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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.
Focused on far water, Samantha said, “Winky.”
“I see it.”
The sea rose to the morning sun, dark jade and silver, a great shoulder of water shrugging up and rolling smoothly toward the break.
Ryan smelled brine, smelled the iodine of bleeding seaweed, and tasted salt.
“Epic,” Sam called out, sizing the swell.
“Monster,” he agreed.
Instead of rising into a control position, she left the wave to him, her butt on the board, her feet in the water, bait for sharks. A squadron of gulls streaked landward, shrieking as if to warn those on shore that a behemoth was coming to smash sand castles and swamp picnic hampers.
As the moment of commitment neared, apprehension rose in Ryan, concern that the thrill of the ride might trigger another...episode.
He paddled to catch the wave, got to his feet on the pivot point, arms reaching for balance, fingers spread, palms down, and he caught the break, a perfect peeler that didn’t section on him but instead poured pavement as slick as ice. The moving wave displaced air, and a cool wind rose up the curved wall, pressing against his flattened palms.
Then he was in a tube, a glasshouse, behind the curtain of the breaking wave, shooting the curl, and his apprehension burst like a bubble and was no more.
Using every trick to goose momentum, he emerged from the tube before it collapsed, into the sparkle of sun on water filigreed with foam. The day was so real, so right. He admonished himself, No fear, which was the only way to live.
All morning, into the afternoon, the swells were monoliths. The offshore breeze strengthened, blowing liquid smoke off the lips of the waves.
The beach blanket was not a place to tan. It was for rehab, for massaging the quivers out of overtaxed muscles, for draining sinuses flooded with seawater, for combing bits of kelp and crusted salt out of your hair, for psyching each other into the next session. Usually, Ryan would want to stay until late afternoon, when the offshore breeze died and the waves stopped hollowing out, when the yearning for eternity–which the ocean represented–became a yearning for burritos and tacos.
By two-thirty, however, during a retreat to the blanket, a pleasant weariness, the kind that follows work well done, overcame him. There was something delicious about this fatigue, a sweetness that made him want to close his eyes and let the sun melt him into sleep....
As he was swimming effortlessly in an abyss vaguely illuminated by clouds of luminescent plankton, a voice spoke to him out of the deep: “Ryan?”
“Were you asleep?”
He felt as though he were still asleep when he opened his eyes and saw her face looming over him: beauty of a degree that seemed mythological, radiant eyes the precise shade of a green sea patinaed by the blue of a summer sky, golden hair crowned with a corona of sunlight, goddess on a holiday from Olympus.
“You were asleep,” Samantha said.
“Too much big surf. I’m quashed.”
“You? When have you ever been quashed?”
Sitting up on the blanket, he said, “Had to be a first time.”
“You really want to pack out?”
“I skipped breakfast. We surfed through lunch.”
“There’s chocolate-cherry granola bars in the cooler.”
“Nothing but a slab of beef will revive me.”
They carried the cooler, the blanket, and their boards to the station wagon, stowed everything in back.
Still sodden with sunshine and loose-limbed from being so long in the water, Ryan almost asked Samantha to drive.
More than once, however, she glanced at him speculatively, as if she sensed that his brief nap on the beach blanket was related to the episode at the beginning of the day, when he floated like a mallard in the lineup, his heart exploding. He didn‘t want to worry her.
Besides, there was no reason to worry.
Earlier, he’d had an anxiety attack. But if truth were known, most people probably had them these days, considering the events and the pessimistic predictions that constituted the evening news.
Instead of passing the car keys to Sam, Ryan drove the two blocks to her apartment.
Samantha showered first while Ryan brewed a pitcher of fresh iced tea and sliced two lemons to marinate in it.
Her cozy kitchen had a single large window beyond which stood a massive California pepper tree. The elegant limbs, festooned with weeping fernlike leaves divided into many glossy leaflets, appeared to fill the entire world, creating the illusion that her apartment was a tree house.
The pleasant weariness that had flooded through Ryan on the beach now drained away, and a new vitality welled in him.
He began to think of making love to Samantha. Once the urge arose, it swelled into full-blooded desire.
Hair toweled but damp, she returned to the kitchen, wearing turquoise slacks, a crisp white blouse, and white tennies.
