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September 15, 2020

Story: The First Time I Stepped Into the Ocean

A once troubled young woman finds freedom from the weight of memory when she steps into the ocean.
Story by Vicky Lopez

I had never swam in the ocean before. Having spent the past four years living along the coast in Santa Barbara, I often evaded the task by sitting silently on the sand, admiring the crashing waves from a distance, ignoring the pleas from my friends to join them in the cool water. I was afraid of drowning. 

It was the fourth of July. Back then, I had made a custom of drinking so much that most nights were indiscernible and my memories were replaced by pieced-together recollections of stories my friends would share with me. There are many moments I don’t remember, but I remember this day -- my first step in ocean water, the first touch of skin to sea. This was the moment that changed my life. 

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I spent a lot of my young life afraid. As my mother’s relationship with my father unraveled, she sought solace in the rigidity of the teachings of the Baptist Church. This left me, her devout and faithful daughter, confined to her religious expectations. I spent almost every day of every week in the Church. 

In addition to my learning of the books and stories of the bible, the Church taught me to fear everything that I believed unexplainable. Flickering lights suggested the presence of a demon, sudden changes in temperature meant there were ghosts nearby, and waking up in the middle of the night unprompted signified an ungodly presence in the room. Maybe they were superstitions driven by a child’s imagination, or the consequence of lecturing to ten-year-olds about the Apocalypse, but I could not escape that crushing feeling of absolute, unending terror.

As I grew older and unearthed aspects of my identity and simultaneously uncovered the hypocrisy of religious love, I made the decision to leave the church and detach myself from the learnings I had grown up with. I couldn’t, however, detach myself from the unshakeable fear that the church had embedded so deeply within my being. Following teenage trysts and sapphic desires, this fear evolved into a nauseating, stomach-turning sense of self-contempt. Former Sunday School teacher and Bible School leader, I knew better than anyone else that my God couldn’t love a child like me. And what is left to console the impious and irreligious when not even the all-loving can love you? 

As a symptom of this newly-acquired self-disgust, I was never very careful with myself. I left for college too naive, too afraid of myself, too willing to take risks without my own well-being in mind. I have always blamed myself. I think until recently I’ve been unable to point that blame elsewhere, only inwards, where I could scream and scramble with my affliction privately. 

When I was eighteen, I was raped at a frat party by an acquaintance. It was very simple. I had been drinking. I remember being told to be quiet, the sting of my shoulders hitting the porcelain edge of the toilet and the bluish bruises that resulted. I remember some stranger’s panicked voice as he ordered me an Uber home, attempting to decipher my slurred speech as I recited my address. I remember crying as I arrived to see my roommates, my shirt untied and undergarments soaked in blood and vomit, too ashamed to explain the cause of my distress. I remember awaking the next morning, wishing I hadn’t told anyone at all, as though it would make it all feel less real.

The weight of the event left me disgusted with my own body. I didn’t see how I could be worth a police report, worth an investigation, worth even any kind of sympathy. I avoided grief through self-displacement -- frequenting the beds of men whose names I did not know, seduced by the belief that they could not hurt me if I was the one to let them have me. I relied on liquor to feign the appearance of fortitude and stumbled through the week remembering only a handful of the events of each evening. 

I was lost. Sex for me was no longer about pleasure, or love, or connection. More than anything, it was about control. It was a desperate attempt to find desire, to reclaim the body that I was too afraid to love as my own. I gave bits and bits of myself away until I started to doubt there was anything else left anymore.

I had known her for some time prior to the fourth of July; we had spent significant time together as friends-of-friends or peers or study partners, but nothing more. At the risk of sounding cliched and unimaginative, I tell you now that I always knew I would fall in love with her. But I was afraid then -- of being in love, of learning desire, of not being enough to allow her to feel the same. I was afraid of drowning. 

On the Fourth, emboldened by the spirit of the holiday (and perhaps the drinking that had taken place that afternoon), I invited her to a walk to the beach. As we neared the water, with the sun gently kissing our skin and warming our hearts, I revealed to her how much I longed to be enveloped in her love. Her presence alleviated the crushing feeling that life was an endless burden and let me for a moment believe that, somewhere inside me, I knew what love was. 

I remember our first embrace, the first touch of her lips to mine, the thrill of being alone with the person whom you most desire. I remember the comfort of her small hands cradled in my own, the radiance of her skin under the setting sun, the pungent smell of coastal air as we neared the sea. 

That was the first time I stepped into the ocean. With her, the leaden weight of embodied memory was momentarily lifted, my fear and self-disgust no longer serving to suffocate me. It did not matter that I could not swim. The ocean’s waters lapped and grazed at my hip bones and I reveled in the understanding of what it meant to be free. 

This true story by Vicky Lopez was a finalist in our recent writing competition with the theme "The Moment My Life Changed." Follow us on Facebook and join our newsletter to receive invitations to future competitions.

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