On the Rocks


After, as I paddled back out, little strings of flesh swirling around my fingertips, Dave said that he thought I had been getting too close to the rocks.

I had taken off on a steep backside break and popped up to my feet on my little yellow-and-blue four-finned fish. It was about eight o’clock on a New Hampshire evening. The sun was low, throwing a harsh and bright orange light that shot between the cottages and onto the beach where the last of the sunbathers were nothing more than sunspot silhouettes dancing and running or just standing on the sand. I could not look up for being blinded in the glare as I glided across the face of the wave. I certainly didn’t see the rocks just starting to be covered up by the dark water and shadows of the incoming tide.

I looked down at the green and black water rolling under me, at the foam breathing and laughing at me as I made some slow carves up and down the face. The tide was getting on the waves and they were not sticking up the way they had been doing an hour ago when I first paddled out. What should have been a chest-to-head high wall of water was piddling out to a little thigh-high grubber. But it was a good wind swell that had come in the night before and even the thigh-high wave had a little push. My wide-backed surfboard had been making second and third sections of the waves all night. Vinnie and Dave and some of the other guys riding thrusters weren’t making those sections, or had to pump and butt-wiggle so much to get into them that it made for ugly and frustrating rides. But the fish had enough surface area to glide over where a wave might be flattening out and drop into the place where the new peak was forming.

As I headed left into the sunset, I was looking for another section to make this weak thigh-high ride worth the paddle. Then I saw it, just ahead: the wave was walling up into a nice steep drop that I could bomb down and crank out one more good turn before sliding over the top of the wave and paddling back out. I tucked down, both my feet in the middle of the board as I tried to get the speed to make the section.

But something was wrong with the water ahead of me. It was roiling, churning in awkward swirling ways. The sun was barely touching the water anymore and it was dark, but seemed even darker here. I hadn’t surfed this break in maybe a year. It was called Little Rocks because of an outcropping of boulders that were exposed during low tide. I hadn’t realized how far over I was when I took off on the wave. I also hadn’t realized how, over the winter, far more rocks had been exposed during some pretty severe winter storms that had reshaped all of the sandbars in Seabrook, one of the few nice beaches along New Hampshire’s thirteen miles of craggy coastline. Dave had mentioned something about the severity of the shifted sandbars, but it hadn’t really sunk in. I guess I’m an experiential learner.

I have a spotty memory of the moment when I first realized I was about to drop into a shallow reef of black and seaweed-hairy rocks, but I do remember seeing water roll off a back spined with barnacle as if it were the hump of some sea monster about to consume me. I don’t recall how I managed to bail, to vault off the board into the wave that was beginning to throw me down on the rocks, without spilling the soft content of my skull all over the tangle of seaweed, without snapping the bones of my arms, my legs, or my ribs. I don’t know how I did not get pulled down into one of the crevices between the rocks and get stuck, or end up tied to a rock by my surboard’s ankle leash, drowning inches away from the surface as my body was pounded by the surf. It was not experience or training. Maybe it was luck. Or karma. Or the hand of a God I had long ago stopped believing in.

More likely, it just happened to work out that instead of being broken, skulled, or drowned, I found myself swimming among the rocks. I was being thrown against them as I tried to get away from them. There was a lightness to the way the waves batted me around on the stones, the lightness of a cat playing with a mouse it was about to kill. I got up to my knees on one boulder, and, thinking it was the last rock before the open ocean, I leapt forward. I kept my head up, trying to protect my brain from being squashed. I kept my arms out ahead of me to feel my way in the dark water and darkening sky. The first jump landed me on another rock. I could sort of see now that I was surrounded on all sides by ten feet of nasty angles that I had to get beyond. And I had to get beyond it quick. I knew I was lucky so far.


A wave rolled me, and I was pushed back another few feet. I landed on my back on a stone, water whipping me around. I can’t get off the reef, I thought. I imagined the people on the beach, seeing this kook surfer trapped on the rocks. I must look like such an asshole, I thought. I was about to die, and I was embarrassed. I think now of a good moment in a bad movie called The Edge, with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin. The Hopkins character said men die in the wilderness not because of the wilderness, but because they are so embarrassed by their humbling situation that they do nothing. They die of embarrassment.

