Tom Ryan taught me to surf in the summer of 1993.
He ran a surf camp out of Rye Beach in the summers. Every day. Rain or shine.
I literally bumped into the place. His office was nestled in the back of a store called the Beachcomber which sold everything from bathing suits and life jackets to coolers and inflatable rafts to beach pails and shovels and, to my surprise and delight, surfboards.
I'd been in the place many times before, but the surfboards were a new addition. So, there I was, a lanky 13-year-old, yet to master the use of my still-growing limbs, and instead of watching where I was walking, I was looking up at the various boards hanging from the wall, when,BAM! I walked right into a desk covered in brochures advertising a surf camp.
See? Literally bumped into it.
Tom was an immense mountain of a man for whom the simple act finding clothes to fit him must have been a challenge. He stood well over six-feet tall, a thick layer of fat concealing his muscular build. His fat was firm,not the build of an overweight couch potato, but rather, that of an athlete who still loves his pizza and ice cream. A bushy beard wrapped around his face and he reached out his catcher's mitt-sized paw to shake my hand.
I quickly introduced myself and asked him for the guy who ran the surf camp. He laughed and said he was the guy who ran the surf camp.
That was the first lesson about surfing I learned,the first myth, if you will, to have debunked: Not all surfers were young, toned, beautiful people.
The camp ran for one week in June and then another week in August. Five half days. So, essentially, two-and-half days unless I did both weeks. But that was four hundred dollars and I didn't have anywhere near that amount of money. I thanked Tom for his time, took a brochure and a registration form, and went off knowing that I was going to have to beg, borrow, or steal, but come hell or high water,whatever that meant,I was going to be present on the first day of camp.
Fortunately, my mom pulled some strings with some friends of hers from the equestrian circle, and got me a summer job feeding horses, cleaning out stalls, and whatever else was needed. I was tolerated, the way someone tolerates a stray dog that keeps showing up. I wasn't a real employee and, despite my mother's best efforts, I was not,nor had any interest in,riding any of the horses. I was just there to make surf money.
I was paid in cash,no set amount, no regular pay schedule,and eventually acquired the much-needed four hundred bucks.
The next time I walked into the Beachcomber, I marched right up to Tom's desk and handed him the registration form,complete with my mother's signature,and the four hundred dollars in cash.
"So, I'm good? I'm all signed up?"
Tom chuckled. "Yes, except that you over paid. Camp's only two hundred."
"Oh, no, I'm signing up for both weeks"
Tom nodded and scratched at his beard. "You know, it's not an advanced class or anything. That second week is the same as the first. You won't be learning anything new. No sense in,"
"Yeah, but I don't have a board. I won't be able surf outside of your camp."
He slid the extra two hundred dollars across the desk. "For two hundred bucks, we can find you your own board, kid."
My own board? The thought hadn't even occurred to me. But first things first, here. I had to learn to use one.
Surf camp turned out to be me and about ten other kids between the ages of nine and sixteen in ill-fitting wetsuits freezing on the beach on a cloudy morning in June. Tom's van sat in the parking lot overlooking the beach. It was overloaded with surfboards. Racks on the roof and sides contained multiple boards. As we showed up, one by one, he pulled a board from his van and handed it to us. We were instructed to go down to the beach but not in the water.
Walking down to the sand with that board under my arm, I felt like a surfer. And I hadn't even been on the damn thing yet. When the last student arrived, and Tom passed out the last board, he carried a large plastic bin down to the beach. He set the bin down in the cold sand and yanked off the lid. He dug into the bin and pulled out wetsuits that he tossed in our general directions after appraising our size based on little more than a glance.
When I was all suited up,a process in and of itself which required me to turn the neoprene wetsuit inside out, putting one foot at a time through the bottom, and literally unrolling the suit over my legs, arms, and torso,I was ready to sprint into the greenish gloom of the ocean. I wiggled my toes. I was antsy. Let's go! Let's do this!
Tom walked among us, looking at how our suits were fitting. "Good," he bellowed. "I wanted to you to get a feel for the wetsuit and learn how to put it on. But you're not going to need it today. We won't be getting
into the water until tomorrow.
Tom gestured at the water, the incoming waves representing missed opportunities in my mind. "Are these waves beach breaks? Point breaks? Are they breaking to the left, or right? Are they closing out? Is the breeze onshore or off?"
