Surf Lessons

The island breeze hit the back of Héctor’s neck, pulling horizontally at the fine hairs. It was seventy-one degrees, cool enough for a sweater. But his client, a tourist from Frankfurt named Hans, had sweat beads dripping down his sunburned skin. Hans was an investment banker: single, forty-six, and recently grappling with the consequences of his inactive, high-stress lifestyle.

Despite Hans’s unfit appearance, his first statement to Héctor was: “I’ve never surfed before. But it can’t be that hard, right?” Héctor answered with a conciliatory response, stating that it depends on the surfer. But judging by the man’s gait and flabby core, along with the inflated sense of confidence and entitlement he exuded, Héctor predicted that Hans would struggle.

Their first lesson was traumatic for his client. Hans flailed, swore, punched the water in retaliation, and slowly came to the realization that surfing was more than standing on a moving board. But Hans was persistent, and not only agreed to pay for a five-day package of surf lessons, he also promised Héctor that he would stand steadily on the board by the end of his vacation.

***

They met again the next day. Héctor spotted Hans in the corner of the resort surf shop, His skin was glistening and the roots of his blond hair were damp with sweat. After he shook his clients clammy right hand, they made their way to the Caribbean sea.

Judging by Hans’s slight limp, Héctor was expecting this session to be worse than yesterdays. But his form and placement improved and his spirit was upbeat. As they interchanged between Héctor demonstrating and Hans imitating, Hans began telling Héctor of his sporty past, claiming that he was a top athlete in his teenage years. Héctor had taught many middle-aged clients before who would brag about their past fitness feats in order to compensate for the embarrassment they felt in their current body. From experience, Héctor learned to react to such recounts as if they were evident in some aspect of the client’s nature. So he responded placidly to Hector’s comments while he corrected his form.

On their way back to the surf shop, a more relaxed Hans thanked Héctor for his patient teaching. Héctor smiled graciously and said goodbye before starting up his motorcycle.

After a peaceful thirty-minute drive, Héctor sped up his hill of a driveway. He lived in the left-end unit of a one-story rectangular complex. Inside, he kept his two-room space neat and organized. In the large entry room there was a built in unit with a sink, cupboards, and a counter top just big enough for a dish rack. To the left of the built in unit was a small white refrigerator and stove. He furnished the remaining area with a wooden square table, four plastic chairs, a two person beige couch, and a brown throw rug that ran horizontally from the couch to a low rectangular table with a TV and stacks of books on top.

The cement walls were left completely bare, and the majority of his loose belongings were stowed in the cabinets. His two forks, spoons, knives, bowls, and plates, along with his coffee mug and three water glasses, were neatly placed in one of the two cabinets above the sink. Cereal and basic food items were placed in the other. His pots and pans, along with his spatula, colander, and cleaning supplies, were stored in the two cabinets below the sink.

He hadn’t gone shopping for a few days, so all that was left in his fridge was a half-full gallon of milk and two bottles of Malta. He grabbed a Malta, opened the cap with his keys, and sat down on his couch, watching the sun set from his living room window. But before he could sip on his drink, Carmen, the woman who lived in the unit to the right, came over with a plate of arroz con habichuelas and platanos maduros. He thanked her, but graciously refused an invitation to eat with her and her family. As she was walking away, he could her her grumble about his strange habits. But he didn’t care about being labeled as an outcast or recluse. It was easier to accept who he was, and be who he was, than tire himself out being something he wasn’t.

He went back inside, grabbed a fork, and ate. He then washed his neighbors dishes, brought them back, thanked the entire family, and returned to the quiet of his corner unit.

***

Héctor woke up the next morning to the sounds of dogs barking. He stretched, grabbed yesterday’s T-shirt off the floor, turned off the portable fan he used to block out noise, and shuffled into the kitchen for his usual breakfast of café con leche and cornflakes. After a light cleaning of his kitchen, he drove to the resort and taught his first two surf lessons of the day.

It wasn’t until two in the afternoon that he met up with Hans for their third session. Hans had partied the night prior, and looked exceptionally tired. So, thirty minutes into the lesson, he called for a break. They spent the remaining hour and a half drinking beer and eating nachos at the resort bar. Hans complained about how hard it was to maintain a diet on vacation and the fact that his boss might force him to work tomorrow. Although Héctor couldn’t relate to Hans’s struggles, he did his best to listen and empathize.

After drinking and eating for hours (Héctor with restraint, Hans without restraint), Hans invited Héctor out for the evening. Héctor, wanting to get back home and do some reading, graciously declined. On his way back, he made a quick stop at COOP for some groceries. He gave two bags to Carmen as a thank you and ate mofongo with her and her family before entering his unit, turning on the fan, and passing out with a book on his stomach.

***

Héctor woke up, smelling like sweat, salt water, and sand from not washing up the day prior. He showered, drank coffee, and ate a relaxed breakfast on his porch while reading two chapters of Cien años de soledad before heading to the resort.

