If you had told me a year ago that I’d wake up every morning thirty yards away from the Pacific Ocean, I’d have said yeah, and the Cubs are gonna win the World Series. My life was planted firmly in Chicago, working for the fun of it as a drama teacher at a high school and spending my summer days at Wrigley Field, watching my beloved Cubs play baseball. The Pacific Ocean was nowhere in sight. It was exactly 2,131.4 miles away.
But here I am, wearing my Cubs World Series Champions cap, sitting outside of my house on the island of Maui staring out at that very ocean, as if it belongs to me now.
More than the sight of the water, it’s the sound I love. I sleep better at night when I hear it, because the ocean is vast and my island is small and I’m far, far away from Chicago. Exactly 4,196.3 miles away from him.
Since the day I moved in a month ago, I’ve woken to the rising sun, made a cup of coffee, and plopped down on my beach towel to watch the tide for hours. It’s a routine most people would envy, and I loved it for the whole month of March…but it’s the beginning of April and I’m totally bored with it.
Knowing I need something more to do, along with some actual human interaction—because the snails in my yard don’t make the best company—I’m headed into town for coffee this morning. It’s a good first step toward breaking out of my shell, although it’s not like I’m going somewhere totally new. When I first moved to Manalua, I’d frequent Happy Grounds to use their WiFi while I was waiting for mine to be activated. As much as I’ve been trying to live off the grid, I’ve accepted the fact that the internet is a utility I can’t go without. Plus, I need to make sure that everything and everyone is just as I left it back in Chicago.
The little bell chimes when I open the door to Happy Grounds. It’s kind of dead for a Friday morning.
“Aloha,” the woman behind the counter greets me. I suspect she’s the owner because she’s the only person I’ve ever seen working.
“Hi,” I respond, not quite feeling local enough to say aloha without feeling like an imposter.
“Hey, I remember you. Where ya been?”
Crap. I don’t want to reveal I’d been using the place for its WiFi, so I tell a different form of the truth. “I’ve been settling in.”
“I figured you were a tourist.”
“Nope, I moved here,” I answer and decide to leave it at that. “Can I get a flat white?”
“Sure thing,” she says and goes to work on my drink. I take a seat and leaf through this week’s newspaper. There’s an interesting article about a local playhouse on the verge of closing and how the community is trying to keep it open. In my old life, I’d be tempted to get involved and do whatever I could to save it, but in my new life, it’s better if I don’t get too involved, especially in something that gets press.
I listen for my drink to be called, but she brings it to my table and takes a seat across from me. She’s got that gorgeous Pacific Islander complexion that I’ve come to envy, and hair that’s as black as midnight entwined with silver strands. She’s not wearing a bit of makeup and exudes a level of confidence she could teach a seminar on. “So, where are you from?”
She also likes to ask a lot of questions.
They say if you have to lie, you should make it be as close to the truth as you can. My dad and I spent a decent amount of time in Wisconsin when I was a kid and it’s close enough to home. “Wisconsin.”
“Escaping the cold winters?”
“That’s exactly right,” I tell her and make myself laugh lightly.
She reaches her hand across the table. Five or six bracelets made of string, beads, and shells dangle from her wrist. “I’m Kaila.”
“Nice to meet you,” I reply and slip my hand into hers. This is always the hardest part. While I may be a decent actor, I’ve still had to practice for this moment to make it look natural. “I’m Audrey.”
“Nice to meet ya. You know, I’ve only known our nice winters. Although the rain here is really something.”
“I’ve read that.”
“April is nice and baseball is back.” She points up at my Cubs cap.
“That’s right, tomorrow is opening day at Wrigley Field,” I tell her.
A couple of young guys in wetsuits, zipped halfway up their back, come through the door.
“Back to the grind,” Kaila says and goes behind the counter.
While I leisurely sip my coffee, I do a little people watching. There are elderly men in wetsuits and a group of moms in wetsuits. Basically, people of all types in wetsuits.
When I return my cup to the counter, I ask Kaila, “So, does everyone surf?”
Her eyes crinkle at the corners as she laughs. “Yes, especially if the surf report is good, like this morning.”
“Good how?” I ask and lift an eyebrow.
“Offshore winds and a west swell.”
“I wish I knew what that meant,” I admit.
“Not much surfing where you’re from?”
“Nope, mostly day drinking on boats.”
She smiles broadly. “Now, that sounds nice.”
“I’ve had some fun days on the water.” A dozen bittersweet memories of my dad come to mind. We had our own sailboat that we took out on Lake Michigan. I sold it three years ago after he died. I knew I’d never want to sail on it without him.
“Well if you want to learn to surf, my friend Jake teaches people,” she says as she wipes down some counters.
