I’m thinking about Brazilian president Getúlio Vargas, who shot himself in the heart in 1954; I’m thinking about Pepê Lopes, who died in a hang gliding accident while trying to win a second world title in Japan in 1991; I’m thinking about Ayrton Senna, the Formula One racer who died on lap seven of the San Marino Grand Prix in Italy in 1994. I am not thinking about death explicitly, but death hangs over all of this.
I’m bodysurfing the north end of Barra da Tijuca, a spot called Praia do Pepê, named after the hang glider. The swell is out of the southwest; the waves are a whomping four foot, mostly lefts, with the occasional short burst of right. The water smells of sewage, with a distinctly Rio tang. My romantic self likes to think of it as bathing in the collective DNA of this city of six million. My more practical self fears Hep C. On my feet, Da Fins, recommended by bodysurfing guru Mark Cunningham. At the tip of my fingers, a Danny Hess-shaped hand plane, which I have learned to hold with my inside hand. This is why I love bodysurfing. This is why, in my recent trips to Rio, I end up bodysurfing more than board surfing: I’m still learning new things. At age 47 I may be declining as a surfer, but as a bodysurfer I’m unquestionably improving. The tadpole grows feet and hops across the terra firma. The surfer sheds board and swims off to eternity.
Along the beachfront are high-rises, one of which is a 15-story brick and concrete apart-hotel that is my home for the next month. It’s really my wife’s place. She is here on a three-month contract to co-direct “Amor e Sexo,” a documentary TV series that explores love and sex. She arrived from New York, where we live, a week before me. “We’re staying here,” she said over Skype, and aimed her computer at the building. I recognized it immediately: Barra Beach Towers. I used to stay there in the late 80s/early 90s when I was a pro surfer; in fact most everyone on tour stayed there. I had what now seem to be prescient moments.
In 1989, while sharing a room with fellow pro Bryce Ellis and playing heated games of Backgammon into the wee hours, I became haunted by the Rolling Stones’ It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, specifically the song “Time Waits For No One.” One night I couldn’t sleep. The melody was soothing, but the lyrics were galvanizing. I had the idea that I should get up and run sprints along the shoreline. We pros did a lot of this: raising heartbeats, inciting adrenalin, simulating make-or-break moments in the dying seconds of world title-deciding heats. But it is never a good idea to be alone on the beach in Rio at 3 a.m. So instead I ran mental sprints.
In 1991, in that same hotel, possibly the same room, possibly even the same room where I now stay with Gisela, I cried in synch with Sinead O’Connor, who cries spectacularly in her video “Nothing Compares 2 U.” I watched it on MTV, again in the wee hours, horribly jetlagged. Melancholy consumed me. I was in a relationship that was dying, and in my efforts to revive it I vowed to paint a portrait of my girl, turquoise and gold, with drips like the tears falling down Sinead’s face. I would give it to her as a Christmas present. But we never made it to Christmas.
Bobbing on the bottle green sea—a plane roaring across the rainbow sherbet sky, a jet-skier 100 yards out fucking up my waves—I remember moments at the breakfast buffet with Tom Carroll, Ross Clarke-Jones, Gary “Kong” Elkerton. I miss how simple life was with that bull’s eye focus of the pro tour. I do not miss having my self-esteem dictated by where I sat on the rankings.
An A-frame looms. I put my head down and kick. I have learned to feign dolphin to catch waves. I less drop down the face than insinuate myself into the middle of it, and superman across the trim line. I’m amazed at how long I can go, that I can almost do off the lips. I ride to shore, trot across the squeaky sand, and run across the one-way street where busses barrel along at dangerous speeds. I enter the Barra Beach Towers from the side entrance, for beachgoers, with a tap to rinse feet and a security lady named Daniela with whom I chat in my third grade Portuguese, hop in the elevator and press nine. On the way up I think about the story I want to write: Rio is the best bodysurfing city in the world. Those same iconic granite rocks that brought us Sugarloaf and Corcovado also bring us ricocheting wedges that zipper off the north and south corner of every beach.
I am not thinking about death explicitly, but death hangs over all of this.
