The news reports didn’t exaggerate. The waves were huge, as big as Hugh had ever seen in California. Slabs of water, rhinos, the surfers called them, which didn’t stop dozens of thrill-seekers in black wet suits from stepping into their path.
But definitely too challenging for the boys. There were surfers not much older or taller than the twins, but none were quite as young, none with their slender builds and narrow shoulders. If Setsuko had seen the surf, she wouldn’t have considered letting their sons go in. But his wife had remained at the condo, feeling ill, attributing it to the dinner they ate on the drive down from L.A. Although he assured her that he wouldn’t let the boys go out if conditions were dangerous, it was Hugh’s call.
Hugh followed the path of a seasoned surfer as he soared down the steep front of his wave, cutting white tracks, sending up sparkling jets. No surfer himself, Hugh still felt the excitement, imagined the exhilaration. For such ominous surf, the water was beautiful, light-green, transparent. The day was bright and warm with that invigorating heat found along the southern coast. Hugh plied the lid off his coffee and neatly screwed the cup into the sand.
“They aren’t that big,” said Takumi, five minutes older than his twin, Hitoshi, and the more assertive of the two.
“What if we stay close to shore, Dad?” asked Hitoshi.
“Just catch the wash,” added Takumi.
“The currents are too strong,” Hugh said, but so softly that he might not have spoken at all. He sipped his coffee. Most parents he encountered were intent on cocooning their children, but Hugh encouraged his sons’ daring. It wasn’t just a reaction to his own father’s hang-ups, which had constricted Hugh’s boyhood in the way physical disabilities hem in the afflicted, but a revulsion at society’s overreaching protectiveness, the never-ending list of precautions, things to fear and avoid. Yet, there were children who piloted planes, captained boats across thousands of miles of open ocean, climbed Mt Everest, for god’s sake.
“Not like we’re swimming. We’ve got the boards,” insisted Takumi.
Hitoshi clapped his brother’s shoulder. “We’ll stay close together.”
“We’ve surfed six-foot waves at Malibu.”
It was true but those were gentle compared to these.
A cadre of surfers soared down a wave’s slope like rocket streamers. How beautiful.
“Why did we come here then?” asked Hitoshi.
“You’re always telling us how good we are,” said Takumi.
“You are good,” Hugh said with conviction.
“Then why can’t we go?”
Hugh pointed. “Look at the size of that wave.”
“We wouldn’t take that wave. We’re not stupid.”
“Of course not, but … it’s not just one wave.”
“We’ll stay close together.”
As if to admit that they had given up, they worked their torsos out of their wet suits, revealing the smooth slender bodies, identical down to the freckles on their shoulders, bequeathed by Hugh, of course: Setsuko had not a solitary freckle or any other blemish on her skin, for that matter.
Picking up his sunscreen, Hugh squeezed out a glob and spread it across his face. It wasn’t skin cancer, but the burning of his nose and the subsequent swelling and blocking of his nasal passages so that he could hardly breathe that made the sunscreen a habit bordering on compulsion. UV 30. He carried the stuff everywhere.
Dropping the lotion on the beach towel, Hugh shifted on the sand and leaned into his sons, thinking he would hear their whispers of consolation, but they were silent, staring at different horizons. His head felt heavy, feverish. Was he coming down with the same bug that Setsuko caught? He closed his eyes for a moment, hoping to slip an oncoming headache. The clap of a wave breaking close to shore sounded sharply like a gunshot, flushing out a memory: the high desert, three years ago. Takumi rocking back on his heels from the force of the .38’s explosion. The rusted can unmoved. “One more shot, dad, please?” Hitoshi standing ten feet back with Setsuku, steely-eyed and poised to intervene, not sufficiently convinced that such experience was integral to American boyhood, to fulfilling Huck Finn’s legacy. “It’s Hitoshi’s turn,” said Hugh. “It’s okay, dad,” responded Hitoshi. “Let Takumi try again.” Takumi grinned and raised the gun.
The bang of another wave brought Hugh back.
He moved behind his sons and put his hands on their shoulders. “We’ll return tomorrow, guys. The waves won’t be as big. You can surf tomorrow, okay?” Their shoulders sunk as if his hands were heavy weights.
“How do cheese steak sandwiches sound?” Hugh asked, sticking his head over his sons’ shoulders. Food usually got them out of their funk. He grinned and kissed Hitoshi’s cheek. Hitoshi scrunched his nose, but nodded. Hugh turned to Takumi and was about to muss the long black hair when something caught his eye. At the base of Takumi’s throat was a bulge as if a gumball had lodged under his skin. “What’s this?” asked Hugh, pointing at the protrusion. Takumi shrugged. “Did you injure yourself there?”
“No. It was just there.”
Hugh touched the ball. Not hard, not soft. “How long have you had it?”
“I don’t know. A couple of days. Why?”
“We should get it checked out,” Hugh said calmly.
