North Shore, Oahu
Courtney had to admit, grasping the tow rope with both hands, knuckles white on the handle, admiring the foamy white wake of the jet ski in front of him, imagining the size of the swell they were speeding into, the whole thing felt a bit mythic. Here he was being towed by this kid who called himself Lord, face tattooed like some Maori warrior, bald head and muscled back bronzed by the sun, hopped up on his own unmedicated mania. This was the guy who had his back, and in this instance at his back would be rolling liquid mountains pitching into crushing cascades of white water. On this day, Courtney August, never a religious man in any conventional sense, had put his life in the hands of the Lord. He broke into a wide grin, tasting the salt spray on his teeth. And he considered, only half in jest, which Lord he had more faith in—or, put a better way, who he trusted more. He didn’t know a man who’d gone out in waves like these and not thought of God and death. He wasn’t sure which Lord would keep him out of harm’s way but hoped at least one of them would come through. And at least one of them had a good sense of humor. At the other end of this line, riding the bouncing jet ski like a bucking bronco, was a genuine wild man.
Now Lord’s left arm was extended and he was pointing. Courtney swung his gaze to the left and saw the set. Lord was turning. Courtney held the handle more tightly, shifted his weight on the surfboard to accommodate the turn, and allowed himself to swallow. Big boys. He hoped he still had it in him. He felt his hands itching to be free.
When Courtney let go, Lord felt as if he himself had become untethered, cut loose, and he gripped the handlebars more tightly and caught his breath as he steered for the shoulder. The wave built slowly—or so it seemed—amassing height as Courtney carved down the face. Seeing it up close, watching this impossibly high wall of water continue to rise, to pull power into it, Lord found himself fighting off panic.
As a kid he’d dreamed of tidal waves—huge shadows, tall as skyscrapers, darkening his sand castle then his beach blanket as adults ran away screaming and the sky above him turned black. But the wave never hit in those dreams, it was always coming, behind his back.
He flashed on the unopened bottle of meds behind his mirror. Fuck that. He didn’t need that shit. Pull it together.
Shaking his head to clear it, he tried to focus on Courtney, who seemed the essence of poise as he set up. The wave began to pitch, and Lord swallowed and again had to remember to breathe. An avalanche of white water began to spill over, and he could feel the rumble over the vibration of the jet ski. It was Niagara Falls, Victoria Falls, enormous churning white water. Lord couldn’t imagine getting caught under it. Like blasting a bug with a fire extinguisher. Courtney was staying ahead of it, pushed forward by the momentum, wise enough to glance over his shoulder occasionally. Lord had never felt so powerless, so useless. If Courtney went under, it would be beyond heavy. Lord doubted he’d have the balls to go in after him, to face the rush of white water rolling at him like a train. He had never loved the shoulder more. Courtney was making it, standing, gliding, riding on almost unfathomable power—and Lord was in awe, blown away, feelings he’d courted. But he was also scared shitless.
Within the whine of the jet ski’s motor, Lord began to hear music. Not a good time to hallucinate, but when was? He couldn’t quite make out what it was at first, though its momentum was already having an effect, pushing him into going faster. He heard the screeching, operatic vocal as the ski bounced over the wave chop, headed back for the next set, and recognized it—the Air Cavalry music from Apocalypse Now. Knowing Courtney couldn’t hear him, not able to hear himself above the roar of the ski, Lord began wailing along with the driving crescendo—“Da da da da dum, da da da da dum”—trying to use it to fuel his courage, but still squirming inside with the knowledge that he was essentially the boy whistling in the graveyard.
He sped toward the big waves, yelling his head off, putting all his focus on getting there as fast as he could. It was as if he couldn’t wait to again free himself of Courtney, though that made no sense, because once Courtney began dropping into the pit, the fear would jack up.
Every moment before this one felt dreamlike to Lord—picking up Courtney after the first wave and his amazing ride, shouting encouragement over his shoulder, getting back up to speed, once more leading him in. He couldn’t quite believe he’d done any of it. And it seemed even more unreal to him—mad really—that they were going to do it all over again.
But there was Courtney carving down another blue wall, and Lord was looking back, stunned by the grandeur of the wave, the wispy white ribbons of mist blowing off the rolling crest. Beneath, in perfect form, with arms extended as if ready for flight, Courtney glided, wearing the same lime-green trunks with purple flowers they’d seen him in on that first day. Lord was reminded of why he had literally dragged Courtney into these waves, to see exactly what he was witnessing now—a surf hero, in the flesh.