The biiing of my floor, the doors open, I make my way down the tiled hallway, anticipating this late afternoon routine I know all so well: approach apartment #905, smell weed, hear GloboNews on the TV, knock on door, Gisela shouts “Jimmerrr!” in the warmest way, door opens, vibrant wife of mine stands there all sinewy, big smile, glassy eyes. We hug. I kiss the side of her dirty blond head. It’s a world, a life, though I fail to fully appreciate it at the time. I’m preoccupied with the memoir I’m trying to write, with a particularly North American brand of career advancement. I’m a cliché. I take it for granted, think it will always be there. I’m terribly wrong.
There is an absurdity to “getting the shot,” and I experience this profoundly in 1987 at Fernando de Noronha, a tropical island off the northern coast of Brazil. I wait out the back in the bathtub-warm turquoise water while photographer Robert Beck stands in the shallow impact zone. When a wave pops up Beck hollers me into it. I stroke, hop to feet, paw face, pose in barrel, then get crushed. I do this about 20 times in a row. In one wipeout I feel Beck’s fins, head, housing. I’m reminded of the slam pits I used to bounce around back in the punk days.
At the bar near the pousada where we stay, there is cachaça, forró dancing, the music of Caetano Veloso and Gal Costa, an impossibly hot lioness of a 19-year-old whose father is some big-time politician, but I participate in none of it. I go to bed early, creatively visualize a win in the Marui Pro, which kicks off the 1987 ASP World Tour next week in Japan. I wake at dawn and do plyometrics, a new jumping/rebounding style of exercise that’s supposedly part of Tom Curren’s training regimen. I do what I think a pro surfer is supposed to: keep the blinders on, focus on the win.
But impressions from this first trip to Brazil stay with me. In the diary that my father has encouraged me to keep during my travels, I write about running into fellow pro Dave Kennedy on the runway of Fernando’s tiny airport. I was coming; he was going. “Whatever you do, go hiking,” he advised, pointing to the Land of the Lost topography that surrounded us. Kennedy had a raised-by-wolves mien. He smelled of patchouli and sweat. “See that ridiculous-looking thing over there?” he said, nodding toward a vertical rock face. “Climbed it yesterday on acid.”
I write about Tatiana, the stewardess I met on my flight from Fernando to Rio. She spoke no English, but her co-worker did, and in a racy dialogue that felt like something out of From Here To Eternity, we discover that we like each other. When she asks where I’m staying in Rio I go for it: “With you,” I say, and he translates, and there’s laughter between the two of them, and some words in Portuguese. By the time we hit the tarmac a plan has been hatched. I will pose as Tatiana’s cousin from the USA, and stay with her and her co-workers at the Hotel Intercontinental in Copacabana, where Varig flight attendants stay on Rio layovers. Breezing through the CREW line at the airport, riding in the Varig shuttle bus to the hotel, dragging my coffin board bag through the elegant hotel lobby with this tall, thin, deeply-tanned blond woman I’d met not two hours earlier—never have I felt more Miki Dora-ish.
My closeout tubes in Fernando de Noronha featured in magazines from the U.S., France, Japan, and Brazil, where I scored the cover of Surfer. I also got my first written piece published: “Yahtzee Jones,” about the fierce games Robert Beck and I played in our little imperialistic cocoon. But far more formative, far more life-changing, was the sign language and drawings on napkins that doubled for words between Tatiana and me as we ate pizza at an open-air restaurant on Avenida Atlântica, where trans-prostitutes sashayed on corners and street kids—barefoot, no older than 10—begged for spare change. There was Tatiana’s cesarean scar, which I discovered in the dark, by braille—it felt like a thrust into some complex, exotic adulthood. And there were those two days after Tatiana left that I wandered the streets of Rio alone, observing, thinking, opening the vein.
Gisela Matta, 26, green eyes, milky white skin, dad Lebanese, mom Dutch, a husky voice, a pair of sinewy arms that tug at the more long-view/procreative impulse than the fleeting, fuck-in-bathroom-stalls variety. We meet through our mutual friend Vava, a Brazilian photographer living in the East Village. It’s one month after 9/11. There’s an urgency in the air. Alcohol and cigarette sales soar in Lower Manhattan, as does fornication (summer 2002 would see a spike in NYC childbirths).
Dealers work from a little shack at the top of the hill with a sweeping view over Ipanema Beach. They hire young kids to hang out at the bottom and watch for cops. As soon as the kids see a police car turn up the hill they launch kites, signaling to the dealers to hide the stashes.
