It feels like summer in the sunny subtropics, but it isn’t. It’s still spring.
I hate spring.
For a number of reasons — personal, professional, medical, historical, and coincidental — this time of year has never been very kind to me. I’m eagerly counting down the days until the first official day of summer — there are 9 days left, if you’re wondering.
Five years ago, work and life got so unmanageable that I made (what seemed like) a ‘rational’ decision to abandon it all — my job, my apartment, my family, and my friends. I decided I’d leave it all behind and live on the beach for a while — not by the beach, on the beach. Willfully ‘homeless.’ I’d spend my days reading in the sunshine and playing in the surf and my evenings in the company of strangers at salty dive bars. I’d sleep on a bed of sand under a blanket of stars.
I loaded up my backpack with a beach towel, a few books, and some cash, and took off on my bicycle wearing a bikini and a pair of cut off jean shorts. I had nothing else with me. After just a few days, I was dehydrated, sick from eating nothing but bananas, and badly sunburned. A few days later, my bicycle broke. In all, I lasted nine days before I abandoned my plan — not because I was hungry or burned, and not because my bike broke — but because my bikini top did.
Four years ago, around the middle of spring, I had trouble keeping weight on. It wasn’t willful, and despite my best efforts to keep healthy with supplements and protein shakes, I got dangerously thin and severely anemic. I was tired and weak and covered in bruises that appeared to have no cause. The only reason I managed to pull myself out of bed every morning was because I was scared to death of what might happen to me if I didn’t.
Three years ago, on the night before my 29th birthday, I came to consciousness in the middle of the road. Despite being in my own neighborhood, I couldn’t figure out how to get home. In a sense, I spent the months that followed finding my way back.
Two years ago, spring had me reeling from some personal losses and professional setbacks. There were some residual medical issues from the year before, but nothing nearly as dangerous.
Last year, spring wasn’t so bad, and this year, it’s better than it’s ever been. I’m happy, healthy, stressed but dealing, and nothing terrible has happened. It’s been so uneventful, in fact, that it’s made me nervous. Since February, I’ve been anxious, waiting for something to happen.
I’ve been waiting for falling shoes (so many have dropped in the past few years that I’ve lost track of pairs… I’m expecting more than one).
I’ve been waiting for the undertoad…
From Chapter 18 of John Irving’s The World According to Garp
Duncan began talking about Walt and the undertow — a famous family story. For as far back as Duncan could remember, the Garps had gone every summer to Dog’s Head Harbor, New Hampshire, where the miles of beach in front of Jenny Fields’ estate were ravaged by a fearful undertow. When Walt was old enough to venture near the water, Duncan said to him — as Helen and Garp had, for years, said to Duncan — “Watch out for the undertow.” Walt retreated, respectfully. And for three summers, Walt was warned about the undertow. Duncan recalled all the phrases.
“The undertow is bad today.”
“The undertow is strong today.”
“The undertow is wicked today.” Wicked was a big word in New Hampshire — not just for the undertow.
And for years, Walt watched out for it. From the first, when he asked what it could do to you, he had only been told that it could pull you out to sea. It could suck you under and drown and you and drag you away.
It was Walt’s fourth summer at Dog’s Head Harbor, Duncan remembered, when Garp and Helen and Duncan had observed Walt watching the sea. He stood ankle deep in the foam from the surf and peered into the waves, without taking a step, for the longest time. The family went down to the water’s edge to have a word with him.
“What are you doing, Walt?” Helen asked?
“What are you looking for, Dummy?” Duncan asked him.
“I’m trying to see the Under Toad,” Walt said.
“The what?” said Garp?
“The Under Toad,” Walt said. “I’m trying to see it. How big is it?”
And Garp and Helen and Duncan held their breath; they realized that all these years, Walt had been dreading a giant toad, lurking offshore, waiting to suck him under and drag him out to sea. The terrible Under Toad.
Garp tried to imagine it with him. Would it ever surface? Did it ever float? Or was it always down under, slimy and bloated and ever watchful for ankles its coated tongue could snare? The vile Under Toad.
Between Helen and Garp, the Under Toad became their code word for anxiety. Long after the monster was clarified for Walt (“Undertow, dummy, not Under Toad!” Duncan had howled), Garp and Helen evoked the beast as a way of referring to their own sense of danger. When the traffic was heavy, when the road was icy — when depression had moved in overnight — they said to each other “The Under Toad is strong today.”
The Under Toad has been my unwelcome companion for months, waiting just below the surface.
He may come in the form of test results, a career-killing decision on a project, or a phone call from my father in the middle of the night… but I doubt it.
This year, I suspect the Under Toad is a jetliner to San Francisco, a goodbye at the gate, and the cold comfort of always knowing it was coming.