Riptide
by Marion Smith

Chapter 3

[p.11]Find a good place to start. Some place good.

Whales.

The desert is pungent and emerald green. Not sage green, but emerald, like Oz only not as lush. It’s been raining. Everywhere there are tiny white and purple flowers and the cacti are covered with blood-red blossoms. There’s been flooding in Los Angeles.

February 1992 and I’m sitting on a camp stool in the sunshine outside our tent on a Baja beach. Through the flapping canvas I can hear Duncan softly snoring, an afternoon nap. Not that whale watching is an exhausting sport. In the morning we go back and forth through waveless ocean in motored row boats waiting for the whales to search us out. Grey whales. Whales that have surpassed instinct and demonstrated their capacity to learn. Thirty years ago, when they were being hunted, these grey whales rammed small boats like ours. Now they’ve learned they’re safe in San Ignacio Bay where they come to mate and birth. There are dozens of whales here this week, spouting, fluking, mating, and seeking contact with people. The Mexican boat drivers say the bubbles of the motors attract them and that each winter they’re becoming friendlier.

“Curiosity?” we ask.

The drivers shrug. [p.12]They want to be touched. “Rub hard, hard as you can,” the guide says when a huge bulk appears a few feet from our boat. “They like it.”

“But can they feel our fingers through the thickness of their blubber?”

“Oh, yes. Their skin’s extremely sensitive. It’s their receiving system.”

In the course of a few days, whale after whale rises from the water to eye us, then lingers to be touched, caressed, by us, the humans. One brings her baby but keeps between us and the calf.

“Awesome,” Shawn would say. I wish some of the grandchildren were here. Elizabeth wants to be a marine biologist.

We nearly capsize the boat when we move to the other side where the creature is. Sometimes they play with the boats like toys in a bathtub—pushing one a few yards, or holding it on an upturned belly, balancing the boat with a flipper while they swim on their backs and take us for a ride.

We’re not afraid. They don’t miscalculate. Any mistake would be ours. They want to know us. Some of the women in our boat bend over the side to kiss them. “I want to say I kissed a whale!” they shriek. Video cameras light up; the conversation is about focal lengths and shutter speeds. “Ektachrome’s better for blue,” someone proudly volunteers.

I don’t talk to anyone. I try hard to reach them, to rub their skin. It’s not oily like a fish, but soft like suede. I cry when I touch them, but no one sees. I look into a huge eye staring at me two feet above the ocean’s level.

Everyone but Duncan and me has gone on a hike to see the bird life. It’s quiet sitting on this stool except for water geysering from the blow holes of the whales in the bay and an occasional splash as a pelican jet dives for a fish. A good place. Why does Melville choose a whale for Captain Ahab to chase [p.13]across the world until one or both of them must die? Why not a great white shark? Today we have Jaws. Jaws would work quite well as a symbol for Clint.

Jaws is meaner and not nearly as smart as Moby Dick. Ahab has to struggle against an enigmatic, cosmic force. With Clint there’s no such subtlety. Only the mundane cannibalism of Jaws. Habitual open jaws every time you think he’s been bashed down.

Like Jasmine’s dreams. Sometimes she tells me her dreams. She could write a novel to rival Stephen King. Or a textbook of dreams, with archetypal Jungian symbols.

There was Jasmine’s blender dream. I don’t know, I don’t understand, I’ve never experienced the utter terror or brutality of pieces of loved ones ground together by whirling blender blades. And the shark dream. She and her sister are under water in the ocean. There’s a shark. The shark is circling, coming closer and closer. The shark has a huge red penis, dripping in the ocean water. He’s trying to rape them. They can’t help each other. There’s blood. There’s terror. Helplessness. I can’t convey her dream, but when she told me somehow I knew it, how it was. There’s no conveying it.

Great white sharks, not grey whales.

7:50. Fillmore, Utah. Right on schedule. Coffee, a Hershey bar, the restroom. Gas can go ’til Cedar City. It’ll be completely dark then. I’m not tired anymore. I want to drive and drive.

Fillmore—the original capital of Utah territory in 1850. The old capitol is like a large charming colonial house made of heavy sandstone. Simple and solid, fundamental. Duncan and I stopped a couple of times to take the children through it. Let them know about their polygamous great-great-grandparents. They had to finish their Dairy Queen cones so they wouldn’t drip on the carpets. It was always hot in Fillmore. It’s still hot tonight at 8:00.

Polygamy. The church. Truth. What was the truth of polyg-[p.14]amy? Why did my great-grandparents believe? What was Joseph Smith thinking? Can you ever know the truth? Like Pilate asking Christ, “What is truth?” Truth shattered my reality, and led to too many other truths. I came to dread the truth.

The whole truth? Not tonight. Tomorrow perhaps. I’ll speak the truth tomorrow. I’ll figure it out tonight and then speak it tomorrow. Tonight I’ll start with their truth, Jeanne’s and Jasmine’s; They seem to hold it in, but it still slices into me. I won’t protest, but I too have my truth. It would solicit their pity to speak of my pain.

Somewhere, in whatever “truth” is, there is no me. I’m not an independent system, but a composite of others’ needs. To breathe is to calculate what others want from me and what I am required to give. To speak is to measure whether words will damage or heal. To touch is to choose which form, which person. Perhaps there’s no truth, only metaphor. No one wants to hear that. They’d say it’s a cop-out. They’d say that loving has no relevance to truth, that they’re different qualities.

I started to write a book once. Got three pages typed. It was going to be our family’s story told from at least six points of view. Faulkner-ish. It began with Elizabeth. My granddaughter. Seven-year-old Elizabeth. She was the three pages. It was to be a history that would somehow bring order and sense out of chaos. It would bring understanding, though not forgiveness, to members of our family, their spouses, and children. But as soon as Elizabeth began to speak in my three pages, I knew there was no way I could continue. I couldn’t be inside anyone’s head. Not even my own. I couldn’t find Elizabeth’s truth back then.

There is no truth. That’s for other people. There’s only my physical inability to stop loving my children. I’d like to say that this loving is what has to happen; this is how the universe must be re-constituted. A bit grandiose. But deep in my soul that’s the [p.15]one thing I do know. I’m tired to the bone of apologies for not knowing the truth.

I hate this excess. Self-indulgence. I’d like to stop remembering after the whales. Whales are so…big and splashy. Hard to ignore. What impels me to remember? What difference does it make now? The compulsion to create some kind of order…patterns where there seems to be none. Homer’s story patterns are of otherwise meaningless victories and wanderings. Who would care that Achilles sought revenge, if Homer hadn’t put it in a story? The Grimm brothers bring patterns to the deprivations of younger sons as a way to make primogeniture tolerable. People make patterns and we call it history. Who knows what truth it holds? What truth mine holds?