#10: Surfing Lessons

Thinking of tiny Puerto Rico, holding you in my thoughts P.R., home to some of my sweetest memories. The year we lived in San Juan with the beaches of the Condado and Isla Verde our playground, the beautiful blue cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, the soft smooth flavor of coconut ice cream, and every surfer boy I fell head over heels for, memories I still hold dear today. It was 1968, the year the World Surfing Championships were held in Puerto Rico, the year I turned 15. Sharing an old post about an old memory from that idyllic time.

Originally posted on 6/17/2016

#10 Avenida Ponce de Leon, San Juan Puerto Rico

This is another story from my not quite year in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the 10th in the long line of places I've called home. We lived in a high rise above the city on Avenida Ponce de Leon, but my second home that summer was the beach. It was the year I turned fifteen.

Surfing Lessons

Chris lived in a low-slung house on the water’s edge out in Isla Verde. The sun could be blazing outside but in Chris’ house everything was always cool and dusky, the light at the windows filtered through lush green ferns and palms in giant terra cotta pots set on the floor, the smooth stone chilly beneath your bare feet. His room, an Endless Summer movie poster tacked over his bed, a couple of surfboards leaning against the wall, had its own door that led right out to the backyard, a patch of white sand studded with tufts of long beach grass. Rimmed by a sun-scrubbed fence, the yard opened up to a shady strip of beach and a pathway leading to a weathered dock. Beyond that, a tethered raft floated in the sea. It was close enough that we could swim to it, but Chris was taking turns paddling us out on his surfboard. First Linda, then me. I could tell he liked her, all the boys liked her. Linda with her beautiful, golden-brown Breck Girl hair that fell in a perfect flip.

His dad was some sort of big wig with Bacardi, the rum company. None of the rest of us had parents that were hot-shot executives. My dad was a manager for an international chain of jewelry and fine gift stores; he'd been transferred from Canada to open up their San Juan location. My best friend Linda's parents were getting a divorce, so her dad wasn't around but her mom worked. Patty - Linda called her Patty to her face and the dragon lady behind her back - was a photographer at the Caribe Hilton Casino and wore glamorous evening gowns accessorized with false eyelashes and a camera slung around her neck to work. Mandy's mom ran a fancy-schmancy resort wear boutique in the Condado Beach Hotel, one of those shops where the bell pings softly when you enter and the sales lady comes over to help you right away. That was Mandy's mom, her skinny brown arms and legs poking out from a flowered Lily Pulitzer shift like pretzel sticks. Mandy said all her mother ate were matzoh crackers so she could stay skinny and brown and look good in the clothes she sold. Mandy said her mother would kill her if she knew how many French crullers she bought from the donut shop on the corner; she'd even threatened to send her to fat camp. It seemed like all our parents, except for Chris' dad, had jobs that catered to the tourist trade. Although if you thought about it, all those bars and restaurants in the Condado must serve an awful lot of rum to all those tourists, so in a way Chris' father did too.

The big difference though was that Chris lived in a house. A house right on the beach. While most of us had lived in houses back home, in San Juan, the people I was friends with, we all lived in apartments. Mandy's was the coolest; on a high floor in a tall beachfront building on the tip of the Condado; wall-to-wall glass windows, the Caribbean blue sea, and sky beyond, everything inside pale and chic like it was a magazine ad. Our apartment was a lot more ordinary inside, packed with our regular stuff from our travels, but it was in a high-rise too, right on Avenida Ponce de Leon. We lived on the seventeenth floor and on hot nights when the air conditioning was blasting inside I liked to stand outside on the balcony with the warm air pushing at my face and try to count the lights of the causeway stretching across the blue-black of the lagoon, beacons lighting the way. To the left was Old San Juan with its narrow streets of blue cobblestone. To the right was the Condado, the music from the hotels and clubs that lined the tourist strip drifting across the starlit sky, wafted along by the breeze. Below, the busy main street bustled most of the time - whenever I was awake anyhow - and I loved watching the automobile lights zooming by. It was so different than living in Niagara Falls in our ordinary split-level house, in our ordinary little suburban neighborhood. Okay, we didn't live in a ritzy beachfront building like Mandy's, but living on a busy city street in a building that had its own cafe, dry cleaners, a modern supermarket, and a swimming pool made me feel sophisticated like I was in one of those movies where the girl goes abroad like in Gidget Goes to Rome. Not that Gidget spent much time taking the bus, which was the only way I could get to Linda's apartment. The best part about going to Linda's, besides her apartment being a block from the beach in Isla Verde, was that her mother was never around. Patty slept most of the day and worked most of the night so we could come and go as we pleased. So long as we were in bed when she got home at six in the morning she didn't have a clue.

