Sand in My Joints

This piece is part of Waterfronts, a series of personal essays that engage with the waterways of New York and/or Los Angeles, presented in collaboration with Underwater New York.

Bald guy in his twenties paddles out next to me, introduces himself. Jason. Friendly, eager, not your standard head-nod type. Afterward, every time I paddle out at that spot, he’s there, talking to somebody in the water. He introduces himself to me again and again. He tells me he’s now friends with a local surf shop owner. One day, it’s head-high and stormy. Nothing crazy. Jason paddles to the outside, announces that it’s the biggest he’s ever seen it out there. Nobody says anything. And then, as quick as he appeared, he’s gone. I think I see him in a supermarket once. I ask if the guy surfs the spot, he says yes, I ask if his name’s Jason. No, he says, it’s John. I never see Jason again.

This is in the nineties. An older guy cruises past on his stand-up paddleboard and harasses us. You’re just sitting there, he says, I’m getting a workout. You must be cold down there, he says, up to your armpits in the water. He looks just like late Picasso. He preaches to us the virtues of his watercraft. He’s obviously a madman. Fifteen years later, stand-up paddleboards are everywhere.

We see a massive triangular dorsal fin in the water, about ten yards beyond where we’re sitting. We freeze at the sight of it. Definitely not a dolphin. The fin tilts away from us until it’s flat with the water. We see the barnacles first, then the massive body of the whale, lumbering up the coast.

I go to a therapist for a little while. I tell him that surfing keeps me sane. He tells me he’s a surfer too. A few sessions later he tells me that a guy at the beach who teaches surf lessons (whom I thought was cool) is an asshole.

We’re up early. No hyped swell, no traffic. We come around the bend past the power plant and there’s a young woman on the bus bench, next to a giant backpack. Either she’s just been kicked out, or she’s bumming her way down the coast. D says, Check out this chick. Our windows are up and she’s quite a distance away, but somehow she tunes into his attitude and flips us the bird, arm outstretched.

It’s not crowded and the waves are average, but it’s sunny and there are a lot of people on the beach. After my session, I’m walking up the sand when a beefy guy steps toward me. I can’t tell if it’s fat or muscle. He smells of alcohol. Hey! he says. You! I walk over. You live around here? He says it like a challenge. I tell him, yeah, my house is around the corner. His demeanor changes completely. You were killing it out there, he says.

W and I head north looking for uncrowded waves. Check a spot and a sketchy-looking guy pulls up. Tattooed and ripped, he’s got the edge of someone who has just been released from prison. I ask him where he’s checked the waves. We compare notes. His name’s Eric. He turns up later, at another spot, and W calls him Mike. It’s Eric, he says. When we get back in the car, we bust up, in part because we’re safe, and in part because the guy’s name totally should have been Mike.

I’m waiting for a table at a sushi restaurant when I spot some guys I think I went to school with. I talk to them, trying to figure out how I know them when I realize they are professional surfers. Years later, I bump into one of them on a remote beach. I’ve just ridden the biggest, gnarliest wave of my life. How is it out there? he asks me. Big, I say. Looks it, he says.

D gets better parking than I do, so after I’m suited up I go to meet him on the beach. He’s lying on the sand. I figure it’s his stretching routine, but when I get there he tells me he stepped into a hole he didn’t see. I ask if he thinks he can make it back to his car. He says yes. I tell him he should get home and ice it. The waves are really good that day. Afterward, I listen to a message on my phone. He’s in the ER—his ankle is broken. He won’t surf again for a year.

Guy who looks like Peter Gallagher snakes me. White leash. I call him off the wave but he doesn’t pull out. When it’s over he looks scared but also like he has no idea why I’m mad. I never see him in the water again. I see the real Peter Gallagher in a restaurant, but I don’t say anything.

Paddling for a wave, I hit something solid with my hand. After I drop in, a dolphin ejects out the back. I realize I’ve just snaked him. I want to apologize but he swims away.

I’m checking it early and there’s a guy standing on the beach, sipping a coffee. Contractor truck, white t-shirt, square shoulders. His dog is running around and does his business not far from where I’m standing. I put a stick in the sand to mark the spot. On the way back past the guy I tell him about the stick. He asks me if I thought he wasn’t going to pick up his dogshit. I explain that I was only trying to do him a favor. His eyes narrow. He mumbles a what the fuck. I tell him that I’m just trying to keep my beach clean. He says, Your beach? Your beach? Then he tells me that he was born in this town, that he’s lived here all his life, and that I should get the fuck out of there. I say, look, I walk out here with my kid and I’m tired of dodging dogshit—surely he can understand. He tells me again to get the fuck out of there. He won’t look me in the eye. I tell him I didn’t mean any disrespect. He’s looking at the ocean. His ears are bright red. Get the fuck out of here, he says. I realize that he’s not threatening me. He’s not puffing his chest. He’s warning me. He doesn’t think he can control himself. I walk away. Later that morning I return. The stick is still there, but the dogshit isn’t.

One morning D and I are pulling on wetsuits in the parking lot. I tell him that I hope Jerry Garcia dies before someone tries to drag me to a Grateful Dead concert. After our session, we hear on the radio that Jerry Garcia has died. For fifteen years, I make sure not to wish death on anyone. Then one day I look up his time of death on the internet. Two hours before I said anything. I go back to casually wishing people dead.

My brother’s friend tells me he can get free parking at the beach lot. When we get there, he drives toward the exit end, rolls up the curb, over a grassy median, across a sidewalk, into the lot. Years later, I realize I haven’t seen the guy around for a while. I ask my brother about him. Turns out he’s in prison.

The waves are comically small. I decide to paddle to the pier and back for exercise. I pass a guy wearing jeans and a t-shirt, standing in the water up to his thighs. He’s staring out at the horizon, a haunted look on his face. I ask him how it’s going, but he doesn’t respond. On the paddle back from the pier, he’s still there.

I’m walking down the beach after a session and I see a girl in the water calling for help. She’s lost her board and is panicking. I paddle out to where she is and help her onto my board and get her to shore. Once on dry sand, she doesn’t thank me, which I find odd. Years later, when I help someone else in trouble, I know not to expect any thanks.

I paddle out with D into big, stormy surf. After a half-hour of trying to make it to the outside, I’m getting pummeled by a set when I realize I have no business being out there. I go in.

Surfing at night, the takeoffs are blind, done strictly by feel, but once I’m looking down the line, the light from PCH illuminates the contours of the wave. Paddling back out, I hold a glowstick in my mouth so my friends don’t run me over.

Browsing in a bookstore after a morning of good waves, I tilt my head sideways to read a title and the ocean pours out of my nose.

Antoine Wilson wrote the novels Panorama City and The Interloper. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, Best New American Voices, and The New York Times, among other places. He is a contributing editor of A Public Space. He lives and surfs in Los Angeles. You can find him at antoinewilson.com or on Twitter: @antoinewilson.