Ryan Perry did not know that something in him was broken. At thirty-four, he appeared to be more physically fit than he had been at twenty-four. His home gym was well equipped. A personal trainer came to his house three times a week.
On that Wednesday morning in September, in his bedroom, when he drew open the draperies and saw blue sky as polished as a plate, and the sea blue with the celestial reflection, he wanted surf and sand more than he wanted breakfast.
He went on-line, consulted a surfcast site, and called Samantha.
She must have glanced at the caller-ID readout, because she said, “Good morning, Winky.”
She occasionally called him Winky because on the afternoon that she met him, thirteen months previously, he had been afflicted with a stubborn case of myokymia, uncontrollable twitching of an eyelid.
Sometimes, when Ryan became so obsessed with writing software that he went thirty-six hours without sleep, a sudden-onset tic in his right eye forced him to leave the keyboard and made him appear to be blinking out a frantic distress signal in Morse code.
In that myokymic moment, Samantha had come to his office to interview him for an article that she had been writing for Vanity Fair. For a moment, she had thought he was flirting with her-and flirting clumsily.
During that first meeting, Ryan wanted to ask for a date, but he perceived in her a seriousness of purpose that would cause her to reject him as long as she was writing about him. He called her only after he knew that she had delivered the article.
“When Vanity Fair appears, what if I’ve savaged you?” she had asked.
“How do you know?”
“I don’t deserve to be savaged, and you’re a fair person.”
“You don’t know me well enough to be sure of that.”
“From your interviewing style,” he said, “I know you’re smart, clear-thinking, free of political dogma, and without envy. If I’m not safe with you, then I’m safe nowhere except alone in a room.”
He had not sought to flatter her. He merely spoke his mind.
Having an ear for deception, Samantha recognized his sincerity.
Of the qualities that draw a bright woman to a man, truthfulness is equaled only by kindness, courage, and a sense of humor. She had accepted his invitation to dinner, and the months since then had been the happiest of his life.
Now, on this Wednesday morning, he said, “Pumping six-footers, glassy and epic, sunshine that feels its way deep into your bones.”
“I’ve got a deadline to meet.”
“You’re too young for all this talk about death.”
“Are you riding another train of manic insomnia?”
“Slept like a baby. And I don’t mean in a wet diaper.”
“When you’re sleep-deprived, you’re treacherous on a board.”
“I may be radical, but never treacherous.”
“Totally insane, like with the shark.”
“That again. That was nothing.”
“Just a great white.”
“Well, the bastard bit a huge chunk out of my board.”
“And-what?-you were determined to get it back?”
“I wiped out,” Ryan said, “I’m under the wave, in the murk, grabbin’ for air, my hand closes around what I think is the skeg.”
The skeg, a fixed fin on the bottom of a surfboard, holds the stern of the board in the wave and allows the rider to steer.
What Ryan actually grabbed was the shark’s dorsal fin.
Samantha said, “What kind of kamikaze rides a shark?”
“I wasn’t riding. I was taken for a ride.”
“He surfaced, tried to shake you off, you rode him back down.”
“Afraid to let go. Anyway, it lasted like only twenty seconds.”
“Insomnia makes most people sluggish. It makes you hyper.”
“I hibernated last night. I’m as rested as a bear in spring.”
She said, “In a circus once, I saw a bear riding a tricycle.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“It was funnier than watching an idiot ride a shark.”
“I’m Pooh Bear. I’m rested and cuddly. If a shark knocked on the door right now, asked me to go for a ride, I’d say no.”
“I had nightmares about you wrestling that shark.”
“Not wrestling. It was more like ballet. Meet you at the place?”
“I’ll never finish writing this book.”
“Leave the computer on when you go to bed each night. The elves will finish it for you. At the place?”
She sighed in happy resignation. “Half an hour.”
“Wear the red one,” he said, and hung up.
The water would be warm, the day warmer. He wouldn’t need a wet suit.
He pulled on a pair of baggies with a palm-tree motif.
His collection included a pair with a shark pattern. If he wore them, she would kick his ass. Figuratively speaking.
For later, he took a change of clothes on a hanger, and a pair of loafers.
