Surf camp at UCSD – five women congratulate each other

Elemental, Little Fish

Scripps beach. The first few waves are delicious. We slide across the water, belly down, whooping in delight.
  • Scripps beach. The first few waves are delicious. We slide across the water, belly down, whooping in delight.

"You girls ready?"I raise my head from my pillow. I am shoulder deep in industrial-grade bedding, trying to pull the last dregs from an uneasy, however jet-lagged, sleep. Light pours through my window, slicing through the white strips of the blinds. Estela, in the opposite bed, is a moderate-sized lump under her covers, tufts of her black hair peeking out. As a fellow East Coaster, she must be feeling jet-lagged too. She mumbles something, sits up, blinks.

KT stands in our doorway, arms akimbo, grinning at our groggy faces. She's already dressed and exhibits no signs of fatigue; she is tying her long blond hair into a no-nonsense knot, watching us in good-natured amusement. Her sunglasses sit perched and at the ready atop her head.

KT and the author. When I rise to the surface, KT has her hands above her head in twin victory fists.

KT and the author. When I rise to the surface, KT has her hands above her head in twin victory fists.

It is 8:00 a.m. The first day of surf camp. At 22, I'm the baby of the group -- a surprise, but not unusual -- the only recent postgrad among vacationing professionals. Adrenaline hums through my morning grog. I'm excited but dodgy, unsure if my Queens sea legs will carry me. The waves are different beasts here, I am certain, not the occasional, clumsy rollers of Far Rockaway. My on-again-off-again year of lugging my nine-foot monster onto the A train for an afternoon of paddling around may not suffice in a place where some kids can surf before they learn to read. But as the old adage goes, ready or not... Here I come.

Denise snowboards with her boys and, the summer previous, took them to a week-long surf clinic in Santa Cruz.

Denise snowboards with her boys and, the summer previous, took them to a week-long surf clinic in Santa Cruz.

I stretch night-stiff shoulders, reorienting. Less than 12 hours ago, I arrived at the San Diego airport, a thick coat of East Coast pale on my skin. Now I am in California, tucked up in an empty dorm at UCSD, easily the most well-maintained college campus I have ever seen, and am about to go headlong into the Pacific waters.

Beside me, Estela begins poking through her stack of moisturizers. She is small, 28, but looks not a day over 18, with big brown eyes and the languid stature of someone younger. She is, after all, on vacation, a celebratory one of sorts. On the short ride from the airport to the college, she announced she had just received her U.S. citizenship. The citizenship is a mere legality. She returns to her homeland of Peru each summer and frequents the beaches there, where she first discovered surfers but never dared try it herself. "I'll still be Peruvian," she said in the car, looking into the distance. "I'll always be Peruvian." And, 1500 bucks and a round-trip ticket later, here she is, at surf camp, a bona fide American.

Out in the common room, a surf video plays on the small television. I watch as bikini-clad women slide down the face of impossible waves, boards staggeringly small in comparison. The women are fierce, concentrated, fearless. I watch their paths and wonder if any of them thinks about death, namely her own, at the hands of an often-brutal Mother Nature. I take in their relaxed stances, their smooth turns and effortless maneuvers atop their boards, and gulp... Just a little.

Beside me, Eris and Leslie are slathering on sunblock. Eris rubs a thick pad of white zinc across her nose, careful to fill in the space around the little ring piercing her right nostril. She is the only one of the group who has been to Surf Diva before, but in a stroke of bad luck, she sustained an ankle injury two days into her trip. "But I'm back," she says, with a smile.

Leslie follows suit, zincing up her nose. The back of her tank top lists a selection of Maui-isms, including my favorite, "Speak softly and wear a loud shirt," which, as it turns out, describes Leslie to a T. Truly the strong, silent type (but wickedly funny when talkative), her wardrobe boasts bright teals, oranges, and rich blues. Twin scars lace each of her knees where, a few years prior, doctors put in state-of-the-art, fully bionic new ones to replace the worn-out natural ones. This, however, seems not to deter her. Eris, whose voice is musical and frequent, is similarly attired, wearing a fiercely patterned surf-inspired skirt. She tucks a few last-minute items into her wet-dry fanny pack, giving a few to Leslie for her matching one. A silver-haired couple in their mid-40s, both are avid water women, and references to their kayaking and boat trips abound. They seem, though both are hardworking medical professionals in various capacities, to be on a permanent vacation.

