Paul knows that one day that question will come, and he avoids it, will never bring that question to my attention. Stewart doesn’t have time to think about it.
VENICE BEACH, CA
DIDDY MOW: the worst kind of wipeout.
One that causes broken bones, missing teeth,
or loss of life
It’s one of those barely warm days. The kind that warns you to get out and enjoy the water, before it is teeth-chattering cold, with breezes that feel like the open door to a fridge. I closed the windows to the house this morning. Crawled back into bed and laid on Paul’s warm body. Let him wrap his arms around me and warm my skin.
We waited till noon, when the sun was out long enough to take the chill off the day, and then ran out, the initial shock of cold water goosebumping our exposed skin. Now, an hour later, our muscles are warm and we are contemplating the incoming waves.
I love the anonymity of being out here. The sand and water don’t care if you are a spoiled rich kid or a foster child. It doesn’t yield to society’s expectations or discriminate. And there is little you can buy that will improve your ride of a wave, or lower your risk of death. On the sand, in the water, we are all equal in the wave’s eyes. All opponents that will either conquer the surf or succumb to it.
I rode a surfboard before I ever did a bike. The waxed feel of epoxy underneath my soles is as familiar as sand. I am not Paul. I don’t ride on the edge of death, don’t tackle the monsters that rise above and crush down on innocent souls. I ride the waves I know I can handle, and don’t bite off more than I can easily chew. And this, this gradual curve that approaches, is a wave I can handle.
I watch it coming, feel the tug as it pulls from behind me, the subtle awakening of the surrounding water as we all prepare for its arrival. I glance around, Paul nodding, sitting up and gesturing for me to go, no other surfers around. A collision on a wave is dangerous, the hard impact of boards brutal at a time when the smallest mistake can mean danger.
I count the seconds, watching the curve of ocean, feeling the pull of current, and then lean forward, lying flat against the board, and paddle. Quick, strong strokes, the rush of excitement entering my muscles as I pick up speed. It is coming. I am ready.
I love her. She knows it. I don’t hide the fact. But I don’t think she knows how much I love her. How much my chest expands to a point of pain when she smiles. How I ache when I leave her, how my hands shake when I finally get to touch her again. She is everything I don’t deserve, and everything I could ever hope to attain. I watch her, the glint of sun off her hair, her blue wet suit bending as she leans forward, her feet swinging onto the board, and her movement as she paddles away from me.
Her hair is loose, long wet blonde tendrils, falling off her shoulders, her yellow board cutting through the water. The wave lifts me, coming in strong, my feet pushed and pulled as it moves by. I frown, not liking the kick of water that spins beneath my feet. It is stronger than it looked, catching me off guard. I narrow my eyes and watch her form, her graceful leap onto the board, her arms steadying out. My angel.
I see her form rise and fall, and then she is gone, hidden by the curve of the wave.
The board vibrates under my feet as I move forward, getting my footing and balancing, my arms outstretched, legs bent. I hit my spot and feel the lift of the board. I lean a little right, the board responding, and we hit the swell and slide down, gliding along the surface, picking up speed, my hair whipping in front of my eyes, stinging my face. I bend slightly, resisting the urge to tuck my hair back, every movement on a board attached to consequences. Then we tilt, the entire world, the wave stronger, faster, than I had expected, and the board shoots from underneath my feet, and I am yanked by my ankle strap, my feet flying outward. Unforgiving water smacks hard against my back and I am yanked underneath, my mouth opening, a stolen breath captured before I am engulfed by ice cold water.
The current is strong, unexpectedly so, and I tumble, pulled underwater, my eyes blinking rapidly as I am tossed around—the rough push and pull of water disorienting me, my struggle against the current useless. My lungs are beginning to burn, panic setting in, my foot pulled by my leash and I hope to God that it is pulling me toward the surface. The board should float, that should be the direction up. But my body is caught in a rip current and I fight it, kicking and clawing, black spots appearing in my vision, my lungs stretching and bursting in my chest. My hand breaks into air and I kick hard, my foot suddenly free, and suddenly I have too much to process and not enough oxygen to react.
I realize it all a second too late. A second before my face hits the surface, fins come slicing through the water, the yellow flash of my board, rubber-banding back, the pressing against the leash too great, its recoil effect headed directly toward me.
I cannot see her. The wave came, she stood, she rode, and then she fell. We all fall. I fall into five-foot monsters, the kind that eat up and spit out surfers like gum. It is okay. She knows how to fall, knows what to do if the current pulls her under. Knows to go limp and let it spit her out. But this one had a strong kick. I felt its pull, worried over its strength. But still. She will find the surface. I will see her bright yellow board, her mess of sunlit hair. I paddle forward hard, my eyes skimming, another wave coming, its back draw pulling me briefly away. Then there is a flash of yellow. Her board, bobbing to the surface. I pause, searching carefully, then frantically, for a sign of her body.
Dark blue expanse, occasionally dotted by colorful bits of surfer. White foam, dark seaweed, her yellow board. Nothing else. Dark blue expanse.
Then I see her suit, bubbling to the surface, facedown in the water, and my entire world ends.
I fly through the water, added by waves, at her board in seconds, my hands flipping her over, her body moving easily, without resistance. Without life. I pull her onto my board, bending down, undoing the velcro of her ankle leash, hesitating as I hold the cord. She will kill me if her board is lost. It is an extension of her, of her life on the water. We have f**ked on these boards, kissed, slept on the water, and fought the demons in these waves. Then I push it aside and lean over her body. I pump at her chest, I breathe into her mouth, and I look to shore and wonder if I should paddle in.
It is a horrific decision to make. To continue working to save her life, or to take her somewhere where she might need to be. The shore holds paramedics, defibrillators, oxygen. Shore means at least two minutes of paddling. Maybe longer, my speed hampered by her additional body on the board. I pray to a God I have ignored for too long and exhale into her still mouth.