My wife, Mary, and I sit on the deck of The Boatyard, a Sarasota seafood restaurant. Since our retirement, we lunch here several times a month. Mary is eating a hamburger because she is allergic to seafood. I am devouring fish-and-chips, which I have smothered with malt vinegar.
Mary gazes out onto a channel where seagulls soar like kites. She then looks at me and says, “I’d like to pick your brain. If you could go back in time and change one thing about yourself, what is it you would change and how would it have affected your life?”
“That’s two questions,” I answer. I feel myself starting to sweat.
“Let’s not get technical,” Mary says. “You may answer them one at a time.”
“What would you change about yourself?” I ask.
Mary puts down her burger and sighs. “I’d have been more open to people. I’d have been more spontaneous. I hate to think of all I missed out on simply because I was shy.”
“I have done that too,” I blurt. “I’d have opened myself up a lot more.”
“No, you wouldn’t have,” says Mary. “My sister is right about you. She says you’re the most self-protective person that she has ever met.”
“I wouldn’t be so self-protective,” I say, “if your sister didn’t pick me apart.”
“Quit trying to change the subject,” says Mary. “Just answer me honestly. What would you have changed about yourself and how would it have affected your life?”
I am not a proponent of honesty when a tidy lie will do, but this time I have no option except to tell Mary the truth. “I’d have learned to ride a longboard,” I confess, “and I’d have changed my name to Biff.”
“Biff?” Mary says.
“Biff Malibu. That’s a good name for a surfer dude.”
Mary rubs her eyes as though the Florida sun has pricked them. “Your capacity to reinvent yourself never fails to amaze me.”
“You told me to be honest,” I say.
“I guess I asked for that. So how would learning to longboard have affected your life?”
“Every time I caught a wave, I’d have been sitting on top of the world.”
“Hmmm,” Mary says. “That’s pretty poetic. Hey, wait a minute, mister. Isn’t that a line from a Beach Boys’ song?”
“The Beach Boys oughta know,” I say.
“The Beach Boys never surfed.”
“Maybe not,” I reply, “but they sure were spontaneous. Drive-in theaters and cha-cha burgers were lifelong values to them.”
“They celebrated all that is shallow. Is that what you want to do?”
I shrug. “Why not be shallow if it keeps life simple and fun?”
“Does it have to be as simple as that?” Mary says. “Please tell me again how learning to surf would have affected the your life.”
“I’d have ridden the breakers at Mavericks. I’d have learned how to shoot the tube, and I’d have taken my pick of the beach bunnies after winning a trophy or two.”
“Beach bunnies?” says Mary. “What are those? Are you by any chance referring to women?”
Since Mary has dismissed me as callow, I have nothing more to lose, so I sing a couple of bars from “Surfer Girl.” “. . . We could riiide the surf together while our looove would grooow. In my woody, I would taaake you everywhere I go.”
“Amazing,” says Mary, salting her fries. “I can’t believe how banal you are. I ask you to be honest and you give me a fantasy.”
“I’m an author,” I say. “My business is to create fantasy.”
Mary points to a vinegar stain on my chin. After I pick up my napkin and wipe it, she says, “So when would you have written your books?”
“Whenever the surf was slack.”
Mary sighs like a schoolmarm on Monday. “Think about what you just said,” she replies. “Think of how your book covers would look. The Siege: A Prison Riot Redefines Justice . . . by Biff Malibu. Call Me Pomeroy: A Novel of Satire and Political Dissent . . . by Biff Malibu. Would anyone have taken you seriously?”
“I’d have been too shallow to care.”
“All right,” says Mary. “I’m calling your bluff. So why don’t you longboard here?”
“Have you seen the waves in the Gulf?” I say. “They aren’t even two feet high. The only time I could surf in the Gulf would be during a hurricane.”
“Okay, so why didn’t you surf before we moved here from San Francisco?”
“I was a probation officer—remember? When would I have found the time? But, thinking back on it now, I wish I had stolen the time.”
“If you had surfed in California, would you have adopted that stupid name?”
“Of course, I’d have told my probationers that they could call me Biff.”
“Do you think they’d have taken you seriously if you’d let them call you Biff?”
“Maybe not,” I say, “but I’m sure they would have complimented my tan.”
Mary rolls her eyes and returns her gaze to the channel. “It’s amazing to think how much less there is to you than meets the eye. Out of all you might have changed in yourself and all you might have accomplished, you’d have chosen to turn your life into a perpetual holiday.”
“Shall we change the subject?” I ask her.
“Yes, let’s talk about something else.”
As Mary stares at the water, I ponder my buoyant soul, and the thought of my life as an endless summer does not disturb me at all. Mary will bring up this subject again—she still hopes to straighten me out. But I see no reason to dwell upon that because somewhere the surf is up.