March 7, 2005
While I’m Away…
…for your reading pleasure, and in the hope you will forgive me for being the slacker I am…
Slow. One thing I’m not. Nobody I know thinks I’m slow at anything. A woman I know said that I come out of the sky like a falcon plummeting towards its prey. A mildly disconcerting feeling, she added, for most women. Just moving with a purpose I told her, then showing my hands, pointing out that I didn’t have talons. She said that’s hard to notice at 200 miles an hour. But I’ve learned to slow down, to take my time, to take more than my time. For example…
It took me a little longer than planned to find myself a surfer girl. I was 52, not exactly an age where I spent hours on the beach, frugging to the Rivieras and waxing down my board. I didn’t have a ’34 wagon called a woody. The thing I did have that I called a woody I had been waking up with everyday for forty one years. I hoped to wake up with it for another forty one. I didn’t own huaraches. I wore baggies, it’s true, but they weren’t meant to be. I think. Besides at my age, “baggies” had a whole different meaning, several different meanings and applications, none of which I care to think about much less discuss.
I had always wanted a surfer girlfriend. Not that I surfed. Not that I lived in California. Not that I spent a lot of time on beaches where some people surfed and others combed the sands with the home version of a mine detectors, picking up change, rings, the occasional dental crown. Not that any of that mattered. In high school, where I didn’t want to be but was, I wanted to be on a beach, where I wasn’t, with a surfer girl, a sensitive, intelligent, loving surfer girl with a tan, a bikini, a sweet, sweet ass, and a preference for my type of woody. I was very young. It was high school, after all.
The image, the projection, pardon the pun, of one’s own desire, a self-deluding picture of freedom and fulfillment gift-wrapped and bow-tied, never disappears completely. So even after high school, when I continued to be in places I’d rather not have been, during my radical days, drop-kicking tear cas canisters back toward lines of cops, during my post-radical days, when I spent the deepest of nights holding my breath, during my period of adjustment, drinking myself into oblivion or fist fight, during my recovery, getting a job, making progress, raising a family and money, I always thought of the girl on the board, riding the waves, steering a path of crystalline purity through foam and backwash, rushing over the water and sand into my arms. I saw her every day, shaking her hair dry, smiling at me, as I wrapped her in a towel and sucked the salt water from her lips.
She would be from California, naturally. Astounded by my New York presence. “I’m so glad you came,” she would say. “I’m so glad you waited for me,” I would say. The scenes played out in my head like a particularly weird episode of The Twilight Zone.
Even later, after my adjustment, my recovery, my reentry into an atmosphere and gravity that I couldn’t, for some reason, regard with complete seriousness; even when I began to feel that there were some places on this planet in this lifetime where I didn’t really mind being, after years of telling myself “this isn’t so bad,” I thought of her, the surfer girl.
Blame it on the radio. I was not, am not, a television person. I don’t pretend to any cultural superiority, I just never found television interesting, funny, or entertaining. There was no persistence of television for me. Television, like school or home, was just another of those places that seemed better off without me, that didn’t need me, leave any room for me, for what I wanted.
Movie were OK. Movies were dreams circulating in the public domain. But radio…
But radio, what I heard on the radio, in all periods of my permanent maladjustment, the words and music, the pictures of hope and loss painted in the synchronized steps and voices of the singers, the warnings, regrets, eagerness and hesitancy of the instruments, the defiant melancholy of a not-yet-broken heart, painted pictures for me that hummed inside my head. They were always there. She, surfer girl, among them. So that during the midst of bopping along to George Clinton or Prince or Warren Zevon or Donna Summer or Janet Jackson, I saw her out there, waiting, waiting for the wave that had my name written on it.
Blame it on the radio. When they sang, “Last night a Deejay saved my life…” I knew what they meant.
Those were mostly idle thoughts. A preoccupation. A daydream. My life didn’t allow for much idleness however. Until I hit my fifties. And I began to desire something other than 16 hour workdays, midnight phone calls, nationwide paging, and all the pretenses of a life that couldn’t really be that important.
I began to disconnect, literally. I was already divorced. My children grown. The electronic tethers that bound me to this life were chains of my own making, a way of lashing myself to the mast of a storm tossed life, of making myself appear normal. It was exactly the feeling I had had about my marriage to a definitively non-surfer girl. So I stopped taking the 2 AM calls, stopped interrupting dinner to answer the pager, stopped taking the cell phone with me, stopped all of it, all at once. Like I had quit smoking. Over and done. And I explained to all those who worked for me, that it was their turn, their turn to get no sleep, to miss a meal, to worry when others were laughing and drinking. At first, they didn’t think I was serious. And I couldn’t blame them for that. But they learned. In a hurry. Slow I wouldn’t let them be.
