What If There Is a Hidden World
That We Can’t See?
by Eleanor Lerman
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2,
3, 4, 5, 6, 7
I knew that being out on the water alone was not a good thing to do, but my friend Bobby, the guy I usually surfed with, was working today. So, there I was, out past the breakers by myself. The water was as gray as the winter sky above me, and cold, but the waves were decent: six-to-eight foot rollers that were coming along pretty regularly, with a lot of force. At this time of year, the waves have a personality that is rough and aggressive, but that’s exactly what makes them good to ride.
Most people believe that the best surfing is in the summer, but that isn’t the case: in the summer, there are lots of storm specialists and year-round surfers who spend most of their free time holed up in whatever passes for their habitat, enjoying the air conditioning because they have a sneering disregard for the beach boys and girls who won’t put a toe in the water until June.
The truth is, on the east coast, the real action starts when the north wind blows and the currents strengthen and the Atlantic wakes up. After all, this is New York, not California: the ocean on this side of the continent dozes in the summer. And it waits for the temperature to drop. For the threat of storms.
And indeed, on this Saturday in March, I knew there was a storm building itself into a frenzy somewhere miles away, out in the deep-water shipping lanes. I had seen that the night before when I checked the marine weather forecast, but bad weather for whales and tankers means north winds and southerly swells near shore, which is what surfers wait for.
Most do, anyway, the serious ones who surf all winter. Not that I really included myself in that category, but since I had moved back here, to Edgemere, the beach town where I had grown up, I had found myself spending more and more time on the old longboard I had bought, cheap, from Bobby. He and I had been in a surf club together when we were in high school a million years ago, though the truth is that the club was basically an excuse to cut classes and get high. As I recall, our coach actually turned out to be the best connection any of us ever had.
We did surf, though, a lot of the time, and though I hadn’t been on a board in forever, once I got back in the water, I found that it suited me at this time in my life, which was not the best time, actually. Getting up before dawn, pulling on my full-body wetsuit — five millimeters of black neoprene, including a tight-fitting hood — and hauling the longboard down to the beach to paddle out, in the cold, sometimes even in the snow, seemed like exactly what I should be doing. Part test of will, part punishment, part pure savagery.
So, yes, I was bobbing around in the chop, waiting for the right wave. As I said, I wasn’t all that great a surfer; I didn’t have the instincts or the mystical in-tuneness with the wind and the water or whatever it is some surfers have. Or say they do. In practical terms, what that meant was that I had to be careful to time my actions, to watch the waves and think about when to get to my feet, and concentrate on my balance all the way to shore, if I made it that far. The best surfers don’t have to do all that, at least not so consciously, but I did.
In any case, I was trying to control my board in the heavy water, watching the waves, thinking about what I was going to do next when all of a sudden, I felt something bump me. Something coming from my left, pushing against me and then dipping under the board. It was a slight bump, nothing too bad. Everybody who’s ever been on a surfboard has been bumped; some fish or a big jelly or something like that is swiming by and happens to get too close. It doesn’t happen all that often, and it’s a little weird, but you get used to it.
So I went back to concentrating on positioning the board for the next wave when — whammo — I got bumped again. This time, it was harder, a little more serious. I quickly became concerned that my unexpected visitor might be a shark, and if so, I had to get away from it quickly. Still, that didn’t make a lot of sense, because sharks are more of a danger in the summer, when the water is warm and the bait fish they’re after come closer to shore.
Of course, that doesn’t totally rule out the fact that occasionally, there are sharks with bad intentions prowling the cold-water currents. But if a shark’s after you, he’s going to try to take a bite out of you right away, not bump you. At least, not bump twice. And if what was bothering me right now was a shark, even a relatively harmless sand shark, it would have been swimming close enough to the surface for me to be able to see something moving in the water below, but I didn’t see a thing.
And then, whatever it was came back a third time and bumped me again, pushing against my lower leg. Now, even if I was inclined to, I couldn’t dismiss this as a random act. Something down below had taken an interest in me, and I thought I’d better try to get away from it.
I started paddling towards the beach, and as soon as a soft wave rolled in, I body-surfed back to the shore, lying flat on the board so I wouldn’t risk falling off. At that point, I wasn’t really feeling threatened, but I didn’t see any need to find myself face to face, underwater, with whatever it was that had been pursuing me.
It was a little after seven a.m.,, and I saw some other surfers bobbing around in the waves about a quarter of a mile down the beach. I headed in their direction and got back in the water nearby, signaling my intention to join the lineup, where I knew I would be the last to get a ride. That was fine; I didn’t really know these guys and didn’t want to get into a competition for a good break, which is always a problem when someone new joins a lineup where everybody’s already established who’s top dog.
The waves were gaining strength now and were coming more rapidly. Above the south-eastern horizon, the sky was growing darker; it looked like a wall of slate had been slammed down into the water, cutting off our slice of ocean from the great depths beyond. But this kind of action was what we were all here for.
I waited my turn and finally caught a wave. I rode it in and paddled back towards the swells. Proud of myself for dropping in smoothly and having been able to carve the wave with some control, I took my place in the lineup again. I was concentrating on watching the other guys, trying to spot a chance to drop in again when it happened again: something smacked against my leg, which was dangling in the water. This time, what I felt was an even more solid, deliberate thump. Whatever it was had strength; it had power and was using it.
Now this was really getting weird. I had no idea what was going on but I thought the best thing might be to just get out of the water, go home, and let this experience become just another story surfers tell about strange things that sometimes happen when you’re floating around on your board, far from shore. But just as I was pulling my legs out of the water, something whatever was after me slammed into me so hard that I was knocked off the board and flailing around in the water before I was really aware of what was going on.
I could taste the salt and feel the bone-deep chill of being submersed, and I coujld forget everything I knew, everything I’d learned, or read, or heard about being pulled off your board by something in the water. Basically, stay calm, think and, if it’s a shark, punch it in the nose.
I could feel panic overtaking me. Sheer, senseless, uncontrollable, screaming-inside-my-head panic. After all the times I’d fallen off my board, I wouldn’t have expected to react like that, but something big had deliberately targeted me. That’s what it now seemed like, anyway; it had to be big to have hit me with such force and to have some kind of intent, because it had come at me not only a couple of times but in two different locations.
I lost whatever sense of control I had over what was happening. Once I was in the water, I was waiting to feel a set of knife-like teeth chomping down on my leg or for some huge, slithery arm studded with suckers to start pulling me under. I had quickly passed from the it’s-a-shark to the it’s-a-sea-monster stage of panic, but some of my brain cells must have come back online and told me to get out of there. I threw myself back on the board and started paddling. Even though I was terrified of lowering my hands into the water, it was paddle or die as far as I was concerned.
I don’t think I had another coherent thought until I was back on the beach, where I dropped my board and knelt down beside it, breathing hard. It took a while, but I finally started to calm down. Lying on my back, I watched a seagull gliding on the wind. Maybe it didn’t really happen, I told myself, but I knew that even if I repeated that a hundred times I wasn’t going to be able to make myself believe it.
Finally, I pulled myself to my feet. I turned around once and saw that the other suffers were still riding the swells; they had taken no notice of me or my panicked departure. Carrying my board, I headed off the beach, making my way under the remnants of the boardwalk that had been allowed to fall to ruin.
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Copyright © 2015 by Eleanor Lerman