The spray from the whitecaps breathed through the planks of the pier. Rainfall burst against the boards. Between the beams the ocean surged and plunged: a pneumonic lung. The sea was cobalt—mercurial. I walked slow and stayed behind Travis.
“What if my board snaps?” I asked.
“Don’t land on top of it. Toss the board away from you.”
“Yeah, ok. But what if it snaps?”
“Swim, I guess.”
I was wearing his spare wetsuit. The legs wrapped my heels. I hiked on the balls of my feet to keep from grating the suit against the wood. We were three quarters of the way down the pier. The storm distorted the shore; veiled it in uncountable droplets. The grey of the sea was the grey of the sky. The surf rolled, rabid with foam. I felt the sea in my gut like a meal churning.
The storm bore down on the ocean. The waves whooshed under the pier. The waves were big but they didn’t break in the deep water. I looked over the edge of the pier. The water looked more like rolling dimpled hills rather than that teardrop shape a wave takes when it crests. I imagined a whale rolling towards the shore like a kid down a hill. A squall rose and my board shot out of my hand and smacked into a bench. I chased it down and knelt beside it to check for dings. I hardly noticed Travis run passed me until I heard the next whoosh. Not just heard it but felt it—felt the water wallop the pier—felt it rise between the slats—felt the pylons in the pier tremble—saw but did not feel the blood run from the hand that caught my fall. My board was smashed against the side-rail. The board was still in one piece. I remember a steel wire strung on a flagpole clanking when it smacked the pole in the wind. There was no flag to flutter.
Travis might as well have been parked on the side of the 101 freeway, checking the surf while his father’s thumb pressed on the carb of a small purple pipe stained in the chamber with resin. To Travis the storm swell was no different than any morning set at Solimar or Rincon. He strode to my board and grabbed it with his free hand. I stood up. He handed it back to me.
I never knew until then what it meant to be weak in the knees. It doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with a woman. No, it’s really just the bodily sensation that goes along with pussing out. Later it’s a sour stomach. And you have to relive it whenever someone around you says, “Hey, Stew, remember that time when…”
The Channel Islands were washed out and so were the oil derricks that bore into the ocean halfway between the islands and us. It didn’t matter. He looked to the ocean while he laid his surfboard against the end of the pier. He didn’t have to look at the railing while he hopped over. His feet sprung over the railing and landed on the outside. Then he took his board in his hand.
I leaned my board against the railing and climbed over. My feet stuck on every slat along the way. My hands gripped the top of the railing just above a brass plaque. Travis was next to me. He was right next to me and he finally looked serious. That modest, experienced look was gone. His lips hardened into a line. His nostrils flared, but not wildly. Travis wasn’t frightened but his heart was beating hell. His eyes darted from over the horizon down into the sea, which I hadn’t even considered looking at from this side of the railing. But I did. I did and it scared the shit out of me. The tide brought the water up so high that it nearly touched our feet and then just as quickly took it down to a twenty-foot drop. The pylons expanded and contracted in the water, submerging the mussels that clung to their bases. When the water receded I saw ropes of seaweed dangling from the top of the pylons—dangling until the wind knocked them free and they flew like scarves and smashed into other pylons.
Travis grabbed my surfboard and brought it over the railing. He gave it to me and I felt it shake in a gust of wind and I nearly slipped. I thought about almost slipping and I felt my eyes spin. My brain whomped in my skull.
“Set’s coming in,” said Travis.
He jumped when the water was low. I saw his body shrink beneath me. He threw his board and it spun in the wind like a white fiberglass leaf until its forward motion was choked by the leash around Travis’ ankle. I didn’t hear him splash in the water. I did see him pop out of the surf and swim to his board. He paddled out to sea away from the pier. I couldn’t let go of the railing. I watched him set up on the wave, watched him paddle into position and get under the brute force of the thing, and I watched without realizing that the wave was high enough to come over the top of the pier…
…and it did and I gripped tight and felt the wood cut into my arms and dig in fat blisters. My ankle slipped and hung over the ledge and the weight of the surfboard or maybe just shock kept me from pulling myself up and over. And fuck reaching down to undo the leash. There was nothing to do. Nothing physically possible in my fear, which I wore close to my skin. Tight as a wet suit. I just held the ledge and did nothing—did completely nothing except hold on. No matter what the height of the water, I knew that if I let go I would be nothing but a piece of sea-weed slapped against pylons, or just another mussel drowned in brine, except that mussels are made to be drowned. They drown again and again and that’s how they live. I drown once and don’t ever drown again.
I looked to the horizon and it took no amount of skill to identify the monstrosity yawning my way. I knew if I didn’t get on the right side of the railing then I would be a bloated thing tangled in the pier with other bloated things. With the surfboard velcroed around my ankle I couldn’t climb back over the railing. But there was enough room between slats to squeeze through. The wave lumbered like a thing pretty much alive and unstoppable—like a wall that could howl. As I pulled my torso between the slats I thought to myself, I’m never going to kiss a girl.
I turned to look at my legs and saw Travis paddling. He wasn’t setting himself up for the wave. He was hauling heavy ass trying to make his way over it before it crested.
I made it through the railing and hurried to undo my leash but my fingers were numb and I couldn’t unstrap the Velcro. My leg blurred when I shifted focus to Travis, who was no longer vertical to the face of the wave, but completely upside down and about to be slammed into the shallow trough beneath the impossible height of the cresting wall. Before he went under I felt the pier shake. It was like being hit by a car. It was like being swallowed. It was like being chewed. It was most like what you might imagine it would feel like to be caught in a washing machine during the spin cycle, except that instead of being a shirt among shirts, you are a living bag of organs among rocks and nails…
…and the washing machine is jet-fucking-powered.
I kept slamming against the same spot on the pier because my leash was still on and my board acted like a knot tying me to the railing. But after some time the leash snapped and I floated down the pier, wet suit torn to shreds, body not doing much better. I was close to the entrance of the pier. I could see the beach. Travis was hacking up saltwater and maybe his guts on a stretch of pebbles.