I was in a waiting room at the doctor’s office, completing the kind of forms I’d filled out countless times before: Name. Age. Address. Occupation. Emergency contact. I listed my sister Meg’s name and phone number in the latter spot. She’d been my emergency contact since I’d moved to Los Angeles a few years earlier. Of all the numbers in my cellphone, my sister’s was the only one I knew by heart, because I’d written it down on so many forms.
Later that night, it dawned on me that my emergency contact relationship with my sister was no longer reciprocal. Her new husband would be usurping my special place on all of her bureaucratic paperwork from here on out. This realization rocked me. My sister was the person I was closest to in Los Angeles. We had 36 years of history, and now this David guy who’d known her for a little over a year would get the call if she broke her ankle while running a 5K.
I wanted to retaliate. I decided to fire my sister and get myself an emergency contact who would emergency-contact me back. But I realized that my options were limited. I was 37. Most of my friends were married. Most of my family lived on the East Coast. I’d only been living in Los Angeles for two years, and the emergency-contact question seemed like a heavy one to lay on a new-ish person in my life, particularly in a town where a perfectly acceptable response to an invitation of any kind, I’d learned, was “maybe.”
I needed someone dependable.
When you’re asking someone to be the person the authorities contact if your body washes up onshore and needs identifying, “maybe” doesn’t cut it. So a few months later, when I filled out a waiver for my first ocean swim race, I swallowed my pride and again listed my sister as my emergency contact. My swim buddy Norah, who was doing the race with me, listed her husband. The husbands, they were everywhere. It was hard to not start feeling like a third wheel.
In retrospect, at least I was still a wheel. A few months later, the babies came, and the whole cart rolled off without me.
Meg gave birth to her first child in September, and a few months later, Norah and her husband became foster parents to a 9-day-old infant boy. Norah and Meg, who had been best friends since high school, bonded anew over play dates and baby photo shoots while I tried my best not to complain that Norah had left me in the lurch. With an infant in the house, Norah’s ocean swimming days were over, at least for the foreseeable future. I didn’t know anyone else in L.A. who wanted to swim in the ocean, and I couldn’t go by myself, because, as any child of the 1970s can tell you, a woman swimming alone is going to wind up getting eaten by a giant shark. That’s just science.
I needed the ocean, now more than ever. When I was growing up, the message I internalized about women in their 40s was that they were either married or sad. I’d never wanted kids or a wedding, but somewhere deep in my bones I still felt that once I hit 40 as single woman, I’d officially become pathetic. I’d been on a handful of TV shows since moving to L.A., but my acting career had never really taken off. As the big 4-0 approached, I could feel myself starting to self-identify as a floundering actress/old-maid aunt.
Swimming in the ocean combated this spinster image I had of myself. I wasn’t sad, I was an adventuress! I was a sister of dolphins, a modern-day mermaid. I lived an independent, creative life, nurtured by the sea herself. I was a fit, ferocious risk-taker.
I needed to get myself back into the briny, and to do that, I needed to find a new ocean swimming buddy to replace Norah.
I joined a Masters swim team, hoping to meet someone at the pool who would want to branch out into open water. It took nearly a year to find her. One morning, I heard the woman in the lane next to me tell her lane mate that she was training for the Malibu Triathlon and needed to start swimming in the ocean. I tapped her on the shoulder and said something smooth, like, “Oh my god, I’ve been looking for an ocean swimming buddy, I’ll swim with you!” She was younger than me by a few years, and with her back-of-the-neck tattoo and ease, she was just … cooler. I felt my stomach drop as I watched her take me in and weigh possibilities ranging from “enthused eccentric” to “suspicious weirdo.” The scales must have tipped in my favor, because after a moment, she said, “Okay. I’m Alicia.”
Alicia and I took to the seas. She was the better swimmer, but I was more comfortable with the surf, so each of us helped the other stretch her limits. We started competing in short ocean races together. Some were a fair distance away, so we’d carpool. I remember driving to one of the early ones and chattering constantly. I didn’t know Alicia well, and I wanted her to like me, so I felt compelled to entertain her. She would nod or give brief responses to my questions and then resume gazing quietly out the passenger window. I was convinced that I annoyed her. It would be several more rides together before I realized that Alicia was quiet because, unlike me or most of the people I knew, she was comfortable with silence. Her quiet ease in my company made me more comfortable with myself.
We discovered that our shared enthusiasm extended past the ocean to include movies (we loved the entire “Purge” series and hated “The Lobster”); roadside attractions (Legend of Big Foot store? Yes, please!); and travel. We once each had year-long relationships fall apart in the same week. We took the train down to San Diego that weekend and went to the zoo, because koalas make everything better. Somewhere in the midst of our adventures, the ocean swimming buddy I had been searching for had become the emergency contact I needed.
Alicia and I see each other almost every week. We have built a tight network with about a half dozen swimmers we have met over the past eight years, and we take care of one another. We’ve have gotten each other through work crises, breakups, the loss of parents. We’ve celebrated birthdays, promotions, new homes, even a friend’s wedding. We will get together to watch anything starring a shark.
In my entryway, I have a card Alicia gave me a few years ago, for no particular occasion, that says, “There are big ships and there are small ships, but the best ship of all is friendship.” When you open the card it says, “No, I haven’t been drinking.” And then, “Okay, maybe a little.” It makes me smile whenever I see it.
Last month, Alicia got stung in the foot by a sting ray when we were coming out of the ocean. She needed to get an X-ray to see if the stinger was still in the wound. After some back-and-forth about how she was perfectly capable of driving herself to urgent care (despite the fact that she could not get a shoe on over her rapidly swelling driving foot), I convinced her to let me take her. I just reminded her that was my job.