On Survival: A Love Story | Ioanna Opidee

But to enjoy freedom…we have of course to control ourselves.

-Virginia Woolf

I am twenty-two years old, standing in the pedestrian pathway of the Golden Gate Bridge, with my boyfriend, Eric, beside me. I’m bending slightly over the railing to glance at the water below, which looks flat and harmless, like blue Berber carpet. The space between us and the bay is one thick, indecipherable line.

“Don’t ever let me come here when I’m drunk,” I say. I try to laugh to let him know that I’m at least half kidding. And I am. I don’t really mean just drunk.

What are you trying to tell me, Yanna?” He laughs awkwardly. “Whaddya think, you might jump?” I stare down the interminable distance to the water, and I smile as at an old friend.

I lean back again, aghast. I want to tell Eric to hold me back, to keep me from climbing over the edge.

But I would never really jump, I think.

It wouldn’t feel like jumping, though. I see it in my mind: one leg over, the other next, then soaring with arms spread open, like an eagle, or a pigeon. It’s not really that far down, I think. And I think that the water will catch me.

When I was a child, on summer trips to visit family in Greece, the sea was my playmate. I’d lie belly down in the hard wet sand where shallow waves break, digging my toes and fingers in deep, laughing riotously, letting the ripples flip my body in all directions. Other times, I’d venture in to where the water was two or three feet deep, scooping mounds of sand, feeling their weight and sifting them from hand to hand. I was about nine years old when I began to dip in further, to where the water reached my neck but I could still touch the sea bottom with the tips of my toes. I’d float on my back, ears immersed in water, and all the sounds from the shore—mom’s voice scolding my sisters, teenagers squealing through volleyball games, toddlers shrieking with their first splashes in the water—would meld into one impenetrable vibration, like deep roaring laughter from the sea’s great belly. I would choreograph dance routines, arching my body over the surface like the Little Mermaid, reaching my arms up like a partnerless synchronized swimmer.

Until the day I tried a somersault. My friend Suzanne had taught me to do one in the neighborhood pool back home, a kind of going-away gift. So I stood upright on my toes and lifted one arm, imagining myself as an Olympic gymnast, then leaped enthusiastically, head tucked down, into the water, my body in the shape of a ball—just like Suzanne said. But I was a bit too forceful at the start for such a small move. My head snapped back as I tried to temper the propulsion of my body. I got stuck in mid flip beneath the water. My arms flapped wildly, searching for the surface, but I couldn’t find up or down. I kicked my legs out, but my feet lost all sense of the bottom. I’m trapped! I’ll never get back up! I know the surface is right there, but I can’t find it!

Until I finally did. For a moment, I was petrified into place. Then I turned my back to the shore, to gaze at the miles of blue—flat surface that, I now saw, left me nowhere to hide and could swallow me whole with not so much as a gulp.

What a fool. The deep waters had been mocking me, watching me play, with abandon, in the shallows near the shore for years.

The sea never seemed the same to me again, after my mummified moment in its grip. It left me vulnerable and exposed: exactly how it appeared to want me. The earth, on the other hand, with its hills and valleys, cracks and crevices, trees and brush, had its own dangers lurking, but allowed me to take cover. I could feel it beneath me; I could see and feel where it ended, and where I began.

From then on, I remained mostly on the sand, a preteen philosopher ruminating in my journal on the nature of wind, waves, mountains, meaning, hope, love, life—and meanwhile, the sea grinned at me, mischievously, inviting me to dance, like an older boy at school.

And now, in love, I feel that I can jump. And survive.

That’s what love does.

Eric’s voice returns me to the present: “Ioanna, people don’t survive when they jump off this bridge.” With blue eyes unblinking, lips tightly pressed, his expression, to me, reveals a hard-won grasp of this simple truth. I smile to say, “Of course,” and, “Thank you.”

Then we hold each other’s hands and return to our stroll.

Maybe that’s what love is.

 Ioanna Opidee teaches writing and literature at Fairfield University, where she earned an MFA in creative writing in 2011. Her work has appeared in Drunken Boat, Folio, Serendipity, and other publications. She serves as editorial production manager and volunteer coordinator for Welcome Table Press, a nonprofit organization dedicated to publishing and celebrating the essay in all its forms. She is currently working on a novel as well as a collection of essays about her Greek-American cultural heritage.


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