The sky was cloudless, and the temperature of the water was just right for a long swim. Kevin had left his things on the beach under a tree and planned to swim parallel to the coast line once he’d cut through to the other side of the surf. Alone by himself on this business trip, he enjoyed the freedom of being able to make plans without having to negotiate every minute. He took off in stride, diving into the waves like a professional. Once he had arrived on the other, calmer side something didn’t feel right. He saw himself being pulled sideways.
The danger of side drift is that the swimmer struggles against it without making progress, eventually exhausting himself. Kevin knew this to be true, had read it many times, so he struggled to get back to the place where he wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore. It was a place marked by an imaginary line running out from a pier on the first beach. He swam steadily, almost effortlessly, but the water pulled him back at each stroke. In the end, by aiming for the invisible line, he was making the exact mistake he was trying to avoid. From two incidents in his life, still fresh in his mind – or better, branded into his brain stem firmly, the same way as the ability to ride a bicycle, or clap your hands without having to watch them every time – he knew that if he would die a violent death it would be either in a car accident or from drowning. As a twelve-year old he’d sunk like a stone in a public pool, and was fished out in a great commotion, embarrassed in front of class mates and every potential girl friend. They stood there and giggled, as though gratified by a rare comedy show. Later in his life, driving a car home from a party, he once woke up from a two-second sleep as he was going sixty miles an hour, saved only by the sudden singing of the front wheel on the shoulder of the expressway. The volatility and turbulence of the elements surrounding him at the present moment made a car accident less likely as the cause of death, yet, on the other hand, the absolute clarity of his mind, his ability to see the trajectory of every drop of water and to watch the lateral progress of trees and rocks on the beach of this faraway miniature landscape made it seem implausible that he was in any sort of danger. But even though the idea of danger was positively laughable, his situation did not improve. The progress he had made for a short while had been reversed, and the second flag on the beach, demarcation for the end of the safe area, was rapidly receding in the distance. A second beach, separated by volcanic rocks from the first, was now in sight. With some effort he started to think of the possibility of fear. Fear, he had been told, came with the rapid sinking of confidence. When struck by fear, he knew, he would be worried about the chance his life might not extend beyond a point in the near future. Yet his arms and legs continued to move without fail, and the bit of water he swallowed as the waves broke over his head was not more than a nuisance. He was enthralled by the effect of his motions, each drop of water he stirred up turning into a jewel as it was hit by the sun. The sky was a flawless blue. He dismissed fear as an option, even though there now was a tiny tinge of muscle pain in his left leg. Just then a male voice came from nowhere: “Are you Okaaii?”
The first time he looked around he saw nobody. The accent reminded him of the fact that he was in Australia. Then, as he looked toward the beach, he saw that right beside him there was an angel, or what else could it be? – broad shoulders, blue swimming trunk down to his knees, blond long hair, ethereal steel-blue eyes. For some reason the angel was riding on a board, as if the art of swimming was unknown in the celestial quarters he’d been dispatched from. The board was yellow and worn-out at the edges, and had rope handles on both sides. It looked pedestrian, for lack of a better word, considering the nobility of its cargo.
“Do you want to get on?” the apparition said, just as quiet as seemed appropriate, given the absence of calamity. Kevin, ignoring the faint signals from his leg, was skeptical. The offer of a ride, coming from an angel, might come with strings attached. Also, the fact that the blue-eyed man, despite his mythical ability to fly, apparently couldn’t even swim might pose a risk – there was a good chance they might both go down together.
“Is this some kind of deal with my soul?” Kevin asked, gulping since water came rushing into his skeptical half-open mouth. The angel smiled broadly.
“It would be a donation anyway,” he said. “The soul is just another organ. You can give later, when you feel like it. First things first.”
And so it came to pass that Kevin gave little resistance as two super-strong arms grabbed him and pulled him onto the yellow board so he lay flat on his belly like the wimp he’d never wanted to be. Luckily the potential girl friends, now all grown up, were thousands of miles away this time around. His arms trailing on both sides in the water – well-proportioned bait for sharks – he looked with cool, detached interest at the living people, little matchsticks on the distant beach he would soon join. He felt tired beyond human tiredness.
“What is your name?” he managed to ask his benefactor.
“Jonathan. Jonathan Excelsior,” the blond man said. “Just call me Ex.”
“Ex, you have been really nice to me. I hope I can repay you some time.”
“Well, you do know the currency,” his friend laughed with his perfect mouth and steel-blue eyes as he paddled on, toward the beach of the living.