The music was gone now. Wind passed over the tips of his earlobes and over the top of his head like a silk scarf, brief and sudden.
Without warning, Courtney hit some surface chop dropping in. His knees buckled and he pitched over the inside rail, a perfect diagonal into the face of the wave, as if some invisible divine finger had simply pushed him off for sport. The wave closed over him like a curtain, and a deluge of white water thundered onto his board, burying it in churning foam. Seconds later his body could be seen getting sucked over the falls, then he disappeared again.
Lord felt the wind inside him now, blowing through his body as if through empty corridors, as if his bones were hollow clear up through the fingers that clutched the handlebars as he turned the ski back.
As soon as Courtney broke the surface and sucked in air, his open mouth to the sky, he wiped the hair from his forehead and the salt sting from his eyes, blinked to clear his vision, and spun around, treading water, to get his bearings, to see where the next wave in the set was. How close? He saw a wave building but not yet on top of him. Courtney had hoped the last wave would have pushed him farther in but that was not the case. He was still in the impact zone, but there was time, and now he tried to distinguish sounds, to separate the drone of the jet ski from the humming in his head and the slapping of water as surface wave chops broke against him. He kept spitting out water and kicking to raise up to breathe and hear better. Very quickly he made out a distinct roar, an engine growing closer, and almost broke down laughing with relief. With effort he kept his composure and said in his head, Thank you, Lord. Just as the jet ski came into view, however, maybe thirty feet away, the watercraft curved into a 180-degree turn and sped away from him, the roar lessening and only exhaust fumes reaching him.
He shot a look back at the wave, fearing he’d misjudged it. The wave was huge, looming above him, the lip starting to feather, but they still had time. Courtney turned his head toward where the ski had gone, even kicked a little in that direction as a pointless reflex, and wondered whether Lord was looping around for a better angle for the pickup. But that made no sense and it had already taken longer than it should have. Like a blow to the stomach, the realization hit him that the kid had choked, maybe seeing the wave starting to pitch, and he’d taken off.
This was where lack of experience became a liability. If anything, Courtney could have imagined Lord miscalculating the wave in the opposite way, staying inside too long, getting caught in the act of rescue, tumbling off as the jet ski capsized in rolling white water. He hadn’t expected this. For the moment, at least, he’d been abandoned. There were a few other tow teams scattered in the water, but even if they were to come to his aid, it was now too late.
He was going to have to take another wave on the head. Maybe more than one if Lord didn’t return, but he couldn’t think that way now. He had to focus on this one. That meant diving down, trying to get as deep as possible, and staying under for the duration, maybe a half minute to a minute at least. He was going to get worked again, hard, and the best he could hope for was to minimize it. Granted this time his immersion would be deliberate, but he was still going to be thrown around and held down until his lungs felt close to bursting. Courtney was not entirely sure he could do it twice.
Seeing the wave pitching forward, trying to take in as much air as he could and not go under too soon from panic, Courtney felt the bottomless dread that death would come, as he had always feared, as a result of bad choices, big and small. Smoking for three decades. Taking this trip. Putting himself in the hands of this kid. In those few seconds of thought he flashed on a book he’d read in college, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Hadn’t he hurt himself falling from hanging a curtain rod or something and it had killed him? The trivial and random choices that could kill you—climbing up a stepladder—he remembered nothing of the book but the one misstep that had led to a senseless death.
Now he looked up at the white water tumbling his way and prayed. Not just yet. Please. Not today. He had a second to look at the sky, then took his best deep breath, and dove under.
The rain, now that the initial deluge of earlier that evening had passed, was falling steady and fine, like a well-controlled stream from a showerhead. Courtney sat at a small table by an open window and breathed in the cool damp air. His breathing was still somewhat labored, so it felt good to be close to fresh air, to inhale deeply and slowly, savor the oxygen. Almost like he used to draw on his cigars. His last box had been left for whoever found them on a chair in the Turtle Bay Hilton lobby. Courtney, after today, was done. He’d decided he’d better divest himself of the box before he ended up in one himself, sooner rather than later. He felt no craving, sitting by the window of the hotel bar, sucking in air between sips of rum, and listening to the peaceful patter of drops on leaves in the lull while the bartender changed CDs.
