Weekend Fiction: Inside/Outside (U.S.A.)

‘There she goes,’ called Luis over the crest of a wave, and he was right - there she went, old Mexico trailing as a short strip of horizon beside them, looking almost benign from here, from this distance. A yelp or two from the other boys-on-boards, separated now by the rhythms of the Pacific. The morning rose equally above them all.

‘Ricardo!’ Luis was blinded by the dawn. ‘You’re drifting off course!’

A vision in the crisp sunlight: Ricardo’s surfboard turned to face the old country. His paddle ran through the ocean froth like a tongue over ice-cream; his arms hung limp at his sides.

‘I’m done for,’ he said quietly, as if to the land itself.

‘Ri-car-do!’ arriving in one ear through the voices of his co-conspirators, in the other from his family back home, who would soon be waking to find him gone.

Vamos, Ricardo! It’s time!’

He turned, with more effort than it had taken him to get out to deep water, and pointed his board towards the north. The shoal of surfers moved together again.

They were five in total, five boys from the Tijuanan suburbs, pushing their paddles through the waves in a common direction.

‘Javier?’ Luis was close enough to his brother to pitch a conversation.

¿Sí?

‘Don’t take your eyes off the shore.’

, Luis.’

Javier had a quiet wisdom matching his brother’s ability to lead. His arms were already tired, and they would be working against the tide to rejoin the beach. But he was happy. The image of Daniel and David surfing alongside one another just ahead, passing a bottle of tequila back and forth and singing, would see him to his destination. Beyond that, only the thin wad of dollar bills triple-clingfilmed down the front of his trunks would create his future.

‘Ricardo!’ Daniel and David were calling. ‘You’ll never lay Miss America if you don’t move those arms!’

Ricardo threw them a finger; he assumed they could see the smile that chaperoned it. Daniel and David responded with middle-digits of their own, waved with raspberries and moons in the direction of home.

Luis let a song erupt: ‘If I die, far from thee...’ and for a moment, the laughter of five men came together and bubbled in unison. The day could not have been brighter.

By noon, that unique thirst suffered only by men surrounded by water began to settle in. It was a thirst forever associated with Tijuana, with the fatigue of kitchen work, with late nights guiding bicycles out of the city, with the heat. The sun was watching them from its absolute zenith, and still deciding how harshly to judge them. Javier laid down flat, dipped his bandana in the sea and soaked his face. Daniel and David, giddy from a lifetime’s giddiness, leapt into the water and then swam frantically to regain their boards.

Daniel arose. ‘I need a fucking cheeseburger!’

And, he truly believed, he would get one the moment they docked. This was an optimism shared by all of them; it replaced, with its own placebo-rich, intoxicating power, any notion of drowning. That possibility (a real one, since Ricardo’s cousin had drowned at the height of Tijuanan childhood) had remained unspoken by everyone but Javier, who despite all prior preparation still ultimately put his faith in the unknown.

Hours passed atop the gentle waters. In the afternoon, when thirst was joined by hunger and the empty tequila bottle was floating back towards Mexico, a few fateful currents brought the group together. No exhaustion could scupper the moment.

‘Do you remember, Ricardo, what it was like to wait by the side of the road for Mr. Sokol, and then go home to your papi when he didn’t pick you up?’

‘Mr. Sokol, yes. I’ll write “pendejo” on a dollar bill and post it to him...’

¡Pendejos!’

‘Just a memory now, my friend. Just a memory.’

David laughed. ‘No more polenta. No more power cuts. Daniel, we should have brought a joint.’

Luis gave himself up to the drift. ‘There she goes.’

All eyes followed these words towards the land. Mexico had been cruel - beautiful, but with a beauty that brings the cruelty of all nature into harmony and leaves young men confused and otherwise alone. Even the skyscrapers and high-rise hotels that pulled money into Tijuana could not counter this cruelty, or diminish the beauty that Cortez must have discovered on the other side of the country for their Gringonian ancestors. Though Spanish as far as back as their blood had first been spilt, these men remained Indians, hunting their manhood in urban tropics, trapping their adult life in coarsely-woven snares, and retreating to the sea to surf and feel alive.

Ay, vamos – mi cholos!

Luis threw himself onto his surfboard. He held up his paddle, kissed its wood and flung it into the sea. Daniel and David followed; soon all five were kicking their legs towards new life. They pushed through the water, motorised by private visions, and in less than an hour Luis had already hopped back onto his board and stood, hand proud against his eyebrows as if in salute, to summon, with the lungs of a new adventurer: ‘California!’

It was there: the American shoreline drawing a clean line between the sea and the sky, still dividing their pasts from their futures and urging to be conquered. It had been separated from them their whole adolescence by walls, fences, security checks and legislature; none could be seen now, away from the mainland, only lightly undulating waves and a few yachts that passed as idly as swans. On the Pacific, they were exposed for the first time to the true human freedom that their ancestors had understood: the pure freedom that is uninhibited movement. They did not think of this now, only of the acid burning in their thighs and the dulling of the afternoon sun. Images of Mexico, of their families and friends, even of their own personal trajectories, were swept underneath them with the steadily-rising waves. Their minds turned totally towards their bodies, which continued to plead for them to stop, even with the shoreline drawing nearer, ever nearer, and their opportunity looming larger and larger ahead of them. The sun was behind them now, racing them to sanctuary; Ricardo glanced back and kicked harder. A schooner came up beside them and a party of smiling, shirtless gringos waved them on with champagne flutes in their hands. Javier had been wrong about the tide; it seemed to be pulling them in with every thrash of the feet. They could make out hotels, houses and finally people - people in swimwear lined up watching the sunset, a human finishing line, a checkpoint where every patrolman was half-drunk and welcoming. They approached, and the sound of the beach emerged. Music came out to the ocean to meet them.

‘My God!’ Luis knelt on his board. ‘It’s The Beach Boys!’

And he was right; some shack-bar on the seafront was broadcasting The Beach Boys, a Californian anthem to steer them in. As the waves began building up in their anxiety to break, the men knelt with Luis on their boards. They oared with their hands, and David struck up a chorus in whatever key his lungs could cope with. Javier was focused on the crests, preparing to stand. Daniel was gritting his teeth; Ricardo was solemn. Luis was the first to meet the break. He stood.

In single file, the men dipped into the tunnel of a perfect wave. The music disappeared, all thought disappeared, and they surfed, cutting simple lines through the water. The curl of the tunnel came over their heads. Javier could see his brother just ahead. He glanced at the shore; within a second his eyes had taken it all in. Couples draped in shawls; a volleyball match; an ice cream vendor leaning over a young girl; a lifeguard, pointing in his direction, speaking with two policewomen; the bar; the hotels rising overhead. America. He looked back to his brother. He was gone. Instead, he was met with a wall of water and, smashing into it headlong, was thrown into another world - a dark, airless world, where the atmosphere is a rush of pressure and confusion, and where surfers, regardless of their abilities and nationalities, are inevitably forced out.

Lost to his board, Javier’s feet found the sand.

Americans were rushing out to the shoreline to meet him.

joebedford.co.uk

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