Denise, whose long legs take up most of the U-shaped couch, is the exact opposite. A single mother of four teenaged boys and recently divorced, she is a nonstop mom and provider. Yet, despite the kids and heartbreak, Denise has the spryness and poise of a graceful adolescent, broad shoulders and strong stance indicative of her experience as a triathlete. Not surprisingly, she keeps the pace with her boys, snowboarding with them and, the summer previous, taking them on a week-long surf clinic adventure in Santa Cruz. "My guys were much better than I was," she laughs, leaning into a cushion. She's from Sacramento (by way of Indiana) and has a mash-up accent that is half Midwest, half California. It seems a miracle that she has managed to carve out five days for surf camp. The night before, as we swapped introductions, she revealed to us her desire for a real, true vacation and, with a twinkle in her eye, the possibility of getting a tattoo. "I wanted to do something for me," she'd said, with conviction. "I want to have a Denise Week."

I flop down on the couch myself, tugging at the straps of my bathing suit, and page through a magazine. Almost as soon as I do, KT appears, wet suit draped over her arm. "Let's do it," she says.

The first thing I notice about the UCSD area, aside from the sheer volume of space, is what fills it. Cacti rise from the carpeted lawns of freestanding stucco palaces; fences drip with bright flowers and an overflow of waxy green leaves; palms shoot skyward on tall, bending trunks. The houses, alkali white, yellow, peach, sit peacefully behind oversized birds-of-paradise, roofs capped with terra-cotta tiles. The weather is balmy, sun warming everything without being obtrusive, humidity barely detectable. Skies are clear in all directions, small planes pulling advertisements cutting across the unbroken blue.

Eyes shielded by double-polarized sunglasses, I take it in from the windows of the Betty Bus, an ex-Hilton shuttle painted pink and appropriated by the Surf Diva team. Trucker flames stretch from cab to grille, and the horn, which is blown liberally, pipes out a piercing rendition of "La Cucaracha." KT pilots this behemoth, pushing the gas until the poor thing groans.

The landscape slides by. Betty jounces and rattles under me, and I tuck my knees to my chin, watching as a strip of ocean reveals itself from between a clot of palms. Waves peel lazily toward the shore, three distinct tiers of them, beautiful sets seen only in books. I close my eyes a moment, trying to put it all together, trying to put it all in place.

I. Am. Here.

My four fellow surf campers recline, taking in the scene as well.

"Beautiful," Denise murmurs, legs folded up under her.

Estela is perched on her knees, nose to window, video camera poised.

"This is amazing," she squeaks, pressing the lens to the glass. "Oh my God!"

KT guides the Betty Bus into a parking lot, a jammed stretch of concrete flanked by a sizeable park. Gaggles of schoolkids tear across it, kicking soccer balls, tossing Frisbees, or just plain chasing each other, backpacks falling to the ground in careless heaps. They are unsupervised and seem impervious to the shadowy threats that bordered my city childhood -- pickpockets, perverts -- instead throwing themselves full force into their games. None of them, I notice, looks over a shoulder, narrows an eye and, I wonder, perhaps they don't have to.

KT parks the bus, and we pile out and head over to the waiting equipment truck to get our gear. Boards abound, neon and inviting, leashguards dangling like tails, wet suits and rashguards on racks. The sun is already hot on my back so I forgo the wet suit and am handed a ten-foot longboard, a massive, soft-top/fiberglass hybrid with a giant single fin. I hoist it atop my head, feeling the weight of it, turning toward the horizon. The water sparkles in front of me, an impossible shade of blue-green. Under the tentlike shade of my board, I watch as the waves roll in, carrying and swallowing surfers as they go. I have never seen sets so clean, so plentiful, so expansive, so big. This goes on forever, unmarred by man-made rock formations or barriers, and clots of surfers sit atop their boards, waiting for the biggest and best.