I'd heard about Chris from Linda but I didn't meet him until I started sleeping over at her house almost every weekend. He didn't go to Saint John's, the small parochial school where my friends and I went, rolling our plaid uniform skirts up as high above the knees as the nuns let us get away with, rejecting the white peter pan collared blouses in favor of boy's button-down oxfords. We were taught in English—except for Spanish class— and the student body was a motley blend of Puerto Rican kids and middle-class American transplants. Chris went to the fancy private school a few blocks away where I wasn't even sure they had to wear uniforms. My mother said it was a very pricey prep school that rich American kids went to.  The way she said it, a 'rich American' was the last thing in the world you'd want to be.

Chris might have been a richy-rich but he wasn't stuck up and snobby like a lot of the kids from his school, even though if anyone had a right to be cocky he did. He was a star paddler, so good he'd made the Hobie surf team and got his picture in Surfer magazine. Not the cover like Machuca, but still. The 1968 world championships were going to be in Rincon on the western side of the island in November, and everyone was saying that Machuca, only fifteen years old and a P.R. native, could actually win the whole thing. He was already a legend in Puerto Rico; the entire island claimed to know him, to call him friend, we were no different. 

The semi-finals for the big contest were being held at Aviones. Spanish for airport, Aviones wasn't far, distance-wise, but it was one of those out of the way places travelers love to say they discovered. You had to drive out past the airport, take the bridge over the Boca de Cangrejos (Mouth of the Crabs), and once you crossed over the Boca, where the paved road skinnied out to nothing but a sandy trail, continue on through a glade of pine trees and tall coconut palms until you came to the cars and the water. Suddenly you were far away from the San Juan the tourists knew; you were deep in the heart of the local country where real Puertorriqueños watched you from the front porch of tiny shacks as you drove past. I'd only been with my family; my dad had driven in even deeper to a place where you could sit outside and get seafood and a cold beer, and a coke for us kids. I pictured the beach with its tangle of palms at the shoreline, roots raised, trunks bent and reaching out for the ocean and I couldn't wait to see the sand crowded with surfers from around the world, like in the Endless Summer movie, music blasting from VW vans decorated with hippie flowers. It was going to be a humungous deal; Linda said she'd even heard ABC was going to put it on TV. Both Chris and Machuca would be competing. 

When we got restless hanging out on Chris' dock, we went over to Pine Grove so he could show us how to 'hang ten' on the small, gentle waves. I couldn't stay up long enough to curl both sets of toes over the tip of the board but standing for those few moments, feet planted apart, one in front of the other, arms out for balance like I'd seen the guys do a zillion times, was a rush. The water foaming below, lifting the board, pushing me forward, thrilled me to the core, but I'd heard so many wipe-out stories I was a bit terrified too. Afterward, when the three of us sat on the beach, watching the tourists bubble and burn, I could still feel myself buzzing away on the inside. I felt borderline brave; brave enough to agree to sneak in and explore the El San Juan Hotel with Linda and Chris later that night when Linda's mom was away at work, taking pictures in her evening gown.

Being out in Isla Verde, the El San Juan Hotel was quiet compared to the crowded Condado Beach resorts and the luxurious grounds were especially magical at night. Pathways wove around lush dramatically lit tropical plants and swimming pools, the turquoise water glowing ethereally from below. We knew we weren't technically supposed to be there, the tidy little sign at the side entry warned 'Prohibido. For Use of Hotel Guests Only' but we really weren't doing anything wrong, just wandering and whispering and cracking each other up the way all fifteen-year-olds do. We followed one winding route after another, Linda leading, then me, then Chris, until a security guard spotted us - '¡Oye! ¡Oye! ¡Deja eso!' - and scared us, breathless with fear and laughter, off the premises.

