1 – Playa Norte
I was 16 the year I met Charly the American.
My body was a bag of bones. I could have fit two people inside my pants. I waved them in the face of my mother and complained that my arms were suspenders first, limbs second. Mamina snatched them out of my hands and said she would have them altered, then. I snatched them back and said I would not allow it. Altering my pants would simply hide the evidence. What would she do next, make me dig my own grave in the back yard?
Mamina, my mother, was tall like me, but better fed. Every summer weekday before the sun set, Mamina made all of us, me, my three brothers, and my two sisters, wait for dinner in the living room until Papito arrived. Papito, my father, was an enthusiastic co-conspirator in my starvation. Every day Papito waited until I had fainted from hunger before locking his office and beginning the drive to Playa Norte. He even called to check. “Alo, Mamina, is Carlos emaciated yet?”
Yes, this is how it was. In the living room that day, I took shallow breaths to conserve the last of my body’s nutrients. Then I lowered my body into the green wooden chair and I waited for Papito to arrive. In the kitchen the maids were cooking escabeche. Escabeche is a blend of criollo flavors matched so perfectly to a hot summer evening that after you eat that first bite, you will put down your fork and lean your head into the person beside you, and together you will wet each other’s shirts with tears of joy.
The secret is the fish. It must be Corvina. Corvina is the finest fish in the sea. If you bake it in a hot oven it flakes off your fork like the delicate pastry the French make.
To make escabeche from Corvina, the maids, they dip the filets in the egg batter. Then they fry them. When the Corvina is finished cooking, they lay the steaming filets on a big plate to cool. Once they are cool, they cover them in a salsa of marinated tomato, onions, peppers, garlic, spices, and a few secret ingredients. Then they stand by the door like the guards in a prison.
I was fast enough by then to run into the kitchen and stuff many pieces into my mouth before they could take the big plate away from me, but I knew better. The maids, they could not make me sorry I had stolen the escabeche, but Mamina could. I had to think of something else.
From my chair I considered praying to Mary and the Apostles, but no, that would not work. Instead of interceding with Mamina on my behalf, the Apostles would have started to write my sins in the dirt with a stick while Mary read them out loud, her face a mask of growing horror. It would be a long list. When one Apostle became tired of writing, he would pass the stick to the next Apostle. Here, you take it. I have a cramp.
While I considered my options, Mamina entered the dining room and began to adjust the tablecloth the maid had draped over the dinner table. The tablecloth, it looked straight to me, but not to Mamina, no. While one maid cooked, the other maid was supposed to prepare the table, but according to Mamina, the young ones did not understand the importance of getting the details right. She always had to fix their work.
When Mamina returned to the kitchen, I looked around the room. Alessandra, my sister of 18 years, sat with deceptive calm on the sofa. How could she be my sister of 18 years when I have only 16 years? This is because she spent two years preparing for my arrival. I pulled myself up onto the edge of my chair. As I expected, Alessandra glanced in my direction. I stared back at her. When she looked away, I jumped up and moved without making sounds to the patio door.
“Carlos, we all have to wait for Papito,” Alessandra said without losing her place in the magazine.
She was too late. I had reached the door. I opened it. The breeze brushed across my face and rushed into the room, filling it with the fresh scent of the sea.
It was Mamina. She had materialized in the kitchen doorway, holding a round glass pitcher filled with ice water, drops of condensation clinging to the sides, afraid to slide down. “Where are you going?”
I inhaled the ocean one last time. The pleasure of its salty breeze made me forget the hunger in my belly. It nourished me, this ocean. One day, when I become lost on a deserted island, I will survive by sitting on the beach and breathing deeply.
“Car-li-tos,” Mamina insisted, making the last two syllables of my name longer in the universal language mothers around the world employ when they want to issue a threat without troubling themselves to find the words.
“I am praying to Poseidon,” I explained. “I am begging him to toss me a plate of baked scallops over that part of the railing, right there. A little parmesan cheese melted over the top, the tips of the scallops a warm, golden color–”
“Don’t annoy me,” Mamina said, setting the pitcher down on the table. “Papito will be here soon. Sit down.”
I walked back inside, closed the door, and gave Alessandra my most caustic look. I flopped into my hard wooden chair and glared at her. Alessandra flipped casually to another page in her magazine. For all outward appearances she was ignoring me, but in that mysterious form of sister communication she was letting me know that she had won. Again.
My fingers went thump-thump on the wide wooden armrests. My fingers were large. The noise they made in the quiet room was soft but irritating. Like drops of water falling one by one on her smug nose. I hoped.
