Two dogs were trying to play. One of the dogs ran enthusiastically into the surf. She looked like a Golden Retriever, the darker, more russet-colored type, but her hair, matted-wet and nearly black from the sea, made it impossible to be certain. She ran out into the first line of breakers in a narrow gulley, plunged through and then rode the next breaking wave onto the sand. Anyone watching could have seen that she was body surfing. In the cold surf, she looked as happy as a puppy in a warm basket, happy to play. Somewhere along the beach, or out in the line-up in a full-body wet suit, her mistress, her head poking seal-like towards the beach, might have been watching. But right then the dog was alone, surfing for her own pleasure, just being a dog at play. Aweh. Aweh. The other dog, this one more like a Border Collie mongrel, came up to the edge of the water, keeping a few paw-steps back from the quick fingers of foam while she watched the first dog play. She dashed in as far as the first line of combing waves, then withdrew. She barked several times: Boss, Boss, Dial me in.
Down the beach towards Point Bonita, in the opposite direction from the dogs, a couple were quarreling. Standing at the edge of the surf, tall and elegant in a gold bikini, a woman was in the face of a muscular African-American man with a shaved head and a goatee. He stood close enough to her that I imagined their spittle wetting each other’s face. They were being angry with each other, arguing with lovers’ ferocity. I kept far enough away that I couldn’t overhear them. But I knew at once that the man was someone I might like to know, even if the fight I was observing had been his fault. I knew, if the chance came, I would offer him a path of approach, though that seemed unlikely, difficult to open. Watching the couple with a sidelong gaze, while looking almost directly out to sea, I saw the woman make a quick, invisible hand movement up her crotch. The symbolism ambiguous, I didn’t understand the message. Enraged but contained, the man shrugged a finger weakly in her direction, and then spun away. Towards me. I watched the woman stand there, poking her feet into the final trickles of surf. I could see that she wasn’t crying. She must have been thinking, playing through what goes before and comes after. Waiting just a moment, the man walked up next to me. Hello, he said, as bluntly as if we had been friends for years. I hoped that he couldn’t tell how delighted I felt. Already I was imagining him inside.
“The ocean’s great today. Do you surf?”
“I do, but not all that much. That was what my friend and I were arguing about. About leaving her alone while I went out. A bad move on my part, it seems. All this you no doubt observed. Me and my ex-friend.”
He gestured down the beach. It was wide and bleak, strewn with occasional drift wood over the straw-brown sand. The sky was clear, but earlier it had been overcast while dispiriting gusts of rain had blown in from the sea. Now the surf was pretty good. It rolled in regularly, not much choppiness, only the usual Stinson Beach white, breaking in long, ragged combers. It rolled in without apparent rips, at between one and two feet, more or less the right height for good body surfing.
“I can show you how. If we begin with body surfing, you’ll catch on right away.”
That had to be a lie. He couldn’t actually want to go back into the bitter water. As an introductory move it worked well enough. I hadn’t needed to open an approach for him. No need to drop a towel or let my halter slip. The beautiful black woman he had been with was watching us from a spot on the beach near the Monterrey Cypresses before the parking lot. She would know what her one-time friend was up to.
Farther down the beach to the south, ducking into the bumpy surf, dancing on their toes, a few people twisted their bodies sideways to the cold, breaking waves, retreating quickly. The water looked every bit as frigid as it would feel. The only surfers, far out on boards, wore wet suits. Still, it was, as always, a beautiful vista. Sunlight broke through the overcast, slanting down from the southwest over Point Bonita. Huge rocks a short ways off the beach at the north end, veils of white foam surging, pines struggling sunwards from each crevice, made the whole scene like a late Flemish landscape. My new friend waved his arm back and forth. Take it in. Look at it all. Feel lighthearted. I smiled. He still needed help. Most importantly, I made no effort to walk away. I looked up into his dark eyes. As soon as he said something personal, or expressed a feeling, any feeling, I would reach out to touch his forearm. I could see that, whatever he had just experienced, he was open to possibility, willing to let a future unfold. Holding him would be entirely up to me. Holding me would be up to the grace with which he could project sympathy, to his skill in striking home.
“Look at that dog. He’s actually surfing. Look!”
He had seen that he needed a story to hold me, a tale that would draw my attention. Then, if his ex-friend had truly abandoned him, he would offer to buy me a drink in some local place that he would know. He liked my eyes, which I knew could only be darkest blue, maybe black as his own, in the behind-me light. He was gazing into them as if searching for a lost reflection. Down the beach, the two dogs were still playing in of the surf, dashing in and out. Then he found an allegory, rather more than a story. I turned to follow the direction of his gesture. So far he was keeping my interest, holding me momentarily within a magic circle sketched on the wet sand.
