I can deny it no longer: The wetsuit I’ve had since high school doesn’t fit me anymore.
The last time my surfing buddy — a brilliant painter named Victor who throws meat cleavers at a tree stump in his spare time — picked me up for an early-morning session in south Jersey, he laughed at the sight of my barely neoprene-clad legs. “Suit’s a little short?” he suggested. I shrugged him off but my ankles froze before we hit the beach.
The wetsuit, a thick Rip Curl winter model, was a Christmas gift from my dad in 2001, when a full rubber suit cost double what it does now and made you feel like a magician in a straightjacket. Your only trick? Not hyperventilating from claustrophobia. When I pulled it on for the first time in my kitchen, my typically mellow English setter freaked out — I looked as alien as I felt.
While paddling and duckdiving, my arms were so dense and awkwardly buoyant I earned a rep for ditching the seal skin midway through offseason sessions, 45-degree water be damned. I may have blown a few takeoffs but, on these mornings, no one heckled me for wasting a wave. Sporting a bikini when everyone else in the lineup (still testosterone-heavy in the early aughts) had gone full-hood-and-booties garnered me more respect than any kickflip could. Which is nice, because I’ve never been able to do a kickflip.
Still, the wetsuit was important to me, at least on a symbolic level.
My father, a retired firefighter, was a standout on his high school football, baseball, and diving teams, and he wanted me to be an athlete, too. With a September birthday, I could have started school a year earlier, but my dad thought holding me back would give me a leg up on whichever varsity team I eventually joined. When he pictured the sports I might play, he had something more traditional in mind. But in seven years of softball I never hit anything more than a single and, despite my height, I sucked at basketball. To my father’s dismay, I fell in love with just about the only sport he couldn’t play mentor.
Being a first-generation surfer means navigating a steep learning curve solo. I spent a chunk of my adolescence throwing myself into waves until my sinuses were full of salt and my eyelashes crusted white. When I called out sick from my first job working at a trinkets shop by the beach in order to hang out with a boy, my dad punished me by forbidding me from attending an upcoming surf contest. “You’d never ban me from a track meet,” I remember grumbling.
So, when the wetsuit appeared under the tree on Christmas morning, it felt like validation in neoprene form. I’d put the time in. I’d gotten sucked over the falls enough. I’d finally convinced my father I was in this for something other than cute lifeguards and a tan. I was the surfer who showed up to school with seaweed in her ponytail and paddled out in the depths of winter. A few years ago, while organizing my closet on a summer’s day, I laughed at the space the wetsuit occupied — it wasn’t haphazardly strewn over a rail or exploding out of a drawer like everything else, but carefully hung next to the only other carefully hung piece of clothing in my wardrobe, my wedding dress. I thought about finding a more appropriate spot but, in terms of significance in my life, it makes sense these two pieces end up closet buddies.
It’s not the first time I’ve gotten all sentimental about gear. I still have the bike I rode when I was 12, a seven-speed beach cruiser that gets me into town for summer errands. I cherish a softball glove my grandfather imprinted with my address using a leather-stamping tool. (I’m not sure what the point was — there’s no street name, just a number.) And I still regret letting an artist paint and sell my first surfboard, a 6’3” Cannibal I bought with my life savings at 13 and rode until its white deck turned brown.
And now, despite having shivered through offshore spray more days than I can remember, there’s a part of me that feels like I’m betraying an old (and, at this point, disintegrating) friend as I browse the internet for a newer, warmer, more flexible form of neoprene. But there’s no turning back — I’m enamored with the idea of a zipperless neck or quick-dry lining. Sustainable, plant-based rubber sourced from hevea trees in Malaysia? I can get on board with that. Wetsuit tech waits for no woman, no matter how sentimental.
Last year, before the holidays, my ever-growing family drew names from a hat to determine our secret Santas, a relatively new tradition that cuts down on holiday spending. We agreed on a limit of $200, ensuring everyone gets just one, really nice gift — concert tickets or, perhaps, that Otterbox cooler they’ve been eyeing.
My dad picked me out of the hat. On Christmas morning, he handed me an envelope that read: “I am proud to be your father.” Inside was a gift card to a local surf shop. Now, I’ve got $200 to spend on a wetsuit that, if I’m really lucky, I won’t want to part with in another 18 years.