I understood the individual words, but had no idea what Tom was saying. For most of that morning, he taught us to read the ocean. He taught us the terminology. He taught us what to look for,which conditions were optimal, which would leave us bored, and which would leave us pounded into the sand beneath the water. He reminded me of my dad, and I drew on some of those early lessons he taught me.
But surely, he was joking about the not going in the water part"¦
Finally, we got to get on our boards,not in the water though. Tom had us spread out and lay our boards down in the sand. We attached out ankle leashes and laid on our boards while miming the paddling techniques necessary to propel the board beyond the breaking waves,or, the outside as it was called in surfspeak.
Tom walked amongst us, correcting issues here and there with each student,reminding us that the board was not a bed: don't lie on it. Chin up! Chest up! You're not swimming, you're paddling! (Admittedly, mimicking paddling on dry land is next to impossible)
After a half-an-hour or so of this, Tom announced that we were now ready to learn how to "pop up",that is, to go from paddling in the prone, to standing on the board. He asked us which foot should be front and which should be to the rear.
One student, a teenage boy with curly red hair and a stubborn case of acne, spoke up. "Right should be in front." Tom told him he was wrong. Since there was only one other answer, I happily offered, "Left!"
Damn it! This is a trick question.
After a few less-than-scientific methods to determine which is my instinctive foot,that is, the foot that anchors you, that balances you,I learned I was a goofy rider. Only about 30% of surfers are goofy. That means our left foot is back, holding our weight, acting as a kind of rudder, while our right foot is to the front. The term goofy,and I've only recently learned of this,comes from an old Disney cartoon in which Goofy was surfing, left foot back, right foot forward. So there's some useless trivia for you.
Now came the pop up. We practiced popping up into our stance,in my case, left foot back, right foot forward. He had us on these boards, down on the sand, paddling imaginary water and then he'd yell, "Pop up!"
We were far from synchronized in doing this as each student's athletic abilities were different, but we'd all grip the rails of our board, put chest and chin skyward, and leap up, scrambling our feet into position below us and, hopefully, landing in our proper stance.
And we did this over and over at the command of, "pop up!"
We'd be laying on our boards while he was addressing us, talking about something other than popping up, and,"pop up!"
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
By the start of the second day, we knew the drill. The command to pop up could and would come at any time. It was being drilled into us. I felt like Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid, doing the same seemingly mundane task over and over and over until it became second nature, all the while wondering when I was going to do something fun.
Finally, the time to really paddle out had arrived. Tom and his two teenage sons walked into the sea, giant Tom looking like some kind of sea monster returning home. We grabbed our boards,some of us dragging them, some carrying them under their arms, and some of us, myself included, holding the rails and balancing the boards on our heads, and walked into the water.
Once the water reached my knees, I fell forward on my board and began to paddle. We hadn't yet learned anything about getting outside so when we encountered whitewater and foam, Tom or one of his sons helped us get over the wave. Soon we were all bobbing in a kind of half-assed line up. Tom and his sons, in water up to their shoulders, came up to us and, one by one, positioned us correctly, held our boards as they let inadequate waves pass beneath us, or gave us a little shove to be in optimum position when a wave they judged as acceptable began rolling toward us. I felt the momentum,the sensation of movement both forward and up.
I was up and in my goofy stance before Tom's command was finished. It was muscle memory. It was second nature. I understood why we never got in the water that first day.
My legs were unsure, as wobbly of those of a newborn calf's. But I was up, damn it! I was surfing! The wave pushed me straight into the beach. Lacking the ability to do a proper kick out, I simply hopped off the board in shallow water when the wave's momentum had run out.
I grabbed the board and turned around. Other students, in their struggle to stand up, tumbled from their boards in hilarious and clumsy manners. Those who did make it to the beach stood on the sand with their boards, unsure of what to do next. Me? I charged back out"¦
Twenty-two years a later, Tom and I stood on a stretch of beach outside the town of Wellfleet, Massachusetts. Our boards lay at our feet, covered in wax and beach sand.
Tom, still surfing and still my mentor, asked me what I heard.
I must look absurd, standing there in a neoprene wetsuit and blindfold, a bearded giant escorting me down to the sand. But this was Tom's method. This is how I started the process of getting wired in at a new beach. I listened to the sea. "Let's see"¦direction of the sound suggests they are breaking to the right. The boom is significant, but nothing like a post storm surge. Sounds like",I paused, calculating,"maybe shoulder high waves. I'm hearing a kind of hallow raddle as the break though. They sound tubular,are their tubes out there?" I asked with excitement.
