Waterman by Robert Kerbeck


Robert Kerbeck

I’m standing outside the cave as it fills with water. If Adrian does exactly as I’ve told him—which I made him repeat back—he’ll be fine. All he has to do is stay perched on the rock shelf inside the cave until he is completely underwater. Right before the water reaches the cave’s ceiling, he’ll take one final (hopefully large) inhale and submerge himself. And wait.

It only takes about fifteen seconds for the tide to recede. Once Adrian feels the pull, he’ll swim as fast as he can to make it out before the tide switches directions again. If he starts swimming too soon and goes against the current, he’ll burn himself out and drown. If he waits for the surge but doesn’t swim hard enough, he’ll be sucked back inside, where he’ll be too exhausted to repeat the exercise. He’ll die when the cave fills again.

Both of these scenarios have happened at Spitting Caves. The hand-carved signs in Hawaiian and English all along the red dirt pathway warn of such. Kapu! No Trespassing! High Likelihood of Drowning! Swimming Here Can Result In Permanent Injury And Death!

Another wooden placard, this one engraved with the outlines of flowers, indicates the names (as well as ages) of those who’ve drowned at Spitting Caves, almost all young men. My clients are neither young nor strong. They are rich, however, and often famous as well. And I’ve never lost one.

“Buzz,” Adrian screams my name from inside the cave. “I don’t wanna do it.”

I’d hoped the heavy-metal rock star with the hardcore reputation would prove me wrong, but I’d suspected his rep was as put on as the gruesome makeup he wore on stage.

“You’re doing fine,” I project over the sound of the ocean, forcing my voice to remain calm. “Are you on the shelf?”

“Yeah, but I’m cramping.”

I estimate Adrian has another ten seconds before grabbing a gulp of air that’ll need to last a minute, but then I hear a splash.

“Help.” He wails like a little girl, not the lead singer of War Crimes.

Adrian is in the water, too soon. He’ll be thrashed against the walls of the cave, though the scrapes and gashes will be the least of his problems. I already know what this means for me. At some point within the next ten to fifteen seconds, I’ll be expected to swim in and rescue him. Adrian has paid me crazy money—as all of my clients do—to take him on this extreme adventure and to provide him with the ultimate rush. But while nearly dying may be part of the deal, going any further would be bad for business.

There’s only one problem. I’m afraid of the water.


The hypnotherapist’s office was in a weathered, single-story cottage-like building in Topanga Canyon. My soon-to-be ex, Keilani, had come up with the idea, after I’d refused to go to regular therapy. I’d only agreed to hypnotherapy because the word was so close to hydrotherapy, which was really what I needed. Keilani wanted me to see someone on the mainland, too, so there’d be less chance of getting recognized. We didn’t need anyone finding out that one of the world’s most famous big-wave surfers and all-around watermen had become afraid to go in the water.

I entered the empty waiting room seconds before my appointment and took a seat, searching the magazines for a Sports Illustrated or Men’s Fitness. I knew I wasn’t going to stumble across a copy of Surfer featuring me before I got all kooky. Instead, I snatched a People because there was no one else in the room, but put it down when I saw that the magazine was three years old. If I was going to read stupid gossip, it should at least be current.

I sat for ten minutes, jiggling my legs and getting hotter with each passing second. I hated waiting for set waves, let alone for some therapist. Finally, just as I’d scooped an enormous handful of Jolly Ranchers from the room’s candy bowl on my way out, an interior door opened and a woman appeared.

She was in her mid-thirties and wore a white ribbed sweater with a long necklace that stopped between her breasts. At the bottom of the pewter chain was a green amulet, reflecting the lighting from the ceiling but turning the harsh fluorescents into soft twinkles.

“Hello,” she said. “Up here.”

It took some concentration to remove my focus from her jewelry. I’m sure she thought I was staring at her chest.

“You didn’t turn on the light.”

“What?” I looked up at the lights on the ceiling. They were all on.

“Not those. This one.” She flicked a light switch on the wall and a little red light came on. “See, this tells me you’re waiting.” She flicked it off again. Her nails were painted black and shaped like daggers.


