Authors: Tyler McMahon
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For Skip and Susan
On shore, the mariachis struck up with a flourish of horns. The first wave of a new set rolled toward us. Ben and I paddled hard for the outside. Atop the still-unbroken swell, a would-be lip feathered white against the wind.
“We're too shallow,” I said.
“I think we'll make it,” Ben shouted back.
I paddled up the face. Ben turned to commit. The wave jacked along the point, then stalled. I duck-dived my way through before it broke, board twitching in my grip. From the backside, I caught a glimpse of Ben's red hair rising once against the curl, then disappearing down the line.
The next wave looked even bigger. As I was the deepest surfer out, it belonged to me. I turned around and rose with the crest.
One of the rich kids from Santa Tecla took a couple tentative strokes, incredulous that a girl might catch the best set wave so far today. I shouted “
” and fixed a stink eye on him. He stopped paddling and floated over the shoulder.
The mariachis played a minor chord and I made the drop. The face opened, broke top to bottom. It was big: double overhead at least. I took a high line and kept a lookout for the Mother Rock.
Through the first section, I pumped cautiously and built speed. The wave fattened up farther down the line. I unloaded a turn at the top of the lip, sending a fan of spray at one of the local guys. “Chinita!” he hooted. The wave re-formed for another speed section.
Some mix of instinct and guesswork took over. I pulled into the upper part of the face and crouched lower to my board. The lip turned sharp and silver. A land breeze blew mist backward off the wave. I stuck my front arm into the water, up to the elbow. A loud rumbling drowned out the mariachis. My feet shuffled forward on the deck, almost off the wax. I crouched lower, my free hand nearly pressed to the board's nose.
With eyes turned upward, I watched as the lip reached over like a rainbow, covered me up, and touched down by my opposite rail. Surrounded by water on three of four sides, I felt a moment of woozy vertigo. The board wanted badly to creep up the wave and spin out inside the barrel. Only my body weight kept it down. I stood higher, hoping to pump up some speed. The top of my head hit water and I returned to a crouch.
I've had lots of in-and-out barrels before, quick cover-ups in hollow beach breaks. If asked, I'd have said, Yes,
I've been tubed.
But never like this: setting it up, stalling with a hand in the face, stepping forward as if in a surf film. This was no fluke. Barrels didn't get any more legitimate than this one.
Afraid of going too deep, I took my arm out of the water. Through the almond-shaped eye of the wave, I saw more ocean, the pier, andâto my surpriseâBen paddling back out. He pumped a fist in the air and cheered at the sight of me. I smiled so hard, my ears popped.
I wished I could always see the world that way: from out of the inside of a wave, through a telescope of salt water, a swirling set of blinders that block out all the second guesses.
And then, a fraction of a self-satisfied second later, the whole thing came undone. My head was struck sidelong by a blast of aerated seawater. The wave closed out, with me inside, and soon I was spinning about underwater, connected to the board by nothing more than a rubber cord.
Back at the surface, Ben grinned a few yards away. El Salvador's swell season was only beginning. The mariachis came together in a festive waltz.
Side by side, Ben and I paddled back out toward the lineup.
“Wave of the day,” he said.
I smiled and nodded.
“You were in that tube forever.” He laughed.
“Ben, I love you.” It was the first time I'd ever said that to him. Maybe it wasn't the best moment. But something about the ecstasy and the power of that wave made clear the fact that I'd never have had the chance to ride it if not for him. I couldn't hold the words in a second longer.
He smirked and said, “I love you, too, Malia.”
Another set loomed on the horizon. We stopped talking and sprinted for the outside.
We didn't know then about all the troubles that were only a few months into our future. Back then, I didn't know how hard I'd try to regain that view from inside the tube. Not just the quality wavesâthough I certainly would want to get those backâbut also the perspective. I'd want my life to look the way it had for that too-brief instant before the barrel collapsed: fast, obvious, moving forward in one direction, with Ben at the center. In some ways, it's what I'd always looked for in El Salvador: a small, safe space where I fit in, between layers of violence and gallons of water.
They call him Chuck Norris. I'm known only as Chinita. Maybe you've heard about La Libertad. El Salvador's coast faces straight south. Punta Roca reaches half a mile into the sea. It's a perfect point breakâlong, hollow, without sections. Only local beach kids, a few wealthy sons from the capital, and a handful of adventurous travelers surf here. It's the sort of thing Ben and I grew up dreaming of.
is a Spanish word that means “freedom.” Puerto La Libertad is the largest coastal city in the country, and not far from the capital. Poor campesinos buy fish off the pier, while rich San Salvadorans eat seafood in the oceanfront restaurants. In the mid-nineties, a local drug syndicate set up shop in a house a few blocks from the point and began to refine cocaine into crack rock. It took the locals by storm, especially the young men. La Lib cornered the market on three commodities: fish, crack cocaine, and perfect waves.
