The professor wears a terrible brown jacket.
His students joke about it behind his back; he’s an otherwise handsome, weathered older man who carries with him the added mystery of supposedly having once been a soldier.
We follow him down to the rocks and water where he claims he’s more comfortable teaching us the impenetrable Welsh epics. Y Gododdin, the Mabinogion. They scarcely make sense in English; it’s all made worse by the crashing waves, the roaring wind and how we have to huddle down in our jackets.
We read the texts, we write the papers, we blow life back into our icy, numbed fingers after a lecture.
The terrible brown jacket hangs on a hook in his office, the rare times he ever gives office hours in there.
“No, no, just meet me down by the water,” he tells us, and so down to the water we go, and as the term wears on finally one day it’s just me, me and stolid old David Rhys down there. David, who I think might fancy Professor Lindsey and except for the horrible brown coat, who wouldn’t? That and David’s Welsh, so they have that connection, though I read Old Welsh better than David does.
“Not much of a class today,” the professor remarks, as we scramble down the rocks to the thinly sunny spot he favors.
A wave bangs the cliff wall, and spray flies up.
“We can have class anyway,” David says.
Kissass, I think. The professor’s looking at me.
“Perhaps a swim, instead?”
“A swim??” David says, incredulous. “It’s freezing out here, never mind in the water!” It’s the first he’s spoken up against the Professor since we started.
Lindsey’s still looking at me, like a challenge.
I like the water. I’m a strong swimmer.
I don’t like water near cliffs when it’s cold enough for a down jacket, long wool skirt, and boots.
“Come on,” Lindsey says, and as usual I can’t tell if he’s joking or serious or both. “I was a SEAL.” He’s talking only to me, now. “I’ll save you if you drown.”
“Ha, ha,” says David. Timorous.
For no good reason at all, I’m stripping my jacket off.
“There you are,” Lindsey says, as though I’d been missing and just now located. “David?” But David’s backing up, as though whatever madness we have is contagious. And the professor’s all but dismissed him. He beckons to me. “This side. Time your dive. After me, not til I tell you.”
The water, I think.
People dive into icy water all the time, for charity. Don’t they?
Also: Professor Lindsey will lose tenure if I drown.
It’s this last thought that brings me to the edge of the cliff. Lindsey’s there, and the water isn’t far below. I’m down to leggings and T-shirt, barefoot. He’s just wearing pants. Thankfully. I only look at his bare skin long enough to see thick, old scars. “In we get.”
He dives. It’s a perfect dive into the water, clean and effortless.
I watch, breath held, and a moment later he pops up, looks for a wave behind him. Dives under it. Once it breaks, he gestures to me, sharply.
I hesitate. I hesitate.
“There’s always another wave, but you only live once,” he shouts up and his voice carries perfectly. All term, it’s been impossible to hear him. “Wait!” He dives under again, a wave breaks and he pops back up, gestures.
I dive and the shock of the water takes my breath, everything straight out of my body and I think “I just died here,” and my second thought is “oh holy shit the cliff” as bubbles are everywhere and the water is moving in what feels like all directions at once, and it must mean a wave is breaking.
I feel a hard hand around my arm, and I’m dragged.
Impossible strength, a dark shape in the water and I still haven’t taken a breath yet.
Through dark and I can look up and see the sky, through the water. And the ocean was gray, chipped into flint by the wind, just a few moments ago.
Now it’s all blue.
We break surface.
“Breathe,” a voice says, and I suck in a huge breath, cough.
“…can’t feel my legs,” I chatter.
“You don’t need legs out here. You need a tail!” He’s laughing, swimming away from me. He curves a broad hand, splashes water into my face.
I sputter. I swim after him, possibly to kill him.
We arc and spin in the icy water and after a time I stop feeling the cold anywhere. We surf waves halfway in, bodies murkily silhouetted, dropping out just in time to avoid being crashed against the cliffs.
There’s a rhythm all that water has, that is easy enough to know, once you’re in it.
“Not as big as it looks, from up there.”
Lindsey tilts his head to the shore, which got a very long way away, when I wasn’t looking.
“Come on, my girl. Time to go in.”
It was inevitable I would become an academic. I like dusty old books, and moving my lips to form the words of forgotten languages.
I have tenure at a university by the water, though I don’t make my students take their lessons down on the beach. Usually.
I get the occasional postcard, from an old friend, still teaching at another distant university. Impenetrable old epics. He sends news of himself and his lover, an insufferable old pedant named David who only speaks Welsh passably, and is aging faster than the professor is by decades.
I keep a horrible ugly brown coat hanging on my office door.
I know my students make fun of it; it amuses me.
I go swimming every day.