The Paddleboard Break-up
by Mike Wilson
Even in the cozy lighting of this little Delray Beach restaurant, she could see Gina’s face suddenly shrivel like a prune.
“What?” Darlene asked.
Gina lifted her glass to her lips, as if a mouth busy sipping couldn’t tell lies, just as the waitress sidled up to their booth.
“Can I bring you ladies another wine?”
Gina buried her face in the appetizer menu, but her glass was empty.
“Yes,” Darlene said.
After the waitress left, she put her hand on Gina’s arm.
“What is it?”
Then she heard his voice. She turned and saw David at the bar. Her David, who’d texted he was tied up at the office preparing a report, so she’d texted to Gina David’s working – want to meet for a drink? The blonde leaning into him was thinner and prettier than Darlene, laughing to signal her resistance had been slain by his wit. He was smiling, pleased with himself, a tick about to pop.
Darlene turned back around so they wouldn’t catch her looking. Gina’s head was up from the appetizer menu. Now it was Gina who put her hand on Darlene’s arm.
“You want to stay or go?”
She didn’t say anything. The waitress was back with their drinks. Gina handed the waitress a credit card.
“Could we have the check?”
When David phoned the next day, Darlene didn’t take the call. He texted that night, but she didn’t respond. He didn’t try again, didn’t send flowers, and that told her what he thought she was worth. It was salt in the wound.
The David-sighting had happened in front of Gina, so she couldn’t make up a story for her friends about why she was unattached again. She saw her own judgment of herself reflected in those friends’ eyes: David had been a catch and now her net was empty. Can’t hold a man.
So, Darlene busied herself. She soldiered through work at the office. At night, she didn’t do what she usually did after getting dumped – visit bars to hook up with anybody. Jerks, who bought her a drink and made her listen to the case they’d built up against an ex. Married men, whose faces lit up like Christmas trees when they saw that her desperation gave them a winning hand no matter what cards they held. Instead, she went for walks on the beach, which was a block from her house. She read novels. She signed up for yoga and didn’t quit, even though the other women in the class were thin and flexible and Darlene was thick and stiff.
Early one evening after work, she walked to the beach with a chair, a catalog, and Chardonnay on ice in a travel mug. The beach proper was empty, except for some shore birds, and out in the water there only were a few paddleboarders. She lounged, sipping her Chardonnay and studying designer handbags in the catalog. She always bought an expensive bag or a pair of shoes after a break-up. It was a messed-up thing to do, but it said to the world that she was worth something.
She circled a handbag and put the magazine aside. Her eye was drawn to the paddleboarders beyond where waves broke. She envied how they stayed upright and balanced, dipped their paddles in the ocean and stroked, gliding wherever they wanted to go. They looked otherworldly, bathed in the last rays of orange light cast by the setting sun. She watched until darkness drove the last paddleboarder to shore.
It was time for her to leave, too. She raised herself up, collected her things, and folded her chair for carrying. But when she reached the street entrance to the beach, she paused at the green trash barrel. She reached under her arm, pulled out the catalog, and tossed it in the barrel. A cloud of bees and flies rose from the barrel, then settled back down on top of the smelly fast food wrappers and soda cans.
She turned to cross the street. The cars passing had their headlights switched on. It was later than she’d realized.
She returned to the beach Saturday morning, this time wearing a one-piece swimsuit. She approached a tall, fit-looking woman with short grey hair carrying her paddleboard to the water.
“Excuse me,” she said. “I’m thinking about getting a paddleboard. Is it hard to do?”
The woman grinned.
“It’s easy. Want to try? I’m Jackie.”
That’s how she got her first lesson. As they waded into the ocean together, Darlene asked questions.
“Is the board heavy?”
“Not too much,” Jackie said, explaining that this hard board actually was inflated with an electric pump. Once they were beyond breaking waves, Jackie put the board on the surface and pushed it in front of them as they waded deeper. When the water was almost shoulder high, Jackie said, “Climb aboard.”
Jackie held the board steady while Darlene pulled herself onto the board. Jackie told her to get into a kneeling position. It reminded Darlene of pews in church, with their uncomfortable kneelers. When she was stable, Jackie handed her the paddle. Darlene dipped it in the water and began to stroke. Sure enough, the board traveled through the water. She looked at Jackie, smiling. She paddled parallel to the shore, alternating stokes on the left and right sides of the board, feeling more confident with each stroke. But she was getting further and further down the shore, away from Jackie.
“How do I turn around?” she shouted.
“Paddle on just one side,” Jackie called back.
Darlene accomplished the turn and paddled back to where she’d started. She felt like a pro. She put her hands on the board and pushed herself up to stand. The board wobbled, and her attempts to find balance made the wobbling wilder.
She looked up through the water and saw the board floating above her. She grabbed it and pulled herself up to the surface. Jackie was smiling.
“It takes practice.”