His first lesson of the day happened to be a seventeen-year-old girl from Toronto. It was a pleasure to have a client that was fit, optimistic, and an enthusiastic learner. By the end of their two hour session, she was up on the board and surfing small waves.

After parting ways with the young Canadian, he sat on the beach and ate the jamón y queso sandwich he packed for lunch. Just as he was about to meet his next client at the shop, Hans intercepted him with an exasperated expression. His hair was slicked back in a way that further accentuated the sweaty, red bags under his eyes. Frantically, Hans explained that he wouldn’t be able to make it to today’s lesson because there was a problem he had to resolve at the office. Héctor tried to refuse the twenty dollars pushed into his hand, but reluctantly accepted as he assumed that money wasn’t an issue for a man like Hans.

When he went into the shop after his last session of the day, he was informed that Hans had changed his lesson tomorrow for the latest available.

***

Héctor and Hans had just finished their last lesson. Not only had Hans reached his goal of standing on the surfboard, he had even surfed a small wave. In celebration, they went for drinks at Héctor’s favorite bar.

With a lit cigarette in one hand, and a beer in the other, Hans effortlessly carried the conversation:

“So, Héctor is a common name here?”

“Yes, it is. You say it correctly.”

“Well, I listen Héctor Lavoe.”

“You like Héctor Lavoe?”

“Yeah, an ex of mine loved his music.”

“My father likes his music.”

“Remember when I said I came here in my twenties?”

“I do.”

“I actually came a few times. My ex was born here. Yabucoa.”

“Nice. It’s a nice place.”

“It is. She didn’t live there for long though. She moved to New York with her mother and sister when she was eight or so.”

“You met her in New York?”

“Yeah, when I was working for JP Morgan.”

“Did you like New York?”

“I loved it at the time. I worked a lot, had a lot of fun, and made a lot of money.”

“But you left?”

“It was tiring and I was partying a lot. And then my ex left me because I was working too much, drinking too much, and wouldn’t commit to her with marriage. So I left.”

“Did you go back to Germany?”

“Yeah. Life is a bit simpler there. Not as fun. But easier.”

“It seems that way.”

“Have you been to New York?”

“No. I’ve never left Puerto Rico. I know some relatives and friends that moved there. But I haven’t kept in touch with any of them.”

“You’re not that social are you?”

“No.”

“Sorry if that was personal. It’s just a feeling I get.”

“I’m, what’s that word?”

“Introverted?”

“Introverted, yes.”

“You’re easy to talk to though.”

“Thank you.”

“You know, being here makes me miss Gabriella, my ex.”

“I can imagine.”

“She was lively. Loved to dance, party, and be social.”

“You seem lively and social yourself.”

“Social, yes. But I’m not so lively anymore. My body isn’t the same as before.”

“Well, you did well on this last lesson.”

“You’re just saying that because I was your client.”

“No, I mean it.”

“No, really. I’m a physical wreck.”

“Physical wreck?”

“My body is a wreck.”

“You just…”

“Please, don’t be nice. I know my limitations.”

“You just need to be active more.”

“That was easy to do up until my mid-thirties when I was thin. Then my body became, well, kaput.”

“Kaput, like broken?

“Destroyed.”

“You’re not destroyed.”

“They sell you this idea that all you have to do to live a good life is work your ass off and make a lot of money. What they don’t tell you is the sacrifices you have to make to get to that point. And the fact that once you spend years making those sacrifices, your health and social life are no longer there. And your life is not as good as you thought it would be.”

“Well, yes. That is so.”

“I mean, I have money in the bank, two houses, and I could make do with what I have now if I lived cheaply. But then, how would I enjoy life without all the nice things and holidays I’m used to buying?”

“Do those make you happy?”

“I mean, no. From me to you, I’m a bit miserable right now. Alone, single, and without anything to wake up to, unless you count the new body aches that seem to come every day now.”

“Why don’t you change your lifestyle?”

“I don’t know. I’m afraid of what I’ll become when I have nothing left to distract me. No work, no money to buy comfort and distraction. Mir stehen die Haare zu Berge.”

“What?”

“Oh, it’s a German phrase. Like goosebumps in English.”

“Oh.”

“Like when the hair on your arm raises.”

“Yes, I know.”

“Not working scares me. And so does the opposite, working until I die.”

“You don’t rest much, do you?”

“Fuck no. In the world of finance you are either working or living large.”

“Everyone?”

“Well, there are some that have a good mind to them. Especially in Germany. Not me though. Maybe I was too influenced by New York and the U.S. mindset.”

“It’s not too late to make a change.”

“Hey, I hope you don’t mind me smoking another cigarette.”

“Not at all.”

“Thanks.”

“Would it be easy for a German to move to a place like this?”

“Well, the U.S. isn’t an easy place to move to. But you’ve lived in the country before.”

“That’s right! We’re in the U.S.”