Gisela is en route to Barcelona, where she intends to live for at least the next year. Her New York trip is a ten-day stopover, primarily to buy a Sony TRV-900 at B&H, which she will use to shoot her pilot, a travel show set in Europe. “I make travel programa for MTV Brazil,” she tells me over saag paneer and cheap red wine at an Indian restaurant on 2nd Avenue. We like each other, become fast friends. I ask what she wants to do with her life. “Travel, make adventures,” she says.
Over the course of the next week two things happen. Gisela embarks on a documentary about life in Lower Manhattan in the wake of 9/11. She barely speaks English, but she boldly interviews people in the street. (“Why did this happen? How will life in the US change?”) She shoots B-roll of all the MISSING PERSON signs, memorials, and post-tragedy ephemera, and cobbles it together for Brazilian TV, where “Nova Iorque: Un Mes Depois” (New York: One Month After) will air to considerable success.
More importantly, we connect. Like I’ve never connected before. We don’t fuck. We hardly kiss. Our very limited words take us only so far. But something powerful transmits between us. When she departs on a sad Friday morning I feel a deep sense of loss. I write her. I send her a couple of CDs (Serge Gainsbourg and Silver Jews) and a burnt orange wool sweater. I think about her constantly.
She hardly writes back—one email for every five I send, and only a couple of aloof sentences. But I persist. I heed the advice of a friend’s girlfriend: “Girls move much slower than guys. Just keep at it. Think of it as prayer.”
Finally she invites me to come see her. We meet in Venice during Carnival. We wander labyrinthine streets, drink Chianti and smoke Drums at cafes, marvel at the excellent squid ink tagliatelle. Sex happens. I love her skin, the way she tastes. Lying in bed, entwined, I hear echoes of approval from way back in the Brisick gene pool. I’m pretty sure I love her, and I tell her so, on the last night of my trip, at a pensione in Milano. I also tell her that I want her to come live with me in New York. I remember a line from a book I read when I was on tour: “I promise you rainbows for breakfast and orgasms for lunch.” I safely rephrase it: “There will be fresh breakfast every morning, and a decent bottle of wine every night.”
I Wrapped My Arms Around Brazil
Brazil blew open for me in 1998 when I went to visit my artist friend Sandow Birk, who was living in Rio for a year on a Fulbright scholarship. His way of traveling was very different to how I traveled as a pro surfer. Books about Brazilian culture and history cluttered his Botafogo apartment. He went to soccer games and art museums, dined with university professors, drank with the locals. There was deep curiosity and immersion. Through Sandow I understood what it meant to be an artist.
Many Brazil trips followed. I learned about macumba, capoeira, Tropicália, Jorge Amado. I visited Favela Vidigal, where my friend Marcelo Biju ran a pirate radio station. Overlooking Ipanema Beach, Vidigal sits on a steep, narrow hill—one road in, one road out. The drug trade is huge. Dealers work from a little shack at the top of the hill with a sweeping view over Ipanema Beach. They hire young kids to hang out at the bottom and watch for cops. As soon as the kids see a police car turn up the hill they launch kites, signaling to the dealers to hide the stashes. It’s a sad fact of favela life, kids sucked into the drug world before they’ve hit their 13th birthdays. Biju has other plans for them. He wants to give them surfboards, not kites.
In 2000, thanks to Vava who invited me along, I danced down the Sambodromo for Mocidade Independente, a samba school in Rio. It was an adrenalin rush akin to screaming across a big long wall at Sunset. Flanked by bleachers full of cheering revelers, dressed in ridiculous clown suits and clown makeup, we moved with a spasmodic, cachaça-enhanced buzz, chasing the giant Mocidade float, which is clown-themed as well, a Fellini world on wheels. At the end of the Sambodromo, away from the cheering and lights, is a shadowy patch of concrete where samba school participants discard their elaborate costumes. Samba schools are all about allegory, but the biggest allegory is right here: an entire year’s worth of hard work goes into the conceiving and making of these floats and costumes; the Sambodromo moment-in-the-spotlight from start to finish lasts less than 30 minutes. But even more memorable than my lesson in the disparity between toil and joy is the couple I see making out, maybe even fucking, amid this cemetery of Mohican skulls and dragon tails and fluoro pink plumages and leopard heads ten feet tall.
