Every day during my senior year of college I would walk along Westcliff Drive. The first thing that struck me was the view—there’s about a mile of exposed cliff face overlooking the Boardwalk, the beach, and the bay between the lighthouse and the Santa Cruz wharf. On a clear day there’s a skyline; the whitewashed buildings of the wharf are the furthest reach of the city, sprawling out into the azure ocean like a fallen spire. They shimmer milky white, steadfast on a backdrop of sound and movement. Behind them, the rides of the Boardwalk shift like optical illusions, weird geometry which sorts itself out as soon as you fix it in focus. The ferris wheel churns along, the Great Dipper clambers up its metal slope, and after a brief second of silence a soft rushing shriek of excitement floats over the empty space. The Boardwalk I had pondered since childhood, when I was enthralled by the jerky roller coasters and cold water, hypnotized by the ambient crowd noise and curious odors. I revisited quite often in college, once on a cold day after the rain, in the off-season when it was deserted, and I saw the rides empty, the automatons laughing and lights flashing at no one. But after my eye had tired of all this stimulation, I started looking into the empty spots.
First I saw the water change at night. When the waves were at a particular choppiness and everything else was dark, the lights left on in the wharf shops hit the water and scattered across it like stained glass, or an impressionist painting. Different weather conditions amplified or dampened this effect, producing many beautiful variations. During the daytime, depending on fluctuations in current and upwelling too subtle for me to understand, the water was sometimes darker than normal, fully saturated with blue. On other days it was murky and brown. On cold windy days the bay was pockmarked with sailboats—they were really accessories more than anything, the ocean wearing several dozen pearl earrings.
The bay took on its own character to me. The greatest star of all was the life below the surface, which I imagined or observed indirectly. I walked out to the edge of the wharf with my best friend and an ice cream cone to watch the sea lions, who not only barked and quarreled like humans, but turned effortlessly in the water like jet planes. Spring came and the bay exploded with life. On my daily walk home from the bus stop the kelp beds were infested with fish; the water boiled as they jumped and snapped at the surface. Birds swarmed around in the sky, squawking and dive-bombing the hotbeds of activity from above. I learned that humpback whales had even stopped by to capitalize on the abundance, taking up huge mouthfuls of sardines with dramatic lunges out of the water. It was on the news.
One magical afternoon the kelp beds to the west of the lighthouse leaned in real close, like they meant to give the land a kiss. People came to the water’s edge and walked along the path on top of the cliff to watch the ocean. The air was warm and everyone was happy. The kelp beds were a woven tapestry of life itself, a sublime interconnected mesh. Pods of dolphins cruised along the far side of the reef, playing in the breaking waves. The shore was a rare point of tangency, where we on land came out to meet with the myriad other beings who dwell in the water. We had been drawn together by something, the rare convergence of a hundred thousand environmental parameters or a more ineffable will. Whatever did it, there we were—humans, dolphins, seals, dogs, gulls, fish and invertebrates, the balmy wind and rolling waves and whipped cream clouds and pumpkin pie sunset all side-by-side, touching like friendly amoebas, harmonious.
Once I saw a lone man swimming from lighthouse point across the bay to the edge of the wharf, or onwards. I admire his conviction, but that’s not something I would do. The idea of the open water terrifies me—me all alone, swimming on the top of some gigantic bowl, a thousand eyes staring up at my pale flesh from the opaque waters. I love the sea, but it is not my domain. I fear the mercurial temper of sea lions, the open maw of casually feeding whales. The crashing of waves against rocks is a physics equation with positively no concern for my well-being.
So naturally, for as long as I lived there (and especially at night), I harbored suicidal fantasies of throwing myself into that cold water, surrendering my comfortable terrestrial identity to the vast faceless forces that govern the universe, lurking beneath. Though I’d never jump in—not in my right mind, not after dark—I continually imagined immersing myself in that totally alien world. Late at night, with lots on my mind and nobody about, I would walk two blocks from my house to the lighthouse, jump over the railing and venture down to the point where the rocks met the water. I got as close as I could while maintaining a sense of personal safety—touching, but not submerged. The outcrop was full of dry birdshit and the hollow barking of sea lions on a far-off rock. The swells were much closer, portentous and intimidating, and the cold wind came in full-force from unseen places far out to sea. I laid down on the rocks and lost myself looking at the stars. The ocean, with all its coldness, was there for me to ponder when I needed it.
