Surf Nomad

by Tamara Adelman

Surf Nomad

I never wanted to be a surfer, let alone date one, but I tried both. Dodd said he preferred surfing over volleyball and joked about having his foreman at work—he was an electrician—ask him what the papers were in the pockets of his tool belt. They weren’t blueprints or building plans. They were surf maps, and though he didn’t like the stereotypes of surfers, he definitely had the attitude. He’d been working for “the man” for too long, and nobody was going to tell him what to do. “My schedule is, I don’t have a schedule,” he said.

I felt like a badass just sitting next to him at the bar and ordered a second drink. He said he’d been told he was too good-looking to be an electrician. He was easy to talk to, and I didn’t mind looking at his profile.

Dodd’s dad, who had been famous but had passed away, had owned the rights to the song “Wipe Out.” His father had been a music producer and had a few bands during the time when surf beat was popular. “My dad always said the Beatles ruined his career,” Dodd said. “Me, I’m a trust-fund baby with the silver spoon ripped out of my mouth.” His father had left most everything to Dodd’s stepmother, whom he hadn’t spoken to since the funeral. Sometimes in surfing, a wipeout is called a “yard sale.” It is a situation where everything is upended.

I’d stayed longer than the forty-five minutes I’d planned on, and I went home thinking my single girlfriends should go out by themselves more often. I’d given Dodd my number when he’d asked. He was ordering another drink when I left.

He called Tuesday and we went back to the Galley, this neighborhood place that had Christmas lights up year-round and a shipwreck theme. This time we had dinner. He reminded me of a fisherman who had a favorite fishing hole. If it worked before, why not go back?

As I got to know him better, I found out that he didn’t like new places: he thought it was too much of a risk if things didn’t go well. That being said, he did try a few places with me, but he spent much of his time in the world of old Santa Monica: eating tacos at Campos, cutting through his old neighborhood on his bike, and avoiding the busy downtown area.

He had been in Santa Cruz for the last twenty years and was back in town visiting his mother, but the whole coast was his home, he said. He had a certain grandiosity about him.

We walked from Main Street to my place, where we split a beer. I later found out that he preferred rum and barely drank beer at all. He liked baseball, and maybe I could come up to San Francisco for a game sometime? He was wearing nice shoes. We kissed and said good night.

He told me later that he spent the night on my street and used the bathroom at the park, since his camper didn’t have one. It was just down from Santa Monica High School, where he’d graduated with Charlie Sheen when Malibu didn’t have a high school. They had both played baseball, but had been on different teams.

“Santa Monica has changed a lot since then,” he said the next time I saw him at the end of the week. We watched the sunset from my place, and we never made it out to dinner but instead went to check on his truck. It was a few blocks away, a older navy Chevy with a white aluminum box attached to the truck bed. It was what people call an “eyesore,” but it was dark, so it didn’t look that bad to me.

He unlocked the door on the back, and I pulled myself up from the step with a handle into what looked like a den. He said it wasn’t “popped up,” so I couldn’t stand. There was a small aisle in between where I sat on thick cushions across from the stove, sink, and refrigerator. “May the four winds blow you home” was burned into a piece of wood above the sink. Towels hung from a line over the door, next to the heater, and all the windows were covered by curtains and blankets from Mexico.

The lights were powered from energy stored in solar panels. He did not believe in generators and could live on twelve volts a day. I later agreed with him, after staying side by side to one in a beachside parking lot: generators were loud and they enabled RV people to stay inside. I preferred the more natural setting of campgrounds, where you had a picnic table, your own yard area with a tree, and neighbors with tents—people who actually wanted to be outside and enjoy the peace and quiet.

After our first official date, Dodd left me a message the next day saying I had awakened something in his soul and that I was a beautiful woman. I hadn’t had a boyfriend in a very long time. There was something about him I really liked, even though my mom said he reminded her of Steve Gordon, a boyfriend she’d had that she had deemed noncommittal. Steve, too, had had a camper that he lived in, mostly on his mother’s lake property on Washington Island, where he’d had a charter fishing service. My mom would call and Steve’s mom would answer the phone.

“Is Steve there?” my mom asked.

“No, he’s not here. He’s out on a charter.”

“Do you have any idea when he might be back?” my mom asked.

“I have no idea.” His mom put the accent on the last two words of the sentence, like he could possibly be somewhere else much vaster than Lake Michigan. We laughed about it every time, but there were times I remembered my mom crying in the driveway or kitchen after Steve went elsewhere.

Dodd invited me to meet him at Malibu RV Park on a Friday. I packed my car. I’d camped as a child on family trips but stayed in hotels as an adult. I’d never stayed in an RV park, and there was something novel about it for me: you used quarters for the showers and the washing machines, which he was already using when I got there. He seemed right at home.

I’d brought my dog and there were some trails that we took him on around there. We walked on the beach on Malibu Road and biked up Corral Canyon. We picked up some fresh tuna from Malibu Seafood and cooked that on the grill at night under the stars. It was the best date I ever had. I was so close to home, but it felt like I was far away. There had been something missing in my life, and this was making up for it.

We decided to head up the coast.

I hadn’t spent much time in Ventura (it was just one county over), but he had and he showed me around the town, restaurants, and surf breaks. All the surf breaks had names given by location, like “C Street,” or “Boneyards” if it was rocky. We stayed at a seaside county park called Faria, where we parked on a “first come, first served” gravel campsite. There were just some boulders between us and the ocean. He surfed and I watched. The Surfliner train went by. What was a destination for us wasn’t even a stop for them. I did some biking and running, like I used to. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t miss the way things used to be and was happy with the way things were.