If she had been in the mood, she would have been barefoot, wearing only a silk robe.
For weeks at a time, her libido matched his, and she wanted him frequently. He had noticed that her desire was greater during those periods when she was busiest with her writing and the least inclined to consider his proposal of marriage.
A sudden spell of virtuous restraint was a sign that she was brooding about accepting the engagement ring, as though the prospect of matrimony required that sex be regarded as something too serious, perhaps too sacred, to be indulged in lightly.
Ryan happily accepted each turn toward abstinence when it seemed to indicate that she was on the brink of making a commitment to him. At twenty-eight, she was six years younger than he was, and they had a life of lovemaking ahead.
He poured a glass of iced tea for her, and then he went to take a shower. He started with water nearly as cold as the tea.
In the westering sun, the strawberry trees shed elongated leaf shadows on the flagstone floor of the restaurant patio.
Ryan and Samantha shared a caprese salad and lingered over their first glasses of wine, not in a hurry to order entrees. The smooth peeling bark of the trees was red, especially so in the condensed light of the slowly declining sun.
“Teresa loved the flowers,” Sam said, referring to her sister.
“On these trees. They get panicles of little urn-shaped flowers in the late spring.”
“White and pink,” Ryan remembered.
“Teresa said they look like cascades of tiny bells, wind chimes hung out by fairies.”
Six years previously, Teresa had suffered serious head trauma in a traffic accident. Eventually she had died.
Samantha seldom mentioned her sister. When she spoke of Teresa, she tended to turn inward before much had been said, mummifying her memories in long windings of silence.
Now, as she gazed into the overhanging tree, the expression in her eyes was reminiscent of that look of longing when, straddling her surfboard in the lineup, she studied far water for the first sign of a new set of swells.
Ryan was comfortable with Sam’s occasional silences, which he suspected were always related to thoughts of her sister, even when she had not mentioned Teresa.
They had been identical twins.
To better understand Sam, Ryan had read about twins who had been separated by tragedy. Apparently the survivor’s grief was often mixed with unjustified guilt.
Some said the intense bond between identicals, especially between sisters, could not be broken even by death. A few insisted they still felt the presence of the other, akin to how an amputee often feels sensations in his phantom leg.
Samantha’s contemplative silence gave Ryan an opportunity to study and admire her with a forthrightness that was not possible when she was aware of his stare.
Watching her, he was nailed motionless by admiration, unable to lift his wineglass, or at least disinterested in it, his eyes alone in motion, traveling the contours of her face and the graceful line of her throat.
His life was a pursuit of perfection, of which perhaps the world held none.
Sometimes he imagined that he came close to it when writing lines of code for software. An exquisite digital creation, however, was as cold as a mathematical equation. The most fastidious software architecture was an object of mere precision, not of perfection, for it could not evoke an intense emotional response.
In Samantha Reach, he’d found a beauty so close to perfection that he could convince himself this was his quest fulfilled.
Gazing into the tree but focused on something far beyond the red geometry of those branches, Sam said, “After the accident, she was in a coma for a month. When she came out of it...she wasn’t the same.”
Ryan was kept silent by the smoothness of her skin. This was the first he had heard of Teresa’s coma. Yet the radiance of Sam’s face, in the caress of the late sun, rendered him incapable of comment.
“She still had to be fed through a tube in her stomach.”
The only leaf shadows that touched Samantha’s face were braided across her golden hair and brow, as though she wore the wreath of Nature’s approval.
“The doctors said she was in a permanent vegetative state.”
Her gaze lowered through the branches and fixed on a cruciform of sunlight that, shimmering on the table, was projected by a beam passing through her wineglass.
“I never believed the doctors,” she said. “Teresa was still complete inside her body, trapped but still Teresa. I didn’t want them to take out the feeding tube.”
She raised her eyes to meet his, and he had to make of this a conversation.
“But they took it out anyway?” he asked.
“And starved her to death. They said she wouldn’t feel anything. Supposedly the brain damage assured that she’d have no pain.”
“But you think she suffered.”
“I know she did. During the last day, the last night, I sat with her, holding her hand, and I could feel her looking at me even though she never opened her eyes.”