"You tell me."
"Sure sounds like it. But not totally. Some of these waves are closing out. But not all of them. Offshore breeze"¦optimum conditions, bruh."
Tom removed my blindfold with a chuckle and I was delighted to see that the scene I'd pieced together in my head based on what I heard, was, in fact, accurate. It was a chilly afternoon in October and other than a few sea birds and sea scrub, the beach was deserted.
"Not bad, huh?" I asked.
"You did well, Grasshopper." Tom paused, as if he were going to take the conversation in an uncomfortable direction. "So"¦California?"
I looked down at the sand. "Yeah."
"Well, you'll fit right in. You probably should have gone years ago."
"I couldn't afford it years ago."
Tom laughed. "You're probably going to find that you can't afford it now."
I shook my head. "I don't care. I have to. Look, some people want world peace. Others want to be rich and famous. Me? I want to surf Malibu, Rincon, Huntington Beach, La Jo,"
"I know, I know. But it's not like the movies. Heat waves, smog, Sigalerts, a cost of living that is through the roof, not to mention all those locals half your age carving up the waves with their 6-4 tri-fins that are going to regard you as nothing more than a “kook' when they see that 9-6 Takayama you're dragging around."
"I can shortboard!" I said, defensively.
"Yeah, but you're not a shortboarder, Katie. You never were and you never will be." Tom paused a took a deep breath. "You know, over the years, I must have taught over 1,200 kids to surf? Where are they all?" He waved his arm in the direction of the sea. "It got too hard and so they gave up. I'd say 1,000 of those 1,200 hundred kids surfed a summer or two,maybe. But you? You I've been trying to get rid of for twenty years."
"See you get it. From day one, you got it." Tom shook his head. "It's not about conquering the wave,about beating it. All these kids spending all this time and money on techniques and technology designed to pretty much eliminate the wave from surfing. Longboarders are a dying breed. We don't overpower the wave, we harness it; we don't conquer it, we work with it. It's about style and grace and not brute force. Katie, you're a figure skater who wants to go hit the ice with a bunch of hockey goons. The Aloha Spirit,“hang loose, bruh!',get that out of your head right now. It's not real. Not anymore, at least."
"It should be real. It can be real again."
Tom nodded and smiled. "That's why the surf scene out there is going to benefit from you: You're innocent and naive enough to be an idealist. Peace, love, and waves. They need you out there."
I smiled and looked away.
"Just promise me one thing. Consider this your last lesson." He grabbed me by my shoulders and made sure I was looking into his eyes. "Don't ever change. Don't ever lose that innocence. Don't become one of them," he said, cocking his head to the west.
He was serious. This I could see.
"I mean it."
"Yeah. I got it."
"I know you're a nine-to-five person. You'll have to be. It's California. Most of your time is going to be either being at work or being stuck in traffic going to and from work. I understand you'll have a life outside of surfing. But when you're in the water, you're a representative of you and your ideals and of me and mine."
"I won't let you down, Tom."
Tom smiled and inhaled deeply, pulling the sea air into his lungs. He exhaled, closed his eyes in a moment of Zen-like tranquility before saying, "Well? Shall we?"
I was already trotting down the beach, board on my head, halfway to the water.
"C'mon, old man! Catch up!"
The last time I'd seen Alison Chavez had been all the way back in 2004. Prior to that, I hadn't seen her since 1999. It's strange to think that I'd seen someone I considered my best friend only once in 15 years, but sometimes that's how life happens.
All through our senior year of high school, she'd been telling me about how she was moving out L.A.
I asked her if she'd been accepted to a school out there.
Did she have a job lined up?
Her plan, such as it was, consisted of moving out to one of the most expensive cities in North America with maybe a few hundred bucks in her pocket, and live the hostel lifestyle until she got her feet on the ground.
Alison wanted to be an artist. She loved to paint. She parlayed that artistic talent into freelance work as a makeup artist. She did the prom makeup for most of the girls in our class. She did makeup for weddings all over town. She figured that the Los Angeles area, being the entertainment capital of the world, would offer her many paying opportunities to ply her trade.
