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August 4, 2009

The Young Married Man and the Sea

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/the_young_married_man_and_the_sea_20090803/

My wife woke up on the first morning of our honeymoon, turned to my
side of the bed, and I was gone.

That’s what they call a sign.

We were staying at an inn on the Mendocino coast.  It was a romantic
Victorian pile, perched on a cliff a hundred yards above a rocky
beach.  Our room—the Honeymoon Suite—overlooked the beach and
thousands of miles of ocean.

The bed was massive.  It was the very same bed used in the movie
Wuthering Heights.  I know that because there was picture of the bed
in the brochure that pointed out the fact, and the owner told us that
when we checked in, and a sign in the room proclaimed that where we
were about to lie down,  Lawrence Olivier already had.

Nomi slept late the next morning.  She awoke, where Lawrence Olivier
once did, to see that I was gone.  She called to the bathroom: gone.

She followed the sound of the crashing surf to the window, swung it
open, and looked far out at the horizon, at the endless expanse of
ocean, at the rugged, rock-strewn beach.

And at me.

“ROB?” she called down, then:  “ROB!”

When I turned to look up, a string of seaweed was hanging from my mouth.

“What are you doing?”

I was chewing seaweed.

Eating seaweed fascinated me.  It still does. I just never bothered to
tell Naomi that fact in our ten months of courtship and engagement.  And
she had never thought to ask, “By the way, do you have a seaweed
obsession?”

Sometime before our wedding, in anticipation of our honeymoon on the
Mendocino coast, I’d bought a small pamphlet, “Edible Seaweeds of the
Pacific Coast.”  It featured line-drawings and hand-lettering.  I
studied up before our trip, but there is nothing like carrying your
field guide into the field.

I woke up while Naomi was still fast asleep. Was it a bad omen to duck
out of our marital bed on the first morning of our honeymoon?  Well, I
figured, we spent the first night after our wedding at the Beverly
Hills Hotel, in the same room my parents had spent their wedding
night, and where my sister and brother had spent their first nights.
So technically this was our second married morning. And if that hotel
room worked for us like it did for my parents and siblings—70 married
years among them, at that point (and still going strong)—I didn’t have
to ration out the mornings so carefully.

Besides, it was low tide.

I slipped out of Lawrence Olivier’s side of the bed, pulled on my
shorts and a T-shirt, and grabbed the pamphlet. I followed a steep
path down to the beach, where seaweeds swirled and tangled among the
newly-exposed rocks. Just a few feet away, an otter head broke the
surface, and I swear his black marble eyes looked at me
coldly—Dude, you’re eating my salad.

I was.  I started with dulse, a wispy greenish brown leaf that floated
like the billow of a jellyfish against my calf. I compared it with the
picture in the book, lifted it pre-washed and pre-salted, and let it
slide down my throat.  It was as slick and bracing as an oyster.
Yum.

Hijiki was next: dark russet strands that my guide described as chewy
and high in iron. I plucked one from its anchor in a nearby rock and
sucked it down, chewing on it like a piece of al dente pasta. It was
halfway down my mouth when I heard Naomi call.

“Rob, what are you doing?”

She looked beautiful.  The early sunlight. Her face framed in the
window of a romantic Victorian.  And this is what she saw: her new
husband, a gash opened up on his stark white calf, blood seeping into
the roiling water, his old army surplus shorts soaked through, his T-shirt
weighted down with water and stuck to his spindly chest, and something
black and stringy hanging from his mouth—a rat tail? A braid?

“Rob! What are you doing!?”

I thought of that scene in Wuthering Heights where Cathy despairs of
the man she truly loves:

“I shouldn’t talk to you at all,” she cries. “Look at you! You get worse every day.
Dirty and unkempt and in rags. Why aren’t you a man? Why aren’t you my
prince like we said long ago? Why can’t you rescue me, Heathcliff?”

But Naomi didn’t despair. She wasn’t even angry that I’d slipped out
of bed, or that I spent the second morning of our married life up to
my waist in seawater, scavenging for seaweed.

“Did you know,” I told her later, “there is no such thing as poisonous
seaweed? Every kind of seaweed is edible.”

Many years later, after the sushi craze hit big, after we’d had
umpteen bowls of miso soup with tofu and seaweed, after our daughter
Noa decided that the crispy nori seaweed at Whole Foods was her
favorite snack, Naomi must have realized I wasn’t so crazy, maybe I
was even a little prescient, the way I’d be with the backyard
chickens, the front lawn I ripped out to make way for a crop of
artichokes, the yerba mate I took to drinking long before it became
popular (okay, the last one hasn’t exactly caught on, but mark my
words).

I suppose, looking out that window, Naomi could have thought that she
really didn’t know this guy after all—wet, and bloody, and eating
seaweed.  But she chose not to assume the worst.  She listened to my
explanation, once I had come in and dried off and bandaged up.  She
listened some more as I read the descriptions from the book, though I
knew then and know now that there’s a part of her that wishes I’d be
the kind of guy to study Torah with her, not sea vegetables.

If I were strange, Naomi figured, I was strange in a way she could
recognize, if not exactly relate to: Naomi the wife might be appalled,
but Naomi the rabbi recognized religious fervor when she saw it. 

Because only two types of people go down to the sea in their clothes: those who
want to drown themselves, and those who want to be baptized. Naomi the
rabbi recognized a true believer when she saw one, and she could
appreciate it.  She was one too, after all. Her faith was in God—but
the joy on her face in synagogue mirrored the joy on mine that
morning at sea.

She hadn’t found a freak, she’d found a soulmate.

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