“It’s all right. I imagine you might not have been to a therapist’s office before,” she said, eyeing my Pipeline Masters T-shirt. She had that right. I hadn’t even made the appointment. That was my wife’s doing. She was freaking out about her potential loss of alimony should I continue freaking out in the water.

The therapist reached to shake, but my right hand was filled with Jolly Ranchers. She smiled and pretended not to notice, never taking her eyes, the same color as the amulet, off mine. What was that shade? Evergreen? Fern green?

“I’m Blueberry,” she said. “Nice to meet you.”

Blueberry? Keilani had told me I was seeing a certified hypnotherapist named Donna Barnes—not that I had much room to talk, since every one of my surfer buds had a whacky nickname. Even my name, Buzz, was a nickname, given to me as a grom, because I could never sit still long enough to wait for a wave. I was always buzzing out toward them.

“Pleez,” Blueberry said, gesturing to the interior door. “Follow me zo ve can beginz.” She laughed at the joke I didn’t get, causing the amulet to trampoline up and down off her chest. “That was my Sigmund Freud impression. Did you know he used hypnosis in his therapy?”

I grimaced, shook my head no, and followed her into the office, stuffing the candy into the back pocket of my board shorts. The small room held a faded brown Barcalounger parked in the middle, squatting on top of carpet that was threadbare. A cheap-looking desk with a nearly empty bookshelf was the only other furniture. There wasn’t another chair, only the lounger. I’d seen more impressive offices in Fijian villages.

“Please sit.”

I flopped down into the lounger and kicked it back into recline mode, the footrest rising up to meet my flip-flops.

“No,” she said, almost raising her voice. “Sit straight.”

I fumbled to get the lounger back to its upright position and reached around the chair searching for a lever to pull, but there wasn’t one. Blueberry placed both her hands on the footrest and pushed it down. I didn’t think she was going to be strong enough since I weigh as much as a pro linebacker, but I found myself bucked forward, eye-to-eye with her right breast.

“Up here,” she said when she caught me marveling. I looked into her eyes. What was that color? Emerald green? Cat-eye green? “No more reclining until I give you permission.” She pointed her nail at me and then returned to lean against the desk. “Now, how can I help you?”

“Didn’t my ex tell you?” I was positive Keilani had told the woman that her former stud husband had turned into a giant pussy, now petrified to surf big waves.

“I’d like to hear it from you.”

Blueberry explained that everything we discussed would be confidential, unless I’d committed a crime or was planning on doing so. My only offense was having panic attacks. It sickened me that I was so fucked up I had to see this woman, but I couldn’t control my fear. As much as I berated myself to remain calm in the ocean and tough it out, my mind always won, forcing me out of the water like I’d seen a ghost. “No criminal here,” I said. “Just a head case.”

“Put away the bat, please.”


“Beating yourself up isn’t going to help either of us.”

“Lady, I make my living off of the ocean—or I used to. Now I freak out in the water. I freaked out swimming laps with my son. In a pool. If that’s not crazy, what is?”

“Can you tell me about the first time you had one of these episodes?”

“Uh,” I said and had to catch myself from kicking back in the recliner. I’d only agreed to the hypnotherapy because I thought I’d be asleep or out most of the time, and that when I awoke my panic attacks would be removed, like in a successful surgery—but without stitches. Keilani had told me that the woman’s ad said she cured fears and phobias in just one session, but I didn’t know I was going to have to retell—and hence relive—the embarrassing stories. Whenever I thought of past attacks, I could usually feel another one bubbling closer to the surface. Blueberry seemed to sense this, for she rushed forward from the desk toward me, the amulet flashing like a siren. When she reached me, she touched it between my eyebrows, the sweetest (as well as sexiest) thing that had happened to me in a long time.