Maybe it would have, but when you take one look at Al, you tend to ask her when the makeup artist is coming. We're talking about a girl who loved to wear things like beanies and black t-shirts and camouflage cargo pants. Her hair was shorter than most men's. She was a butch in every sense of the word. But her makeup was impeccable. Eventually, she did string together enough paying gigs to move out of the hostel and into a real apartment. She supplemented her income by doing things like freelance graphic design and tattoo design. She was still dirt poor and lived hand-to-mouth, doing things like test driving a new Nissan because the dealership was offering free hotdogs with every test drive.
But, she was living where and how she wanted, doing what she liked,how could I fault her for that?
But back in 1999, every time she talked about moving out to L.A. I was like, uh huh"¦sure you are.
So it came as a total shock to me when she came up to me after graduation to tell me she'd be leaving in a few days.
"Leaving? Where you going?"
"I told you. Out to L.A."
"Wait! What? You were serious about that?"
"Al, you can't just,"
"I've already got the bus ticket, Katie. It's a done deal."
I stared at her wanting to say more, wanting to plead, but unable to do so. I didn't want her to go, not because I was particularly concerned with her carefree attitude getting her into trouble in the big bad city, but for more selfish reasons. I was jealous and I found myself getting more and more irritated with her. And I didn't like that.
Plus, I hated that she could throw caution to the wind and just live. I couldn't do that.
I was on my way up to Maine to live with my dad and study marine biology in college. That's right, I had a scholarship, a place to live, and a safety net in place before I even considered making a move. Alison just moved.
I can admit this now, though I've never shared this with Alison, but the truth is, I wanted her to fail. I wanted her to fall flat on her face and come home with her tail tucked between her legs. I wanted,no, needed,validation that playing it safe was the way to go through life.
It's like my first surfing teacher Tom used to say: You can go with the wave or you can fight the wave. Either way, you still end up at the beach. The only variable was, how much fun did you have on the ride?
Yeah, exactly like that. Play it safe and go with life, and my ride will be,no, that's not right. Playing it safe isn't going with life. It's fighting it. It's attempting to control it. I was a longboarder, damn it! Why couldn't I work with life like I worked with the wave?
Alison moved her head around, forcing me to make eye contact with her as I looked around. "You could come with me, if you want. Two heads are better than one. Even if they are our two heads."
"Nah." I shook my head. "I've already turned Bri's invitation to Phoenix down."
"Wait. So you two are breaking up?"
I nodded in that way that one nods when it's too exhausting to explain any intricacies and details.
I was glad it was summer. I needed to hit the waves and learn some life lessons.
But that was a long time ago, and things were different now.
It was a warm day in early February of 2015. I sat in a coffee shop in Hollywood, which was cool in and of itself, because,oh my God! Hollywood! I'd come from the East Coast to the West and my first impression of Hollywood was, it's just like anywhere else. I saw bars and gas stations and convenience stores and fast food restaurants and blue collar workers getting out of trucks with their work boots on. I guess I expected to see movie starts swinging from palm trees, but I didn't see any of that.
I'd flown out for a job interview that was, for all intents and purposes, little more than a formality. The job was as good as mine. I was in town for about a week, because I was naive enough to think that was sufficient time to find and secure an apartment. Thanks to Alison's help I eventually did find an apartment all the way out in Northridge. All I knew about Northridge was that there was an earthquake named after it.
But none of that mattered.
My interview was done, and I had a few days to catch up with my best friend.
I sat, frustrated, my iced latte filling with the water of melting ice cubes, staring down at my phone and muttering to myself, "She said she'd be here in 10 minutes; that was 15 minutes ago."
Then a voice bellowed from across the coffee shop. "What up"¦BITCH!!!???"
I looked up. Alison was coming toward me in a black Batman t-shirt, low rise jeans,her wallet chain swinging with the movement of her hips. Her perfectly made up face was framed behind a pair of Clark Kent-type glasses that complimented her pompadour well. She'd acquired a couple more piercings since the last time I'd seen her. I took quick stock of what I was wearing: black flats, khaki capri pants, a black sleeveless top and a string of pearls.
I must look like an asshole.
"You look good," she lied after we embraced a couple of times.
I detected no sarcasm nor irony in her voice, but I still felt the need to explain myself. "Yeah, I'm sorry. I didn't know how fancy this place was."
"Fancy? In Nastywood? Please." She gestured at the chair I'd just risen from. "Sit, sit, sit." She used her foot to push out the opposite chair and collapsed into it. "Besides. You know I'd never be caught dead in a fancy place."
