At day’s end, as the Southern Australian sky shades into dark, and all the sounds of earth and sea ease into an ancient rhythm, Gigi, Ana, and I sit around a beach bonfire in our hoodies and UGGs. The sand lumps under our blankets as we roast lime-and-ponzu-marinated shrimp skewers with my coach Bomb and the other trainers, who regale us with surf lore that becomes more dangerous and mythical with each sip of their Coopers Light. We sit enraptured: Ana twirling the tips of her sun-bleached dreads, Gigi taking glassy-eyed pulls off her beer, me downing a bottle of Tasmanian rainwater, silent as nuns, listening and living the details as a light mist creeps onto the beach. I wonder if someday our stories will be told in the same way on some far-off beach at night to other young women surfers who long for Olympic gold.
Though I’m spent from a day of hard surfing, I feel as if I could conquer the heaviest wave at Mavericks or pull into the thickest, razor-shallow tube at Teahupo’o with ease, take on any competition standing in my way. My encounter with that shark today left me with a heady brilliance, as if all its native power magically possessed me, rendering me invincible.
“…and that’s how he bought it,” Braiden says, his beer bottle barely off his lips. “Unconscious, leash around his neck, spitting up blood until the chopper arrived. The paddle-out was a week later. Very emotional.”
“Sad,” I say.
“Good man,” Bomb adds.
“Well, at least he didn’t die of embarrassment,” Ana giggles, her face glossy with aloe vera and hydrocortisone. “I got launched at Waimea once, and my butt suddenly felt all bubbly, so I reached down—my bikini bottoms were gone! What’s worse is that my board broke when I landed on it, so I used the back half like a float and kicked over to the other half, which was almost to shore, and guys along the way were, like, purposely wiping out near me, like dumb-falling off their boards for no other reason than to get a peek at my pooch. My bottoms were on the beach, and I had to beg this kid to throw them to me while these totally lechery—lechering? These old lechy dudes stared at me. Oh my god, it was so embarrassing.”
“That totally happened one time I duck-dived,” I say. “Bottoms—whoosh!—clean off. That’s why I cover my bikini with board shorts.”
“Someone please invent bikinis that stay on,” Gigi says.
“Oh, no,” her coach, Troy, says slyly. “We dig when they come off.” The comment stops us. Even Bomb and Braiden don disapproving looks because the remark sounds creepy coming from a middle-aged man—a father, no less, with two young daughters of his own.
Troy picks up the negative vibe and affects a bad Aussie accent. “Well, bloody ’ell then. ’Ow ’bout some music, eh, mates?” He rises off his blanket and parks his butt on the cheap plastic cooler we picked up at Coles Express convenience store, drills his Coopers into the sand beside him, then reaches behind and unsheathes a small travel guitar from a soft padded case. “Requests?”
We know what’s coming. His playing is decent, but his high notes always come off flat and croaky, though Gigi can find no wrong. She sways with her eyes closed as Troy sashays through Jack Johnson’s “I Got You.”
Bomb pokes at his phone. Frustrated, he gets up and disappears into the dark, his mobile dimming as he slips down the beach. It’s his designated FaceTime with his autistic son, Austin. It bothers me to see the man so tied up in knots, and I hope after so many failed attempts, it’s not another episode of his boy staring off into space.
“Nice,” Gigi says, clapping after Troy sustains the final note, the neck of her beer bottle clasped between her fingers. Ana and I applaud, too. Troy rises, snatches another Coopers from the cooler, and sits back down as Bomb emerges from the dark into the glow of the fire, three shades of disappointment on his face.
“Technology,” he complains. “It’s everything and it’s nothing. The Australian government finished building out the NBN three years ago, laid enough fiber and floated enough satellites to connect civilization to Bumfuck a dozen times over. Forty billion dollars—and on my miniscule slice of the continent here, I can’t even get a signal. Jesus! It’s 2024 for fuck sake!”
“Shit’s great when it works,” Braiden says.
