On Earth As It Is In Heaven
"WILL THE WATER BE COLD, DAD?" DANA LOOKED DOWN AT HIS SON, SO SMALL IN THE GRAY MORNING LIGHT.
"Yes. But that's why we've got those." He pointed to the black neoprene wetsuits on top of the faded beach towel.
"How cold will it be?"
"It'll sting at first, but you'll get used to it."
Dana pulled Isaac's suit out from underneath his own. Isaac struggled into it. Dana turned to help his son. The miniature suit slid easily over Isaac's thin limbs. Dana zipped him up.
"It feels funny."
"It'll feel better once you're in the water." Dana picked up wax. He handed a block to Isaac. "You gotta' give your board a good wax. Like this." Dana rubbed circles across his surfboard. Overhead, seagulls also circled, carving figure-eights through the dense mist, their squawking barely audible above the crash and suck of the brown waves.
Dana crouched over his board. His body hugged the sand, his feet dug deep into it. For the thousandth time that morning, Dana thought about Isaac when he was younger. When he used to ride piggyback on Dana's broad back, down to Riviera Beach from the Pier. They'd play a counting game, Isaac counting the sunspots scattered across his shoulders. Now, Dana watched Isaac bend over to wax his board and there was that impossible fear crawling like something long-legged and sinister through his gut. He saw, as if part of some cursed premonition, his son's broken body sprawled across the wet sand, his eyes unseeing and lips the faintest of blue. Isaac's fair head disappearing below the water. Isaac's body, smashed by rocks, laid out against the sterile gleam of a morgue. The early morning wind blew sand and salt into his eyes. He blinked.
"Why'd we have to come so early?" Isaac did not look up.
Dana said, from under his arm, "It's because of the tides."
Down the beach, the pier concealed beneath fog and the cold, sticky air granting nothing of the sun that was rising, red and distant, behind the hills.
* * *
It was early even for Dana. It had been a long time since he'd woken at the crack of dawn to surf when the tides were at their best. When all the serious surfers surf. Probably not since college. The alarm buzzed him awake in the chilly darkness, and with his wife sleeping soundly beside him, he'd prayed. Because when Isaac was younger, it had been so much easier to protect him. But now, Dana could do nothing but watch as the bright world beckoned to his son and Isaac ran out to greet it. C'mon, Dad, he had said, all my friends go surfing. I already know how to swim. Please. His eyes big and blue. And there was Sheila, her body curled warm in their bed. He thought of the summer of his birth, how they had painted the extra room sky blue, and then there was Isaac and he had been so perfect.
Dana opened his son's door. Sleeping, just like Sheila, lips parted, soft breath rising and sinking and sinking and rising. He stood at the edge of the bed and placed a hand on Isaac's shoulder and rested it there for a long time. It looked big against Isaac's body . Dana was aware of his own heartbeat, could feel the blood pulsing through his fingertips. Dark lashes fluttered on Isaac's pale skin. Skin still unscarred by blemish, by lover's kisses. Isaac didn't stir.
Patience. You just need to have some patience, the doctor had told them. Dana had done everything, without hesitation or question, and then, after a long time, there was Isaac. When he and Sheila had painted that room, huddled over phones waiting for fertility test results, Dana thought he could never love his son more than he did then, when Isaac was still a desperate hope, a prayer. But when Dana saw him and held him and touched him, smelling that curious baby smell it was a like a violence, that raging love for his son that made him want to shield him from the very world he had tried so hard to bring him into.
It didn't go away, either. Not in the eleven years that had passed since those first touches. Being a father, a parent, that became routine. The family life with its cacophony and dishes and rollercoaster emotions, even all that you could become used to. But the love, no. It's always unexpected, the shock and force of it. Like Isaac asleep in the back of the car after a long day, his sunny hair plastered across his forehead, his mouth open and drooling, or laughing, those baby teeth, small and white and perfect in the red, gaping hole of Isaac's mouth. If I could just grab him and press him against this chest--my chest--and hold him like that and never let go.
