She tells me how she feels and I tell her I’m sorry, and then the sun’s spilling orange all over the horizon. We go on dates not unlike the old days when we were young and stupid and pretend the last ten years never existed, though I suspect deep down we both know that it’s a lie worth believing.
The sun spreads across the waves turning the water into pale jade. It’s at these moments when the world makes sense. The surfboard is an extension of myself like the leg that I will soon lose, so when I fall off the board I don’t resist, and instead let the force of the wave push me ever farther down until the sand comes up and hits me, exploding into fine mist like mortar fire. If I stay like this forever I wouldn’t care. The surface of the sea gleaming and glinting as if crushed diamonds, and I spread my arms as sun spears touch my open palms. But it is not yet my time, and I rise, my leg aching as though someone has taken a spoon and hollowed out the bone.
My house ceased being a home when she left, leaving me because of the uncertainty of the future she would have or the lack of my own. But she didn’t leave easily. Many nights were had arguing in the lounge about my decision and she made sure I knew that my life was not just my life. I told her: it’s not about my leg but about the wholeness of myself and even then I can’t explain it. The day she actually left was easier than I imagined it would be. One day she was there and then she wasn’t. She left the door open, I believe, so that when the sunlight fell through it I would not feel alone. So now I live with an old dog that I suspect will see me go before he goes. I light incense and keep the music mellow and low. I can hear the waves lapping against the shore and smell the air laced with sea salt and hear tuis in the pohutukawa trees. Mornings bring an orange sky with puffy clouds that look like dyed cotton, fantails in the trees, curiously watching. A morning surf is part of my diurnal ritual and rituals are important for keeping a sound mind. The day I stop my rituals is the day I give up on pretending that I’ll live past my 42nd birthday. There’s a chance I survive if I cut off my leg but there’s a chance I’ll die anyway. I was asked once what I would change if I knew I was going to die, and now that I know I don’t think I would change anything. Maybe I’m not an ambitious man. Maybe I’m content with watching my old dog sleep and listening to the birds in the trees or the sound of the rain on the roof or even the wind when it rushes through the leaves. But I know this life was worth living when I grab my surfboard and take to the waves, where if I get it right I soar above the water and touch the sun with my hand.
My own mother sees irrationality in my decisions. She nursed me, protected me, allowed me to thrive in this world, and I cannot help but feel remorse that I’m not a better son. She continues to feed me, at her place, sometimes at mine. She often pretends there’s nothing wrong but the smile she wears and the laugh she makes are papier-mâché masks. She was never good at hiding her feelings. I see her sometimes with the remains of tears on her cheeks, though neither one of us says anything at all. She reminds me of my love of the sea and I have fond memories of swimming with her, summers under an umbrella and sand hot on the soles of my feet. Sunburn and cans of sweating Coca-Cola and sandwiches with last night’s roast beef. I’ve always enjoyed the water and waves. Some people where I’m from enjoy fishing but I like exploring beneath the surface like an adventurer might explore ruins in a far off island. To snorkel, to dive, to let the weight of the ocean fall down on me. I started surfing only five years ago. I went to Hawaii to catch the great Kahuna but got waves flatter than sand in Death Valley. But I was fortunate to purchase a surfboard from a third generation board maker living in a hut under a crooked palm where the Pacific waves roll hypnotically onto the shore. I later went out to the healing island Mokuola and swam around the island three times as is custom under a moonlit sky. In Honolulu I picked up a tiki mask dedicated to a deity of surf. At least that’s what I was told. Knowing my luck it’s dedicated at best to fertility or at worst a prop made for tourists. I keep it hanging on my wall regardless, next to my board that bears a beautiful pink flower and my mother’s name. Sometimes I lift the wooden mask off the wall and put it on and pretend I’m someone else, a god on the waves for example, or someone who might have a future, a family, grandchildren who run barefoot along the water’s edge. Two years after Hawaii I quit working and now am living on savings hoping that it lasts until I don’t. I thought I’d come to a peaceful conclusion about who I am, but one night as I lay on my sofa, the windows gaping open for the sea breeze, curtains puffing, my old boy snoring on the rug, I come to the internal realisation that I have done something awfully wrong. She’s standing by the door, moths igniting about her in the pillar of light from the porch lamp.
‘I’d been meaning to come by,’ she says and I believe it. ‘I almost didn’t.’
She tells me I’ve been on her mind all this time especially at night when she’s all alone. She tells me she wants us to start again, and I can’t help but wonder if second chances actually exist. There are people out there that somehow enter your life as a missing piece that you never knew was missing. I agree with her and we embrace and she’s warm and shaking, or maybe it’s me that’s shaking. We fall to the couch and stay embraced, afraid we’d lose each other. Then we do something we should have done before our relationship tumbled down the hill: we sit opposite each other on the couch and talk. She tells me how she feels and I tell her I’m sorry, and then the sun’s spilling orange all over the horizon. We go on dates not unlike the old days when we were young and stupid and pretend the last ten years never existed, though I suspect deep down we both know that it’s a lie worth believing. One morning while she’s barely covered by the sheet draped over her body, the sun’s telling me it’s breakfast time, but all I can do is watch her: the gentle undulation of her shoulders as she breathes, dust motes spinning in the sun rays that seem to be telling me that I’m living beyond my luck. As I crack open two eggs into a sizzling frying pan she tells me that she wants me to show her how to surf. An egg yolk rips on the shell on its way out. She brushes a strand of hair away from her mouth, her eyes smiling, her soul earnest.
The sea is a sacred place, if such places exist.
My glass of orange juice is beaded with tiny droplets. Steam mists from my runny eggs. She’s wearing my t-shirt.
