By Margot Pepper
Excerpt from Through the Wall: A Year in Havana (Freedom Voices, 2005)
New Year’s day in 1977, the fourteen-foot mountain of water peeling off Third Point at Malibu’s Surfrider beach reflected the pristine early morning sky after the rains, its smooth face, mottled with black and white explosions of cloud. Eve kicked and paddled furiously toward it, but the sky disappeared behind its teal peak. Her heart beat as rapidly as a hummingbird’s wings. If she didn’t make it over, her kneeboard would be sucked backwards over the falls. She secured between her teeth the mussel shell she’d been carrying, and propelled herself up the face with the force of both arms and flippers, at the last minute straining to keep pace with the wave’s sudden upward pull. It started to fold. She was in arm’s reach from the top. The lip rushed down, snatching her breath, forcing electricity through dormant arteries. With a final thrust that demanded all her strength, she popped herself through the crest, refusing to relinquish her ankles to the wave’s appetite as it thundered to its death behind her.
She flipped the hair and water out of her eyes just in time to behold another wave looming on the horizon, greater than the last. Behind it she knew there would probably be another, larger still. They always came in sets of three. Was there anything more terrifying than this moment? She didn’t fear the ocean claiming her—she welcomed it. But the pact had to be sealed first.
Again, she paddled as hard as her muscles allowed, her jaw growing stiff. This time, her momentum enabled her to fly over the crest easily. Her board free-fell several feet on the other side of the peril, slapping the water’s smooth surface. She groped for the vial at her neck to reassure herself it was still secure on its silver chain. She kicked onward in anticipation of the third wave. Instead, the vastness of the sea spread out like the immensity of space: just the same simple world as the one beheld from the beginning of Neolithic consciousness. Here there were no eyes to notice that the hair she ironed free of curls had frizzed. No one to recognize that no matter how much she bleached it with Sun In and plucked her eyebrows, her olive skin still refused to tan to the proper shade unique to blondes. No one to care that when she spoke to the sea, she spoke in Spanish.
“Eiew, see any rats in that haairr? Hey, yiew. Oh my Ga-awd, Sally, she’s deaaff. HEY YOU, comprendo Englisho? Think yerr a surfer chick with that board don’t yiew? Everyone knows yerr just a beanerr.”
Though the incident on the school bus had happened over a week ago, it was difficult to shut off the instant replay of what Leena Bohari had told Sally Orchard when the spotted her Dog Town skateboard and Steve Lis kneeboard. They had wiped boogers on the back of her favorite surfer T-shirt.
Her close friend, Pamela, had tried to avert such incidents by instructing her about the three-tiered class structure at Palisades High: “the populer people,” who included Trav Haro, Tracy Warren and Leena Bohari; the people in the second group, who didn’t wear exactly the right name-brand clothes; and finally the “UNpopuler people” who looked like they shopped for clothes at the supermarket. “People like Bertha and Rashawn and Latoya, María, all them with them weirdo names,” Pamela had pointed out. “And if yiew keep eating lunch with them, everyone’s going to knaow yerr a loser tiew, which is a shame cause yiew can be rrilly kiewt. You don’t look that Mexikin when you dye your haairr. From the back anyway.”
In an attempt at drowning the voices, she cast her board aside and allowed the glacial water to lick her scalp. Had she been wearing her wetsuit, she would have urinated inside it for a temporary surge of warmth. Practically naked in her bikini, she felt clean, reborn. Gone, the racial epithets the girls at school flung at her. Gone, the spray of alcohol-tinged saliva that struck her cheeks the previous night from her stepfather Byron’s latest tirade, though he had won the battle forcing her to give up Alphie, her little mop of a terrier. Here she was a beautiful island animal, the taste of brine on her tongue, her woolly hair silky and down to her waist with the weight of water, legs thrusting back the foam, the muscles in her brown arms flexing and straining—how proud she was of her arms; they were as strong as those of the father she would have had. Was there anything they loved more than the feel of sun and salt water? These elements were as necessary to her skin as her own restored breath. She wanted to remain here permanently.
A set of waves, unworthy of adrenaline, rose under her. She watched them break closer to the shore, then she paddled even further out. She kissed the mussel shell and pushed it gently into the current. “Te amo,” she whispered. The shell bobbed up again–all the candle wax she’d used to seal her offerings inside: a strand of her hair, the most expensive gold “S-chain” necklace she had stolen from a department store and a smudge of her blood on the shell’s smooth inner surface.
Byron’s forcing her to give up Alphie the previous night had been the final straw that had driven her to assemble the shell’s contents. Never did the man talk to her except to point out a shortcoming or violation, like failing to leave the mailbox door open after retrieving mail or to keep the shades down or any of the thousand other strange rules she had broken, the house an entire field of mines, the mind boggled and confused by every stimulus, body not wanting to move at all for fear of an explosion.