“Yep. He runs The Hut, about twenty yards north of the lifeguard stand. You should try to catch him this morning. It’d be the perfect day to go out and learn.”
“Shouldn’t he be surfing on such a perfect day?” I ask, a little confused.
“No, these waves are too tame for him.”
Oh. “So, he’s really good?”
“He is. Used to be a pro, but these days he just runs the surf shop. Trust me, go see Jake. Take a lesson and you’ll fit into Manalua in no time.”
Fitting in. That’s not a bad idea. It would probably be helpful to not stick out but blend in with the locals. Audrey, from Wisconsin, who goes surfing when the surf report is good. Sara, from Chicago, approves.
* * * *
The Hut is exactly where Kaila described and looks exactly like how it sounds. Surfboards and boogie boards of all sizes and styles lean against it, poke out of it, and are wedged into the sand in front of it. The roof looks like it could actually be made of straw, and I’ve got to wonder how on earth has this joint weathered any kind of storm, but there’s a wood carving on the front that says Manalua Surf Hut, Est. 1968, so I suppose it has. On the countertop, there are various types of sunscreen and sunglasses for sale, really cute ones actually. I try on a pair of fake Ray-Bans and check myself out in the little mirror attached to the display. Maybe it’s the Chicago in me, but I think I look like one of the Blues Brothers. I’ve got to have them.
This Jake guy doesn’t appear to be here, so I linger around a bit, touching the different boards. There’s one lying on the sand and it catches my eye. I drop my beach towel, kick off my flip-flops, and step onto it. My toes press into the board and a little thrill rushes through my chest. I can’t help myself and start mimicking what I believe to be surfer moves. It’s silly but really fun.
“You’re a natural.”
I twist around on the board, feeling like a kid that’s just been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. The fake Ray-Bans slip down my nose, and the words, “oh” and “sorry” are out of my mouth before I can push them back up.
The guy standing before me mirrors me in age, somewhere in his early thirties, and has a giant smile on his face. I think he’s just finished laughing at me. Yeah, he’s definitely been laughing at me, based on the way his shoulders are still shaking.
Speaking of his shoulders, Jesus H. they’re broad, but they fit his large frame. He’s stupid tall, nearly a foot taller than me, like six-three. His biceps and triceps are just as absurd. I’m fairly certain my two hands wouldn’t come close to fitting around his arm, although I’d like to test that theory.
Based on his sun-streaked blond hair, board shorts, and a Manalua Surf Hut branded tank top, I’m guessing this demigod might be the guy that runs this place. He is the quintessential surfer. Not to mention he’s got a tan that looks like it hasn’t faded in ten years and is barely sweating. I wish I could say the same for me. Can you say boob sweat?
“Are you Jake?” I ask, cutting right to the chase.
He gives me a once-over before answering. “That’s me. And you are?”
“Audrey,” I blurt out, not nearly as naturally as I’d like.
He crosses his arms over his chest and it’s such a sight, I bring my fingers to my bottom lip to make sure I’m not actually drooling. “Well, hello Audrey. What can I do for you?”
“Kaila from Happy Grounds sent me.”
“Did she now?” The corner of his mouth lifts up a moment before he takes off toward The Hut.
I follow him, leaving my flip-flops behind. “Yeah, she said you teach people how to surf.”
“She should know better; I don’t teach tourists,” he says as he starts rearranging some boogie boards.
“I’m not a tourist. I live right over there, on Kai Ala Lane,” I tell him and point across the cove. What on earth am I doing, sharing my home’s location with a complete stranger? I’ve been sloppy all morning.
His brow furrows as he studies me a little bit closer. “Oh, why didn’t you say?”
“I didn’t know it would make a difference.”
He runs a hand through his well-tousled hair. “It does. Learning to surf isn’t a one and done lesson, it’s as gradual as the waves. It takes weeks and that’s the only way I teach. If you’re not committed to at least six lessons, I’m not going to waste my time.”
Six lessons? That seems like a lot.
He cocks an eyebrow in my direction. I’d be able to read him better if he wasn’t wearing shades. “What do you think?”
Since I’ve got nothing but time on my hands and money to spare, I don’t see why six lessons would be so bad. “Yeah, okay, I’m down.”
“Cool.” He flips his sunglasses up on his head and squints at me. “You got a suit on under those clothes?”
“As a matter of fact, I do.”
“Then let’s get started,” he says and starts locking things up.
I go to pull out my wallet, but he stops me. “Put it away, Audrey. I don’t charge for lessons.”
“What about for the board rental?”
His sky blue eyes twinkle and I figure it must be the sunshine. “Welcome to Manalua. You’re one of us now.”
