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Creative non-fiction

“Paradise off the Garden State Parkway”

First appeared in The Rambler, March/April 2009

Nate House

                                           Paradise Off The Garden State Parkway

It was dusk and the tops of the casinos shone in the distance like distant cruise ships. It was the middle of November, the wind just offshore, the air 50 degrees, the water 55, and five to eight foot waves passed underneath us as we waited for just the right one. I watched the last rays of the sun set behind the bay to the west as million dollar houses, empty since labor day, stood like centurions guarding the empty beach. The waves continued toward shore, aquatic mountain ranges as clean as glass, moving slowly towards the sandbar where they rose from the sea, curled over their faces and crashed in an impressive display of power and brilliance.

It was the last great surf day before the coming winter, a final hurrah before the cold winds blew across the country, flattening even the smallest allusion of a wave. Nor’ Easters would park over the coast during the winter and form massive, dark and heavy waves, as large and cold as icebergs while snow fell on the beach, but it wouldn’t be like this again, not until the spring and even then we might not see waves as beautiful as these until the next hurricane season. As Mary and I sat on our boards in thick black wetsuits, just beyond the breaking waves, we barely spoke—just the occasional holler of support when one of us caught a wave.  It was if talking about it would somehow damage the delicate balance of wind, water, tide and waves. I watched another surfer in the distance paddle to the outside for a set wave that rolled in from the horizon. He turned towards the shore, stroked the water twice as the wave began to break. He disappeared for a brief moment, then appeared off the top of the breaking lip, floated back to the very center of the wave where he stalled his board just before the curtain of water fell over him. Then he was completely inside of it, standing, aiming for the small tunnel of light at the end of the wave .

Mary, my wife, sat on her nine-foot board, waved and smiled. A wave came; she turned, paddled, stood and then crouched on her board as she grabbed the outside rail, her face just inches away from the wall. She got ahead of the curl, stood and screamed in triumph as she rode the wave all the way to the beach. Mary stayed on the beach while I paddled back out for one more. It was almost dark, the sky turned purple and the first planets appeared on the horizon. Ever so often I heard a gasp of air and turned in time see the mist left on the surface from a dolphin’s breath. Silver minnows jumped across the surface of the water.

As surfers we spend much of our time in search of the perfect wave. It is a metaphorical journey, based on the faith that somewhere on the planet there is a place where the winds, tides, land and ocean meet in a perfect moment. Often times this search entails journeys halfway around the world, to tropical paradises like Bali, Maldives, Hawaii and Costa Rica, where overhead waves of blue water travel across the Pacific in corduroy lines only to release their potential energy over a shallow reef or sandbar. It is a spiritual quest, to fill an empty void that can only be filled by surfing the perfect wave. That night, the lights of Atlantic City shimmering in the distance, it occurred to me that my search for the perfect wave begins and ends in New Jersey.

Over the past seven months we had witnessed a burning body dumped in the abandoned lot next to our house, bought a gun, moved from the border of North Philadelphia to a 1968 Airstream trailer at the Jersey Shore, then back to the city. In the middle of that tumultuous time, Mary’s mom, mother of 11, smart, funny and kind, died. I visited my father in rehab for the second time in a year and tragedies, both small and large, piled up. But in the water, after the first wave, a certain distance forms between the surfer and the tragedies that exist on land, just enough to understand that these things happen, as everything happens, including nights like these.

The wave is both the terror and the beauty, the release and harnessing of energy. Perhaps it is this duality that makes the best surf sessions cause not only unparallel happiness, but also extreme depression. I have seen Mary simultaneously cry and laugh on the same wave. After surfing the biggest waves of my life I have been rendered retarded, unable to put the simplest thoughts into words and if the ocean went flat I would remain in a deep funk, wanting only to return to the place that caused the initial conundrum. And still we go back for more—call in sick, refuse to make plans with anyone during hurricane season and build a life around the energy of the ocean. It is a drug more addicting than cocaine, as dangerous as heroin, and as euphoric as ecstasy. Like those drugs it can consume one’s entire life, to the point where everything revolves around the catching the next swell.

I could barely see the only other surfer in the water to the south, still waiting for the wave of the day. Mary became nothing more than a dark silhouette on the beach. I saw my wave, turned, paddled and then I was standing, my hand caressing a glass wall of water. I didn’t turn, go off the lip or try anything extraordinary. I just stood there, on top of the wave, wondering how all of it—wind, water, waves, surfing, life, death and New Jersey, were possible. It didn’t seem like it could be.

On the beach we watched the lone surfer take his last wave, appearing out of the darkness like a ghost on the water. We walked back to our van, silent, amazed, stoked, and drove back to the city, oblivious to the travesties that waited there.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Chris permalink
    April 22, 2012 6:32 pm

    Great video and choice music! Betty the Surf Dog and Joey made me smile.

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