CARDIFF-BY-THE-SEA is one of Southern California’s best-kept secrets. It may disappear in the shadow of the better-known Welsh city for which it’s named, lose itself in the bend of an unremarkable of stretch of coastal highway, but die-hard surfers aren’t fooled by such obscurity.
They’re kind of like birds that way—if you pay close enough attention, the dude with the shortboard beneath his arm can give you the inside track on what kind of weather to expect over the next few days and when to get the hell out of Dodge, or even if there’s an ear infection going around due to some funky lagoon water. Modern-day medicine people, they are. I like to think those old-school surfer dudes knew exactly the treasure they had on their hands when surfing first became a scene out here in California; they anticipated the millions of people who would make the pilgrimage to the West Coast month after month, year after year, to experience what native Californians grow up knowing in their bones. Cardiff is far from the exception.
Although winter is Cardiff’s best season, these beaches bring out surfers in droves pretty much year-round, from total beginners to world-renowned athletes, all of them for a taste of some of the best wave action in Cali. Even Rob Machado, one of the most gifted damn surfers going, lives less than a block away from the ocean. On weekends things can get insane, though: just try to find a parking spot somewhere. I suppose that doesn’t make it sound like the secret is that well-kept after all, but during weekdays it’s quiet as can be. That’s when the magic happens, when people turn into converts.
I would know—it happened to me.
Humankind has been attempting to rationalize and explain the draw of the ocean for thousands of years. Millions, maybe. Have we ever really succeeded? Perhaps the only reason no one attempted to capture the beauty of the sun-sparkling sea in the caves of Lascaux is because its beauty could never quite be adequately rendered, like an arabesque pattern conceding its imperfections to a far more transcendent and unknowable God.
Personally, I think water fascinates us because the waves make us untouchable. On land it’s hard to run away so no one can find you, but that’s not the case in open water, where there are no boundaries and no rules. Where surfers are concerned, as long as you don’t purposely endanger another person, you’re not accountable to anyone else; the only life you’re responsible for is your own. With that freedom comes the realization that “safety” is very relative, and by no means a guarantee out here. But I suppose that’s why, when I needed to get away from Phelan Price and my brother Nate, my first thought was to grab my board and hit the surf, to keep paddling until I could see neither hide nor hair of land or my brother’s ridiculously fucked-up life. I knew no one would follow.
The late-autumn waves are fierce, with coastal winds whipping the water into a frenzy of chilly foam and salt spray. I struggle to remain seated on my board even without paddling farther out to sea, and every so often a swell approaches and threatens to engulf me whole. When faced with a wall of water rushing toward you, there are only two choices: Go over or under. Swim for your life or drift back to shore. I’m not quite ready to go back to land yet, so instead I dive beneath each wave as it comes, a stubborn refusal that leaves me shivering and winded. The moment of being suspended beneath all that power is breathless and meditative, the seconds ticking away into infinity as the water deafens your senses and every muscle strains to keep you submerged, weightless, until reality reasserts itself and you’re thrown back to the surface with a gasp. I can lose myself in that for now. The concentration required to keep me from being swept away by the waves is almost enough to make me forget the disaster that’s been brought to my shores, but not quite.
How did things get so complicated?
Before moving to Cardiff, I wasn’t much of a surfer. Not much of an athlete, actually, beyond putting in my time at the gym and going for regular runs. I tried it once in Australia on a book tour, despite Nate’s warnings that a man of my size has no place on a surfboard; I got talked into taking a few lessons by my publicist, Caroline. Good photo op, yadda yadda, and apparently it’s hard to beat Gnaraloo for waves in July. At first I had my doubts they’d be able to find a board big enough for me—they breed us hearty in Alabama—but Caroline pulled it off somehow. She always does. True to Nate’s word, though, I almost died. For a while I thought my foray into marine sports would be short, as much for my own safety as to prevent more awkward tabloid stories about Hugh Dorian embarrassing himself in a wetsuit. I had enough I-told-you-so material to last me at least two decades into my professional relationship with Caroline, if we didn’t kill each other before then.