But I would have to wear down my fingers to bloody stumps before Alessandra would acknowledge that the sound was irritating her, so I abandoned my efforts and bent forward to inspect my toes, which poked out through my sandals like rodents. I called out to my younger brother Tato, who was rocking peacefully in the best seat in the house, the hammock hanging in front of the picture window with a panoramic view of the ocean.
Tato, with an instinct honed by hard experience, did not reply.
“Is Pico Alto breaking yet?” I asked him.
Tato was one year younger than me and quite a bit smaller. He also had a soul that was more gentle than mine. Much more. If he had a mean bone in his body, I had probably been the one who cut him open and left it there. “What do you think I am,” he growled without conviction, “your servant? Find out for yourself.”
I pet each rodent individually and spoke to the floor. “I would, but if I so much as move a hair, one single pelito, our dear sister, the Nation’s Radar Station of First Defense, would be overcome by a patriotic duty to inform the President of the Republic.”
Alessandra sighed a weighty sigh and turned to another page.
Tato groaned and turned around to look at the ocean, my ocean, hanging on to the hammock with one hand and using the other to steady himself against the windowsill. The waves had been getting bigger every day, and the tumbling ocean was covered with streaks of foam. Among the swarming, shifting waves, Tato could not locate the giant waves of Pico Alto. “I can’t tell,” he said.
“But I can!” I shouted into his horrified face, the thick, fringed border of the hammock gripped tightly in my fists. Before he could react, I yanked. Tato spun violently and crashed onto the tile floor. I clutched the hammock to my chest and snarled at him. “Pico Alto is breaking right here, inside this house, and you have been its first victim!”
The hammock was now mine. I hopped deep inside its folds. Tato got to his feet and stood over me. I raised my fists in a threat to any retaliation that he might be considering, but Tato only cursed me under his breath and checked the kitchen to make sure Mamina had not heard. He rounded the hammock to take my old seat in the green wooden chair, but Fernando had occupied it and was now smirking, daring him to take it back. Fernando was my youngest brother and, being ten years old, cared less about the seat than about the opportunity to get the upper hand on his older brother. Tato considered raining blows on his impudent face, but unlike me, who would have seized the opportunity with religious zeal, he let it go. Salvaging his dignity by adopting an accepting demeanor, he sat down on the sofa between our oldest brother Armando, who at nineteen was interested only in the political scandals dredged up by the newspaper, and Alessandra, who was shaking her head while continuing to flip through her stupid magazine. They moved to make room for him. He picked up my little sister Carmencita, the sixth and last child in the family, and put her on his lap, where she began to play with his glasses, smudging the lenses with her little fingers.
My conquest secure, I pushed off the window sill. With my arms behind my head, swaying side to side, I looked out the window at the beach. My parents, known to the outside world as Doctor and Señora Ernesto Gamarra Leon, built our family a beach house at the northern edge of Dos Playas, a pretty village of fishermen one hour South of Lima. Our home looked over the ocean in a place where the Peruvian desert spills over black rock cliffs and mixes with the sands of two beaches shaped like Arabian swords. The southern beach, Playa Sur, curves in a long sweep to the South until it fades out of sight in the mist. The northern beach, Playa Norte, is small and cozy. Over the years it became peppered with simple beach houses built by thrifty families from Lima who wanted a summer house close to home.
This summer had been perfect. I spent every day at the beach, and every day had been sunny and warm. I had, of course, surfed every day. But it was all about to change. Not because summer was about to end, but because Semana Santa was about to begin.
Since all but the very topmost tip of Peru is located south of the Equator, Semana Santa, what you call Holy Week in America, arrives not at the beginning of Spring, but at the end of Summer. With the start of Semana Santa, devout Peruvians prepared their prayers, their robes, their music, their floats, and their souls to mourn the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ. Teachers, with perhaps greater trepidation, prepared their prayers, their lectures, their books, and their patience for the start of the school year. Surfers prepared their bodies, their boards, and their courage for Pico Alto.
Pico Alto is a monster wave that breaks over a submerged reef a kilometer to the west of my family’s beach house. The reef requires so much force to make a wave that it breaks only a few times a year. Semana Santa is one of them.
Every year during Semana Santa the surfers, the very best surfers from all the beaches north and south of Lima, they come to Playa Norte.
They arrive in ones and twos, driving Beetles and Volvos that look like upside down bathtubs with long, skinny surfboards strapped to the roof. Some belong there, some do not, but they all gather along the malecon overlooking the beach, just below my house. There they walk back and forth, in a study of the ocean, each other, and their own hearts. Some go back to their car and check their glove compartments for lost bars of wax. Then they check the seams in their front seats for the keys they lost last summer. They re-tie their bathing suit strings. They walk back to the malecon and warm up their muscles. They stretch their bones. They walk back to their car and examine their surfboards, still on the roof racks. They examine each other’s surfboards. They invite the other surfers to examine their sufboards. Anything to keep from thinking about what is going to happen to them.
