The Change

St. Croix
U.S. Virgin Islands

On that perfect Caribbean afternoon, while my spouse napped, I had paddled out to a shallow coral area to snorkel.


I knew better. But the water was quiet, so I swam beyond the shallow area heading for the far end of the reef. Without any warning, a wall of surf, instant and rogue, picked me up and thrust me toward the bleached and jagged coral between me and land, then reversed course and sucked me back toward sea. Time stopped: my mind floated somewhere beyond my flailing body, detached, morbid, wondering if I were about to sustain an injury that would forever change my life. Then with a violent thrust forward, water flooding my snorkel and mask, time expanded again and my survival instinct finally kicked in.

Frantically, I searched the reef hurling toward me for fire coral, that poison-tipped devil of the reef. But as I hit with a wham, I learned all coral hurts when you are caught in a riptide—if you've been careless enough to let one catch you. I knew what I should do: swim sideways to the shore, the rip, and the tide. I had no way of doing it. The roiling waves were coming too hard, too quick, too erratic.

The second big wave spun me upside down and around, ripping my mask off.

The third one rolled me over the top of the reef, scraping my legs along scores of stinging sea urchins spines.

The fourth one threw me face first against a dead staghorn, raking the top layer of a cheek raw, then tossed me past the sunbleached reef and onto the sandy shore.

That quickly. That deadly.

When I dragged myself out of the water, in one piece if minus a fair amount of skin, my mind was roiling as strange as the sea, replaying images not of the coral reef but other places, other forgotten scrapes: running out of gas in the desert, dropping a thousand feet in an airplane, missing a deer in my headlights. Like some mental chant, a rosary of close calls.

I stumbled back to the courtyard of the old sugar plantation resort and just stared. It all looked the same. It was peaceful, untouched, unmoved, as lovely as an hour ago, far more than I could say for myself. My own universe's stutter and shift hadn't even been noticed by this courtyard, by the sky or the trees or the other visitors going about their perfect paradise day. And that seemed impossible, as if I were in the wrong world.

There's a small, odd sensation I have after traveling to some strange locale. I step back into my house and marvel that everything looks the same. Nothing has changed, nothing except me. Shouldn't everything be different if I am? But it is always, only me. Travel affects me so deeply, so viscerally, I find myself in re-entry to a world that has not changed along with me.

But that was without a near-death experience. Standing there stunned, stung, scraped, seconds after the closest of close calls, I felt the small, odd sensation again. But now, now it was big.

I sat in the resort's courtyard for a long time, getting my bearings. I wondered how I could tell my husband, waiting in that world behind our hotel door, wondered if it would sound anywhere as large, as profound as it felt to me. And I suddenly recalled a time I had heard him try to express the very same thing. Calling home on the first night of a business trip, he sounded strange, a little distant, still in the trance of some event. Finally, in a sort of slow motion, he ever so casually told me what had happened. Walking across a busy intersection, he'd had to run for dear life when a car blew through a red light, heading his way. He was carrying a pizza, and somehow he held onto it, but the back of his heel had been glanced by the car. I hadn't known what to say, although I thought I heard echoes of my sensation in his voice, a spinning down again to the same speed as the world. But not until now did I understand—he had been awed by his own life's stutter, slackjawed at the what-ifs, aware that all the calls are close until they aren't.

As the palm trees swayed above me, I touched my scraped face, my bruised thigh, and counted my steadfast lucky stars. Then I prepared myself for re-entry, for the sound of my own spinning down...and most of all, for the lack of change I would see in his face as he looked at the change in mine.

—originally published in Brevity, Issue 20