She thanked Jackie and surrendered the paddleboard back to her. She swam and waded to shore, dried off, applied suntan lotion, and settled in her chair. Darlene looked out at the full blueness of the ocean and imagined herself skimming across it, going wherever she wanted to go.
“I don’t want to go.”
She said it even before Gina gave her the details. They were having a drink on the patio at a local bar. Reggae music was playing in the background.
“It’s just a cookout. You’ll know everyone.”
Gina rattled off names – in pairs, like Noah’s ark.
“And Derrick invited a new guy from work,” Gina added.
Her instincts had been correct. It was a set-up. Gina’s idea, with Derrick, her fiancé, tasked to find the man. Now she really didn’t want to go.
“The new guy won’t know anybody,” Gina said, expressionless, “so you could introduce him to people. Derrick would really appreciate it.”
The poor guy didn’t know anybody. Derrick needed a favor. Roadblocks Gina was placing between Darlene and the word “no.”
So she said yes, marking it on her mental calendar with dread. Gina was smiling, proud to have helped a hapless friend. Darlene smiled back, feeling like a baby in a crib being suffocated with a blanket.
“Did you notice my new bag?” Gina asked, lifting it for Darlene to see. It was the same designer handbag Darlene had circled in the catalog before tossing it in the trash.
Stand-up paddleboards were of two kinds – solid and inflatable. Inflatable was cheaper and easier to transport. Darlene had read that beginners should have boards at least thirty inches wide for better stability, with a leash to tie the board to the paddler’s calf or ankle so it can be retrieved if the paddler falls off. She selected a wide inflatable board that came with a coiled leash, a paddle that floated, a manual pump, and a carrying case.
“Good choice,” the man at the surf shop said, taking her credit card.
She brought her paddleboard to the beach after work the next day. Pumping it up took a few minutes and became difficult as the board stiffened, but Darlene had some upper body strength and used her body weight to pump the PSI to the recommended number. She was excited as she carried her new paddleboard to the water’s edge.
“You got a board!”
It was Jackie. Darlene grinned, feeling like a member of an inner circle.
“See you out there!” she replied. She watched Jackie wade into the water, climb onto her board, stand up, and begin paddling. Jackie made it look easy.
Darlene took her own board into the water, waded out, and climbed on. She worked herself into a kneeling position, straddling the board’s handle hole, and tried to get balanced. She paddled some in a kneeling position until she was ready to try standing.
She placed her hands directly in front of her knees. Then, pressing her fingertips against the deck of the board, she brought one foot up and put it where her knee had been. She did the same thing on the other side, bringing herself into a squatting position. As the wobbling subsided, she cautiously raised up a little, using the paddle as a balancing stick like a tightrope walker, keeping her eyes on the horizon, her knees bent, and her attention on her balance. She put the blade in the water and began to paddle. Her stability increased as the board gained momentum, and gradually she straightened her back to an upright position, her glee wide-eyed as an infant taking its first steps.
Arnie was Derrick’s friend from work. He was like David, but not as smooth. She didn’t ask Arnie to tell her about himself because she was afraid he would. He did it anyway.
“With the accounts I have now,” he said, “it’s pretty clear I’ll be made a partner.”
She nodded. His lawn chair was right on top of hers. She felt like a sheep penned for sheering. She stood.
“Let’s walk around, why don’t we?”
She introduced him to the circles of people conversing in Gina’s backyard, but couldn’t pawn Arnie off. Finally, she excused herself to go to the bathroom. She locked the bathroom door and sat on Gina’s commode, wondering how long she could stay without causing talk.
When it was late enough to leave the party without seeming rude, she made her goodbyes. That’s when Arnie grabbed her arm and asked if he could take her to dinner at a restaurant in West Palm Beach. A famous, expensive restaurant.
Arnie’s offer was tempting. Darlene had a vision of herself in the restaurant, soaking up the ambiance, observing how the other diners dressed and carried themselves. She would interrogate five-star food with her taste buds and uncover what made it worth five stars. And Arnie could just be a cutout figure, a generic date with a nominal existence, like an accessory. Like a handbag.
“Okay,” she said, and they set a date.
When the new guy at yoga class spread his mat beside hers, it seemed a little close, given his length and breadth. He snuck a look at Darlene as she stretched but didn’t say anything. She realized he wasn’t checking her out – he was watching to copy what she did.
Penny, the young, thin instructor with braided black hair, began class with sun salutations. The other women in the class sailed through them easily – these were just warmups – but Darlene still found them challenging after weeks of classes. The instructor named the moves, but that was no help if you didn’t know what “cobra” and “downward dog” meant, and changes from move to move were quick. The guy beside her was lost. He watched Darlene and did whatever she did.
Warmups over, Penny led them in a series of standing asanas that were held longer and required balance. The guy was unsteady, like a stack of something piled too high, and Darlene was constantly afraid he was going to topple over on her, which made it hard for her to balance, too.