County and state parks have stay limits and Faria’s was long, like two weeks. And you were supposed to take a week off in between visits. We never reached the limit, but one time we did not stay away long enough, the camp host reminded us. The first time I stayed two nights and the next time I stayed five there, but the away interval was too short. There were pay showers and by now I had gotten my own quarters to use them. They were very hot but had a short spray.

By now I was an expert camp packer. I got an extended dog lead, I had my hat in case the night was cold and my hair was wet, and I had socks—a small but important thing, like having a dry pair of flip-flops at night.

We expanded our journeys to areas like Jalama (rhymes with “pajama”) near Santa Barbara and Point Conception. We drove out to where there was no other road, besides the railroad, just to park.

I became an expert cooler packer. I used dry ice and was able to store meals for the whole week. I didn’t shower because we stayed at a dry campground in Big Sur called Kirk Creek. He said the words “What’s mine is yours” a lot. He gave me a piece of granite from the rugged shoreline. What was a lifestyle for him was camping for me, but he had a lot of confidence in nature, and I liked that. He was sure to steer us clear of poison oak.

It was Washington Island and triathlon packed in one, and I was really happy.

That was Season One. Season Two pretty much took place in my apartment and didn’t go as well. Season Three was a disaster. After that, the series ended.

Dodd had never been married but had been in a long-term relationship with the mother of his now grown daughter. The relationship ended before I met him, but they still hung out on holidays. He made it clear to me that he already had a dependent and wasn’t looking for another one.

“Would you ever let somebody move in with you?” It was just a question Dodd had casually asked the first night I met him. He swears he doesn’t remember asking me that, but he has a bad memory. Because of his housing situation—he owned a house in Santa Cruz that he rented out to a grower—he lived in his camper. He made sure he dressed nicely, but it still bothered him when my neighbor Jimmy, with whom he had entered a sort of parking war on my street, called him a bum. Jimmy was willing to park in the red zone, and I was willing to overlook/accept the camper situation with Dodd because I hoped that one day he would fix up his house in Santa Cruz and we could live there too. It would be a like a storybook, with one acre perched up on a mountain with a deck, hot tub, and grill—a residential camping site and all the things I was missing from my old life when I spent summers on Washington Island with my mom and washed my hair in the lake every day.

When I went to the beach path in Santa Monica with my dog, I used my beach-parking permit. There were others who had the beach parking permits who used them all day, it seemed. I just used mine to play tennis or take a bike ride while my dog ran next to me—usually I was there an hour or so.

There was this one guy who, no matter whether I went early in the morning or in the evening, was always there. He had his van parked near a curbed yardlike area, and he had three little dogs, who barked at us as we went by in the crosswalk. I complained to my therapist that Dodd was always away, and then this other guy—with whom I felt like I was in a little bit of a turf war at the beach, and who dressed neatly and did not look homeless—was bothering me. She said I was projecting my frustration with Dodd. I said I might as well be dating a homeless person.

“People were meant to be nomadic,” Dodd always said. He always stuck up for homeless people, and we had a lot of them in Santa Monica. He was part of a counterculture, one that revisited earlier times, when people were settlers, before land was owned. He said he only owned the house for cover, and he dressed in conservative clothes from Goodwill so he wouldn’t look like a bum. I was a gypsy with him for a short time, but at heart I was a nester.

It was necessary to have him live with me in order to date him. I gave him a set of keys and a street-parking permit. He’d roll into town like a wave, stay with me, and then head out with the changing tide or the new moon. It was like living with a woman and trying to keep track of her changing menstrual cycle with the tide in the morning.

You can’t hold a wave, I told myself. He was hard to toggle off. With him, things depended on the wind and “Maybe” was a real answer. Where a river mouth meets the ocean is called a confluence, and our relationship lacked that. But I understood the relaxation in an activity itself. Some days there would be a lot of time in between waves.

My friends said he was a drifter, a deadbeat, and a coward. I wanted to defend him to them, but I realized they were just sticking up for me. “I don’t want anything from you,” he’d said once we started dating. My divorced friends who lived in the Palisades were worried that he would try to take my condo.

“If he’s living with you for free, then he should pay for all groceries,” they said. Most of them were divorced and very concerned about their settlements. I wasn’t sure about all that, because I had been paying for myself for a long time and he actually wasn’t costing me more money. In a way there seemed there was nothing at stake: We weren’t going to get married. There would be no children.

The tide would tell the truth. He just took off one day, said that me trying to talk to him drove him away. He now said that waves, and not just people, are nomadic, as part of his escape route. It was actually the fastest I’d seen him move, and he was not one to hurry. He drove off and I never heard from him again except for a few texts that said I drove him away. Part of me wanted him to keep driving, and part of me wanted him to come back.

Shorepound refers to what is left when a wave has come and gone: the rocks, debris, holes, and sand. If you are standing at the shore, shorepound can hurt your ankles. What he called his surf rhythm made him inaccessible. I was not a meanderer; I needed a place to be. With him, I’d felt nowhere. I’d grown up with a longing feeling, a wish that things would be different. When he left, I noticed that was gone too.


“One More Shot” by Holly Day