“Look. They’re playing a game. With rules. They’ve just met at the edge of the sea and already they’re playing together.”
“They must be inventing their rules as they go then.”
“What people do when they meet.”
“You mean when they meet at the edge of the sea.?”
The man kept talking, superfluously explaining what the dogs were doing. I understood that he was talking in order to hold me steady in place, no sudden shift away, no abrupt good-by and dash to my car. I knew what he was doing. It was what I wanted him to do. He wanted to make a move, maybe grab me to introduce himself, but he knew, or thought, that it was too soon. There is a rule in this kind of play, hard to articulate, that a man should move slowly. Both should move slowly, but especially him. No grabbing, no urging, just taking it slow: if we were meeting on a dance floor, or outside an alley door, the rules would be different. Sliding gently while the gears engage would be the rule now. He knew how.
“My name is Kiefer. Happy to meet you.”
He touched my hand, a mere feathery touch in symbolic introduction, hardly a hint of his strength. Then he grasped my hand in that loose handshake educated men use when they shake a woman’s hand. I looked him directly in the eye, my own glistening with pleasure, and anticipation, squeezing back more firmly than he had. I let him feel my fingertips brush against his forearm like a secret-telling whisper.
“Mine’s Aletheia. And I don’t put out easily, if that’s all you’re after.”
That was a lie, a white lie I guessed. We walked together towards the parking lot, our hands grazing as they swung. I could tell that Kiefer was thinking, even as he chatted with me, about things to come. He understood that he would have to convince me to take chances and, more than likely, he would have to dislodge me from my friends’ protectiveness and take-it-for-granted distrust. The steps were simple, a straight-forward sequence of moves with few snares: keep talking, ask simple questions, ask more about the things that interest me, suggest some future activity we could do together–a movie, the opera, dinner in North Beach or Chinatown–, learn if I feared motorcycles. (As soon as we reached the parking lot, he pointed to his bike, a bottle-green Kawasaki. I was not surprised that he rode a bike. It suited him.) If I had feared bikes? The courtship game would have become more complicated. Additional moves, a failing relationship, quarrels, possible defeat, would lie ahead. But I didn’t fear bikes. I loved them.
We agreed that I would ride with him into Sausalito where we would have lunch. Kiefer would bring me back later so I could pick up my car. I knew that I could simply meet him in Sausalito, but it sounded much more romantic, which in that moment was what I wanted more than anything else, to make the extra trip with him. He handed me a helmet. As I put it on, I realized that the elegant black woman in the gold bikini would have worn it on the ride out. She must have had friends sitting on the beach, watching and judging, as Kiefer and I walked to the parking lot. It was a forewarning that, if a relationship developed, there always would be family and friends. Entire communities, unsympathetically engaged in close observation and harsh scrutiny, arose instantly before my mind’s-eye. Kiefer took the small road up through Mt. Tamapais Park, riding fast and laying the Kawa over sharply for my benefit. I held on tight, one arm around his waist, the other resting on his left shoulder. He intersected once more with Highway 1 at Tamalpais Valley and we rode on to Sausalito. Near the south end of Bridgeway, Kiefer stopped at Horizons. The confidence with which he rode to Horizons, no hesitations, no consultations, showed that he had been there many times. It might even be a hang-out for him and his friends. Kiefer ordered me crab cakes with a chipolte aioli. To my delight, they came on a bed of corn salsa each wearing a brown zuchetto of aioli. He must already have known what the crab cakes were. He also knew something about me, the kind of spicy food I would like to eat, which surprised me since I felt sure that I had revealed little. Sitting on Horizons’ deck, looking back at the San Francisco coastline, I knew that I was being outplayed. Kiefer already knew more about me than I had believed he could. He hoisted a Fat Tire amber ale and grinned. He even knew that he had won the first set.
But what kind of game had it been? Or was it still? I had given him the opportunity to get close and he had made the most of it. I had accepted his invitation to ride into Sausalito, which had been only what I wanted to do, letting him show off his competence and local knowledge. And suddenly he seemed to know what I wanted, to know more about me than I could guess about him. Our play had begun with openings and edgings-closer, but abruptly it had turned into a game of establishing relationships, of growing intimacy, of making out. I could no longer guess what game Kiefer thought he might be playing. I guessed it would not be a game of permanent relationship. We had played better together than the dogs on Stinson Beach, but now distances stretched before us broader than the feathers of surf had spanned.