Many nights, as she lay in bed, her door barricaded with chairs and books in case Byron was considering stabbing her in the middle of the night for her latest crime, she’d hear him hissing, the missing words left to her imagination. “SHE doesn’t— SHE never— SHE— SHE— SHE—” always third person like the cleaning woman and the gardener and any other problematic human being, a malfunctioning machine, something not even insurance could solve. During the day, he’d fill in the gaps with negative adjectives. And after hearing the words repeated like a mantra, she would fall asleep knowing them to be true, knowing herself to be the irresponsible, lazy, aberrant gargoyle which perhaps never should have been. Little did she suspect these were the same epithets Byron hurled at himself each day the phone didn’t ring with a cello job, now that the synthesizer was replacing live musicians. Since her mother often rationalized Byron’s irrational rules and reactions, she began to assume it was she, not the two adults, who was off-balance.
Soon, she thought, none of that will matter anymore. I love you anyway, Mom, her note said. Don’t worry. I’m finally going to be OK.”
She pried the mussel shell open just enough to allow Ocean to penetrate. A fleck of gold from the S-chain caught her eye. Returning it to the elements was her promise never to steal again, she reflected, though much had been stolen from her: her father’s life, then her México when her mother returned to the States— Her world got soggy, as she watched the sea accept the offerings into its depths.
She unscrewed the vial fastened around her neck that she’d made from a perfume sampler. She dipped it beneath the water’s surface to fill it with Ocean’s blood. The neck kept stopping up with bubbles, so she kept having to clear it by blowing, which produced a whistling sound.
The vial full, she waited. She wanted a wave bigger than the one she once rode in Waikiki during a summer storm, a professional surfer gashed by the coral bottom and bleeding heavily from his leg, warning her to stay out. She wanted to die surfing a tsunami or like Captain Ahab: dragged under the sea by Moby Dick. How simple to become part of it. Like the carrion of a horse-shoe crab floating amid the feathery branches of maroon fern, or the cluster of fish scattering like schizophrenia. How she longed to be a sea anemone, surrendering herself to the will of the sea that its life-blood might enter.
Then, as if in response to her prayers, it materialized. She refastened the vial around her neck. The exchange of blood complete, the marriage was nearly sealed. (No Pali High boys had been interested anyway). “Soy tuya,” she whispered. For the first time since she could remember, there was nothing to fear. Ocean would decide whether or not he’d have her.
It spat white steam as it roared forth, deep veins of wind scarring its face of obsidian and jade. For a split second all sound was lost except that of her heart. The tumbling mass of water started to peel, exchanging day for night. She paddled to the right, trying to negotiate some time by aiming for the shoulder before spinning around to face the shore. Old coarse sand embedded in the board’s surf-wax scratched her ribs. The mound rose under her, sweeping her two stories high, the water far below like green glass. Summoning the last of her strength, she paddled furiously, shooting herself down the steep face as she got to her knees. She was committed. Her life would be unscathed had she surrendered to a good wave, but if this was a close-out—
She shook the water from her face. To her left, the path of the gently sloping mountain stretched out before her. She leaned into the slope and her board bit into the wall, gathering speed as it coasted diagonally across the face. She was soaring, an extension of the wave’s magnificent energy, the water smooth and firm like green gelatin beneath her. At the base, she swung her body upward toward the lip, then snapped down toward the bottom gathering yet more speed, foam roaring around her. This was the real thing; the only time she felt truly at peace; alive—the only time the pain receded.
She was going too fast. She reached out her hand to steady herself. Her fingers dented the walls of speeding water. Suddenly, a shadow enveloped her. She was inside an enormous tunnel of churning water that echoed like a conch shell. At the far end, through an oval window of air, the fishing pier dropped off through a fish-eyed lens. She could see the sun faintly through the translucent wall. Air passed easily in and out of her lungs again.
So this is what it was like to be tubed. Her fingers felt the wave’s power. It was thrilling to surrender to something so wild, so much larger than herself; also strangely comforting. Like letting go to see whether something otherworldly was really there to catch her when she fell, the way a father might have been.
This thought barely registered as the beast spat her from its bowels. She rode it several more yards, weaving forwards and backwards to preserve momentum before the wave decomposed back into the sea. She cleared her nose of water and paddled towards her pack.
As she emerged, a blonde surfer with zinc on his nose grinned. Robert. “Rad ride,” he said. “At Topanga yesterday I heard two dudes still talking about that barrel you caught at County Line.” Too bad Robert had a girlfriend.
Once dressed, she walked to the water’s edge and breathed the tangy air in deeply. Still glowing from Robert’s comment, she thanked Ocean for her new family and her life. She knew Ocean would always protect her now.
As she knelt to fill her amulet with sand, her fingers were so numb she could scarcely get them to grip the fine grains. She would continue introducing water from seas the world over, never allowing the vial to become empty, as if her life would evaporate with his blood.
Her father had loved the sea too. He had wanted his ashes scattered on the Pacific.