It was almost a year ago, during a huge northwest swell. One Nut was driving the Jet Ski and had whipped me into a beast. I’d already dropped when I realized it was going to be the wave of the day. I figured the wave to be around sixty feet, but I caught an edge on a crater-sized divot about halfway down, which was unlike me. I skimmed like a stone down the remaining thirty or so feet of the wave, each bounce punishing my rib cage like a hit from an NFL safety.

Once I reached the bottom, the force of the breaking wave had me (and my surfboard) cartwheeling under the water. Then I stopped, as if someone had suddenly slammed on the brakes.

My leash had gotten snagged.

There were so many ways to die while surfing big waves, but the scariest was getting your leash caught on under water rocks. All the training I’d done running on the ocean floor while carrying huge boulders would make little difference. I would just drown more slowly.

I tried to reach down to my ankle to release the leash, but the power of the water was too great. Just lowering my hands from above my head was nearly impossible. I told myself to remain calm and wait for the energy to subside. It was only a question of whether I’d still be alive—or even conscious—when that happened.

When I sensed a slight decrease in the strength of the flow, I accordioned myself, pulling my knees up while driving my arms down. I seized blindly for the release and somehow found it. Immediately, I popped free. I started swimming hard for the surface but smacked into something, which made no sense, until I noticed my air bubbles floating over my head, up and away from me.

I’d gone the wrong way and hit the bottom.

Reversing course, I pushed off the sea floor, giving it everything I had. By the time I made it to the surface—breaking through two feet of foam and gasping for air—my world had changed, though I didn’t understand that yet. All I knew was I was short of breath and panting like an old man, or some poorly conditioned wannabe. It was everything I could do not to scream or cry out for help. I could feel, too, that my eyes had gotten wide. Surfers scared of large surf get “big eyes.” But I’d never been scared of a wave in my life.

“Buzz, you okay?” One Nut said when he got close enough to pick me up. I’ll never forget how wide his eyes got seeing the look in mine. The guy hadn’t looked that spooked when he’d found out he had testicular cancer, and there I was hyperventilating and looking around as if I’d no idea how I’d gotten in the middle of the Pacific.

“What’s wrong? You hurt?” he hollered.

I shook my head, no, when I wanted to say, Just scared. Instead, I chickened out and muttered, “Shark.”

“Holy fuck.” One Nut latched onto me with one hand and with the other gunned the Jet Ski, using the momentum to hoist me onto the sled on back. Once I was on, I climbed and climbed, trying to get every inch of my body out of the water.

I heard One Nut on the radio, “Buzz saw a shark. A big one. We better tell the boys.”

When I got to the mother ship, The First Billion, there was a crowd waiting. Photographers were snapping my picture. Most of the other surfers were kids really. I was old enough to have fathered most of them.

“Dude, how big was it?” one muscular, shaggy-haired teenager asked as he single-handedly pulled me off the sled and up the side of the ship, all while lying on his belly on the edge of the deck. Maybe he’d bought my workout book.

When I landed on terra firma, I mumbled like a homeless person and the hubbub surrounding me ceased. Even the photographers stopped snapping pictures.

“Holy shit, Buzz. How big was the shark?” another surfer, Porny, asked, reading my fear and stoking it with one of his own. Porny had a thing about sharks, as did many surfers. While we accepted that there were man-eaters out there, that didn’t mean we wanted to see one swimming underneath our feet.

“Leviathan” was what I said. I have no idea why I used a word I’d never uttered before. All the guys turned to each other with “Oh, shits” and “What the fucks?” By not quantifying the size of the fictitious shark, as well as by using a ten-cent word—at least, for surfers—I’d made it a monster.

Peter Bing, the thirty-something CEO of my surf wear sponsor, Banzai, came down from the bridge. “You all right?”

I nodded, but knew that Peter could see through me. He could tell I’d been shaken.

“You going to go back out?”

I listened to the helicopter hovering overhead, as well as the small army of drones, all there to film me.

“Not today.”

Peter stared at me for a long moment, during which I realized we were being filmed. I worried he was going to lambast me, à la some bad reality show. After all, he was paying me to surf, and I was refusing to go out.

“Well, blow me down,” Peter spat like he was Captain Ahab. “That must have been some scary motherfucker.”


