“Rifkin’s characters are ruined, desperate creatures, comic and soulful, perpetually in line for a ladle full of redemption.” —Hammer Museum

“Rifkin is what might have happened had Nathanael West lived on and been even more talented . . . . Exquisite.” —Kirkus Reviews

Wave Theory
On the dynamics of sun, surf and incipient sex.
By Alan Rifkin

Somewhere toward the end of our year-long struggle to quiet the rock-star neighbor from the Nymphs (we lost), my then-girlfriend brought home an electronic noisebuster.This was the industrious girlfriend--a clever shopper and a determined person besides. Once, during her sleep, she snapped all the covers over her head and announced (her exact words): “You have to be crafty to pass Spanish One.” She opened the new carton with a gleam.

But the project was only half successful. There were three dial settings on the noisebuster, each a thin wall of static. “Waterfall” was a roar. “Rain” was a hiss. “Ocean”--the setting she chose--was an alternation between the two, impossibly symmetrical, bereft of conviction, like an audition in a foreign tongue (Roar? Hiss? Roar? Hiss?), and it made me want to kill myself. It was a fine simulation of how waves sound, on planets that are shaped like cubes. Sue, for the record, slept like a castaway. She was from Knoxville, Tennessee.

I AM FROM THE SAN FERNANDO VALLEY, and I’m partial to the real rhythm of waves. Just how partial impresses me, because I’m rarely in the water anymore. A couple of things explain the depth of the memory. First, waves are worth remembering, a healing sort of memory. Second, it’s hard to forget the motion of water after being overpowered by it six or eight hours a day, seven days a week, three or four summers running, a level of plain repetition that I think goes to the heart of the healing, though maybe only if you need as much healing as I do.

I remember those summers as a kind of campaign: The water so constant an opponent it invaded your sleep (try holding the bed still after eight hours of bodysurfing). And the evenings were an odd lull, a remission in the progress of a bout. Until finally the ocean displaced everything you could think of that wasn’t the ocean.

Which is not a bad bargain: salty lips/ nappy leg hair as the cost of clearing your head of foolishness. The only other things that have talked sense to me that way since are meditation and very strong sex. But at some level of abandonment the exact method is irrelevant, which is why everyone interchanges metaphors about all three.

My own most intense summers coincided with a presexual view of the world. In 1969, when I was 14, only one guy in our crowd--bowlegged Bobby Weiser, small but imperially tough, tossing car keys to himself barefooted on the oil-spotted garage floor--had a girlfriend. The romance was all of ours, by proxy: They were our royal couple. And Weiser too was inexperienced, though this gave the relationship its air of teenage heroism. Once, Marie’s bathing suit slipped in the crash of a wave, and exposed one sad drenched nipple, and more than an hour later she still had her face in her hands and was leaning against Weiser, who was whispering, “Nobody saw.” I never saw my parents treat each other like that.

It was always the two of them out front, four shoulders under Weiser’s towel, leading us down the bluff on the illegal path, dirtcaked feet kicking pebbles to the highway. Below, the ocean loomed like ill fate--because of our own sense of melodrama, and the fear of battle, and the ritual of the long approach. I liked the buildup. I dreamed fright movies of the unwarm morning air, the fog near the coast, the light, bluer and more grim than Valley light, on the Santa Monica Freeway to PCH.

The cure for all this apprehension, of course, being the ocean itself. And there are many ways to describe the education imparted by waves, but the one that leaps to mind is that they were a big pounding threat at the beginning of the day and a whitewater joke at the end of it, their pratfall and yours together; they left you stupid and reeling, with the low five-o’clock sun blasting the whiteheads, and sea gulls descending, and all of hungry, weak, and buzzed, and the beach empty of anyone older.

Is it redundant to remember the day’s waves as a series? First you had to wait for a set. And swim out to the last wave of the set, which was the biggest. And there were legends about the ninth waves of sets, and bigger legends about ninth waves of ninth sets, all diffracting in an infinity of excuses to stay in the water: Forever you ran at one more wave. The far-off ones seemed to build in slow motion, manufactured behind smaller decoys, haughty and monumentally steep, still adding inches and teeming at the crest and seemingly unreachable across a sudden expanse. And more or less wildly you charged the face, elbows high, scooping water with both hands for traction, finally to be swept upward, swimming hard out in front of the curl, eyes fixed downward to take you through the drop. Rocketing forward then. Scattering small kids in inner tubes.

Recovering, laughing, pulling up trunks in the shallow playground where the backwater crashed like cymbals against baby waves. Trudge back out, hug your own goosebumped arms and wait for the next visitation/mirage.

The object, I think, was humility. And in that department I may have been a specialist: Just as the rest of the gang played at adulthood (with pecking orders and anatomical jokes, loving the transparency of our own posturings), I was, in many ways, a pretender to the group: clearly the shyest and smallest--and so nicknamed, for the entire summer of 1969, “The Instigator.” (A firecracker explodes in a trash can, and a half-dozen fingers point at me.) I didn’t kid myself about being a leader, nor did I mind being awed by tall waves. Or even just good waves. Two days stand out. There was the Perfect Day in Newport Beach that my friend Scott insists cannot be described except by a two-panel cartoon, the first panel showing two guys in a wave, and in the second panel they’ve carved a groove back to their towels, hands still tented an arm’s length before them. And there was this one awful pilgrimage to the Wedge, just the name of which had me all but paralyzed on the trip down, a place where storm tides push against a jetty and form ten- or twenty-foot waves that break in waist-deep water. I pulled out of every single wave before it broke, to my lasting disgrace--a debacle that, in retrospect, segued directly to a different kind of high-school career entirely: one of false courage and cigarettes and beer, and scoffing at the whole world of genuine effort and risk.

THERE WERE MORE SUMMERS at the beach, but none with the strange safety of ‘69. The glow gave way, I now believe, to age, and to a certain sexual materialism that’s never been entirely escapable since. Jeff Rhodes showed up the next summer with a girlfriend of his own, an incomprehensible acquisition: a half-foot taller than he was, and lithe, and with the first ankle bracelet ever. I became a stealthy watcher of a girl in a lace bikini with peach fuzz on the backs of her legs, and I smoked cigarettes instead of finding a way to say hello to somebody who looked so complete without clothes. And I remember consciously deciding in 1970 that if my face were tan enough I would be invulnerable; I rotated my towel with the angle of the sun, and for years after had a self-conscious, front-only tan. That is why today my face looks like a walnut. Weiser went on to UCLA, and pretty soon all of us had summer jobs. Mine was at night, and I tanned in the daytime, wondering if I was having a good summer.

Finally the beach became a thing for me to use, a compartment in a life with other goals. It was a good place to take my wife for dinner, or to dream of owning a house, or to drive by. It was, in other words, a backdrop for human plans, instead of a reminder of what’s real, a reminder of why some plans are worth having while others are unbelievably foolish.

But I still know what the ocean sounds like; I'll never program a noisebuster to turn it into Muzak. And I believe an eight-hour swim could probably heal me. If I let it. The dangers are so different nowadays: that the waves will seem smaller than they used to, and that my life will seem bigger than the ocean. And then I’ll have missed the lesson absolutely.