My brother Bill tells me to put the thing on the thing and hands me a rope before he shuts down the runabout’s motor and allows momentum to carry us to his pier. I lean into his words, whisper his instruction to myself, consider the direction of his eyes. I follow clues from our past—years of making meaning from his distracted language, for example—and tie a half hitch around the dock cleat when we come to a stop. The boat settles and bumps gently against the protective fender.
Never jump into frigid water, another brother once told me. He’d been playing basketball on a sweltering summer day and then, adrenaline still pumping, sweat still sweating, leaped into a hose-water cold swimming pool and became ill: his stomach cramped, his limbs heavy. Ease in slowly, he often said afterward. His need to save me trouble, I suppose, but I angled into the story’s middle—that brief airborne interval between hot exhaustion and expectation, before the water momentarily claimed him, sobered him with unwanted lessons about acclimation.
In Costa Rica, rip current postings frame the beach—what to avoid and how to swim to safety. Do not struggle or panic. Swim slant to save yourself. Wave your arms to find help. Fighting the current just leads to exhaustion, to being carried farther and farther away. When swimming, I tried to keep my daughter close—near enough to touch.
Even with postings, I couldn’t discern what the lifeguards easily spotted: the broken wave pattern, the line of churning debris, or the calm surface that hid danger. If the phantom current reached for us, I’d pull her to me. Keep her from going out to sea. My unnecessary plans to save her have become my clearest memories from the trip.
Back in the day, we kids loved to shout underwater in my friend’s backyard pool. It was a game we played to divine what the other said, our voices muffled and impossible. The legs of brothers and sisters all around us, the silent bouncing of their own language from above. When we came up for air, we declared victory over the muddled words, our recollections as unpredictable as the water.
Turns out I needed a cleat hitch to tie up my brother’s boat. The half hitch with its two loops twisted one way and then the opposite way wasn’t enough to hold us for long. I misread the signals.
Still, no one fell when we crossed from the boat to the pier. Boat. Pier. One not much different than the other, and both so dependent on water. The right language another way to steady us, to keep us safe.