I hear stories, one about a Brazilian pro who was on tour at the same time as me. Now in his early 40s, he’d recently learned that the father of his two teenage kids was not he, but his brother. How colossally devastating! Normally when the spouse fucks us over we turn to our immediate family, but in this case you can’t even trust them.
I had moved to New York in early 2001 to escape the surf world that I sensed would soon maroon me. Surfing was my first love.
Like the bodysurfing story that I have yet to write, I obsessed about this. It seemed ripe for the page, begging to be part of a novel or memoir. My visits to Brazil afforded me time and space for reflection. Status anxiety abated, as did the shackles to my own personal history. I felt a freshness, a sense of reinvention, a newfound bounce in my thoughts. I wrapped my arms around Brazil, and Brazil wrapped its arms around me.
Something So Fluid
On a cool March day in New York, I rode the A train out to JFK to meet my dear Gisela. She exited customs in the same red Mary Janes and faded jeans and pink top that she wore when we first met six months earlier. She lugged a heavy red and blue backpack, the kind you’d take on a trek through the wilderness.
We moved into my sublet, an elegant railroad apartment on 4th and Lafayette. Owned by my friends Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch, a pair of film production designers who were about to blow up as architects/interior designers, it had an aspirational, posture-correcting vibe with Parisian-style mouldings and a study with dark woods and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Scatted across the floor of the study were black and white printouts of photos by Art Brewer, Andrew Kidman, and Vava Ribeiro, with my handwritten captions in red along the bottom.
I had moved to New York in early 2001 to escape the surf world that I sensed would soon maroon me. Surfing was my first love. I’d gone from five years on the world tour to working as a writer/photographer for surf magazines, first in Australia, then in the U.S. In 1998 I became the executive editor of Surfing. What I thought would be a dream job turned out to be disappointing. Advertisers dictated editorial content. Conservatism ruled. All the really fun ideas were shot down. I felt more like a figurehead than the editor of what my colleague Sam George referred to as “the last voice of the free world.” When I left two years later I wanted to get as far from the “Bro-muda Triangle” as I could. I put my belongings in storage and moved to New York. But surfing—or “surf” as the capitalists like to call it—was exploding. I became friends with Marcelo Junemann, publisher of Big, a slick, avant-garde magazine that did theme issues both literal and abstract (Brazil, New Jersey, Gisele Bündchen, Lauren Hutton). Marcelo sensed the surf wave rising. He asked me to be the editor of a surf issue.
And so there I was swimming in words and pictures of waves amid the concrete and high rises and honking horns of Lower Manhattan. It was not exactly the self-reinvention that I’d hoped for, but I was grateful. I’d moved to New York thinking my beach roots would render me Dumbest Guy in the Room. As it turned out, everyone at the dinner table wanted to hear about my life in surfing. Thankfully Gisela was a departure from this. She had little interest in Kelly Slater or slab waves in West Oz. The surfers she’d met in Brazil were, as she put it, “playboys.”
We ate Thai food in the bath, we bought groceries from the cheapest supermarket we could find, we got weed delivered to the apartment from a Rasta dude who dressed as a bike messenger, an array of herbs, pills, and powders hidden in his yellow safety vest. Less than a week after Gisela arrived I received a long letter from her mother telling me how happy she was that her youngest child and I had found love, but also urging me to be good to her, to take care of her. It made me realize how much Gisela had given up to be with me. I got another version of this a few weeks later when a friend’s girlfriend scolded me for not opening the car door for Gisela. “You treat her like a queen,” she demanded, and her wagging finger and fierce eyes seared into my head.
I learned a new word: exogamy— the custom of marrying outside of one’s community, clan, or tribe. I got a hit of this when Gisela came home from a job shooting the G2 technology show in Los Angeles.
“I got laid!” she said, pulling a shiny gift bag from her backpack.
“What do you mean you got laid?”
“Look at this stuff!” She pulled out ear buds, CD cases, pen drives, baseball caps. “I got laid!”
“You mean you scored.”
“Whatever Jimmer. Look at this stuff!”