That’s why Cardiff kind of took me by surprise. My girlfriend, Nell—I don’t even know if that’s still the right term, since the relationship never technically ended, but “former girlfriend” doesn’t sound right either—was from there, and we visited her family a few times while we were dating. Only a few times, though, since it isn’t exactly close to where we lived in Berkeley. The plan was to visit more often after college, once we settled into our house in Los Angeles and I got my first book deal, but then the shooting happened, and all that stuff, along with Nell’s life, got cut short. Suddenly my only reason to visit Cardiff was the funeral.
I didn’t think much about anything beyond what to say and how to act like a normal person until I found myself wandering the town’s beaches and sleepy coastal streets and realizing, hey, life here wouldn’t be so bad. Quiet. Relaxed. Just how I like it. I’ve never been one for the crowds, not like Nate. It’s probably really cheesy to pick a town based on its proximity to your dead girlfriend’s gravesite, but it wouldn’t be the first time someone accused me of being a sap.
Besides, that was only part of it. In the bigger cities, enough people recognized me from my book jacket photos, and after Nell’s funeral I started playing with the idea of moving someplace secluded to get away from it all, to avoid the tabloids and the showbiz types and do what I supposedly get paid for: write. I also really, really needed to get away from the celebrity scene, which was turning out to be dangerous in more ways than one. I had to distance myself from the deceptive glitter of Hollywood and the person I found I had the capacity to become when escapism turned ugly. Cardiff proved to be that place.
Because I’m not afraid to admit I’m a geek, I can tell you that Cardiff Reef is the cause of such awesome waves. It extends for about a quarter mile south down the coast, over flat, grass-covered rock that becomes exposed when the tide goes out, allowing the daring and curious a chance to wander out and explore all the marine life normally hidden beneath the water. A biologist’s dream. Where surfing is concerned, the wave off the reef is usually described as being a little slow, not ideal except for its low tides and the huge swells that move in during the winter season. There’s a peak at the southernmost point that, whether or not you’re prepared for it, is one badass tube regardless of skill or experience. North of the reef is what’s known locally as the Suckouts, swells that can challenge the most seasoned surfer with quick drops and low water levels as the waves empty into the channel. It’s no coincidence any surfer worth his salt cuts his teeth here in Cardiff.
Caroline had her doubts about my moving here, probably because she worried about not being able to keep an eye on me, but for the most part I haven’t had any trouble. For an author, the ratio of rabid fans to people who don’t give a shit is pretty low, and in Cardiff it’s almost zilch. At first there was some excitement to have a best-selling author in the neighborhood, especially one with a troubled history like mine, but after threatening a couple of lawsuits, Caroline was mostly able to keep me out of the local papers. Not to mention I’m usually too boring to warrant much attention. With Rob nearby and a couple of other famous musicians and actors who call Cardiff home, I quickly faded into the fabric of everyday life. Hugh Dorian—though around here I go by my real name, Hugh Fessenden—is just another guy with an inflated salary and too much free time on his hands.
Even after Nell’s parents eventually moved away, haunted by memories of her childhood, I was welcomed into the community with open arms, if maybe a few more sympathetic looks than I normally like. Pretty much everyone who grew up here knows about Nell and mourns that someone so kind and well liked should have lost her life to a mugging gone horribly awry. I took up surfing because there wasn’t much else to do, and it’s a nice way to break up the monotony of my day when I’m not out promoting a new book or struggling to justify the recent publisher’s advance. Luckily I embarrass myself a lot less out there on the waves than I used to. Some might even call me proficient.
I wish I could say being a well-known author has made for an active social life and lots of friends, but that isn’t really the case. For one reason or another, I keep to myself. Privacy is a hard thing to come by in a small town, and I’d hate to make the mistake of divulging too much of my life to the wrong person. Writers, even the famous ones, don’t have it as bad as the Brads and Angelinas of the world, but we still see our fair share of public interest. That I’m under thirty and, I suppose, passably attractive seems to make me a natural target for gossip, especially since some of my stuff got optioned for film adaptations.
