“Um, so, I’m really itchy?” I say, as my instructor, Randy, pushes me out to sea to catch another wave. I am 52-years-old, taking my first surfing lesson. We are in Ocean City, Maryland, where 36th Street meets the Atlantic. It’s early enough that the sun is still quite low on the horizon, silhouetting Randy who, at 21, is the same age as my middle child. I know I should keep this in mind and not stare, but art is art. Michelangelo couldn’t have chiseled him better. Plus who knows how many years or frankly seconds I have left to gawk? The foam today, or so I hear, is gnarly.
“It’s just sea lice,” says Randy, with a surfer’s insouciance. “They came in from the south with the storm. People say they’re getting worse, infesting more northern waters. Global warming or something. You just gotta wipe them off. Like this.” He rubs his hands over his glistening torso.
“Sea lice?” Of all the sea critters and crimes I’ve ever worried about—sharks, jellyfish, and riptides leading that pack—sea lice never even made the cut. Because prior to them having a party inside my wetsuit, I’d never heard of them.
Sea lice, for the uninitiated, are not related to the head lice whose eggs I’ve yanked off all three of my children’s hair on more occasions that I will ever allow myself to remember, except in my nightmares. They don’t live on the skin out of water, and you don’t have to wash all of the sheets, towels, and stuffed animals in the house once you find them. They are, I would later find out, miniature jellyfish larvae, whose stinging cells, called nematocysts, are triggered by interaction with human skin.