Friday, September 26, 2008

High Tide at El Matador

by Duncan Pittman

I felt him behind me. He caught me on my stomach, eyes shimmering like sea glass, lying in the shadow of the imposing cliff decorated with flowers and vines.

I pretended not to notice, and shifted my form to balance on my elbow, wondering why there weren't any shells on this beach to break my fall more painfully. The beach towel should be lumpier, I thought as I smoothed out the fabric, trying to ignore his presence. So many things are different now.

Over my shoulder, the sea exhales as if through a giant hookah, puffing a blanket of mist out over the nearly deserted beach. It rises through the rugged sea canyons as waves crash along the rocks, spraying water upward into the sunlight, exploding violently at first, and then swallowed by a salty, palpable silence. The midday sunlight filters through the mist, giving everything around me – the rocky cliffs, the cresting waves, the aquatic vegetation now slung about as shoreline debris – a nostalgic filter. It’s like someone’s old home movies that were left in a canister in the basement of the family beach house – sandy, golden, as foggy as a dwindling memory, aching to be watched, projected, remembered.

Intoxicated, I gaze deeply into this humid mirage, searching. There I catch a glimpse of him - he looks to be about seventeen this time - skim boarding through the haze.

I watched his dark, wavy hair bounce with each glide, his well-tanned frame ever-balanced, never stumbling, always sturdy, his face always turned away from me, obscured by the ghost mist.

* * *

“Take us with you,” we would beg of him, using our tiny fingernails to scratch our names into the sandy wax spackled onto his board - "his girls" - as if trying to claim him as our own, longing to be included in the ride.

In those days, he'd take us along to practice his boyhood hobby, to teach us his special talent, the one he had mastered over summers spent along an eastern shore.

But we were too small, too aware, too nervous to go very far. His failed attempts to make us in his own image led us back up onto the shore, where we sat watching him, waiting for him, shielding ourselves from the sandy wind, and covering our scrapes and bruises with dark gray muddy sand, like earthen casts on our arms and legs, letting the grains slip through our pruned fingers as it dried and cracked apart and tumbled into piles around us.

And we’re still there, the two of us.

All the while, we’ve watched him go, his back to us, passing us by as he goes, occasionally waving back to us if and when he stumbles or falters, laughing nervously and covered in the tide, his mustache dripping with sea foam, taking a break and running up to us to check in, almost childlike, only to seize his oval-shaped board once more, rushing back out to the water’s edge, eager to keep the ride going.

* * *

He’s stuck there now, still a boy, skimming down the beach across the thin layer of water that barely supports him, keeping his balance only for himself, too focused on his own ride. He’s left everyone else back up on the shore.

* * *

But how long have we been up on this beach?

The shoreline’s now littered with debris, but he doesn’t seem to notice. When will the tide come in so far that he will be forced to join us?

Today I am on this beach alone.

* * *

My vision remains blurry. I rise and go to rinse off in the cold Pacific Ocean that stings the skin. I am more used to the Atlantic: the warm, misleading Atlantic, where you can still drown, be swallowed up, or stung just as badly as in the Pacific. But the Pacific doesn’t put on airs. Its ferocity is upfront, to even the slightest touch. That’s something I am not used to.

I feel a splash and he skims by me again. I flinch as the wet goose bumps spread all over me, and gaze into the cold, treacherous water choked with seaweed tentacles that threaten to tangle you up and drag you out to sea.
I rinse off quickly, determined to return to the shelter of the sea wall.

* * *

The clouds swaddle the late afternoon sun as the fog encloses around me. It’s just me and the skim boarder now inside this ghost cloud. Quickly, I close my eyes and open them again. The air has already grown thicker, wetter. The waves crash harder as the gulls scatter in all directions of the nautical compass.

“You go where the current pulls you,” he says, his voice an echo over the tempest.

But I know all too well that the moon has pulled the tide away a hundred times since then, and that the original shorelines were worn away, eroded, reshaped.

No shells to collect along this strand of shoreline.

Back along the seawall, I catch his silhouette one last time before he disappears into the fog, the wind pushing his shoulders, ever-steady atop his board, never looking back, straight and onward back into the sea.

* * *

I want to call out, to lure him back in, to beg him to stay.

"But we’ve already left him there, haven’t we?" the child beside me whispers.

Slowly I return to my place on the towel.

"But even the moon has its phases," I reply.

* * *

And yet I’ve still got the sand in my shoes.