As I leave Savannah on Highway 80, I pass the paper mill on the left. Similar to Butchertown in Louisville, whose smell in the summer contributes to the marked rise of vegetarians, the International Paper Mill forces me to reconsider ever putting anything on paper. Even veganism seems wise: If eggs can smell that bad when they rot, they can’t be good to begin with. While hydrogen sulfide may not be officially hazardous in low doses, it’s disturbing how quickly it overpowers the sense of smell. Stay in the area overnight and, in the morning you wouldn’t know that you stank.
The water takes on the same flavor. I never knew that plain water could taste sweet until I moved out of the Southeast. This is why all the tea is sweetened, and everyone drinks coke. Join the community for a short while and your taste buds forget what good water tastes like. The images of sulfur and eternal heat that street preachers invoke come alive to those living near a Southern paper mill. Only there, it’s a dry heat.
Thankfully, I’m driving into the wind on my way East. Once I’ve reached the bridge onto Tybee Island, nothing but dampness comes through the windows and sunroof. It’s strange having to run the wipers when it’s not raining: The humidity never drops below ninety percent, even in the driest summer. Tybee means salt in the Native American Euchee language. Salt can purify and preserve, but it can also burn. I once heard that even people who cannot swim can float in the Dead Sea because of the high concentration of salt and minerals. The air on the island feels that way except, instead of supporting you, it crushes you. The saltiness of the wet air surrounds, envelops, encloses the night around you. During the day, the sun burns off some of the moisture; at night, it folds in on you.
Blue sky reaches out to the horizon and touches blue-green water. Moonlight washes away the vivid color of the day. White sand becomes light gray. Sky and water meld into pitch. I learn what it is to be color-blind like dad. At night the beach isn’t about seeing and being seen. No seeing; no touching; no talking; no hearing other than the rush of the wind past your ears. Only smell and taste remain; even they fade in repetition.
Turning into the public parking lot a little too sharply, I flash back to driving lessons with dad as I hear his dreaded command, “Easy. EASY!” echo in my head. Officially, the beach closes at midnight, but the police never enforce this rule. I watch for the watchers anyway; at three hours after mid-night, it’s better to go unnoticed. I need to be alone.
I park as far away from the streetlight as possible. “Night Swimming” by R.E.M. is fading into the background: “you I thought I knew you / you I cannot judge / you I thought you knew me / this one laughing quietly underneath my breath / night swimming / deserves a quiet night.”[i] Knowing, judging, being known, needing escape I close the door and step into the wind. It’s always strong, especially at night; but tonight, it seems as if it has somewhere to go, and it’s insistent on getting there early. Dad’s shouting, “Hurry up, you’re making us late!” is blown away. I hope the wind continues to do this work.
I leave my shoes, wallet, shirt, and all but the door key in the trunk. No sense in tempting anyone to steal my last ten until the end of the month. If it weren’t for the gas card, I couldn’t be here and I’d likely starve. Dad shakes his head, “You need to learn to manage your money better, boy.”
The asphalt is still warm, but the sand is cool. It’s even cooler than the air—drier anyway. It’s like someone left the air conditioning on with the door open. Somewhere, dad is shouting, “Close the door!” I realize the wind is letting me down. Thoughts keep intruding. I pick up the pace to get to the wet sand so the wind will stop sandblasting my ankles, but it’s difficult running on a surface that gives way under every step. I turn south so the wind’s at my back. My hair streams out in front of me, pointing the way, forming blinders to everything around me. “Get a hair cut!” I head into the darkest part of the beach on its southern edge. This must be what a sensory deprivation chamber feels like. I can hear only the gentle breaking of the waves on the rocks. I can see only a few stars through the clouds. I can feel only the warm water splashing against my shins. I can smell only the brine in the air. I can taste only the salt on my lips.
I climb over the break, take off my shorts, and wade into the Atlantic. Isolated. Separated. Alone. Silent. Safe.
An hour and a half up I-16, the cancer is spreading. Three years ago it invaded his colon. They tried to isolate it. To separate it. To convince it to leave him alone and safe. It didn’t work.
Within a year he was back at the hospital with a shortness of breath, silencing him. As if he were trapped under water, his lungs couldn’t hold enough oxygen. The x-rays showed some spots: Little dark spots that seemed to be joining together in places. Forming communities. Staking claim to their territory. Climbing on up. They try again to isolate it and separate it.
A few weeks ago the left side of his body felt numb, and he had trouble walking. Stumbling into the neurologist’s office, he sees an MRI of his brain. The communities have taken up residence there now. Overcrowding will soon be a problem. The population control techniques have failed, and there’s no place left to be alone. There’s no room left.
One month from now, during a night much like tonight, the growth would finally stop. Dad would simply stop breathing: merciful separation. Tonight though, breathing is still important to me; and as I float on my back underneath the clouds, I add a few extra ounces of saline to the sea.
I swim back to the breakers, pull on my shorts, and walk north toward the lot. I feel cold as the wind dries me. The wind and the surf drown out most sound, but then I notice a gull calling out the morning. The brine leaves my lips chapped and my tongue feeling swollen. My nose clears, and I smell the dry morning air blowing in from the west. My hair, no longer providing the blinders, flails about behind me. Color returns, and I can see the light of a red morning ahead. Mourning ahead.
Before I get into the car, I try and knock off as much of the white sand as possible, but my efforts are futile. I carry the beach back home with me: little communities, refusing to let go.
Today, twelve years later, I never go to the beach alone, and I haven’t been to Tybee since that night. The night swimming is past, “replaced by everyday.”[ii] Laurel and I often go out at night for a walk on the beach, together. She never knew dad, but she was there for the funeral: drove down from Louisville just to be with me. That was when I knew.
Leaving the babies with her mom, we walk east on Orange Beach before midnight. I stop and look at the horizon where water and sky meet and merge into one. Laurel reaches out, takes my hand, and we merge as well. Laughing quietly underneath my breath, I whisper, “Good night.” My community has found me, known me, and I am not alone. We walk back to the condo to check on the kids. The night air swirls around and between us. Safe.
[i] R.E.M. “Night Swimming.” Automatic for the People. Georgia, 6 October 1992.