As night washes in, I stand shoulder deep in a sliver of the Atlantic Ocean. A wave lifts me off my feet. I glance toward my teenage son, who is drifting a little farther out, floating where the water deepens and darkens.
I should – and I know it – be thinking about what a lovely moment this is. But, no, my mind is cuing up instead the opening sequence of the movie, Jaws. You know, the one where the girl plunges into the ocean at night and things definitively go bump in the night.
Cue scary theme some from Jaws: Nuh-nuh-Nuh-nuh. You are seriously way too stressed,” I mumble to myself. I’ve brought him with me during a brief stay in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where I’m part of a symposium at the World Chemistry Congress. I’m part of a symposium on chemistry and culture and my talk, scheduled Monday, is about the poisonous alcohol of Prohibition.
Okay, not a relaxing topic. But fascinating. I’m honored to be talking it here. And I remind myself that the water in this little beach in San Juan Puerto Rico is glass clear, glowing with lights from the hotel. I can see no shark-shadows approaching, only the tumble of rocks and broken shell over my feet.
“Why don’t you come in a little?” I say to my son. Okay, okay, I’m a little antsy. I spent much of the year set on vibrate while I helped organize the World Conference of Science Journalists. Yes, it happened a month ago in Qatar, but I’m still relearning the ability to just sit, relax, write for the pure joy of it, float on,
My 17-year-old gives me the look and drifts a little farther into the darkness. We’re the only two people in the water here. The combination of the lapping waves and the glorious buoyancy of sea water makes me feel weightless. Is it the salt, I wonder?
Nuh-nuh-Nuh-nuh: the song still thumps in my head.
“Um, there could be a rip-tide,” I say to him. Once, years ago, at a family reunion at Amelia Island, Florida, his older brother and I were briefly caught in an outgoing slip of tide, a strong invisible thread running out beneath the foaming waves. The moment is still so real to me that, in a heartbeat, I can still see the walls of gray-green water and smell the sting of salt in the air.
He rocks in the gentle slosh of water around him.
Goes on to tell me some story, horrifying to me, hilarious to him, about how, when I wasn’t looking, he, his brother and their cousins like to compete to see how far the waves and tides would wash them out from shore. “Dad knew,” he adds. I can feel my eyes start to narrow toward wherever my hapless husband stands.
I tell myself to get over it. He’s here isn’t it? Obviously they bobbed around like corks in those waves. Later, when he’s not looking, I lok up the I spend a little time looking the buoyancy thing, find those the old make-an-egg-float science fair projects. Of course, that’s table salt (NaCl) and water. So I look it up too and discover that this isn’t so different from seawater: the chlorine (Cl-) ion makes up some 55 percent of the salt in seawater, followed by about 30 percent sodium (Na).
Although seawater also contains a reasonable additional dose of sulfur (S), calcium (Ca), potassium (K), some natural traces of this and that (technically speaking) and, of course, whatever chemicals we happen to throw into the mix from our cities, our farms, and the rest of of our lives. I find a study that follows the way the chemistry of seawater may have changed with the shifting geology of the planet itself. It suggests that the calcium compounds in seawater – essential for the formation of everything from corals to seashells – rose slowly over time, helping to build the fantastical underwater architecture of the marine world.
I’m still floating in the dark and I’m humming the Ben Lee version of Float On. My kids hate it when I hum. My son starts splashing toward shore. I follow him out to the sandy curve of land, where water meets shore. The next morning we visit a 17th century fort, formidable walls curved high above the blue glitter of the Atlantic.
“Don’t sit too close to the edge,” I say.
“Oh, that’s right,” he answers. “The current might get me.”
Are we ever as buoyant as when we are seventeen? I laugh, laughing at myself. Remembering Ben Lee’s voice, soft as the night waves, reminding me to let go: “And we’ll all float on okay.”