One day when we were subletting a small house in Venice I returned home to find Gisela standing on the porch, broom under arm, sweat beads on forehead, a proud face. In that hoarse voice I somehow associate with baby sea lions she said, “I broomed the whole house!”
I thought, Go home, roll a joint, and write for a couple of hours. Do this everyday for the next six months and I’ll have a book, a fat paycheck, and the literary success I knew was coming to me. The hubris! The hubris!
We found a sweet groove together. We were deeply in love. Even our fights seemed light and performative, as if we were acting out a parody of what married adults do.
And we got married, two years in. We hadn’t planned on it. In fact we were both suspicious of the “institution of marriage,” but an immigration official at Dulles International in DC determined our fate.
While passing through customs, a man I imagined to be mustached, gruff-voiced, and politically right wing looked up from his computer:
“So, you’ve been living in the U.S. for two years on a tourist visa—how do you support yourself?”
“My boyfriend supports me,” answered Gisela.
The customs official gasped, stamped her passport with a vengeance, handed it back to her. “You better sort it out. That stamp there won’t make it so easy next time.”
So we tied the knot, at City Hall, on May 1, 2004, in jeans and sneakers, amid Puerto Ricans in gaudy suits and big dresses, elaborately-coiffed Japanese, and elderly couples who looked intoxicated with happiness. It was a great brush with the farrago that is NYC. Sadly, we never even got a photo from the day.
What it means to be married revealed itself slowly, via a lot of stepping over each other in the cramped, natural-light-less one-bedroom apartment we rented on 15th Street between 1st and 2nd avenues. “Your commitment is not to the person, but to the marriage,” my mother told me, and over time, over many instances of the person driving me insane, I came to understand what she meant.
In 2002 I put out a book called We Approach Our Martinis With Such High Expectations. Part travelogue, part masturbation in public, it was the B-side of much of the surf journalism I’d done over the last half decade. I’d get assigned to cover a contest in, say, Fiji or France, and to relieve myself of surf myopia I’d drink kava in a bure with the Tavarua staff and write about it, or photograph drunken kids on the streets of Paris on Y2K New Year’s Eve. Martinis caught the attention of Quiksilver, who in 2003 launched an entertainment division. They assigned me the task of writing and editing Have Board, Will Travel: The Definitive History of Surf, Skate, and Snow, to be co-published with HarperCollins. Being a good opportunist, I used the book deal to procure a literary agent, Richard Morris, from Janklow and Nesbit, who represented heavy-hitters like Gore Vidal, Joan Didion, and Michael Crichton.
One day over lunch at NoHo Star in the East Village, Richard asked about my life in surfing. I told him about my rise up the amateur ranks, my first trip to Australia in 1986, my brush with a ten-foot shark at Jeffreys Bay. I told him about my parents’ divorce, my oldest brother’s overdose, my first girlfriend, Ana Rita, the ex of 1989 world champ Martin Potter (that last little fact caused me all kinds of torment). Richard was an excellent listener. He got me talking so freely that I stumbled upon details, themes, and connections that even I didn’t know I knew.
“You should write a memoir about your life in surfing,” he said when I was finally finished.
And by the end of lunch we had a plan: (a) I would get to work right away, and show him something as soon as it was ready; and (b) if I did it right I could expect an advance in the vicinity of $100K.
I exited the NoHo Star with clicking heels. I thought, Go home, roll a joint, and write for a couple of hours. Do this everyday for the next six months and I’ll have a book, a fat paycheck, and the literary success I knew was coming to me.
The hubris! The hubris!
I went home, rolled the joint, did the writing, and did exactly that for a couple of months, then turned in 30 or so pages to Richard. He got right back to me. “If this is what it’s going to look like I don’t think I can sell it,” he wrote in an email that crushed me, sent me into a state of writer’s paralysis that lasted for months.
And so it went. For the next five or six years I’d attempt a first draft, get discouraging notes back from Richard, freeze up for a spell, then hit it again, often getting even further away from the real story and my real voice. I had no idea what kind of self-flaying I was getting myself into. I had no idea that to write this memoir I would be forced to face myself like I never had before. The toughest part, the thing I’d buried most, was my brother Kevin’s death.
At one point I looked in and saw Gisela, feline on her side, blue bikini, head in book. Behind her was jungle as far as the eye could see.
