It wasn’t long after I’d broken up with Alex, a few short months into my service, a year and a half before the earthquake. Some girlfriends from my training group talked me into a weekend at the beach. Four of us rented two rooms in La Posada’s cheap wing—which was the first time I ever saw the place. Once our backpacks were shoved inside, we all went to a shorefront restaurant for midday drinks.
I’d not surfed in years, and never outside of Hawai‘i. It hadn’t occurred to me that there might be waves in El Salvador. Straight away, I could tell a swell was running. The rocky point—which began at the restaurant—stretched far out to sea. It was longer than any wave I’d seen on Oahu, and had no closed-out sections. I studied it while the other girls smoked and chatted.
Soon, I saw a bearded gringo, prone on his surfboard, riding white water into shore.
I leaned over toward Courtney, my closest friend in the group, and pointed. “Do you know that guy?”
“Him?” She squinted. “That’s Ben. He’s Agro-Forestry, from the group before us. They say he comes here a lot. You never see him in the capital. I think he’s from North Carolina.”
He climbed out from the frothing ocean and undid the leash around his ankle. He was shorter and thicker than Alex; his body was fit except for a small paunch at his belly. The water made clumps out of his reddish beard and matted together the hair on his chest and shoulders. He tucked the board under his arm.
“He’s kind of cute,” Courtney said over my shoulder. “In a dirty, hippie, surfer sort of way.”
He walked up the beach toward us. Afraid to be caught staring, I faced the girls. Seconds later, Ben leaned his board against the concrete platform of the restaurant. I turned back to him. He pushed wet hair out of his eyes, then set his elbows up on the platform.
“Spare a sip?” He pointed at the liter of Regia I’d been working on.
I picked up the amber bottle and passed it down to him.
“Cheers.” He took a big swallow.
“Good waves.” I meant it as a statement, but it came out of my mouth sounding more like a question.
“Really good.” He took another sip. “I’m about to grab my bigger board and head back out. Just snapped the leash.” He held up the length of broken plastic, as if I didn’t know what a leash was.
Courtney and the others giggled behind me.
“Are you the girl from Hawai‘i?” Ben asked. A Xeroxed face book of new volunteers was circulated among the veterans. Maybe he’d seen my picture in it.
“Malia.” I nodded. My feet were at his eye level. I stole a glance at my toes to check for filth and dead skin.
“I’m Ben.” He reached up his hand.
I crouched and shook it.
“You come from Hawai‘i but you can’t surf?”
“Who says I can’t surf?” Still crouched, I took back my beer bottle and had a drink.
“You should get out there,” he said. “We haven’t had a swell like this in months.”
I shrugged and handed him the beer again. “You say you got another board?”
“Yeah.” In an instant, he went from flirtation to logistics. “Two boards but only one working leash. Let me think…Maybe Napo would loan me one.”
“I don’t need a leash,” I said.
He cocked his head like a confused dog. “You sure?”
“Those things are for haoles.” I smiled and lifted his board by the nose. It was full of dings, but a good size for me. “I’ll take this out. Grab your other one and meet me back here. I’ve got a bikini on under this.” I pinched a bit of cloth from my T-shirt.
Ben grinned. “Suit yourself.” He sprinted off toward La Posada.
I turned to the girls. “Would you guys take my stuff back to the room? There’s money in the pocket—for my beers.” I pulled my T-shirt off over my head, wiggled out of my shorts. “I’m going surfing with him.”
By the looks on their faces, you’d have thought I said I was going to eat broken glass with him.
“Out there?” Courtney stood up. She pointed to the ocean, mouth agape. Her height and her short tufty hair gave Courtney a certain ostrichlike quality: legs too long and thin for her body, center of gravity a bit too high. Her shape—with its thick, pillowy torso—had an endearing maternal aspect when she was in a good mood. But when frustrated, she turned squawky and comical.
“At the point, I suppose.” I craned my neck to see the take-off, then turned windmills with my arms.
“What about, like, sharks?” asked Kathy, a blond girl from my training group, whose fair skin already looked to be burning under the sun.
“More people are killed by vending machines than by sharks.” What did worry me was my strength. I remembered how to surf, but I hadn’t paddled in years.
“Malia!” Ben called from below, a second beater surfboard under his arm.
“See you guys back at the hotel,” I said. “We’ll probably stay out for the sunset.”
I followed Ben along the point. We picked our way across the big black stones. Every minute or so, he glanced over his shoulder to check on me. I hadn’t expected such a hike. Perhaps the wave was even longer than it looked from shore.
