It is spring in California and the clouds won’t burn off and the water looks dusty.
I sit on a towel, a comic book in hand. I’ve been here since dawn, since before the sun first spooled over the mountains behind us. Most of the time I read and forget about the ocean but then the wind rustles the pages and I look out at the water.
There is a pack of wetsuits leashed to six-foot shortboards, my father among them. Most are young—teenagers and college kids—but some are nearing 50. This is 1988 when my father is 34 and I am twelve and the twenty-two years between us seems like enough time to change the world. His hair is sun bleached and there are white scars on his knuckles, reminders of bone chipped by rock. He spends five days a week in an aerospace factory near Burbank and afterward sleeps alone in his 1-bedroom apartment. On the weekends he gets me and the surf.
When the next set appears, my father paddles in rhythm, making it look easy. The current drags him toward the open ocean, wants, in fact, to drown him, but he fights until he lines up the perfect angle, right before the face of the wave and I blink and he is on his feet and, for a moment, I feel like our eyes lock, before he moves into his bottom turn. But, of course, our eyes never meet because his gaze is on the water. It must be, otherwise it will crush him.
“Nothing else matters, big man,” he tells me. “Not out there. Just the water. You hear me? You got to keep your focus. That’s the thing.”
But I can’t clear my mind. Even on the smallest waves, I’ll paddle into place and rise and for a moment I’m feeling it, but that’s when I see a flash of Spiderman whipping between skyscrapers and then I’m underwater, held down until the wave lets go and I emerge, gasping.
“Get up,” he tells me.
He does not wait to see that I am fine. It would make me soft. By the time I stand, he is again paddling out because there is always the next set and that might be the best of the day.
We do this every weekend.
On this beach, my father is famous. His war stories include deepwater breaks that nearly split his board or riding out the storm of ’78 upon 20-footers.
But he’s not a legend, not like his father, who rode back in the 50s, before the Beach Boys could swim. My grandfather’s name has been popping up with the longboard revival. Young guys show my father pictures of his father, photos from old surf magazines.
“Yeah, he was good,” my father says.
There’s a point near Carpenteria named after my grandfather and even a memorial with his name on it, because he died at 35 in a Pasadena parking lot, stabbed to death when he tried to stop a guy from stealing his car. My father was 15. It isn’t until adulthood that I come to understand that the weight of his father’s death drove my father to keep trying with me, to get me to concentrate on the moment instead of drifting into fictive worlds because it’s all gone so soon.
But a few weeks earlier he gave up after I wiped out on the rocks. This time he did not tell me to get up.
“It’s okay,” he said. “If you’re not getting it by now, you probably won’t and that’s okay.”
My father moves into a cutback before disappearing into the barrel. Water shrouds him. I wait for him to re-emerge, focusing only on the water, on the barrel breaking, and find my feet wet because I’ve drifted into the water and haven’t noticed.
“Come on,” I say.
It is only a few seconds before he blows out of the curl, leading the wave, steady on his feet. His back is to me, but I feel his elation, though he won’t show it in front of the other men. You can’t. You have to act like it is no big deal, that this moment of transcendence is simply commonplace.
Later, he comes to me, gives a quick nod, “You see that, big man?”
“It was awesome.”
“Fuck yeah it was.”
There was no need to worry, I realize. My father won’t die on the water.
When he does die, it is on dry land, just outside of Pasadena, a few miles from where his father bled to death. This is fifteen years later and my step-mother calls to tell me my father killed himself. A bottle of Jim Beam, a gun, and a bad moment met at the shore’s edge.
I am living in Western Massachusetts, three hours from the ocean, studying history, planning on becoming a professor. I have another month left in the semester, so I wait to fly home. There is no rush. He did not want a funeral.
On a calm morning, my stepmother and I take two of my father’s boards and paddle out beyond the surf. His ashes are in a plastic bag. I split the bag with my thumb and then lay his ashes upon the water. The ash dissolves or is blown away, but there is a little bone in there, a little texture, a little bit of the body of the man that remains in my hands.