Jesus looked 40 feet tall as I floated above him. The Florida waters were warm, and I kicked my finned feet, listened to my breath pass in and out of the snorkel and the crinkling crystalline sound of water lapping against my body. I watched the others around me descend to touch the underwater Christ of the Abyss, though it seemed so very far away. I was five. Everything looked huge, and I stayed on the surface.
But I was at home in the water. Our little New Jersey town was bordered by two rivers that drained into the Atlantic seven miles from our house. I learned how to swim in their waters and in the frigid pool of the local YMCA. My dad would trick me, letting go and stepping back with the agreement that I would swim toward him. But he would step farther away from me with each stroke I made, forever out of reach, an unattainable goal. The lessons worked; I crave the feel of my body in that liquid environment, where fluid movements so like flight are possible, where gravity reverses itself.
In the Keys, there was more than just Jesus. There were barracuda, slender four-foot fish that I could see at a blue and murky distance. And in the shallows, a stingray nearly as large as I was undulated through the water below me, a dusting of fine white sand from the sea floor stirred by its water wings. Lobsters crawled straight from some prehistoric epoch and sea urchins were underwater starbursts. The barracuda had razor sharp teeth. The stingray could sting. A misstep on an urchin would have sent me to the hospital. But all I knew was that I had entered a world I never knew existed and it was wondrous. That there were things that inhabited this other place that could hurt me, I was unaware. I had no fear. My flippers made my new swimming skills seem like those of a superhero, and I knew that the creatures I encountered were busy with their own doings, ignoring my little mammalian body that had trespassed upon them.
It is thirty-five years later, and I have just spent two weeks worrying about the status of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, though I am 10,000 miles away. It was not completely idle fretting. On top of thinking about the people of northern Japan, last night I was supposed to be on a plane to Tokyo, to celebrate my cousin’s wedding. I chose, in the last hours, not to go. Fear was the deciding factor. I was worried about the hot water that keeps evaporating from the pools filled with spent fuel rods, and the radioactivity in the steam. I was worried about the International Atomic Energy Association’s repeated use of the words “very serious.” I was worried about all that the scientists and technicians don’t know and the qualifier “somewhat” by a Japanese spokesman when claiming that they were preventing the situation from getting worse. I was worried about the power of that energy we’ve pretended we’ve harnessed, though the bind of control seems to have reversed, though my cousin’s future grandchildren will still be asking, decades from now, what do we do with all this radioactive shit they left behind?
Was it in those Florida waters? Was that the moment when I last experienced a world without apprehension? Though the barracuda’s teeth were just as sharp as they are now, the water was so warm and everything so new and beautiful. And there was a bronze Jesus and a little girl who knew nothing of nuclear fission. Of the cruel ways men can treat animals and each other and the earth. Of what the eyes of a dying friend look like. Of the length of a surgical incision in a father’s torso.
I returned to that same body of water in Florida when I was nineteen. My breath caught when I saw the barracuda, though they still paid me no mind. And Jesus? He was not much larger than a tall man, a swimming pool’s depth below the surface of the water. With a kick of my fins, I held my breath and swam down to touch his outstretched hand, but it was the fearless moment I was after, and I couldn’t reach it.