I May Never See Him Again

By Caroline Allen

You better go,” said my husband. “It always makes you feel better.” I drove the truck up Highway 101, heater blasting on my feet as the chill air blew in through the window. I stared at the low gray fog bank streaking across the horizon; the tops of the islands hung in mid-air. I parked across the street from the beach and carried my board down the rocky bank to the sand, zipped up my wetsuit and plunged in. The cold bit my neck and hands, the smell of brine and oil tar filled my nostrils. I was surrounded by roiling foam. Flags of seaweed dangled from hollow bobs and wrapped themselves around my legs. I paddled out past the white water.

The waves rolled in, strong and high, breaking first at the point and curling all the way down the beach. I rode them one after another, the whole length of the space between the point and the first houses on the south side, but the paddle out was tough. I struggled forward against each crashing wave, back arched above the board, flying up then thumping down into the after-swell. Limp and exhausted, I’d run out of breath. My arms moved, but it felt as if I couldn’t get enough oxygen to power through the water. I kept stopping to clutch my chest and suck air into my lungs. Pissed off at the biggest waves as they crashed into my face and shoved me back ten feet, “Damn you!” I’d mumble. “So this is how you’re going to be.” Once I was in position, a good time to rest, there’d be a wave I had to take or get crushed by, so I’d take it, even though it was too early, I wasn’t ready.

I rode a lot of fast ones but the stoke wasn’t coming. I was too tired. But I couldn’t stop. I was looking through the salt built up on my eyelashes, the world a spotty haze. I wiped my face with a cold wet hand. For a moment, just cresting over the back of a distant wave, I saw somebody in the water who looked like Bill Monroe. I’d been in for about two hours already, just trying to raise my spirits, getting all kinds of nice long rides down the beach, but I was still pissy. Just because. I said to myself, “That’s not Bill.” Then I realized, “I may never see Bill Monroe again in my life and I really don’t care. The time for caring about Bill Monroe is over. Good riddance!”

So then, of course, it turned out to be Bill Monroe. We were floating on our boards not far from each other but he never said a word and neither did I. He paddled to catch a wave and I watched him pop up and turn immediately into the sweet spot, turn again into the white, and keep that fast weaving motion all the way down the beach. Tall and thin with a big head and long arms, he’d lost a lot of weight, making him smaller than I remembered him, even a little fragile. I’d always heard about what a great surfer he was and now here we were, finally in the water together, and I was close enough to see his every move. He played with the wave like a master, not being a hot shot, just sliding into a groove, riding the inner curl, slicing up and down, a few big backward steps here, then smaller steps creeping forward, constantly adjusting, sensitive to the speed and shape and movement of the water.

He paddled back to the line-up and as he was coming toward me I caught one of

the bigger waves of the day. I pretended not to notice him, just glanced over my shoulder, lowered my head and paddled forward. At this rate we would never say “hi.” Then, as I was paddling up from that ride, he caught a wave and came shooting toward me. He looked so great, so tall and gangly. As he glided forward I yelled, “Whoo hooo, Bill!” He glanced my way, grinned widely and waved his hand as he swept past. “Hi, Caroline,” he said, nice and friendly. He paddled up afterward.

“I’d seen you before, but I didn’t recognize you,” he said, “I’d been admiring your hat. I like it that it has earflaps as well as a visor. That would keep my ears from getting burned.” He was wearing a lot of thick white sunscreen smeared haphazardly around his mouth and cheeks, but his head was bare and his hair seemed a lot thinner than I’d remembered. He must be in his fifties by now and thirty-five years of surfing in the sun have carved deep lines around his mouth.

“I love Mondos,” he said. “I used to come here a lot—but now, without a car, I can only come when somebody else takes me. Is this the only place you surf?”

“Usually. Sometimes I go to C Street, and on a bad day I’ll try Rincon.”

“I think Mondos is underappreciated for all the right reasons,” he said. I didn’t ask

him what he meant, though I wondered afterward. It was the kind of cryptic remark for which he was famous. He told me he hadn’t been to Mondos since August, the last time I’d seen him, when he appeared in the water one day and just as quickly disappeared. I told him I’d bought a new board since then and patted the rails of the one I was sitting on. It was long with a key lime edge around a white center. He eyed it, nodded his head approvingly and said, “Looks like a nice board,” in the way other guys have said it, almost covetously; but with him I felt it was a bit of a put on, to be nice, to make me feel that he was taking me seriously. I liked that he was being surfer-dude cool about the board, asking me how long it was, who made it, but I couldn’t help but suspect him of patronizing me. He knew I’d been in love with him once.