Once on firm ground, Jonathan walked to a cabin that was on the edge of the beach, Kevin with wobbly knees in tow. Jonathan walked with a limp Kevin thought he had not noticed before, but then he reminded himself that he’d never seen him walking anywhere. The shiny object dangling from a chain around Jonathan’s neck, which Kevin had mistaken for a crucifix, turned out to be the key to the padlock for the cabin door. A sign on the door had the imprimatur of the Park Service of Queensland. He opened the padlock, giving his companion an important look.
“You want to come in, mate?” he said, pushing the door open. He stashed his board in the little windowless room, which was crowded with a jumble of furniture. In the sharp trapezoid of light led in by the half-opened door, Kevin recognized a torn lawn chair, an emergency flag, two umbrellas, an upright mattress, a three-legged table, and a rusty box marked as a first-aid kit. Some of the pieces were connected with spider webs. Kevin took a few steps to go inside, following his guide, but there was little room. Jonathan, in front of him, stepped out of his swimming trunks and dried his over-proportioned organ, blue from the cold, with a beach towel. He retrieved his change of clothes from one of the lawn chairs – underwear, jeans, shirt, and sneakers. The jeans were split open at his knees.
“Where’s your stuff, mate?” he asked.
“Way down, two beaches down from here. I’ll be OK – I’ll walk barefoot,” Kevin stammered, his jaw shivering. Jonathan gave him the beach towel to wear. It was only slightly wet, right in the middle.
“Barefoot, huh? You won’t make it, mate,” Jonathan said. “There is volcanic rock on the way, sharp as needles. We need to get you some boots.” He went back into the cabin, rummaged for a few minutes, then came back triumphantly with a pair of Wellingtons.
“You must be kidding,” Kevin said. He imagined himself in his bathing suit, with spindly legs stuck into these yellow monsters. “There is no way.”
“Sorry, there is no choice, mate. This is not exactly a fashion show.”
So Kevin followed his new acquaintance, stork-like, over the black rocks that formed a tongue stretching into the brisk lapping-up water of the ocean, to the family beach where three-year olds chased beach balls they barely matched in size. From there it wasn’t far to the very beach where his journey had started – it seemed years ago. Relieved, he took his Wellingtons off and reclaimed his towel, sandals and bits of clothing from under the Eucalyptus tree.
“Well, Ex” Kevin said, “I guess I’m back together.”
“This business with Ex? That was just a joke! How about getting a drink?” Jonathan said. “There is a bar in this Regency Hotel, not far from here.” It was a place, if he was to be believed, of milk and honey. It was a place, Jonathan said, where young pretty chicks were “firmly trembling to get laid.”
The hotel bar was just getting into swing; it was the time of the day where shadows stretch and deepen, getting ready without a murmur to be absorbed into the oblivion of night. Projections on the large makeshift screen, still pale as the dusk approached, showed superhuman surfers triumph over waves that were rolling mountains of water.
“To be honest, I’m a little low on clams,” Jonathan said after sitting down. Kevin, who had claimed a barstool next to him, stared at him, startled.
“I don’t have any potaitoes with me, if you know what I mean,” Jonathan said.
“Jesus Christ! Money, cash, I mean – is that so hard?”
Kevin weighed the fact that he was alive, and found it worth paying a few drinks for his “mate.”
The evening became long and confused. Jonathan introduced him to a brunette girl, Alice, who he said was a good friend. Alice disputed this outright but apparently wasn’t averse to joining them at the table. She turned out to be quite sweet. Later, after quite a few beers, Jonathan excused himself, his voice a slur.
“I better hit the sack, mate” he said. “And you better take better care of yourself. The water was bloody wet today, it doesn’t get any wetter.” Then he turned to Alice and said to her, “I did it for you, remember that!” With this he walked unsteadily, his limp more pronounced, in the direction of the little cabin on the beach where he’d stripped just hours before.
When they were alone, Kevin told her the story of the rescue earlier that day. She listened with interest, apparently unfazed by Jonathan’s departure, and the new situation she found herself in.
“He does these things,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“What things?” Kevin asked, nonplussed.
“He finds these stranded people all the time. He’s drawn to them, it seems.”
“Does he work for the Government?”
“Not that I know of.”
A surfer on the large screen – now fully lit against the night sky – was riding out the most powerful wave Kevin had seen in his lifetime. For a moment, both watched in silence as the Űbermensch subjugated this piece of the ocean and reprogrammed it for his own pleasure. Kevin, who’d seen much water already earlier that day -- water he had failed to control -- took a long sip from his beer.
“What does he mean, though, ‘I did it for you’?” he asked.
“He says things, I suppose.”
“Just wondering,” he said. And he turned to her and examined her face closely, as if he’d been given a task that could not wait any longer. It seemed to him that the way to find her had been unnecessarily complicated and hazardous, but he felt it was not his place, especially now, to quarrel with his fate.