Retaining vivid memories has never been one of my strong suits. Childhood events brimming with gut-wrenching laughter and bright smiles are shadowed right alongside memories best kept in the dark. But somehow, despite my brain’s strange desire to erase my past, there is one memory inexplicably burned into the back of my retinas.
Twelve years ago, my family vacationed down in Florida during spring break. We had plans to go to Disney and stay on the beach, but the ocean appealed to me more than the famed magic of Disneyland. I had only ever been to docile Lake Michigan and was extremely interested in the untamed ocean.
As my older sister and I sat anxious on the plane, staring out oval windows with wide eyes, chomping on cheap gum to keep our ears from popping, we thought up adventures to be had on the beach. We had been to Florida once before, but at four years old, I was too young to remember— even for normal people’s standards of memory retention.
The airport transfer, the rental car, walking into the hotel— all of it was a blur. But this gut feeling tells me that I was a tiny girl walking in a world much, much bigger than anything I was used to.
Tropical weather during December was a strange but welcome sensation. My sister and I reveled in Florida’s towering palm trees, numerous geckos, and soft sand, for we didn’t often get to experience them. We made it a goal to capture a gecko, but the little brown-green creatures were too quick to ever let us get near.
With the ocean absorbing all of my attention, I barely stayed in the hotel room long enough to change into my blue and black swimsuit and charge towards the water. My family followed at a slower pace, much to my dismay. My sister shuffled down the sand with a pail delicately held in one hand while the other readjusted the giant pair of white sunglasses balancing on her pale nose. A warning call from my mom told me to wait, but my excitement couldn’t be tamed. I ran to the water, towel tucked under my arm, and dipped my toes into the rising and falling tide.
I don’t think I had ever been at peace before then. The water had a hypnotizing effect on me, a draw I couldn’t resist.
Florida held us blissfully captive for a week. Unsurprisingly, the majority of my time was spent in the ocean. I grew bolder each day, drifting farther and farther away from shore. My sister cared more about the sun darkening her pasty skin and keeping sand off her towel. My mom was occupied with the task of talking to her husband while keeping my erratic form in sight.
My mom sat stiff in her folding chair, mouth turned in anxiety as she shouted at me to come closer to the shore. But I carried on, ignoring her silly adult worries and believing myself invincible. I clutched my blue foam boogie-board tightly beneath my fingers as I crashed into one wild wave after another.
The spray kicked into my mouth, infecting my taste buds with bitter salt and forcing me to spit back into the water before another wave hurled into me. My heart pounded in panic as my hands began slipping lower and lower on the board. Soon enough, I was bobbing in the water rather than riding it. But I found a way to recover my grip, and turn, victorious, to grin at my mother—
—just as a large wave shoved me beneath the roiling ocean.
I clawed toward the surface, but the current tossed me around like a ragdoll. My small body somersaulted across the ocean floor to the rhythm of the crazed current. At seven years old, my body was not big enough to put up much of a fight. Muddy sand and saltwater poked into my ears and gasping mouth as I screamed for only the fish to hear. My head was filled with nothing but panic.
And yet, somehow, I wasn’t pulled under and drowned. My feet connected with the ocean floor long enough to squat and shoot myself out of the water—right into another wave. Water clogged my mouth, but I swallowed it and focused all of my energy into swimming back to shore. I was determined not to let my body get sucked under the ocean again. I gagged at the horrible taste of the salt, paddled over to where my boogie-board had drifted, and swam hard back to shore.
My mom wasn’t screaming in terror, nor was she crying, magazine clutched tightly to her chest in order to keep her heart from bursting out of her thin body.
“Mommy!” I gasped as water ran down my body in thick rivulets and gritty sand clung to my skin. “The water pulled me under!”
“Really?” Her eyebrows pulled together in concern and confusion. “But I was watching, and you weren’t under for any longer than normal.”
Sure, I had dived beneath the water many, many times before, but in each of those instances I had been in total control. This time had been different…
“I think I’ll just hang out here for a while,” I whispered to the wind, my body thrumming violently with residual fear and adrenaline. I was too worked up to explain to my family what had just happened.
My stomach churned with salt water, kicking up several burps and a very unpleasant sensation that almost made me throw up. I mimicked my sister, trying to lie still and let the sun warm me back up, but my body twitched for action. Ocean water still turned in my stomach, so I devoured a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that promptly soaked up the water.
I wandered along the shore the rest of the evening, but only managed to wander waist-deep into the water, held back by the fear trapped in my body. The sun cooled into a shade of pink lemonade and the beach traffic lessened significantly. We briefly returned to the hotel for dinner before I begged my mom to take one last walk on the beach. She agreed, but only if my sister tagged along. She was reluctant to follow my erratic path, so instead of watching me my sister looked for seashells, farther away from me than my mom would have approved of.
Glimmering in the sand, like a brilliant copper star fallen from the sky, was a single penny. It lay half-buried, an old President’s face catching the last rays of sunlight. I picked it up and dipped it in the water to clear off stray particles of sand.
My mind turned, seeing magic in the mundane. To me, it wasn’t just a penny. I felt that the ocean had sent it to me as a sign of apology; it hadn’t meant to almost drown me… the current just got too strong sometimes.
“Thank you… Penny,” I whispered to the waves. They roared in response, spraying foam and salt into the air.
I kept the penny a secret from my family; my imagination always ran wild, so I figured they would tease me for my logic. I pocketed the penny and took it back home with me.
When our plane shot off the runway, back towards the Midwest, I clutched the penny between my fingers. Flying made me anxious, but the penny lightened my nerves.
Snow replaced sand and pines towered instead of palm trees. Life returned to normal, but a pocket in my heart was reserved for Penny and the calm the ocean brought over me. As I grew taller and older, my memories faded or were erased entirely. Even the trip itself was a blur— all except for Penny. That was a secret magic my heart couldn’t bear to part with, even after the coin itself was lost.
The younger my age, the fewer memories I have, and yet this one from my seven-year old head managed to stay.
Some things just stick with you…