I’d heard he was homeless and asked if he still house-sat because I needed a house-sitter sometime in July. He squinted into the sun and said, “I hesitate to answer. I can’t even make plans for tomorrow, let alone July. But I’ve got a cell phone now, so if you get in a jam you can call me on that.”

“It would be a very unfussy job,” I said. “Just a couple of cats. But it is far from your usual haunts.”

“That might be the good part of it.” He flashed a wide grin.

“And you could use the cars.”

“Oh, I have no problem with driving cars,” he said. “I’m just phobic about owning one. No, that’s not true. That was malarkey.” He laughed, peered at the horizon through squinted eyes, turned back to me, said, “I’m just full of malarkey today,” and paddled off toward the point. Lower now, the sun glowed in the distant haze and I watched as Bill glided over the swell and dropped out of view.

During the next hour or so, in between catching waves, he complimented me on

the rides I got and I told him how much I enjoyed watching him ride, that I liked how long his rides were. “They should be good. I’ve been doing it a long time,” he said. Actually, I’d been getting some long ones too, but when I saw him weave back and forth along the waves I decided to try some of that myself and it actually worked. On my last ride I zig-zagged the whole length of the beach; but something odd happened. A guy on a blue board without a leash lost control of his board farther down on my wave. For a while his upside down surfboard was skimming the top of the white water right alongside me, on the same wave. It looked strange all alone like that, riding with no rider. I surfed into shore and saw the blue board still alone and bobbing up and down. I waded through the churning foam and held the board stable, scanning the water in search of its owner. A tall young man flung his arms in the air, then swam over to retrieve it. He wore his curly dark hair coiffed in a kind of Gorgeous George ‘do, and stared at me through long curly eyelashes. I’d seen him before, but where? Oh yes, my neighbor’s ex-boyfriend, a hairdresser from Oregon; I should’ve known by the hair. Last year he moved down to Santa Barbara to be with her and then freaked out over the commitment. Now, apparently, he was learning to surf. The water was full of old stories today. You couldn’t turn around without running into a failed romance. Bill rolled in as I was carrying my surfboard out of the water, still thinking of my neighbor and that guy.

“Your second-to-the-last ride was awesome!” Bill said. I couldn’t even remember my second-to-the-last ride. “Thanks,” I said.

“Looks like you’re going in,” he said. “So bye. You’ve been in longer than anybody in the current crew.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve been in about three hours, longer than I meant to be.”

“Great!”

“Let’s see if I can make it up those rocks though.”

“That’s always the question, isn’t it?” We both walked away, he toward the retreating foam and I toward the rocky bank. It didn’t seem that important to have talked to Bill, not like it would have twenty years ago, when we were in college literature classes together and everything he said seemed brilliant, even the odd, cryptic remarks I didn’t understand. But a guy you used to have a crush on in an unusually lonely and unhappy time in your life, even twenty years later, even after he’d already fallen in love with your best friend and lived with her for eight years and been overbearing and jealous until she finally had to break up with him in a really ugly way; even after all that disillusioning knowledge you get from knowing the old girlfriend so well, hearing the gory details of their fights, the way he used to beg for sex; even then, the guy you used to have a crush on still has some kind of special power over you. I always hate it that he

does, minute as that power now is. But I had to admit I loved being told my second-to-the-last ride was awesome. And the time spent in the water with him, that last hour, was better than the first two. Happier. Not the great happiness I used to imagine I’d feel if only he and I could be a couple, traveling to Hawaii and Italy, being glamorous and artistic, reading side by side in bed and talking for hours about Boswell and Johnson or Jane Austen versus the Bröntes or the news of a new art exhibit, making each other laugh, feeling smarter just by the quickening effect of each other’s conversation. No, that dream still lives somewhere deep inside me, makes my heart beat faster whenever he’s around, but that wasn’t what I was thinking of then. He’d been good company out there and that, as it turns out, was all I needed. That, and three hours of rigorous

exercise.

I walked to the makeshift concrete steps in the rocky bank, arms shaking. I stood still a long time, waiting for the strength to step up those rocks without hitting my board on the higher rocks or the ones behind me. It felt good to have strained myself, to have worked so hard. I was tired but it was good.

___

Caroline Allen has been a lecturer at the College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara for over 25 years. Her work has appeared in Solo Novo, Lumina, Mary, Spectrum, and The Santa Barbara Independent, among others. She is also a painter.


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