My parents were the first rich people to move to Pliney Grove, near the coast of Nantucket, lured by cheap beach-front property and an idyllic little village that felt authentic on the weekends. By the time I was born there were whole neighborhoods of us, and by the time I was old enough to go to the beach I was getting warned to stay away from the fishermen’s kids, because they were violent and hateful and resented us for everything we had. I believed them, because I was a kid, and everybody tells me it’s not my fault and I still feel so ashamed.
We were the problem, but they were right to warn me. My parents were an impossible target: they had lawyers and politicians on their speed dial. But I was a kid on the beach, and I didn’t know anybody who wasn’t at the preparatory academy by name: easy to hit and hard for me to identify later. I was the softest of targets, and it showed the minute I stuck my toe in the water. I shivered the way the sons of fisherman didn’t; I floated like a life jacket, they swam like they knew the tides. They saw me play in the ocean and they circled me like sharks.
They had one shot at me, and they knew it: one shot. After that, if they did it right, I’d never go to the beach again. And while they were holding my head under water and pulling my swimsuit off and twisting my arms behind my back I saw the faces of dead sailors under the waves, the men who never returned and couldn’t get to heaven because the ocean was too deep. And I screamed. And I inhaled water so much faster than my attackers had expected, and they had to bring me to shore and give me mouth to mouth and save my life. They had to bring me back from the deep ocean where their grandfathers lay.
I woke up on the seashore, and saw their faces clearly for the first time, even as I coughed and my lungs burned with salt. And they looked away. My parents never let me come back to the ocean again, and next year there were lifeguards every half mile during daylight hours.
I’m back here, now, to retire – and I’m looking for their faces. I’ll know them if I see them, but I fear we drove them all away.
Benjamin Wachs has written for Village Voice Media, Playboy.com, and NPR among other venues. He archives his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com.
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