Bomb stares at his phone in disgust. “It’s just a lump of titanium, glass, and Chinese chips wasting away in your hand otherwise. Might as well use it to hammer nails.”
“Technology has always measured the advancement of mankind, dude,” Troy says, tuning and bending his E string. “Without it, we’re back to the stone age.”
“Stone age? Measure it against something as ancient as that,” Bomb says, pointing to the ocean draped in the silver blanket of a waning moon. “That—that, dude, was, is, and will be. And it never disappoints.”
“Yeah, but can it entertain you with cat videos?” Gigi says, her blonde hair sheening in the firelight.
“She has a point,” Braiden says, sipping his beer. “At least the NSA can’t listen in on you—at the moment.”
Troy strums his guitar, dropping an ear to the strings, half-listening to the conversation. “Plus you’re comparing apples to oranges,” he says.
Bomb’s annoyed. “I’m contrasting, man,” his voice heated by his missed call with his son. He waves his hand at Troy in a gimme here. Troy lifts his butt off the cooler so Bomb can retrieve a beer before plopping back down with a crack!
“I’m with you on that,” I say.
“Oh, coach’s pet,” Gigi says, tossing a burned shrimp at me.
I swat it into the fire and lean back on my elbow.
“Open up the ocean and throw me in. That’s all I’m saying—if I had a choice.”
“Singer Justin Black or that shriveled old gray-haired actor, George Clooney?” Ana says.
Gigi laughs, “Like that’s even a choice.”
“Sure it is,” Ana says, lying on her back, talking to the sky. “What is he? Like, eighty?”
“Oh, no, no, my little surfer girl,” Braiden says. “Play that trivial shit on your own time. How about some serious choices?”
“Like?” I say.
“I don’t know. Ripped apart by wolves or a tribe of Gelada monkeys?”
“Excuse me!” I say. “Did you not see the fifteen-foot shark that almost chomped me today? ’Cause the thing that circled my board wasn’t exactly a bird.”
“Noted,” Braiden says, pointing at his head.
“What’s a Gelada monkey?” Ana says.
“The most bad-ass-looking primate on the planet,” Braiden says, cracking another Coopers. “Look like baboons but they’re all gums and fangs, with red chests and big brown furry manes and sweeping tails. They live in huge tribes, swarm the Ethiopian highlands—700, 800 of them at a time—and you’ll be happy to know that the females are so tight socially, they tell the boys what goes on each day: where to graze, where to sleep. And no matter how big and bad the family male is—the dude with all the mating rights—his harem will decide his fate when he’s challenged and attacked by a group of horny bachelors.”
“Woo-hoo!” I say, putting a fist to the sky. “Go girls!”
Ana and Gigi join the call. “Chicks rule! Yea, bitch-es!”
“Monkeys, hands down,” I say.
The fire crackles and pops, and the day gets the better of us as we grow weary of Troy’s improvised guitar chords. Even with a cool coat of aloe on my face soothing my sunburn, it feels tight and doubly hot from the looping flames. I place my palms on my cheeks to cool them.
Bomb feels my pain. “Should have doubled your sunscreen pill.”
“The ozone hole that was big talk in the mid-1980s is still very real,” Braiden says. “When Al Gore sounded the alarm that the whole planet was boiling, it pretty much took the spotlight off the CFC-depleted void sitting over Antarctica, and given superstorms like hurricane Tiffany and those F5 tornados that took out half the Las Vegas strip, it pretty much fell off the news, like, permanently.”
“Yeah, well,” I say, shimmying a few feet away from the flame, taking a bottle of water with me.
“Melanoma or flesh-eating bacteria?” Troy says.
“Ew!” Gigi says.
“Just carrying the theme.”
“I worry about the skin cancer thing all the time,” Bomb says. “Knew an old-school surfer, was talking to him and his kid at Pleasure Point. Dad’s got his wetsuit stripped to his waist, red shit sprouting like potato spuds all over his chest, and I wanted to say something but his kid was right there, and I didn’t want to freak him out. Surprised the dude’s still alive.”
