Emily Gajda is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she studies journalism and English. She grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, on a loblolly-pine-lined street with a ... [+]

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At 10 A.M., Wells Beach, Maine was too quiet.

I should've been in New York City, working at the publishing house that offered me that internship back in March. I should've been waking up at 7 A.M. to shower and putting on business formal; catching the L train to head across the river and then downtown.

I would've been in New York City if it weren't for a round of budget cuts. A week before my train was going to leave, they told me I had no job. I would've been thinking about where to go dancing and sneaking off with my new friends for coffee. I would've been wearing Manolo Blahnik heels and eating lunch in Washington Square.

I woke up in the back of my 2014 Jeep Wrangler, surrounded by a month's worth of camping supplies and about five days' worth of clothes. Everything was damp from the condensation that collected in the car while I was asleep. The air smelled just a little bit of saltwater and mildew. A weathered older man walked around the parking lot, reminding stragglers that campsite check-out was at 9:30. He looked kind, though. His tone wasn't nagging, it had a hint of sympathy. As I asked, he told me that the bathhouse had closed for cleaning. Even if he wanted to let me in before I left, he couldn't. I hadn't showered yet; hadn't even brushed my teeth. I wouldn't have a bathhouse for four more days as I camped my way further up the coast.

"Why don't you go for a swim?"

I smiled, thanked him for the suggestion, and decided that I needed a cappuccino before I could consider a fear I've held for so many years. I just didn't have the heart to tell him that I'm scared of swimming in the ocean.

The only coffee shop in Wells Beach was a few minutes' drive away. I ordered my cappuccino with skim milk. The woman looked at me a little funny.

Maybe it's because I smelled bad. I had been camping in my car for four days, taking sink showers while I inched north. It could have been because I was alone. Wells Beach is little, tourists usually come in groups and residents usually know each others' names. Likely, it was a combination of both.

"How are you doing this morning?"

"Can't complain. Maine is beautiful."

She made my coffee. She asked, and I explained what I was doing up there all alone. I'm sure it came off somewhat resentful and very convoluted. It is hard to explain to someone how a twenty-one-year-old girl ended up (willingly) choosing to sleep in a car for a month. It is even harder when it was a trip planned in a matter of days, and when you didn't quite know why you were doing it either. She could tell I was frazzled.

"You should go to the beach, it's a nice place to think. Take a swim, clear your mind."

I smiled again before I left, feeling guilty as I thanked her for suggesting a solution that I, once again, couldn't imagine using. My comfort zone still did not encompass the Atlantic Ocean even after the cappuccino.

I drove east as my dad called me. I told him maybe too much about how bad my car smelled, how nothing could ever dry completely. I described the man at the campsite, explained how they seemed very similar in a way I couldn't quite explain. I talked about the woman in the coffee shop and how I rambled on while she gave me that kind of smile that felt familiar. Like she understood it all or had done it before. I laughed towards the end of the call and said two people that morning had already told me to swim.

He chuckled at me and asked, "Why don't you?" But he already knew.

"Six days ago, you didn't have a trip planned. Now, you're camping up and down the Eastern Seaboard alone. Is putting your head underwater really where you are going to draw the line? Go take a swim, Emily."

I was still laughing as we said goodbye. By the time we hung up, I found myself parked at a beach access that I can only hope I arrived at without breaking too many traffic laws. I slipped on a bikini in the trunk of my car. I dug a damp towel out from an old duffel bag and laid it on the bumper in the sun.

Then, seemingly without ever making the decision at all, I was in the water. It was impossibly cold. That man and that woman, they did not tell me the damn ocean temperature would only be 60 degrees. But god, were they right about everything else. I washed the soot and sweat off as the waves moved my hair around my shoulders; I submerged my whole body in that liquid layer of chills and my mind was clear for the first time, maybe ever. I felt everything — a breeze above me, grains of sand between my toes, seaweed dancing around my legs.

That wet cold that touched every square millimeter of my body woke me up more than any stimulant I had ever tried. The vastness of the Atlantic surrounded me, and I knew I was supposed to be there instead of being swallowed by crowds and buildings and too much noise. I stayed in the water for as long as I could stand the temperature, which happened to be about four and a half minutes.

That sun-warmed towel felt like home when I pulled it off the bumper to wrap it around my shoulders. I let myself remember who I was for the first time in a very long time.

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