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[Essay] Strokes

by Bailey Loveless

Your dad takes huge, unstoppable breaststrokes through the water. You pretend that he is a whale: a gentle giant, never diving down so far that you, the barnacle on his shoulders, ever run out of air. You’re never scared of the deep end with him to ferry you safely from one side to the other.

Every time he drives you home from the pool, he tells you about his days on a boat before you were born—about the gray whales surfacing nearby, about the minke whales breaching up from the sea to eat, and about how he’s a little sad that he never saw an orca. You ask him if he was ever scared out there on the ocean, and your dad laughs, then reminds you that he’s a scuba master; he knows how to survive the depths of the sea. When you get home, you admire the black-and-white photograph of him on the shelf, taken when he was young with an oxygen tank on his back, and it’s just how you picture your dad.

The first time he takes you snorkeling, you’re a little scared of eels hiding in the coral reefs, that they will snake out suddenly and bite you. He helps you get your gear on and tells you not to worry, because he’s there to protect you. Once in the water, he kicks his flippers in the dolphin stroke he’s been trying to teach you, looking like a merman as he holds his breath and dives through the crystal blue water to the sandy ocean floor. You float above him till he brings up a pink iridescent conch shell, larger than your face.

Years later, he’s proud of you when you attend college on an island. He asks what sea creatures you’ve seen on the beach, and each conversation ends with a promise that he will fly out and go snorkeling with you.

Later, you move into a house near the coast, and since your dad is getting older, you call him and remind him to take care of himself, to take a vacation, and to come visit you near the sea where he is happy. He tells you he only has time to tell you one more story about the boat, about racing winds and choppy waters. After hanging up, you think about how you’ve drifted away on the tides of adulthood, but you know he is there in case you need him, that he can still carry you on his back like he did before.

A week later, you get another phone call. It’s about your dad’s strokes—

You ask him again to tell you about the boat, about the orca he wished he could see, but he doesn’t speak, only sings and moans like a beached whale. You read statistics about his odds of recovery alongside articles about great Cetaceans whose memories last more than two hundred years, and you try to forge connections between the two.

You look at black-and-white X-rays of his mind, of the eels that shot up his spine, piercing through the coral reef of his brain, and you’re angry because he couldn’t fight them off like he said he could.

You wish someone would send a copy of that old photograph of him in the scuba mask instead of picture after picture of the tubes hooking him to life support.

You want to arrange a charter boat to go find that orca, but insurance refuses to allow him to travel, and the doctor says he will never drive, dive, or even swim ever again. He is now cast away on an island only he can find, his face as hollow as the conch shell.

You want to scream that you still are small like a barnacle, and you need your dad to make sure you get safely to the deep end.

You cry because you’re stuck on the surface while he is somewhere out of reach in the murky depths beneath you.

You hold your breath like he taught you, and wait to see if he will ever make it back, if he can survive like he said he could…

Bailey lives in between the land and the sea, writing weird, emotive tales about animals, monsters, the feminine, the sublime, and the strangest of all creatures, humankind. She writes and performs Gabriela & The Inn Between, a scripted fiction podcast set at a vaguely magical, Pacific Northwest bed-and-breakfast. Keep up with her and her work on Twitter, Instagram, or at


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