He watched her long white fingers take out the shiny disk from its case. She had delicate hands. No rings. As lush strings swelled, she turned and caught his gaze for a moment before pulling a glass down from the rack above her. She had good taste. “Just My Imagination.” Temptations. Granted, he was more than a little mellow from the rum, but pop r&b didn’t get any more beautiful than this.
Another waiter came over to the bar with a drink order. She was the only haole and the only woman on the staff, this bartender. The rest all looked to be native Hawaiians, and she was a good head and shoulders above all of them. A nice, tall drink of water, Courtney thought. He studied the blond hair, tied back in a ponytail; the beautiful unadorned neck; the slender wrists encircled by green and mustard Bakelite bangles. She appeared something of a goddess to Courtney in this place. He watched her chat a bit with the waiter and admired how she treated him like an equal, like a peer. That surprised him, though he knew it was wrong to think that way. The fact that this tall blond beauty seemed completely unaware of herself, that she emanated no air of superiority, was very attractive to him. He felt horribly cliché, falling for the bartender—and after only one drink—and wondered briefly if he was being sexist, idealizing the woman serving him. Screw it, he thought. She was lovely, graceful, had great taste in music, and made excellent drinks.
And she was long, she was tall; she was a good fit. He wouldn’t have to feel like an oaf, bending his neck to kiss her.
And he did want to kiss her. But he also wanted to talk to her, to spend time with her, to be in the company of this woman.
It seemed to him now that this whole solitary surfing odyssey was bullshit. Perhaps he had only been running. He did love the ocean, and generally that was where he felt a spiritual connection, but what about other people? Relationships had never been his strength. There were several women who could attest to that, especially his ex Dyan, who, in truth, this blond bartender reminded him of.
Courtney was more than eager for a little tenderness. The ocean had slapped him down hard today; he’d gotten pounded. He’d had the wind knocked out of him in a profound way and had stared hard at his own mortality. He knew he was lucky to be here.
Lord had been right there when he resurfaced; Courtney had practically knocked his head on the jet ski. At the time he’d had no sense that he’d been taken farther in or even whose hand reached out to him. He grabbed, operating on pure instinct, gasping and wheezing and coughing, his whole body aching, head feeling squeezed. As they pulled away he hung on to the ski’s sled like he’d never hung on to anything before, just trying to get air into his lungs and not fall off.
He wasn’t even sure when he realized it was Lord and not somebody else, probably not until they were back to shore and disembarking. Lord hadn’t consulted him, had just headed the ski for shore. In fact, he said nothing to Courtney, his eyes hidden by dark shades the whole time. By the time Courtney had the wherewithal to remember to thank him for the rescue, he also began to recall why he’d had to take the second wave on the head, and he wasn’t sure what he wanted to say.
Lord brought over a lifeguard to check Courtney out, and it was some time during that process that Lord disappeared. Courtney assumed the kid had taken off out of shame, and felt like a shit for not thanking him earlier. But there had also been a heavily disturbed vibe that he frankly hadn’t had the energy to deal with then. Or now. Not tonight anyway. He’d tell the kid to forget about it tomorrow. Tonight he had other things on his mind.
The bartender was laughing at something the waiter had said, actually lifting her knee to slap it. Courtney smiled. He wasn’t just looking for some post-near-death-experience one-nighter. He wanted a deeper human connection than that. As much as he craved the taste of air tonight, he wanted to feel the whisper of another’s breath on his face.
Whether that was possible tonight or tomorrow night or at any time with this woman, for once in his life weather conditions and swell sizes seemed less important. Let it rain. He pushed back his chair, picked up his empty glass and damp cocktail napkin with the yellow pineapple drawing on it, and carried them over to the bar, ice cubes knocking like teeth chattering. He sat on a stool and placed the glass on the napkin on the bar.
After handing a tray of drinks to the waiter, she walked down to him.
“Need another?” she asked.
He extended his hand over the bar. She looked at it then took it in hers. “My name’s Courtney. Yes, I’d like another.”
[Refer: This story put the editors in mind of The Death of Ivan Ilych.]
Image by Rochelle Hartman via Flickr Creative Commons
Jeff Freiert’s fiction has been published in print in StoryQuarterly and Best New Writing 2008 and online in Joyland and The American (in Italia). His writing has won the Eric Hoffer Prose Prize for short fiction and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. “Outer Reef” is excerpted from the novella, Home Break, the opening of which was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Best Start 50 Competition. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College and a BA from Sarah Lawrence College, and lives in New York City with his wife and daughters.