Audrey. I’ve always liked that name, yet I’d never met an Audrey in real life. She looks like one though if that makes sense. I guess I’m thinking of Audrey Hepburn. She’s got straight dark hair tied up in a loose bun through the back of her Cubs cap, and delicate facial features with rosy red lips that turn down slightly at the corners. She’s sporting an uneven tan that obviously started as a wicked sunburn since her shoulders are still peeling.
She’s petite, but most women are compared to me. Most of all, I like her smile. It’s a little guarded and I’ve always been fond of a challenge.
I pick out the best beginner board I have for her and grab Mabel, my own board.
“Who’s going to run your shop?” she asks.
She makes me laugh. “Worried about my bottom line?”
“I have this feeling I’m imposing on you,” she says while pushing the sunglasses she shoplifted up her nose.
“I’ll charge you double for the sunglasses if that makes you feel better.”
“Oh God, I totally forgot about them,” she says and pulls out her wallet again.
“We’ll do it later, okay? Let me lock that up for you. The crime rate in Manalua is low, but I’d rather have you focused on the lesson than on your wallet.”
She pauses, and dare I say it, is a little hesitant to hand it over.
“I only want to see your driver’s license photo,” I joke with her.
And it’s like I’ve hit the nail on the head because her head snaps up to look at me. I guess looking at her ID would not go over well.
“I’m just kidding, Audrey.”
“Oh,” she says for about the fifth time since we met.
“You can put it behind the counter if you want.”
She laughs nervously as she takes me up on my offer. “Thanks.”
That must be one hell of a photo. Now I really want to see it, but I wouldn’t dare.
With our boards nestled under my arm, I start toward the shore. “Let’s go talk about wave sliding.”
She keeps up with me pretty well and smiles for a split second when I spike the boards into the sand.
“Have a little patience, newbie. It will all make sense,” I say and plop down into the sand.
She lays her towel out beside me and takes a seat. “Why do I get a feeling that I’m entering into a Karate Kid-like mentorship?”
“Because you are,” I tease. “Wax on, wax off, newbie.”
“I’ve got bad news for you—I’m already a master at the crane kick.”
“No one is a master at that, save for one Mister Miyagi, may he rest in peace. But don’t forget, he had Daniel practice his balance in the ocean and balance is critical to surfing, so maybe your assessment isn’t too far off.”
“Well, don’t forget that Mister Miyagi said there’s no such thing as a bad student, only a bad teacher,” she says and nudges her knee against my thigh. God damn. I like her touching me.
I swallow hard. “I’ll keep that in mind. Let’s get started.”
My lesson begins the way it began for me when my dad sat me down at this very same shore at the age of seven. The first thing he taught me was respect, and I do the same for Audrey. With an embarrassing amount of enthusiasm, I describe the origin of Hawaiian surfing, or as they call it heʻe nalu, which translates to wave sliding. Heʻe nalu dates back over a thousand years, long before the Europeans came to colonize these islands in the eighteenth century.
“For the ancient Hawaiian people, surfing was integrated into their culture. They considered it an art, not a sport, and we should do right to remember that.”
Audrey is attentive and patient, as if she doesn’t have a single thing else to do.
“I will,” she says with earnest.
“Good. And as for that,” I say and point at the water. “We have an expression here, never turn your back on the ocean.”
She looks to the water and back to me with a small frown. “What does that mean?”
“The ocean is unpredictable, violent, and deceitful. It will lure you in, and once you experience that holy rush of gliding with it, you will want to go back for more and more. Some say it’s better than sex.”
“Do you think it’s better than sex?” she asks.
“It depends on the woman,” I answer with a mischievous grin.
She glances away and I catch a small smile. I’ve decided I’m going to start tallying them. We’re at three.
“The water weighs eight pounds per gallon and there are thousands of gallons of water in each and every wave. So whatever the weight says on your ID, forget about it. You don’t stand a chance against it if you’re not careful.”
“What about you, Thor?”
“Thor?” I don’t mean to scoff, but she’s caught me off guard.
“Yeah, you pretty much look like Thor on a surfboard.”
“I don’t have long hair,” I protest.
“I don’t think he does now, either,” she says, so nonchalant you’d think she was talking about her neighbor, not some fictional superhero.
Hell if I know. “Norse mythology expert, or do you just like the movies?”
“All of the above,” she says through a laugh and then shakes her head. “No, I love movies. Ever since I was a kid, ’cause we had a great collection, all the classic eighties movies. Plus, knowing a lot about movies is handy when you meet someone new, like something to have in common right away.”
“Well, I’m no Thor, but I don’t think he’d stand a chance against the ocean either, at least not without his hammer.”
“Okay, I think you’ve illustrated your point,” she says and purses her lips. She’s got a sexy way of getting snarky.
