When I Thought She Left

I stood on the furthest finger of trail overlooking the sunset-drenched tidal flat, just like that early evening seasons ago, when I thought she left.

A dark band of clouds rose from the ocean, cut by the rush-hour horizon of flashing taillights that eerily left no engine roar or blaring of horns, just like that early evening seasons ago, when I thought she left.

Every few moments, a soft breath of air would gently rattle the reeds, and the absolute calm in between the pulses made me feel like I was someplace I’d never been before, just like that early evening seasons ago, when I thought she left.

Except this time, the soft breath of air was the first life of summer, instead of a eulogy for both autumn and my friend.

I was leaving for Idaho the next morning. She used to love the ranch here, where she could run without restraint through creeks and cottonwoods and canyons of sagebrush littered with wildflowers.

I asked her if she wanted to come with us.

A massive gust roared down the canyon and emptied into the lagoon, leveling the reeds in a rush to the ocean.

Just like that early evening I thought she left.

That time, she raced me on the wind through a sunset-drenched California sky, all the way back to the house.

This time, she rested quietly next to Emma, as dawn turned to dusk, all the way back to Idaho.

Happy

Deep, fleshy rakes across faces, legs, and backs are an almost compulsory toll taken by the wave gods in exchange for this wall of water, legendary for both its perfection and propensity for breaking over a razor-sharp dry reef. One of us suffered a coral head’s punch to his ribcage in the first few days here, and he’s been drinking Fiji Golds and watching the horizon ever since.

I’d just kicked that reef myself a few days ago when I saw Happy racing toward me, a massive grin plastered across his face. The crashing lip clipped his head and he fell hard, but emerged from the frothing whitewater unscathed and laughing. He paddled over to me, sat on his board, smiled, and told me he surfs this wave every year, and maybe he should take a break since he usually doesn’t eat shit like that.

He meant every day, not every year. Happy works on the island as a boat driver, shuttling us around to world-class breaks and smiling a lot. He reminds me of Ulai 25 years ago… young, lean, and always stoked. He leads with joy and is gaining repute as an aspiring professional surfer, but I know him best as the Fijian who most lives up to his name.

Until yesterday.

I’d been in the water since a little after sunrise, surfing with a few guys I’d met on this trip. My shoulders were no longer willing to cooperate, so when I saw one of the island boats approach, I waved and started paddling toward the channel.

Happy threw my board in the boat and I clamored over the wooden rail. As we swung toward the island, I noticed the name embroidered on his shirt.

Api.

Which sounds a lot like Happy.

All this time I thought he was Happy.

Which he’s not.

Whatever.

He is.

Dispatch from the South Pacific

He was big… Samoan-football-player big, taking off way outside on overhead set waves and charging down the line like a freight train.

I jumped from the boat into the turquoise water, the jagged coral reef only a few feet under my feet. He paddled next to me on the way out to the lineup, and as a head-high wave stood up on the rock shelf in front of us, told me to go.

I went. A few arcing turns, a cutback, and a hundred yards later I kicked out just in time to see him pull out of the wave behind me, flashing me a shaka sign with a wide smile.

I haven’t been to this tiny island chain deep in the South Pacific in 25 years, not since my cousin and I traveled to one of these specks of sand and palm the summer I graduated. A well-funded documentary had already launched that particular island and a charismatic 12-year-old Fijian grommet named Ulai into the surfing stratosphere, and I got a photo with him the day I left the island, his head barely reaching my shoulder, to remind me of his unrelenting stoke whenever my own might be fading.

My cousin is with me now, too, but this time we’re on a different nearby island. Two and a half decades gone and we haven’t really changed… I don’t think any of us really do. We make mistakes, we learn from them, or not, we grow and evolve, but these are just leaves that blossom and brown with the seasons. The roots? The anchors running underground, drawing nutrients from the soil of our lives, the tendrils of where we began?

Those roots don’t change.

I paddled back out to the lineup and mentioned my memory of Ulai to the surfer next to me. He questioningly raised an eyebrow and pointed to the big guy who’d given me that first wave.

Couldn’t be possible.

I made my way over to him and asked if he was Ulai. He nodded, and I said that while we met only 25 years ago, he may not remember me. He laughed and held a gnarled, hard-worked hand out of the water, which I took, closing a circle opened when we were both just kids.

Before the constant comparison of Facebook and Instagram, even before the world’s first website had gone live. So many waves have been ridden since then… waves of joy, disappointment, loss, laughter. Waves of expectation, reward, defeat, pulsing through the calm seas and gale-force winds across the ocean that is my life, that is all of our lives.

Right up to this wave a moment ago, a crystal wall of water spiraling over coral heads and fish, more vibrant than any screen will ever be.

I paddled back to the boat an hour later, the crease of sore fatigue cutting through my shoulder blades. Ulai flashed the shaka sign again with a wide smile as we pulled away, an aged mirror to a glossy photograph, buried in a castaway album I haven’t opened in two decades.

Ulai happens to be the head boat driver on our island. Maybe I’ll get another picture taken of us, and post the now-and-then on social media.

You know what?

Maybe I won’t.