When I told him that I was a copy-editor for a newspaper who also moonlighted for an on-line magazine, he became intense. His black eyes glistened. He had already told me that he was a retired lieutenant from the U. S. Navy, a NROTC graduate from the University of Illinois. Could I imagine what an engine room was like? Hot. Steam pipes leaking. Endless oil spills. Computers freezing from every glitch possible. The ocean, from inside an engine room, was as far away as Chicago’s beaches. Now he had stowed his lieutenant’s double bars and was starting over selling and repairing computers. That sounded just right. If I gave up my jobs I would start over in something similar but very different. I had often thought that I would be whiz writing advertising copy, or TV scripts, or maybe press releases for a presidential candidate. I could also guess why his eyes had lit up. He wanted to write stories about the sea. He longed to be out of the engine room and to become a deck officer watching a squall whip over the horizon, whirling closer, making decisions inevitable. Now I was a move ahead. Maybe more.
We sat talking about the U. S. Navy, about Chicago, about Alberta where I grew up. Each place as foreign to the other as mountains to sea. Then Kiefer finished his ale in one huge gulp. And abruptly, not seeking permission, not fearing consequences, he reached over, cupped my head with his right hand, and kissed until he was forced to draw breath. I remember laughing, not even trying to hide my pleasure. Neither of us cared that people might be staring, this black man with the white woman, her long curly black hair flowering behind her in a wild mop. I kissed back after he stopped, a light grazing of his lips, and touched, once again lightly, his arm. His pleasure was vivid.
“I don’t date white women all that much.”
“But now you are.”
“Now I am, so it looks.”
I was a woman who could teach him things he needed to write. He must have known that. An editor with a sense of how words are shaped and fit together, how their rhizomes entangle, grow deeper, link and then wither. But when I read his stories about life at sea, I cringed away in shock. I had caught the echoes of Conrad in the first sentences. I made my feedback harsh.
“You’ve never seen a real pirate, have you Kiefer? Perhaps you have seen a sailing schooner, but you’ve never been on one. I’d bet on that.
“I was imagining what it would be like.”
“Have you ever seen an ‘implacable’ night?”
“I was just trying to imagine.”
Even in his own ears, this must have sounded lame. The difference between the guided-missile destroyers and smaller warships he had sailed on and a schooner was immense, greater than that between Chicago’s surf-less fresh water beaches and Stinson Beach, greater than he could imagine. Don’t imagine, I tried to tell him, or rather, for sure, imagine, but only imagine what you do truly know.
“What do you know, Kiefer?”
“Warships. Military Ports. Oakland. Guam. Maybe container ports. Yokohama. Honolulu, which is both.”
“Then that’s what you have to write. Delete all this pirate stuff.”
The romance of the sea? It was there, as always, as it had been for drowned Phoenician sailors, for Odysseus too, in the shifting colors, in the far horizons, in the kaleidoscopes of place and culture, but difficult for him to know. How to show it? Not, I told him over and over, not by imagining what you do not know. Imagine Yokohama. Just imagine Oakland!
Kiefer tried to write keeping close to home, to what he knew, to what he clearly remembered. He wrote,
Slowly, past endless tight-meshed shacks, the pedicab wound through alleys and half-streets. Twice it cut across a bazaar bustling with people preparing for the next day’s skirmishes. Several times the bright, vertical machines of a pachinko parlor slashed the night. The pedicab threaded unhurriedly through the mazes of light. Caterwauls of reed-pipes pierced the autumn air.
That turned out to be little better than pirates and billowing sails. Noises, I tried to instruct him, come in frequencies and volumes. How could a reed instrument sound like a caterwaul? He wrote about the old woman who led the sailor, some sailor anyway, maybe not Kiefer, to a girl. He wrote about her kimono and her sandals. He wrote about the crowded streets, the small shops, the women in kimonos with piled hair and shy smiles. I was less impressed than he was. Lots of autobiography and a little imagination to begin, I commanded, primly, with professional rectitude. (I couldn’t realize that I was making myself hateful.) Describe actions. Tell what the character is doing, not what he is seeing, or maybe dreaming. Background is dead loss. Keep descriptions minimal. You shouldn’t write, Yokohama had shimmered with the poised expectancy of an unstruck gong. That’s synaesthesia. And engorged. And dead. Keep everything precise. Stay tiny.
When we had been together only a couple of weeks, still wondering, I asked him about the woman in the gold bikini who had been with him on Stinson Beach before we met. Who was she? What had that gesture meant that she had made up the front of her swimming suit?
