Katherine Szpekman writes poetry and memoir from her home in Collinsville, Connecticut. She finds inspiration in the everyday and nature. Themes of loss, family, and place are central in her poetry. Her work has appeared in Red Eft Review, Sky Island Journal, Muddy River Poetry Review, and Chestnut Review, and is forthcoming in Hiram Poetry Review. She was awarded Honorable Mention in the Connecticut River Review Poetry Contest 2019.
Two surfers in wet suits bob in the water
like seals, here on Ballston Beach.
They ignore the flags
wild with warnings of sharks.
So many sightings this summer,
several attacks, a death.
But September seduces.
This light Hopper painted,
and magically trapped,
like a rare insect under glass,
the sky a super highway of baby blue,
the ocean, an endless parking lot of indigo.
It filters through puffs of snowy cumulus,
pushed by golden winds.
As if these things could promise protection.
Locals gather in clusters and point to the dark sea.
Their mouths move, but the roar of the ocean mutes.
Their eyes scan the water like the beacon from the Highland Light,
searching for the two men each time a wave crashes.
I understand such apprehension,
the pull of it, how it traps
like the suction of sand around your feet
as the current moves out.
I understand the undertow of dread,
but I could tell them,
vigilance is a pail with holes.
Old men fold their arms against wind
and uncertainty, safe in their zipped nylon jackets,
some already thinking about
what they will eat for lunch.
Someone says good for them to go in anyway.
Dogs run and bark, off leash, their noses to the ground
reading the morning news.
And yet, there is a moment,
when it is perfect.
The surfers paddle out on their longboards,
rise like dancers, join the wave,
and zig zag towards shore, orgasmic.
I think of you and wonder
who is to say joy is not worth the risk?
I unfold the aluminum beach chair and face the surf.
My book remains unopened,
suddenly, cast in this play,
as lifeguard on duty,
or so it always feels.
I only know how to blow a whistle.
The surf pounds, and recedes, clatters
over broken shells that twinkle like a bracelet
on a woman’s wrist.
A strand of hair whips and sticks to my lips.
My toes burrow in the cold sand.
I appear to have lost both feet.
I was always sprinting, even when you slept.
I wasn’t thinking about you this morning,
but now these men.
Danger always brings you close.
I never asked for the responsibility
of keeping you alive.
A crab skitters across bleached shells
and tangles of seaweed, and I want to know,
am I wicked
to envy his ability to molt his shell?
To have chosen to live?
Only one surfer is visible now.
The board of the second pops up
Skilled surfers know the dorsal fin of a dolphin
is curved in an arc, and that of a shark is straight
like a blade.
Please, I think, don’t drown in front of me.
I can’t save anyone and don’t want to witness
the sudden and irrevocable.
The second surfer emerges.
Waves break and retreat
in huge slathers of shaving cream and bubbly froth.
Some leap onto the sand
like survivors of a shipwreck.
Some fade away,
and in the moment between crash
my memory of you treads water.
I remember how you too would swim
out past where the waves would break,
parallel with the shore.
A fearless Pisces in mysterious waters,
where I never dared follow.
Like a fish, you rolled and looped,
such solace in the cool lapping water.
Far from the crimson lithium capsules
you would flush down the toilet, unstable.
Far from the cacophony and firework flames
of earthly madness.
Your body a brushstroke on the horizon,
your arms pinwheels, strong and rhythmic,
while we shielded our eyes with our hands,
squinting against the sun, searching.
We were always waiting for the danger to pass.
You would surface, a dark spot,
which could have been mistaken for a seal,
so distant as to become a myth.
And then, it would be you
shielding your eyes,
searching for us,
the current having pulled you down the beach.
Your slow walk back
to towel off your long hair,
water glistening on your body,
shrouded in that bathing suit,
the blue one
the color of a delphinium flower.
Delphinium from the Greek
delphis, the curve of the blossom
like a dolphin leaping.
The expensive one-piece
Mom bought you
because your body had morphed
into breasts and thighs and men
had begun to look and you didn’t
know whether you had gained or lost
power, but it became your burden
to cover it up or show a little more.
Nobody told you the rules
or that you could make up your own.
You became prey,
swallowed the hook
your lip caught, ensnared.
You were reeled in, thrown
to the deck to thrash, bloodied.
A fish out of water suffocates.
It was a September morning,
when even the air couldn’t breathe,
the sky so blue it tricked you
like a mirage on city pavement,
and you traded in your legs for
wings that you didn’t have.
And you would be forever gone.
I see you swimming still,
a shimmering apparition,
and you are leaping.
Oh, how you leap.