While I can’t say it’s something I ever really worry about, there have been a few incidents to make me think twice about who I let into the inner circle. I often used to wish Nate lived closer than Ohio, but his own family was a full-time job, especially since Emilia opened her dance studio and Liam started middle school. My mom died when we were little and my dad a couple of years ago from a heart attack, so for the most part I lie low and have fewer than five people on speed dial. I talk to Nate all the time, but brothers don’t count; he just harasses me about being a bore, anyway. “How’s the free booze and groupies this week? Or did you spend another Saturday beating off to Internet porn by yourself?” is his usual refrain when he calls.
Like I said, no one I really hang out with on a regular basis.
Except, that is, for Phel.
WHAT is there to tell about Phelan? Way too much and not enough. He’s both the most unremarkable and the most interesting guy I’ve ever met. To this day, I have no idea how the hell he wound up in a place like Cardiff—although how does anyone end up here? His story probably isn’t all that different from mine. Then again, he could have escaped from a circus for all I know, or fallen from the sky.
I met him on the beach a couple of months ago while on a morning walk with my dog, Callie. He was having some trouble. Beginners take to the surf all the time around here, and normally I don’t think anything of it, but Phel stood out a bit more than the rest, wrestling with his wetsuit like it was a live animal and not a piece of neoprene. It being late July, there were a few kids gathered together for lessons, their small bodies zippering easily into the suits before they grabbed their bodyboards and paddled into the surf after their instructor. Certainly there was no rocket science involved, but this poor schmuck couldn’t seem to figure out which end of his suit was up—not what you’d call an experienced surfer.
I probably would have continued on my way if Callie hadn’t sprinted away from me in her excitement to catch a slow-moving target. Phel looked up when he found himself under the investigation of seventy pounds of Australian shepherd.
“Uh… hey,” he greeted me awkwardly, and his nose wrinkled in the universal sign for people who like dogs a lot more in theory than in practice. “Can I… help you?”
The incongruousness of the question made me snort. I decided to rescue him before Callie could get any more friendly, and she whuffed happily as I approached over the sand. “Get back here,” I told her with mock sternness, and she played her little game of running back and forth across the beach between us, inviting one of us to chase her around.
Phel wasn’t having any of it. “Is this an off-leash area?” he asked peevishly when I got close enough. “I didn’t think dogs were allowed to just….” With a look of frustration for the wetsuit, he threw it down on the sand with a lame slap.
“What, judge people’s surfing ability?” I asked. The sun was glaring kind of awkwardly from behind Phel’s head, and I had to shield a hand over my eyes just to make out a vague impression of his facial expression. From what I could tell, he looked a combination of embarrassed and exasperated. That’s Phel down to a T—always too much going on below the surface to get a proper read on the guy. “Don’t think many people care round here,” I pointed out, “and Callie won’t give you half as much trouble as that wetsuit.” This earned me a glare, and a little spark of humor made me add, “By the way, it goes ass-side down.”
“And you’re the expert?” snapped Phel. I shrugged. The gesture drew another grunt of frustration from him, then Phel motioned at the discarded pile. “I just… I’ve been cooped up for days, and supposedly surfing is the one good thing to do around here. So far it’s a disaster.”
“Have you surfed before?” I asked neutrally. We both knew I’d already guessed the answer.
In all fairness, Phel called me on it. “What does it look like?”
“Touché.” I stooped, half to put the guy out of his misery and half to save him from further embarrassment, then grabbed his wetsuit off the ground and stretched and untangled the neoprene until I held out a neat person-sized article in front of me. “You should get yourself an instructor if this is your first time,” I suggested. “Waves can get pretty intense out there if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
“I know even less about where to go for that kind of thing,” he answered. “I borrowed the board from… some friends I’m staying with.” There was no denying the emphasis on the word “friends” was weird, but I tried not to comment since it would only make him more uncomfortable. Say what you want about writers, but we’re pretty good at psychoanalyzing on the spot. I didn’t need a psych degree to know Phel was lying to my face about something he didn’t want to talk about. However, the fact that I had one didn’t hurt. He was definitely lying about something.
“That’s cool, man,” I said. Before I could think twice about the impulsiveness of the gesture, given my tendency to avoid people, I extended my hand. “I’m Hugh.”