“She was showing me she was all zippered up, so far as I was concerned.”
“She was making a zipping motion?”
“From the skinny place to the plump, all the way up. I knew then we were finished. Showing me it was zippered was just her way of saying goodbye. Someday you’ll zipper up too, won’t you?”
“No, Kiefer, no sweetheart, I’m not going to zipper up.”
There had been a true story in that moment on Stinson Beach, but Kiefer couldn’t write it. There was passion and loss, rupture and bold directions, the distinctiveness of Hip Hop, the adventures of race, all in a brilliant scene, in a tiny gesture: Kiefer couldn’t find how to breathe life. Still, he did begin to write better. He learned how to show urgency. He created new women: more real, more particular, more conscious. Kiefer began to see that he had never read an author, not London, not Sabatini, not Conrad, not even O’Brien, who could help him write. He had never learned how to write dailiness, what is ordinary and plain, or at least not his own day-by-dayness. But, slowly, I began, or was beginning at least, to like what I saw. His writer’s world remained foreign, different from what he had seen, and older, a work of historical imagination. The pimping woman in his story, desperate to sell her daughter ( “Cherry Girl” was the working title), had no place in his memory.
“How many starving people have you seen in Japan these days?”
“None, I guess. I’ve heard about it from old seamen. Actually, I heard it from the bo’sun’s mate on the U.S.S. Pinckney.”
“Kiefer, it’s history. Maybe it was real experience for him. For you, it’s just empty imagination. And maybe I like it, but it’s still history. Even that damned past tense.”
It was only history. Authenticated in a rigid syntactical form, it was imagined history, its content spectral in emptiness. I touched his hand trying to be empathetic. I could feel his misery. Did he remember those dogs at Stinson Beach? Kiefer recalled them vividly, as he did every other detail of that afternoon.
“Remember how they played their games? Each one had a private game. Remember the Collie’s stick? She just trotted off when she saw she didn’t much care for the surf. Remember? Well, you’ve got to find your own ways to play. Just forget Conrad’s game, however well he played it. You just have to dig deep to find your own game.”
What Kiefer knew seemed to his mind a lot less interesting than what he thought he could imagine. Down deep, where I kept urging him to go, he found only the South Side of Chicago, San Francisco and the engine rooms of Navy ships. Sometimes he could find container ships and modern industrial ports, a long ways from anywhere, a long ways from narrative. He found the women he had known in San Francisco, but not what had drawn him towards them. Then he began to find experiences, close to what had, or might have, happened.
Only three weeks before, on the Hopper’s last stop in San Francisco, Jens had felt supremely self-possessed about sex. He was not much used to prostitutes, but he was confident that he could learn to deal with them. It was, his shipmates made clear, no big deal, just port games. He wouldn’t want to stay aboard and jerk off, would he? Gibson had said, Let’s ride up into the Fillmore and look for whores. Jens had been uncertain about this. Prostitutes in Manila were one thing, but here in San Francisco they seemed unnecessary. Gibson was eager though, and made it seem important. He claimed he knew how to find a walking trick who would lead them to a whore-house. They parked their bikes on Octavia north of Lafayette park, not knowing where to go next. When they finally found a walking trick, he was taciturn and unfriendly, but he agreed to lead them. He wore a floppy green beret. They walked three or four blocks south on Laguna, slowly and without talking, until he halted in front of a ramshackle Victorian. When he held out his hand, Gibson gave him a couple of dollars.
Inside the house, they paid ten dollars each to an old woman who told them to sit in a small, tattered lounge. Then she came back and led Jens down a corridor where all the doors had been removed. Old blankets dangled from strings above the entrances. The woman chose one and herded Jens inside. The room was stark. A blackened sink hung chest-high in one corner. A young woman stood in cheap white panties and bra waiting for him. Jens stopped dead, shocked by what he saw. She had bright red hair with freckles across her breasts, swimming up her arms and neck. Her face was broad, freckled and very pretty. Breath-suckingly, she reminded him of his sister. The aura of Minnesota surrounded her. Memories of his childhood and images of girls he had dated flickered everywhere. Jens could hardly find words, but then he heard Gibson cursing in the corridor. Later when he found Gibson sitting on the saddle of his Electra-Glide waiting, Jens learned that the old woman had pushed Gibson into a room where a graying pro sporting flash tattoos and sagging tits had laboured to seem kittenish.
