Long Beach Island, NJ
For half a moment, my brother finally stands fully upright, his arms in perfect T-pose for balance. David looks royal, stiff posture, but also perfectly poised, relaxed, like he’s commanding the swells to rise and recede with his downturned palms; the surfboard glides in the sweet spot in the crest of a wave. The long call of seagulls supplies fanfare, announcing entrance of the newly minted sovereign of the sea, my baby brother. The past thirty minutes, untold hours, and years of spills, tumbles, flops, and washouts evaporate in one crowning moment of glory. He’s suddenly earned the arrogance he’s lorded over Jeff and I with his professorial spouting of his painstakingly researched knowledge, his annoying dissemination of the physics behind Newton’s laws of motion as they pertain to surfing, the movement of matter, maneuvering and staying afloat, the correct instant for the rider to use one foot to press down on one edge of the board, how the edge pushes into the water, how the water pushes back up against the board, how this exchange makes the board begin to turn, and how the board’s convex shape at the bottom creates maximum water displacement. Now he’s triumphantly flying on top of the water in the predawn 5 a.m. darkness. Jeff and I stand, toes in the surf, our cheers echoing up and down the empty beach.
If my parents hadn’t been just waking up, if they’d been standing here to witness what happened, they would say that this is the reason they bring us here every year, not for water sports, but for this coming together, this bonding, this making of memories. What I remember most aren’t the life altering moments where one or all of us come to a new definition of who we are. What I remember most is the smell, that intangible experience that happens each time the car crosses the causeway to Long Beach Island, that smell that plucks me from the irritations of the present back into the past, into a time that grows fonder with each successive recollection. I draw a deep breath of that ocean breeze and my body shifts, my respiration slows, my muscles start to unfold. It’s nearly impossible to find the right words to describe that scent, that subtle undertone that wafts from the waves. It’s moist, briny, a tinge of seaweed, a dispersion of seaspray, a pale ghost of suntan lotion. It’s that first draft, that pull of sea air that expands the lungs, steadies my thoughts, ships my tensions away, setting them to ebb and drift out of sight.
The ocean calls to me. Always. When I’ve been away from it for too long, it becomes an empty feeling in the pit of my spleen, a chasm in the deepest recesses of my liver, a burning in my heart for which the only balm is ocean, any ocean, but particularly this ocean, this patch of sand. This day surfing with my brothers in the half wink of morning light is one of those days that you just know, even while it’s happening, that will be one of the special days that we talk about for the rest of our lives. This is sure to go down in our family history book as the summer of surfing: 1975. I’m 17, Jeff, 15, and David, 13. It’s one of those days you can imagine coming up at a Thanksgiving dinner in the far future with all of us married and our children gathered around the table listening to the tale that’s inevitably grown larger with each retelling. David’s earned bragging rights forever, being the first of us three to successfully hang ten. We will in time add and subtract details, but in this moment we don’t know the future or that we are on a deadline. We talk about the two summers prior to the main event where my brothers spend all of their beach time taking turns crashing off the surfboard and tumbling to shore. We add onlookers that are plausible, details that suddenly someone remembers. My dad is off fishing with his brother, or it’s noon when the surfing happens in front of everyone on the whole beach. I’m in the water tensing before I dive under to rescue my brother or suddenly I’m sitting beside my Aunt Paula on a sand chair reading a book, an incarnation of a common sighting of me as I smear myself with suntan lotion and sometimes baby oil trying to achieve a perfect tan (long before anyone realized the dangers of skin cancer) as the big event happens. I’m wearing my gigantic sunglasses and watch the boys, who had to stay outside of the lifeguard flags, so as not to hurt any other swimmers with the surfboard. Each day we arrive around 8 a.m. with our bags filled with bologna sandwiches with mustard, one of the only sandwiches I feel improves in taste after sitting for so many hours in the heat. At lunchtime, we rinse our hands in the salty water, head back to our chairs, and try not to ingest too much sand while we eat and choke on a bit of bologna sandwich when David stands up on the board and surfs. The directions our retellings might take in the future are endless, yet sometimes things end before you’re prepared.
Morning’s first light breaks, each ray a searchlight catching the peaks of the churning crests, casting a soft pall, glowing dimly in the distance today. Today. In this moment, which stretches its tendrils and tender shoots into the future, the unknown, the blank slate. Back at the beach house, Mom crinkles the bag of coffee and scoops heaps into the basket of the percolator. Inside that lucky wave, David is king. In the next half a moment, the wave whorls, then surges and in a swoosh, my brother is down. His surfboard shoots forward and for the next half of that same moment, he is suspended in air, a cartoon character in the split second before he realizes there is no longer ground beneath his feet. He falls head first into a rush. Mom is probably lighting the flame and settling the pot down on the back burner. It’s hard to see in the pre-dawn dark, but both Jeff and I leap into action. We each know what to do without a word, without a knowing glance, without having made a plan beforehand. We know. We just know. Jeff goes for the board to make sure it doesn’t hit David in the head when he rises from the water, and I, the stronger swimmer, plunge under and speed in the direction of the fall. I don’t have to go far. David’s crashes into me beneath the undertow. I grab his skinny arm and haul him upright. He’s in distress, gasping, sputtering, but not drowning. He stands up and coughs and sputters some more. Undershirt dripping, he shakes his head like a dog spraying water from the ends of his longish, dirty-blond hair, and shouts, “Did you see that!” The undertow surges back leaving the three of us with rushing water tugging at our legs, dragging us toward towards the deeps until the next wave slams into our chests, nearly knocking us down. We adjust our stances, staying sideways, remembering to never turn our backs to the ocean, to respect its power. The sea continues to wash over us as we move towards the sand leaving footprints in its slushy wetness and then crossing over the warm dunes, heading back for breakfast. At home, the coffee, unwatched by now, is still waiting to begin bubbling. Our story begins percolating.
Teresa Sutton’s fourth chapbook, “Ruby Slippers for Gretel,” (under different titles) was a top 50 finalist in the Wingless Dreamer 2019 Chapbook Competition and a semi-finalist in both the 2018 Concrete Wolf Chapbook Award and the 2018 Quill’s Edge Press Chapbook Competition. Her third chapbook, “Breaking Newton’s Laws,” won 1st place in the Encircle Publication 2017 Chapbook Competition; One of the poems in the collection, “Dementia,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The final poem of the book, “Confiteor 2,” was honored with second prize in the 2018 Luminaire Award for Best Poetry. Sutton taught for 10 years at Marist College and 29 years as a high school English teacher. She has an MFA in poetry from Solstice at Pine Manor College, an MA in Literature from Western Connecticut State University, an MS in Education from SUNY New Paltz, and a BA from SUNY Albany.