And I suppose that’s the big draw of the ocean: gigantic squid, kraken and sperm whales, one-eyed tentacle beasts yet unknown to science. The unknown is terrifying and captivating at the same time, and that’s why we’re obsessed with it. I love being underwater, holding my breath; it’s a different kind of awareness, because mortality is palpable there. My life is on a timer. You don’t BELONG underwater, just like a shark doesn’t belong on dry land. I took a swimming class that year, maybe due to an unconscious desire to master this alien realm, to exist in the stream of unseen forces shaping life beneath the surface.
Much later, the night before my last class and days before I left Santa Cruz, I tried to revisit Westcliff. I hated my roommates for the summer, random party people who I didn’t want to associate with, and hated myself for being the odd one out. I made scarce, coming and going like a ghost that last week. I felt desperate during those days, with undercurrents of hysteria. They threw one final big party, and I evaporated, trying for a few days of cloudy transience. I bought a pair of toe-shoes for my birthday, went to dinner at a friend’s house, and resolved to walk for the night. Maybe on Westcliff I could find one theme or another to fit my experience.
It was midnight when I left my friend’s house. Fog hung in the air, and the dull glow of streetlights illuminated everything, giving equal orangish light to things both ugly and beautiful. I questioned whether or not I was dreaming, recounting the stream of events in my mind. Back at my house, the party was surely raging; wax, booze, molly. I wanted none of it, though. I was the one who abstained. And there I was, sober at a cost, headed towards Westcliff, checking the neon signs of the old hotel twice to see if the text would change. Recalling the memory now, it’s equally as real as the recollections of dreams. Maybe if the words had shifted in front of my eyes I could’ve lucidly recreated the environment around me, visualized some new setting, and taken a little more control. But everything checked out, and there was everything I remembered: the bear statue, whose hands once held a can of PBR in a remarkable practical joke; the Dream Inn—no shit; the telephone pole I had finally mustered up the courage to climb one night; the curb I always balanced on as I walked across, when I was learning how to slackline….
I came to the path that wraps around Westcliff and passed the intersection of my old street. I looked out at the view of the lights scattered across the water, I passed the lighthouse and its rotating searchlight. This was the setting I remembered, but it was barren. There were no stars out, no moon. Just a fog lit by artificial lights. The tide was low and silent, with no waves. I couldn’t believe it. This path is where I used to run. This was where I had existed—this spot was me, and it was empty.
I kept walking, and my feet took quite nicely to the shoes. If they hurt, I put more awareness into my step and they felt better. I came to Ferrell’s Donuts, my destination of sorts. When I first came to Santa Cruz and saw that it was open 24-7, I fantasized about pulling all-nighters to study there. I had one last chance, it seemed, to live out a lonely strange idea of mine while I still could. I ordered a maple twist, a bearclaw, and a large coffee, and spent the next three hours reading in a ghastly haze. I played a game of 1942 on an old arcade cabinet with the guy behind the counter, while he was between cigarette breaks and customer orders. “I have all the high scores on this thing,” he told me.
I walked home at 5 AM, exhausted. I had forgotten my keys, and climbed up the balcony, one last test, to let myself in. Of course there was somebody sleeping in my bed. There were sand and cheeto crumbs everywhere, and people crashed out on the floor. No one heard me enter; I was a ghost. I went into the empty room, where my random things had come to rest along with the leftover possessions of the room’s last occupant. No one ever came in here; this room was mine more than anyone else’s. I laid down on the naked spare mattress and didn’t get to sleep until long after the sun came up.
Meaning is retroactive; experiences pile up like a sand bank until there’s something substantial in front of you. One of my professors told a story about the best moment of his life, when he swam naked in the ocean in San Diego the night his son was born. He felt totally aligned, in love with the world, connected with every other organism on the planet. Maybe one day I’ll do a little bit better, and dive into the water like him, instead of just staring at it. Still, maybe the best we can do sometimes is to touch the edge of this dark world which is pregnant with meaning, the empty void where the currents of truth are laid bare in terms of brutal forces which don’t concern you—you tiny little thing ducking along the surface of the water, you infinitesimal speck of light.