And it was in embarrassment, as I lay turtled on the stones, that I laughed. It was a calm laugh, but not the laugh of confidence that something will work out. Rather, the calmness came from the growing belief that I was about to die. It was the same laugh my dad had about twenty-five years before, not a mile away from this spot, when he dove off the little rowboat we had rented to save an oar that slipped out of the lock. My brothers, my mom, and I were all frozen as he stood up and jumped into the Hampton Harbor. He should have looked at how fast and far the oar was slipping toward the river mouth and, from there, the open ocean, and realized how nastily the tide was sucking out. When he saw the oar was gone, he tried to swim back, but he kept getting pulled farther out. He was a smoker. He didn’t exercise much. The water was about 59 degrees.

He was already under the Hampton Bridge when he stopped swimming and looked up at us. “I can’t get back,” he said and smiled. He smiled to settle us, to tell us not to worry. But in his eyes, which were looking at my mom, there was a sense of goodbye. I know I saw it. What seemed like an inconsequential thing had suddenly turned into everything. What seems like not such a big deal can be that moment delivers or damns us. I saw this in his eyes, even if I couldn’t name it then. In that wide smile, I intuited that water did not have to be deep to drag you out to sea.

And I know it was the same smile I had on my face right now as I lay there like a flipped crab on the little rocks of Seabrook. I turned on to my belly and looked for my board. I had just gotten a longboard back from the shop, which I had dinged on some rocks in Hampton. I didn’t want to have to bring another board into Mike. This is what I was thinking after I finished my death laugh: I didn’t want to ding my board. Maybe thinking about something so pedestrian and materialistic in this situation saved me. If I had started thinking about my wife, my children, what my death or a crippling injury would have done to their lives, I probably would have panicked.

Later I would think of all this. I would imagine Emily angry with me at how I’d died for this sport that had already taken me away for so many hours. I would imagine how hard a life it would be raising the children and how my job teaching at a boarding school had taken her from the kind of normal community that might have eased this hardship. I’d see her at the kitchen sink of the apartment we had just moved into on campus, crying into her hands, tired and lost and having to take the devastation of our life together being over and turn it into anger and action because she had two children to raise on her own. It would occur to me later how Delaney might become terrified of the water she loved to play in so much. I would think about how she sometimes says she can’t remember the sound of her Papi’s, my father’s, voice, and how she will also forget the sound of my voice. And then I would think of Joe and what it meant to take a boy’s father away from him before he knew him, of the hole it would leave and how easy it would be to fill that hole with anger or some romantic ideal of his dad that would drive a wedge between him and his mother.

But that would be later. To think of my family at that moment would have gotten me all caught up in them, and me, and me not having them, and them not having me. I probably would have done something stupid and tried to slowly and carefully escape those rocks. And then a set wave would have come and finished off what I had started. It would have drilled me down into the rocks, bashing me and dragging me like dead bait. Instead, I just thought, I have to get this fucking board out of here before it gets wrecked.


In green suck and swell, I thought I saw a channel between the rocks so I used my leash to tug the board toward me. I slid up on top and started paddling and felt the sick scrape of fiberglass on barnacles. I sprang off, hoping that I hadn’t punctured the bottom of the board. Pushing the board away, I decided my weight would only make its chance of survival worse. Then I began to belly scramble across the rocks, grabbing with my hands and hauling myself across them as quickly as I could, heading out to sea and deeper water, feeling all the little gashes being bitten into my wetsuit. The rocks cut into my hands and feet as I kicked like a beached dolphin over the rocks, frustrated every time I slid off one outcropping of rocks and into another.

Finally, I dropped into deeper water. There were still rocks around me, but I started swimming and finally made it clear of the waves and reef. I thought again about what the people on the beach had seen. Had they watched me flailing foolishly? Had they worried that I might get killed, or had they laughed at the damn fool who didn’t know better than to surf into an island of rocks? As I got free of the pull of the waves, I grabbed my board and slid on top of it toward deeper water. The whole thing must have taken less than two minutes, but as I paddled back into the lineup, feeling the stings rip across my feet and hands, I felt like I had been gone forever.