As I rose up the amateur ranks in the mid-80s, Kevin descended into drug addiction. By the time I joined the tour in 1986 he was in and out of rehabs, a bad junkie. There was a prison stint. There were a few overdoses where he was just barely revived in the emergency room. The worse he got, the more I clenched my fists and resolved to find transcendence in the Top 30 (the 80s equivalent of today’s Top 34). I was on my way to achieving this goal when I finished =17th in the 1987 Stubbies Pro at Oceanside Pier, my best result to date. I exited the water to a flock of autograph seekers, a standing ovation from my sponsors, and the warm, ecstatic feeling of having arrived. And right about the time I was doing an interview for the Los Angeles Times, Kevin was nodding out for the last time at the edge of a small lake near our house in Westlake Village. I got the news the following day, at a WSA contest at Malibu that felt like returning back to high school after a year away at a good college. Peacocking my way through the suntanned crowd, my mom’s next-door neighbor, a kid I hardly knew, approached me. “Have you been in touch with your family?” he asked.
“Your brother Kevin is dead.”
My stomach twisted. I thought, This can’t possibly be true. I marched up to the payphones and called my parents. It was true. My response was to climb the hill across the street from Malibu and sit with myself. I hugged my legs. I looked down at my Quiksilver-logoed sweatpants and my red patent leather Adidas high-tops and felt terrible self-disgust. In some pathetic kind of athlete’s survival mechanism, I vowed to win the Op Pro, a few days away, in Huntington Beach.
I’m reminded of Tom Carroll’s victory in the 1987 Pipeline Masters. He’d been working up to it for his entire surfing life. Never was he more poised to win. And on the eve of the final day, Tom got word that his sister had been killed in a car accident. He and his brother Nick cloistered off in their rented apartment. They told no one. Tom kept focused on the job at hand. The following morning, swell pumping, Tom poured all his emotion into the throaty Pipeline barrels. And won.
I did nothing like this in the 1987 Op Pro. In fact I did not even surf in it—the first day of the trials coincided with Kevin’s funeral. Even worse, I ended up using the next leg of the tour—France and Spain—as an evasion. I hung tight with the Animal House swirl of my tour mates, drank way too much, did poorly in the contests, and never gave myself the space to properly grieve.
Light and Fishlike
Gisela and I spent our Christmas holidays in Brazil. No one tells you this, at least no one told me: you get married and your spouse’s family becomes your family. Even if they did it’d probably be too late anyway. By the time your future spouse invites you to meet the family, the hooks are already in. I got real lucky in this department. Gisela’s mom was classy and old worldly in her moral correctness; her two older sisters—one an anthropologist, the other an employee for the City of São Paulo’s cultural affairs—were a joy. We had Sunday lunches that carried on for hours, Leonard Cohen on the stereo, the high-rises out the dining room window bathed in an orange glow. The Matta family was smart and funny. We shared a skewed take on the world.
I got to know São Paulo pretty well. We stayed in apart-hotels in the Jardim neighborhood, not far from the city nucleus that is Avenida Paulista. A good chunk of my days were spent writing, often in bars or restaurants. In New York I’d overhear conversations that distracted and pulled me out of my work. In Brazil, my Portuguese weak, it was all white noise. I could be alone with my thoughts amid the hubbub of happy hour. We celebrated Christmas at her aunt and uncle’s house, a minimalist, sculptural one-story designed by renowned Brazilian architect Ruy Ohtake. For New Years we went to Praia do Espelho (Beach of Mirrors), where we stayed at a rented house with friends and sailed along the coast and grilled fish on a fire and read books in hammocks. On the big night we lay on the beach, the hissing sea licking our toes, the starry sky so close you could touch it.
I never consciously plotted my suicide, but had a gunman jumped me in a dark alleyway, had a large shark popped up from the depths while I was straddling my board at Zuma, they’d have gotten no resistance from me.
One New Year’s morning Gisela and I packed up our gear and walked a long way south to an empty cove. We read on the sand, we sipped beer, we spoke in married-couple shorthand that at the time felt monotonous but now seems warm and comfy. We fell asleep holding hands in the sweltering sun. When I woke I saw a little left bouncing off a round rock. I grabbed my fins and went for a splash. I rode the turquoise wedges, shaping my body to their curves, practicing oneness. I felt light and fishlike. At one point I looked in and saw Gisela, feline on her side, blue bikini, head in book. Behind her was jungle as far as the eye could see. It was our beach—we were like the kids in The Blue Lagoon, a sense of discovering each other, the anxieties of our New York lives a million miles away. For those minutes my life was as perfect as I can remember.
