I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve taken the ferry from Bridgeport, CT, to Port Jefferson, NY, where my grandma lives in a house surrounded by flowers and trees and little hidden figurines. Port Jefferson sits on Long Island, and driving around the Sound takes hours, so there was never any question that taking a boat was the most logical option. 

There are really three boats, all of them fat and white, with bellies that fit rows of cars. They cut through the water like a blunt knife through butter. Seats are arranged in a vast indoor cabin with rectangular windows that display equal parts sky and sea. The sheer size of the vessels never ceases to amaze me: How, I wonder, can these things float while stacked with trucks and stomping people, when I can barely float on my back while stacked with, well, nothing? 

I used to be terrified of the ferries: their deafening horns, their cavernous interiors, their bigness. But above all, I was terrified of what the water did to the ferries. I had a recurring dream in which I found myself walking along a narrow spit of sand, flanked on both sides by a dark and spinning sea. Angry waves lapped at my feet, and I could make out the outlines of sharks swimming in circles just beneath the surface. The dream always ended with a strong gust of wind that pushed me off the spit in one direction or another, the shadows growing, the churning waves converging on me. This dream was a symptom of my anxiety, not the cause of it. The cause, in truth, was something much simpler.

Motion sickness. Not particularly glamorous. I can’t chalk my fear up to some romantic idea of the sea as a cruel, vindictive being; this idea came later, as a sort of retrospective justification. No, ferries terrified me because they made me feel gross. For years, I was plagued by nausea at the slightest lurch or roll. It didn’t help that I was born with a useless superhuman ability to feel every wave that hit a ship. I would grip my mother’s hand and look at her with horror. “It’s really rocky, Mom,” I would whimper. And she would stare back and say, “It’s totally smooth. What are you talking about?”

Then there were the times when nobody denied the turbulence. One day in early winter, a nine-year-old me sat frozen in a window-facing seat as the boat pitched back and forth; the movement became so severe that I alternated between seeing only sky and only sea through the window. Every once in a while, a wave would strike the ship’s bow head on, producing a crashing sound so loud that we heard it above the infernal buzz of the pretzel machines. I felt sick, and the hot smell of batter made me feel sicker. On another trip, my mother led me up to the deck to make a phone call. It was snowing hard, snowing the sort of snow that leaves coin-sized stains on a winter jacket, and the boat lurched so suddenly that I nearly lost my balance. I gripped my mother’s hand until we got back inside, and when she finally pulled it away from my grasping fingers, her palm glowed a bloodless white.

Coping strategies emerged from the whitecaps. I learned to breathe; I found that I had a tendency to purse my lips and hold my breath when I felt nauseous, as if sealing off my lungs would solve everything. In reality, holding my breath only made me more nauseous. I learned to close my eyes instead of fixing them on a window and straining to detect any vertical motion. I learned to think about the destination: my grandma’s house in Port Jefferson, the bakery that sold black-and-white cookies bigger than my face, the beach with more horse flies than grains of sand. I found pink bands with round plastic beads that I stretched around my wrists, positioning them so that the beads poked at my pressure points. 

The greatest coping strategy was also the simplest. The deck. I had long avoided it after that snowy afternoon, but finally I forced myself up the stairs, pulling on the heavy door with all of my prepubescent might. The deck was criss-crossed with benches. A raised console emerged from this sea of seating like an island; I found it comforting to know that the captain was inside this structure, seeing everything I was seeing, feeling everything I was feeling. In front of the console there was a thin curved space with a single bench that looked out on the unobstructed sea ahead. I crept up to the front, sat on the bench, and felt the wind smack my face. It was a cold, salty wind that stung my eyes and made my nose run. My shirt billowed up and my hair flew off my forehead. I could barely see. I held my shirt down with one hand and my hair down with the other. As we pulled into the Port Jefferson harbor, the boat slowed, and I noticed that the water was choppy. I hadn’t felt the ship rock at all.

Since then, I’ve refused to sit inside when I take the ferry to Long Island. I spend as much time as I can nestled into that front-facing crescent on the deck, letting the whirling wind blur my senses. And I still wear my pink wristbands, though I’ve never been sure whether they work.

Just this August, I took a mid-morning boat across the Sound for a two-night stay at my grandma’s house. When we got to the deck, my parents and I removed our masks and let our weight rest on the railing at the ship’s bow. I was reminded of those videos of dogs leaning out of car windows, their jowls jiggling furiously in the wind. My mother handed me an apple, and I clutched it in my right palm for a while. I could feel the air bend around the curved red skin and rush around the tips of my fingers. When I took a bite, I tasted not only the fruit, but also the wind, which pushed past the corners of my lips and tickled my tongue. I smiled: Here I was, struggling to keep my balance, just like I had years ago in a fog of snow. When and how had this experience become pleasurable? I realized that I was more than not nauseous. I was distinctly un-nauseous. I was doing what an impartial observer might describe as having fun.

I finished the apple and held a sticky hand above my eyes, sheltering them from the wind and sun. Big, lazy waves moved past the ship’s hull, rippling out in all directions until they faded into a blur of grayish blue. A canvas of squiggles. The sea was deep, wide, constantly moving. But it didn’t seem scary. It just seemed indifferent. And something about that indifference struck me for the first time as beautiful. There’s a beauty in witnessing inconceivable bigness and accepting it as both inconceivable and big, bigger than you’ll ever be.

I haven’t had the dream about the spit of sand in years, and already the undulating outlines of the sharks have begun to fade from my memory. Or maybe I have had the dream, and just forgotten it, as I tend to forget dreams that aren’t nightmares. Because the dream stopped being a nightmare when I looked into the water and saw no animus. I saw only motion, the motion of the waves and the motion of the gulls and the motion of the light. And I thought, “This was never something to be afraid of.” 

Xavier Blackwell-Lipkind is a staff writer for the Yale Daily News Magazine. He previously served as a copy staffer for the News. Originally from West Hartford, Connecticut, Xavier is a Davenport sophomore studying comparative literature.