I say I’ll show her. When?
My cousin Mike lends us his board and we go down to the beach while the sun is still half in the sky, its light rippling on the surface of the water. We dive in and she swims under a wave and her hair flows down her back like black silk. I see her smile briefly at me before a wave dunks her.
I lie on the board and I am one with the board. She copies me and we gently ride the waves on our bellies. She laughs. She likes the water, always has. But I know if she wants to surf, actually surf, then we’ll have to go deeper, and so we do and she follows me out and I can feel the sun hot on my cheeks and my hair sticky with sea salt. I go over what to do again, like I did on the beach, and the wave comes. The perfect one. It’s always the perfect one. I wait for her to get up. She gets on her knees. I stand up and I’m me again. I curve into the curl and I crouch and let my hand slice through the water. I’ve forgotten about her. It’s all me and the board and the wave.
When I dive into the water and break the surface I look for her but I can’t see her. Her board is floating. Our wave crashes and embraces the shore. I still can’t see her. I look out to sea and the horizon is shimmering and a fishing boat is all I see. There is a panic in my heart, and under the water I scream her name as bubbles burst from my mouth. I find her. I bring her to the surface and red ink trails her but it’s not ink.
Eventually I get her to the sand and scoop her up. It looks much easier in the films. My house is less than five minutes away and I get her there, lay her on the couch, place a towel upon the wound on her forehead. Her eyes grab me. They’re smiling. I am awake.
I ask her if we should go to the hospital. She touches my wrist. No, she’s fine, she assures me. I look at the wound but it’s more of a scratch. No stitches required. My heart still pounds, my rib cage is fragile, my knuckles are white. Fear is not a stranger after all.
We don’t surf again that day.
But a week later she’s suggesting we go skydiving and I’m suggesting we ride bicycles. I’ve never been able to say no to her, so I buy us tickets and four days later we’re driving down to Auckland in my old work van that barely passed its last inspection, the wheel wells blazing with red rust. We’re worried because of the rain and the rain sweeps across the road like sheets of plastic but then the clouds part, the sun comes out, and I put on the radio. No more grey. She’s got her feet up on the dashboard and the window inched down so her hair puffs in the breeze. We go west and drive through the countryside full of dairy farms and totara trees, and then I see the sign with a bad photoshop image of a skydiver on it and pull into the muddy parking. I hear the distant engine of a plane and the wind in the trees. If I listen carefully enough I can hear the lowing of cows. I show the young woman behind the desk our tickets and then we’re being suited up, given safety instructions, led to the plane that could ironically be the thing that ends me. Up in the sky is a beautiful place to be. Above the clouds that look as soft as cotton and they roll over the land and across the ocean like a never ending patchwork blanket. I understand now why Aotearoa means the Land of Long White Cloud. The land ripples with hills and ridges and trees. But my attention is quickly taken by her and she spins in the air with me, the scratch above her right eye glinting, and this feeling of weightlessness originates from the same force that is sending me back to earth.
We take the old boy down to the beach and hurl a piece of driftwood over the sand for him. He’s slow and breathes heavily but I am certain that if he were to die fetching that chunk of wood he’d die happy. I think there’s a lot we can learn from the simplicity of a dog’s passions, and instead of imparting upon the world our own ambitions we should listen to the primordial voice of our souls. Or maybe my thoughts are facile and arise from hiding behind my own fear of leaving this life with nothing. She reaches for the driftwood but the old boy’s running away from her, and though he’s old he’s still faster than she is. The sand glistens. Their footprints fill with water. To witness the way the sun’s light at dusk turns the air orange is something special; not because I believe it was created for us to see, but that we are lucky enough to be given the chance to see it. To observe her and him holding the driftwood as though it is all that matters, I learn that beauty belongs not only to the sea and mountains and the trees, but to the creatures that call this earth their home. There are sea shells washing up in the incessant falling of the waves and I squat down to pick them up. I make necklaces from the pristine shells and toss away the broken ones. She holds back her hair as I fit the necklace around her and then I put on mine and we kiss with our eyes closed but I can see the light of the descending sun behind my eyelids, hear our old boy barking and howling to get our attention to throw the driftwood one more time before we go back home.
Before the week is out I agree to get my leg amputated. I’ve seen prosthetic legs and one that might allow me to surf. If I’m alone and fragmented then I’ll be fragmented with or without my leg. So I go to the doctor and get a scan. He clears his throat before he tells me. The cancer isn’t just in my shin bone anymore. It’s crawled up into my thigh. If I don’t do anything about it now it’ll spread through my entire skeleton. Now the story’s changed. Now I’m back to where I was but there’s someone caring for me unless she walks out the door again.
I kiss her forehead and feel her tears run down her cheeks. I don’t think she’s going anywhere this time. When I plant my lips on her forehead I don’t know if they’re only her tears but also mine.
I dream sometimes of the sea erupting into jade fire that glimmers under a summer sky. In the dream I’m trying to reach for the sun but I can’t quite touch it. I can’t quite make it. Then I wake up and she’s there and my heart hurts because one day I won’t be. And I know then my mistake was that I wrapped my life up with another’s. So I creep out of bed while she stays sleeping and I take a minute to just watch her. Then I’m holding my surfboard and sand is beneath my feet. The breeze is cool and I welcome it. To glide over the burnished water as though it’s made of the liquid of precious stone is just one reason I’m still here. Sea spray on my face as I reach higher and higher, up, up, up, I can touch the sun, I know I can, touch it before I’m brought back down, before the wave breaks, before I’m pulled under. Sunlight pours between my outstretched fingers. I’m afraid I’ll wake up. Afraid I’ll fall asleep.