The deck vibrates underfoot with a deliberate hum. The ferry plows through swells, and a wet gray hurls itself at the windows below. Somewhere in that fog, in that dreary wet cold, there is an invisible starting line. In some distant part of my mind, I think of a blinding white page, and the unknown first sentence of every novel ever yet to be written.
It’s an invisible line that every writer must cross.
A voice booms over the loudspeaker. “Thirty minutes to take off! If the boat sinks… just swim to shore!” Everyone laughs. Some a bit higher than others—a nervous release of fear.
As the heaving Golden Gate emerges from the grey, a group of five huddle together and start to pray. I don’t think God is going to intervene in this foolhardy thrill. With silicone caps and three millimeters of neoprene, they look like a rookery of seals. It’s the last animal I want to resemble under the Golden Gate Bridge, so I’m wearing my pale skin, and a safety yellow silicone cap.
Heat bleeds fastest from the head.
I stand on deck, outside in the cold, while the chatter of two hundred swimmers rises above the engines. It’s easier for me this way. The wind bites, and the fog creeps into my bones, but the sea promises relative warmth in comparison. Or so I hope.
I watch my fellow crazed humans. I can spot the first timers from the old. The uninitiated look sick, while the old hands might as well swap Lycra for silk and cocktails. I’m somewhere between, gazing at the infamous ‘potato patch’ where 400 billion gallons of water rushes through the Golden Gate every day.
“Last time I swam this,” a woman leaned over to say. “The fog was so thick that we couldn’t see the bridge.” I was lucky this day. The bridge was as visible as a giant steel lap lane. I only hoped no one decided to end their life by landing on a swimmer today. I shook the thought from my head. No. Don’t think about that.
My gaze travels to the water, and the voice of a retired fisherman echoes between my ears, begging me not to swim this race. “I’ve had a sixteen foot Great White cuddle up to my boat under that bridge.”
I glance around at all the long-limbed neoprene seals, and feel selfishly optimistic about my odds of survival. But what about my sunblock? I sniff my arm. Do sharks like coconut?
What did I sign up for? Doubt and Fear—I’m well accustomed to those obnoxious voices. They are a writer’s most persistent friends. But here, on deck, I’m not alone. The energy of two hundred crazy people on a boat is as contagious as a gaggle of writers getting high off of each other’s creativity. It’s a regular feeding frenzy. I grimace at the comparison.
The rumble of the engine dies—the finish line is no more distinguishable than the start. I can’t help but compare the unknown to writing. I’m familiar with this, too. It’s the blank white page, a mocking little cursor, and the end of a book that is no more in sight than the beginning.
The deck clears. Swimmers begin donning gear as the doors are thrown open. A gust of cold wind sweeps through the cabin, and those swimmers who were huddled inside gasp in shock. They discover it’s cold, even with three millimeters of neoprene. I glance out the window, squinting through the water droplets—angry waves with white caps. A SF policeman zips by on a wave runner. He dips his hand in the water, jerks it out, and mimes shivering in his full uniform and life jacket. More laughter. And then the steady cry of “Go! Go! Go!”
Five seconds to jump. Those who hesitate are yanked aside. But no one hesitates. Not on this swim. Only the foolhardy sign up for the Golden Gate. Two swimmers jump at a time, leaping out of both doors, and into the sea, eight feet below—two hundred willing passengers abandoning ship.
Bodies shiver, and some brace for the inevitable—their turn. Every wasted minute sweeps the ferry and swimmers farther off course. There’s no place for thought. No place for doubt. No place for—
“Go! Go! Go!”
Exhilaration surrounds me. The murky chill shocks my skin to life. I kick to the top, try to inhale, but instinct warns me to wait. I let my body take charge, waiting for the wave to finish slamming into my face. Breathe.
There is no rhyme or reason in the grey—no easy swells—only a confusion of lost waves. I follow the line of yellow caps. It’s simple. As simple and as difficult as a writer plunging into a first draft. We give that mocking cursor our crudest finger, and follow a thread of words, arranging twenty-six letters into reason.
We make our own rhythm; I do the same.
I slice through the waves, letting them bump and batter me in the ocean-sized washing machine. I barely reach the knot of swimmers bobbing behind a line of kayakers when the horn bellows. Swimmers take off with full force kicks. A blow to the rib, one to the thigh, a foot to the face. I tuck my head in close as I swim, swallowing down the fear of being kicked unconscious.
Pummeled by feet and waves, and sapped by the cold, I drop away from the lead pack.
Adrenaline soon wears off. Doubt creeps in. Fear raises its head in the form of ominous shadows lurking in the murk.
duunnn dunnn… duuuunnnn duun… duuunnnnnnnn dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dunnnnnnnnnnn dunnnn
But no… the cold will get me first. And I’m overwhelmed by a more urgent matter—the simple yet paramount task of breathing. Cold saps my strength, waves batter my body and crash down my throat.
This is the wall. The very same that separates writers from authors. Finishing. I’m alone in a gray sea. In a maze of muddled letters, fighting for every breath; for every word. The temptation to raise my hand and have a SF policeman zip to my rescue is as tempting as getting out of my chair when writing becomes too tedious. Excuses, too. ‘I don’t have time’ might as well be swapped for ‘I might drown’. And better yet, no one will ever know I didn’t finish. I’ll get a free ride on a wave runner, and be praised for trying.
I’ll know—I’ll know I didn’t finish. I’ll know that I left a story undone.
I turn that catchy horror song into my own. I hum louder as I swim. I’m the shark, and I set my sights on a distant swimmer in neoprene. He’s mine.
Sheer determination keeps me going, striving until my muscles burn, and my core goes numb. It keeps me typing, too. When my brain feels like a bucket of chum, and my hands cramp, reaching towards that last word—striving towards that final dot.
*Originally published in Sister’s in Crime August Newsletter