First, and it’s important not to skip this step: fall in love with a surfer. Make sure he never takes you surfing.
Make sure he tells you at eleven o’clock at night at Lil Frankie’s over spaghetti con limone, after you get into a terrible fight about whether New York City was really authentically “better” in the late 80s/early 90s, and he accuses you, in a quasi-yoga instructor voice, that you have “ego issues,” and when you return from the bathroom with tears in your eyes — did I mention this is the first night you’re staying over at his apartment, with your dog? — when this happens, make sure when you return to the table that he immediately looks up from his phone and says, “looks like there’s waves tomorrow. Heading out at 5.”
AM. He means 5am.
When a few months later you accept a job at a Big Agency and realize your sabbatical will soon be grinding to a stop, start planning a final holiday. Walk around Manhattan with the surfer on the hottest day of the year, with twenty Kayak tabs open on your home laptop, awaiting the final decision.
Tell the surfer about your new gig. Allow him to give you advice about how to behave in the role based on some prison movie starring Ed Norton you can no longer remember the name of. (He once called you “corporate killer;” you’re not sure if it was an insult. At the time, you considered it a compliment, coming from a Capricorn.)
Accompany him for a beard trim on Crosby Street. Wonder what exactly you are doing babysitting his dog in the barbershop’s backyard, in the 90 degree heat, as you scratch her belly, and he conducts his man chore.
After you part ways near a crowded Canal Street Q train entrance, before descending the stairs, you know: I’m going on vacation to learn how to fucking surf.
Find an American PhD biologist from Santa Cruz who happens to live in a 500-person beach town in Ecuador with her husband, a retired professional surfer. Secure the Airbnb for two weeks.
Fly to Quito, spend the night. Fly to Esmereldas. Take a taxi three hours west, to the epicenter of where an earthquake will strike in a year’s time but barely make a dent, cause all of the buildings just sway with the shake. Meet Morongo; meet Amy; meet their three little boys under the age of five.
Meet crazy Johnny from the hostel down the street who went to BYU and his sons? Stepsons? Wife? Sister? none of whom speak English. Meet Andres and Gabi and Iza and Alex and Dante and Joao and an entire cast of international nomadic expatriate characters you will spend the next two weeks eating, drinking, surfing and smoking cheap Chinese cigarettes with. One of you will get Dengue Fever. (Luckily, it won’t be you.) (Sorry, Iza.)
On your first day on the board, discover you’re a goofy foot. Get many bruises. And actually manage to Get Up. Second day. Get Up.
Third Day, get in Morongo’s (well, really, Amy’s) SUV and drive to another beach while he forces you to listen to Cypress Hill. Surprise-but-not-really-yourself at how utterly Blanche Dubois you act when declining the joint. Get pummeled by the open ocean, which you were not ready for, which Morongo knew, which is all a part of the program.
Check box next to “meet surfer living out of VW van.” Eat ceviche, but give most of the shrimp to the too-skinny dog who sidles up beside you. Convince a couple of camping filmmakers to take the next bus back to your village. Return with ridiculous sunburn.
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Take the board out every day, alone, twice a day, three times a day. Repeat. Strip down to your underwear and swim with a Quebecois poet in the rain. Do not repeat.
Bring your tarot cards to the bar. Give a few readings. Really good readings. But save Amy’s for last. On your final night in town, read her cards while Morongo brings over Mai Tai after Mai Tai. Almost like he knew what was about to unfold. (You didn’t.)
When, after a couple of weeks on the new job, your boss pulls you into his office and says, Listen…I hate to do this, but…, and you look out the window at his 270-degree view of lower Manhattan while he tells you he actually needs you to do a completely different job, don’t freak out.
Don’t freak out because in the back — nah, the front — of your mind, you know the job will take you to California. A lot. And you know what happens in California?
Which you do, often, at Pleasure Point, after sneaking off in your rental car down Highway 17, with various instructors you have hired to broker your introductions on the line up:
MAX who teaches you to be selfish, claim your waves, and yell at people who don’t respect your right of way;
LUCAS who’s just sort of a nineteen-year-old lost soul going to community college and simply stands by you in the crowd, which you appreciate very much;
BRAD who you crush pretty hard on, as a compatriot in age and life experience, but, more importantly, shows you how to paddle the right way, which you still get compliments on, and, let’s be honest, good paddling skills go far.
It’s at this moment you realize your look has changed from “Hey, aren’t you on New Girl?” (a real thing someone said to you) and is now squarely on the road to blonde tan-ness, which makes you laugh in disbelief, though childhood photos prove you are capable of such a transition, no matter what anyone says, dammit.
Reconnect with surfer con limone on one of these trips to California. But keep the surfing a kind of shy open secret. Like maybe you do it, and maybe you don’t.
Have him randomly track you down at your greige business hotel in San Jose. “Randomly” because he already announced to you, in a phone call he made to your office several weeks earlier, that he “cannot be in a relationship.” But it is the super-blood-moon-of-2015, after all, and he’s in Big Sur, and you’re a mere few hours away, and he “really enjoys driving in California,” so, sure, how about the next night you just meet up on a Thursday in Santa Cruz?
