Janet Parmely

Date: November 29, 2002

To: Anne B.

Subject: The Bloody Wetsuit

Attached: Ocean Beach

Adrian has been teaching me to bodyboard at Ocean Beach. Here is how it goes. He chides me past my comfort zone (the shore) until I am in over my head. Either he has no idea where my comfort zone lies, or that is immaterial to the project at hand. We dive under the pounding waves together to get past the break (well beyond my happy place now). Then we bob among the Portuguese men o’ war that can sting you with their slimy tentacles, some nearly a foot long. When Adrian judges that the wave thundering down upon me is a good one, he gives me a push, and away I go, with the solace that if I get stung, Adrian will pee on the wound and that will relieve the pain, so he says.

About half the time I catch the wave. The other half, I feel like Annie Edson Taylor must have felt. She was the sixty-three-year-old schoolteacher who was the first person to successfully go over Niagara Falls in a wooden barrel. The barrel had first been tested on a house cat, then Annie took the plunge in 1901. She was in financial trouble and hoped this stunt might raise some money. Talk about dire straits. She got a gash on her head, but no fame or fortune.

I am not that desperate, so why do I persevere? Why do I let Adrian pack me into the barrel once more, only to tumble over Niagara Falls again? I believe it’s for the 50 percent of the time that I get to ride the wave.

But first! First I have to get into a wetsuit. Everyone thinks it’s hilarious that I’m wearing a wetsuit in summer. Let them laugh. I know it’s under fourteen hundred miles from Bluff to the Antarctic Circle any time of year.

I got a custom wetsuit because nothing ready-made will fit a woman older than eighteen. The fitting started with a team effort at the Kerikeri Dive Shop a month ago. A girl who can buy her wetsuit off the rack wielded the tape measure, and a well-set lad recorded the numbers.

“Front to back waist, please,” Surfer Boy called out in a cheerful and efficient manner that was meant to put everyone at ease. I held one end of the tape to the front of my waist and Junior Miss popped her head between my legs, retrieved the dangling bit and slid it, via private parts, to the back. It was a minor chagrin, and might even have been titillating had Surfer Boy been in charge of the tape measure.

I waited four weeks and drove to Kerikeri to pick up my custom-made wetsuit. In the dressing room, I stared at a garment that was so inflexible it stood up on its own and was exactly proportioned like the woman I would like to be in my dreams. I pretended to try it on, called out, “That’s great!” paid them NZ$500, and drove back to Whangarei.

Although it’s high summer, the temperature of the water at Ocean Beach has only risen to a point where, if someone flushed a baby alligator down a toilet in similar conditions, it would die of frostbite. I put on a modest one-piece “costume,” as my mate from South Africa calls it. (Who equates the humiliation of wearing a swimsuit with the fun of playing dress-up?) And then I tried to get the wetsuit over my costume.

I struggled to get my feet through the elfin leg openings. I grappled with the neoprene, five millimeters thick on the body for warmth and three millimeters thick on the arms and legs for flexibility (righty-ho). I got it over my hips. Now the shoulders were at my waist, the crotch at my knees, and the kneepads at my ankles. I was getting claustrophobic. I wrestled my hands through the sleeves, like a cartoon character shoving cats into sacks.

On the bright side, I had expended two thousand calories attempting to get into the thing, and it just might function like a full-body girdle when in place. But let’s be realistic. The odds of getting it in place were equivalent to my family of origin becoming a functional unit. And even if I did, it would be like super-sucker panty hose, as Laura says: the skirt might look divine after you zip it up, but you know it’s a lie, and it’s only a matter of time before someone else finds out.

I succeeded in getting the wetsuit over my shoulders after coercing Adrian to bounce me up and down to settle me in, much like you might do with a toddler in a snowsuit. But I couldn’t stand up straight because the neoprene crotch was still at my knees. I looked like the hunchback of Notre Dame. Not Foxy Roxy, or Rip Curl Girl, or Billabong Babe. But Quasimodo, Igor, or a sausage stuffed by a butcher on LSD. And I wasn’t even in the damn water yet.