I giggled. "Sorry. I thought maybe you'd," I stopped myself, but it was already too late.
"No." I backpedaled. "That's not what I said."
"Gotten some class?"
"So you don't expect me to be grown up classy broad in a fancy city like this?"
I thought for a moment. "No. Of course not."
Alison laughed. "Oh, thank God."
A waiter with a ponytail brought Alison her coffee. When he left, the conversation picked up again. "What's with you?" Alison gestured at me with her spoon. "You look like the millennium's answer to June Cleaver."
I shrugged. "I'm corporate hack."
"It's cute and all, don't get me wrong," she said, her eyes appraising my look. "Definitely fem. It's hot. But it's not you."
I tugged at my collar and fingered my long hair. "You don't think so?"
But the conversation was already off in a different direction. Alison slid her coffee cup across the table so she could lean forward. She lowered her voice, her face inches from mine, and continued gesturing with her spoon to give emphasis to her words. "Does this mean you're moving out here?"
"That's the plan."
"To be with me?"
"Well"¦sure," I stammered. I guess the fact that I was moving out here to reconnect with Bri had eluded Alison. "Among other reasons."
"Ah," said Alison, leaning back in her chair. "The Good Doctor."
"Yeah, well, I miss the Good Doctor."
Alison sipped her coffee. "Why didn't you move out here five years ago? Four years ago, whenever it was?"
"Brianna was offered her dream job out here and I already had my dream job back in New England. Neither of us wanted to budge,"
"Wait, wait, wait! You sacrificed love for work?" She knew this. She knew the whole story. From both sides. But making me repeat it was her way of reiterating how stupid I'd been. "I always knew you were uptight, but,"
"Whoa, I am not uptight."
"Katie, when you fart only dogs can hear it."
"See what I mean?"
I sighed. "Anyway, that's the old me."
"Oh. Okay. What changed?"
I smiled, the sly grin of someone with a secret,a secret that even if divulged, would still confuse other people. I had the greatest secret, a true life hack, and I had no idea how to explain it. So, I settled for, "I asked my board."
I stood up, checking my top for crumbs from the croissant I had earlier. "I asked my board what to do."
"I don't even know what that means, Katie."
I pointed past the front door. "Are the restrooms down that way?"
"Huh? Yeah. What,"
"Great. Thanks." I used my feet to remove my shoes and walked, barefoot, down the cool tile floor, leaving Alison searching for the meaning and wisdom in the seemingly random collection of words I'd given her.
That's right. I was heading west like any other prospector looking for riches. Because my board told me to.
I grew up in the surfing mecca of"¦New Hampshire. If you can't detect the sarcasm in labeling New Hampshire a surfing mecca, let me spell it out for you: Hardly anyone surfs New Hampshire. There is no culture to promote it and the water is just too damn cold most of the time. Though, that is changing these days and my old stomping grounds of Rye Beach have become the top surf destination in the state.
I was born at the dawn of the 1980s, and spent my early years like most people spend their early years: Learning and absorbing things from their parents, feeding off their influence until autonomy and personal tastes are developed.
My father had served in the Coast Guard and had spent many summers in the chilly waters of the New England coast. He was an ocean guy. The sea can be frightening and intimidating to the uninitiated and my father didn't want me to be afraid of it. But he did want me to respect it.
In the summers, he'd take me down to Rye Beach and teach me how to look at the water,was the water clear or murky; turbulent or placid; did we see evidence or rips or run outs; how were people already in the water moving in relation to the beach; was the breeze onshore or off,before running in willy nilly, as most other children did. He taught me to see potential problems before I encountered them. The ocean is an open book, and he believed one should read it before plunging in.
My appreciation and fascination with the sea began with him. Soon, it blossomed. I sought out National Geographic documentaries on sea creatures, currents and tides, shipwrecks,you name it. I loved movies like Jaws and was reading books by Peter Benchley,comprehending the individual words, yes, but the overall meaning of the stories lost in my still developing mind,and citing women like Eugenie Clark and Valerie Taylor as personal heroes.