Finally, we came to a spot where two rusted-out pipes headed straight into the water. I shuddered to think what they carried. Ben put in. With his board at knee level, he leaned on the deck, pushed off a couple of rocks, and started paddling. I did the same.
A handful of local surfers were out, but not many, considering. The swell was bigger than I’d anticipated, the wave even better shaped.
Ben led me to a tight inside position. From here, we’d be able to pick off smaller waves, but also scramble outside for the big ones.
“Watch out for the Mother Rock.” He pointed toward a huge boulder half-exposed in the lineup. “Other than that, it’s pretty user-friendly.”
We didn’t wait long for a set. One of the local guys took off way deep on the first wave. Ben and I paddled for the outside. A bodyboarder had position on the second one but wasn’t going to make it. Ben turned. A couple of strokes and he was atop a long drop wall.
I wasn’t sure how many waves might be in this set, so I cut toward the point for the next one. It looked smaller, and like it might back off. I paddled for it anyway. My wave pitched more than Ben’s; the takeoff was hasty. As I made the drop, that round Mother Rock rose below me like a whale coming up for breath. I was so shocked, I nearly wiped out then and there.
Once on my feet, I set the rail and gave two hard pumps. The borrowed board felt nice. The volume offered extra glide; the weight from all the dings gave it more drive down the face. Once past the takeoff section, I was home free.
This wave was unbelievable; it kept opening up. After a couple big carves, I spotted Ben paddling down the line. He flashed me a shaka and hollered some inaudible syllable over the roar of the sea. I crouched, rode high and tight against the curl. The wave’s power built up under my feet. The next section went vertical and I unloaded. With a stomp, I shifted all my weight to my front foot, shot down the face, did a bottom turn, and hit the lip.
It didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped. I scrubbed too much speed at the bottom and miscalculated the distance to Ben. Still, I managed to get him with a small arc of spray, on my first wave in years. I’d leaned so hard into the top carve that I fell off in the shoulder.
Underwater, I remembered that I was unleashed. I surfaced and swam for my loose board, but Ben got to it first. He grinned wide.
“Damn right you can surf.” He pushed the board back my way.
“This wave is amazing!”
We paddled back to the lineup. As the next set came in, a band of mariachis started up from one of the seaside restaurants. It felt as if we were heroes, their cinematic horn lines our theme music. The sunset glowed pink and orange on the horizon.
But how can I truly describe that first session at the point, with a boy whom I began at that moment to fall in love with? Surfing is something I grew up around, that I did as a kid. In high school, surfers were a sort of caste—like the jocks or nerds from mainland movies. Once we hit puberty, older sisters warned that our boobs would turn flat from too much paddling, that sharks would attack when we had our periods. Early in my high school years, I started playing volleyball and put waves on the back burner. For teenagers and twentysomethings in Hawai‘i, surfing tends to get competitive and serious. It’s not playful the way it is for little kids or adults. I’d forsaken the sport for so long now. I’d always enjoyed it but never wanted it to be my identity. Here there was no slang, no fashion, no accoutrements; there was only the ride.
So surfing that first wave—a nearly perfect wave, which I’d surfed well—was like a celebration of my past. And knowing that this break was this good, this empty, and this close to where I lived—that was a glimpse at the greatest-possible future.
A celebration of my life so far, plus the promise of better days to come—it was, I suppose, a bit like falling in love itself.
We went back to La Posada cold, hungry, and grinning. Courtney and the others had set up at one of the tables in the dining room: beer, cigarettes, and the remains of dinner. The three of them shouted and slammed playing cards upon the table in some unfamiliar game. They whispered to one another as we came in. I couldn’t have cared less.
Ben put the boards away. I showered, dressed, and joined the girls. Ben talked Kristy into making us a late dinner—something she seemed accustomed to. We all sat around drinking and chatting for a while. Ben went to bed first. He told me that I could join him for the morning glass. I said good night to the girls, and I was so exhausted, I didn’t hear Courtney stumble in beside me later on. In fact, I barely woke up once the screaming started.
I thought it was a bad dream at first. But it kept up, and changed from incoherent shrieks to English. “In my room, he’s in my room . . .”
“That’s Kathy,” Courtney said.
We threw clothes on and went to the door. In the courtyard, I saw Kathy’s blond hair. Her pale limbs were tangled up with those of another figure; four arms contorted in all directions, as if attached at the wrists. Kathy kept shrieking, “My room!” along with less coherent words. Courtney and I stood in our doorway, frozen by a mix of fear and confusion.