The next morning Patty got a call from one of the neighbor spies who told her we'd been carousing around the El San Juan hotel late at night when she was at work.  Linda told her we hadn't been doing anything wrong, but Patty turned into the dragon lady and said she didn't want to 'hear our bullshit' and didn't Linda have a goddamn clue what she was going through? It was only early afternoon but I thought it was a good time to go home.

"You don't have to go, Simone. I'm not angry with you."
"I better get going anyway Mrs. Winston, I mean Patty. I think my parents need me to look after my sister tonight."

And I got the heck out of Dodge.  I ran into Chris on my way to the bus stop.

He was going to the surf shop; did I want to go with him to pick up some wax? I did, even though I had no idea what wax and surfing had to do with each other, but I wasn't about to tell Chris that. I was feeling shy enough just being around him without Linda by my side. Or rather, me by her side. I was the sidekick after all. I knew my place. I also knew there was no reason to be nervous, I already knew he liked Linda, and any minute he was going to ask if he had a chance with her. Maybe ask me to put in a good word. Every guy I knew was a little in love with Linda, so beautiful that even her name meant 'beautiful' in Spanish. Like her parents knew sixteen years ago how she'd turn out.

I didn't blame the boys, I knew I was basically invisible with my wispy blond hair, thin lips, and flat chest. And I could never quite find my way into their conversations; the size of the waves at Rincon, classic longboards vs the new shorties, which was better; 2001: A Space Odyssey or Planet of the Apes? They seemed to like nothing better than cutting each other down to size. I was content to simply sit on a wall and watch and listen and fade into the background; not quite pretty enough for them to shove each other's shoulders over, not quite cool enough to grab their respect. I was too much of a scaredy-cat; afraid to sneak into the movies, afraid to shoplift a $2 tube of beachy peachy lip gloss, afraid to smoke pot, afraid to drink beer, afraid to go skinny dipping in the sea at midnight, afraid to play strip poker, afraid to french kiss, afraid to break the rules, afraid to say the wrong thing and give my real uncool self away. But for some reason Linda liked me; she'd picked me to be her best friend and because she chose me, I was cool too, in that weird second banana, sidekick kind of way.

Being with Chris was like being with Linda. Me, by myself, I didn't belong in a surf shop, where the cool kids hung out, but going there with Chris meant I passed some invisible test. I became, at least for those moments, cool too, in that odd contact-cool kind of way. I waited for him to bring up Linda, instead, he told me about a new shortboard he had his eyes on and how psyched he was that the surfing championship was being held in P.R.  He wanted to know what Canadian kids did if they wanted to go surfing. I told him it was like in that song, the one about the only surfer boy in New York, and that some surfers missed the waves so much they tried hanging ten, going over the falls.

He furrowed his pale brows at me, trying to figure out if anyone, even Machuca, would be crazy enough to do that.
"Only kidding."
"Funny," he said and gave my shoulder a little shove. "Crazy Canadian."

Inside the shop, scented with Coppertone and cocoa butter, Chris spoke with a couple of guys behind the counter while I checked out a massive wooden beam plastered with photos and pictures torn from Surfer magazine. I couldn't see that well without my glasses but I refused to wear them and blow my cover. I left them tucked out of sight in the pocket of my sundress. Four-eyes. That's all I needed the guys to start calling me.

"That's Chris, right there," one of the guys came over and tapped a picture of Chris paddling out to catch a massive blue wave. "And there," he pointed, "and there."

I nodded, peering at the photos, trying to focus when came Chris over.
"Oh God,  don't look at those," he said. "They're embarrassing."
He was actually blushing, standing in front of me with both arms behind his back.
"C'mon, pick a hand."
I wondered if there was a joke. If I was the joke. The guy behind the counter, the one that showed me Chris's picture, was smiling too. Chris jiggled his shoulders up and down.
"Which one? Left?" he jiggled. "Or right?"
Still wondering if the joke would be on me, I pointed to his left arm.
He brought out something black and crumpled in his hand; when he shook it out I saw it was a Hobie team t-shirt. Black with bright pink and tangerine day-glow daisies and the Hobie surfboard logo on the front. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.
"For you."
"You like it?"
"I do. I love it!" And as if to prove it, I slipped into the dressing room and put it on.  I decided to wear it home, and stuffed my regular clothes in my bag.
The T-shirt was a men's size grande, so big it hung mid-thigh like a dress.
Both guys behind the counter were smiling now too, looking at me in a way that made me feel like I actually was the girl in all the Beach Boy songs.
"That looks great," Chris said.
I couldn't wait to show Linda.