Denise walks beside me, a big pink board on her shoulders.

"I'm nervous," I tell her, turning my head ever so slightly.

"Don't say that!" she laughs. "I'll be nervous too!"

We reach the Divas' brightly colored pink tent, where we are given a crash course in safety. KT is joined by Crystal, the wide-smiled, blonde-streaked Aussie who kicked off our group introductions the night before by inquiring "till ahs whoi hev yew cam to sehf die-va." She and KT clamber into wet suits as they instruct. The message is clear. Surfing — or "Seh-feen" in Crystal's drawl — is fun but dangerous. Clustered together like expectant schoolchildren, we are told about riptides, stingrays, and jellyfish. We are told to cover our heads after wipeouts, shuffle our feet to scare off potentially dangerous creatures, and coat ourselves in sunblock to avoid melanoma. Belly down on our boards, we are taught the basics of paddling, where our feet should be and where to place our hands.

Then we hit the water.

The Pacific, usually cold, has warmed some. My toes curl in the sand, and I watch as the incoming foam swirls lightly around my ankles. The horizon line is blurry, sky dropping into sea. I stare at it a moment before continuing on, stepping gingerly to avoid trodding on what my friends term "the real locals." My fellow Divas are spread out beside me, swaddled in neoprene.

We are instructed to catch the rippling leftovers of the broken waves as they shuffle along toward the shore, and for this I am thankful. The Divas, in red caps and red nylon T-shirts (a.k.a. rashguards), are our landmarks, our cheering squad, and our boosters, holding our boards, which we have been told to ride in on our stomachs, until the right moment, when they shove us headlong into the bedlam.

The first few waves are delicious. We slide across the water, belly down, whooping in delight as we pull up beside each other and head for land in near tandem. There it is, that launched-from-a-cannon feeling, and I coast along like a seal. No bumps, no jerks, no hitches, just gliding, gliding, gliding. When my fin hits the sand, I stop, roll off, and start over. Giddy, I splash back toward the group, board in tow.

The sky is bright above us and the rides go on forever, impossibly smooth, and we catch wave after wave after wave. By the time lunch rolls around, I'm already tuckered out. The whitewater is rough, powerful enough to knock me back. There is no time to sit and wait, bobbing up and over unbroken waves, no moment to enjoy the sun or the sounds or the colors; we're too far in. It's constant pounding, pushing, and shoving, and my body is not used to it. When we break for lunch, I collapse on the grass, my fellows in various states of disarray, and warm in the sun.

We reassemble, and after practicing our popups — the quick motion with which surfers rise on the board from their stomachs to their feet — KT and Crystal usher us back into the water, donning their red caps. After precious few wobbles, my fellows spring into action like experts. Estela, the only surfing virgin, glides along perfectly before holding her nose and keeling over with a Chaplinesque smile. Eris catches one in, followed by Leslie, who, not to be held back by her two replaced-and-bionic knees, hops up as well. Denise cruises along, tall and balanced, as I flail about. I cheer and scream — I'm good at this — but my will is failing. It is rapidly becoming clear to me that I'm doing something horribly wrong. My feet line up, won't do what I wish them to. My arms skid, my legs tangle, my board goes this way and that, and I end up in a heap at the shoreline, embarrassed, frustrated, and deflated. Each time it's a different problem; I can't get my feet to plant firmly on the board, much less lurch myself to standing. I can't get a grip on the board, and it shoots out from under me, nose plunging under the whitewash and tugging me along for the ride. It all goes by so fast, I can't tell what I'm doing and am left feeling spastic, hopeless, and disgruntled.

"I don't want to hear any of this 'I can't,' " Crystal says good-naturedly, as I haul my dripping board out of the water at the close of the afternoon. "No more 'I can't.' Just 'I can.' "

I look at her dubiously. She smiles. Her accent is endearing, a friendliness built right into the bent vowels of it. "Can't" comes out like "kent." Her words are words I've heard before. I want to believe her, but, alas, I... Kent.