Less than a second passed before Ben materialized and pulled the two bodies apart. He put a sort of wrestling hold on the intruder, grabbed both his arms at the shoulder. Ben’s hands were laced together behind the stranger’s head. Lights clicked on in the kitchen. A fat Salvadoran man in whitey tighties—who, I’d later learn, was the owner of La Posada—came to the door.
“Don Adán,” Ben hollered. “This mañoso culero was in one of the rooms!”
“Tie him up,” Don Adán yelled back.
Kathy was in tears. My heartbeats felt like punches against the inside of my chest. Finally, we could see the thief. He was small, wearing only a tattered pair of cutoff jeans. His four limbs flailed in Ben’s grip like the legs of an upside-down crab.
More lights came on, and I noticed the broken surf leash upon a chair outside Ben’s room. As he wrestled the guy to the ground, I went and grabbed it.
Leash in hand, I hesitated to close the distance between myself and the two of them. I flinched from a few feet away, as if afraid the robber might somehow sting me with one of those thrashing limbs.
“It’s all right,” Ben said, reading my mind. “They never have knives or weapons. These guys trade anything of value for rocks.” He put his knee in the middle of the thief’s back, then took the leash from me and began to tie his hands together.
“This happens . . . often?” I asked.
Ben pulled tightly on the cord. A wince came from his prisoner. “The town’s got a bit of a crack problem. You shouldn’t leave doors unlocked.”
“How do they get in?” I looked up at the ten-foot-tall wrought-iron gate that enclosed the courtyard, studied the spikes along its top.
“Tree over there.” Ben pointed to the roof above the hotel’s expensive wing. “I sometimes use that route to dawn patrol, if they haven’t unlocked the gate yet.”
He went through the thief’s pocket. First, he found a slim glass pipe, snapped off at one end, along with a lighter and a folded square of tinfoil.
“No rocks,” Ben said. “Big surprise there.”
From the next pocket, he pulled out a compact pair of binoculars and a leather billfold. “Are these hers?”
I carried them over to Kathy, whose teary face was pressed to Courtney’s chest. The two of them still stood by the room at the far end of the courtyard.
“Guess we need to keep our doors locked.” I handed over the items.
I went back to Ben. With now-dilated eyes, I could see that the crackhead was tiny, hardly a man at all, possibly just a teenager. Lying still in those ragged shorts, with no fight left, he reminded me of a deflated Incredible Hulk.
The hotel owner put on pants and took control of the thief.
Ben trembled from the residual adrenaline. “Well, Malia. You’ve already gotten the full La Lib experience: the upside and the downside.”
“In less than twenty-four hours.”
He laughed and nodded, walked over to his room, and put on a shirt. “C’mon,” he said.
I followed him up a set of stairs to the roof of the hotel’s expensive wing. Strands of rusted-out rebar sprouted like saplings from the concrete. A forgotten stack of red bricks lay by a pair of patio chairs and some makeshift ashtrays. We sat down. From his shirt pocket, Ben pulled out a hand-rolled cigarette and the lighter he’d taken off the crackhead.
“My hands are shaking so bad, I can hardly light this thing.”
I’d have offered to help, but my nerves were in no better shape.
From below, we heard the big gate rattle, a string of Spanish curse words, then another clang of metal.
“Is he letting the guy go?”
Ben nodded and drew smoke. “It’s for the best,” he said without taking a breath.
By then, I could tell he wasn’t smoking a cigarette.
“Pakalolo?” I asked as he handed it to me, forgetting where I was.
“They call it mota here.” I took a small and cautious drag.
“Sun’s coming up.” Ben looked over his shoulder.
“This is the grossest pot I’ve ever had in my life.” I coughed and handed it back to him.
He laughed. “You’re not in Hawai‘i anymore.”
“You got that right.” I put a hand to my chest.
“Fuck it,” Ben said. “We might as well paddle out.”
We changed, got the boards, and returned to the roof. Ben climbed down the tree first. I handed him each of the boards, then went down myself. For nearly an hour, we were the only people in the water. The tide was higher than yesterday, and I was exhausted, but it was a fun session all the same—more playful than the day before.
TYLER MCMAHON is the author of the novels Kilometer 99 and How the Mistakes Were Made. He is the editor of Hawaii Pacific Review. He teaches writing at Hawaii Pacific University. More info at www.tylermcmahon.net.
Adapted from Kilometer 99, by Tyler McMahon, Copyright © 2014 by Tyler McMahon. With the permission of the publisher, St. Martin’s Griffin.