I never saw it as a bad thing, the fact that in our nine years of marriage, Gisela and I would do a month, sometimes six weeks, apart. For a few years she worked on “Lugar Incomum” (Uncommon Places), a TV series about regional trends and movements you won’t find in a Lonely Planet guide. While I toiled on my surf memoir in New York, Gisela traveled to Berlin, Lisbon, London, Istanbul, and Tokyo. Her excellent work on “Lugar” led to her gig as a co-director on “Amor e Sexo.”
I’ll never forget the day she got the big news. She burst into our bedroom/my office ablaze with joy. “I got a job, Jimmer, I can’t believe it! With Globo! They’ve even been looking at my work—they were referencing old programas of ‘Lugar!’” I loved this about her. While we USA residents are brought up with the notion of unlimited career possibilities, Brazilian-raised Gisela was much more humble. She couldn’t believe that she was doing exactly what she’d always dreamed of.
And so in 2011 Gisela flew to Rio to begin what would become a two-year gig with “Amor e Sexo.” I went to visit her as often as I could. While she traveled around Brazil for the show, I stayed mostly in Rio, writing and bodysurfing. I did notice a disconnect. She’d made a whole new batch of friends, she was working around the clock, she seemed to have a great future with Globo. It was ironic, really. When Gisela first came to live with me in the U.S., all she wanted was to break into the film business. She did, on a large scale, albeit in Brazil, not Hollywood or New York. Waiting for a flight out of Rio after one of our visits, I was sitting in the airport bar drinking a beer. On the TV was “Amor e Sexo,” which had everyone’s attention. I was so proud of her.
In May 2012 I went to Yaddo, in upstate New York, on a month-long writing residency. Yaddo has a long history of great writers—Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, Philip Roth, and David Foster Wallace among many others. While there I immersed myself in what I hoped would be the final draft of my surf memoir. It was an emotional time. My father had kept journals from the mid-60s until 1983, and I read through them, start to finish. There were harrowing passages about Kevin’s suicide attempt, about the unraveling of my parents’ marriage, about Kevin’s death and funeral. There was some really beautiful stuff in there, too, which brought on a kind of Scrooge-in-A-Christmas-Carol experience, my entire life flashing before my eyes. A quiet delirium set in. I couldn’t sleep.
One morning at about 5:30 I got on a bike and rode to the center of town. There was a hill that I wanted to slalom down, the way I did down Escalon Drive in Encino in 1973 on my first skateboard, a 24-inch lime green Bahne with Chicago trucks and Cadillac wheels. I managed to tap my 6-year-old giddiness—the rumble of the pavement, the Toughskins and the Keds, the Gregg Weaver-inspired carves, the speed wobbles. I did my best to translate this feeling into the memoir.
I made a lot of new friends at Yaddo, one of whom was Eisa, a playwright based in Brooklyn. After the residency finished we met for coffee in the city. Then we met for lunch. Then we were hanging out. I did not know I had feelings for her. I did not know that there was a fracture in my marriage. I ran with something that felt repressed in me.
Running off the edge of a cliff, feet still peddling in the air before gravity takes hold—that’s how I remember the exhilaration of new sex, new conversation, new person lying in the bed next to me. That feeling didn’t last long. Soon, reality set in—Eisa wanted a baby, Gisela was hurt beyond repair, and the really nice life that my wife and I had built together was no longer.
The Text Message
The text message came at 6:51 a.m.: Jamie, call me now. It was from Gisela’s best friend, Fernanda, who lived in Rio. I dialed her number. She answered in hysterics. “She’s gone, Jamie! Gisela died! She’s gone!” Through her sobs, I could just make out that Gisela had been hit by a bus on her bicycle. She was rushed to hospital. They’d misdiagnosed her injury as a broken hip. She was bleeding internally. By the time the doctors realized this it was too late.