Of the five vehicles in his garage, the customized ‘51 Ford Woodie Wagon-anthracite-black with bird’s-eye maple panels-seemed to be best suited to the day. Already stowed in the back, his board protruded past the lifted tailgate windows, skeg up.
At the end of the cobblestone driveway, as he turned left into the street, he paused to look back at the house: gracefully sloping roofs of red barrel tile, limestone-clad walls, bronze windows with panes of beveled glass refracting the sun as if they were jewels.
A maid in a crisp white uniform opened a pair of second-floor balcony doors to air the master bedroom.
One of the landscapers trimmed the jasmine vines that were espaliered on the walls flanking the carved-limestone surround at the main entrance.
In less than a decade, Ryan had gone from a cramped apartment in Anaheim to the hills of Newport Coast, high above the Pacific.
Samantha could take the day off on a whim because she was a writer who, though struggling, could set her own hours. Ryan could take it off because he was rich.
Quick wits and hard work had brought him from nothing to the pinnacle. Sometimes when he considered his origins from his current perch, the distance dizzied him.
As he drove out of the gate-guarded community and descended the hills toward Newport Harbor, where thousands of pleasure boats were docked and moored in the glimmering sun-gilded water, he placed a few business calls.
A year previously, he had stepped down as the chief executive officer of Be2Do, which he had built into the most successful social-networking site on the Internet. As the principal stockholder, he remained on the board of directors but declined to be the chairman.
These days, he devoted himself largely to creative development, envisioning and designing new services to be provided by the company. And he tried to persuade Samantha to marry him.
He knew that she loved him, yet something constrained her from committing to marriage. He suspected pride.
The shadow of his wealth was deep, and she did not want to be lost in it. Although she had not expressed this concern, he knew that she hoped to be able to count herself a success as a writer, as a novelist, so that she could enter the marriage as a creative-if not a financial-equal.
Ryan was patient. And persistent.
Phone calls completed, he transitioned from Pacific Coast Highway by bridge to Balboa Peninsula, which separated the harbor from the sea. Cruising toward the peninsula point, he listened to classic doo-wop, music younger than the Woodie Wagon but a quarter of a century older than he was.
He parked on a tree-lined street of charming homes and carried his board half a block to Newport’s main beach.
The sea poured rhythmic thunder onto the shore.
She waited at “the place,” which was where they had first surfed together, midway between the harbor entrance and the pier.
Her above-garage apartment was a three-minute walk from here. She had come with her board, a beach towel, and a small cooler.
Although he had asked her to wear the red bikini, Samantha wore yellow. He had hoped for the yellow, but if he had asked for it, she would have worn red or blue, or green.
She was as perfect as a mirage, blond hair and golden form, a quiver of light, an alluring oasis on the wide slope of sun-seared sand.
“What’re those sandals?” she asked.
“Are they made from old tires?”
“Yeah. But they’re premium gear.”
“Did you also buy a hat made from a hubcap?”
“You don’t like these?”
“If you have a blowout, does the auto club bring you a new shoe?”
Kicking off the sandals, he said, “Well, I like them.”
“How often do they need to be aligned and balanced?”
Soft and hot, the sand shifted underfoot, but then was compacted and cool where the purling surf worked it like a screed.
As they waded into the sea, he said, “I’ll ditch the sandals if next time you’ll wear the red bikini.”
“You actually wanted this yellow one.”
He repressed his surprise at her perspicacity. “Then why would I ask for the red?”
“Because you only think you can read me.”
“But I’m an open book, huh?”
“Winky, compared to you, Dr. Seuss’s simplest tale is as complex as Dostoyevsky.”
They launched their boards and, prone upon them, paddled out toward the break.
Raising his voice above the swash of the surf, he called to her: “Was that Seuss thing an insult?”
Her silvery laughter stirred in Ryan memories of mermaid tales awash with the mysteries of the deep.
She said, “Not an insult, sweetie. That was a thirteen-word kiss.”
Ryan did not bother to recall and count her words from Winky to Dostoyevsky. Samantha noticed everything, forgot nothing, and was able to recall entire conversations that had occurred months previously.