“See this scar?” Troy says, pointing to the right side of his nose. “Doctor removed a basal cell the size of a nickel.”
Bomb scolds me with his finger.
“Vigilance, girl,” he says.
“I know, I know.”
Ana’s curled up on her side fast asleep, dreads sprouting from her tightened hoodie. Gigi fades. I feel the urge to pee.
“Back in a minute,” I tell everyone.
I wander up the beach, kicking up sand and seaweed with my UGGs, the heat of the fire giving way to the cool, still winter night, until the dark swallows me and the bonfire in the distance is nothing more than a small flickering flame. Sheets of platinum mist hover above the beach. The hiss and pounding waves meet my pulse, as do the soft keening of some strange animal and the waning gibbous moon—a body so bright, it lights up the night like day. Still, for all the surroundings that the moon reveals, when I look up at the constellations of the southern sky, it’s so pitted with stars that it gives definition to the word infinity. There’s a sudden feeling I get—abject loneliness, I suppose—standing alone near the bottom of the world, and it leads me to think of that brave color-blind teenager, the Dutch girl who circumnavigated the globe in a forty-foot sailboat with no human contact for three full months. I wonder, when she crossed the southern seas, if she saw the Southern Cross, Centauri, Sagittarius, and Canis Major as I see them now, spellbinding and foreign, and if she felt cast off on some faraway and desperate planet, never to be heard from again. Did she feel as I do: alone on a mission, a young woman with something to prove?
It’s these thoughts that lead to another: the night skies that my father told me about on his missions out to sea. Him standing alone, high on the bridge of the USS Hillary Rodham Clinton, a whole city of sailors below, while the ship tacked along the Equator and the South Pacific’s dead black surface mirrored countless galaxies and stars. I imagine his amazement as a young petty officer on the Andaman Sea, when a great meteor storm crisscrossed the sky like a thousand celestial fencers battling above. But more fascinating still, out there over Tasmania in the southern ocean, the wavering phosphorescent magentas and greens of the Aurora Australis, the Northern Lights’ cosmic sister, in a dance of colliding electrons across the Antarctic sky.
I squat and do my business—a liter-long, Tazzie-rainwater kind of business—and as the steam reaches my eyes off the cold, damp sand, I hold these thoughts until they’re interrupted by a blip in my peripheral vision. I glance left up the beach to see the red and green navigation lights of a small silent aircraft—a helidrone, I deduce by the indicator’s narrow setting—cutting under the lowering mist and traveling quickly toward me. Seconds later, there’s the sudden beat of propeller blades hidden behind a blinding strobe that trains on me like machine-gun fire. I shut my eyes, the after-image sinking behind my lids, then open them again to see the flat black aircraft hovering above me, its blades thwacking, tail kicking around, before a probe in its nose blinds me with high-intensity light. I stop peeing the best I can—it’s kind of a mess when I snatch up my sweats—and I’m so embarrassed that I quickly cover my face, fearful that I’m being recorded and the clip will ping around the Cloud.
“Perv!” I scream, my head down as I flip the drone the finger. The light shuts off and I watch the machine rear up, swing its tail, and drill down the beach to the bonfire. I wouldn’t call it fear, but a jab of anxiety hits me, like it did the time I saw flashing red police lights in my Charger’s rearview mirror after I clocked eighty in a forty-five with a carload of boxed salmon and a mated pair of Peruvian chinchillas—don’t ask, it’s a whole other story.
I run slowly at first, then faster, wondering if the group sees what’s coming. It’s only beach patrol, I tell myself, but it’s eerie in a way—out here alone, a stone’s throw from the floor of the earth—and I want to be in the comfort of the group. Soon I’m running full-out, sand spitting, twenty yards from the camp, and in one perfect and deft move, my UGG finds a pothole and I skid belly-first onto the sand. Pain shoots through my ankle. Grit’s forced into my teeth. When I look up, the group is doused in a blistering white cone of light, staring and waving at the drone, which Troy, too, finds compelled to give the bird.