“Look, dad,” said Hitoshi, “the waves are smaller.”
A swollen gland. Maybe a cyst.
“Come on, dad.”
“You know we’re excellent surfers.”
Nearby a seagull mewed loudly and insistently. Hugh searched for adequate words to explain his refusal, but the words would not cohere. What was something like that doing on his son? He squeezed their shoulders. What the hell…
“Ten minutes. I’ll let you go in for ten minutes.”
“All right, dad!”
Beaming, they slipped back into their wetsuits and folded the Velcro leashes around their slender ankles. The leashes were made for thicker limbs and even fully wrapped still had play.
Carrying his coffee, he walked with them into the surf. He was hip deep and the backwash was enough to knock him off balance. The chaotic waters reflected sunlight in a hundred directions, poking holes in his vision like a migraine.
Takumi and Hitoshi threw themselves onto their tiny surfboards and paddled skillfully into the wash.
“Ten minutes,” he shouted, though he wasn’t sure they could hear him over the booming waves. Through his fly eyes, he followed their lithe bodies as they fought their way through the surf, paddling parallel, nosing down to let the broken waves crash over them.
They faced a set of big waves that carried surfers. They broke though the base of the first wave, disappearing as the comber rose up to curl and collapse. He saw them again, just as the second wave struck. They made it through the third and took their place among the hundred other surfers on the flat water, waiting for the next set. Hugh calmed a little then. He watched all the surfers drift to the right. The entire sea was moving north. A wave formed, rising. The twins paddled side-by-side forcefully, belying their age and size. Together they turned, shooting forward as the wave lifted them until they were on the crest, held in suspension for an instant and then rocketing down, perfectly balanced, soaring down the wave’s infinite face. Crouched, they cut right and then left with dazzling synchronicity. As the wave folded and crashed, they rode parallel to the shore and then rolled off their boards, disappearing into the froth, above which a seagull shimmied as if caught in a cross wind.
When the twins reappeared, they instantly turned their boards around and started paddling out again. He caught the fierce smiles. How long they had been out? He lost track of time watching them. It was no time, all time. He followed them again as they drove through the waves, getting farther out. Except for their size, they could have been pros. As he backed out of the surf, Hugh lost his balance, dropping his coffee cup and going under for a few seconds. He walked out of the surf and back to the blanket, where he watched them take another wave. He rubbed his thumb against his index finger. Was a cyst hard or soft? He wanted to feel the lump again. He touched his cheek, which felt dry as if the ocean had washed off the sunscreen. He looked for the tube he had tossed on the towel. Where the hell was it? He lifted the edge of the towel and then dug his fingers into the sand around the perimeter. He pulled up a peach pit and an empty cigarette pack. Shit. He looked toward the access road and the adjacent street where he’d parked the car. He always kept an extra sunscreen in the glove compartment. It would take only a few minutes to get the sunscreen.
As he approached the access road with a view of the sun-bleached broken trestle that had given the surf spot its name, a mobile canteen pulled up. The coffee from those trucks wasn’t exactly café quality, but he needed the caffeine.
By the time he returned with his sunscreen and coffee, most of the surfers had moved farther out. Smearing the sunscreen on his face, he scanned the black wetsuits, looking for the smallest. Beyond the surfers, a boat churned south, rising and falling in the swell. They had been in at least twenty minutes. He walked to the water’s edge and called their names. It was impossible to be heard over the ocean’s roar. With a bullhorn, he would not have been able to reach them. The surfers were paddling furiously against a current that threatened to pull them off the break. The set came. The first wave was the largest of the day.
A dozen surfers turned their boards toward the shore and paddled furiously to get ahead of the wave. He tried to pick out his sons from the other surfers being lifted on the rhino like chips of wood, about half failing to catch it. For a few seconds, the pack was invisible. The second wave rose. More surfers strove to take this one, arms wind milling, heads raised like beasts sniffing their prey. When the third wave came, it was enormous. The remaining surfers were determined to ride the monster. Hugh saw the two boys turn their boards to shore and paddle madly.
Lodged ten feet high on the face, they simultaneously stood up and shot sideways, moving dizzyingly fast. They cut trails, spreading apart as the wave carried them shoreward.
As they toppled off their boards, Hugh screamed for them to come in. They were close enough to have heard, but, ignoring him, they turned away and lay on their boards, stroking seaward. He strode through the backwash, knees pummeling the frothy shattered waves.
“Takumi! Hitoshi!” Hugh shouted.
One turned and then the other. Hugh’s coffee cup again slipped from his fingers, bounding away. They were not his sons.
It was like that. They were gone. This ridiculous man with the gleaming white nose hopping on the beach, screaming, swimming into waves that tossed him back like a rubber inflatable, and finally grabbed by others as the mechanisms that come into play, came into play.
An hour later their boards washed up on the beach. The leashes remained attached. The bracelets of Velcro still fastened but no longer on the slender ankles.
His children were gone.