When life gets you down, take a plunge
by Emily Gajda

Wells Beach, Maine, at 10 a.m. was too quiet. I should’ve been in New York City, working at the publishing house that offered me an internship back in March. I should’ve been waking up at 7 a.m. to shower and put on business casual, catching the subway.

I would’ve been there if it weren’t for a round of budget cuts. A week before I was going to start, they told me I had no job. I would’ve been thinking about where to go dancing and meeting with my new friends for coffee. I would’ve been wearing heels and eating lunch in Washington Square to a chorus of street performers and car horns.

But instead, I woke up in the back of my 2014 Jeep Wrangler, surrounded by a month’s worth of camping supplies and about five days’ worth of clothes. Everything was damp from the condensation that had collected in the car while I was asleep. The air smelled just a little bit like salt water and mildew. The only noises were a few birds chirping and a weathered older man walking around the parking lot, reminding stragglers that campsite check-out was at 9:30. He looked kind, though, and his tone wasn’t nagging — it had a hint of sympathy. I asked him if I could shower quickly before leaving, and he told me that the bathhouse had closed for cleaning. Even if he wanted to let me in before I left, he couldn’t. I hadn’t even brushed my teeth yet. I wouldn’t have a bathhouse for three or four more days as I camped my way further up the coast.

“Why don’t you go for a swim?” he said. “In my experience, Atlantic salt water does the job.”

I smiled, thanked him for the suggestion, and decided that what I actually needed was a cappuccino.

The only coffee shop in Wells Beach was a few minutes’ drive away. I ordered my cappuccino with skim milk. The woman looked at me a little funny.

Maybe it was because I smelled bad. I had been camping in my car for a week, moving slowly north from Chapel Hill, taking gas station sink showers with hand soap and a washcloth. Or it could have been because I was alone. Wells Beach is small — tourists usually come in groups, and residents know each others’ names. Likely, it was a combination of both.

“How are you doing this morning?”
“Can’t complain. Maine is beautiful.”

At her request, I explained what I was doing up there all alone. I’m sure it came off a little resentful and very convoluted. It’s hard to explain to someone how a 21-year-old girl ended up choosing to sleep in a car for a month. It’s even harder when it was a trip planned in a matter of days, and when you don’t even really know why you’re doing it either. She could tell I was frazzled.

“Go to the beach, it’s a nice place to think. Take a swim, clear your mind.”

I smiled again before I left, feeling guilty as I thanked her for suggesting a solution that I couldn’t imagine using. My comfort zone did not encompass the Atlantic Ocean, even after the cappuccino.

As I drove east, my dad called. I told him maybe too much about how bad my car smelled, how nothing ever dried completely. I talked about the man at the campsite, how he seemed familiar in a way I couldn’t quite explain. I talked about the woman in the coffee shop and how I rambled on while she gave me a kind of smile that said she understood it all. I laughed toward the end of the call and said two people that morning had already told me to swim.

He chuckled at me and asked, “why don’t you?” But he already knew: I had been scared of the ocean ever since I was a kid. Likely a product of never spending much time at the beach, my rather petite stature (it’s just so big!) or my general fear of the unknown.

“You’re alone, camping up and down the Eastern Seaboard — taking a dip in the ocean is where you draw the line?”

I was still laughing as we said goodbye. By the time we hung up, I was somehow parked at a beach access. I slipped on a bikini in the back of my car, dug a damp towel out from an old duffel bag and laid it on the bumper in the sun.

Then, seemingly without ever making the decision at all, I was in the water. It was impossibly cold. That man and that woman did not tell me the damn ocean temperature would only be 60 degrees.

But they were right about everything else. I washed the soot and sweat off as the waves moved my hair around my shoulders; I submerged my body in the liquid chill and my mind was clear for the first time, maybe ever. I felt everything: a breeze above me, grains of sand between my toes, seaweed dancing in the water.

The cold that touched every square millimeter of my body woke me up more than any stimulant I’d ever tried. As the vastness of the Atlantic surrounded me, I knew I was supposed to be there — immersed in the quiet, salty water and air instead of being swallowed by crowds, buildings and sirens. I stayed in the water for as long as I could stand it, which happened to be about four and a half minutes.

That sun-warmed towel felt like home when I pulled it off the bumper to wrap it around my shoulders. It was like remembering who I was for the first time in a very long time.

Emily Gajda is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This story originally appeared in the July 2022 issue of WALTER Magazine