Over the summer my mom cleaned out her walk-in closet. I remember standing among the sloppily-stacked, bulging zippered boxes, and for once, I could see through the whole room to the little window on the other side. To my right was a partially disassembled wall of suitcases and archived clothes. It was in this little cranny, behind the cases and shrouded by the dangling clothes, that I loved to hide, back when I had an excuse to be cute and burrow like some animal into a pile of fabric. My eyes and my fingers sweep lazily along the clothes above. Old blazers, outgrown button-ups, graduation gown—fresh addition. At the very end, smushed between my mom's favorite olive-green jacket and the whitewashed wall, is a full body wetsuit. Completely black, thick chest pads, and O'Neill logo across the torso. Narrow, sand-abraded sleeves, and a zipper with a long cloth tail.
Alone I am in this dim closet, so I find myself putting the thick, spongy fabric up to my face and taking a sniff. The smell is faint, and unconsciously, I stretch the black material to let some of it out. The surfer community occasionally comments on the quality of wetsuit material. A good wetsuit should not have much of a smell, and the cheaper wetsuits end up with a skunky odor from improper vulcanization, or as a few members put it, like pot smoke.
The one I'm holding in my hand is not as offensive, but I catch a whiff of the chemical agents used to cure the porous, nitrogen-filled layer of neoprene. For a spasming instant, I am brought back to Newport beach in California. Winter break, 2010. I am wearing a much smaller wetsuit than the one in the closet, blue-accented instead of camo-black. The jutting pier is to my left, and a surfboard to my right, and I'm on my knees, playing with a handful of sand. Richard towers over me, and in his hands he holds a stub of wax. He is a native Hawaiian, with coffee-brown skin and salt-curled hair. I think my mom found him by googling "surf lessons in California" and clicking on "Aloha Surf Instruction."
On the surfboard Richard has drawn a smiley face and two deformed ellipses. That's where I am to put my feet when I stand up on the board. He makes me try it out on the beach first, so I climb onto the tacky, waxy, candy-blue surface of that surfboard and stand with my feet firmly centered in those traces, arms outstretched.
Good. He likes that. We go to the edge of the breaking surf and he puts me on the board, prone, as he drags me out to sea, towing me by the board's upturned nose. The first rolling foam wall smashes into the white underbelly and breaks around my face, and I shiver. The suit is tight and I feel an odd sense of compression-chilling that wraps around my chest and legs as the water soaks in. My teeth are chattering comically as I tell him, "woah that's a big wave!" and to this day I don't know if it was fear, the February seawater, or some convex combination of both. Richard, muscular and terse-worded, mocks me. "Nah, that's a baby wave. A baby wave." And the next wave comes and I repeat the my same nervous chatter and he repeats his dismissal. A baby wave, Max. That's a baby wave. The next wave comes, and we repeat, bouncing our salty, useless phrases like the maniacs in wetsuits that we were.
My memories of those moments dips and dives, like that bobbing blue surfboard and the dark curls of Richard. The next thing I remember is getting thrown off the board by a double wave. The board shoots out from under me and disappears, tugging at my leashed foot. I paddle and claw my way up to the wavering surface, and I see the convulsing, distorting outlines of the palm trees and the barnacled pier. The neoprene is buoyant, but it also restricts my movements and I pause for an imperceptible moment in this underwater haze. And then I realize that my eyes are open underwater. The chlorinated sting of the Fayetteville YMCA belonged only to communal swimming pools, and my eyes are darting, seeing. And then the bubble pops and I realize that I'm underwater and I need to breathe and I burst through the surface. My mom and Richard run to me and ask if I'm ok. I tell them that, yes, I am definitely ok. And I tell them I wanted to do it again.
After the hour of coaching Richard and I sit on the beach, still clad in our dripping suits. He shows me how to dig for clams on the beach. I remember sifting through the sand for piles and piles of color-streaked "bean clams," but he shrugs that off, as if it were another "baby wave." Pointing at a little hole in the sand, he plunges his meaty, gnarly-nailed hand down and emerges immediately with a similarly shaped clam the size of my hand. His son comes along in yet another wetsuit and if I remember correctly, he has homework with him. So, we sit, foreign father, son, and vacationer, watching the waves crash and talking about something I no longer remember. It was in this moment that I catch a smell of myself. The sun warms my artificial skin, and my plump body tests its limits. I emit a strong chemical odor, and it intertwines with the stink of the surf and the sand. This smell, and the crashing memories that came with it, was what I remembered back in the closet in the days after my high school graduation.
But these languorous hours in Southern California were not the only memories that flowed through each sniff and caress of that oddly-textured material. That picture was taken in 2015 after my parents found a surfing coach in Martha's Vineyard, the place that we visited every year for three years before an incident in a bakery upset my mom and we didn't go back. Here, I realized that the saltwater burned less than pool chlorine but still burned all the same. I wiped out again, and this time I slammed my foot down hard on a rock and could not bear weight on it for the next few days.
I thought, too, of dolphin lips and lazy rivers. Buoyed by that faint smell of cured plastic, my memories bound across the Rockies and the Mississippi, to a tourist resort down in Florida. My suit is yellow-accented and company-branded this time, and I hold in my hand a plastic-shelled disposable camera with twenty-or-so clicks. I remember stingrays, tropical fish, snorkels and tempered glass masks. I remember free lemon sorbet and the corpulent Italian couple who trusted us with a handful of gold rings that they shed before the dolphin encounter. I remember that the dolphin's name was Rose, that she lifted her tail up for me, that her snout was cream-colored and firm and a little awkward to hold. We paused for pictures that we'd have to pay for. The couple counted their rings. We admired the pictures in the hotel room.
I don't know where this wetsuit in the closet is from. My mom doesn't even remember. In that closet I tried to put the suit on. I stretched it over my legs and eased it past my waist, and then it caught because I was wearing puffy shorts and a baggy t-shirt. I thought back again to these memories that had shot through, in a Proustian moment, as I smelled this bizarre bodysuit. They were, as many of my memories are, painted by the pure hand of a child, a child that I once used to be. Gone were the pains of existence, the burning of saltwater replaced by the wavering of palm trees, the itchiness of trapped sand replaced by the warmth of the sun. I often find myself wanting to be back in those undulations of puerility. Perhaps I had embarrassingly tried to slip into this wetsuit to do exactly that. But of course, in a moment of canonical irony, it just didn't fit.
With no intention of stripping down to my underwear in my mom's closet, I backed out of the suit and put it back. Perhaps, all of this didn't matter. I looked very stupid in that closet already. These moments will never reappear in the ways I've imagined them. I can't think of surfing now without thinking about fluid dynamics; those fins in the back do some pretty neat things. I can't think of Discovery Cove without thinking about the interesting economics of all-inclusive resorts. I have grown up and moved on, but part of me always glances at the rearview mirror.
But this, after all, is what memories are for.