The beach at five in the morning was deserted. Sometimes another surfer went by, lean and heading for the water. A red flag with a scull and crossbones marked the “No swimming” area. I hiked up my board and walked out , deep enough, pushed forward and was on. I began to paddle. Smaller waves came in. I met them at the nose, pushed up and then crested. They rolled on behind me.
I paddled hard and felt my arms tighten into the exercise and then relax, the strokes more familiar. Another wave, big. I met it in the middle, burrowed in and rolled under, tight with air. I came up paddling.
The crashers were behind me now. I was past the line. I undulated as others came and went, moving beneath. I came down again on the face of my board, paddling, moving up and over, recovering the fifty feet or so lost from my start point. The current was sweeping south by southwest.
I took the channel out and faced the waves in the line up, feeling the little heats roll beneath me. I waited for a bigger set. It came. I turned, paddled hard, felt the crest and leapt to the catch point. I dropped down on it. The board coasted across the face and the water rose, charming me forward. I skidded down the edge, negotiated it, fell and flipped. I burrowed under.
I paddled back out in the channel. Channel, line up, set, collapse, channel again. That was the only productive routine I had or cared about. Others could make their careers. And if they were good—really good—they could just rise and crest and carry forward of their own momentum before they, too, would dissipate. Surfing or working, living in Bali or scrambling in New York, floating or doing. At the end of the day, or even at the beginning, especially at the beginning of the day: what was the difference?
Channel, line up, set, collapse. The water churned and swept out. But by sticking to the cycle nothing could harm me. The channel took me back out again and I was ready. I sat up on the board, my legs down, giving absent kicks into the little undulations of passing sea.
Back on the beach, a line of fish shacks stood ready, open for the surfers, their early coffee percolating. At some point I’d get tired, ride a wave all the way in. I’d let the rest of the day fall away.
A current isn’t something you can see. It’s a silent, constant pull. It waits you out. By the time you’re paddling hard, you realize there’s a line. The beach is the life sustaining everything. The water presents its flat, swallowing horizon. A line exists between the two and even—especially—something as flat and thin as a horizon can swallow. Very few people can swim against a current. Almost no one can break away from one.
I almost saw a kid get pulled under and drown off Hull in Massachusetts. Meredith and I had gone there to visit some friends. People jumped with the choppy waves, laughing and jumping, pulling back as the water receded. Laughing, jumping, pulling. Off on the side, farther out, I thought I saw a guy, his head bobbing, sandy colored. Was he on a board? Was he fine? Was that a guy at all? Then he was gone.
“Such a strong current,” the officer said. “It’s swim at your own risk.” They checked the beach, the water. Meredith: “Oh my God, oh my God, I can’t believe this.” Someone else asked, “What’d you see, a shark? Are the sharks back again?”
But it was nothing, just a clump of seaweed, a piece of plywood and the partially decayed carcass of a duck. “Don’t see these around too often,” the officer said, kicking the duck’s desiccated body.
Meredith and I sat on the beach for a while after that and I told her this family story about ducks, of all things.
“My father found some injured ducks by the side of the river once when he was young,” I told her. “Or his mother—my grandmother—did. She picked them up and brought them home and they raised the ducks for a while. Then when they got bigger they were flapping around, and it seemed like they could fly again soon, my father and his brothers picked the ducks up and tossed them to each other and then, over time, out the kitchen window. They considered it a form of training. That’s how they taught the ducks to fly again. This was in Wisconsin. When the ducks got good enough at flying from the first floor window, they tossed them out the second floor. The ducks flew down into the garden and landed. So they tossed the ducks out of every window in the house. And when the ducks just got too big and seemed to be able to take care of themselves again enough to tolerate, even, any catapult from any window, my grandmother took them back to the river. My dad said they were pretty happy to be back. They looked like they were having a good time.”
After that we just sat staring out at the waves, pushing cigarette butts down into the sand. The gray of the water beat up against the gray of the sky to the point you could hardly distinguish the line between the two. Meredith put her arm around me.
Surfing: lying on the board. Letting the whole world go.
I paddled out and got back in the surf line. Then I floated farther. I decided to draw in, to bob and wait. I decided to stop trying.
A low wavy form pass beneath me. I imagined an octopus or shark taken to shallow water, made nimble and multi-finned out here where anything could mutate and anything could grow. I lay on my board, my nose nearly tipped into the water and scrutinizing, straining to look and see, to verify. To be right to be scared. But it was only a clump of sea grass, knotted and heavily weighted somehow. It trailed along the bottom on some passage to a place out of sight. How quickly it disappeared.
When a set of waves came and threw me under I flipped, took the board from the top, burrowed in and came back up the end of a wave. From there I swam out beyond the break. When the next set came in I only rose and fell even as the water raced toward the beach, this power by tons that smashes and then recedes, smashes and recedes, like nothing’s wrong and nothing ever happened.