Riding the Wave
Austin scratched at his sunburned ankles and flicked sand fleas into the Gulf as the surf licked at his toes like a dog trying to get a bad taste out of its mouth. The sun pressed close against his skin, sponging the sweat from his face and arms and leaving behind a dry film of salt and grime. Down the beach, his wife lingered near the volleyball net — where a quartet of tanned and shirtless surfers were playing doubles — twirling her long sun-bleached hair with one hand and running a finger along the band of her leopard-print bikini bottoms with the other. He thought about the last time they had been to the beach together, ten years ago on their honeymoon, when it was like they were the only two people there and they had never left one another’s side for more than a moment.
Kneeling in the water next to Austin and caked in SPF 100, his eight-year-old son laughed as the gentle waves swelled and crashed against his torso, looking up at his dad and smiling as each one knocked him a little off balance.
Austin looked back down the beach at his wife then forced a smile back at the boy and caught a strong whiff of the pelagic air, heavy with the metallic scent of a brewing storm, and remembered when he had been his son’s age and on this very beach with his father. The rain had been steady, slanted in the stiff ocean breeze, and when the storm intensified, his mother had gone in a hurry with her new friends to a party at their condo, leaving the beach deserted by all but Austin and his father. Through the haze, he could see the high waves out at sea, whipped up by the approaching storm, their frosted crests rising and falling violently in a silent dance. They had seemed so far away, but they moved swiftly as the gale overtook gravity and turned the rain and spit into tiny bullets that fired from the surf and peppered his bare skin.
He and his father had waded into the swells and when they saw the first lightning flash above the darkening sea, they kept pushing against the storm until the water was above Austin’s waist. Each climbing wave lifted his feet from the sand below and carried him a body length or two back toward the beach, as if the storm itself were trying to nudge him toward safety.
A big one was barreling in toward them, its aerated crest already frothing and churning white as it approached and gained speed. His father had paddled up next to Austin and asked quietly if he wanted to jump into that one, and Austin had thrown his arms into the air in triumph and said that, yes, he definitely would.
His father had hesitated, rivulets of rainwater tracing the hard-set contours of his face. Austin had seen that expression only one other time, last autumn on the morning they’d buried his father’s German shepherd. The old man had had that same look on his face as he’d led the broken and limping dog outside with the double-barrel over his shoulder, a man who knew that he was about to do something terrible but that he was going to do it nonetheless.
Then his father stepped behind him and placed his rough hands under Austin’s armpits and lifted him into the air, facing the oncoming wave. His father asked if he was ready, because here it comes, and just as the wave broke, he tossed Austin up into the crashing whitecap, and for a moment Austin flew forward then he tumbled sideways and then down.
Everything was down. His body, his face, arms, legs, pinned down by the force of the water above him. His belly slid against the rough sand, plowing up a wake of sediment like he was a giant crayfish, as the undercurrent drove him down, down, down.
He lost his sense of direction and then his sense of time. He felt only the sand grating against his skin and the fire in his lungs as they began to search desperately for breath. His eyes were closed against the light, but a deeper darkness crept in around the edges as he began to black out.
And then breath found him, as the wave dumped him onto the wet-packed sand of the beach and the water retreated back toward its home. When the heaving and burning in Austin’s chest eased, he opened his eyes, vision blurred by the salt and grit, and saw his father in ankle-deep water twenty feet away, just standing there, watching him.
Now a father himself, Austin stood in the shallows next to his son and looked up at the gray-green curtain shadowing the horizon and thought about the thunderstorm that would roll in later that afternoon. He thought about how the beach would be deserted when the rain and the lightning started and how easy it would be to convince his wife, who would be ready for a mid-day siesta, to let the boy stay just a little longer and play in the rain with his dad. He thought about the high waves crashing down and what it felt like to be underneath those waves with no way out and wondered how his son would manage with the weight of an ocean pressing him down into the sand.
Austin’s wife strolled up beside him, more than a little drunk and still glancing at the volleyball game over her shoulder. She stumbled and grabbed at his arm to keep from falling and his reflex was to pull away, but she smiled up at him like she used to when they had first started dating and instead he pulled her to her feet and put his arm around her shoulders and hugged her close.
He whistled to get their son’s attention and then grinned and waved at the boy, who grinned and waved back at them.
Austin took his wife by the hand, searching with his fingertips for her wedding band, and gazed out at the storm that had been building far in the distance but now seemed impossibly close and inescapable.