Eventually the brave ones will nod to each other and agree that it is time. The notice spreads quickly, and soon everyone has unstrapped his board and joined the thin line that is walking down the steps from the malecon to the beach.
They remain close to each other for companionship, and lay their boards on the sand to wax the surface, keeping a wary eye on the horizon where Playa Norte’s waves, four, maybe even five meters high, are rolling toward them.
One by one they dip their boards into the water, cross themselves, and begin to paddle through the swollen waves. The waves are more powerful than they appear to be from shore. The thin line of surfers bobs, bounces, and weaves over, around, and through them, advancing, receding, and advancing again. The farther out they paddle, the more violently the waves slap them, dragging them backwards, spinning them around, and making them advance through the same section again and again. During Semana Santa Playa Norte can take an hour of hard paddling to cross, and every year at least one surfer gives up. Exhausted, he walks out of the surf dragging his board behind him, and casts bitter glances at the waves for which his body, his mind, or his soul had proven to be no match.
“Idiota!” I shout from my deck. “Imbecil!”
No surfer ever shouts back. Not even a dirty look. Why is this? Because every fool knows that humiliation is the price of impudence.
The surviving surfers, they finally slip over the largest of the waves and ride the current to Pico Alto. With Papito’s binaculars I can see them from the cliff behind the house, all of them tiny in the distance, stopping beside the shoulder and watching the big wave move underneath and past them. One behemoth every two minutes. In between, a few unborn swells. Giant, but not powerful enough to crest and break. The surfers let many waves go past. Sometimes they wait thirty minutes. Sometimes an hour.
It is a terrible wave, Pico Alto. Sullen from its long slumber, it rises heavily into a deep blue wall four stories high, eager to punish the mortal who has dared to awaken it.
It takes a special man in an unusual state of mind to paddle his board into the path of Pico Alto. As the wave rises beneath him, he must thrust his arms into the water and paddle down the catapulting mass with the frenzy of a madman so he can reach the crest with enough speed to hop onto his fluttering board before the wind rips it out of his hands. When he slaps his bare feet onto the board he is suspended in a wind-blown burst of sea spray for a heart-stopping moment of weightlessness. Then he drops into the concave abyss yawning open beneath him.
If you are a big-wave surfer, you dream of this moment. You can imagine what you will do, but until you put yourself in that place and time, you cannot know what you will do. You might drop fast enough to slip under the collapsing tonnage, and with a menace of unbelievable proportions rising behind you, find the courage to dig the rail of the board and carve a stream of starlight into immortality. O, to share heaven with the gods! To roar back up the shoulder of the wave and burst into the sight of your friends with your arms straight in the air and your shorts stiff with bravado! To know, as the board skids across the water and slows, as you drop to your chest and paddle slowly back into the lineup, that you are a Great One.
Or not. It can be something as tiny as a drop of sea spray in your eye. Or your foot that slips on the board. Maybe you can’t quite find your balance. Or your nerve. The top of Pico Alto is a bad place to lose your nerve. The gods watch with disinterest as you fall that great distance with your board twisting and turning around you like a leaf in a whirlwind. When you slap into the surface of the water forty feet below, they turn away as the brute force of the wave crushes your twig of a body, thrusting you down, ten meters beneath your next breath, pinning you in a swirling, lung-bursting tumble for thirty seconds before it lets you crawl to the surface for a single gasp of foam-filled air. Only one. Because while taking that breath your panicked brain realizes that you are now in the place called Poseidon’s Anvil, where you will experience the singular terror of turning to face the next wave unfurling four stories above you.
A motor. A VW motor. Papito’s VW motor! The sound of its approach reached my ears through the open window. I shook my head like a sheepdog to make the vision of being crushed by Pico Alto fall out of it. My legs swung out of the hammock and began the stampede to the table.
Mamina made final adjustments to the flowers.
The VW’s engine roared once and was shut off. Papito climbed out, shut the air tight door with a thump, and walked up the stairs in busy, preoccupied steps, fidgeting with his keys, glasses, and newspaper, moving them from pants pocket to shirt pocket and from under one arm to the other.