I took vacations, lots of them. I had taken vacations before, but not like this. Two weeks in Paris, a month at work; a week in Nice, two weeks at work; Ten days in Denmark, five days in Holland, 5 more days at home to recover from my 15 days abroad.
Then, and not because I was tired of Europe, I turned my gaze west, thinking about all those days spent thinking about California. What I knew about California revolved around Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, and Oakland again. Southern California existed only in the songs in my head, chords and notes stolen from Chuck Berry. I changed the words to suit my mood. I had, over the years, developed six or seven different sets of lyrics to accompany The Beach Boys “Surfin’ USA” and Jan and Dean’s “Surf City,” all of which, particularly the set developed after the drowning of Natalie Wood, my then wife made me promise never to sing in front of the children. She was right about that, of course. It was the only thing she was right about.
So I had not actually been to Southern California. But I had heard about it. And that was more than a start for someone like me.
I flew to Los Angeles, rented a car, and drove to the ocean and then over to Santa Monica. My impression of LA had always been that it had invented itself according to the street names in screenplays of several detective novels transformed into movies. Laurel Canyon Boulevard, Mulholland Drive, Sunset, Wilshire, Santa Monica Boulevards— I couldn’t believe any of it. I knew they were made up names. It was better that way.
I stayed in Santa Monica because it had a pier with an amusement park, a big beach, and a rather exclusive hotel that seemed just right for cocktails while discussing the terms of blackmail, hats off to Raymond Chandler. The hotel had a garden that was shielded from the sight of the ocean but not its smell, its roar, its muscle power as it rolled across the sand. You could hear it. It reminded me of the Hotel Nacional in Havana, for some reason. Radio, I think. Somebody was narrating everybody’s stay in this hotel. Entering the hotel was like entering a picture painted on the airwaves.
And there was surfing. Not for me. But for her. Surfer girl. Whoever she was, she was out there on the water, and my hearing, more accurate than my gaze would bring her into view.
Not that I ever thought I would actually find her. Not by sitting there in my beach chair, wearing my sunglasses, slathered with sunblock, reading my book, listening to my radio without headphones. More likely I would be checking in as she was checking out of some hotel on some other beach. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time being kind of an enduring theme for me.
But she was there, not five hundred yards out. I watched her wait, turn the board, drift, paddle, and time the waves, raising herself to standing before the board picked up too much speed. She wore the board. It was chained to her ankle by a rubber cord. She walked the board front and back, pushing it forward or pulling it back across the face of the wave. She wore a wet suit.
She spun off the wave as it turned to froth and spittle, paddling back out. Repetition in the service of mastery. The waves were regular that day, five to six feet, with an even steady drive to the shore and an unturbulent break. Starter waves, I suppose, for some.
I watched her on the water for an hour, thinking the most positive thoughts I had thought in thirty years, ready to believe in a just, merciful, god if that would get her to surf back in and give me a chance to say the words I longed to hear. Not that I knew what those words would be. But I wasn’t worried. I knew I would think of something. I always had.
God or no god, she stayed out on the water. God or no god, she decided to come back in. It was the early afternoon, a time when most people’s thoughts turn to Margaritas on a deck, chilled shrimp, pico de gallo, cilantro, lime in the sunlight.
She untethered herself from the board, carrying it easily up the sand. I was surprised by how small the board was, how much smaller it was than I remembered imagining boards to be. But that’s progress, the women get bigger and the boards get smaller. She was just a little bit on my side of that progress line in both size and age. She was not quite 5’ 6", and she was definitely no girl. She was my age. She was beautiful. White hair, silver green eyes, inviting and awaiting attention, her face slightly wrinkled with the effort of years of thought and attention.
I walked over to her as she unzipped her wet suit, the nylon zipper unsealing with a sound like a fish being scaled. I shivered and admired the shape of her arms, her back, her legs all at once. The sun sparkled off the thin film of water the wetsuit had used to insulate her from the cold ocean.
“I watched you surf,” I said in a burst of originality and wit.
“I noticed,” she said.
“I thought you were pretty good.”
“Not bad for a beginner is a more accurate characterization.”
“You’re a beginner?”
“Yes, third day I’ve been out. It’s not getting any easier. I’m just working harder on it.”
“Like most of life,” I said. She smiled. That was a good sign.
She extended her hand. “Louise Larsen,” she said.
“Rubin Rubinnelli,” I said shaking her hand.
