“Hey kid, you ready to get wet?” I drop my board on the sand and finish pulling on my suit.
“Hell yeah,” he says, a bundle of enthusiasm. I laugh when his voice squeaks on the high note. His face turns red and sheepish, but he smiles and shrugs as if he’s accepted this new changing voice of his.
So far, our practices have been on land. It’s important to teach a novice how to balance, and move their bodies, and where to place their feet before ever getting in the water. Normally I’ll spend an hour teaching these techniques, but with younger kids, I like to give them a few days to make sure it really sinks in.
“All right, let’s go,” I say.
We step into the foam where the beach meets the sea and allow our bodies to adjust to the cool water. The wind rustles my hair, the salty spray wetting my face. The ocean is where I truly feel at home.
“Come here,” I tell the kid. He walks toward me and I hold my waterproof cellphone up. “Noob surfer selfie.”
Ben laughs and crowds in for the obligatory picture. All of my students get pictures at the beginning of our lessons to go on my website and Instagram to promote my business. We smile and I click the photo and post it. Stuffing the phone into my suit, I lay stomach-down to my board. Ben does the same and we paddle out.
Once we’re out of the surf, we sit up on our boards and wait for the waves to roll in. I hope the kid wore sunscreen. The glare coming off the water is brutal. I put my hand up to my eyes to shield them and wait to see what Ben is going to do.
He waits patiently for the right one, bobbing on the backs of discarded waves. As he misses several more, it’s apparent he’s nervous. Maybe he’s not as ready as I thought he was. As the thought occurs to me, he starts to paddle into the next one. It’s much bigger than the others and I realize he wasn’t afraid at all, he was showing off. He didn’t want to ride a small wave; he wanted to impress. Except, I’m not impressed. My stomach drops at the sight of the monster wave heading his way.
I cup my hands around my mouth and call out to him. “Wait for the next,” I shout, but he can’t hear me. The ocean throws sound like a game of catch and makes it impossible to communicate without looking at each other.
The wave grows into a giant’s gaping mouth, ready to swallow him up. His board isn’t in the right position and neither are his hands where he’s clutching the edges. It’s as if he’s forgotten every single thing I’ve taught him. The wave is going to toss him like a dog’s plaything. He must realize that by now, but he tries getting onto his board anyway. He almost gets to his feet but the heel of his foot slips and he goes down, hitting his head on the side of his board as he falls. The wave crashes on top of him with crushing force.
I can hear people on shore crying out as I paddle toward Ben. They must have seen it too.
Ben doesn’t come back up. I dive underwater, swimming below the waves to keep from getting caught up in the spin cycle. It’s like a food processor down here, seaweed and sand churned up, making it impossible to see. My eyes burn, but I don’t close them. I keep searching.
Thank God for his brightly colored board. I swim toward it and see Ben struggling to get back to the surface. The cord around his ankle is tethered to his board, keeping him buoyed near the surface. I grab him under the arms and lift him so his head is out of the water where he’s able to take hold of his board and drape himself over it.
There’s a gash on the corner of his head, dripping a small amount of blood. Sharks don’t usually troll this part of the Pacific Ocean, but I’d rather not tempt them to change their minds. I kick my feet and paddle hard with one arm while pushing the board with my other.
Back on shore, several people come over to help me drag Ben’s spent body onto dry land. He coughs seawater from his lungs and makes a miserable sound. I remember my first close call when I’d taken in a mouthful of the ocean. It wasn’t fun. It felt like shards of glass had sliced up the back of my throat.
Those who aren’t helping to make sure the boy is safe have their phones out, filming or taking pictures. I’m bent over the kid with my hands on my knees, trying to catch my breath.
My wet hair drips onto his face. “You all right?” I ask him.
He holds his stomach, looking as though he might vomit. “I think I did that wrong.”
I laugh. At least he still has a sense of humor about it. I doubt his parents will think it’s funny when they find out. I also doubt Ben will tell them, but with all the busybodies around us, I’m sure it will end up on the news or social media. It’s a small town and anything involving surfing is big news.