“Let me get this straight,” the pharmacist said, “you have a drivers’ license from Virginia, an address in Orange County, and you’re here in Encinitas to pick-up a prescription written by a dentist from Utah.”
I didn’t mention that I’d been diagnosed by a radiologist from Louisiana.
“Here’s the thing.” Marty said, “The kid works for me. That’s the thing.”
It didn’t help that Marty held the biggest, cheapest bottle of vodka in the store with one hand, his credit card in the other hand.
“This is going to take a second.” The pharmacist walked away from the counter.
“He broke his rib.” For some reason, Marty kept talking. “That’s the thing.”
I leaned forward and held my ribcage, trying to look pathetic and in pain.
The pharmacist glared up at us from his computer in the back: two surfers in board shorts and flip-flops, one mid-twenties and one mid-fifties, armed with vodka and an unnoticeable injury, on a mission for prescription pain meds.
“Come on,” Marty finally realized how this looked. “Let’s go check my blood pressure.”
I walked to the waiting area and sat down slowly, exhaling the whole time, trying not to dislodge my injured rib.
“Whoah!” Marty’s hand was in the heart monitor’s reader. “That can’t be right.” He smacked the side of the machine as if that would lower his blood pressure.
The pharmacist returned to the counter and called my name. I stayed seated while Marty retrieved the prescription. I ran my finger along my rib and tried to find the broken spot, the way that radiologist had done the other day on the beach.
“Dude,” Marty spoke to me from over by the counter, where the pharmacist cut up his credit card with scissors. “Do you have any cash on you?”
Inside his truck, Marty opened the childproof cap and divided up the Vicodin. He put a couple pills in his mouth and washed them down with a pull from the gallon of vodka. He put about half in the truck’s cup-holder, then handed me the prescription bottle. This wasn’t a scam, exactly. My ribs were broken. I think. I hadn’t been to a hospital or anything. A few doctors in search of surf lessons had been kind enough to poke my chest and give me their best guesses. I’d talked to a series of Marty’s medical friends on the phone and they’d called the prescriptions in to different pharmacies around town. This was how Marty had been treating his own painful hip condition for years. He coached me on what to say to the doctors. “Nausea,” he whispered, holding his cell-phone up to my ear. “Tell them that the pain makes you nauseous and you can’t sleep.” My injury kept us both in Percocets and Vicodins, and kept Marty from dealing with the medical insurance he probably didn’t have. Somehow, he made the whole thing feel like a huge favor to me.
We pulled into the serpentine state beach that had been my home for nearly four months and wound around to the camp. Marty kept the truck running. “So I’m going over to Heather’s tonight. I’ll be back first thing in the morning.” He gave me another pull of vodka and I went off to my tent. I had bad dreams of the girl in Montana who’d broken my heart into pieces, short hours before my surfboard had broken my ribs into pieces. I’d been walking around for days with a crippling pain in the side of my chest.
We took care of children. Parents trusted us with their kids for weeks at a time. We brought helpless youth out into the ocean, taught them a dangerous sport, and were solely responsible for their safety. At the beginning of the summer this all made sense. We took it seriously. Now it was nearly September and the camp had come apart at the seams. Marty’s name isn’t really Marty.
I’d been undone by a confused girl and an invisible injury. Even with the pills and the distraction, I was still the most responsible employee Marty had. My two co-instructors were nineteen-year-old surfer girls from Orange County who disappeared for days and hours at a time. The “director” was a surly alcoholic from Texas who’d taken to drinking in front of the campers. He carried a plastic cup full of Sparks malt liquor and ice, pretending it was orange soda. By two in the afternoon, he’d pass out inside his sweltering tent. Marty was busied by the problems with his younger girlfriend, and barely showed up at all. With a dry mouth and a tingling sensation in my limbs, I kept up the sham of his surf camp: teaching, cooking, giving private lessons, and entertaining the campers—all for the fifteen-dollars-a-day Marty had hustled me into working for.
The odd thing is: I didn’t want to leave. We only had a couple weeks left and I wasn’t ready for it to end. I’d been planning all summer to go on a month-long Mexico trip with that girl from Montana. I’d spent my few spare hours pouring through guidebooks and looking for our best route. Then she called one day to say she was back with her old boyfriend.
I didn’t want to return to Montana under those circumstances. Here I had a nice tent to live in, three meals a day, and waves a few steps away. Back in Montana, I’d be just another heartbroken restaurant employee waiting for it to snow.
Days later, Marty asked when my girlfriend was coming. When I told him the bad news, he called a staff meeting. “Staff meeting” was secret code for the two us going to his tent to drink vodka chased with bottled water.
“Here’s the thing,” Marty grimaced and swallowed. “You don’t want a girl along on a Mexico trip like that. She would harsh your gig.”
“We were going to take her car. I can’t go without her.”
“Yeah,” Marty’s words came out slow. “That sucks. Here. We better take one of these.” He pulled out two round pills and handed one to me. I could hear campers grow restless outside the tent. It was almost movie time.
