The day before disfiguring surgery ruined and saved my life, the body surfing was terrible. The surgery would last only ten minutes. The lack of a good wave promised to be permanent.
A southern California boy, I was never far from my most reliable playmate: the Pacific. My father's love of water determined my own. My most vivid memory is Dad heeling a sloop at an impossible angle to squeeze every knot from a fair wind across the beam. Terror plastered his family to the boat's high, windward side. I was certain, if I shifted my inconsequential weight an inch toward the lee, we would capsize into bottomless depths.
As we grew, my big brother Rick and I became a well-coordinated crew. Dad would shout, "Coming about!" and we sprang into action. Dad pushed the tiller to the new tack, then set the mainsail with a mariner's eye. Rick released the jib, quickly cleating it to the opposite hull to avoid lufting or back-winding the main. My job was to squeeze my eyes tight and drop to the deck to avoid being cold-cocked by the swinging boom. Our duties carried titles: Dad was captain, Brother first mate, I was cargo. Without responsibilities, I was free to savor the speed, the wind, and the gulls laughing overhead.
In time, Rick took turns at the tiller and I learned to man the jib. Dad handed me the tiller only on a gentle run before the wind. I was content my brother, rather than I, was destined to inherit the captain's burden.
When I was nine, Dad purchased a second-hand paddle board: a true descendant of the Hawaiian surfboards of old, a big gun, four yards of varnished timber with the grace of a telephone pole. Rick and I strained to wrestle it to water, but once floated, the ocean was ours. From Balboa Island, I paddled across the bay, landing on Newport Peninsula feeling as if I had discovered a new continent. The best part was lazing in the middle of the harbor where my presence forced yachts to change course. A seventy footer sailing from Hong Kong contended with typhoons, pirates, treacherous shoals, and me. This was my first inkling I could affect the greater world.
Next, I took up body surfing. I became a seal, riding anything short of a storm. As an adult on a Hawaiian vacation, I alone rode daunting north shore curls while my friends on shore planned my funeral.
On September 17, 1995, I comforted my best friend, or, more precisely, one half of my best friend. Born a few months apart, David and I attended college together, discovered our homosexuality around the same time, and each acquired a deficient immune system. Watching our t-cells decline, we clung to each other's good health as a sailor might hug the mast of a sinking ship in shark infested waters. Over the previous year however, half of David's body had evaporated. In recent weeks, half his mind had departed as well. Now he lay in bed, listless and deflated as the limp sails of a becalmed schooner.
A physician before taking disability, he used a medical term that day: "cachexia". I asked its meaning. David gathered himself in agony to define it indelibly in just three words. He rasped, "Thin, like us." When David died four days later, his words reverberated, "Thin, like us…like us."
Three later, my own weight loss critical, my doctor explained he must implant a permanent feeding tube into a vein in my right arm. Afterwards, should the entrance wound become damp and infected, disease would invade through the line working directly to my heart. I would have to wrap my arm in plastic from shoulder to fingertips just to take a shower. Swimming was out of the question. The doctor didn't say, "never again." He said, "not until you get better and we can remove the pic line." But we both understood, this was not going to get me better. This was just going to feed me to prolong the dying process.
The day before the operation, I drove alone to Santa Monica Bay to say goodbye. The beach turned its back like a lover about to be jilted. A dense haze leadened the sky. Sea gulls hunkered against offshore gusts. None flew. A few jacketed beach buns littered the sand like summer discards.
I was the only one desperate enough to swim October water. There were no surfable waves. Instead the ocean slapped with blows designed to hurl me back on land or to grind me against the bottom. I pushed beyond the breakers and sobbed pathetic drops of salt water into the ocean. When the hour grew late, I turned to leave. A forty-year romance was over. Without bothering to wipe the sand mudding my feet, I trudged to the parking lot, heckled by a blustering wind. I was leaving my freedom, condemned to a life sentence without possibility of parole.
Pic line installed: Water becomes terror. In place of the ocean, my new friends were plastic bags of gray pre-digested nutritional lipids. Were these discharged into the ocean, the slick oiling the surface would be deemed pollution. Twelve hours of every twenty-four, a blinking, growling metal box pulsed it into my body. Growl, click. Growl click. For those twelve hours, my ability to drag the steel stand holding bag and box defined my world. I counted my remaining life not in years, not months, nor by any interval found on a calendar; but rather by the number of clicks left in the bag and the number of bags left in my refrigerator.
Months did pass, with no more significance than shadows ghosting across my sickroom walls as day shaded to night. Within me, virus coursed at full flood. My doctor tossed the lifesaver of protease inhibitors to me. One after another, drug combinations failed. We determined a bit of madness was needed. Outdoing what anyone else was attempting at the time; we piled drug upon drug, as if to build a stack so high I could stand upon it, head towering above the rising viral tide.
I downed a litany of pills; a medicinal mantra repeated two and three times a day. MacBeth's witches could have concocted the formula over their boiling cauldron:
First inject beneath the skin
Buttress blood with Epogen
and its cousin Neupogen
Tongue a tab of Toradol
mingled with Myambutol.
D4T and 3TC
rouse my weak immunity.
Nibble on some Naprosyn.
Bite a bit of Biaxin.
Pop the pain pill Percodan,
Norvir and Saquinavir
with AIDS' protease interfere.
Now save my sight with Cytovene.
Sometimes, madness works.
A year and a half after the pic line surgery, April 26, 1997: I've begun using a calendar again. This is the day I return to water. My weight gain from months of lipids and new drug therapy has permitted the pic line's removal.
Extreme low tide exposes the rocky shelf at the south end of Crescent Beach, so I explore. Millions of barnacles bristle the rock down to mid-tide. A mat of mussels blackens the rest. Each step I take, a hundred tiny lives support me.
I intend to ride The Wave, my first of the season. I pass German shepherd pups tugging a beach towel. Children play tag. Vitality is everywhere. My first step into the ocean's cold bite confirms - I am alive. Hip deep, I hop swells, playing the impossible game, arms skyward as if to climb an imaginary ladder out of the chill while I walk into it. Then the inevitable: a wave too big to jump, breaking too close to ride. The wave I must plunge into head first. Arms forward. Dive. Baptized. Up for air. I am returned into an ocean I never believed would accept me again. I gaze straight out to sea and exclude the land from view. This moment is just for the Pacific and me. The water reflects a bridge of sunlight toward me. Always before, this glare has been an inescapable irritant. Today it validates.
A porpoise leaps from the water and arches back directly before me. I spin around to shore, certain everyone has seen this vision, but preoccupied with reading, and games, and dogs, nobody on the beach witnesses this lovely creature. He dances for me alone. I turn back to watch him leap again and again heading toward the bridge of light, then one last arc before disappearing in the sun. Once again, I cry while swimming.
I still down forty pills a day and even the kitchen tap threatens possible infection. I don't know if I'll be able to regain the tiller. But I am back, back in the water.