There were years where I turned on and off like a machine, overheating followed by the kind of sleep geologists should study. Even then, my college cocktail of self-imposed pressures didn’t always keep me upright. Once, in CC, my prof Ryan crumpled up a piece of paper and tossed it at me mid-sentence — I woke up grateful. Getting hit lightly in the face with a paper ball is the kind of thing that proves a person cares.
Before I left Morningside, I’d gone down to Ryan’s a few times in the Rockaways. It might have been after I built a small ski jump on Low Steps when we recognized each other as bad, aspiring East Coast surfers. We watched the swells. Every once in a 5:30 a.m., I’d take the A to the end for the winter waves.
Cut to a neat decade later. Enter (finally): a girlfriend. Masha was from Marblehead, Mass. — a town like my Swarthmore, Pa., minus a college plus the sea. Opposites weren’t attracting: We, two brown Ashkenazim, camped the week after graduation at an Arabic language program, under oath to speak no English for 10 weeks. With the colloquial Arabic skills of a soaking wet dictionary, we communicated in a more primitive way, tonal and facial and with our hands.
Now, just a couple nights ago, a man named Shan was offering Masha and me a seat at his table — the only table with space in a crowded, unidentifiable rooftop bar in the Theater District. Light eyes, light skin, light hair on the ebb and named short for his parents’ daughter who’d never come, Shan was drinking off a recent scare at work — thought he might lose his job — only days after losing on a house back home in Marblehead (“Can-you-believe-it-or-what?”), where his family waited for his weekend returns.
Masha asked why he didn’t just leave — the town she’d hated as a kid, that Shan hated now, with its petty squabbles and the kind of self-satisfied provincialism that smells of lobster.
“I want my kids to have the stability I didn’t,” Shan said. He’d moved again and again, from the Midwest to the Far West and back. California was the only home that still called.
He was five martini-hours deep when he spotted us. Pained, but steering the subject with what I thought was great dignity. We ordered more rounds in the way you do when it is not obligatory. Warm. The feeling of actually wanting to connect, even if the wires are made of gin.
It is a special kind of sadness that knows its reasons. “I’m old now — did I tell you how old I was?” he said, and said again. The longing wasn’t for lost time but for a specific moment lost: College, when he was surfing Santa Barbara, when his solitude wasn’t a prerequisite for his family’s unity.
We argued about whose oceans were colder — mine here, under the planes landing at JFK, or his in SoCal. I tried to describe the predictable unpredictability of Rockaway surf, the winter masochism, the shifted priorities. And then, as Ryan had done for me a decade ago — I was inviting Shan to the beach.
It’s a funny offer, that one. Would you ever want to come by this place that’s been there roundabout a few million years? It feels arrogant to suggest, and yet. Even the most ancient puddle looks different when someone’s asked you to it.
“I’ll owe you forever,” he said. “Take me surfing and I’ll owe you forever.”
On the humble surf coast, there is no “taking” really to speak of. To take a person surfing, you bring them to the water’s edge, and throw them into the sea.
I offered boards, but they were all Ryan’s. I offered wetsuits even, among the piles of gear-that-wasn’t-mine. But 10 years ago, when the anthropologist who explained Kant to me explained that there were waves in Queens — it wasn’t gear I needed. An invitation, solidarity. In the 36-degree water, there is brotherhood, of the kind that stays warm even when the ocean isn’t frozen.
I came to Columbia because it scared me, viscerally and truly: being in New York. I liked trying to ride the icy water for some of the same reasons. And soon, the old fears become old pleasures, resilient and meaningful because they are reframed.
And soon, all that is left are the words-bigger-than-words. These contemporary connections, spoken through gesture. It isn’t always easy to accept the two-hour dawn commute from midtown to the peninsula, but I offered because it was offered to me, and I pushed a little because I needed a little pushing.
Maybe it seems too weird, prohibitively weird, for two men to text about the beach — two men with a two-hour-old relationship and an age difference wider than the gap between presidential impeachments. In between Hobbes and learning the word “semiotics,” though, something got through to me: It shouldn’t be.
A gap in age like a gap in language — where gestures may mean far more than they mean. Misinterpretation is a near guarantee — and for the fears of false impressions, there is only the hope for true ones. Maybe that’s all you can do when you remember that there are old things, big answers older than your big questions. To find the gestures that seem right, and to pass them on.