“Check this out.” Marty’s eyes were halfway closed. “Let’s go to Mexico, you and me. I want to sus out some spots where we could do some off-season camps. I haven’t been down there in ages.”
The night before we were meant to leave, Marty stopped at a Stater Bros. grocery store and negotiated with the deli. He convinced the clerk to let us have the last of the day’s fried chicken for half price. The clerk rolled his eyes, turned off the heat-lamp, and loaded the dry chicken into a paper bucket.
We left at quarter after four, hoping to beat the border traffic. The truck was loaded down with surfboards, wetsuits, camping gear, and beach chairs. Apart from the chicken, all that we had for food was a box of military MRE’s that Marty had gotten from a marine friend. Sitting upright in a car for hours on end seemed to aggravate the pain in my ribcage.
Somewhere between Tijuana and Ensenada Marty asked me, “You hungry for breakfast?”
I figured he knew a taco place nearby. “Yeah. I’m starving.”
“Start eating fucking chicken, man!” Marty laughed maniacally at what I didn’t think was a funny joke. He kept laughing as I bit into a stringy drumstick.
In another hour, we made it to Ensenada. Marty stopped at a tienda and went inside. He found a Styrofoam cooler and pulled six-packs of beer from out the refrigerators. The two clerks locked the door and pulled all the blinds down over the windows.
“What’s up?” I asked the clerks, “What’s the matter?”
“The law,” one said, “It’s illegal to sell alcohol before noon.”
Marty waddled over to the counter with his arms full of beer and tequila. “Fireworks!” he shouted. “Where can we get fireworks? Dude, ask them where we can buy fireworks.”
We cruised down Mex 1 with a truck full of liquor and pyrotechnics. Marty opened two beers and handed one to me. “Here,” he said, “we better take one of these.” He offered up a small pill that I didn’t recognize.
We left the sprawl of Ensenada and entered the real Baja. The desert and the sea pushed up against each other in bright shades of brown and blue. It was a bittersweet sight. I thought of how I was supposed to see this place, of who I was supposed to share it with.
Marty’s pills made my throat dry. I drank beer to quench the thirst. The pain in my chest abated. I felt like I was floating just a few inches above my body as it sat limply in the passenger seat of the truck. Marty told a story from the glory days of his pro-surfing career. Pipeline, I think.
“I mean these guys, they basically jump off a cliff made of water and land on their boards…in the tube.”
We drove on a bumpy dirt road now. The ocean was on Marty’s side all of a sudden. How did this happen? A second ago we were going south on the well-paved Mexico 1.
“I said fuck that. I’m from California, you know. You got to work up to something like that. I mean, people die there all the time.”
My body bounced limply around as we went over the bumpy road. It caught against the seatbelt and back against the seat like the poorly loaded gear in the pickup. I looked over at Marty. He placed another pill in his mouth and then washed it down with a sip of beer.
“But my ex-wife kept telling me I could do it. So I paddled out. I caught one wave, got drilled on the reef and broke my board. I guess it was worth it.”
The truck stopped all of a sudden. We were parked on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean. A white lighthouse and a few fishing shacks stood to our right. Marty’s voice called from outside the truck.
I got out and walked around the tailgate to see Marty’s white ass staring back at me. He was changing into his wetsuit. Why wasn’t he as dizzy and spaced-out as I was? I fumbled around the truck for my own suit. Marty grabbed his board and walked toward the lighthouse.
In the water, Marty caught a wave straight away then paddled back out beside me.
“How is it?” I asked.
“Be careful, they’re breaking on a shallow rock shelf.”
On my first wave, my fin hit the ocean floor. Thrown forward, my body bounced over the rocks. I got to my feet and discovered that the water was little more than knee-deep.
We pitched our tent right beside the truck up on the cliff. A pair of Mexican fishermen traded us small lobsters for bottles of beer. We ate the lobster with beans and franks from the MRE’s. Marty ignited one of the starter logs that he brought along in lieu of firewood. We cracked open a few more beers and for a minute it felt like a real camping trip with a normal person. I fantasized that a documentary camera crew was here with us, filming. I would show my ex-girlfriend footage of the sun setting over the Pacific and she’d be sick with regret.
The first explosion sounded as I brushed my teeth on the far side of the truck. I jumped back and ducked for cover against the pick-up. Marty’s hysterical laughter came from behind the tailgate. I turned to see him holding a Bic lighter and his paper bag of fireworks.
“Dude, you should have seen your face! That was hilarious.”
He went on laughing as he launched more Mexican sky-rockets with the empty vodka bottle. They lit up the sky and the sea underneath. Dogs howled and a few lights came on from the fishing shacks over by the lighthouse. I went inside the tent and contemplated the trip: I was supposed to be here with a beautiful girl whom I was still in love with, teaching her to surf in un-crowded breaks and having sex under the brightly burning Baja stars. Instead I was here with my fat boss, who fed me pills and shot at me with fireworks. If that imaginary documentary crew had been filming this night, I would have ripped the tape from their cameras.
TO BE CONTINUED…