Though Phel responded with a proper handshake, something seemed to dawn on him after he spent a couple of moments looking at my face with a puzzled expression. Two guesses what that was. “Hugh Dorian,” he said slowly. “I thought you looked kind of familiar, but I’m not great with faces. Plus it’s entirely possible I’m just going crazy.” His mouth snapped shut at this. Hesitantly, he added, “You are Hugh Dorian, right? The writer?”
Next time I’d ask for a smaller jacket photo or, fuck, a composite sketch that didn’t quite get my nose right. “Got it in one,” I told him instead, trying not to sound bent out of shape. “Here I thought I was undercover.” Please don’t ask me for a fuckin’ autograph, I thought.
Now that he’d stepped closer and correctly guessed my identity, I was able to get a much clearer look at Phel’s face. He was pretty handsome, I had to admit: scruffy and wild-haired in a rakish way, full lips that probably made a lot of women jealous, huge blue eyes. Not surprisingly, he was shorter than me by a few inches, compact but for his broad shoulders and strong legs. Despite the gruffness of his voice, he was actually pretty young—early thirties was my guess, around Nate’s age.
The difference was that Phel looked tired, more tired than I could remember having seen a person look, the exception being myself in the mirror the night Nell died. It made me wonder what stories lay behind the shadows under Phel’s eyes, and to be honest, I still wonder. But that day we were just getting our introductions out of the way, and it wouldn’t be another few weeks until I worked up the nerve to ask why he was the most miserable guy in San Diego County.
“Sorry for spoiling your anonymity,” he apologized. “For what it’s worth, you don’t look a whole lot like your jacket photo—it makes you look short, for one thing, and kind of smug.” At this, I blinked, and Phelan immediately backpedaled. “But you don’t look short or smug here, I mean. You’re tall and kind of stun—”
“Can I stop you right there?” I interrupted. This was getting ridiculous. The guy spoke like he’d gone to finishing school at Eton but had less tact than Howard Stern. “I think I get the idea.” A regretful look crossed Phel’s face. Nevertheless, I was glad when he didn’t try to apologize again. Instead I surprised us both by asking, “How would you feel about me teaching you how to surf? I wouldn’t charge anything, and I’d sleep a lot better at night knowing you won’t die a watery death on my watch.”
“I can pay in beer,” said Phel, and that, as they say, was that.
That first meeting was a little awkward, plagued as it was by Phelan’s enigmatic qualities and tendency to talk about his past life like it’d all happened to someone else, but we’ve been hanging out every day since then, having graduated from early-morning surf lessons to the kind of stuff regular friends do, or at least insofar as I’ve ever had a regular friend. You know: coffee, football games, movies, beer. We also run together a lot, and the first time I saw his fast, steady gait on the beach as he plowed ahead of me despite my much longer strides, I knew how he got those leg muscles. Phel’s kind of a natural athlete, even though he knows nothing about real-people sports like basketball or football, and tons about weird shit like fencing and cricket and polo—and baseball, for some reason, though he dodged the question when I inquired about the source of his info. His knowledge of the Texas Rangers would have made Nate proud. He’s even come around to tolerating Callie’s high-energy canine demands, after enough of her persistent affection.
While there’s no denying he’s still the weirdest person I know, at least I understand a few more of the reasons behind that. The purpose of Phelan’s visit to Cardiff is so he can rest up and pull himself together before he figures out what he wants to do next with his life—I guess the less polite way to put it is that the dude had a nervous breakdown and retired to Cardiff to recoup.
I’ve tried to get more of the story out of him, but the most he’ll give me is he made a mistake with the wrong person and had the misfortune of getting caught. There’s nothing to suggest he knows what even happened to the other guy, but from the sounds of it, that doesn’t matter; Phel’s family disowned him either way, being the staunch religious types that don’t much care for gay love affairs. Phel has never used that word—love—but I can tell by the look he gets when he talks about the man in question that there’re still some feelings there, stuff that won’t be cured by a few weeks of R & R. I feel bad for him, but that isn’t why we’re friends. More than anything, I think we understand our mutual need for privacy and a reliable person to have your back.
After all, those things aren’t exactly easy to come by, not even in sunny Cardiff-by-the-Sea. I just wish we’d known enough to appreciate them before they got swept away with the tide.