Dana shook Isaac awake. His eyes opened blue and large. Blue like water, like the sky opening. Dana winced and said, "Come on, it's time to go."
In the dark and cold, Isaac stumbled into his bathing suit and a sweatshirt. He brushed his teeth.
Dana said, "We should go now, Sport. We don't want to miss the tide." He ruffled Isaac's soft hair.
* * *
In the car, Dana didn't say much. He asked Isaac if he'd like a donut. Surfin' Donuts was just opening when they pulled up in the old truck. They were setting the last tray of freshly glazed donuts into the case. Everything gleamed. Dana watched Isaac eat his donuts. Yellow and pink specks from the sprinkles stuck to his lips and cheeks. He saw Isaac lick them away, and he saw, too, the ones left clinging to the soft fuzz on his face.
Dana turned back to the road. Beyond the palm trees and rooftops, the wide Pacific Ocean, gray-brown and clouded, was moving against the shoreline. Dana gripped the wheel. The first time he'd pulled a drowning body from the sea, he'd been fifteen years old. The child's lips had turned blue. Her body small and heavy in his young arms. She was just playing, her mother had sobbed, I just turned around for one second. She was just right here. Just a second ago. A second is all it takes, the Junior Lifeguard instructor had told Dana. Lesson Number One.
Isaac yawned. Dana smiled.
"You think you're tired now? Wait until after you've been out on the water for half a day. Then you'll be tired. I bet you'll fall asleep before dinner tonight." Dana could hear his own overconfidence, the joking a pathetic mask.
"I'm not that tired. I'm okay." Dana knew Isaac had been up half the night with excitement. He'd promised he'd take Isaac surfing as soon as he was old enough. And once he learned to surf, Sheila had told Isaac he could go to the beach with his friends, alone. Dana wondered if his wife ever lay awake at night, too, unable to shake images of her son sinking into the ocean. Unable to protect him forever, yet unable to deny him something so desperately longed for. There are only so many excuses and those blue eyes with their clear, unfiltered longing. The new board had been hanging in the garage for months, waiting.
Dana turned off Avenida Las Flores and headed to the beach. They took the small, winding streets, past the older houses, which were painted in browns and pastels. It was still too early for the sun to break through the fog. It drifted in wet wisps at the street corners.
"Which beach are we going to?"
"Riviera." Dana turned to look at Isaac. "That okay with you?"
"If we're lucky, we might even see some gray whales out there. They migrate this time of year. Keep an eye out for spouts." Dana wanted to tell Isaac about the countless times he'd gone surfing and looked over to see a dolphin arcing through the glassy water at his side. How you don't realize how alone you are until they appear. How clear the water can be out there. How you want to reach down and run your hands across the scarred and leathery dolphin skin, or jump onto their backs and fly across the surface of the sea. But he didn't say anything.
When he was in college, surfers starting talking about surfing as a religion, as a type of Zen. Dana wasn't so sure about all that, for him it had always been more about noticing. Noticing the smallness of your body against the vastness of kelp forests, noticing the cliff-side houses disappearing into mosaics of red tile, noticing the depth changes by the coldness of your limbs, noticing the small puckers of skin exposed to salt water. He looked at Isaac looking out the window. How could he even begin--?
"Okay." Isaac fiddled with the drawstring of his board shorts.
They parked on the cul-de-sac at the bottom of the hill, next to a house covered in ivy. The air tasted briny. Dana lowered the gate of the truck and slid the two boards out. Isaac grabbed the towels, wetsuits, and the beach bag his mother had packed. Sunscreen, water, sandwiches.
The stairs to the beach lay hidden between two houses on the west side of the street. The stairs were steep and sandy, and Dana and Isaac descended them with care. At the bottom, they crossed beneath the railroad tracks, through a white tunnel where the smell of rotting seaweed clung to the damp walls.