“And for a German with a good career and money, that shouldn’t be an issue.”

“Well, I might not have a career if I move here. But yeah, the money part will make it easier. I didn’t work my ass off in a shitty career for nothing.”

“I would hope not.”

“You know, I always preferred the island lifestyle. But I just fell into the trap of doing what society told me I should do.”

“You’re young enough and have enough to change.”

“I don’t know. I’ll never again be fit like you.”

“It’s not about being fit like me. But you can get fit. And become happier.”

“You are lucky. Living an active, stress free lifestyle with no regrets.”

“Well, I have regrets.”

“What sacrifices have you had to make. You are how old?”

“Thirty-four.”

“Thirty-four and you look no older than twenty-five. Fuck it. You can’t complain.”

“Like you said, everything has sacrifices.”

“Ja ja! And you just have to find the right sacrifices to make.”

“Well yes.”

“And you’ve found the right sacrifices and I haven’t and that’s why I’m sour.”

“Well, no.”

“No?”

“I’ve made sacrifices. And not the right ones.”

“Well, yeah. Naturally. I’m sorry. I might just be jealous. And getting a bit tipsy.”

“It’s okay.”

“So, what do you wish was different about your life now?”

“I enjoy my life. It’s nice But I always wanted more from it.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I always wanted to do more. Have more adventure.”

“Like travel?”

“Travel of course. I’ve never left this island. But it’s more than that.”

“More than adventure?”

“Yes. I always had this drive to do more in life.”

“So the island life doesn’t make you happy?”

“Well, maybe I would miss it if I left. But I have this drive in me.”

“What are you driven to do?”

“I want to be an adventurer. I want to climb mountains like Everest and K2 or free solo like Alex Honnold. And I would love to do things that have never been done before.”

“That is intense drive. Is he the one that free climbed that 3,000 foot wall in Yosemite?”

“Yes.”

“If you want to do that, then there is some drive in you.”

“Maybe. He reminds me of myself. He started free soloing because he was shy when he was younger and wouldn’t ask others to belay him.”

“Belay. What is that?”

“Fixing the ropes. You need someone to help.”

“How do you speak English so well?”

“I studied hard. It helps to know English here.”

“Oh yeah. It’s a U.S. state.”

“A U.S. Territory.”

“Thank you for correcting me.”

“But I’ve only used my English to read, study, and teach tourists how to be active.”

“So you guys have U.S. passports?”

“Yes. We are U.S. citizens.”

“So, you could have gone to one of the states and become some intense rock climber?”

“It’s not easy. And it’s expensive. And it’s not welcoming, especially if you don’t want to work a traditional job.”

“True.”

“And maybe I just like the idea of rock climbing. Or the idea of being driven.”

“They say in Germany that it takes risk and failure to find out who you are.”

“Probably. And I haven’t really done that.”

“Me neither.”

“So, we aren’t all that different, although it may seem like it from our lifestyles.”

“I guess not. We follow our culture’s expectations.”

“We sure aren’t Alex Honnold.”

“No. But you could quit your job and get fit again.”

“And you could start rock climbing. It can’t be that expensive. Doesn’t that guy live in his van?”

“Yes.”

“Fuck, if you decide to make that happen, I’d give you the money for a van.”

“I’d allow that. As long as I found out you were being active more.”

“Let’s make a pact. A drunken pact.”

“Well, I’m not drunk yet.”

“Whatever. Yeah. By next year I will quit my job and get in shape. And you will start rock climbing.”

“Okay.”

“Shake.”

“Shake.”

“It’s settled.”

“Yes.”

“Prost.”

“Prost.”

***

After their cheers, Héctor and Hans ended up drinking and talking until four in the morning, just before Hans had to rush to the airport. Héctor accompanied Hans to his hotel room and watched him drunkenly throw his things into a thick metallic suitcase. They then made their way down to the entrance of the hotel, where a white shuttle bus was patiently waiting. Héctor gave Hans a hug goodbye and watched as the driver pulled the white door shut, started the vehicle, and drove down the circular pavement. A minute later, the buss pulled back in and Hans- with his reddened face- rushed out and pushed a card into Héctor’s hand.

Héctor studied the card as he walked back to the motorcycle. Hans had written his phone number and Facebook information on the back. This made Héctor smile. Although he had never developed a long-term friendship with any of his former clients, he felt that Hans might be the type of person who would make the necessary plans and sacrifices to honor a drunken pact.

4 thoughts on “Surf Lessons

Add yours

  1. I like the sentiment in your story of friendship between dissimilar people building in stages, and to some extent their friendship compensating for relationships which have come to an end.

  2. I enjoyed this read, and I liked that you made both of them ‘lacking’, not stereotyping Hector to be the ideal. It takes guts, interior guidance and conviction to swim against the expectations society – any society – pegs on you. I hope Hector and Hans remained friend and honored their pact in your imagination 🙂

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