Sometimes he found her as daunting as she was appealing, which seemed to be a good thing. Samantha would never be predictable or boring.
The consistently spaced waves came like boxcars, four or five at a time. Between these sets were periods of relative calm.
While the sea was slacking, Ryan and Samantha paddled out to the lineup. There, they straddled their boards and watched the first swell of a new set roll toward the break.
From this more intimate perspective, the sea was not as placid and blue as it had appeared from his house in the hills, but as dark as jade and challenging. The approaching swell might have been the arching back of some scaly leviathan, larger than a thousand sharks, born in the deep but rising now to feed upon the sunlit world.
Sam looked at Ryan and grinned. The sun searched her eyes and revealed in them the blue of sky, the green of sea, the delight of being in harmony with millions of tons of water pushed shoreward by storms three thousand miles away and by the moon now looming on the dark side of the earth.
Sam caught the second swell: on two knees, one knee, now standing, swift and clean, away. She rode the crest, then did a floater off the curling lip.
As she slid out of view, down the face of the wave, Ryan thought that the breaker-much bigger than anything in previous sets-had the size and the energy to hollow out and put her in a tube. Good as it gets, Sam would ride it out as smoothly as oil surging through a pipeline.
Ryan looked seaward, timing the next swell, eager to rise and walk the board.
Something happened to his heart. Already quick with anticipation of the ride, the beat suddenly accelerated and began to pound with a force more suited to a moment of high terror than to one of pleasant excitement.
He could feel his pulse throbbing in his ankles, wrists, throat, temples. The tide of blood within his arteries seemed to crescendo in sympathy with the sea that swelled toward him, under him.
The sibilant voice of the water became insistent, sinister.
Clutching the board, abandoning the attempt to rise and ride, Ryan saw the day dim, losing brightness at the periphery. Along the horizon, the sky remained clear yet faded to gray.
Inky clouds spread through the jade sea, as though the Pacific would soon be as black in the morning light as it was on any moonless night.
He was breathing fast and shallow. The very atmosphere seemed to be changing, as if half the oxygen content had been bled out of it, perhaps explaining the graying of the sky.
Never previously had he been afraid of the sea. He was afraid of it now.
The water rose as though with conscious intention, with malice. Clinging to his board, Ryan slid down the hunchbacked swell into the wide trough between waves.
Irrationally, he worried that the trough would become a trench, the trench a vortex. He feared that he would be whirled down into drowning depths.
The board wallowed, bobbed, and Ryan almost rolled off. His strength had left him. His grip had grown weak, as tremulous as that of an old man.
Something bristled in the water, alarming him.
When he realized that those spiky forms were neither shark fins nor grasping tentacles, but were the conceptacles of a knotted mass of seaweed, he was not relieved. If a shark were to appear now, Ryan would be at the mercy of it, unable to evade it or resist.
As suddenly as the attack came, it passed. Ryan’s storming heart quieted. Blue reclaimed the graying sky. The encroaching darkness in the water receded. His strength returned to him.
He did not realize how long the episode had lasted until he saw that Samantha had ridden her wave to shore and, in the relative calm between sets, had paddled out to him once more.
As she came closer, the concern that creased her brow was also evident in her voice: “Ryan?”
“Just enjoying the moment,” he lied, remaining prone on his board. “I’ll catch one in the next set.”
“Since when are you a mallard?” she asked, by which she meant that he was floating around in the lineup like a duck, like one of those gutless wannabes who soaked all day in the swells just beyond the break point and called it surfing.
“The last two in that set were bigger,” he said. “I have a hunch the next batch might be double overhead, worth waiting for.”
Sam straddled her board and looked out to sea, scanning for the first swell of the new set.
If Ryan read her correctly, she sensed that he was shining her on, and she wondered why.
With his heart steady and his strength recovered, he stopped hugging the board, straddled it, getting ready.
Waiting for the next wave train, he told himself that he had not experienced a physical seizure, but instead merely an anxiety attack. At self-deception, he was as skilled as anyone.
He had no reason to be anxious. His life was sweet, buttered, and sliced for easy consumption.