I was born in Illinois, where the only waves I knew rippled across miles and miles of corn tossed by the prairie breeze. I was born with a little drop of saltwater in my heart. And as like calls to like, that little drop of saltwater drew me eastward from when I was small, always tugging to rejoin the bigger ocean it belonged to.
The first time I tasted saltwater, it was pretty clear to me it was the wrong ocean. Not even an ocean at all—the Gulf of Mexico is a great, big salt lagoon for all intents and purposes. I was in Florida with my class for our senior trip. I’d slept on the floor of the bus on the way down with everybody else, piled like puppies in the aisles.
One of my friends got a one-way ticket to fly home after he was caught sneaking back from a fight night at a local club. The rest of us were wildly jealous. We’d spent the night making sand unicorns after curfew ourselves, but that wouldn’t have gotten us a flight to Chicago even if we’d been caught. We might have tried harder if we knew it was an alternative to another 20-hour drive. At any rate, the saltwater at Clearwater Beach was tepid as bathwater, and about as lively. It wasn’t my ocean, at all. I hoped it wasn’t all oceans, but I had no way of knowing.
About four years later, I joined a teaching program in Philadelphia. Orlando was the only easterly place I’d ever been until then. I caught a ride with another member of the program, a girl who drove cross country from California, someone I’d only met on the internet, long before meeting people from the internet was a thing. We road-tripped to Niagara Falls. We stayed in KOA Campgrounds along the way. She drowned her phone by accident. Her directions were wrong. She didn’t have an atlas. She said, “You can buy a map for yourself, but I’m not spending the money.” I didn’t have the money. We ended up on Long Island, New York to visit a friend she knew from college, after phone started working again.
It never occurred to me that Long Island was so long. Or that it had saltwater.
The friend took us to dinner in a small town on a still bay. My nose perked up with the cold, green, salty scent of the water. After dinner that night, with new directions in hand and only a day left to reach Philadelphia, I leaned over the end of the dock, and whispered, “Hello, Atlantic. I’ll be back soon.”
What I didn’t know then, was that months later, I would meet a Long Island boy in Philadelphia. I didn’t know that Long Island boy would be game to go on a hairbrained weekend trip I planned with friends to a (lame) strawberry festival back on the Island. Didn’t know he’d offer to let us stay at his grandmother’s house by the beach.
I definitely didn’t know, when I bought a bikini and shaved for the first time in eight months, that the ocean in May on Long Island is freeze-your-tits-off-cold. I didn’t know he’d join me for that Antarctic swim, walk me out past the breakers smashing around me, bob in the calmer water with me where the cold (was it the cold?) took my breath away.
I didn’t know that I’d marry that Long Island boy four years later, that we’d come back to live in that same Long Island town. The beach where I first met the ocean—the real ocean— became my beach. The little drop of saltwater I’d carried around in my heart since birth would come home. And so would I.
Erin is a naturalist who writes at The Familiar Wilderness and takes amazing photos of moths (mothing) on her instagram. Her novel (very exciting) is currently on hold, but Erin is doing freelance nature writing in the mean time.