On the other side of the tunnel, the wooden lifeguard tower stuck out of the fog. Dana had told Isaac how his high school friends used to dare one another to climb the tower at night, back when kids still had bonfires at the beach. He told Isaac about spraining his ankle when he'd jumped off it into the darkness. Dana limped all the way home that night. He told Isaac about being a lifeguard in high school. He would rise early, like today, and surf for a few hours before starting his shift at the tower near the pier. When Dana told his son that they made you jump off the end of the pier and swim all the way back to shore, Isaac's eyes got so wide. So blue. But Dana could not bring himself to tell his son about the blue lips, the screams for help, a body pulled to shore and spread on the sand. The interminable minutes spent waiting for the Jeep to arrive from the main lifeguard station, sirens blaring across the beach.
* * *
Dana double-checked the leash.
"You better put some sunscreen on." He waved his hand in the general direction of the beach bag.
Isaac squeezed too much lotion into his hand. The tube made a rude noise, and Isaac giggled.
"I think I got too much," he said and held his palm out toward his father. Dana sighed and wiped up half of it with the corner of a sandy towel. "Aren't you going to put any sunscreen on?"
"Nah. It's too late for me, Sport. But you don't want to end up like me--all wrinkled, probably got skin cancer, too." Dana smiled. Isaac rubbed the last of the sunscreen across the bridge of his nose, under his eyes.
"Ready?" Dana asked.
They headed towards the surf.
* * *
Dana's feet touched the water. Cold. Even in the summer, the Pacific on a foggy morning was uncomfortable. He turned around. Isaac was standing back, where the white foam from the shore break was just barely licking his toes. He looked reluctant.
"Come along, Isaac." If my hands can hold him...if my hands can hold him... Dana repeated this silently over and over again.
The cold water swirled. Dana brushed the hair from his eyes and looked out across the rhythmic rising of the swells. He shivered.
He watched his son wade into the breakers. Each time a wave hit his knees, belly, chest, his skinny body contracted. Dana could see his ribs through the wetsuit. He could see the intake of breath, the slight squaring of the shoulders. Teaching Isaac to swim down at the Ole Hanson pool years ago, it had always been a struggle to get him into the water, but once he was in, he never wanted to get out. Daddy, look at me, Daddy! No, no, don't let him in the deep end.
"It's not that bad once you get in, I promise."
Isaac still hesitated.
"Watch me!" Dana shouted. He slapped his board on the slick surface of the water and waited for a wave to crest. Before it broke, white and frothy, he dove into it. The shock of the cold sucked the air from his lungs.
The wave broke over him with a roar. He surfaced and turned smiling to Isaac, his board bobbing alongside him. His eyes burned from the salt and he blinked away tears.
"See! Not that bad at all! Come on, we haven't got all day!"
Isaac took a deep breath and ducked under the next wave. He stood up, teeth chattering. He rubbed his nose.
"There you go!" Dana shouted.
Isaac smiled. The water lapped at his chin.
* * *
The beach wasn't crowded. There were maybe half a dozen other surfers. They were spread out, in pairs. Isaac bobbed in the water next to Dana. Oh my son, my son, my son . Dana helped Isaac straddle his surfboard. He gave him a slight push. His big hands against those small bones.
And he told Isaac, now here's the tricky part. You gotta' look over your shoulder and when you see the wave coming, you start to paddle. You paddle as hard and as fast as you can, and when you feel the wave begin to lift you up, that's when you jump up onto your board. Just like we practiced in the garage. You remember how to bend your knees and stick your arms out and Isaac said he remembered.
Isaac paddled hard. Dana slid onto his board and followed. Out past the breakers, the world falling into silence.