In a way, I had been gone forever, and would always be gone forever. You never paddle back out the same person you were when you took off down the line. You are rewritten with every action, every thought, every experience you have. Though usually the demarcation is not as clear. Or literal. I looked down at my hands and the scars already beginning to write themselves on my skin. Even in the wash of seawater, my hands were red and streaming with blood. Little pink ribbons of skin hung from my fingers and palms and yanking sickly on my nerve endings when I paddled. I slid off my board and looked for dings: a few surface scrapes on the bottom deck, but other than that, no problems. No cracks in the glass that I would have to seal up. No major punctures that I would have to bring to a shop. No water seeping into the board’s foam. I could keep surfing.

Later, I would think about how my dad was lifted from the river mouth by a fisherman who saw him in distress. Another fisherman would bring our little rowboat into to dock. We would run over to him, my mother a mix of tears and curses, my little brother Paul, maybe four years old, in her arms. We ran across the deck as he was stepping up the stones on the bank of the bay where the fisherman had brought him. He got out, soaked. He still had his brown loafers on. His white golf shirt hung down with dripping water. I would think of this as I checked my surfboard for dings, as my hands bled on the rails of the board. I’d remember my dad coming out of the water, putting his watch to his ear and saying with a smile that calmed Jon and me but not my mom, “What do you know? Still ticking.”

But right then, I was still in my own water, heart a little quick as I paddled over to where Dave and Vinnie were waiting for a set. “I did a little dance with the rocks,” I said, smiling. They did not look at me. All of us had our eyes on the horizon, waiting for an outside pulse to silhouette against the pale violet of the evening sky.

“I saw you headed that way,” said Dave. “I thought you were getting close.” But they had not seen how close I was, didn’t see me scrambling across the barnacle, and hadn’t known the embarrassment that had almost killed me, the materialism that had saved me.

I took a few more rides, all rights, all away from my island, and then headed in toward shore. Vinnie was already there, his wetsuit stripped to his waist as he watched Dave try to get that last nice wave. The sun had set and dusk closed in. As we talked I looked down at my right foot. It was covered in blood.

“Look at that,” I said to Vinnie as he shook the water out of his long, black curly hair.

“Oh, shit. You really did hit the rocks,” he said, nose twisting up at the sight of flayed skin and blood.

“Yeah, they got me good,” I said and showed off my ripped-up wrists and the bleeding scrapes on my fingertips. I looked toward the sea, toward the rocks, toward where Dave waited on a last wave. Then I said goodbye and headed back to my van, tender with the wounds on the bottoms of my feet. I opened up the tailgate and slid my board between the seats, right next to my longboard. Hitching a towel up around my waist, I stripped out my wetsuit, then threw on a pair of board shorts, tossed the towel and wetsuit into a plastic bin, and closed the tailgate. I got into the driver’s seat and reached for the side-door pocket where I kept my wedding ring while I surfed. I grabbed the ring and slipped it on.

I drove home in the dark, beginning to think just a little bit about how badly I could have been hurt. When I got home, I showered outside and got dressed quietly, quickly. I did not yet mention to my wife what had happened. I did not let my daughter know, as I kissed her goodnight while my mother, visiting from Lowell, read her a bedtime story, how much pain I was in, how I had been hurt in the water that she loved to play in so much.

Emily would feel my hand on her that night or the next. Delaney would see my feet in the morning. My fingers would sting from the sanitary wipes as I changed Joe’s diaper. But first I’d need a few hours more to think about how close I came. And even if I didn’t come all that close, I’d still think I did, because that is what was in my head as I limped around in flip-flops with stinging feet, as I cooked dinner for my wife with a burning in my hands.


Rumpus original art by Lara Odell.

Matt W. Miller’s second book of poems, Club Icarus, was selected by Major Jackson for the 2012 Vassar Miller Poetry Prize. His first collection, Cameo Diner: Poems, was published by Loom Press. He is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University and has published work in Slate, Poetry Daily, Harvard Review, New California Writing 2012, Notre Dame Review, Memorious, Third Coast, and other journals. He is a former Visiting Professor of Writing at New England College and has taught writing workshops at Stanford University, the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and the New Hampshire State Prison for Men. Miller teaches English and coaches football at Phillips Exeter Academy, where he also directs the Writers’ Workshop at PEA. He lives with his family in New Hampshire. More from this author →