credit: Thomas Lipke — Unsplash

Golden hour never looked so beautiful, she thought as warm, ginger sunlight haloed around the emerald firs and cobalt waters of Puget Sound. In the distance, snow-peaked mountains jutted into the sky.

She was the lone person sitting on the rocky shoreline that evening. She only had twenty minutes or so before she’d have to leave to meet the girls for cocktails at some expensive downtown restaurant. She’d forgotten the name, and had vowed not to look at her phone until the sun had set. Not even to take a photo. She didn’t have much storage left anyway from all the drunken shenanigans that weekend she had felt compelled to record. Just a bunch of moms gone wild — a reunion weekend with her college sorority sisters — women who were all married with children, bogged down by stressful jobs and never-ending piles of laundry, who needed a few carefree days pretending they didn’t have any responsibilities.

But she wasn’t a very good actress, and she’d left her days of make believe behind her. It was hard to pretend to be carefree, even when she’d flown halfway across the country to the stunning Pacific Northwest, surrounded by natural splendor and manmade novelties. All the artisanal chocolate, richly brewed coffee, and indulgent cheeses didn’t do the job she’d expected them to; she still couldn’t shake this feeling that had settled deep within her bones.

She watched the surf roll in, bubbling water over smooth rocks. Over and over. After enough time, the slow tumble of water would wear away the rock. Wear it down to pebbles. Over and over.

Fleeting pleasures couldn’t wash away her weariness. Over and over.

As the sun sank lower into the sky, ever inching toward that deep blue horizon line, an ethereal glow illuminated seagulls circling above her, harassing each other with their high-pitched squawks. They scattered as soon as an enormous bald eagle intimidated them with his majesty. Plop! Nearby, harbor seals were swallowed up by water, bobbing up and down, watching the sunset alongside her.

She was never alone, was she? Not even on this supposedly relaxing trip. (It was not at all relaxing; one of her Type A friends had planned out every minute of that weekend.) Even when she’d travelled to the ends of the earth in search of solace, she was joined by coastal riff raff. She thought she’d heard the seals call out to her. “Mom! Mom! Mom!” That seagull over there — it sounded just like her husband asking what was for dinner.

What would it feel like to be carefree again?

Fwwiisssshhhhhhh.

A shot of adrenaline pierced her heart. Was that what she though it was? Her eyes darted to the spot where water had spouted from the ocean like a geyser.

Yes! It was!

Light glimmered against smooth, black hide. Fwwiisssshhhhhhh. Again, water sprayed toward the heavens. This time she caught it — a majestic orca, swimming gracefully in the bay. It dipped under water and rolled, its white spots visible against the sunset’s rays. Its dorsal fin became a silhouette, like the fir trees and mountains, as the hot pink sun began to be swallowed by the horizon.

Freedom.

The word rang through her head as she watched the magical creature. To be free in vast waters — what was that like?

No needy kids clawing you, lazy husband shirking chores, slobbery dog nipping your toes. Instead, free to glide alone through refreshing Pacific Northwest waters. No incessant work emails, their chimes waking you from sleep like some sort of torture. Instead, free to explore underwater realms.

This life, this life of hers, was not as she’d imagined it would be. In another life, she was living in Oregon tending to her vineyard, selling spicy Pinots to local restaurants. In another life, she was a free woman. A single woman. Maybe she gallivanted with a rugged wine-connoisseur boyfriend who cultivated the winery with her.

Fwwiisssshhhhhhh. Another breath of air shook her from her fantasy. Fwwiisssshhhhhhh. Then another. Fwwiisssshhhhhhh.

Three more shiny, black and white bodies momentarily rose above water, joining the first orca.

She laughed to herself. Even this killer whale couldn’t be left alone. Did this orca feel like she did — seeking respite from her overwhelming life?

Her sorority sister friends had each separately confided in her their own miseries. Insecurities. Failings. Had she been so self-absorbed that she thought she was the only one who ever felt worn down and depressed? As if she was so important. More important.

This spark of solidarity rose in her as she witnessed her original orca join his friends. Together, they swam synchronized dances as the sun dipped lower and lower. The seagulls were gone now; the bald eagle perched on an alder branch at the shore; the seals bobbed silently. Everyone watched the orcas plunge and whirl, dip and jump.

It was breathtaking.

They played together, exploding through pink and orange rays that sparkled against ocean water. It reminded her of Lisa Frank art — so colorful, so dreamlike.

Her original orca moved quicker, seemingly delighting in his large yet nimble body. He was rejoicing while sunlight waned and moonlight waxed. What had made him so happy? Was it his pod?

Was it that he was no longer alone?

Then, another fwwiisssshhhhhhh caught her attention. This one was smaller. Sweeter. She watched as a miniature orca swam beside her original friend. The original orca nuzzled his head against his calf.

Her head. Her calf.

The orca was a female. A mother. Just like her.

She felt her eyes sting. Yes, of course. Of course she was a mother. Of course she had a pod. And why would she truly want to be alone? The sunset was so much more beautiful when it was enjoyed beside others.

Memories washed over her. The birth of her first baby. And her second. And her third. Sweet little babes, like the calf who glided alongside her mother. She thought of her wedding day. Of college graduation.

She had just needed a little break. A little alone time. A moment of solace to remind her how much she loved her life.

In one gulp, the sun was finally swallowed by the horizon, leaving amethyst and cherry streaks in its wake. The orcas took one last breath, then dipped below the serene waters, disappearing with the sun.

Taking one last look at the dark water, which now reflected moonlight, she deeply inhaled, deeply exhaled. Life is beautiful and miserable all in the same breath. And we are lucky if we are never left alone.

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