Rashaan Alexis Meneses: Waters I’ve Known

We sip from the stars. This blue marble fed by interstellar ice. Before the sun had ever formed, from a cold, molecular cloud come our seas, lakes, and rivers that once were ions and ices fused in frigid chemistry. Our water sprang from the void, was launched from one stellar system to another, and then packed as frozen, cometary time capsules composed of gas, dust, and ice. Born of an interstellar heritage, our oceans travelled first as comets, asteroids, and hybrid space voyagers known as centaurs. The seas we swim in, sail across, and harvest from have journeyed far, spanning millions of light-years away from Neptune’s Orbit, the Kuiper Belt, or beyond the reaches of the scattered disc even going further back to the Oort Cloud. We sip from the stars. Our bodies nourished by lunar basalts and Martian melt. At our shores lap the detritus of solar nebula. Along our coastlines and bays particles of cosmic rays and meteorites wash up.

I live on a plate boundary, where the Pacific and North American transform, gliding and crashing together to form the mountain ranges, the rugged continental crags, the rolling hills, and desert valleys that have mapped my family history and my life. My brother, my cousin, and I used to ride the waves along this boundary. Paddling at beaches called Coronado, Del Mar, La Jolla, and Mission. Childhood summers were spent, hands getting pruny, letting our brown bodies darken under the hot borderland sun. We came home with the roar of the surf still crashing within us, salt water plugging our ears, and sand crusting our ankles and in between our toes. We were rocked to sleep at night with the phantom swell and surge of that cosmic ocean.

As eight and nine-year olds, we thought nothing of the water’s origin. Soaking in our liquid playground, we knew to shuffle our feet against the sand to scare away stingrays and didn’t mind the least when we could no longer touch the beach floor with our toes. Waiting at a surfers’ distance from the shore, dolphins leaped only yards away from us while schools of fish just an inch or two bigger than our fingers would swarm around our legs. On rare days, moon jellies overtook the surface, and we had to twist through the tide to avoid touching them. We couldn’t have known the ocean we accidentally swallowed by the tablespoons, or the thimblefuls we tried to shake out of our ears sprang from the deep and dark space of the cosmos above.

Now, living five hundred miles north of my childhood home, when I look to the sea, I taste a different kind of salty bitterness. The ocean may go by the same name, but age and latitude have complicated the affair. The Pacific here is a changeling. Swells break bigger with an unmatched anger. The waters have a polar temperament. In the nine years making home here in the East Bay, I must have dipped a foot into its tide at most a dozen or half-dozen times. The coastal waters shape into a spectral figure haunting that shining city and the Golden Gate across the harbor. More often than not, the Berkeley and Oakland hills are engulfed in a bear hug of fog that lingers with stubbornness even on the sunniest of days. Where I grew up there was no hiding from the sun. Nothing could escape the desert shine. Here, water has countless ways to fend off the sun. There are the redwoods that canopy the edge of this coastline with their towering bodies. Ravines and canyons are blanketed in thick jungles of bay laurel forging their own refuge of deep shade. Water drips from the eaves of our home. Dew carpets the low-lying plants in our yard and fogs the car windows every morning so different from the unrelenting heat and sheen of the southern sun I knew as a child.

I have come to know the waters by the life it sustains: the blackberry bushes that run rampant come early spring, the poison oak that changes from shiny bright green to deep scarlet red through the seasons, the miner’s lettuce and mariposa lilies, the madrones with their sensually bare limbs that give new meaning to tree-hugging, the huckleberry, the coffee-berry, and the tasseled currants that flower in pink or gold. These days I’m more inclined to hike the headlands, trek through the oak-studded hills, and paddle by kayak the estuaries and marinas where freshwater rushes off to meet the briny mass. The complicated web of watersheds like Tomales, Bolinas, Point Reyes, and Alameda are an extension of the massive circulatory system that cascades from the Sierras, fans out to deltas and tributaries and branches from major arteries like the Tulare basin or the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers.

In these deep and fertile valleys, my families on both sides settled. Riding the first wave across the Pacific Ocean from an archipelago of over 7,100 islands, my grandparents arrived in this Golden State ready to work. They stooped for asparagus, followed the apricot, peach, walnut, hop, and almond harvests that carried them from Delano to Fairfax. They gave of their bodies to sow and reap from the land, carrying memories of sea songs in their heart.

My mother grew up on the San Joaquin delta. The first home she knew was an abandoned army barrack, a Quonset hut where farmland dust used to slip in through the cracks and sting the eyes, choke the throat, and finely coat her and her siblings’ skin on hot summer days when the wind picked up. She calls herself an island girl, a much different kind of island than the Philippine archipelago where her parents traveled. Our ancestral home couldn’t have been more different than the place where my mother was born. Hot, land-locked, and flat as the wide sky above, still the two points of origin share an ocean between them. The same cold Pacific that frosts the windows and makes water bead along the pane every winter morning is the very same ocean, which tosses the sands of Limisawa where my mother’s father said he could dip his hand into its cool, clear drink and scoop up fish like he was plucking fruit from a tree. It is the same ocean that razed my maternal grandmother’s birthplace, Plaridel Bay Bay in Leyte where Typhoon Yolanda swallowed the earth whole only two years ago. The Pacific waters have been handed down from one generation to the next, shared through stories and photographs of a time and place built by memory and sustained through a longing I’ve inherited.