By the time he walked in we were seated around the table, bouncing up and down in our seats or trying not to. We watched him put down his paper and lean over to kiss Mamina. Before his bottom even touched the seat he began to discuss Mrs. Carriquiri’s gall bladder problem and how she would need an operation if things did not improve. Armando, my oldest brother, complained about the topic and asked Papito if he could, for once, talk about something else at dinner. Papito shrugged, arranged the napkin on his lap, and told Armando that those were the occupational hazards of being a gastroenterologist’s son and that by now he should not be tired of it, but used to it. Then he grabbed his knife, fussed with it until it felt right, and looked over his glasses for the butter. Alessandra removed the top of the butter dish for him.
“Papito, . . .” she began sweetly.
“Didn’t you ask Carlos to cut his hair?”
I had been reaching across the table in perfect contentment for a slice of rich, creamy butter. I dropped my head in defeat. I sat back. I put down my knife. Tato scanned the table from behind the glasses that made his eyes look big and round and fought to keep down a grin. Fernando forced out of his throat a loud, groaning laugh to highlight my misfortune. Armando frowned at Alessandra, who ignored him, and Mamina fussed with her napkin, rearranging it on her lap this way and that.
Alessandra bit off the tip of her carrot stick with a crack. “Papito, it was over a week ago, wasn’t it?”
Papito exploded. In short bursts punctuated with the buttered bread that he held in his right hand he unleashed a fatherly barrage upon my head. “You didn’t cut your hair?” Pause. “Why didn’t you cut your hair?” Pause. “I thought I told you to cut your hair.” Long pause. “In fact, I’m certain I told you to cut your hair.” Pause. Stare. “Yes, I told you to cut your hair, didn’t I? Didn’t I, Alessandra?”
“Of course you did, Papito,” Alessandra said.
“Of course I did!” Papito shouted, then continued.
I stared with malevolence at my sister until Papito ran out of steam. Mamina promised Papito she would take me to the barber herself. Tomorrow. Papito shook his head and mumbled something that he did not want any of us to hear. It was not long before I had resumed my assault on the butter and my family had resumed our usual dinner conversation, an evaluation that was not favorable toward Peru’s political situation.
After I had finished my meal, I put on a sweater and walked to the house of my girlfriend, Blanquita. It was a short walk because Blanquita’s house was only a block away. She came out to meet me in a pair of white shorts and a short blouse that left her delicate waist exposed. Her skin glowed. She smiled at me. I smiled at her, feeling suddenly very much better. We talked for a while at her front door, then walked to the malecon to watch the sun set.
In front of us the ocean had tossed and heaved. I tried to keep my mind off her body, so warm next to mine, and focus on the sunset so I could say something romantic, but her breasts, petulant under the little knit blouse, called out to me. When the sun began caressing the horizon, I suggested we sit on the wide cement railing and face the ocean. I took her hand to help her up, then hung on to it while I sat beside her.
Night descended over Playa Norte while we talked on the railing, holding hands and letting our legs dangle over the edge. She was shy, and charmed by every word I said. I tried to memorize what I was doing to make that happen so I could repeat it in the future, but it wasn’t long before her smile and beautiful brown eyes, her soft skin and silky hair, her soft voice and breezy perfume melted my calculating thoughts and returned me to a more innocent place in my heart. I told her how upset I was that my sister had squealed on me for not cutting my hair and now Mamina was going to shave off all of it. She looked up at my hair and told me what a shame that was going to be, since she loved how curly my rich black hair became when it grew long. I looked down at her hand, its fingers interlaced with mine, and noticed the smooth tanned skin on her thighs. As sometimes happens when God smiles on you, she interpreted my interest in her thighs as the cast down look of disappointment and tried to console me.
She ran her fingers through my hair. I let her. I enjoyed the touch of her fingers for a long moment before looking up at her. She was staring at my face with that look girls get. I stared back. Our eyes locked. I leaned toward her. My heart beat hard. I closed my eyes, hoped, and brushed my lips against hers. She returned my kiss.
It wasn’t long before our kisses were more eager than warm and not much longer before my arms had wrapped themselves around her delicate body and my hands had found her breasts. Soon her chest was heaving and we were breathing heavily from the same air. Her passion inflamed mine, and sitting on the railing above the darkened beach, we forgot everything but each other. But it wasn’t long before Mamina’s shouts worked their way from her upstairs window across the distance and the rushing sound of the ocean and the sighing and heavy breathing into my ear.
“Caramba,” I said, and unwrapped myself from her body. She looked at me with receding passion and growing embarrassment. I spun around and set my big feet on the sidewalk. “When do you go home,” I asked her beneath shouts from Mamina.
“That’s too bad,” I said, and stood up.
I walked her home and gave her a gentle kiss goodbye.
“Chau,” she said, and closed the door.