I came across the name "The Beach Boys" one day. Apparently, they were a band from out in California. I didn't know their music from a hole in the wall,nor had I even found my own musical niche yet,but, hey, The Beach Boys sounded like my kind of thing! I asked for a Beach Boys cassette tape for my eighth or ninth birthday, and received one. It seemed all their songs were about surfing, cars, and girls. That was the totality of their existence. Surfing made its way to the national consciousness in the late 50's and early 60's thanks to pop phenomena like The Beach Boys, Dick Dale and the Gidget movies. It was like surfing itself inhaled a deep breath and began to blow a bubble that grew and grew until it finally burst in the 1980's,perhaps because those influenced by surf culture in the early days were now the purveyors of 80's pop culture themselves,and my generation became inundated with Jeff Spicoli and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Surfing was not only everywhere, it was cool.
But, meh, I lived in New Hampshire. I'd never seen a surfboard let alone a surfer. Surely you had to live in California or Hawaii, right? I mean, they don't surf in New Hampshire.
But then, one day"¦one day I came across a documentary film on some channel. The plot was simple but effective: Two surfers follow summer around the world, as they search for the perfect wave. I'm of course speaking of The Endless Summer. If you haven't seen the movie, then stop reading right now, and go watch it. If you have seen it, then you know there is nothing that needs to be said. This film is to surfers what the Bible is to Christians. It's sacred, special, and it beautifully puts into words what we surfers feel yet so few of us can articulate.
Anyway, after I saw that movie, I knew I had to surf.
My mom and dad had divorced when I was two. My dad was now a cop up in Maine (he would actually work with the Secret Service when President Bush would come to Kennebunkport--true story) and my mom was working as a drafter down in Massachusetts. But I knew my mom had some unexplained fascination of the American West despite never being west of Pennsylvania. So, I figured, the hell with it, and asked my mom is she could please move us out to California.
I had an aunt and uncle who summered (in the Northeast, summer can be used as a verb) in New Hampshire but actually lived in Hawaii during the winter. Aha! I could go live with them!
Nope. Not happening.
But soon I'd meet Tom Ryan and my life would never be the same. He'd make a surfer out of me.
But I didn't know that yet.
I stood on the beach, grinding my toes into the cool sand as I studied that morning's wave activity: Waves breaking on the point, coming into the beach at diagonal angle. Perfect for long rides and longboards. Most of the swells seemed to be about five or six feet, though a few sets culminated in some ten foot waves. Perfect for short boarding.
As I stood there in my rashie and bikini, my 9-0 single fin longboard tucked under my arm, a group of young men,early to mid-twenties, I guessed,hustled past me with their short boards and wetsuits. They snickered and giggled as they glanced my way. One of them called me a kook as they trotted to the water's edge, hooting and hollering.
I smiled to myself as the last guy in the procession, a lanky kid with a swimmer's build and a mop of blonde hair, stopped and looked me up and down.
He looked at my board and his face registered concern. "Ah, you might want to head to Bay Street," he said, jerking his thumb to the south. "This isn't a beginner's beach."
"I know," I said. "That's why I'm here."
Something in my response perturbed him. He looked as if he wanted to say more, but didn't. Instead, he backed up a few steps, turned and prepared to jog off and join his friends, who were now beginning to paddle out. But he stopped, looked at me once again, and said, "If you drop in on any of these guys"¦" He let the rest go unsaid.
I just nodded and assured him that I knew what I was doing.
He finally trotted off and left me alone standing on the beach, the "June Gloom" sky overhead like a piece of gray fabric being stretched in all four directions to infinity. I contemplated what I must look like to him and laughed.
I was at least 10 years older than anyone else on the beach. These guys had never seen me before. This was the first beach I'd found since I'd moved to Southern California that wasn't populated by people with whom I'd be associated: older, professional types who treated surfing as a hobby as opposed to a passion,people with careers instead of jobs, with families instead of roommates, with homes instead of places to live. Plus, I had a longboard (my 6-8 quad fin was lashed to the rack on the roof of my Kia, but no one saw that), the board of their parents and grandparents"¦and of beginners. Yup, I looked like a yuppie kook to them, a veritable pussy cat waking into the lion's den.
I couldn't blame them. I'd laugh at me too.
I walked down to the water's edge, checked and re-checked my leash and let the day's first wave reach my ankles. It was impossible not to smile. Yup. Another kook behavior. Okay, Ms. Kook. You're either going to join the lineup and prove them wrong, or stay here and prove them right.
