The sea talks to me.
I don’t mean like, Good morning, how’s it going? The mackerel are extra tasty today. More like, Come on in, clear sailing past the sand bar. Or, Not today. Sit down and watch the surf instead. Simple statements, instantly understood. Doesn’t matter where I go or what sea I look at. You bet I listen.
Rough, windy day at Point Hueneme. Got out of the car to watch massive waves. Waves can be a problem. At times, they cover what the water underneath wants to say. So you have to pay closer attention. We sat on the sand, put our hands on our knees and stared.
Mixed messages galore. What are you waiting for? Are you nuts? Don’t even think of it. You chicken? Has life become a burden?
“Don’t go in,” my girlfriend Maddy said.
Maybe she saw the sea the way I did. Maybe she heard and understood what the sea said. I hardly ever jump in just because someone tells me not to. I’ve got nothing to prove to the ocean. But I peeled anyway.
“You’re crazy,” she said. “I’m not even going to watch.”
Maybe she thought I’d snap back to sanity, follow her to the car, pull my clothes back on along the way, forget the whole morning.
Toes tell you how long you can stay, how much it’s going to hurt afterward. My toes short-circuited on contact. Too cold. Too hard. Too fast. Too rough. Too salty.
Too late. I was in.
The only other thought was, Get past the breakers. Keep going straight out, hard. The only other thought was, Don’t think.
Couldn’t believe the waves. Pac slaps hard, so don’t mess around. But she seems to have less killer instinct than her flip side, the Atlantic, or the jealous, spiteful little Med. Her waves are only immense, not necessarily violent or mean-spirited.
There was a reason to go farther out. Keep going. You’ll see.
But I cramped up, had to stop.
Only thing to do was go limp, sink, stretch out gradually. Close my eyes. Couldn’t see much anyway, blurred shadows and flashes. Fetal position in the ocean’s churning womb.
The guy at the surf shop said a 4.3-millimeter neoprene wetsuit, or better yet a dry suit, would do the cramp-prevention trick. He nodded when I said, Man, you don’t wear anything rubber when you’re in your oceanic mother. Not going in or coming out. He understood the gross indecency, or pretended. The hard sell was no use.
Don’t know what I wanted in a surf shop anyway. Most of the time, I don’t know what I want or what I’m doing. Past the waves everything becomes clear. Go out. Feel the water. Feel alive for as long as you can stand it. Really get into the swim and the world disappears. Ideal conditions are gray sky, chop, dawn or dusk light. In other words, the worst possible conditions. Shadows above and below, swim or fly between two worlds, air, water. The infinitesimal percentage of solid matter in between is you.
The cramp dissolved. I surfaced, looked back toward the beach because I wanted to wave to Maddy, reassure her everything was cool. Just a little farther and I’d head back. We’d go look for work or something.
Couldn’t see the beach. Heap bad sign. Ventura hills hulked miles away. Riptide. Undertow. Shadows that might be sharks, might be sea lions. But you have to stay calm. You can rest, but the stroke had better be regular once you get going again.
Once, I saw what I thought was a sea lion. They come right up. They’re aggressive, bossy. They have really bad breath. Uh-oh, I thought, here comes the fish-fart bark lecture. You’re on my turf and too near my females. But they’re harmless. This beast, though, had a long, thin neck and a camel face. Eyes too close together. Water dripped from shaggy brown hair, sort of like a man’s. Look of total surprise, then anger. Sea lions just make a lot of noise. The camel thing wanted to hurt me. Then it changed its mind, went under and was gone.
A fix on the antenna-encrusted hilltop told me I was being pulled out pretty fast. You’re supposed to swim across the current, toward the beach, in an arc. Pick a direction and don’t stop. I picked farther out and swam with the current. Felt easy. Felt warm. Usually not a good sign, when you start feeling warm again.
There was a head ahead. Not dead ahead. Maybe ten degrees north, or right, if the Ventura hills were still behind me. No way to tell in the rollers. Don’t want to look back on the way up. The head was alive. Dead bodies sink, then float stretched out. Drown and bloat, take on water. The flesh tears, then the fish start in. Nothing left, unless you float ashore before the fish are done. Crabs finish the job, unless someone alive finds you first. Cops arrive on the dismal scene, ambulance, morgue, someone who knew you nods, then you’re underground, or ash, flying, floating back home.
The head stayed afloat. The body treaded water out of sight. Didn’t want to scare the head with an unexpected touch. Panic’s dangerous in way-out conditions.
Apr 1, 01:19 PMPurchase or Subscribe to Slake: Los Angeles
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