The Tide in Front of Me

 

One August evening, on the dark side of the summer, I walked along the beach in Maui as the night air cut across my bangs. The waves crashed against the shore, lit by a full moon so bright that it turned distant rocky cliffs into floating shadows on the landscape. I dragged my feet along the soft sand and soaked in the warm air. Pivoting toward the invisible horizon, I recognized the sky and sea as one, a vast abyss dotted by pinpricks of starlight. I breathed in and out, and, for once, I truly felt at peace with myself. Looking back on that summer, so much had happened, and it happened so fast.

The end of my sophomore year, like freshman year before it, was more than welcomed. The boarding school I attended had become unbearable. I’d had an argument with my roommate early in the school year, and we never made up. In almost every social situation, I had felt like an outsider. I guess there has to be at least one. It’s difficult to say how I earned this status, though. It’s not like there was some embarrassing incident from which I could not recover. I just never seemed to connect with the other girls in my class. What they talked about didn’t register as real. It felt instead as though they were all playing parts, assuming characters in some poorly written live production.

“Right?”

“Totally.”

“You too? Me too!”

“Yeah!”

It was sometimes hard to believe that such dialogue could manifest from the simple question, “Guess what!?!” But, it did. And it felt surreal at times. Like I could be deaf and blind and still have a good chance of transcribing the conversation around me. But then, of course, I would doubt myself. Why was I incapable of relating? It couldn’t be them. It must be me.

There was also the issue of my grades that, thanks to my mother, stalked my thoughts every waking (and sleeping) moment. I must – I repeat, MUST – get into a great college. Over dozens of phone calls throughout the year, my mother made this point loud and clear (emphasis on the word “loud”). And not just any great college. It must be a great college whose greatness is known by simply uttering its name. Harvard. Stanford. Louis Vuitton. I mean that’s what it’s about, right? Brand-name recognition. To me, it seemed less about the lessons learned and more about the sweatshirt worn.

It was with this baggage of social anxiety and academic pressure that I boarded a plane with my family to Shanghai at the outset of the summer. My grandfather had passed away a few months earlier, and this would be the first chance I had to visit his grave. As expected, we were all deeply saddened, so much so that I can recall my mother bringing up standardized test percentiles only three times on the way to the cemetery.

The cemetery was considered a special one. It certainly looked nice. But there’s no amount of landscaping that could make up for the emotional loss I felt as I stood there. It was a quiet, still summer day. The rows of gray headstones provided a solemn backdrop as I thought about the totality of life. What did it all lead to? This? At that moment, I wondered about purpose and meaning. All of these negative feelings had been bottling up inside of me since I started high school. I didn’t like those feelings. I didn’t want them there. But there they were, and I was afraid they wouldn’t go away until I wound up in a beautiful cemetery too deceased to appreciate it.

That tension. That pressure. That can’t be the natural order of things. Across my forearm, two faint light pink lines remained from an incident freshman year when that pressure had boiled over. I had grabbed a scissor on my desk and, without thinking, dragged it across my arm. I watched the blood surface from the first cut as I made the second. I had quickly ran to the bathroom to stop the bleeding with a quarter-roll of toilet paper. I still don’t understand why I did it, and luckily I never repeated it.

As I stood in front of my grandfather’s grave, I looked at my forearm and rubbed my fingers over the slightly bumpy scar.

A few days later, I found myself without any supervision. My parents and brother had traveled abroad and left me with my grandmother. Naturally, when Ina, a girl in the apartment building, asked me if I wanted to go to a club with her, I couldn’t resist. I had never been to a club in my life, and Shanghai clubs have no age limit. You just have to know someone who knows someone. And I found out quickly that I was lucky I knew Ina.

For the next three days, I worked through my chemistry textbook during the day while anticipating the strobe lights and electronic dance music I would immerse myself in at night. It was the first time in my life that I felt young. By doing something I wasn’t supposed to do, I felt like I was doing exactly what I should do. On the dance floor I closed my eyes, jumped up and down and tossed my hair around in a wild, sweaty frenzy like I was exorcising demons out of my soul. I felt this elated feeling throughout my body, buzzing through my head, spoon-feeding me fleeting wisps of happiness. It felt like a dream. And for once, I felt like everything was okay.

Then my mother returned. I dared not reveal what I had been up to and understood that I would not get to go clubbing again. But one night, frustrated by my summer classes, summer tutoring, and summer homework, I decided to sneak out. I stayed up until I felt my whole family fall asleep. Then, around midnight, I carefully slipped out of our apartment, took the elevator to the ground floor with bated breath, and sprinted to the college campus next to the building. My heart was beating so fast I thought it would break through my chest. I put in my earbuds and started walking, making my way through nighttime like it was palpable.

I felt so free. I stayed out for an hour listening to the Eagles and thinking about my life. I went to get a coffee at the supermarket that was still open and just sat on a bench. As I sipped the sweet coffee, I pulled my knees tight to my chest. I really needed this. To just be with myself and this darkness, without anyone knowing where I was or what I was doing. I was by myself in the midst of the bare, silent campus. I loved it.

I did this for many nights.

Soon, I was stateside again, where I went to a theater camp for three weeks. I had a newfound confidence I couldn’t shake. Of course, I didn’t want to. I just assumed it would dissipate and I would be back to my usual jaded self. But it didn’t go away. And within a few hours of arriving at this camp, I met Liz. We instantly became friends. She had a smile that lit up the world. She quoted Shakespeare for fun. She could do a backflip. Liz knew she wanted to be an actress. I thought about what I wanted, but I came up short. A writer? An investment banker? How could I know? My whole life I’ve been told what to want. I realized I didn’t even fully know how to want.

Standing on that beach in Maui, where my family traveled to close out the summer break, all of these events swashed around my mind like the tide in front of me. I thought about what I wanted for myself. I still didn’t know. But it didn’t bother me. A chill of sheer happiness crept down my spine into my stomach. I was so full. I realized that I didn’t care anymore, about the insignificant little things that bothered me at school. I didn’t care anymore about what others thought of me. I felt like I had finally carved out my own space for me to breathe and think. I had started to make my own history.

Facing a void in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, I smiled. I was alive, and I loved it. I shouted, “I AM KATHERINE JOHNSON. AND I WILL LIVE A LIFE THAT IS ALL MY OWN.” Nothing answered. The waves made the same soothing sounds, and the air remained still. But as the sky seemed to lighten to a blue tint, I could see a new path, and I was already on it.


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Katherine Johnson (17) grew up in Beijing, where she attended a local Chinese school. She is currently a junior at Groton School, a boarding school in the US. She and her family split their time between New York and Shanghai. As a result, Katherine has fully experienced two very different cultures and speaks both English and Chinese fluently. She is an active participant in her school’s drama department and loves to write in her free time. This is her first publication and she is excited to pursue her passion for writing further in the years to come. 

Katherine Johnson