left San Diego, CA for Pittsburgh, PA, but my heart still pumps cool Pacific saltwater, sparkling with pyrite, murky with kelp bits and fish poop. As much as I learned to enjoy the Bay Area over the many years I lived in Oakland (after overcoming an early childhood revulsion for the claustrophobia-inducing concrete canyons of San Francisco), and as easy as I now feel calling Portland "home," the word will always have quotation marks around it everywhere I live beyond a thirty-mile radius of the UCSD campus, even if I never live within that radius again.
I went to grad school in Santa Barbara and have family and friends there and in Pasadena, so I have many good reasons to spend time in the southern end of the golden state, but it's only in the past few years that I've been making regular forays to San Diego itself, returning ever more often as I've come to appreciate the power of the place to restore my spirits. Twenty years ago I found it hard to accept how much the city has altered and grown. I hated (and to be honest still hate) to see the scrub and chaparral eden of my childhood razed to make way for bank buildings and biotech startups, but change has been more to the good further south; no one in the seventies supposed that downtown SD would become a "destination" for anyone but sailors on shore leave. There are now as many tattoo "studios" as "parlors," and Anthony's Star of the Sea has been displaced a hundred times over as the place to celebrate an engagement or milestone birthday (with a bucket of steamed clams).
As unrecognizable as my hometown has become in parts, the place still grounds me in a quasi-electrical as well as a more literal "sand between my toes" sense, and never has that function been more essential than in the last six months. I went down there on my own in February the week before chemo began and just made another visit with Pete, this time in celebration of completing treatment and in recognition of our shared need to replenish stores of energy that had been critically depleted.
Late Tuesday morning, we walked from La Jolla Shores (where the parking is plentiful) north to the magnetic pole of my imagination, defined not by a point but by the line of Scripps Pier where it breaks the superficially gentle plane of sand and water that extends to an airbrushed horizon. In truth, the ocean's shining surface hides a deep and densely inhabited canyon beloved of local biologists, divers, and surfers (because of the way it swells any incoming swell).
It hides other things as well.
During the years that our mom worked in the admissions office of Scripps Institution of Oceanography (where she met Bob on his way to a PhD in marine geophysics), the pier was Megan's and my base of after-school operations, the lifeguards our defacto baby sitters. I thought I knew those waters well, but I can't remember their ever being as crystalline as they were the other day. I couldn't stop marveling to Pete as we trailed a small gaggle of preteens up the beach: "I've never seen it like this!" Apart from the tropical turquoise clarity of the water, another anomaly made a visual riddle: what was that blue-black band that cut across the churn of the breaking waves and divided them from the calmer expanse beyond?
The rule at the pier has always been surfers to the north, swimmers to the south, but when we first arrived the southern side was chock full of boys on boards and the northern side all but deserted. Pete wasn't sure he wanted to swim, so I headed alone into the gentle break.
When I was a kid, we never enjoyed more than a handful of days in any given year when swimming "comfortably" without a wetsuit didn't mean getting numb all over, a state achieved either by painful inches or by a quick but excruciating full-body dunk. When I first experienced truly warm-water ocean swimming - in Oahu's Hanauma Bay when I was twelve - I felt suspended in a dream, and Tuesday's swim had the same fantastical quality. Pete resisted for all of five minutes before joining me out in the swell past the breakers.
That strange black band had melted away from me even as I swam into it, but Pete lingered and solved the mystery: "It's fish! Oh my god, so many fish! When I came through that wave, they made a kind of tornado all around me. Freaky."
We reveled in the beauty of the day and floated for an easy while before returning to shore. Soon after we'd sunned our skin dry, lifeguards ordered all the surfers to move north of the pier. I wanted another swim before we left to catch the World Cup semifinal (between Germany and Brazil - we should have stayed on the beach) and happily waded out into my "old" swimming lane to the south. It's hard to lay even nostalgic claim to any patch of moving water when it's so obviously new at every moment, and on that morning what was familiar contrasted more strongly than usual with what was novel and strange. My second time out, I took a less direct, more drifting approach into the waves. There was no mistaking the heightened liveliness of the water around me: thousands upon countless thousands of small, silver-sided fish - sardines, maybe? I wasn't sure - raced in perfect synchrony on invisible tracks, forging steep-angled loops that shifted, dispersed, and reformed as I moved through them.
I wished I had a mask, but I also felt the return of a well-worn fear, an upwelling of all the questions I used to ask myself back when I was eleven and dangling my pale, bare legs into the hidden below. I wondered now as I'd wondered then, "What's down there today? Do I look like a fish, or maybe two fishes, to something that likes to eat fish?"
Great whites are extremely uncommon in those shallow waters, but they're not unknown. Pete and I had listened a few days earlier to an interview on NPR with a marine biologist celebrating the ongoing recovery of the great white population. He'd described his understanding of the risks of ocean swimming in terms that I'd found resonant and wise, saying that he enters the water as a wilderness, a remarkably benign wilderness, comparatively speaking, but a wilderness all the same. We cannot expect (we'd be fools even to desire) perfect safety in the ocean any more than we can expect it in a dense jungle or the high grasses of a veldt, though we can take comfort in the fact that very few other predators find us at all toothsome or appealing. (Even great whites will usually spit us out.)
Our best precaution against getting accidentally bitten simply requires that we avoid coming between predators and their proper prey. Swimming in the middle of an enormous school of fish is without question a bonehead move for any animal that is effectively naked (and blind) as a shucked oyster. A hundred-and-fifty-pound oyster (extra plump and juicy thanks to five months' worth of steroids).
While musing thus on my own idiocy, I suddenly saw - among thousands of tiny white bellies - a suspiciously large white belly in the clear blue trough of an oncoming wave. Not great-ly large, but indisputably shark-like. I couldn't say for sure whether my eyes or imagination had assembled this momentary vision, but I decided that I’d really rather not risk becoming a dark joke:
“Did you hear about the woman who made it through cancer treatment but two weeks later drowned in a panic when she got grazed by the fin of a harmless little leopard shark?”
“Yeah, that bites. Or not! Ha. Get it? Sorry, that’s probably insensitive.”
“No, man, totally. It’s sad, but kinda funny, too.”
I figured that this scenario was just ridiculous and humiliating enough to tempt an idle god, so I swam back in to shore with a maximum of humility and a minimum of thrashing.
Pete and I didn’t learn the full scope and wonder of what we’d encountered until after our return to Portland, when Bob sent us a video taken by Scripps grad students maybe an hour after we'd left. My imagination might have been overactive, but my eyes had seen true.