The date was April 1, 2013. I was in New York. I caught a flight that night to São Paulo. I had no idea how her family would receive me. I bought some orchids, knocked on the door to her mother’s apartment. “I never stopped loving Gisela,” I told her through tears. We fell into each other’s arms. A couple hours later I was weeping over Gisela’s open coffin, pall bearing with people I did not know.
And so now I’m back in the lineup at Praia do Pepê, 50 years old, bodysurfing because it points toward something new.
After the funeral, after ten days of wandering around São Paulo and Rio, I returned to New York. My sister met me there. I was on a suicide watch of sorts. She stayed for about a week, looked after me with tender love and empathy. Over bottles of wine each night, candle burning at the center of the table, she made the case for why I should move back to LA.
Less than a month after Gisela’s death, my apartment in New York was sublet and I was sleeping on my sister’s couch in Culver City. I had nothing in me. I could barely work. My guilt and remorse were all consuming. I never got to put things right with Gisela while she was alive—I spent a lot of time apologizing to the sky.
Months passed. Deep-rooted self-pity and pessimism set in. The skipping record playing on a loop in my head went something like, Fuck this life. Game’s rigged. I want out. This darkness took over everything. I never consciously plotted my suicide, but had a gunman jumped me in a dark alleyway, had a large shark popped up from the depths while I was straddling my board at Zuma, they’d have gotten no resistance from me.
Which brings us to the ocean. I had moved to New York to get away from surfing. It followed me. Not so much the actual act of riding waves, but the culture, the stories. Surfing sat at the front of my thoughts. But my skills on the board suffered big time. I became out of shape. My timing departed. My confidence was shot.
In the wake of Gisela’s death I surrendered on some level, and my inner compass naturally took me to surfing. It was part going back to what I know, reconnecting with my past. On a neuroscience level, I’m sure it was part negative ions of the sea spurting dopamine, lifting me from my blackness. On a cellular level, it was part those curling toes and bouncing knees and windmilling arms. At 47 years old, freshly widowed, surfing saved my life the same way it did when I was a confused, angst-ridden teenager.
The Dazzling Blackness
On my flight to São Paulo for the funeral, and in the month or two after she died, memories of my 11 years with Gisela flooded back in vivid detail. It was as if God above said, You’re going to have to move on from this, you’re going to have to find your life again, but for now, let us revisit your life with Gisela. It played back as if on a film reel—entire conversations at the breakfast table of our 15th Street apartment in 2003; the hike through the jungle to Punta Negra in 2004; the burnt tips of the queijo quente we shared at the bar of Padaria Charmosa in 2006. I recorded all of it—more like I transcribed—into notebooks, legal pads, on cocktail napkins and loose scraps of paper. Never have I felt more possessed as a writer.
And so now I’m back in the lineup at Praia do Pepê, 50 years old, bodysurfing because it points toward something new. I am here in Brazil doing what? Trying to learn more about Gisela via long, teary conversations with her family and friends? Trying to make sense of it all, find some kind of redemption? Wallowing, indulging, perpetuating? When my brother died I vowed to win a contest in his honor. When Gisela died I clung to the idea that I would write a book about our life together.
The waves are waist-high, the water is balmy and stinky, the green-blue water sparkles in the midday sun. To my left, a couple hundred yards away, is a rock jetty that produces a bouncing, heavily-localized left. One Sunday in about 2011 Gisela and I ambled down there. She laid on the beach while I kicked out to the lineup and scored what might have been my longest bodysurfing ride ever, a roping wall that kept going and going and going until it finally dumped me on the shore. I jogged up to the beach to Gisela.
“Did you see it?” I asked.
She looked up from her newspaper: “What, Jimmer?”
To my right are a string of personal landmarks that stretch for 250 miles but feel butted up together: the kiosk where we drank beer one sunset and watched a riveting game of footvolley; the bay where we lay on the beach and whispered improvised nicknames into each other’s ears; the cove where I placed a career-best =3rd in the 1988 Sundek Classic and where Gisela and I ate unforgettable banana cake in an open-air restaurant; the Jardim apartment where I experienced the deep love and connectedness of Gisela’s family. It’s a slippery slope, this mining memories business.
Wave comes. Three feet, translucent on the sandbar, alive and fluid. I kick into position, feign dolphin, insinuate myself into the trim line.