Ben's handle is based on his beard and hair. Chuck Norris is a fairly common name for pets in this country. The aging action hero seems to be more famous here than in the States. Mine is even less creative. “Chinita” says only that I'm small, Asian, and femaleâqualities that are, I suppose, rare among La Lib's visitors.
Our nicknames were given to us by a local crackhead named Peseta. Peseta's own moniker refers to the Salvadoran twenty-five-cent piece. At one time, he'd been the best surfer in La Lib. Now, he begs quarters from tourists in exchange for nicknames.
A cemetery occupies the last piece of land on the point, before it becomes a pile of rocks. A sewage canal runs through town and empties on one side of the graveyard. It carries La Lib's runoff and gray waters like a sick river and expels them onto the town's greatest resource. They dump their shit and bury their dead on the one thing that rich Californians would sell their souls for.
La Posada is a horseshoe of a hotel wrapped around a dirt courtyard. One wing holds expensive rooms with air conditioning and private baths. We sleep in the cheaper wing, with ceiling fans and shared toilets. The third wing consists of the kitchen, office, and dining room. A wonderful Salvadoran woman named Kristy looks after our boards and runs the place whenever the owners aren't around.
Ben and I spend most weekends and holidays hereâand any other time the surf is up. It's our second home, in a sense; we both have our own project sites, our own actual houses in two different inland villages. But in another sense, La Lib has always been the primary residence for us together, for our relationship. While Ben and Malia may live in distant villages in the campo, Chuck Norris and La Chinita live here, together, in La Libertad, full-time.
The children ask if I know karate. With index fingers, the little girl pulls at the sides of her own eyes and speaks an invented language of
sounds. The little boy kicks and chops at the air. Their mother cuts fruit and does her best to ignore them.
I buy green mangoes. The vendor's stand is set up in front of her house, off the main street. She drops the slices into a plastic bag and asks which condiments I want: salt? Hot sauce? Ground-up pumpkin seeds?
“Everything,” I say.
Her smile shines with a gold-framed front tooth.
The date, January 13, 2001, will later prove ripe with meaning for amateur numerologists. This new century isn't yet two weeks old, and already it looks like it might turn out to be even crueler than the last for this little country.
From inside the house, a ranchera plays over a crackling radio: a guitar's single bass note, then the jangling of other strings, some vibrato vocals riffing over the top. Tired of speaking their fake Chinese, the children head inside.
I wear the denim skirt that NiÃ±a Tere made for me from an old pair of blue jeans. From the change pocket, I fish out a couple of coins and lay them flat upon the rough plank of a counter. The vendor nods her gratitude.
She takes the full mango bag by two corners and spins it end over end. Soon she has a twisted thread of plastic in each hand. As she goes to tie them in a knot, the earth moves below us.
At first I'm unfazed, and guess that a bus is passing. But the sensation intensifies. The street we stand upon bounces like a thin surfboard through chop.
Mangoes roll off the splintery counter. High-pitched screams sound from all sides. People emerge from other houses along the street. The shaking grows stronger still. My mind takes a second to recognize the Spanish word for earthquake.
Something hits me in the calf and my knee almost buckles. Another object flies past my ear and smashes against the ground. Red roofing tiles are falling from the buildings on either side. The walls sway and dance.
The vendor's two children materialize at each of my hips and hug my thin legs as though they are trees. Their snot and tears moisten the skin above my waistband. I put my hands up over their heads to protect them from the flying tiles. The three of us crouch together in the center of the road. They cry out for their mother. I try to hush them. There comes a series of breaking sounds: the splintering of beams, the grinding together of clay shards, the heavy thuds of ancient mud and straw blocks against each other. One tile catches me in the shoulder; another bounces off the forearm I hold across these two little skulls. Eyes closed, I picture a ravine opening up out of this very street and swallowing us. Another desperate second passes, and I'm ready to surrender: to throw my hands in the air, or lie flat in the path of the falling walls, tell these two kids to find somebody stronger to protect them. And at that moment, the shaking stops.
I look up. In the space where the children's house stood a moment before, there is now a brownish dust cloud.