“Great name,” she said.
“Not bad for a beginner would be a better characterization. I had nothing to do with it. Got it from my parents.”
She laughed again. What was it someone had told me? Once you get her laughing, move with a purpose before she changes her mind?
“Are you from around here?” I asked.
She shook her head, loosening her hair from the elastic that held it away from her face. “No, I actually live in Wisconsin, near Madison. You know where that is?”
“Do I ever. Ninety miles north of Chicago, home to the University of Wisconsin, situated along Lake Mendota, where the plane carrying Otis Redding and some of the Bar-Keys went down.”
“Very good. You know your history.”
“More than I care to, I assure you.”
She smiled but didn’t laugh. Which was fine. It wasn’t meant to be a funny remark.
She wasn’t wearing a bikini and she didn’t have to. She looked fine, in her one piece cobalt blue suit, her strong smooth legs arching to the ground. She had small round breasts, shoulders that weren’t ashamed of themselves, and a sweet, sweet ass. I didn’t even attempt not to look at it.
“Hungry?” I said. One word that meant date, invitation, care, concern, love, the whole story.
“Good. Place I know has an upper deck with umbrellas, if you want shade, a view of the ocean, and cold, cold beer.”
“How’s the food?”, she asked.
“Now that you mention it, not too bad.”
That made her laugh again. I was making real progress. She wanted to put away her board and wetsuit in her room. I promised to wait for her, having a much shorter walk to my room to return the radio and chair. I offered to let her use my room for her gear but she said she wanted to take a quick shower. “Even better,” I said.
“Not yet,” she said.
I shrugged. “Just moving with a purpose.”
“Are you ever.”
When she returned, she was wearing a shocking pink sun dress, shocking pink lipstick, sandals. Her toenails wore the same shocking pink. The combined impact of the pink, with her white hair, the endless sunlight, made me hear things. Music, drums, cowbells. Color and percussion were one in my innermost of inner ears.
We sat on the upper deck of the restaurant, eschewing the umbrella, drinking our beers, eating shrimp and avocado, and generally taken for granted our good fortune. It was the way life should be. We discussed careers. Hers was definitely more interesting. She was an obstetrician-gynocologist tending to the needs of old and young alike, providing diagnosis, examination, counsel, contraception to all her patients without regard for the wishes of parents, husbands, priests, or cops.
“This is what medicine is supposed to be. To practice it any other way is to provide poor care to the patient.”
I nodded. “Takes a certain amount of courage.”
“No more than being a woman does.”
I drank to that.
“And what brings you here?”, she asked.
“No, I just believe in it. I’m not a good enough swimmer. I love to watch it.”
“I wind surf at home,” she said, “and I wanted to try to real thing. So I told my partners in the practice to take over for a week and here I am.”
We were sitting next to each other facing the ocean. While we talked she moved closer to me and let her leg rub against mine. It felt good. It felt better than good. I wanted to drop my hand on to her thigh, but I didn’t. I was taking my time. It was difficult.
“I should go back, get some more board time in,” she said.
“Or you can stay here, and have another beer with me and watch the ocean.”
She was silent. “Will you be here tomorrow.”
“Good,” she said. “Then we’ll meet tomorrow.”
She got up to leave. “Stay,” she said, “Enjoy the view. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She was taking her time.
I watched her as she walked, making the sun dress sway. The thing about watching a woman walk away is you know exactly what you’re missing. That’s not easy.
I had another beer and another and watched her return to the beach in her wetsuit, strap the board to her ankle and push back into the water. She paddled out and straddled the board, raised a hand and waved in my direction. I didn’t believe she could see me, but she knew I could see her. I appreciated the gesture.
She surfed for another hour, framed by a setting sun, nuzzled, almost, by a calming ocean. I almost wished I had a camera.
I enjoyed my sleep that night, something I do more often now that I take my time. I don’t think I slept well, waking up several times, staying up once to read, once to listen to the radio, once to walk out on the balcony of my room and listen to the night whispering to the ocean. But I enjoyed the whole thing, the sleeping the waking the thinking the anticipation.
I tried to take my time the next day. I left my radio in the room. I ate breakfast in the hotel dining room at a table not facing the ocean. I read the paper. I went for a walk. I busied myself counting every minute as if minutes didn’t matter, as if time I took didn’t have a purpose.
But of course, I did have a purpose and I finally surrendered to myself just before noon and moved with and to that purpose.
She was out there in water more turbulent than the day before, water that threw her from the board several times, the board sailing, twisting, spinning, until the tether yanked it down into the water, like the wind pushing down a kite, ordering it out of the air. She came back in, breathing hard, and smiling.
