It’s a dance most comparable to ballroom with the stiffened upper body and the gliding legs. The hastened tiptoeing. Though there’s no leading though, just following. The beauty is how everyone reads her cues differently, and how they move while they do it.
From an early age he understood it was a dance and that every wave was stage. You could tell he knew by the way he inflated his chest during that first slice into every wave, moving with the bravado of a seasoned performer.
Some people pretend not to know and say it’s just good fun, or has something to do with spirituality. How can anyone ever be content just trying to have a good time when they see someone levitating down the line with a distinguished combination of strength and poise? No one with two eyes and an ego truly can.
Not a set wave peels through that doesn’t have a dozen sets of eyes on it: surfers, foreigners, tourists, valley girls, and grandmas. They’re all spectators to the holy sport. If they know nothing about surfing, they know a dancer when they see one— moving with calculated steps, precise down to the square-inch, like they’d done that exact combination since the beginning of rhythm, but at the same time with palpable glee of never having done it before.
Each wave is a chase, with surfers pursuing an ever-fleeting moment and always being a second behind. They keep up, slow down, fly high, and dip low, all in trying to finally crest atop the moment and wrestle it into their possession. The curse is how no one will ever succeed and will all die trying.
It can turn into a feverish and aggressive battle. Pity on the beginner just trying to have fun who gets in the way of a hunter whose been tracking enlightenment for 20 years as is convinced its finally theirs when a chunk of foam and a dopey expression gets between them and the goal.
Growing up he saw his father’s disposition change around the physical presence and mere conversation of surfing. It was hallowed ground that the common-minded beachgoer couldn’t accurately perceive, not like a high priest of glide who could speak to the cosmos with each hissing and dissolving line he drew. How dare they even try.
It was understood that he had been inducted into the way, to fight against time and make known the separation between fair-weather thrill seekers and true aquatic bodhisattvas of the froth. They each carried with them the task of keeping it sacred and respected, battling against the inclination to commodify their search, to feel as if you’re a part of something so beyond merely due to a purchase at Costco or your local surf shop.
Gentle footfall on a steadied surface, a linear plane soaring across the infinitesimal abyss of what once was. Occasionally he’d walk up the beach after a longer wave that connected all the way to the sand from the tip of the point, carrying the his heavy load, accepting greetings and praises on his journey.
“Great set, Tommy!”
“You sure are fun to watch!”
“I’ve never seen someone move like that.”
“You make it look so easy!”
Always accepting, with a solemn nod and occasional humble smile. The bystanding insecure and timid studied his gait and gestures, and imitated what they saw in their own lives off the beach.
A few suspected it was all an act. A handful of the leather sack old timers that had been “sitting on this beach for fifty years” were on to the dramatic flair of it all. If Dora had taught anyone anything other than how to nearly decapitate people, it was that mystery was everything, almost as important as how well you actually surf. Nice guys with no secrets never became legends. It’s everything you don’t know that ensures you’ll remember what you do.
The way the springs on his dad’s couch dug into his back was one secret.
“No one over 16 is supposed to be sleeping on that couch,” his mother had once said with a mouthful of romaine during one of their bimonthly lunches. “Couches aren’t for making 40-year-old backs comfortable. Do you at least put sheets on the thing? That couch has gotta be fifty years old.”
He’d been sleeping on that couch out of spite for 24 years, ever since the split and he had to choose sides. She had told him the reason so many times and even as he’d aged it never made more sense to him. The closest he’d ever come to accepting it was writing it off as some sort of feminine craziness that really couldn’t be explained.
His last couple of dates were secrets too. Fewer and fewer women didn’t ask questions when he preferred to go to their place, or weren’t fine just sleeping on the beach.
“Oh but I have a roommate, why can’t we go to your place. You said you live in Malibu, right? On the beach?”
The conversations with his father had never been about anything other than the beach and waves, stories of oceanic comrades of yesteryear, sand scuffles, parking lot gossip. No grief about the couch. He’d will him the apartment in the valley and he’d be fine, just like his pop.
As he fell asleep at night he often replayed the nights of his twenties in his head: the girls, the parties—places and times where a surfer’s hubris were the best accessory, and everyone always acted like you had something special they wanted. Everyone’s tone had changed. Ryan used to call him up all the time with the scoop. Ever since he got hitched and she got knocked up, that was over. Mark used to come around too before he got that job in Ohio or somewhere. Idaho?
His manager at the shop treated him the same, some kook from Redondo who worshiped the ground Tommy walked on. Any time he was late because the surf was good, or left early because the surf was good, or ruined something because he was tired from surfing good surf, the boss just ate it up.
“Oh that’s alright Tommy, I know you were out there giving everyone lessons. It’s alright.”
The part-time work was just enough to feed himself and let him get in the water when he needed. The boss never made him do too much out of fear of asking him to do anything. Anytime those fluorescents got him itching too bad he could split. The idea was mostly to use his presence to help sell boards.
“Ole Tommy will help you out. He knows everything there is to know. You know Tommy, right? Seen him around? Then you know.”
It only got bad when the occasional yuppie in a rush talked down to him about why their ding repair is taking two months to finish.
“Don’t they know who I am?”