From the ocean, their town looked the way it did when Dana was younger. Before they built the freeway that would divide the town in half, before they cut down the orange orchards and built houses on the cliffs where the stables used to be, where Dana rode horses with his friends through sage and lavender, crunching fossilized sea shells into a fine dust that rose behind them like so many small sandstorms. From where Dana sat on his board, the big, new developments in the eastern hills weren't visible. All cliffs and trees and tile roofs, not red from here, but rust-colored. Everything still and empty. No crowds, no streets with cars, no families with their umbrellas and tents on the beach. Just a few joggers, the surfers. Fog still wrapped around the cliffs. The sun was rising. Dana could see it inking a trail upwards, leaving behind a color like the inside of a blood orange. Red sky at morning, sailor take warning. The fog would burn off soon.
* * *
The sun shone bright on the water. It dazzled Dana's eyes. The last set had been small. Dana and Isaac sat it out, letting the swells lift and drop them lazily. Isaac, sitting up on his board, swung his legs in the cool water. They didn't say much. Dana checked his sport watch.
That feeling of being out on the water, away from the world. That was what Dana loved. The infinite space of sky and sea. And Dana liked that in spite of the apparent peace, an entire world, seen and unseen, teemed beneath his legs. Every drop of water bursting with life. You grow up on the beach, you're something like a marine biologist, he liked to tell people. But with life, death too. You could never be too cautious when it comes to the ocean, never take your eyes off the waves. Dana thought about these and the other long conversations he'd have with Isaac someday, out on the water, waiting.
Dana stayed close to Isaac. The first few waves were smaller, but they grew. And Dana remembered Isaac jumping into the pool, splashing, Daddy, look at me, he used to say. And Dana would chant, kick, kick, kick, and don't forget to breathe! Just the way they taught him all those years ago in swim class. It could save your life, the teacher had said.
The wave seemed to jump out of the ocean, blue and towering. Dana looked over at Isaac who was blinking into the sunlight. The breeze against Isaac's wet skin made him tremble. There it was--that uncontrollable love. Daddy! How long do we have to wait, patience the doctor had said, patience, and Sheila said yes. Dana felt it tight in his chest. He looked towards heaven. The blue sky veiled by the last of the mildewed clouds, and the orange-yellow streaks of sun across it. Dana shut his eyes and then opened them rapidly. Breathe, kick kick, breathe!
"Isaac!" he called. His blue eyes like water, like waves. "Turn around and paddle!"
Dana turned his back on the wave. Began to paddle. But he couldn't stop thinking about the way that mother had been crying and that child with her blue lips. Just one second, she was just right here! And all Dana could see was a dead baby sinking and floating and sinking and floating. A little boy. His little boy. So small. And Sheila screaming don't play so rough. Daddy, look at me!
Dana glanced over his shoulder and he saw nothing but a wall of green-blue ocean, rising higher and higher. Behind Isaac. The wave blocking out the sun, and everything falling into shadow. He heard the rush and suck of it, as the wave drew more water into itself. It tugged him backwards, and he could feel its fine spray on his cheeks.
When the time comes, you will not be afraid, the doctor said. I'm too old, Sheila said. It's been too long. No, said the doctor. I'll be with you, he said. I'll be with you. Sheila screamed and the doctor said, breathe, you have to breathe, don't forget to breathe.
Isaac's body was knocked from his board. He tumbled inside the wave. Water pounded.
Dana immobile against the force of the water. He stared helplessly at his son. He could feel the ache of lungs, the struggle stopping slowly, eyes drooping heavy.
"Here I am, Isaac!" Dana bellowed.
Suddenly and without warning, Isaac burst through the surface of the water. He rose up and up, out of the deadly vortex and into the air and light, and he raised his arms above his head and shouted wildly, "Daddy! Daddy!"
Past the breakers, Dana sat panting with exertion on top of his surfboard, and he watched in astonishment as his son, delivered into the world once more, rode to shore.
Jennifer Reimer grew up in the borderlands of Southern California. She has a B.A in English from NYU (2002) and a M.F.A in Writing from the University of San Francisco (2005). Her poetry and fiction have appeared in St. Ignatian Literary Review, Commonweal, Denver Syntax, and Des Cheneaux (Forthcoming). She is the co-founder of Achiote Press. She's currently working on a Ph.D in Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
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