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Where the Water Takes Us


Photo credit: Sebastian Voortman


I am lying on the shore, resting on my side as the fickle water approaches, first to push me away, then to tug at me. Back and forth, my body shifts with its whims and I am mesmerized by the soothing rhythm of its indecision. The tide grows higher, and I watch fathers and daughters play in the ocean as though it can be corralled, broken, known.


I am thinking of papá.


Papá, who once held me in this ocean as we flirted with the sky.


Papá, who taught me to surrender to the wind and allow the current to guide me.


“Let go, mija,” he would say as the cool breeze parted his hair. “Let the water take you where it needs to take you.”


My first memory in this life is of the playas de Tijuana. I was three years old. The dark power of the sea exhilarated and frightened me. Its enormity offered to unfurl the secrets of the universe at my feet like an ofrenda to the dead. I clung to papá, chubby arms around his neck as he laughed. I buried my face in his beard as the water surrounded us.


Later, I sat in the sand gathering bits of pink and green sea glass and scraps of wood made smooth over time by the tumbling caress of rough and salty waves. I dug for cone shells, scallops, cockles, and sand dollars. Papá said each seashell carries a memory belonging to the ocean, and I should be careful about bringing them home, for the memory would become mine. I dumped the treasures I had gathered back into the water and watched as the shells floated and bobbed before drifting beneath the surface. I did not wish to bring home the wrong memory.


One afternoon, papá and I made boats out of newspaper. He guided my hands, showing me how to bend the paper back and forth, creating folds here and creases there. We laughed at our fingers, stained black with ink, and admired our sturdy creations. We walked to the curb and placed the small vessels in a shallow river that ran the length of the street, created by days of endless rain. Holding hands, we watched as the boats raced away from us, growing smaller in the distance before disappearing into the sewer. We celebrated this triumph, this despedida, the sendoff.


“Where did the water take them, papá?” I asked.


He did not answer.


I don’t know if he heard me. Perhaps he did not know. Perhaps my question ignited a need in him to understand, to heed the lure of the ocean and learn its secrets.


After papá died, I visited the shore where we once played. I filled my plastic bucket with seashells and brought them home. I wanted to steal the ocean’s memory, to see him once more, to recall what it felt like to be standing with him in its foamy water. I prayed my recollection of papá would not recede like distant currents in an unknown sea.


Where does the water take us, papá?


I am lying on the shore, resting on my side. A passing child kicks loose a lone cockle shell that floats to the surface before me. I grasp it in my hand, closing my eyes.


Papá is gone, it reminds me. He surrendered to the wind and let the current carry him into a gold and orange sky lit ablaze by the setting sun.


I release the memory and watch as it drifts away, coasting along and shrinking in the distance before settling beneath the surface, where it will stay until it is stirred loose again.


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