Im Not Laughing Yet

Illustration by Bob AulI was surfing Salt Creek one hot afternoon, a few rip currents churning up the shallow sandbars. The lifeguards had been on the bullhorn warning swimmers about rip currents, but they hadn't pulled anyone in yet. Then a young guy got caught in the rip. I watched as the current sucked him out rapidly. His friends managed to get to shore, and one began shouting to his struggling friend. The swimmer hadn't yelled for help, so I thought he was okay. Plus, there's nothing more awkward than rushing over to save a guy who's actually got a handle on things. But then he screamed, "Help! I'm drowning!" I scanned the beach for lifeguards, but they'd driven away; their tower was vacant. Of all the surfers, I was closest, so I paddled over. "Hold on!" I yelled. "I'm going to give you my board! Just hold on!" The current pulled him under about every five seconds as it carried him farther out. He was swallowing water. I didn't want to get too close because he was panicking and might take us both down. I stopped about 10 feet away and shoved my board toward him. It glided and stalled within arm's reach. But he was still going under, and I realized he couldn't keep his eyes open, let alone swim two feet to my board. "I'm drowning," he said slowly. It was eerie, more a statement of fact than a cry for help. His eyes glazed with saltwater and exhaustion. His mouth hung open. I swam in and pushed my board beneath his frame. He put a hand on it and slowly scrambled on diagonally, nearly hyperventilating. I told him to straighten himself on the board and concentrate on his breath; with the building swell, we could've been dealing with just the first half of our problem. He was blasting out a series of weird, echoing belches, water spouting out at each conclusion. "You're okay now," I said. "Take deep breaths." I tried to sound confident, but I noticed a set swinging toward us. Strengthening my grip on the board, I barely kicked us over onto the shoulder of the first one, just dodging the lip as it exploded into whitewater. Three more followed before a lull gave us the chance to breathe. He shook uncontrollably. I told him I was going to push him in on the next wave. He looked at me with terror. "Just hold on to the nose of the board, and keep your head up," I told him as he nodded weakly. With an eye on the shoulder-high wave lumping up in the near distance, I grabbed the board with one hand and started kicking us hard toward shore. The wave rose. I used my free arm to paddle him into it and gave him a strong, final shove as the wave picked him up and drove him toward shore. The wave thickened—and flipped him into the flats. He quickly jumped to his feet and sprinted toward dry sand. His friends ran up and circled him. Then you and a colleague arrived, Mr. Lifeguard, two middle-aged white guys. You hurried over and started checking him out as he panted. You, the one with the dark mustache and black sunglasses, said to me, "Hey, man, thank you very much. Really. Thanks." It seemed you genuinely meant it. The guys were walking away, and the one I'd saved turned to wave at me. "Thank you!" he called out to me. Then he turned and caught up to his friends. Covering the side of your mouth with your hand, you said conspiratorially, "Maybe he can teach you how to play basketball next time." Exhausted, I couldn't make sense of the comment. "Sure," I said, and I walked off, baffled. Only at the showers did I realize that you had us both figured for stereotypes: he was the basketball-playing African-American, and I was just another rich, racist, white surfer from OC who'd get a laugh out of your cheap joke.

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