The westerly winds of winter had died down and with them the big waves they generate along California. Now in late May on the more exposed coast a northwest wind was whipping up sloppy surf, but here in the protection of Carmel Beach the tide and swell were cooperating to make waves good enough to surf.
The two wriggled into their full wet suits to protect themselves against the fifty-three degree water. She thought of putting on her booties but decided not to. She liked the feel of her feet in the water as she paddled and thought her grip on the board was better too. They said nothing. They never did as they performed this ritual and she was especially grateful for that today. Lean and strong, and two heads taller than she, he patted her on the head to reassure her and then easily reached up and took their five-foot short boards down from the rack on top of their black mid-nineties hatchback.
Once suited up, they picked up the boards from where they lay waiting against the car and lifted them overhead for the trajectory down the stairs and across the beach to the water. Their black suited bodies glided easily over the sand. Her tiny waist made her look like a perfect hour glass. He was straight and narrow as a pole. Once in the water, they muscled their way through the foam and breaking waves, mounted their boards, and paddled towards the cluster of surfers already out. They were all locals used to meeting here so greetings were brief. The mood was glum . Only a couple of the more experienced surfers had been able to make the intermittent waist-high waves that came in off the ocean swells.
He had been surfing here since he was kid. Every day after school, he would come down to the beach, suit up, and take his board out to make a few waves before nightfall. No matter how nasty the day, he thought about nothing more than being out there riding the face of a breaking wave. During those years he had perfected the late take-off necessary to work the short board with precision, so even on this not so good day he was confident of making some.
He couldn’t think of living anywhere else in the world accept right here on the underbelly of the Monterey Peninsula, so after finishing high school he went to the local university to study natural science. It was there that he had met her. It had been their mutual love of the sea that had brought them together.
She had gown up in California’s Central Valley among vast stretches of farmland, orchards, and cattle range. There her father owned a three hundred acre organic almond ranch so as a kid her world was all about almonds. She spent hours playing among the trees, making friends with the hired help, and doing the chores her father gave her after school. She had a knack for these sweet morsels. She could tell when the nuts were ready for harvesting, spot disease on the trees, and identify all the insects, good and bad. She was comfortable in this world of earth and work. Whenever she could she loved to ride with her father down the rows of trees especially when they were blooming in the spring and then again at harvest time. Even now she could smell the almonds, the sweat on her father’s neck, and the tractor’s diesel fuel all at once.
Her father had had high hopes that she, his only child and companion, would follow in his footsteps and learn the business. He wanted her to have a secure future and was certain that California’s almond industry would sustain her. But even though she felt content working on the ranch, she had had other ideas.
Ever since her father had taken her on a vacation to Monterey where she had gone out to sea to watch the whales migrating north to Alaska and had sat almost every afternoon on the pier’s edge smelling the ocean brine, watching the sea lions, and following the shifting seaweed as it swayed with the tides, she had been in love with the ocean. That vacation was to celebrate her twelfth birthday. Every year since then she had begged her father to take her back to Monterey. Some years he had acquiesced; others he hadn’t depending on the pressures of the business.
When she was in high school he had tried to convince her to go to the university at Davis to get a degree in agriculture. But she wouldn’t be persuaded. It wasn’t the almonds or the valley. It was something else that tugged at her. She needed a world bigger than the three hundred acres that had nourished her as a child. She turned to her love of the sea and after finishing high school decided to go to the university at Monterey to study marine science. Her father knew he had to let her find her own way and put no barriers in front of her.
One afternoon in February in her research methods class the professor had asked the students to form new teams. She smiled to herself every time she recalled the prof saying, “Mix it up and get to know one another.” And they had. That’s how they had met. Her now boyfriend, companion, and soul mate was one of the new people on her team. That was two years and three months ago.
His friends said he was core, really dedicated. Today was no different. Silently, he sat, watched, and waited. When he sensed one would be big enough, he was off, paddling to make the wave just at the right moment. Sometimes it never materialized but more often than not he made it, riding its face and then cutting a one-eighty degree turn to end up on the back side of the soup as the wave broke.