On the way to the bus stop, Chris asked if I liked coconut ice cream. I didn't. Actually, I didn't know if I liked it or not but the idea of it, the thought of bits of coconut sticking to my tongue grossed me out. "Um, I've never tried it." I'd refused to.
"Come on, I know where they make the best."
We veered off the sandy path, detouring over to a shack of corrugated tin and cardboard. It looked like the slightest hint of a wolf huffing and puffing, or a blast from a good tropical storm would flatten it like the wreckage of the slums at La Perla that washed out to the sea every winter.

"Hola Joe," Chris called out. "Hey! Anyone home? Hola?"
A shiny, dark face popped up from behind the makeshift counter.
"José! Que tal, man?" Chris eased into Spanish without a pause.
"Chris, Chris, mi amigo. Que pasa? Ice cream?"
"Si, ice cream. Dos helados de coco, por favor."

Joe opened up a big cardboard tub of pure white creamy-looking ice cream and grabbed a scooper.
He pointed at me, grinning. "Y quién es este?"
Chris answered in Spanish but the only words I understood were Simone and Canada.
"Su novia? Ah, que linda!"
Novia meant girlfriend, and linda, I knew what that meant too.
"Si," Chris said. "Qué linda." Chris turned to me, handing me one of the cones. "He says you're very pretty."
I frowned an embarrassed thank you and focused on the cone. Chris was right, it was delicious. There were no bits, just the silkiest smoothest ice cream I'd ever tasted, like pure coconut - without the flakes. I kicked myself for missing out on months of licking coconut ice cream cones.
"Thank you," I told Joe when we left still licking those amazing cones. "It was nice to meet you. Gracias, mucho gusto."

My hands were still sticky when the bus came into view up the road.
"There's my bus."
"Are you sure that's yours?"
"It should be"
"Yeah, I guess.  Listen, I was kind of wondering -"
I'd been having so much fun I'd almost forgotten the real reason he let me tag along. He was finally going to ask if I thought Linda liked him. 'No,' I wanted to tell him, 'she thinks your eyebrows are too light, and your nose is too big, she thinks you look like a gnome.'
Suddenly I wasn't so sure I wanted to hear his question; I wished we could talk about something else.

But he kept going. "I was wondering -"
I dug around in my bag for bus change.
"- if you were gonna go to the semi's?"
All I needed was a quarter.
"The semi's? You mean for the surfing contest?"
"Yeah, the semi-finals. At Aviones? Next month?"
But two dimes and a nickel would do.
"I don't know. I mean I want to. If it's okay to just go watch?"
"Yeah. Of course."
Of course. What was I babbling about? I clutched my coins tightly and kept on.
"I just didn't know if you had to have a special ticket. Or an invitation or something."
"Well, I'm inviting you. You know, if you want to come and watch?"
Did he mean me and Linda? He must mean me and Linda.
"Should I bring Linda?"
"Sure, whatever. But I - I was hoping maybe you'd come, and maybe sit with the team?"
"Yeah, you. Of course, you," he bumped my shoulder with his, "I don't know, maybe you'll bring me good luck."

The bus pulled onto the shoulder, sending dusty clouds of sand into the air. Putting my bag over my shoulder I half-ran to get on, trying to force down the massive smile taking over my face.

"Yes," I said like he'd just proposed marriage. "Yes, I'd love to."

The last thing I heard before the bus doors shut behind me was Chris calling out "Hey! I'm glad you like the shirt. It really does look good with your hair."

I didn't know about bringing Chris good luck. I didn't see myself as anyone's lucky charm but that didn't stop me from smiling the entire bus ride home.


If you enjoyed this - thanks! - you might like Beach Music or The Arab boy who took out his eye.

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