The sun is hanging low over the tops of the trees when Crystal rounds us up for an evening walk. She leads us down a winding path and then to a cliff-top parking lot. The air smells like tea, and the walk is comforting, therapeutic, the view gorgeous. My feet find their way across the brown earth, packed so tightly it looks like rock formations. Water runoff has cut deep channels into its surface, and we have to jump to avoid getting our ankles caught. Beyond it is the sea, framed by sky and cliffs, waves rolling in undisturbed. The sun has dipped behind a bank of clouds, light casting a gray haze, and I want to sit and watch a while, but soon it's time to go. "Tomorrow is another day," I remind myself, "tomorrow is another day."

Tomorrow is, in fact, the Fourth of July. After a fitful sleep, I rise and change into beach gear. Out in the common room, KT is already dressed and ready to go. Crystal is slipping on her flip-flops, checking the dry-erase itinerary board by the door. We are scheduled to go to Del Mar.

"Our first surf trip!" KT says, as we ready ourselves. "All right!"

Del Mar, like La Jolla, is a town with money. I can just about smell it as we coast in, watching the fancy boutique storefronts slide by. Everything is well kept, as it seems to be all over California, but the atmosphere here is different. Women carry leather purses, not totes. Children ride mini motorized Vespas, not bikes. The streets are lined with couture, not surfwear. Locals and tourists alike gawk openly at Betty, and KT honks the horn for good measure at Eris's plea. "Horn!" she shouts. "Horn! Horn!" We secure parking, laughing in amusement at the stares our vehicle garners, and head for the water.

Thankfully, it is still warm, and once more, I forgo the wet suit. Our group fans out, still in the whitewash, taking off in ones and twos. I watch them hop up, each one in her own way. Leslie's twin knee scars flash as she gets to her feet, arms out, bent nearly double in concentration. Eris, zinc blooming white on her nose, sets her jaw and catches a smooth, peeling wave, standing by degrees; Estela breezes by, ponytail flying behind her, as though she's been doing it her whole life. Denise, long in the distance, rides one full-on into the shore. I flounder, flail. Discouraged, I shuffle lamely back into the whitewash.

At the end of the session, KT approaches. I'm crouching by my towel, looking out to sea.

"I've got something for you," she says. Sand trickles through her fingers as she hands me her present. It's a shell, or half of one, white and spiraled at the top, all loops and circles. I turn it over in my hand; it's about the size of a box of Tic Tacs, bigger than any shell I've seen on the two beaches we've been to.

I turn the shell over in my hands and look at her. She smiles. The shell is warm in my palm, and I know, though it will undoubtedly flow out of KT's memory, that this is one of those gestures I will never forget as long as I live.

"Thank you," I tell her. "Thanks a lot."

"You're very welcome," she says.

Though there is no afternoon surf for us, due to Fourth of July restrictions on group surfing, the Divas begin to get restless. Crystal grabs her board, a bright yellow monster measuring around nine feet, and declares she's going for a ride. Crystal, who competes near her town of Yallingup, Australia, and beyond, comes from a surfing family. She carries an impressive array of sponsors, the logos of which adorn the top of her board. Her father is a big-wave surfer in Australia and, we later learn, has suffered a near-fatal surfing injury and is laid up in the hospital with a punctured lung.

KT follows, snapping up her sharp-nosed shortboard, leash wrapped neatly around its fins. In 2004, KT was the first woman to compete in Red Bull's Icebreak contest and went up against some tough male competitors. She also heads up the Folly Beach Wahine Classic in South Carolina, where she earns top-scoring marks in both shortboard and longboard divisions. She has been sponsored by three surf companies, and for good reason.

"Hey," she calls to me, "wanna come swim alongside us?"

