Swim First, Unpack Later

For some reason, I always remember the last swim of the season. Whether it was on a late fall afternoon in elementary school or as early as an August morning when I would sneak in a quick swim before catching the ferry for the trip back to college, the memory of that last swim would stay with me well into the winter.

In that way the last swim of the season is different from the first. The first, I never seem to remember.

Coming out of the water after the last swim closes one chapter and begins another. It is like the moment when out of the corner of your eye you catch the first leaf falling from a tree in autumn. You’ve seen the leaves on the grass and you knew they got there somehow, but watching that slow flutter from branch to ground with your own eyes means it is actually happening. After the last swim of the season, the air is cold — cold enough so that I know I will not get back into the ocean for a good six months. The toes may get wet as autumn continues, but that will be the extent of it.

For some reason, the first summer swim — that take-your-breath-away plunge in mid-May or early June — blends into all the others which come afterwards. By the Fourth of July, I have forgotten what was so cold about the water anyway, and in August I sometimes even want the water to be a bit cooler so the break from the heat and humidity could be more refreshing.

But this year, for the first time, the memory of my first summer swim has stayed with me. Perhaps it is because the season has yet to begin in full that I still remember the feel of the wet sand between bare toes — so foreign after their winter inside socks and boots — and the way my skin prickled as it met the frigid water. Perhaps it was the early summer heat wave. But I think there is more to it than that.

This winter was my first back on Island after ten years of winters spent elsewhere. In many ways it was a good winter; in some other ways it was a long one. And it ended, as it does for so many Islanders, with moving out of a winter rental and shuffling into a summer one.

And so on June 1, after the last box was hauled from my car and up into my new bedroom, I left my housemates with the unpacking for a few minutes. I drove to the Inkwell, the closest beach I could find, and marched triumphantly into the water. Alone. My toes touched, then my fingertips and then I was under. I lasted only a minute, but when I came out, I felt lighter, as if I had shed some of my winter in the cold ocean and left it behind to float out to sea. I wrapped a thick towel around myself and took a moment to watch the waves before getting back in my car to go home and begin again the summer ritual of unpacking.