“You’re standing at the top of a staircase,” Blueberry was saying. “Feeling confident and strong.”

I was reclined in the Barcalounger with my eyes closed, finally getting the experience I’d come for. I’d even forgotten about the Jolly Ranchers grinding into my ass. I kept drifting in and out, so I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming or not. Twice, it seemed like Blueberry opened a door and I thought I heard liquid being poured. Maybe she was getting a glass of water. Each time she moved away though, she returned closer to me, pressing her thighs against the skin of my arm, resting on the chair. There was a new smell too, like she’d brought a Christmas tree into the room.

“I’m going to count down from twenty as you walk down the staircase. With each step, you will feel more relaxed, yet at the same time, you will feel stronger and more powerful than ever.”

I nodded slightly, eager.

She leaned down toward me and pressed the amulet hard into my forehead, whispering, “First, go a little deeper.” She snapped her fingers.

I did, floating down into the dark to some warm and wonderful space.

“Twenty, nineteen. You’re starting down the stairs. Eighteen, seventeen. You are powerful. You are prepared.”

I felt her hovering above me, the ridges of her sweater rubbing against my shoulder.

“Sixteen, fifteen. You are a strong man. A fit man. Fourteen, thirteen. A man who is not afraid.”

Her breast took up residence on my upper arm. I drifted deeper.

“Twelve, eleven, ten. A man who is not intimidated by anything. Nine, eight, seven.”

I could feel her breath on me. The Christmas tree smell was coming from her mouth.

“Six, five, four. You are strong. You are ready.”

I wanted to rise up to taste her lips, but I couldn’t move. Or I could, I guess. It’s more that I didn’t want to. I was afraid to break the spell.

“When you reach the bottom of the staircase, you will open your eyes. You’ll feel fresh and rested. Three, two…”


“One. Eyes open, wide awake.”

I felt her slip away from me toward the back of the Barcalounger, which she pushed to upright.

“Eyes open. Wide awake.”

The first thing I noticed when I opened them was the tent in my board shorts.

“How do you feel?” she asked.

“Great,” I said, scrambling up and turning my back on her to adjust myself. When I turned around again, Blueberry had opened the door for me to go.

“Uh, should I make another appointment?”

“With my hypnosis, one session is usually effective.”

“But,” I stuttered, “I’d, uh, like to come again.”

“Why don’t you see how you do?”


I find Adrian underwater, trying to scratch his way through the roof of the completely filled cave. I’m not surprised. He’s panicked and lost his grip on reality. I’ve seen it before. I dolphin kick toward him and propel myself so that my fist strikes his nose as hard as possible. There’s no way to be nice in this moment. There’s also no time to waste fighting him in his agitated state. My punch gets his attention, except instead of clawing the lava ceiling, he’s now clawing me. Fortunately, the rock star has long hair and I latch onto it as I do a flip turn, twisting his hair as I do, so that I can push off the ceiling to regain momentum. I plant my calloused feet and drive off the lava wall using my leg strength, hoping that the rocker’s hair is real and not some weave that will leave me holding the mullet. When I hear him scream underwater, I know we’re good.

But then it comes, out of nowhere, like a sudden, unpredicted change in the weather. I feel my eyes go wide. I stop swimming. I’m not even out of breath, yet I’m freaking out like I’ve been under for over a minute, when it hasn’t even been thirty seconds. No one should die from being under water for thirty seconds—or a minute.

But they do. All the time.

Then Blueberry comes to me. Her sea green eyes stare into mine. Her amulet presses against my forehead.

I feel strong. I feel powerful. I even get an erection.

About the Author

Robert Kerbeck was selected for mentorship by the managing editor of Tin House, Cheston Knapp, based on his short stories, ten of which have been published in the last year. Robert’s short fiction can be read at upstreet, Serving House Literary Journal, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Philadelphia Stories, Crack the Spine, Tower Journal, Willow Review, and Lowestoft Chronicle, with stories forthcoming in Gargoyle, Cream City Review, and Cortland Review.