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 “¡Voy!” 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, and—to my surprise—Ben 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 waves—though I certainly would want to get those back—but 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.
Copyright © 2014 by Tyler McMahon