AS I’M DRIVING north from Los Angeles on the Pacific Coast Highway, looking at the pristine sky-and-sea postcard to my left, the mischievous pixie sitting on my right shoulder whispers into my ear: “That ocean is cold, buddy, but you’re diving in, whether you like it or not.”
Well, that was the plan when I came here. I would find the most beautiful beach imaginable in Southern California and there take my baptismal dip into salt water. Because when you’re 41 and you tell people you’ve never actually stepped foot in the ocean, they react as though you’ve just admitted something weird and impossible, like you’re allergic to the color green. “I hear the words you’re saying with your mouth,” their look says to you, “but they don’t square with my understanding of the world. Are you sure you’re not a hermit?”
I’ve grown weary of trying to explain how it is that I’ve never taken a dip in the bounding main. My standard glib excuses -- I’m bipedal for a reason; I’m only on the coasts for business trips; sharks live in oceans, for heaven’s sake -- are, like myself, becoming less cute year by year. It is time to step up and get salty.
Want to sign up for free
e-mail notification of our
So my imaginary bikini-clad Tinkerbell-like companion (substituting for actual courage) and I make the picturesque trek to Malibu, a town I know only through two musical references: the song of the same name by Hole, and the beautiful Shelley West line in “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma” about how from L.A., when the wind blows, “you can see all the way to Malibu.”
Today is just such a day. A proper wind, off the cool water. Puffs of cotton in the sky. Every shore sun-kissed, every couple strolling along it in love. Take every cliché you can imagine and add one more.
Just when I think the view along the Pacific Coast Highway couldn’t improve, I hit Malibu. It’s clear why movie stars live here. It’s as though the weather and the view are custom-ordered. I pass Pepperdine University and make a mental note: Find a reason to apply.
Five miles north, I pull into the Paradise Cove Beach Café. It’s packed inside and out and has a spectacular view of cliffs and a curving pearl-colored beach, which runs northward around a jutting point that disappears into what I imagine is Eden. Soon enough, I think, I will head into the lapping waves. But first, a piña colada!
I sip my cocktail and take in the scene of the cresting waves in front of me, the hot sand between my toes, the dancing shadows cast by the setting sun, the smell of suntan lotion, the flocks of seagulls flying over the …
Wait a minute. Over the setting sun?
Holy cow. It is getting cold.
I down my drink and walk briskly north along the shore. I pass beachgoers in jackets and surfers in wet suits. What was I thinking? It gets cold fast here. I’m shivering already, clad in only a T-shirt, swim trunks, and sandals. Amateur.
The café is soon lost behind me. I climb through beds of slick black rocks to get to that perfect spot. By now, sunlight has snuck behind the mountains and the sky is gray and darkening. There is no one near me. I walk to the water’s edge and let the tide roll over my feet.
Holy sweet majamba! That’s pure hurting coldness!
Who am I kidding? I’m not getting in that water. I’m not a sea lion.
That’s when the pixie circles in front of my face and dog-cusses me.
“You came up here to get in that water. You can never call yourself a man if you don’t get in there right now,” she says.
That does it. Before I realize it, I kick off my sandals and throw off my shirt and splash into the freezing sea. I dive in and swim. The brackish water thumps against me as I stroke as far as I can, dive as deep as I can, and finally come up for air. The tide pulls me back and then turns me around. I feel good, strong, alive.
Then I see how far out I am. I panic like a frightened child and swim as fast as I can back to shore. One dip is enough courage for today, no matter what the pixie says.