MY DAYS at the Palermo Springs Centre for Addiction and Mental Health all start the same: I wake up around seven, shower, go to yoga, shower, have an uninspiring breakfast of fresh fruit and oatmeal, dress to meet Hugh at the beach for a few hours before lunch, shower, then go to my afternoon session with Willa, my counselor. Evenings I have to myself. For the record, I don’t have OCD—it’s just necessary to bathe several times a day to keep from smelling pervasively like seawater or sweat in this climate. Growing up, I split my time between the East Coast and the Midwest, so with the exception of New York in August, I’m not exactly built for these kinds of temperatures. No one wants to be the sweaty guy in group therapy, not with all that hugging.
Hugh is fond of mocking the predictability of my days, but Willa says routine can be grounding in times of chaos. There’s not much chaos in my life—more like a void—but if a routine can feel like a tranquil island in stormy seas (Willa’s words, not mine), I don’t see why it can’t serve the same purpose if the water around you is totally becalmed and empty. Besides, I kind of like yoga and having nothing else to do each day besides surf and hang out with Hugh and think about why I’m here. I don’t just mean here in the philosophical sense, though that’s part of it. Mostly I mean this slip of a town called Cardiff-by-the-Sea.
I came to Palermo on the recommendation of my sister, Aurelia. Turns out she spent some time here while I was away at college, when her drinking got just a little too out of control. Our parents thought she went to Bali for a month, when really they were the reason she needed rehab in the first place. Not hard to see how that could happen, since dealing with our mother and father can be intense on a good day, but I’m the first to report that not dealing with them isn’t necessarily better. We all hate our families until they’re gone, or they ask us not to come back, and suddenly we realize why Donne went on about how no man is an island. Woe betide the poor asshole who discovers he is an island after all. Which is to say, I’m that asshole.
It took being disowned at thirty-two to realize how little I had going for me besides my family and my job. The other incident I don’t like to talk about, the one that put me here, was a rash and ill-advised way to break out of my dull existence in the Midwest. Gay love affairs, especially poorly planned ones with married men, never go over well when your family is oppressively Catholic. Turns out there’s a reason I’ve never been known as “the spontaneous one,” because all spontaneity had to offer was a broken heart, some frozen bank accounts, and a big fat nothing in place of the life I used to have. Probably not even Nate—that’s his name, the asshole—would take my calls anymore, were I to actually pick up the phone and dial.
Willa tells me I don’t show enough appreciation for the little things, like the fact that I’m alive and healthy and in full control of my mental faculties, but as much as I like the woman, sometimes I think Willa is full of shit. She has a family, and a gorgeous one at that—I’ve seen her husband at the pool enough times. Rumor has it she had an Oxy addiction before becoming a counselor, but now she’s all about the Zen and the Eat, Pray, Love. Elizabeth Gilbert she’s not.
But I’m not bitter, honest. I’m getting better.
However morbid this might sound, I wish I’d come to Palermo with a substance abuse problem—at least I would have stood the risk of having a little fun beforehand, or damaged enough brain cells to keep me from remembering everything in living color. Instead I’m stuck in the independent living program with all the other depressives and anger-management cases—talk about the amateur ward. It’s somewhere between an outpatient program and a retirement home, with my own private residence on the Palermo compound and the freedom to come and go as I please outside of my mandatory counseling schedule. I guess I’m kind of a sorry excuse for a crazy person—I barely even attempted suicide. Sure, a nervous breakdown is nothing to sneeze at, but I know the other patients probably look at me and think I’m just some melodramatic rich kid who can’t get over losing his trust fund. Maybe I am. Maybe I also have a bit of paranoia thrown into the mix.
That could be why I like Hugh so much, because he’s got his own issues and isn’t constantly on my case to talk about my feelings, or even about his. Occasionally I’m struck by the urge to ask him about his family and his dead girlfriend and anything else he’ll tell me, but Hugh keeps that stuff locked up tighter than Fort Knox. I know he has a brother somewhere at the opposite end of the country, and their parents are dead, but that’s about it. Part of Hugh’s reluctance to divulge information has to do with his celebrity, which I understand, and part of it has to do with not being ready, which I also understand. He’ll have to have it out with that stuff eventually, though. He’s too smart not to realize that.