The machine cuts its lights and goes dark, yielding to the silver landscape, then hovers for a few seconds, banks off toward the ocean, and skims away. I limp into camp. Ana is sitting up, brushing her tired eyes with her arm, wondering what just happened.
“Eye in the sky. Beach patrol,” Troy says.
“There ya go,” Bomb shoots back. “Advanced technology imposing itself on our private, fun-filled evening. Fifty bucks says we’re going to have visitors.”
No more than a few minutes later, two black cutouts—rangers, we presume—traverse the cliff’s edge and descend the wooden stairs to the beach, their flashlight beams crisscrossing the wooden rails until they hit the sand and head toward us. Soon light flares in our eyes.
“Evening,” a voice says behind the glare.
“Evening,” Bomb says. The beams drop to the sand to reveal two figures: a squat, pear-shaped Aussie with a silvery mustache and official DSE baseball cap in a lime-green slicker, and his partner, a tall, hook-nosed dude who looks about my age in the same official garb.
“Nick Morrow, fire ranger, Department of Sustainability and Environment, and me deputy, Raza. Can’t be ’avin fires ’ere. Ecological management zone, mate. Sorry, but you’ll ’ave to break it up.”
The Coopers have gotten the better of Troy, and he goes off at the mouth.
“No shit? Really,” he says. “This is Australia, dude. I thought the Nazi fire ban only applied to Huntington Beach.”
“Best not be comparin’ me to a Nazi, mate.”
“This is Surf Coast, man. Beach fires are surfing, a most essential part of the cultural fabric. What’s next? No laughing?”
“Shut up, Troy,” Bomb says. “OK, we’ll get it cleaned up.”
“Screw that, Bomb,” I say, outraged. “Those guys captured video of me ass-naked.”
“That drone did while I was doing my business.”
“Is that true?” Bomb asks the ranger.
“The drone’s thermal sensors trigger video-record. Whether the young lady’s captured in the hard drive? Reckon I won’t know till we check.”
“Oh, you’ll check all right,” Gigi says. “Jerk your frickin’ dicks when you do.”
“Gig!” Braiden admonishes.
“Pervs!” I say. “They have me, I know it.”
“Nazi surveillance!” Troy shouts. “Let the fire burn!” He freezes dramatically with his hands out before launching into a primitive dance, chanting like an American Indian around the fire and hooting, his hand batting his mouth.
“Look,” Bomb says, “we’re an American surf team, training down here. Must be a new ordinance, because I’ve built fires on this beach many times. But the recording thing, if what Mafuri says is true…”
“Tell ya wot,” the ranger says, disgust in his eyes as he watches Troy, “I’ll forgo the fine, and me and me mate will presume you’ll put the fire out, clean up safely. And to be bloody sure, our choppa, Tilda, will pay you Yanks a visit in ’alf an hour.”
“Yeah,” I say, incensed. “I’ll be sure to have my clothes on when it does—bastards.” The two men trundle off, their flashlights paving the way. The backs of their slickers read Sustainability and Environment, Victoria, in reflective letters, but just as the younger deputy is a few feet away, he turns and winks at me.
“Did you see that,” I say. “Did you?”
“Yeah, totally,” Ana says. “What a perv.”
It’s not long after that my ankle is one painful, throbbing mess. I hop to get around. I pick up my blanket and shake out the sand, trying to be helpful. For a minute, I think it’s all right—just a bruise or a mild sprain—until I drop my full weight on it, and pain shoots up to my teeth.
The evening ends with a fizzle, a farewell to the stars, a Ziploc of ice wedged inside my UGG, and Bomb—my main man, my big brother—piggybacking me up the long wooden stairs, reminding me that it’s not the sharks that will kill you, but the accumulated nuisances of life.