The morning sun was just a hint of light shining through the tropical mist when the Buddha-bellied old man paddled up. I was immediately terrified of him because he was a local, or at least he looked the part. He sat hunched over his longboard, wearing a meaty-lipped scowl, and made zero eye contact with me.
We were the only two surfers out at a longboard spot on Oahu’s south shore called Pop’s. The ocean was producing what I call “desperation surf,” two-foot-high waves with enough time in between sets to take a short nap. Even though the waves weren’t stellar, I didn’t care; it was my birthday and I wanted to start it in the ocean.
The old man kept his distance. I minded my manners, deferred the bigger waves to him, kept my head down. The waves were dismal, most of them dying out the minute I stood up. The old man caught a few decent rides and I wondered if he was one of those locals who knew the spot so well he could surf it in the dark.
During a particularly long lull, the old man turned to me and said, “Bit of a current today, eh?”
“Um, yeah,” I said, surprised. Then, for some unknown reason, I added, “It’s my birthday.”
He surprised me further by wishing me Happy Birthday, his smile revealing a tiny gap in his front teeth that was almost cute. I began to relax.
“How old are you?” he asked, squinting at me. “Twenty-one?”
I laughed, which felt good. “Try thirty.”
The next wave was rightfully his, so I stayed put while he dropped in. After disappearing, his head and shoulders floated down the line as he swayed with the wave, carving smooth, seamless turns then finished with a graceful, no-frills exit.
We chatted a little bit between sets, but mostly just sat and appreciated the morning. I tried to memorize the delicate sound of the waves spilling over a distant reef, tried to savor the feel of warm water against my toes. Back home in Washington, it was freezing cold and windy.
We’d been waiting a long time for a set when the old man gave me a wry grin and said, “Well, a cup a’ joe is starting to sound pretty good, I guess.”
A ray of sun snuck through the mist behind us, casting a pale pink glow across the water and revealing the patchwork of coral and rock beneath our dangling feet.
“I bet,” he said, “that if I leave, you’ll get waves.” He gazed at the blue horizon for a moment. “Consider it a birthday present.” He flashed me a grin over his shoulder before paddling towards the southern scoop of Waikiki beach.
A few minutes later, as if by magic, a perfect little wave appeared out of nowhere. A buzz of adrenaline flooded my bloodstream as I spun and slowly paddled forward to catch it, the water so smooth and warm flowing past my hands, the air so peaceful and still around me. I dropped into the wave and watched the rolling ripple of silk unfold, feeling my spirit soar, my smile stretch my salty cheeks. I danced with the wave until it died out a few yards from the sand.
Shivering from excitement, I immediately looked for the old man and spotted him, a black silhouette in the looming shadow of a high-rise hotel. He was smiling a huge, bright-white grin. We waved at each other, and then he was gone, tucked into a puff of smoky-gray mist.