I know the Gulf of Mexico.
I’m eight-years-old on my hands and knees on the bright blue deck of my father’s fishing boat. The rough sand-and-paint mixture of the deck digs into my knees but I remain still, my small face crammed against a hole in the rail at the bow. I watch a pod of dolphins as they surf in the swell of our wake. Their shadows flicker under the surface until they break, jumping and glistening in the sun.
I’m riding along as the boat moves from Tarpon Springs to Bayboro Harbor to load nets before the long trip around Florida and up the Eastern Seaboard to fishing grounds off the coast of Massachusetts.
The sun beats down on my back. We follow the shore and tuck ourselves under the new Skyway Bridge.
From the crow’s nest, the gulf waters look green and blue and black and yellow — the gleaming skin of a living body of water.
I’m eighteen. I duck into the blue-green waves at Fort Desoto. The bright Manic Panic in my hair sends alarming red rivulets of water down my back. I watch my boyfriend chase my baby sister along the sand. My grandpa paws through an old Coleman cooler for a Miller Lite. My mom stands knee-deep in the water, squinting blue eyes toward the horizon.
I sit, my ass settling neatly into the fuzzy-feeling sand below the surface. My shoulders already burn but I don’t care, I’m the sun and the water and the waves and the clouds and the sand and I am alive.
I’m fourteen. The trip out to Egmont Key on a johnboat is precarious at best. We dip and slide over the huge swells from a tugboat. We cross the ominous channel and her deep dark blue waters. And then we pick our way to the shore, dodging submerged rocks and the jagged edges of forts that sank below the surface years ago, long after they held watch where the mouth of Tampa Bay meets the Gulf.
A small plane hums above us and I know that from up there, the pilot can see sharks darting around the boats and waders. But I jump off the bow anyway, hitting the water in an ungainly sprawl. The salt-water rushes up my nose for a moment before I find the bottom with my toes and paddle to the unmarred shore.
We get lost that day, walking along abandoned brick pathways. Just when I think I can’t take another step or that my grandpa is going collapse, the path breaks through sea oats and low dunes and we’re back at the seaweed-covered beach.
Back at our little anchored boat, I drink water from a big blue thermos. Ice clinks around inside. The taste of it soothes the salt-pickled insides of my mouth.
The breeze strikes like a cool slap in the face and I smile.
Maybe I’m twelve. Off the east shores of Central Florida, the shoreline doesn’t end dramatically with a shock of white beaches. The Gulf seems to slowly grind to a halt. The flats expand for miles, littered with tiny grassy islands oyster beds and mangrove patches that all look the same. It’s a giant nursery for fish and birds and turtles and mollusks and swaying sea grass.
I’m a little terrified. We bob gently, and all I can hear is the intermittent wet slap of water against fiberglass. I turn in a full 360 and every view looks the same. Glittering water, green patches. Shimmering water, green patches. We’re going to die out here. There’s no way home. It’s a giant maze. And the water is probably full of sharks and angry little barracuda.
So I perch on a giant empty cooler and watch as everyone else snorkels for scallops. We may as well be somewhere prehistoric. This is the Gulf. Wild and open.
You. You’re me on my tippy-toes on the beach, sunburned and salty and wondering why I can’t see Mexico. You’re me and my husband holding hands and barefoot while we watch the waves crash and I wonder what the child in my belly will look like when he’s born in a few weeks. You’re my son throwing sand again and again and again like it’s his job to sculpt the edge of the world.
You hold the ashes of those I’ve loved. You swallow the sun in a green flash. You nurture the mighty hurricanes. Your darkness rises to the sky in twisting waterspouts.
You’ve been wronged and sullied and beaten and I want to stand and put my hands to your gasping surface to say I’m sorry, I’m sorry we did this, that we all did this.
Today I drove my husband to the airport. He’s flying to Louisiana. I wonder if he’ll follow the same flight path that took me right over the Deepwater Horizon in February, when I squinted down at the strange structures rising from the Gulf.
I wonder what it will look like this time.
Go to the shore.
Love the Gulf.
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Let’s raise our voices together.