My friend A. messages, “How’d you get out of drop off and pick up?”
“Cristina,” I text back, “is wondering the same thing.”
“I don’t understand,” he says back.
“She either loves me so much or I pissed her off so badly that she said “go.”
A. is a novelist. A fine novelist. We both have backed up our wives’ schedules. We text or bump into each other in the water. We also bump into each other at literary events and conferences. But we never really talk surfing at those events. It has been an unwritten rule that to do so is to risk career suicide. We wouldn’t confess to that, but I know it would only add fodder to the Jeff Spicoli slurs. Jeff Spicoli is the stoner-surfer character from a 1980’s film I have never seen but was voted most likely to be in high school. What my fellow high schoolers thought was slurred speech due to an affection for cannabis was really just a slight speech impediment, a slight difficulty pronouncing my r’s and l’s. (Say “rural” ten times fast.) My brand of dyslexia also sometimes prompts me to say the word that rhymes with the word I mean to say. This, of course has nothing to do with surfing. But try to explain that to a bunch of frothy teenagers. Or tell that to the guy in grad school who found out I snuck off to surf in New Hampshire one gorgeous fall day. A year later he said, “You know, when I heard you talk I thought you were really stupid, but then I listened to what you were saying and realized you’re actually really smart.” I thanked him. He was being generous. He let me out of the surfer box. He was listening.
“I still don’t understand,” Antoine messages back.
What A. doesn’t understand is how and why I am writing this in the airport in Madrid, waiting for my connecting flight to Biarritz. What he doesn’t understand is why my wife said “go.” What Antoine doesn’t understand is why my wife said “go,” and when I told her the contests could go on for a month and then move from Europe to Hawaii, she said “buy a one way ticket.” What Antoine does not know and what I don’t know is whether or not there will be a home for me to return to.
Last year I read William Finnegan’s memoir on surfing, Barbarian Days. This year it won a Pulitzer. For some reason fly fishing and golf had been acceptable in literary and polite society, but not surfing. When I read Finnegan, I had talked myself into believing a mini-van was the ultimate surfmobile. I had my surf trip wanderlust tamped down pretty well until he kicked the dirt clods off the well.
I never cared about competitive surfing. If there was a contest in town, it just meant that was a spot to avoid until the crowds went away. My friends felt the same way. We just surfed. Some can dominate a lineup, meaning both their surfing and aggressive wave catching stand out, even with sixty people competing for the 3-5 waves that come through every twenty minutes. But they never geeked out on surfing’s competitive analytics, what the world’s number three needs to win to garner the points necessary to become the world’s number two. Until about three years ago. I remember being mildly numb at some resortish hotel with a kiddy pool and lots of primary colored floaty things and too sweet margaritas. I’d given up on trying to read–was it Le Clezio? Whatevers–and was fighting with the WiFi to tune in to a contest in Fiji. Since then I have mumbled into my chest, somewhat embarrassed to have burned too much time, that I’d been watching the contest on my second screen in my office only to find out that whomever I was talking to had been doing the same.
Put another way, A. once texted me, “Last night I dreamed of Kelly Slater. I think my subconscious has become a pro-ho.”
When I first worked at an ad agency that made trailers for movies, the guy who’d brought me in was a quarter paying attention to our conversation and three quarters focused on his computer. When I asked what he was looking at, he said, “You really want to know?” I nodded. He flipped his screen around. The video on his screen had a man under four-feet tall with his face lost in the thighs of a 300-pound women. Gleefully, he said, “Midget porn!” His NFL betting pool was over. The NCAA’s March Madness was done. Baseball hadn’t hit its stride yet. In an industry in which a producer had recently taken a copywriter’s copy, dropped his pants, wiped his ass with the copy, lit it on fire, and dropped the copy in the trash can, this guy was occupying his time watching male midgets fuck obese women. By letting me in on his secret, he was trying to bond with me. I wasn’t surprised.
My question is whether or not competitive surfing was finally transcending beyond the surf scene to compete with other international sports like soccer and tennis? Is the newly formed WSL, with its high production values, and Joe Turpel’s Hugh Grant-like boyish surf charm, winning over a larger audience, stealing bored cubicle jockeys away from their frattish antics , from “midget porn?”
A decade ago I marveled at the beach at La Graviere. That clear, green water, backlit by the sun, frontlit by the boardwalk and forest. I looked at the huge, white sand beach stretched out for miles in both directions. It was similar to the beaches in Santa Barbara, but without the leopard spots of tar and wider and longer. Women lounged around topless, the same as men, naturally, with no outward sense of shame or the US Christian fetish for covering up. The bakers scented the air with opera cake. I don’t drink coffee, but the coffee cart with the sweet old French women at the edge of the sand made coffee seem like a good idea. When the wind shifted slightly, I thought I could smell autumn, the cool, drunk wind blowing down from the Cognac distilleries to the North. This was the bay of Biscay and I was losing myself. I was having visions of renting, cheaply, a small cabin in the woods. It’s rare to find a place with surf, good food, a rich literary and art tradition. I thought I’d found my future. And then a voice said, with certainty, “Here, take your kid.” It was my wife, dark circles under dark eyes, handing me our six-week-old girl.
That baby, this summer, turned ten. She said to me, while we played basketball, “Dad, you need to learn to talk better trash.” And the day before I left on this trip she said, “I’m going to miss you. But not the sarcasm.” She and her brother and their mom can take care of themselves now easier than they have been able to in the last decade, and I am free to roam. Sort of.