He did not know what to say to that.
Samantha picked up her glass of wine, causing the cross of light to morph into an arrow that briefly quivered like a compass needle seeking true north in Ryan’s eyes.
“I’ve forgiven my mother for a lot of things, but I’ll never forgive her for what she did to Teresa.”
As Samantha took a sip of wine, Ryan said, “But I thought...your mother was in the same accident.”
“I was under the impression she died in the crash, too. Rebecca.
Was that her name?”
“She is dead. To me. Rebecca’s buried in an apartment in Las Vegas. She walks and talks and breathes, but she’s dead all right.” Samantha’s father had abandoned the family before the twins were two. She had no memory of him.
Feeling that Sam should hold fast to what little family she had, Ryan almost encouraged her to give her mother a chance to earn redemption. But he kept silent on the issue, because Sam had his sympathy and his understanding.
His grandparents and hers–all long dead–were of the generation that defeated Hitler and won the Cold War. Their fortitude and their rectitude had been passed along, if at all, in a diluted form to the next generation.
Ryan’s parents, no less than Sam’s, were of that portion of the post-war generation that rejected the responsibilities of tradition and embraced entitlement. Sometimes it seemed to him that he was the parent, that his mother and father were the children. Regardless of the consequences of their behavior and decisions, they would see no need for redemption. Giving them the chance to earn it would only offend them. Sam’s mother was most likely of that same mind-set.
Samantha put down her glass, but the sun made nothing of it this time.
After a hesitation, as Ryan poured more wine for both of them, he said, “Funny how something as lovely as strawberry-tree flowers can peel the scab off a bad memory.”
“No need to be.”
“Such a nice day. I didn’t mean to bring it down. Are you as ferociously hungry as I am?”
“Bring me the whole steer,” he said.
In fact, they ordered just the filet mignon, no horns or hooves.
As the descending sun set fire to the western sky, strings of miniature white lights came on in the strawberry trees. On all the tables were candles in amber cups of faceted glass, and busboys lit them.
The ordinary patio had become a magical place, and Samantha was the centerpiece of the enchantment.
By the time the waiter served the steaks, Sam had found the lighter mood that had characterized the rest of the day, and Ryan joined her there.
After the first bite of beef, she raised her wineglass in a toast.
“Hey, Dotcom, this one’s to you.”
Dotcom was another nickname that she had for him, used mostly when she wanted to poke fun at his public image as a business genius and tech wizard.
“Why to me?” he asked.
“Today you finally stepped down from the pantheon and revealed that you’re at best a demigod.”
Pretending indignation, he said, “I haven’t done any such thing. I’m still turning the wheel that makes the sun rise in the morning and the moon at night.”
“You used to take the waves until they surrendered and turned mushy. Today you’re beached on a blanket by two-thirty.”
“Did you consider that it might have been boredom, that the swells just weren’t challenging enough for me?”
“I considered it for like two seconds, but you were snoring as if you’d been plenty challenged.”
“I wasn’t sleeping. I was meditating.”
“You and Rip Van Winkle.” After they had assured the attentive waiter that their steaks were excellent, Samantha said, “Seriously, you were okay out there today, weren’t you?”
“I’m thirty-four, Sam. I guess I can’t always thrash the waves like a kid anymore.”
“It’s just–you looked a little gray there.”
He raised a hand to his hair. “Gray where?”
“Your pretty face.”
He grinned. “You think it’s pretty?”
“You can’t keep pulling those thirty-six-hour sessions at the keyboard and then go right out and rip the ocean like you’re the Big Kahuna.”
“I’m not dying, Sam. I’m just aging gracefully.”
He woke in absolute darkness, with the undulant motion of the sea beneath him. Disoriented, he thought for a moment that he was lying faceup on a surfboard, beyond the break, under a sky in which every star had been extinguished.
The hard rapid knocking of his heart alarmed him.
When Ryan felt the surface under him, he realized that it was a bed, not a board. The undulations were not real, merely perceived, a yawing dizziness.
“Sam,” he said, but then remembered that she was not with him, that he was home, alone in his bedroom.
He tried to reach the lamp on the nightstand...but could not lift his arm.
When he tried to sit up, pain bloomed in his chest.