Dear J Waves,
In order to fulfill my science requirements during my sophomore year in college, I attempted Chemistry 101, but my Professor was from another planet. She’d fill the board with erroneous information and pause, and peer at us over her inch-thick glasses, realizing we’d all caught her mistakes before she did, and she would say, “Noowww claaasss. Thaaatt is nottt the waaaay tooooo woooorrrk thhe problemmmmm.” She’d pretend that she’d been showing us the “wrong” way the whole time on purpose. She was a crock of shit, and she looked like Julia Child. Two-thirds of the class had dropped by the second week, and though I felt vaguely sorry for her, I knew that if I stayed in the class, I would either fail it or start hurling notebooks at her in frustration.
So Oceanography 100 it was. This professor resembled not Julia Child but, in fact, a one hundred year old tortoise. He was precious. He talked just as slow as Julia, and he reminded me a lot of Mr. Trower, my high school Latin teacher. I developed an immediate affinity for him and all things ocean-related. I sat in front and took copious amounts of notes to supplement my new-found obsession with bodies of water.
Neap tides and blowfish, continental divides and moon swings, sedimentary rock and barnacles, we talked about it all in that class. My professor would often insert personal anecdotes into his lectures. He had traveled all around the globe searching for the perfect nautical moment much like Anthony Bourdain traveled the world for the perfect meal. He was an amateur Poseidon, reigning over cruise ships and taking forays onto alien beaches in nothing but flip flops and clamdiggers.
His wife had a passion that rivaled her husband’s, which made them the perfect match. How beautiful it was to hear of a couple so in love with each other and the Strait of Gibraltar, so in tune with their own routines and the phases of the moon. The girls in class would sigh in anticipation of the marriage they all dreamed would be theirs someday, with some random man who shared their love for eyeliner or horses, for computer programming or interpretive dance. After all, if it happened for our teacher, it could happen for us. And why not?
Every day, our professor would regale us with conquests undertaken by him and his bride, the countries they visited, how happy he was to have found someone like her.
We wondered what she was like, we asked him to bring her by; she was such a part of his lectures that we felt we already knew her. He would just chuckle and shake his head. But we wanted to see her. We wanted to touch her, to know her. We knew they had just celebrated their fortieth wedding anniversary only a month ago, because he said he had collected shells for the occasion, had presented them to her with a flourish only appreciated by a fellow ocean-lover.
The end of the semester was rapidly approaching, and we were in love with this woman. We didn’t want the class to end, we didn’t want the stories to stop. It was a quick four months, and we supposed time flies when you’re partaking vicariously in a storybook marriage. We were suckers for that romantic shit.
There are places in the sea, he told us during our last class, where toxic red dinoflagellates reside, they color the water crimson, and you cannot swim in it, and it is called the Red Tide. It was a bit uneasy to talk about, given the nature of water-borne substances to ebb and to flow into neighboring ponds, streams. As in, what if a weird dinoflagellate floats over to MY beach? THEN what? It’s poison, and we will get sick. No one really liked thinking about the Red Tide. It was ominous. Avoid it at all costs.
But our teacher told us that he and his wife traveled hundreds of miles to find the Red Tide once upon a time, to celebrate thirty years of wedded bliss. He told us that they arrived at the sea where the bloom of shit was to appear, that they held hands on the shore and they watched the dinoflagellates creep into the water, color it so bloody. He said they held hands and they watched, and it was unlike any movie, and unlike any dream, and unlike any experience, and then he broke down and cried.
Choking back a sob, he said, “She would have loved to see all you so enraptured in the lesson. She died ten years ago. I miss her.”
She died ten years ago. I miss her. He had presented the 40th anniversary shells to her grave. He had recounted memories of the dead, memories that only he held. She had drowned that day in the Red Tide, on their thirtieth anniversary, during the perfect thirtieth honeymoon. He never told us why she ventured into the water in the first place. Overcome by the beauty of the poison? Perhaps.
Dinoflagellate. From the Greek “Dinos” meaning “whirling,” and the Latin “flagellum” meaning “whip-like.”
She had drowned.
He died two months later. He died walking a treadmill at the University’s gym.
What are we missing out on? What terrible choices have we made, to move away, to forget a friend, to gather the courage to tap a stranger on the shoulder and say. . .nothing? What would we have if we could live forever? Why do we wander into the venomous water? Why do we wander from the people who love us? Why can’t we just stay by their side? Why can’t we realize that there is nothing to find in the ocean, in the ether, that all we need is standing right next to us, waiting to be tapped? Why can’t we appreciate the people that we have?