I'm taking an intermission from this story. I'm writing it from memory, of course. I'm not even on the East Coast any more. I couldn't write about everything while it was all happening, for logistical reasons, mostly- I didn't have a computer or electricity or time. Also because some things are so severe in your mind that if you wrote about them fresh, they'd come out all choppy and violent. They may cause more pain to the people who are trying to regain their breath. I want to avoid doing that, but I want to tell this story authentically. The best way to accomplish this is through small pieces, measured, with time elapsing in between. And then something happens like what happened last night.
*****It's August 6th. I take my friend So to the beach to watch the sunset. So was one of my best friends growing up. He is a Vermonter who recently moved to LA. I want to show him the best piece of my city. On this cool summer Saturday night, the beach is overflowing with people. Camp fires burn up and down the coast, silhouetted figures throw stones and gather around flames and run up and down the sand. We laugh at the scene, how idyllic it is, urban and tribal at the same time. We sit at the very end, where the long grasses stretch out into the sand, and drink expensive coconut beer out of pretty cans.
"Do you want to see a picture of Stephen?" I take my phone from my pocket. "I'll show you a few." I have been telling him a little about Stephen and everything that happened. I don't want Stephen to become a story; I want him to remain a boy with a face. I flick through photos as So leans over the screen, making nice comments. Then he tells me he's having a hard time conceptualizing drowning. How can it happen? I pull up a video of the North Fork of the Payette at high water. "Oh...." he says, watching the enormous, sucking, powerful hydraulics. "I can see that now."
The sun is gone, and the Olympic range glows with bars of violet and blue light. At our backs, a passenger trains rushes North. All of a sudden things change around us. From out of nowhere a fire truck veers up to the parking lot, lights flashing, siren blaring. It is followed by an ambulance, then another and another. There are five ambulances and three fire trucks and police cars gathered in the parking lot. One of the engines extends the crane and shines a spotlight out onto the dark water. "Maybe a fire got out of control?" I say, but there is no fire, no panic, very little sound at all. We wonder, how could we have missed an occurrence worthy of so many rescue vehicles when we were right there the whole time?
We walk towards the scene, expecting someone to tell us we have to turn around. Nobody does. All of the people on the other side of the beach are pressing towards the water, looking out. A feel a familiar fear prickling at my skin. Police boats are making wide arcs out in the water. Every few minutes one will send a flair into the moonlight sky. The flairs hang and sway like a lantern, sending a bright white light over the water. Then it begins to fail and falls shimmering into dark.
There are little kids children gathered on the bigger rocks on the water. At one point, a mother shouts to her child to stand back and her voice is so fierce that twenty people around her obey.
The story is hard to put together. Rumors run like hot liquid through through the crowd. A kid will point to the white breaking wave and say Shark! Then everyone is saying there must have been a shark attack. But I can't imagine it was a shark, it's just too unlikely. The water is so cold at Golden Gardens that hardly anybody swims.
A hugely pregnant woman is holding her stomach with one hand and pointing with her other, talking to a semicircle of policemen. I can hear a few of her words. "The last place we saw them was---" A few feet away, a man is gesturing towards the water. People lean in closer, squinting. A flat round brown thing hovers beneath the surface of the water, barely visible. Someone runs away and comes back with a group of firemen, who crowd around with radios, spotlights and binoculars. It's a jellyfish. "It's just a jelly," a tiny kid says next to me, comforting his little brother. "Just a jelly."
I finally ask a fire chief if he can tell us what's going on. He is standing there very calm and handsome in a white shirt. He tells us they are responding to a call of missing people in the water. "So they're lost?" A young woman asks, incredulous. "Are they drowned?" The fire chief shrugs. "We don't know." A diver in a full dry suit walks through, looking bored.
"I think if we're all hoping to find a body floating in the water, we're out of luck." I murmur to So. "It doesn't work like that." Not to be a know it call, but I know a lot about drowning. I can tell you exactly what happens when a body drowns. In the last few weeks I've been doing some research. I've looked at books in the library.
People are beginning to leave. It's eleven o'clock; in normal situations the park would be closed. From the pockets of rescue workers we can hear voices over radios, but we can't make out their words. The crane and its light lower. A few of the ambulances turn off their lights and drive away. Eventually they all follow, police and fire trucks, giving away none of their secrets.
We stay there until almost until the beach is empty. I can't stop looking out into the water, which is cold and cut with the sharp reflection of moonlight. It occurs to me that I may not actually know what happens to a body that drowns in the Puget Sound, on account of it being salt water. A police boats glide by. At its bow I can see the black outline of a dredging hook, and again I start to imagine gruesome things, things that would be of no help to anybody.
This happened last night. I'll get back to the story now.