We can barely see through the windshield for the rain. The wiper blades are struggling to simply keep turning in the driving wind. We don’t really speak. The radio is blaring with news that this is the worst hurricane to hit the east coast in fifty years. My wife is oblivious, staring at her I Phone with the intensity of a concert pianist. She doesn’t look up when she speaks. “The point break is fifty feet over the buoy.” I am silent and intent on driving. I know what this means. The conditions are epic.
We dodge through back roads to avoid the coast guard, which is not allowing any traffic in. We reach our campground in the dark, with zero visibility. She is out of the jeep before it stops moving, landing lithely on the sand which is rapidly becoming quick in these conditions. Her bare feet move as always, with utter grace. She has the rain fly stretched from the back and staked before I get to the back. We double the stakes, gusset the wind fly and brace ourselves for a few hours of sleep.
There is no sleep. Not for me. We are teetering on the edge of a divorce. Not enough time together, too many years together. No children, no ties. Separate lives. Now drifting apart. I listen to the gentle sound of her breathing as I wax our boards in the light of my head lamp. She likes cold water wax here. The island shakes under the gale force winds and I can hear and feel the sound of the waves smashing into the reef break. This is no sand break that is typical on the east coast, but a solid granite break, penetrating into the ocean, forcing the energy of the waves to gather in amplitude and height, molding them into a solid liquid wall. I wonder what the conditions will be like in the morning at first light. I also wonder why we are here. What on earth prompted us to look at the weather forecast, wordlessly go to the basement, shake the dust off our abandoned gear and return to this place that we have spent so much time and is so entrenched into who we are?
I fall into an uneasy sleep while our shelter is buffeted by the wind and rain. The smell of burnt sulfur and ozone wakens us in an uneasy calm in an eerie light. The thunder of surf is palpable and we say little as I light the charcoal. Nothing really needs to be said, we’ve been here hundreds of times. Just not lately. The cast iron melts butter as usual and she inspects her leash, board, nods approval at my wax job and pulls on her wetsuit as I shake pancake batter. It cooks in minutes. I study the sky and check the knots on my leash, that critical yet deadly connection between my board and me in what will be monstrous conditions. There are no camera crews, no jet skis and no medics. This island has been banned. Cut off. We are here, alone, in the eye of the biggest hurricane in one hundred years.
There are still no real words between us. She picks up her board and makes her way up the dune as I zip the shelter back into the jeep and put our cooking supplies, such as they are, into the locking compartment. I follow her, immersed in the memories of this moment, which, while lacking in immensity, has been duplicated so many times. We reach the summit of the dune and I gasp.
The ocean is virtually corduroy. Waves are stacked to the horizon and beyond. I conjure up memories of surfing in 1969, on some of the biggest waves ever recorded in Hawaii and realize that these are nearly as big. But unpredictable. Even as I watch, the Nor’easter effect is driving the waves south and I realize that these are unsurfable conditions.
She does not flinch. With her characteristic confidence, she dives under the first wave before I can get my leash strapped. She is the surfer, not me. I have a vast knowledge of the ocean and I understand the waves, what they mean and where they are going. But my body lacks the ability to turn what my mind knows into planting a rail and trailing my hand in the green water. I can help, I can be there, I can give advice, but I will never be the champion of the waves – the one screaming and hooting as he backsides a wave, or follows the green tunnel. I am content with the realization and I take my abilities for what they are.
Today is not about ability. It is about survival. I follow into the crash, choking on whitewater and foam, trying with all my might to determine from which direction the waves are coming from. It’s getting bigger and the light is fading. I dive into another wave, come up gasping for air and I am promptly swept back and south by the next wave. I have little sense of direction and can’t find my wife. I panic. I paddle frantically and finally break into the lull created by the granite break. My wife is there and inexplicably, smiling. I haven’t seen her smile in months. My heart swells and my head thumps as I realize how much I truly still love this wonderful soul. The horizon vanishes.
“MOVE YOUR ASS!” I swivel on my board at this shout from my wife, my angel, who at this moment is prophetically profane. What has to be a rogue wave as blocked out the sky to the east and we have drifted what seems to be miles from where we have paddled out. I frantically pull the leash from my ankle and dive into the wave, hoping to come up on the back. My last glimpse was my wife launching from the crest, free falling into the wave and planting her left rail. Her hair is whipped back as she plants her foot, goofy style. She is fearless. She is beautiful. She is my life.
I’m tumbled, beaten and still underwater. Time loses all meaning. I come to the surface and get smashed again. I don’t know which way is up. The backlash slams me against the bottom and I am thankful we are no longer near the granite break. Sand is much more forgiving. I wonder where my board is and am reminded when it bashes into me. I stumble out of the water and get hit by another wave, which unapologetically and humiliatingly knocks me down at the lands edge.
I am frantically scanning the horizon for her when a piece of her board, smashed and broken, washes up beside me. Screaming, I dive back into the waves. I know the ocean. It does not forgive. Only courage and blind luck can save. I realize that I am praying, for the first time in a long, long time as I search the ocean. Then I see a small figure stagger out of the water to the north of where I am about to get pinned by another wave.
We flee in our jeep. She is retching sea water into the passenger’s compartment in between kissing me and telling me she loves me. The sand is eroding behind us. Wind pummels us and rain leaks through the fly. The National Guard lets us through after a stern lecture. We return home.
We are grandparents now, the proud recipients of a screaming baby boy. Our son seems bewildered by his new son. Our lives are mostly quiet, and full of gentleness, love and great food.
A piece of a broken surfboard sits on our mantle over the fireplace and we are sometimes asked about it. We just smile. It is part of who we are.