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It's Boxing Day on the west coast of Vancouver Island, six degrees under a low grey sky. Big cedars sway. The dog walkers on the beach don't amble the way they did yesterday – they stride, heads bent into the wind, tugging their dogs behind them.
And in case I needed any more reasons to stay indoors, I've picked up the flu somewhere between Calgary and Tofino, and maybe indulged in a bit too much Christmas cheer last night. I'm feverish and my head aches.
There are only two sorts of people who surf in these conditions: seasoned professionals and tourists from Alberta.
My rented wetsuit is damp and smells like Davy Jones's locker. After several minutes of twisting and stretching and pulling, it's on. I feel kind of cool in it at first – until I catch sight of myself in the mirror. In fact, I look small and thick, a salty licorice baby next to my Twizzler of a husband.
Our three young children watch us silently, eyes wide with a new respect, or maybe concern. I wonder what they'll say about me if something untoward happens out there. "She died doing what she loved, dressed in full-body Spanx …"
Hold on: Do I love this? I can't actually remember what's so great about it. I have only the promise I made to myself last time: "You hafta come back."
As I stand there, overheating the way one does when shrink-wrapped in synthetics, what I do remember is that I am good at forgiving broken promises to myself – downright congratulatory at times. I like to say that life supplies us with enough haftas (how my youngest son, a toddler, pronunces "have to") without my piling on more. And anyway, I remind myself, what you do isn't surfing, it's boogie-boarding – it's just play. Play should never be a hafta.
I'm about to tug off my hood when my eight-year-old daughter fixes me with one of those absorbent looks. She's soaking everything up.
"Mom … you're really going out there?"
My opportunity for escape evaporates.
A few minutes later, I'm waist-deep in the surf holding my boogie board aloft. My husband strides out to join the real surfers farther out. I watch in awe as one rides the inside of a wave like a cyclist in a velodrome. Such mastery. Such control. I'll never be able to do that. I feel ridiculous.
I spend a lot of time standing around, waiting for the perfect wave. A few good ones come along, but I mistime my leap. I flop onto the board and am carried by nothing more than my own momentum, the crest crashing over my head and racing up the beach without me. Once, I don't jump far enough onto the board. The tip digs into the sand and the end jams up under my ribs, leaving me gasping for air. A dog walker slows down, lingering in case I need help.
Simply staying upright in the powerful swell starts to sap my strength. I can tell that my judgment is weakened by fatigue. I'm too hesitant, I become stingy with my effort, and so I get a little reckless. I throw myself at the next wave that comes along. It crashes over my head with surprising violence. I sputter sand and salt. My feet ache from repeatedly launching myself off the hard-packed sand, and a chill has crept into my legs and around my shoulders. This is no place for a feverish, hung-over housewife from the Prairies, I think: I kept my promise, I came back. So now I can go in.
But then I see it. It's building, building, still green, unbroken. Oh, it's big.
Delight and fear tingle behind my ribs as sand flows out from under my feet. I turn my back and position my board as the wave grabs at my legs, trying to take me up in its swell. I leap.
The wind is shearing the top off the wave and water drops like steel shavings flitter against my face. I can't see. For a second, I think I've been left behind again. But no. There it is. The lift, from beneath and behind – a surge of power that flattens me out on the board. I've caught the wave. It's caught me.
And I'm struck by a distinctly West Coast, surf-inflected truth: I'm one with the wave; the wave and I are the same, nothing more than a temporary arrangement of atoms and energy held in a particular form for a brief time.
I open my eyes. The surface of the water is dropping away below me. I'm hurled forward, on and on and on, a roar filling my head that blasts away the fever, the headache, the haftas – all the tedious particulars of my existence. I can't hold back a whoop of joy as the shore races up.
The board skims along the sand on the thin layer of water spreading up the beach. Finally, it stops with a lurch and the wave gives me a final rough lick, tumbling me onto my back.
I lie there, laughing, caring not at all for what the dog-walkers think, caring not at all for anything beyond this moment. I roll to my knees and rise, wobbly and grinning, and I promise myself: I hafta come back.
Laura M. Kraemer lives in Calgary.