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American Talibanby Pearl Abraham
Outer Banks (OBX), North Carolina-August 2000
He was Little John at home, Gator John on wheels, John Jude on his birth certificate, Goofy-Foot John, or simply da kine to those in da know. He would also be Knowing John, or that's what he promised his mother. Thus he opened his Tao and read where he left off the day before-
Knowing things makes you smart,
But knowing yourself makes you wise.
To rule others you must be powerful,
To rule yourself you must be strong-
and stopped. He confined himself to one passage a day, one ounce of wisdom, so as to give it time and space, allow it play. Thus he was also Playful John.
So he linked to www.surfcheck.com to see the morning's surf, though swelling and curling and breaking just around the corner were the real waves.
The conditions today based on his digital view: swells that might develop into rideable waves at second tide. Which meant that business on the Outer Banks would be put on hold, lines at local supermarkets and stores would be long and slow, as everyone in checkout and bagging and restocking took the day off to catch and ride a wave. Which also meant lineups in the water so it would be harder to catch one.
In his inbox, seven new messages, from online buddies mostly, continuing chat-room conversations outside the chat room. But it was August 8, his eighteenth birthday, and he and Katie & Co., his offline friends, were driving down to Hatteras to surf. In real time. He'd catch up on reading and virtual life later.
He reached for his baggy board shorts that according to the tall and tan and young and lovely at the surf shop had signs of aloha. She'd pegged him, she said, as a soul surfer as soon as he walked through the door. Crisped dry, along with his other salty shorts and tees, they clung to the clothesline he'd strung NW by SE of his room, an attic space retrofitted with dormers and skylights and portholes for plenty of sky and light and evening stars, as Barbara liked to say when she showed visitors around.
He pulled on a bleached shirt, grabbed his Thinsulate go-everywhere gray hoodie, and also the new Dylan biography he'd started, though it was unfortunately a hardback, which went against his own policy. He usually insisted on paperbacks, because they
a. presented no hard edges
b. slipped into his pocket
c. survived surf and sand as well as or better than the costlier version
d. and passed on without second thought to the next skate rat
Thus equipped, he scraped down the carpeted steps and heard Barbara on the telephone, per usual, since she lived and breathed on the phone. He tuned in to hear her inform the person at the other end that Bill Parish had also just this past weekend met a long-lost relative.
A long-lost relative? John queried short-term memory and recalled that his father had scheduled lunch last week with Great-aunt Lucy, one of the few Parish kin alive, since Bill had had the good fortune to be born into the most unregenerative family on earth. Barbara, John concluded, must be on the phone with someone who had truly met a long-lost relative but, as his dear, mad, competitive, generous, self- absorbed, self-important, loving mother was wont to do, she was busy topping that person's story instead of merely listening to it. If someone broke a leg, Barbaric Barbarella would have broken two legs, and perhaps an arm as well, and if the Washington Post had written about a friend or friend of a friend, then the Washington Post had also interviewed Barbara multiple times and had also misquoted her, or quoted her out of context, she knew exactly how it all worked, nothing was new to her, she couldn't be surprised or impressed by anything. She was Barbara Parish, wife of William Parish, lawyer to the powerful and famous, in other words homo importantus in his professional circles, and she, she herself, was also nothing to sneeze at, a Freudian psychoanalyst invited everywhere, who had her paws in everything Freudian, or at the very least wanted to and tried.
John stopped himself. It was way early in the day to allow his brain to go into petty überdrive; too soon to hand it over to busy Bar-bar- barella's doings. But he'd gotten used to having the house to himself, and now it was the month of August, when Freudian barbarians take their vacations. Fortunately it was also the month for which East Coast surfers train all year, when the first good swells of the hurricane season arrive from the South, which makes for occasional overhead waves and stoke for everyone. He and Katie & Co. were practically living on the beach.