I do, but soon I lose them and trudge back to shore. They have gone out beyond the waves, hazy dots on my myopic horizon. I remain on land, watching. Crystal edges her big longboard, the "Taxi" as she calls it, down the face of a clean wave, and she takes it as long as it carries her before slipping neatly into the water. KT is hot on her heels, sending up a stream of spray as she makes a tight turn and disappears behind her wave. I watch them ride and fall, ride and fall until I can no longer make out which is who.

The plan for the rest of the day is to go and hang out at what has been deemed the Diva Pad, a condo complex in which some of the surf instructors are housed for the summer. After Crystal and KT return, wet and happy, boards dripping, we load up and head out.

The Divas live on a lush and sleepy road near UCSD lined with stucco houses and complexes. We are let out at a gate covered in bright fuchsia-colored flowers while KT looks for a place to park. This is the clubhouse, complete with pool, spa, and grill, a well-looked-after community affair tucked under some languid palms. Residents sprawl on chaise longues while teenaged girls play about in the shallow end of the pool.

Walking in, I get the distinct, reminiscent feeling of being the poor kid allowed to play in the rich kid's garden. I half expect someone's snooty mother to come up behind me and demand to know why I am on private property but instead am greeted by smiles and waves. The Divas and Diva Dudes have set up tables for us, and we sit down heavily, nibbling on chips and salsa.

Divas begin arriving; there's Ashley, or "Ash," a Diva Dude with a slice over his left eye from getting a board to the head; Nessy, who listens to my theories on James Frey's "artistic license"; and Izzy, the founder of Surf Diva, who limps from a recent ankle injury. We all crowd around, heaping our plates with food. Beer flows; so does conversation. Eris talks about her son, a recently turned 21-year-old, and the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of raising him. Denise chimes in with stories about her four boys, tales of adolescent folly and motherly worry, and how she is coping with her divorce. "You know that serenity prayer from AA?" she asks me; she has alcoholics in her family. I nod. "I must repeat that prayer to myself a million times a day." KT is asked about her veganism and explains in detail how she began to cut animal products out of her diet. Crystal and Estela regale the recently arrived Divas-and-Dudes with the story of Estela's injury, one that occurred when some "kook idiot" rammed her in the head with her board. "I was screaming from shore," Crystal says. "I thought, 'Oh shit, she'll need stitches.' I was waiting for the blood." Izzy cringes.

When the sun sets, we hit the hot tub and the pool, which is lit from the inside. Floating on my back in cool blue water, I contemplate the life of a Surf Diva. Without a hint of the prima-donna attitude the title suggests, the Divas are a sunny, warm, and well-humored bunch of girls (and guys) who have, through tenacity, talent, and commitment, landed themselves a little piece of paradise. And at least for a moment, I have too.

"That's it," says Denise. "That's what I want."

We are all piled into Betty, on our way to a day of shopping in La Jolla proper. Denise is pointing to a small, silvery decal stuck just to the left of the "do not speak to driver while vehicle is in motion" sign. It's a surfboard, flanked by billowy butterfly wings that sprout from its center, all done in purply-pink glitter.

"Something like that," Denise murmurs, considering, "on my hip, maybe."

She smiles mischievously.

"What will my boys say?" she asks rhetorically, laughing; she's told them no body art until they are paying their own way and are out of the house. Financially independent herself, Denise is cleverly abiding by her own rules, but who can bypass the titillation of shock value?

We park on a hill, everyone dispersing every which way. I forgo the stores and head down to the Children's Pool. The harbor seals, according to a large, red-lettered sign, have left hours ago due to "tourists on the beach and snorkelers," so, disappointed, I wander on.

What I find instead is the Cove, a little inlet seemingly carved out of the yellow-brown cliffside. I slide down the face of the rocks and into the sand, watching as a torturous crush of shorebreak hits the sand and spreads rapidly up the beach. The smattering of tourists scream in delight, bare-chested boys flinging themselves headlong into the fray, little children running on bowed legs. It's a beautiful place, cut off by curving cliffs. There's something remote about it, hidden, almost, though it appears to be populated solely by non-natives. I crouch in the sand and fish out little, pink-edged shells to fill my pockets. Flies rise from the piles of seaweed the water kicks up, old soda and beer cans poking up from their midst. In a little cave-let, a bronzed, hoary hippie sparks up a little apple bong, washed-out eyes gazing across the horizon. The sun is slowly coming down and slants across my shoulder; there is a peace here, and I don't want to leave but, alas, must rip myself away.