There are waters I have traveled to and only known briefly. The snow of New Hampshire that froze my fingers and iced my nose inside out. The warm bath of Sanur shores in the Indian Ocean of Bali. The silk seduction of Hanalei and Mauna Kea. The swift, cold, constant crash of the River Esk, which I used to chase for a month in Scotland. The choppy plunge of the Irish Sea that incited the worse kind of vertigo I’ve ever known. The ice chill of Portugal’s Atlantic, and the searing blue of the Adriatic. Yet, of all the waters I’ve come to know, the most intimate seems completely foreign.

There is an ocean inside me, a seascape within. This tiny universe understood only by sensate means, a push here, a kick and punch there, some constant thumping at the bottom of my belly and a rise near my breast bone that aches in the strangest of ways. Contained in my own taut and over-stretched skin, I sometimes feel I may burst at the swell and surge of this sea that startles with life inside. It wakes me up at night with a roll, a flutter, or swish, and reminds me at the most surprising moments, when I sit at my desk or soak dishes at the sink, that my body is not my own and perhaps never really was. Seven months into this nine-month journey, the most basic elements of who I am have been combined inextricably with my partner. The tiniest parts of self biologically fused to create something entirely new. Anxious with excitement, we wait; missing this being we know and don’t know.

We are filled by the presence and absence of water. Caught in a four-year drought, which our Golden State sinks deeper into, the air around us is as dry as autumn leaves though winter accelerates into spring. Its only February, and our backyard plum tree has blossomed a month or two early. Native poppies we planted two or three years ago have long since pushed out their fiery orange petals, and the lavender in the front yard, which usually has to be coaxed into summertime bloom, are already in full force purple. Yesterday’s forecast promised rain. A troop of storm clouds commandeered the blue overhead, threatening to break the drought, but not a drop fell to our parched ground. March has yet to arrive, and we remain dry as any September or October. I can already smell the seasonal fires in the air.

Still, we ready our home and make room for our growing family. Colorless and scentless, a chambered nautilus stirs inside me, made of a potent mix of water, taurine, amino acids, and a biosynthesis of nucleic acids. Growing and building in my own dark inner space, our baby-boy-to-be is suspended and buoyant in a cosmic concoction. His muscles harden, his skin becomes less transparent, and his senses slowly sharpen over the weeks and months that slowly pass. I can barely intuit his moment-to-moment or day-by-day transformations. The only clues I have are the push and pull against my ribcage, a regular drumbeat of hiccups at my pelvis, a brush against the insides of my abdomen, and the sudden rolls and somersaults that make me feel as if he’s rearranging my organs just as his are beginning to take shape.

Whether he knows it or not, this boy-in-the-making is teaching me something of faith. I had lost track or neglected what little I had over the last decade. Too busy trying to will a vocation and muscle the writing, I had learned to rely on reason and routine, training myself to hone in and buckle down, and now my partner and I face an ocean of unknowns. We wonder what will our lives be like with this newest member? What parts of ourselves will grow and shape-shift to meet needs that are not our own? What other parts of self will we shelve or sacrifice? Who will we be? What will he ask of us? What best can we give him? All that reason and carefully tailored logic we mastered these past several years cannot stand up to all the unanswerable fears and doubts. Faith becomes reason because no matter how many precautions and preparations we make, no amount of research or well-intentioned advice from friends and family can ready us. Faith is the only anchor. It runs like water. Ever changing. Temporal.

Seven months ago, my body, the most intimate geography I will ever know, turned alien. The micro-verse underneath my skin made completely new, as dark and foreign as the most distant galaxies. When this boy is born, I will speak to him of the waters I’ve known. Together, I hope we might trace the passage my grandparents traveled to bring us where we are today. I want him to know how it is to swim through liquid gold as the sun melts into warm Pacific waters, and to feel the cold breath of the Atlantic as it crashes against another continent. I hope he will taste of seas and oceans I still dream of tasting myself. I will tell him the tale of how we sprang from the void and share with him the story of how we drink from the stars, swim in the stars, and are made of and by the stars. I aim to show him we are not islands separated by impossible oceans, but, instead, we are made from and of the oceans that once were ices traveling unimaginable distances of space-time. I will give him the story of how we are only the beginning of many endless beginnings, and I will ask him where he believes his own story begins.

Rashaan Alexis Meneses is a past resident of The MacDowell Colony and The International Retreat for Writers at Hawthornden Castle, UK. She has received fellowships from the Jacob K. Javits Program, Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, and an Ancinas Scholarship for the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, California. Her fiction and non-fiction have been featured in various journals and anthologies, including Kartika Review, Puerto Del Sol, New Letters, BorderSenses, Kurungabaa, The Coachella Review, Pembroke Magazine, Doveglion Press, and the anthology Growing Up Filipino II: More Stories for Young Adults. When she’s not writing or teaching, she’s hiking trails along the coast of California. You can find her at http://rashaanalexismeneses.com/