Jens had no problems with the redheaded whore, though the sense that he was having sex with his sister worried him. She was compliant but not talkative. Persisting, he learned that she was Irish and came from Louisville. He told her he had ridden a bike across Kentucky and seen Lexington, but she dismissed him curtly. She raised her right hand to hush him, and he saw that her fingers were webbed like a water bird. Stop talking and fuck me. After he had done that, he tried to set up a date outside of her working hours. While he talked, she hoisted herself up onto the sink and sat, her legs flopping open, urinating with a loud gushing noise. She had a pimp. She had no time. She also wanted a tip. Jens ponied up happily enough. Five days later, he led Gibson, unwilling and grumbling, back to the decaying Victorian. The Louisville Irish girl had vanished. Maybe, the old woman said when he insisted, maybe she had been moved to Bakersfield. Maybe.
I came to see that I had shown Kiefer how to write better. I could not make him a writer. What did he know about white boys? Who was Jens? Did he know anything about Minnesota? Was the red-haired woman real? I saw no substance in her. Even the webs between her fingers seemed cerebral. The far-off sister was even less real. Immediately that I encountered them, I suspected aspects of Kiefer’s imagination. Garbing themselves in the tentative clothing of narrative, deep fantasies of fire-lipped women struggled upwards to possess reality. Even the Fillmore that he wrote about no longer existed. He had never seen it, never heard jazz at Jimbo’s, never met a Beat poet. Not a chance that he had even seen a walking trick, much less done business with him. What could I do for him after all? I could not make him a writer. Only his own discipline and luck would do that.
We showed each other parts of San Francisco we had never seen, nor ever would without the other along. Hand in hand, we walked the City. Body to body, we rode his bike. Right away, people could always see that we loved each other. Moving ahead together, we came to understand the richness of oblique play. Kiefer learned that I desired to be touched, but softly, quickly. I responded to light gestures: his fingers glided slowly, hovering contemplatively over my body, down my spine. I learned that Kiefer wanted to be admired. He believed that he was owed what his athletic physique, his male beauty, his rich sense of adventure, his desire to leap beyond the South Side, all these and more, had promised him. I learned, with truth and full honesty, to praise them all. I could not make him a writer. His desire to win admiration, justified in so many ways, kept blocking him from his goal.
Then, one day, he couldn’t take it any longer. I had done what he had asked of me, but I had made myself prissy and negative in Kiefer’s eyes. He had desired a game we could play together, a game that subsumed the one we had begun playing, a game to enhance the bare contours of life, but he had called forth a wicked sprite, a restrictive game-master. He saw our life become, against my wishes but because of his own, a frightening godgame. Oh, John Fowles, I cursed to myself, I have become a bookish, unloved magus. I had also become a black man’s image of a white schoolmarm. Sometimes Kiefer would call me ma’am, his sarcasm unconstrained. Suddenly we were like two people who have swum far out into the waves and found an abandoned funboard. They call out to each other, Aweh, Aweh, swimming in close together. When they try to ride the board, it’s too small for them both to stand. Kiefer had not been able to withstand my standing upright on the board we had discovered together.
That day on Stinson Beach, when the Collie offered its stick, she had wanted to play. She shook her head peremptorily from side to side and then, with a powerful neck twist, threw the stick just past the surfing dog’s head. The Collie watched the Retriever intently and barked twice encouragingly. The Retriever turned to consider the stick. After a moment’s reflection, she picked it up and held it for a few seconds. The Collie watched hopefully. Abruptly, the Retriever let the stick fall. She darted back into the surf, but turned to watch the Collie. Then she, too, made three or four sharp, suggestive barks. Aweh. Aweh. Standing right at the edge of the water, trickles of foam edging around her paws, the Collie watched the surfing dog watch her. She rushed out into the water, found herself swamped in the breaking wave and retreated back to the sand. The Retriever seemed to study her for a second or two and then, dismissing the possibilities of a game, dove through a wave into the trough, turning her tail on the bleak world of non-surfers. While the Retriever swam into the next wave, the Collie took one last look and then trotted off down beach, unhindered, unburdened, still holding her bit of drift wood, seeking better chances.
Aletheia Plankiw was born in Calgary, Alberta. She has traveled thoughout the United States, Australia and Latin America. She has taught both English and ESL. She has only just begun trying to publish her writing. “Two Strangers” was published in Word Riot in January, 2009 (along with a podcast). “Right Through Stare,” an essay on gazing, was published in Arts & Opinion in 2008 and reprinted in Exploring Language, an anthology of creative non-fiction.
Aweh is a South African surfing term, pronounced “a-wear”, which may also be heard on beaches in Australia as a term of recognition,greeting and invitation.