I keep this peace in mind as we venture back to our lodgings, as the hot water of the shower stings my scrapes and scabs. In the mirror, I notice that my face has darkened three shades, hair whitening at the tips already.

As I lie back in bed, I take inventory of my body, what hurts and what doesn't, what's heavy and what's light, what's limber and what's fused. I think about the tangle I've become in the water -- a departure for me, as I once swam semi-competitively -- and about the advice I got earlier in the evening from my friend Rebecca. From the other end of California, her low, rich voice came through clearly and without a hint of preaching. "It's all elemental, Little Fish," she told me, using my silly nickname. "It's all elemental."

The following afternoon, I pull on a wet suit for the first time since my arrival. It clings to my skin, pressing against my body. I hate it, but once in the water, it loosens its death hold on me, and we relax into each other.

"Elemental, Little Fish," I murmur to myself, board pointed to shore, KT holding the back. KT accepts my strange-ism without comment, holding fast as a rush of water passes over our heads. As the board rocks, I shut my eyes, relying on feeling alone, before opening them again. The sand is yards away, and I watch the horizon, imagine Rebecca's wide grin, her open arms, waiting to catch me.

The water thunders in my ears, and KT lets go of my board. I let go too, pushing my upper torso through my hands. My feet plant, legs steady. Something is happening, something that feels like alchemy. Iron into gold. For precious seconds, my plane of vision lurches away from me -- the teal of the board, the teal of the sea -- and I am coasting, arms and legs and board and ocean all coming together seemingly of their own volition. The water parts in my path, neat fans of it jetting to either side, and as soon as I grab hold of this idea, this idea of standing, before I can make a sound in amazement, I topple face-first into the shallows.

When I rise to the surface, KT has her hands above her head in twin victory fists. Her head is a red-capped dot, and I race back to where she stands, laughing like an idiot all the way.

"I did it!" I scream; I feel ten, triumphant and a little foolish.

We slap double-five and hug as though I've just won the longboard championship.

"That was awesome," KT crows. "Know what I said? Ho-lee crap! And I was jumping up and down." She demonstrates. "You were awesome!"

We all make her proud that afternoon. Something has turned us into superstars, and we surf with all our collective might. Denise executes a gorgeous left turn; Estela has abandoned her Chaplin stop-and-fall routine, taking 'em in all the way; Leslie catches the longest rides of the day as Eris perfects her stance, crouching low over her board with a game face of bared teeth that gives way to an infectious smile. And, of course, I have finally gotten to my feet.

Up on the sand, we congratulate each other, peeling off our suits. Eris comes up behind me, hands behind her back. "I know it's not champagne," she says and proceeds to pour a stream of icy water over my head. I shriek, drops falling into my open palms.

Later, in a packed Pacific Beach bar, we toast each other with Coronas and cocktails. Music videos play on banks of TVs above us, pushing a strange, shifting glow across the over-lacquered table we occupy. Looking around at us, in our various states of dress, I realize just how much of a motley crew we are. Denise is brushed and blow-dried, face fresh with a coat of natural makeup, eyelids lined in pastel. Eris and Leslie have combined sportswear with their signature flair of colors and patterns. Estela, who soaked in the shower, applied her creams and lipsticks, and fiddled with her hair for upwards of an hour, is decked out in a spangled tank top and skirt. Crystal and KT have opted for neat casual, while I favor faded and wrinkled couture of somewhat hapless design. As a whole, we look like members of a strange extended family on an equally strange holiday, so mismatched that how could we not be? I think of the geography we span; Peru, California, New York, Australia, South Carolina, not to mention the generations, walks of life, professions, and family situations. But we're all here, all collected, all in our element. All Divas.