He had introduced her to surfing. She loved it. She loved being out there on the watch and then springing at the right moment. But, she knew she would always be a hodad. When she did make a wave, the adrenalin rush was pure happiness. This afternoon, she watched him carefully, as always, noting which waves he chose, the speed of his paddle, and the moment when he would make it. She followed his moves but more often than not she got pitched off the lip of the wave and tossed off her board.
They were out there in the water for a couple of hours. When the tide started turning there were fewer and fewer waves big enough to matter. He suggested they head in and call it a day. Outwardly she smiled and nodded in agreement but inside the panic she had been keeping at bay gripped her hard.
They paddled in and left the water raising their boards over their heads to make their way back up to their car. Stripping off their wet suits they pulled on jeans and boots. He secured the boards to the roof carrier and hopped into the driver’s seat. She pulled a black wool cap low over her ears and silently fought the all consuming anxiety scrunched up in a ball in the passenger seat.
“Let’s go down to Point Lobos,” he said gaily. Gibson Beach at Point Lobos was one of their favorite hang outs when they weren’t in school or surfing. During the week, they usually had the whole beach to themselves. They would bring a blanket and their books and spread out on the sand behind a giant boulder that stuck out above the high tide mark. She looked straight ahead and said, “Sure. Let’s go.”
As they pulled into route 1, she looked up at the sky. It’s usual blueness was blemished by a grayish hue. Even though they were fifty miles away the first forest fire of the season, burning up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, was making its mark on the landscape. Fine ash was being blown southward causing this gray haze to settle in. She decided to tell him now. Driving, he wouldn’t be able to pull her close and hug her tight. It was better that way she thought.
“I have to leave. I have to go to my father.” She said simply.
“What happened?” he asked as he jerked himself around towards her.
“Keep your eyes on the road. I’ll tell you. Just keep driving.”
“Tell me,” He insisted as he stepped on the gas instead of the brake for a moment, recovered, and then turned the wheel to come to a skidding stop along a sandy stretch of the road near the Carmel River. He tried to lean into her.
“Really, just be still. Don’t, not now. I’ll tell you.”
He realized she meant it, so he retracted, sitting upright with his eyes steadily on her. “Tell me what’s going on,” he said.
Still looking straight ahead she replied, “He’s dying. The doctor has given him a year at best.”
He was silent. He didn’t move but kept looking at her. He felt his insides breaking up like a wave.
“I’ll be back, she said. It’s just that I have to be with him. You understand, don’t you?”
“Sure I understand. Don’t worry. I’ll come to see you and you’ll come down here for a break when you can,” he heard his croaky voice say.
“Of course, we’ll stay together through this.” She replied.
“Of course, of course.”
He went to lean into her again and this time she let him. The tears were streaming down her face. He put his arms around her and held her tight against him, his chin resting on the top of her head. Somehow, the tightness of his grip helped to loosen the stranglehold of her panic. He was crying now too. They stayed this way for a long time until the rhythm of their beating hearts synchronized and each had whimpered and drawn a few deep breaths.
Finally, he said,”Let’s go.”
“Let’ go,” she agreed.
It was a quick ride to Point Lobos and once inside the park another short way to its southern most parking lot. They got out of the car. He was all action. He opened the hatch and grabbed their backpacks. Then, he took the boards off the roof and slid them through the hatch to stow them inside for safekeeping. She could only lean up against the car pulling the cap further down with her fingers so it almost obliterated her eyes.
They said nothing. He gently helped her with her backpack and then slipped his over his shoulders. He took her hand and they started moving away from the car and up the sandy trail as they had so often done before. The walk didn’t take long. The path climbed no more than sixty steps, then leveled off and skirted the outside perimeter of the bluff. On the other side it made a couple of switch backs ending at the one-hundred-twenty steps leading down to the beach.
At the bottom, they took off their packs and spread the blanket on the sand. He lay down on his back with his hands over his face to shield it from the glare. Through the slits between his fingers he stared up at the sky. She sat cross legged, her fingers still pulling at the wool cap. She, too, stared silently and only once in awhile looked up just long enough to see the brilliant turquoise of the water meeting the gray-blue sky.
They said nothing. Each knew in their heart that she would never return and he would never be able to leave.
All original content copyright 2008 Mary E. Slocum