The next series of moves were seated. She forgot about the guy and lost herself in the postures, letting everything go, resting her mind in her core.
Before she knew it, they were concluding the class, lying on their backs in the corpse pose, eyes closed, meditating. Finally, Penny told them to “return to their bodies,” and everyone slowly eased up from the floor until they all were sitting cross-legged.
“Namaste,” Penny said, closing the class with prayer hands.
“Namaste,” everyone responded.
Darlene rolled her mat, peaceful and relaxed. The guy was rolling his mat, too. He looked nice and wasn’t wearing a wedding band, but she didn’t want to go there. She liked where she was. So she let it go. Just like releasing the tension in her body during yoga, she let it go, picked up her mat, and walked alone in the dark to her car. She pressed the key fob and heard the locks pop open. The headlights flickered hello.
Darlene had mastered standing on the paddleboard. She could propel the board forward with ease. Now, Jackie was teaching her the “steering stroke.”
“Pull the paddle in a wide arc,” Jackie said, “and pull away from the board – it will make the board turn more quickly.”
When Darlene paddled on the right side only, it made the board veer to the left. Then she did the same thing on the left and turned the board to the right.
“You can reverse direction by paddling backwards,” Jackie said.
She watched Jackie paddle backwards; then, she tried it. It was easy.
“Here’s how to change direction quickly,” Jackie said.
Jackie lifted one foot, planting it further back on her board. She shifted her weight to the rear, causing the nose of the board to rise out of the water. Jackie made a steering stroke on one side, and the board turned 180 degrees.
“Cool!” Darlene said.
Jackie paddled away and left Darlene alone to try out her new moves without the pressure of being watched. She practiced and paddled until she grew tired, then returned to shore. She was carrying her board out of the water when a middle-aged woman in a one-piece black bathing suit approached her.
“Pardon me,” the woman said, introducing herself. Her name was Bunny. “That looks like fun. Am I too old to do that?”
“It’s easy. Want to try?”
The fancy restaurant Arnie took her to had menus with no prices – if you had to ask, you couldn’t afford to eat there. Arnie ordered the bottle of wine the waiter recommended. If the waiter recommended it, Darlene guessed it might cost a couple hundred dollars.
Her meal was delicious, better than any meal she could recall, but she couldn’t say that it was that much better. When the waiter handed them dessert menus, though it appeared gauche, she asked the prices of some of the items. The numbers he quoted were insane. Using those answers as a benchmark, she mentally estimated the cost of the entrees and appetizers they’d had. Adding it all up, and throwing in the gratuity, she calculated the total cost of the meal probably was the equivalent of a high-end designer handbag. For a meal. It was crazy.
Arnie said how glad he was they were having this second date, the cookout being their first date in his mind, and how much he was looking forward to the third date. She realized what was happening in Arnie’s mind. When the waiter brought that check, she grabbed it.
“My treat,” she said to Arnie, smiling. It was as easy as changing directions on a paddleboard.
When they got back to her place, she told Arnie that she didn’t want to date him, but somebody would, gave him a peck on the cheek, and left him in the car. When she got inside, she texted Gina not to fix her up anymore because she wasn’t broken.
Darlene was stroking at a moderate pace when a seagull flew surprisingly close. She ducked, but didn’t lose her balance, and thought of her yoga instructor, Penny. Penny said doing yoga on a paddleboard required better balance and demanded more from your core, but that the floating sensation was fun. Darlene planned to try it sometime.
She wondered if “yoga guy” – she still didn’t know his name – was a paddleboarder. He’d kept coming to class, always setting up beside Darlene. When she arrived late, and yoga guy had already set up, she always rolled her mat beside his, accepting her role as his anchor. She was growing fond of yoga guy and expected she’d initiate a conversation soon.
She pulled her paddle out of the water. The seagull buzzed her again. This time the gull had a friend flying with her. Must be a school of fish nearby. She looked but didn’t see any near her board. She wondered if seagulls had radar they followed to find what they needed that couldn’t be seen.
She placed her right hand on the grip of the paddle and the left on the shaft. Once a direction has been chosen, the paddle needs to travel straight through the water to go fast. Keeping her arms straight, she twisted and rotated from her center, stacking her shoulders, one above the other, and buried the blade in the water, driving it through in a straight line, as close to the rails of the board as she could. She pulled on the blade again, accelerating. She thrilled at the speed and momentum she created. All the paddling she’d done during the past weeks had strengthened her core muscles. Balanced movement comes from the core.
She ramped down to an easy pace and emptied her mind, gliding through the still part of the water, out beyond where waves broke against the shore, looking otherworldly in the early evening’s orange light.
Mike Wilson, a writer in Lexington, Kentucky, has had work published in small magazines and anthologies including Appalachian Heritage, The Seventh Wave, Windmill and Chicago Literati. He is the author of a biography, Warrior Priest: The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and The School of the Americas. He can be found on Facebook.