“Great. So what are you going to do?”
“Never turn my back on the ocean?”
“You got it, newbie.” I get to my feet and reach out a hand. She slides her slender hand into mine and I pull her up to her feet, then give her a little squeeze before I let go. It’s warm and soft, and it tempts me into thinking about how her skin would feel in other soft places.
Where did this girl come from?
An hour ago, my day was on the same trajectory as it is most days—waking up at dawn, getting my brother off to school, heading to the shop, and watching surfers come and go. Hell, I even visited my friend Manny at his food truck to help him prep like I do most days, but in a complete twist, I returned to my shop and stumbled upon this beauty from the mainland. Now, I’m willingly giving up my day to teach her about the ocean. I wasn’t sure life had many more surprises for me, but I’m stoked it still does.
I pluck the boards out of the sand and lay them down in front of us. Like an eager kid, she immediately jumps on her board.
“Slow down, newbie.”
“Are you going to teach me how to pop-up on the board now?”
“Nope, that’s the next lesson.”
“Are we going into the water at all?” she asks, and for the first time, I can sense a little impatience.
Normally, I don’t take students out into the water on the first lesson, but she’s so unexpected that I’m feeling a little loose with the rules. Plus, the conditions are calm enough for what I have in mind. “Yeah, but first you gotta practice being on the board.”
For the next fifteen minutes, we talk about how her board is designed and where she should position her body when she’s paddling out. She practices on land, lying on her belly, perfectly centered, with her feet near the back edge, and staring straight ahead. I find myself memorizing the lines of her body, tracing along every curve and angle until it’s committed to memory. This isn’t something I would normally do when working with someone, but I haven’t been caught off guard this much with someone in ages.
She’s a quick learner and a good listener. She asks a lot of great questions and is fascinated with the physics of it all.
After that, I teach her the most efficient way to paddle, especially for her strength. She reveals to me that she hasn’t really exercised in the past six months. Her confession is surprising to me. She seems like the active type, but I figure I’m making that assumption on her desire to surf at all. Plenty of people are satisfied with bumming on the beach and wading into the water to cool off their feet.
The other interesting thing about her confession is that it seems like she regrets telling me about it at all, as if she’s said too much. I barely know a thing about this girl, except for the easy deductions, like she’s probably from the Midwest, based on that Cubs cap and she likes movies, since she’s quoting them all the time.
Once I feel confident that she’s got paddling down, it’s time to take our boards in.
“Don’t I need a wetsuit?” she asks, ever so clever.
“Eventually, but it’s all good today, we’re just gonna paddle out. I can recommend where to get one later. They make really stylish ones these days,” I say and I feel like a fish out of water. Style isn’t usually something I give a lot of thought.
“And I don’t need to know how to pop-up?” There’s an edge to her tone, a little anxiety perhaps.
Maybe this was a bad idea after all. I should probably go back to the usual lesson structure, but when I look at her, I have the sense that it’s not fear of the ocean that’s got her wound up, it’s fear of no control.
“We don’t have to go in the water today,” I tell her.
“No, I really want to. I just want to be ready in case I have to catch a wave,” she says with a plastered-on smile. That’s not a real one, so I don’t add it to the tally.
“Listen, all I had in mind is paddling out and sitting on our boards for a bit. You’re not ready to pop-up yet, trust me.”
She looks a little disappointed, but when she lets out of a big breath, I think she’s actually a little relieved.
“You can even quiz me on movie trivia,” I offer.
She mulls it over, bobbing her head side-to-side a little. “Deal.” She takes off her Cubs cap and undoes her bun in one swift movement. Her hair tumbles down over her shoulders. It’s black as night and shimmers beautifully in the sun and over her skin. Before I know it, she’s dropping her shorts to the ground and pulling her tank top over her head, revealing a black bikini. This isn’t a string bikini designed to show off every edge and curve, but it somehow does the trick anyway. I have to stop myself from blatantly staring, so I look out at the other gorgeous beauty in front of me, the ocean.
I clear my throat and remove my shirt, sneaking a peek at her to see if she likes looking at me as much as I like looking at her. She’s hard to read behind those sunglasses she stole.
“Don’t wear your sunglasses in.” My voice is unexpectedly gruff.
“Oh, right,” she says and drops them on her pile of clothes. When she looks up at me, I’m stunned. Her eyes are as turquoise as the water I love and the contrast with her dark hair is jaw-dropping. She watches me closely and points to her eyes.
Fuck, I’m busted.
“Don’t forget to take yours off as well.” She picks up her board and dashes into the water like she owns the place.
“Who are you?” I mumble to myself as I follow her in.
Copyright © 2018 Ellie Malouff. All Rights Reserved.