The sea makes me think of salt. Salt everywhere. In my mouth. In my eyes. In my hair. In my bones. I have always loved the sea.
My brother and I had this game when we lived in San Francisco, where we would run away from the crashing wave when it moved towards us, and we would run towards it when the foam receded. It was like playing tag with nature, and it didn’t matter who won. I enjoyed the unpredictability of water, the way it snuck up on you, but my brother was genuinely scared of it. So I asked him to wait. Your feet will sink in the soft, wet, sand, I might have told him, and then the water will kiss you.
Sometimes, worms and small crabs escaped from bubbles in the sand. Sometimes, I lathered myself with the sand, like it was clay and I was a sculptor, building myself from the outside in. Sometimes, I dug into the sand with my fingers, hoping to find some kind of treasure. That’s how I came across my first sand dollar.
It was a perfect circle, with the imprint of flower petals on its hunched back. It reminded me of an Indian sweet, the kind made entirely of sugar, the kind that was hollow on the inside. This sand dollar, I imagined, was the currency of sea people. Mermaids, or maybe jellyfish. I imagined transactions where these white discs were exchanged. Maybe the dollars floated away, or maybe gravity pulled them down if one swam deep enough.
As a child, it was all very clear. Mermaids buying groceries, a bouquet of coral for a birthday, shell earrings, a sea cucumber for an evening salad. This world had dances and flowers, maybe a little black magic. Everyone was rich because everyone had water and sunlight and food. Which meant, in essence, that everyone was royalty (is this why I built sandcastles?) in a kingdom of impermanence. Lives whooshed away with warm currents, sunken ships became minefields. Underwater whirlpools destroyed kingdoms and sunlight and algae recreated them. In this world, happiness coupled with violence, and this tension, this contradiction, was the thread that connected us. My world too was a concoction of the incompatible. Sweet days and bitter ones. Lots of laughter and lots of tears. There wasn’t an in-between. Either here or there. Days with salt and days without. Above water or below.
So the sea wasn’t just salt and sand dollars. The sea was a universe in itself, and it was my job to collect souvenirs of a world I could never know. Shells found their way into the hem of my dress. My t-shirt became a basket. Shells with fans and swirls, with stripes and spots. Round ones, brown ones, pink ones, broken ones, I collected them all and stored them in a red box. On top of the box, with a wobbly crayon, I wrote My Shell Collection. I collected sand. I collected stones. I collected not to own the sea, but to remember it. And then something odd happened. I grew up.
I still loved the sea, the way it made me sticky and sweaty and thirsty all the time. I liked wearing my swimsuit, the pale strap lines it left on my browning shoulders. I liked sleeping on the beach and waking up with sand in my eyelashes because then I could jump in the water first thing in the morning. I still collected shells and stones, but not in a red box. And now that I had a woman’s body, I could no longer use my t-shirt as a basket.
People liked to look. I wish I lived in a world where bodies were not unusual, where skin was as familiar, as unnoticeable, as blinking, but people – both men and women – liked to look. Because I’m a woman, I told myself, and I tried to let it go, but I couldn’t. Their eyes made my body feel dirty or prized or seductive or beautiful or not enough. But I don’t want to feel any of those things.
I just want to wade into the water until I jump when the wave jumps and feel – for a split second, as I sink back down – that I am flying. I want to paddle and splash and twirl and sink into this netherworld and become a mermaid. Because in this world, breasts are not a big deal. Neither is skin. It’s a place where sand dollars are currency and shells are jewellery and hair slithers like hundreds of tiny snakes. Here, I’m Medusa the mermaid.
(Pragya Bhagat is a spoken word poet and the author of two books, More Than a Memory and Yarn: An Interwoven Memoir. You can follow her work at facebook.com/PragyaWrites)