It was the last night of my O-trip where I found myself on Merritt Island’s shore, gazing at the sky and absentmindedly tracing jewels of land and pine out of the horizon. The ocean in front of me certainly felt my presence; the galloping horse within my chest and the breath of ice at the small of my back. We were locked in a chess game that both of us knew I was bound to lose. Amused, it sent a giggle of waves towards me. My move.
Perhaps joining it wouldn’t be so bad. I sensed it read my thought as I inched closer, my feet on the seaweed and sand spilling out of its maw. Further out in its body, I saw a guy from another O-trip cohort already in its grasp, the bobbing of his head indicating his chaotic dance beneath the water.
Unable to wait any longer, my O-trip friend whizzed past me, a flurry of arms and legs splashing through. My time was up—I was the only one out of the night swimming group who was still on the shore. Out in the sea, my friends yelled for me to join. “Just get in! God dammit, Alfonso! It’s not even cold!”
I was embarrassed. After all, it was I who accepted the offer before dinner. “Meet in an hour!” “Got it!” It was I who excitedly wrung out my swimsuit as best I could, still wet from swimming the day before. It was I who rushed over jagged rocks, winding ferns and serrated shells straight after eating a bowl of campfire mac ‘n’ cheese. And, it was I who now looked for excuses that weren’t there in front of the bare ocean. The dark behemoth was waiting, tired.
‘No excuses,’ I breathed in salt. ‘It was time.’
I shuffled. I fell. I surrendered to the frigid water, which encased my body like a cocoon. Up, up, up, the water crowned my head and I was completely submerged. Cold static and white noise, the last stretch was done. The seaweed tickled like arms welcoming me home. I was free in the darkness behind my eyes, the hard gurgle of seafoam in my ears. My baptism in the sea had commenced, and any previous irrational fear washed away with the current.
When my eyes opened above the water, I found all of us in a circle, shivering, laughing, then shivering again. “The water really isn’t that cold!” “Yeah, you have to just move a lot.” We were all dancing now—full of adrenaline and excited for what night swimming could possibly bring.
“Guys, look!” Out in front of me, there was magic in the water. Small, delicate beads of light bounced across our skin, illuminating the ethereal black soup where we moved. We were bathed in a light mist, like newly-christened heroes who just unlocked their superpowers. The shroud of light showed where my body ended at the edge of my feet; I was fragile compared to the vast black nothingness beneath me.
A moment passed and the splashing ceased. I looked up—they were on their backs. “It’s so nice like this,” one of my companions said. I didn’t need to be convinced. I tilted my head back, letting my abdomen rise to the surface. Once my eyes adjusted to the blackness above, the stars greeted me, their beauty knocking out any coherent words on the tip of my tongue. Like fine dust on black cloth, they only subtly indicated where the sky met the sea. Black beneath me and black above, I felt timeless—just a mind floating.
In that vacuum of thought, I cringed at how stupid I was for even hesitating to enter the water. I thought about how close I was to changing my mind. I thought about canoeing, our peanut butter rations and the shower waiting back on campus the next morning. Yet ultimately, my mind landed on how lucky I was to have been on Merritt.
I turned my head back to shore. There, on the rocks, was the other cohort playing music and screaming out into the night. It was surreal that just two days prior, they were mere names–Instagram profiles I barely remembered following when I got accepted in the spring. But in the span of a trip, they became friends, people so talented and beautiful in unique ways that I was angry I hadn’t met them sooner. Connections only days old, they knew things about me not even friends from back home did. Looking at them, I wondered how we all managed to make it to the same place.
Though I knew it wasn’t guaranteed that the friendships we made would continue once we returned the next morning, I wasn’t worried. We were bound by the magic of Merritt, the magic in its pines, the magic in its waters. Certainly, that would be enough to keep the red strings between us taut for the four years ahead.
With that, I drifted, gazing at dusty black cloth, the gurgle of seawater in my ears once more.