Flight Distance

Sunlight soaks my old red sweatshirt, melting me into the sofa. One degree outside, but I close my eyes and could be back on Andros Island, Bahamas. Minus the biting insects. Minus the salty breeze and bathing suit that spent the week damp, never out of the water long enough to dry.

We flew over one-thousand miles South to the Bahamas for Gascho family Christmas. Distancing ourselves from cold for a few days. For the last leg, a six-seater, 1976 Piper lifted us to Andros Island, with Sam in the co-pilot seat.

Fresh Creek—a briny estuary—surrounded the yellow rental house with its blue spiral staircase up to our bedroom. Fish schooled under the house. Shells littered the sandy bottom, visible through crystal water. A rope swing lured the kids to kayak to the nearby mangrove.

Surrounded by heat, I remembered that I have never outgrown flopping around in water. At every chance, I swam. The salt water held me so I could roll onto my back and loosen my muscles and float. I swam from the deck into the creek, from the beach into the ocean. With the kids and alone. In blue holes hundreds of feet deep. Over coral reefs near the surface.

Out on the reefs, a snorkel and mask made the surface disappear. Electric blue fish slipped behind purple fans of coral. Triangular angel fish wove among snub-nosed parrot fish. A big-eyed squirrelfish peeked comically from below brain coral, which looks like it sounds. I swam towards a three-foot long, torpedo-shaped fish. Close enough to see prominent teeth. My mind said, “big” and “silver” and “predator.” I swam just close enough to align our bodies, for size. Not close enough that it cared. Not close enough to chase it away.

Everyone has a flight distance. Move within that invisible boundary, and they will move away, regardless of your intention. The flight response—and the distance that provokes it—is instinctual. And learned.

As I swam up to the boat, our guide joined me and said, “I was watching your face with that barracuda.”

“That big guy?” My mind had not actually said, “Barracuda.”

“Yep. I was waiting for your eyes to get big, but your face stayed relaxed. If your arms had gone all stiff and your eye wide, I knew we had problems. But you were calm.”

I was calm because I was underwater, being held. Maybe I would have been wiser to name and recognize the possible threat. Or maybe I was safer not naming it. My own fear playing through my mind and body would have been more dangerous than the rarely aggressive barracuda. Our flight distance is instinctual and learned.

The last morning on Andros, I woke in the grey light. Put on my suit. Slipped into a cool, choppy Fresh Creek. Swam across to the southwest edge of mangroves and waited for sunrise. The pink-gold clouds welcomed me—illuminated, cumulus. I was ready to leave for our farm and Upstate New York’s below-zero temperatures, where the snow will hold me until spring.

Home now, we plunge into frozen water powder, backstroking angels on the ground. Sunlight on snow refracts into Bahamas-worthy colors. There are ripples and waves. Sleds are our kayaks. At noon, I need sunglasses to hike our hill—a great dune of snow—and the evening blues of sky and snow echo the Caribbean.