Surfing sucks, the sooner you realise it the better.
I’ve just taken off, my eyes on the elbow of pale blue wall bending back towards me like an old friend, when I hear it.
I chance a quick glance over my shoulder but can’t make anything out. I keep my line set for the oncoming section.
Then it comes again. Louder, and more pronounced.
I turn around just as it hits me, a whirlwind of pink and green, jamming two open palms straight into my cardiac plexus.
What was that?
A girl. A woman.
A surfer, anyway, coming from so far back down the line I had no chance of seeing her. Her insouciance rings in my ears as I rise to the surface. Where the fuck did she come from?
I watch as she finishes her ride, flying over the back on an olive-tinted longboard before the wave detonates on the inside section. A small stocky figure with short dark hair and a pale pink-green spring suit.
She makes her way back out, shaking her head in silence as she paddles past.
“I’m so sorry about that,” I say. “I honestly didn’t see you.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that one before.”
“Maybe it’s all the green you’ve got going on there. Ya know, like camouflage?” I offer.
She spits a mouthful of water at me and heads back to the top of the queue.
It’s an ebulliently bright spring day. Small, fun waves run down the bank. Crowded as all hell. Multitudes of colourful wetsuits, vessels, hairstyles, etc dot the lineup like confetti.
She stalks through the pack with ease.
I watch her next few waves, which she picks in quick succession. Scant disregard is shown for the hierarchy, the naked order of things, barely exposed under the low tide line as it is now anyway.
Just to be sure, though, she replaces her ‘oi’ with a shrill whistle for any other chump stupid enough to go near her.
She has a stiff style. Not fluid, or graceful, or any of those other superlatives men seem to throw at women in the water
But effective. Purposeful. Forward shuffle to make section. Backward shuffle to set up turn. Hard, angular spray as she pivots. Elegant in its own right, like a Rorschach ink blot or a brick hurled through a shop window.
It might not be pretty. It might be the wrong board. But she’s surfing.
I continue my own struggle. But my joints are straining. My movement is slow.
I see her again at the showers, the water beading off her shaved head as she washes away the salt. Faded tattoos on her forearms jutt out from under her wetsuit. She might be half my age, maybe. It’s hard for me to tell.
“I am sorry about dropping in earlier. I should have been looking.”
“It’s fine,” she says. “Of all the cunts out there, you weren’t the biggest.”
I offer a weak smile.
It’s the nicest thing anyone has said about me in a while.
“You from around here?”
“Yeah. I used to surf here a lot when I was younger, but have been all over the place for the last few years. I’m trying to get back into it.”
“I thought you might look familiar,” I say.
We watch as two gym bros with brand new carbon wraps walk past, both stuffed into their wetsuits like socks full of walnuts.
“It’s fucking painful, though. Surfing here, now.”
“Yet we keep coming back,” I say. “Joyful participation in the sorrows of the world, right?”
“I’m not sure I’d call it joyful anymore,” she says as she shoulders her board and heads towards the car park.
But after a couple of steps the surfer turns back around. She studies me for a moment, the way an ivory hunter might consider an elephant with no tusks, and flashes me a smile.
I’ll catch you ‘round.
I end up seeing her out most days over the next few weeks. We get to chatting. Sparring, more like it.
Turns out we’re on opposite sides of the fence for most things, this surfer and I. Diametrically opposed on every major issue. Politics. Sexuality. Religion. Longboards.
Me, steeped in my archaic ways. Her, the young evolutionary.
But I like the company, her lack of pretence, her way of attacking things.
There’s common ground between us too. We can’t stand crowds, but are too lazy to go further afield. We respect where surfing’s come from, and mourn for where it’s going.
“You know,” she says to me one particularly crowded day as we wait out the back. “Sometimes I look at everyone in the line-up and think to myself, I’d just love to smash your face in with a fucken crowbar. Every one of ‘em.”
She’s a beacon of light for me in this colourful sea of grey.
Then, she disappears. There one day, gone the next.
Sand banks have lasted longer. I don’t think I miss her, at least not consciously, but then I find myself doing laps of the beach at odd hours to my usual routine, hoping to catch her out.
I never do.
I drop in on more people in the water. Get angrier than I already am. Like I needed an excuse for it anyway.
I smoke more, engage less.
My joyful participation ebbs to a neap. Highs and lows are indistinguishable. Movements strain. Joints slow.
Three months later I run into her at a cafe a couple of towns over. She’s waiting tables with the same efficacious manner she surfs, quickly, resolutely, with no excess.
She’s just about to clear my booth, corner table for one, by the open window, when she recognises me.
“What’s up, I say. Been getting any waves?”
“Nah, fuck that,” she says as she wipes the table down, taking special care to clean up the torn sugar packets I’ve poured into my coffee. “I’m over it again.”
“It’s a shame,” I say. “It was good seeing you out there. I feel like you made it just that little bit better. I haven’t surfed in weeks myself now.”
“Yeah, well. It happens,” she says as she keeps wiping. “But fuck it, I’m done with it.”
“Just like that?”
“How do you do that, though? I know you love it as much as I do. How can you just… stop?”
She finishes her wiping and turns her face to the window. The harshness of the afternoon sun illuminates her in a way that’s almost unrecognisable.
“Surfing for me became like a limb with gangrene,” she says. “The crowds, the drop-ins. The exposure. It just kept getting worse and worse. Best to just lop the whole thing off before the resentment spreads. It was good for me once, so I’ll just hang on to that.”
“But isn’t that why we keep at it?” I ask. “Because it eventually gets better again?”
“Not for me. I’m busy. Got bills to pay. Why waste my time in the water?”
She turns back to face me, takes my empty cup, re-sets the table and heads for the kitchen on the far side of the room.
“Surfing fucking sucks,” she says over her shoulder as she walks away. “The sooner you realise it, the better.”
She makes her way through the kitchen bay doors.
For a brief moment the wisps of a thought gather in the back of my mind. Imagine being that strong minded, that resolute.
That willing to end something so cleanly. It must be… liberating.
My movements are slowing. My joints are fucked.
Maybe it’s my time to go?
But the thought lasts about as long as it takes for the bay doors to swing back open again.
Just like that, the idea, along with the girl, is gone.
“Quit surfing,” I laugh to myself. “What a fucking longboarder. What a fucking kook.”
I wave my Amex impatiently at the closest waiter with one hand while I take my phone from my pocket with the other, and as the strengthening breeze swings offshore and spills through the open window and knocks sugar and pepper and salt all over her newly set table I smile at the mess I’ve made and wonder whether I should google ‘where to buy a mid length’ as one word or two.