In the middle of my painful divorce, my father suggested that my 2-year-old son, Jake, and I join him on his already-planned vacation to Maui. I went with the notion that there was no better time than during a messy divorce to learn how to surf. This trip would not only prove that I could manage a toddler on a 10-hour plane ride, but that I could holler back to Destiny's Child's rally call, "All the women who are independent, throw your hands up at me!"
My fixation with surfing had started 20 years earlier. My first major crush was a blond, 15-year-old surfer who serenaded me with the Beach Boys' mushy "Surfer Girl." In my junior-high yearbook, he wrote, "I'll call you when I'm down the shore. Bye, surfer girl." Swooning was inevitable.
I pursued more surfers as the years went by. There was Dean, with the shoulder-length hair and sky-blue eyes. He was saving up for a surf trip to Mexico. There was Todd, who tied his board to the roof of my car. I moved from New Jersey to San Francisco and spent hours watching the surfers navigate the icy Pacific. I saw the ocean as a giant, moving monster, never imagining that I myself would ever surf.
During a weekend in Santa Cruz with some friends, though, my surfer-friend Dave (who I secretly wished was my boyfriend) dared me to stop gawking from the shore. He gave me a few instructions. I practiced a couple of times on land, then plunged into the cold water.
I bobbed with ease on the board, lifting my chest as each wave rose. I can do this, I thought. Then I turned my head and saw Dave waving his arms in an upward motion. Oh Jesus, he's signaling me to stand! I imagined myself falling off the board, the board smacking me in the head and me drowning while unconscious. I rode the wave back to land -- on my belly.
"What happened?" Dave asked. "You were about to get up."
"I'm too scared," I said, and plodded back to my towel.
After that humiliation, I was done fantasizing about surfers and surfing. I missed my family and moved back to New Jersey. There, I met a man who liked land, hated the word "dude" and ridiculed the skate park opening in our small suburban town. "Where do they think we are, Southern California?" he asked. Yes, I had given myself a powerful surfer exorcism.
Even with our differences, we got married. Soon after, we had Jake. Once a child was in the picture, our disagreements became more polarizing. We'd even argue about our son's wardrobe: I'd buy him little board shorts, puka necklaces and flip-flops; my husband wanted him in argyles and sailor outfits. There's never one reason a marriage breaks down. While I was far from perfect, let's just say my husband had far worse compulsions than argyle.
When we separated, the Jersey Shore became my comforter. I'd park myself in the sand, feeling a rush of adrenaline as I watched surfers race to the dark water. Soon enough, my surfing jones was reignited. It was exciting and depressing all at once; it had been 20 years since my intro to surfing, and I still didn't know how. So when my father suggested that I meet him in Maui, my response was: "I'm going to surf when I get there."
He paused for a second, then said, "Go get 'em, tiger."
It took an entire week for the "tiger" to set herself free. But on the last day of our trip, I rented a car and signed up for surfing lessons.
My instructor, Twolia, was a beautiful Asian woman with a tight wetsuit top and tiny bikini bottoms (not that I needed any more reason to feel intimidated). Holding a board on her head, she walked toward me with her seven-year-old son in tow (he also held a surfboard on his head).
"Do you surf with your son?" I asked.
"Oh, yeah," she said. "He taught himself to surf when he was four."
It was one of those moments when you pretend to be impressed while, inside, you're screaming at yourself for your pathetic shortcomings because a seven-year-old has surpassed you. I thought about Jake. One day he would be four, and he would need a surfer mama to look up to. So when Twolia told me to pick up my board and follow her, I did. The horizon was filled with surfers. I was excited, ready. It was thrilling to paddle out.
"See the shadow in the distance?" Twolia asked. "That's your wave coming."
I dug my hands ferociously into the water as she directed. Just as the wave propelled me ahead, Twolia yelled, "Stand up!"
I jumped to a squatting position, then pushed myself up using all the might in my legs. And there I stood, semi-awkwardly, as the wave drove ahead. I caught a glimpse of the mountainous landscape that circled the beach. I remained upright until the wave dropped out and I slowly sank into the water.
Back on the mainland, it was clear what had finally pushed me onto that surfboard: It was a moment in time where everything in my life felt uncertain -- marriage, love, how I'd cope with being a single mother. Surfing was one tiny aspect of my life that I could control.
The next summer at the Jersey Shore, I surprised myself by signing up for more surfing lessons with a few of my teenage cousins. My body seemed to remember Twolia's instruction, and I got up quickly. "You're good for a mom," my 18-year-old instructor said.
Later that summer, I met the man who is now my new husband. Ironically enough, he grew up near the beach but had never surfed.
I laughed, because I always laughed when I was with him.
"I'd love to try again," he said. "I'm always up for a challenge."
"I could probably teach you," I said. "You know, I'm pretty good."