He poked his head into the open-style kitchen-slash-breakfast-slash- family room, noted that busybody Barbara was barefoot and bright in her pink and green shift, her beach uniform, she called it, which came, as did her entire Outer Banks wardrobe, from Life's a Beach: A Lilly Pulitzer Shop, on the boardwalk in nearby Duck. She made a point of stopping there once a week. While Bill relaxed in the pale yellow Adirondack chair at the store's open door and enjoyed the bliss of bay and ocean winds meeting across his sun-warmed face, Barbara would try on the latest arrivals and select another bright shift.
On this day, this early in the morning, Bill was most certainly hiding-meaning, most certainly painting in the nether region of the house, also known as his studio. John Jude waited for Barbara to feel his presence.
Happy birthday, darling.
He stooped to receive her warm lips on his cheek. A dozen of his favorite chocolate chocolate-chip muffins were cooling on the counter, and now she folded four of these ch-ch-chuffins into a cake box to go. She was a primo baker. She thought of such things and Katie & Co. appreciated it. The females in his life were mutual fans. Katie admired Barbara, and Barbara loved her. Barbara, John knew, was pleased he had friends she could meet. Too many of his friends, she worried, were virtual. Even their names, she said, were strangely biblically foreign: Josiah, Naim, Tajh, Ahmed, Jacques, Ibrahim.
People don't always use their real names online, John explained.
Of course, it's a mother's job to worry. She checked her copy of his summer reading list which she'd stuck on the fridge and noted that he was still on the books scheduled for the first two weeks of June: the Tao, the Whitman, Emerson, and Dylan.
At this rate, she said, your summer reading will take all year.
Which meant he wasn't keeping his end of the bargain. She and Bill had unwillingly agreed to let him defer Brown to allow him time to pursue his own interests, scholarship included. But it was summer and his birthday. He would catch up on his reading later.
So he gave her the finger-um, the sign, good-bye, later alligator, meaning he raised a fist, unfolded his pinky, then his thumb, and ducked out and away. Which never failed to amuse her.
Ha-ha-ha, she'd say as soon as she thought he was out of range. Isn't it wonderful that little John, who at near six foot tall is hardly little, feels perfectly comfortable talking to us as he would to his own friends.
John scooped up the Saab keys from the tray on the hallway console. His wax, leash, and sunscreen lived in the backseat. His skateboard leaned in its designated spot beside the front door. Though the plan was for a day of surfing, he went nowhere without his skateboard. He made it a rule not to walk on terra firma. When he wasn't on water, he lived on wheels. He believed in continuous adaptation. The dinosaurs, he liked to tell Barbara, as if she were in danger of becoming one, died because they were too big and too slow. So he stomped on the heel of his skateboard, guided its nose over the threshold, opened the door, bumped down the first two steps, ollied onto the lip of Barbara's concrete planter, and finished with an air that gave him barely enough room for a ninety-degree flip before he landed in the driveway and rolled away. To practice a three-sixty, he needed a higher edge to grind on. If he explained the significance of the ollie to Barbara-that it was named for Alan "Ollie" Gelfand, the young skater who invented it-she would make it her day's project to find and purchase a concrete edge high enough for her son, her John Jude, who was surely as good as all the ollies in the world. She supported all ambition. She was a real-life incarnation of the genie in Aladdin's lamp, and John and Bill had learned to be careful what they wished for.
John popped his board up and guided it into the backseat. Then he went to retrieve his shorty and slipped it through the door at an angle, where it straddled the rear and passenger headrests and perched in perfect position to slice off his head. In the event of a sideswipe, Barbara liked to point out, he would be guillotined by surfboard.
Remember, she'd say, a hero who's alive benefits from his heroics.
There are worse ways to die, John informed her. Think wu-wei. Live as if you're already dead, unafraid. That's freedom, according to the Tao. Also Hegel.
He'd been meaning to read more Hegel if only so he could quote him at Barbara.
So south on 12 from Southern Shores through Kitty Hawk into Kill Devil Hills out of Nags Head on to Whalebone and Bodie Island toward Oregon Inlet toward Rodanthe past Salvo past the residential developments of upper Hatteras, where traffic thins and land narrows, he and the girls drove and drove and drove, and finally water, water left and right, water straight ahead, they were driving toward water, water and sky and water and sky, finally. Spurts of dune grass barely holding on. In the washed-out area at Exe, hit by Hurricane Wye in July, bulldozers rumbled in the sun, building walls of sand, preparing for hurricane season starting in September. On the stereo, a double Dylan CD rather than the usual Bob Marley. The girls were trying to please him. For his birthday. To celebrate his first day, his beginning.
