Finding Rainbows with no connection

The rain before the rainbow

The rain before the rainbow

It happened exactly as I had pictured it happening countless times in my head. My phone sat in my pocket, a little more loosely than prudence would suggest. I bent my knees and lowered toward the board. As I did, the top of my pocket dropped lower than the bottom, and the phone slid out under gravity's cruel and relentless pull. It bounced once on the deck of my board, then into the water. It had enough trajectory from the bounce that it didn't just sink straight down, but tumbled end over end further and deeper from me. I reached feebly, knowing I wouldn't get it, and strangely hesitated jumping in because I didn't feel like getting wet. Once the phone had vanished beneath the murk, I had to get in anyway. I slid off the board into waste-deep water and ankle-deep mud, easily soft enough for a phone to sink through. Inhaling, I lifted my feet and let myself sink into the still-cold June water. Fingers searched carefully through the mud, desperate to not stir it up more, and incredibly bumped into the hard metal phone before my first round of breath ran out. 

The plunge didn't kill my phone, but I like to call it the start of the end. Weeks later, my phone sits like a spent piece of charcoal on the kitchen island. Sometimes I plug a charger into it, in the hopes that it may kick suddenly to life, but I know it's a goner. 

Funny thing is, I'm in no rush to replace it. 

Two days later, I watch the radar (on the iPad) as a red blob moves ESE across Essex County. In sharp contrast to last summer, when the lack of rain led to a dust bowl at Independence Park, this year has seen pop-up thunderstorms seemingly every other day. I had a sunset paddle scheduled for tonight, and I watched over the course of the day as the forecast changed from scattered thunderstorms, to party cloudy skies, to isolated thunderstorms, to mostly sunny skies, then suddenly to heavy thunderstorms. We cancel the tour, not wanting to risks with such a fast moving storm.

When it finally hits, it hits hard. It's the hardest rain we've had so far this season. It's great, actually. It's that really exciting rain that comes down so hard you can't help but giggle, at least to yourself but maybe out loud too, depending on who's around. It lasts about 27 minutes, and once it's done (well, once I finish the episode of Friends I'm watching), I decide I might as well go for a paddle anyway. I walk barefoot to the truck and drive around the corner to the park. 

Halfway through my turn down the drive, I see the rainbow- framing the whole harbor, stretching from Lynch Park to Salem Willows, and it's bright. Possibly one of the brightest ones I've ever seen. It's faint in the middle, overhead where the clouds are still a little heavy, but the ends are so bright you really believed you could paddle to them, maybe even find a little Leprechaun that would trade some gold for a spin on a paddleboard. Of course the first thing I think of is that I wished I had my phone to take a picture. I consider turning around to get the iPad but for what? Evidence? Because nobody will believe me when I say it was the most spectacular rainbow I'd ever seen? Or because writing about it later, I'd never be able to piece the right words together to describe how bright the red and yellow stood out against the dark clouds behind them? 

I fight the urge to photo-document my life. It's been too nice not having the phone attached to me every minute of the day, and decide to keep this moment for myself. Free of electronics, I hit the water with a little less care, pushing the board ahead of me and jumping on the tail, water splashing on my shorts where my phone usually lives. I paddle first toward Beverly, then Salem, no particular goal or aim and stopping every minute or so to look up. The rainbow is fading, as it feels like it should. The beauty of a rainbow comes in its rareness, and a fleeting rainbow is far better than one that hangs around all day. Compared with the tropical downpour of moments before, the rainbow offers hope. I'm not biblical but it's easy to see a rainbow as a promise of a better tomorrow. 

I stay on the water for another 45 minutes, but I'm mostly done paddling. I drift, the paddle occasionally touching the water to guide, but not really push, the board. A cormorant pops up near me. They're my favorite bird, I think because they seem so nervous and playful. In short time he dives under again, then returns with a piece of seaweed draped cartoonishly from his beak. Everything about that bird is goofy, from the way it barely gets off the water when it flies, to the way it stands like a drunk pterodactyl as it dries its feathers, and it only makes me love it more. It popped up again a little ways a way, and though it moved its head side to side frantically, it didn't seem to make any attempt to get away from me. I kept my movements small, and several more times he dove and resurfaced near by. I tried to find some defining mark that I might recognize him by next time I paddle out. I can’t help but think a friendship has developed. Absurd, a friendship between a man and a bird. At one point a small motorboat came by, its outboard whining across the harbor while its operator swore about one thing or another. The cormorant dove, and when he resurfaced, I swear he shook his head in disgust, which of course didn't happen at all, but I could imagine that that's what he was feeling, if in fact a cormorant can feel disgust. 

A few minutes later, and the cormorant seems to be going through some sort of cleansing ritual. Wiggling body and head, diving just beneath the surface, then back up, then more shaking, more diving, repeating over and over. He flaps his wings and raises out of the water, appearing to stand on his tail. He settles down once, and without so much as a look toward me, beats his wings against the water and flies away. Any inkling of a friendship is dissolved, but not in a bad way. We likely do more harm than good (at least to our own psyche) when we anthropomorphize too much, and I’m happy to remember that the bird is at best indifferent about me and at worst afraid of me. It’s a good reminder of the impact we have on the environment.

I lay down on the board, content to hang my head over the side and stare at the remains of the algae bloom from a few weeks ago. Strands of algae float throughout the water column. It seems as if deeper layers are moving opposite of the surface layer, but I know I am drifting with the light breeze and, with no stable reference point, it is too difficult to tell what’s moving and what’s stationary. I stare on, hoping that if I stare long enough my mind will discern some pattern to make better sense of the local currents, too complex for my unskilled mind and too unimportant for serious scientific research.

As I float, the number of times I instinctually reach to check my absent phone for emails or notifications drops off, and I feel lighter. I marvel at how heavy a phone seems in contrast, not in the weight of the metal and glass, but in the thousands of intangible lines that chain us to the rest of the world. I wonder about how much a person needs when on the water. Compared to the guy in the skiff, I needed far less, but compared to the cormorant, far more.

I’ll make an appointment soon to get my phone fixed. My reality is that not having a phone is probably more of an inconvenience to others than to me. But my hope is that once I get it fixed, I’ll take more opportunities to leave it ashore, that I can paddle, or float, as freely as possible.


Aaron Mearns