I ran forward, flung myself over the first waist-high wave that spilled into me, and paddled out to meet the boys"¦
I followed a channel where the waves weren't breaking, gave the lineup a wide berth, and came in at the far right: essentially, last in line. I pushed wet hair out of my eyes, rivulets of water cascading down my wrists and forearms. I nodded politely in the direction of the six young fellows who were eyeing me with a mix of contempt and curiosity. I sat up on my board and introduced myself.
"What's up? I'm Katie." I gestured at my chest.
A few of the boys nodded. I think I even heard a murmur or two. But the greeting was anything but warm. I didn't know this area well,just what I'd read on a few websites,and thought maybe a friendly question or two might help break the ice.
"Anything gnarly out here I should worry about?" I asked. "Rocks? Dirty syringes floating in the water? Kook-hating locals?" That's it, Katie. Kill them with humor.
I think maybe I got a sigh in response that time.
The thing no one tells you about a surfing when you're a beginner,the thing you will never see in movies like Point Break or North Shore,is that most of your time is spent bobbing on your board, sitting in the lineup, waiting for your turn and for the right wave. Ninety percent of surfing is waiting. So, now the tension in the air was thick enough that I could cut it with a knife and spread it on a cracker, and I wasn't going anywhere anytime soon.
So, I gave up trying to be friendly and just watched the horizon for swells, for fins, for mermaids,whatever.
Shortboards are ideal for big waves. But they move slower and a surfer must paddle much harder to catch one. Simply put, shorties are great,for a small minority of waves. After a few waves that would have been ideal for my longboard were wasted, I was about to ask if anyone minded if I take the next one. But then, a few big waves started rolling in and the guys on the far left started catching them, and the lineup was suddenly moving. Now all I had to do was keep these kids from snaking into the lineup or dropping in on me,both of which were virtually guaranteed to happen if for no other reason than some testosterone-fueled hazing. I had to be on the lookout because if I let one of these guys get away with harassing or humiliating me, it would be open season on me, and I'd be a fool to return.
I had to be perfect.
Sure enough, as guys started paddling back out, they thought they were going to wedge their way between me and the break.
"You know, I've got the right of way. I'm taking the next wave no matter what you do. I know my board will survive the collision"¦"
The skinny kid who spoke to me on the beach conceded for his friends. "Come on, guys. It's her wave."
I charged out, eager to both get away from them and to earn their respect by showing them I belonged. The wave came off the point and broke to the right, spitting foam and showering the backs of my legs. I gripped the rails of my board and, as the swell lifted me, I pushed the nose down. In an instant, I was up,left foot back at a slight angle pointing to the tail and acting as my rudder, right foot forward and pointing to the nose, knees bent, arms low.
I was right in front of the break, the wave big enough that if I crouched low, I could sit in the curl. The wave was as close to perfect as you can get as I zoomed down the face just in front of the break, half my board in the curl. I walked down the board, moved back up, used my feet to dance with the wave instead of attacking it and carving it like the others had done. My upper body held while my lower body moved independent, rocking, swaying, shifting. From the beach, I must look like fingers tearing a long strip of paper.
A near-perfect ride on a near-perfect wave. That'll show them. These guys are going to love me!
After what seemed like a minute but, in actuality, was probably closer to 30 seconds, the wave petered out near the beach so I kicked out and sank into the water in triumph. I must have looked like a movie star pretending to be humble in front of her adoring public. I waited for the inevitable cries of Akaw! Akaw! that never came.
They must be in awe, I thought.
I spun around and looked out to sea, expecting to see them sitting out there,eyes wide and blinking, mouths open in mute amazement. But they were gone. Just"¦gone. I squinted my eyes and craned my neck. I saw them. In their black springsuits, they might have a been a group of seals heading out to sea. They were paddling out? Farther out? Why? Were the waves breaking father out now? What did I miss?
That's when I realized what they missed: my ride. The whole point was to impress these guys so that they'd actually let me surf with them. I said I had to be perfect, and I was. Only, no one had seen it.
I tossed my head back and laughed.
I grabbed my board and walked up to the beach. I didn't know what time it was, but it felt late enough that I should probably get moving. One wave before breakfast isn't ideal, but it's nothing to be down about either.
That's how my summer began at Topanga Beach. And by the time it ended, I would be part of that clique. I'd follow them into their world and welcome them into mine. Everything that happened in between that perfect wave and yesterday? Well, that's my story.
This is just the beginning.
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