The same goes for me. But I don’t feel judged around him. He knows all about what happened in Columbus—the short version, with names withheld to protect the guilty—and his first response was “The guy sounds like an asshole. I probably would have freaked out too, if a girl treated me like that. You were lucky you got out.”
Got out, yes. Came out—not so much, though I more or less agree with Willa that a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. Still, it meant a lot that Hugh took my side without question, without even knowing the other half of the story. I have Willa to make rational arguments about how I should have seen the break-up coming, should have predicted it’d blow up in my face. Hugh is there to teach me surfing and be my friend and tell me that everyone bets on the wrong horse sometimes.
The whole thing with Nate started off in what I thought was a completely innocuous way. And if innocuous isn’t the right word, because affairs so rarely are, then at least it wasn’t anything sinister. I thought I had my money on Secretariat, and instead found myself with a Phar Lap. After the arsenic poisoning.
I was splitting my time between Chicago and Columbus, managing the Midwest offices of my family’s advertising business. For the obvious reasons, I liked Chicago a lot better, especially since that’s where Aurelia lives, but my attention was most often needed in Columbus, where the biggest number of things seemed to go wrong without someone to oversee the process. That the responsibility fell to me was just family obligation and bad luck.
It’s not a bad town, Columbus, just a little boring for anyone who isn’t a student or into tailgate parties, or who doesn’t start hyperventilating every time the Buckeyes come up in conversation. (No, I’m not one of those people.) My time in the city was spent either at our offices downtown or my apartment on Parkview Ave., not including places like the gym or the grocery store.
On that one particular Friday, I was actually getting ready to drive to Illinois the next day, happy to leave Ohio behind. I considered Chicago home; it’s where my friends were. There weren’t many people I hung out with socially in Columbus—nor in Chicago, being honest—and in retrospect, that was part of the problem. Desperation and boredom can make a fool of anyone. One-night stands were a common occurrence for me, because even lapsed Catholic ad men have needs, and I didn’t have much time for dating. Too much effort involved trying to keep my personal tastes hidden from my family. Honestly, Columbus was the last place I thought any of this would happen.
So of course, that’s where it did.
Sexual orientation isn’t something I ever had to think too hard about. I knew from a young age I was queer, and if my ultrareligious upbringing wasn’t enough to shake it out of me, probably nothing would. Disguising my lack of interest in women became second nature early on, and I bore the blind dates and family-arranged meetings with as much equanimity as you’d expect. Never was I anything but polite and friendly to those women. A few of them even figured out I wasn’t interested in them not because of their clothes or hair or personality, but for another fundamental reason—the lack of dick, for one.
My point is that, when I decided to go out for a couple of drinks and unwind after work that night, it wasn’t to some random breeder bar, but rather a gay local called Foxley’s. Their meal service was decent, but the real attraction was the down-to-earth crowd that flocked there on weekends. It encompassed neighborhood gays, businessmen, and the odd tourist in search of a quiet, old-timey pub atmosphere not overwhelmingly populated by OSU students, which was hard to come by in Columbus. In other words, Foxley’s was a place for gay men to paw at each other in a civilized way, without concern for straight judgment or public decency laws. I might like dick, but straight men have never interested me. Although I know plenty of guys who go in for the excitement of feeling they’ve “turned” someone, that’s not for me—I don’t want ambiguity about who’s checking me out and whether they might be a sexual tourist. The night before a short road trip seemed a perfect time to take someone home, since I could truthfully say I had to be up early the next morning. No muss, no fuss. Or so I thought.
The dinner crowd had mostly cleared out by the time I got there, replaced by those more interested in cruising than the nightly special. It was barely June, and during the summer months, Foxley’s always did good business. Things were starting to get busy at the front of the restaurant, which was crammed with men chatting in groups or more intimate couples, a familiar mating dance in full swing. I looked around and smiled at a few people I knew, particularly shy Adam, who was mixing up martinis and pouring wine behind the bar. By no means did I spot Nate right away—it was he, in fact, who spotted me, though not until much later. I settled myself a respectable distance away from the throng of people and ordered a Sc