On December 8, 1981, Barbara pulled up to the stoplight at California and Eighteenth Streets and realized she was one month pregnant. So he was born August 8, 1982. So he is eighteen today. So he and Katie & Co. are celebrating. With this trip. With Dylan. Any other day, any other trip, they would have had the other Bob on, wailing Bob- oiyoiyoi-oiyoiyoiyoi-oiyoiyoiyoi-oiyoiyoiyoi-top man for wahines worldwide. John had yet to meet a wahine who agreed to differ. Not that he disliked Marley, but very little reggae soon fulfilled his need for reggae; therefore he was grateful to have Dylan along for the ride-Dylan the prophet. For his senior thesis in World Religion, he'd written on the mystical prophets of the great religions, proposing-not so originally, he now realized-that Emerson and Whitman and Dylan belonged on the same list. In class, they'd read excerpts of the Old and New Testaments, the Qur'an, Joseph Smith's Book of Mormon, as well as creation myths of the Middle East, Africa, and China, and he'd gotten interested in prophecy, which totally bothered Barbara.
Every great cause, she'd quoted, begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.
I agree with you, John said, but that doesn't mean that the original vision was false.
Reading, he'd noticed that the same ideas recur in all mystical systems, in all time, even Barbara's. For example, the importance of love or aloha.
Love, love, love,
love is all you need.
The Beatles, he'd told her, or maybe just Lennon, could maybe also make the list.
The Sufi master Halki called the variations and differences between mystics numberless waves, all from the same sea.
So waves. John watched them, surfed them, and knew each one as unique, but also the same: another wave. So he read more Halki. And Sufism. Muhammed understood his own prophecy as an evolved rather than new truth, he read. Which shows integrity, John thought.
On the radio, Dylan asked whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side.
Did he? John asked the girls.
Was he the one who betrayed Jesus? Sylvie asked.
Yeah, Katie said. With a killer kiss.
They laughed. Well, Jilly drawled. Seeing as the kiss helped him become God, he might feel some gratitude. Wouldn't you agree to die if it meant you could live forever?
No, Katie said. Why should I care what I am after I'm dead, since I'm dead?
They continued toward Hatteras Point, a skinny bar of silence where sky and water meet, blue and blue with only a crayon line of sand between. In the slow sun the wide-angle windshield framed horizontal bands of water, sand, and sky.
This view, John announced, is as slung and slooping as ________, and initiated a road game of similes.
As my long board, Sylvie said.
As long and bleached as beach, Katie said.
As forever as this drive. Jilly sighed. I wish we would just stop. The surf here is looking really fine.
And suddenly, between breath and breath, they saw a perfect wave. John felt the communal gasp, pulled over, and stopped. They jumped out, shaded their eyes.
These were answers to prayers: lazy rolling things, heaving up and over in half time.
They looked at each other. Let's go, John urged.
They unloaded boards, they checked leashes, they slipped out of T- shirts, slipped into rash guards, kissed the crosses at their necks, lifted the boards onto their heads, walked down to the water, and the girls flung themselves in, paddling hard and fast, to the third, then fourth breaker, though from where he stood, John could see that the best waves were farther outside. He remained on the sand watching and counting. These inside waves were rideable, yes, but it would be the outside ones that would offer the real thrills, though riding outside waves in waters you didn't know took courage. Lines of prayer from Whitman came to his lips, his reward for reading:
You sea! . . . Cushion me soft, rock me in billowy drowse.
The girls bobbed in the water, facing the waves, determined to ride. And then Jilly, whose strategy was to ride whatever came her way, popped up. And yes! The wave came, the wave carried her, she stood up to the sea, the tide, the forces of the universe.
She stayed on the lip of the wave, tictacing down the line, avoiding the drop until the end, when it turned over in lazy half time, and she stepped back in slow free fall. John applauded her performance.
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