On every morning but one, you wake up to the dark – 5AM, dark no matter the time of year – with the exception of Saturday, when your body lets you sleep until a few minutes before seven, and you wake up feeling like the day is already over, wasted (though admittedly very well-rested).
But this is Friday. You have to get up a little earlier than strictly necessary, have to go out for a walk in the dark to wake up properly, to steel yourself for the day. You wear a glow belt, which usually keeps you safe in crosswalks but unfortunately did not ward off a man in a minivan full of (presumably) his kids from pulling up alongside you in a parking lot to yell about watching where you were going. You are confused; you knew exactly where you were going, but he had to drive out of his way to make his point.
It’s still dark when you get back home. You put on your swimsuit and shorts. You think, regretfully, that another week has gone by and you’ve failed to buy a wetsuit or a pair of fins. You flip-flop out to the car anyway and drive 1.4 miles to the boat ramp on the beach.
Now, finally, the horizon is starting to lighten. Despite the walk, your stomach is clenched like a fist. You feel a gentle thrum of underlying panic every Friday morning, no matter how many times you do this exact same thing. Still, you slide your feet out of your sandals, leaving them planted behind the pedals; you leave your folded towel on the driver’s seat, ready to be sat on by a wet butt; you remove your car key from the keyring, clipping it to your swimsuit and tucking it in. Everything stays behind. You hobble over the pine-needles through the parking lot to the boat ramp, getting your first glimpse of the conditions.
It’s Friday, and you’re looking out across Kailua beach, where the turquoise sea is starting to glow in the sunrise. The tide is low and there is barely any wind – unusual for the windward side of the island. The current ripples gently against the sand, more like a wakeless lake than the crashing of the winter sea.
The breeze is gentle. It is January, but you are not cold. Now, you wait.
Today, just one other swimmer arrives. You were planning to swim around the buoys encircling the swim area of the beach – about a mile, all told – and confide in her that you’ve never swam out to the flat island with the usual group. They’re too fast, you say, and you’re a little scared. The other swimmer comments on the uncommonly good conditions and encourages you to swim with her, to let today be your first island swim. She is very patient and kind. You are very nervous, but you’ve always wanted to try. You put on your bright orange swim cap and pink goggles and wade into the sea. You’ve said yes.
The first bit is always the scariest. The waves along the beach churn up the sand below, and with each time you rotate your head down into the water, it’s a pale blue fog beneath, like being caught inside a nebula. You know that the bottom is just a few feet down, but – what if?
About 50 yards in, the water clears and you can see straight through to the bottom: coral, sometimes debris, but mostly some of the whitest sand you’ve ever seen. Tropical fish cluster around rocks and the cement buoy anchors. Farther and farther you go, not looking back but to the right, the only way you turn your head while swimming: you are the Zoolander of front crawl.
Midway to the island, your swim partner stops short. You swim up alongside. She points between the Mokes, the two islets off Lanikai sticking up like hats out of the sea. The sun is beginning to rise properly now – rising between the Mokes, in fact – and you have to squint. You can see Molokai between the islands, she says, and Maui just beyond: faint silhouettes in the distance, like low-slung clouds against a pastel tapestry of pinks, purples, and oranges of the sunrise. It is a rare day that the conditions are so clear to offer this view. You never would have looked hard enough in that direction had someone else not encouraged you to do so.
Still, returning to swimming, you are tense. You keep waiting for the bottom to drop out into some dark abyss where there lurk grotesque and unseen creatures. But the depth never seems to exceed eight or ten feet below, and the closer you get to the island, the more rock and coral carve out a rugged topography below you. The fish seem completely oblivious to the large mammals passing above them – or, more likely, they’re so used to them that they no longer care. You wonder briefly, not for the first time, whether fish are capable of emotion, particularly fear, or if they’re driven instead purely by biological instinct.
The waves break a little more forcefully along the line that runs parallel to the island. They push you back with each crest as you swim along the island’s right side, keeping a careful distance so they don’t push you into the rocks. A yard forward, a yard back; a yard forward, a yard to the side. Counter-clockwise around the island you swim. You’re surprised by how big the island is up close. You want to stop along the way to look properly, but you don’t want to hold up your partner, either. Onward you swim around the very back of the island, and now it sits between you and the beach where you started. Without the starting point in sight, it feels like an impossible, unknowable distance, and this imaginary marooning prompts a fresh surge of fear. But it is, in fact, very possible and entirely known, and there’s nowhere else to go but onward. The waves on the other side of the island work in your favor; the current carries you back. You swim without stopping, glancing up occasionally to realign yourself with the other swimmer a few yards ahead. It feels like no time at all before your hand, mid-stroke, drags along the sandy shore.
As you both trudge up the beach, you thank your swim partner for letting you tag along, removing your caps and shaking out your hair. She says it’s been a while since she made the swim, and she remembers being nervous her first time, too. You feel lucky for the compassion of these other swimmers, all of whom never judge or tease you for your speed or trepidation. They also probably recall the times they were slow and scared in the water.
The sun has climbed up into the sky, blue and clear. On the drive home, your skin feels electric – with dissipating nerves? from the waves that hit you over and over? – like every pore is alive and open. You leave a wet spot on the car seat that will soon transfer over to your uniform pants, but that’s a problem for later. Right now, you climb up to your apartment wrapped in a towel. You pause at the top of the stairs, listening.
You hear no cars starting, no children yelling back at their parents as they leave for school, no click-click of heels walking on the sidewalk, no dogs barking at each other, no lawnmowers or garbage trucks or digital bleeps and bloops from package deliveries. In this neighborhood, you can hear everything, all the time, and right now everyone has either left for school or work or is still asleep. It is, maybe, the only time of day that’s truly quiet and still – with the exception of the deepest part of the night, and even then sometimes your neighbors surprise you.
You take a little slice of this peacefulness – and the salt water on your skin, and an uncommonly beautiful sunrise, and the exhilaration of doing something a little scary for the first time – along with you as you head inside and get ready for the day.