And you do. He’s an hour late, as usual, and you laugh about this as you eat saltwater taffy on a bench by yourself on the boardwalk while the sun begins to set. Soon the sunset becomes good — too good — to ignore, and you head off in its direction, another beach a minute’s drive away, and you park, and two men make a reference to the gorgeous night and the gorgeous redhead as you walk by, and you know it’s you, and all is right with the world.
And all is right, and perfect, with the entire night. The second to last night you’ll see the surfer ever again.
Part of you wants to thank him, to express gratitude that you managed to take his jerkiness and up-cycle it: you grew mushrooms in those thrown-out coffee grinds, and they were delicious, so, thanks.
You don’t give him much thought as you plan your next trips, to Puerto Rico, and, then, to Barbados, both very much alone. But you are beginning to understand the answer to the question that hovered over that night at the restaurant, over your entire relationship: Why was surfing more interesting than me?
There’s still no reason why he once teased you at a Saturdays, pulling out a pink board and suggesting this is what he’d “get you started with”, or mentioned the women he took into the water “for work” when he “was networking.” But he has given you a strange gift by forcing you to figure all this shit out alone. You didn’t need him, you never did. You became him instead.
Amy sent you a Facebook message post-super-blood-moon. Amy, the woman with three boys under the age of five — now under the age of six. She left Ecuador, booked a series of ridiculous flights, and landed, alone, with three boys under the age of six, in Bali.
“The tarot reading you gave me that night was insane,” she typed. Oh shit. What have you done?
You don’t get the whole story. You’ll have to get it in Bali. When can you get to Bali? Your old friend Kayak reappears and presents new searches, new tabs. It takes about 36 hours to get there, assuming nothing crazy happens. You’re going to need another two-week holiday. It takes awhile, but you find the spot: August 2016.
“You’re going to the East Indies at the end of August?” your Hong Kong-born coworker asks. “Are you insane?”
Doesn’t matter. Gotta get to Amy, gotta figure out what’s going on.
“Did I tell you about the time I paddled out in Padang Padang and almost killed myself?” Amy says. “I haven’t been on a board in YEARS. But yes. WE SHALL SURF, CAMPISI! WE SHALL SURF!!”
There’s so much you want to talk to Amy about. You want to hear The Story, How it All Happened.
But you also want to talk to her to and connect the dots: the you that you were, the you that you are now.
You want to tell her all the things you didn’t mention above, like the story of Ryan, the Rincon alcoholic who took you to Jobos and is planning to/was planning to/has already written you into his novel as “Mary Wadsworth North, M.D., a Southern girl, half Yankee Blueblood and a superbly excellent longboarder.” Or how things got sketchy with the rastas in Barbados. Or how the surfing ties into your childhood growing up barefoot on a farm, your renewed relationship with nature, feminism, capitalism, all of it, so present and all right there and stuff you want to share with the woman who, without even trying, helped to create the new person standing before her.
It’s a pilgrimage. From your original initiation rite — which could only have ever taken place at her Airbnb, because where else are you going to find a sandy bottom bay break perfect for beginners with a native English speaker and a retired surf champion for $20 a night? — to now, this place, her villa in Kerobokan, a short motorbike ride from Bukit, don’t worry, she rented you a bike for your whole stay from a really nice man named Wicky, who doesn’t ask you any questions when he trades you the keys for your deposit in Rupiah.
You made it! Kingston is crawling all over you in the pool. Kai wants to show you his pet turtle. Reef keeps jumping in without his floaties. The entire two weeks stretch before you, blank, ready.
The accident happens the following morning. The universe nuh-uhs you, pushes you against a wall. Girl, get off that motorbike.
Your stick your arms out — to protect your head — yes you’re wearing the helmet — still just to be safe — and both radius snap immediately. Your surgeon, who you’ll meet four days later back in New York, will say you probably got a concussion just from the sheer force of impact, palms against wall. Stop.
The choice comes half a day later in the emergency room: have the surgery there or back home. You decide. Home. You’ve been on the ground for 24 hours and cry the entire Uber back to Amy’s place, so hard the driver says, “Don’t pay me, just go, get better, come back to Bali. Just go.”
“You are hard core,” Amy says, when, with two broken arms, before pain meds, without casts, you rebook your flights and make a doctor’s appointment. “I can’t believe you’re leaving.”
But you do. You leave. Why? Well, the practical reasons, the wanting-to-be-sick-at-home. The not-wanting-to-pay-out-of-pocket-for-surgery-in-a-foreign-land. The getting-out-of-your-friend’s-hair. She has three sons, and a custody negotiation, and a What Next? to figure out. She doesn’t need you, under a mosquito net, popping Tramadol, for two weeks.
You don’t want her to see your vulnerable side.
Oh shit, the mushrooms? That grew in the coffee grinds? They might have infected you with some weird, contagious anti-vulnerability disease.
But no, it’s too late. You are vulnerable. You return, vulnerable. You let your friends stay over, put pills in your mouth at 2am. Take you to surgery. Sit with you after surgery. Hug you and tell you it’s going to be ok.
What exactly are you trying to prove? Typing all of this out? A week since you got your casts off, six weeks later? Shouldn’t you be doing your wrist exercises? Massaging your scar tissue?
Massaging your scar tissue?
Massaging your scar tissue.
This essay first appeared as “The Break” in Adjacent Space. Sign up here.