Driving home from the bar, sinking into the Betty Bus seats with Wolfmother playing on the stereo, I close my eyes, let the outside light wash over them, and I feel like a kid again. Safe, sleepy, secure. Worn out and cared for, KT piloting the bus on home. The wheels turn under us, KT straining the gas to get us there, and I listen to the hum, the music, and the tempered laughter of my fellows and slip into sleep.

"Don't worry," says Estela. "I mean, it can't be as bad as childbirth."

It is Friday, Tattoo Day, and Denise is looking a little pale.

"And you've done that four times!" chimes in Eris.

Denise laughs nervously.

"Don't let me wuss out, you guys," she says imploringly. "Don't let me."

Eris has managed to shove all five of us into her four-passenger sedan, the bumper of which is plastered with progressive, upbeat stickers. We bump and jostle our way to PB; wrong turns are taken, but we arrive at the tattoo parlor with ten minutes to spare. We wait, paging through vaguely pornographic ink mags until Denise (and therefore the rest of us) are given the go-ahead. Rachie, the artist, has produced the perfect sketch. Modern, running the strange gamut between sweet cartoon and calligraphy that tattoos often do, it seems to be exactly as Denise pictured it.

Rachie leads us to her studio, a half-open room flanked by desks. In it sits a huge black medical bench, the sort doctors favor, the kind that makes me think of reflex hammers and tongue depressors. Various sheets of vellum are tacked to every available vertical surface, intricate drawings, most of them done in purple pen. They look not unlike shed snakeskins, crackly and dry. Interspersed between are full-color illustrations, eye-catching in popping hues and various styles. Rachie, it seems, has no shortage of commissioned work.

And it's no surprise. Rachie is an even-handed gal, an Aussie, who transfers her perfect mock-up to the tanned patch of skin just below Denise's waistline. She's young and quiet and steady, as patient and thorough and professional as a nurse.

The needle buzzes. Rachie crouches over her work. Denise curls her toes around the bench and doesn't make a sound. We watch, sip our Cokes. Estela eats an ice cream sundae cup, peering every now and then at the progress. Stuck by Denise's feet, I cannot see past the rise of her hip.

Rachie continues. She bears down, concentrated, stopping every now and then to wipe away the excess ink and rub a small amount of ointment into Denise's no-doubt stinging skin. Buzz. Wipe. Ointment. Buzz. Wipe. Ointment.

When she's finished, Denise rises, slowly, exhaling. She turns her hip for us to see, and there it is, in bold color. The surfboard butterfly, edged with the red irritation of new tattoo. A mixture of teals and purples, pinks and a yellow accent, the butterfly is excellent. Denise seems pleased and is gleaming with relief.

"So," I ask, "was it like childbirth?"

"It's so different," she replies. "I really can't compare."

In the car ride back, bickering and laughter passing over me, I look at the passing lights of Pacific Beach, half heating up and half shutting down for the night. Suddenly I feel so incredibly tired, the momentous week behind me, and wonder if the others have this sensation as well. As a whole, we've been tattooed, experienced what we'd only watched, proven that our bionic knees can hold up under pressure, and surfed a whole week without serious injury. And, I remember with a jolt, taken a first real ride on our feet.

I survey their faces. Giddy. Heavy-eyed but animated. Tunnel-visioned, focused on the road. Calm. All of us half in our own thoughts as the car speeds along the California freeway.

Tired, I figure, slumping down in my seat, PB a sea of floating stoplights behind me, is a safe bet. Tired, but triumphant.


Crystal Simpson (instructor) is still in San Diego, participating in professional photo shoots and surfing hard. Her father is on the mend.

Katie ("KT") Coryell (instructor) is currently training for the U.S. Open of Surfing.

Eris (student) purchased a longboard of her own and is surfing away in the freezing-cold waters of Bolinas and the surrounding NorCal areas.

Denise (student) took her boys to La Jolla Shores for a surf session, where they reunited with instructor Crystal Simpson.

Rosa (author) has moved to San Diego permanently and hopes to improve her surfing skills.

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