“Rough day?” I said.
She nodded. “I thought you’d never come and give me an excuse to stop falling off the board.”
This time she agreed to use my room for her board and wet suit. And her shower. She had her dress and sandals in a nylon gym bag. She came out of the shower wrapped in a towel. She kissed me. I kissed her back. I unwrapped the towel and held her wet and naked against me.
“Can you do this, just this, for awhile?”, she said.
“I’d say ‘yes,’ I’d say anything right now just to keep you here. But you know men, we’re always on recon, probing perimeters, boundaries. My mind is focussed but my hands would wander.”
“I understand,” she said, not pulling away.
I’m a man. I was on recon even in her arms, and my hands did wander. She let me feel her before pulling away.
“I’m hungry. We need to eat,” she said.
I agreed. I’m a man. I was still on recon even out of her arms. I would say anything.
We returned to our place on the second story, our table without the umbrella, our cold, cold beers, shrimp and avocado, view of the ocean, legs pressing against each other. We were almost too close to eat.
“You’ve still got some board time left,” I said after we had spent an hour not tasting our food.
“Or I could stay here, have another beer, and watch the ocean with you.”
I ordered the beers.
“So much for board time,” she said a couple hours later. The sun was on its glide path to the other edge of the horizon.
“We could stay here and have another beer,” I said.
“Or we could go back to the hotel and make love,” she said.
“Let me think about that,” I said, jumping up signaling for the check and starting for the stairs all at once. She followed.
I don’t think we actually ran back to the hotel. But we did walk very fast. I would call it moving with a purpose. And when we arrived, I opened the doors to the balcony, pulled open the drapes, and the covers off the bed. I wanted to hear the ocean. I wanted the ocean to hear us.
She pulled me close and said one word, “condoms.” It wasn’t a question. Nor a request. It was a requirement.
She came like the ocean, rolling up me in wave after wave of green and blue, covering me, all of me with a thousand wet fingers sinking into my every pore, releasing a thousand tiny voices of life emerging from a storm. The salt I tasted on her was her own, tasting exactly like the salt in the ocean.
We stayed that way all evening, all night. The next morning we went back to it, finding our way with our eyes closed, finding our way by touch, seeing each other with lips and hands. We ran out to eat. We ran back. We ran to the ocean to swim. We ran back.
That night as she lay in the bed, dozing almost, I thought about it, all of it. I thought it was time again to move with a purpose.
“Will you marry me?”, I asked. She didn’t stir.
“Will you marry me?”, I repeated.
She sat bolt upright, as if somebody had fired a gun in the room.
“Will you marry me?,” I said again, not wanting to repeat it ad infinitum, thinking third time is either the charm or the end.
She looked at me. “Why would you think you want to marry me?”
“Well, for one you’re not tattooed. And we’ve spent three days together without discussing, even once, reincarnation, our astrological signs, or herbal cures for cancer. I always thought if I met an untattooed woman who didn’t believe in reincarnation, astrology or herbal cures for cancer I should marry her.”
She laughed. “Oh Rubin, I am flattered. But I can’t marry you.”
“Why not,” I said. “I’m not tattooed either.”
“Rubin,” she paused, “I’m already married. I have a husband back in Wisconsin.”I was stunned.
That wasn’t in any song I could recall. They made no mention of married surfer girls. I stood in front of the open balcony doors, confused, almost speechless. I stared out into the ocean. A picture came into my mind, a picture of a picture of John Garfield and Lana Turner, swimming in the deep water of the ocean after killing Lana’s husband, she swearing her love through the assumption of risk by drowning. But it was only a picture. I knew I could never do that. I knew I wasn’t a good enough swimmer.
She came up behind me and wrapped her arms around me. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Perhaps I should go.”
“No,” I said, hearing another song, lots of other songs. “Don’t go. Please stay.” I stopped before singing the next line.
We stood there silently, framed by the wind and the noise of the sea. I heard more songs. I heard Jimmy Ruffin singing “What Becomes Of the Broken Hearted?”
“It doesn’t get easy ever, does it?”, I said.
“You just work harder at it,” she said.
She took my hand and led me out onto the balcony into the sound of an ocean wet with darkness, a night cloaked in mist. Songs. Lines of songs. I whispered.
“New York’s a lonely town…”
She sang back to me. “When you’re the only surfer boy around.”
We stood there, naked, holding hands in the dark. Listening to the ocean drumming the beach, listening to the ocean playing our song.
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posted by The Wolf Reports @ 7:10 AM