Toby opens the letter once again. His grandpa's words scrawled out over the yellowed piece of paper with its frayed edges: It's been a slice; look after grandma, love Pop.
He’s eyes dart back and forth across the page and then up onto the ceiling of his van. The fabric is hanging loose, the glue worn off by sea spray. He feels a salty tear drop into his mouth, and scrunches up the paper as he looks over at a photo of his family that’s been slotted into the crease of the Van’s window. Sighing, he assumes a cross-legged posture leaning his curved back against the cold van wall; sitting, sleepy and shirtless, he begins to follow his inhale and exhale. His upper body shivers as he breathes with the early mornings sunrise that’s starting to shine through the van’s front windscreen. Eyes closed, he sees images of his family flash before his mind’s eye: his mother’s frowning face, his Dad’s cynical laugh. He recoils his attention back to his breath; inhaling, exhaling, before again getting distracted; Loretta’s naked body beckons before him, her sultry smile is covered in the ocean’s mist, as he clutches her in the sea. Her bikini bottoms are coming off, but as he feels himself hardening in real-time he forces her perfect body to move out of the mind’s picture frame and reorients his awareness on the temperature of the inhale at the tip of his nose. There’s a sinking feeling in his chest, just under his slowing heartbeat. An old pain and nausea swells up. He brings his attention now to the crashing sound of the surf only yards away and his body suddenly feels soothed by the waves; he pictures himself on the perfect one, riding down it’s crest and a soft smile arises on his face. Today will be good, he thinks. Better than yesterday.I'll catch the right one.
The radio clock clicks on: " It's 7am and these are the golden oldies of 91.73 announces a generic voice as the acoustic intro of Stealer’s Wheel’s "Stuck in the Middle" chimes through the speaker. It prompts Toby’s sleepy mind to awaken and he takes a deep bow before looking over toward his make-shift alter that rests on the dashboard, He rises up from his pillow and climbs over the front seat of the van reaching towards a stick of palo santo that’s on the dashboard. He lights it and places it on an incense holder; the pungent aroma quickly fills the van as a plume of smoke floats up and echoes out into elastic whispers of grey that fade off into the windscreen. As he opens the vans front seat door, the misty air of a San Francisco morning greets him. He breathes it in and then lets his shoulder relax on the exhale, and lets out a loud yell:
"Yeooowww! Ok alright. I got this.”
Lifting open the VW van's back door, he grabs an old, thick wetsuit and squeezes his tanned, toned body into it, his arms slotting into it last. From the top of the van he pulls down a short surf-board, and reaches into a tattered ruck sack before pulling out a pink bar of surf wax. Running his fingers over the smooth outer edges of the board, he then moves into its rough centre-point and starts rubbing the pink bar of wax up and down it, feeling his breath deepen and his heart palpitate. The radio is still murmuring in the background. He looks out from behind the van and sees the white foam building up and crashing in the distance. The sky is opening into a misty blue with emerging summer sunshine that begins warming the surrounding tarmac; his body welcomes the warmth as it spreads over him leaving behind a trail of goose bumps. Chucking the pink wax back into his rucksack, Toby slips the board under his arm, slings over the ruck-sack with his free arm, and shuts the van door hearing it lock with a click. Stepping out from behind his vehicle, he sees the swell growing now, as the lips of the waves curl ever so slightly before crashing down with a woosh. As his feet hit the sand he feels a renewed energy shoot through his body and he races towards the shallows with his board underarm, before diving in and feeling the freezing water smash up against his face:
"Yeowwww," he lets out another scream letting the ocean know he’s alive and well and proceeds into the break as his eyes dart around from side to side scanning; it's just him and the ocean this morning. He floats around for a few minutes, listening to the crash of nearby waves and let's the subtle undertow carry his bobbing body out towards the breakers; his breathing is beginning to find it's rhythm, calming down from the initial shock of the icy water. He urinates and feels the warmth of his wetsuit pleasant against his body. Not far ahead, he watches as a new set of waves approach, and notices that they're only small today; the first one's 4 foot face rising towards him, he turns the front point of the board towards and begins a rapid streamlined paddle as the wave builds underneath him. The back of the board pulls up toward the crest of the wave and with a quick hop he's up and riding, as he carves the board left into the green face of the crashing wave and rides it out for ten meters or so before it dissolves underneath him.
Soon after a second set begins forming behind him and sees the series of waves, moving forward from the horizon. He mans his board again, feeling another one rise from behind him, but he's too slow to paddle this time, and the wave slumpers from beneath him and crashes down in front. Now panting hard he paddles in front of a second slightly larger wave pulls now building behind him he and stands up on the face of the wave this time carving his board towards the right. The wave begins breaking behind him, and a waist-height pipeline forms in front, which he follows through, pumping the board up and down with his legs to keep in sync with the wave's movement. He feels the synchronicity build beneath him as he tunes into the rhythm of the watery foam fanning out in front. A concentrated scowl transforms into a beam, as he darts across the wave before finally pulling into and launching himself up off its crest into the air and plummeting back into the water, feeling the triumph of his first catch as he resurfaces.
Dogen's eyes blink, and the blank wall begins to sharpen. His eyes fixate on a yellow stain that stands out from the whitewashed wall and he smiles, before rising from his meditation cushion and folding forward to stretch out his lower back. It feels stiff. Rising back up to standing, he walks towards the adjacent bathroom and splashes icy water from the tap over his cleanly shaven face and bald-head. Stubble is growing on the top of his head, and without hesitation he picks up an old Gillette razor and begins shaving the sprouting hairs like a gardener raking leaves. Shht, shht, shht. He splashes more water. And walks back into his small living quarters. Removing his bathrobe and folding it neatly on his bed, he steps into a pair of faded jeans and slips on a white long sleeved top. His dressed and skinny body turns back to face his freshly made bed. On the bed-side table, lies a small singing bowl, his glasses, and three sticks of sandalwood incense each a few inches long. He picks up the glasses and glides them onto his face only to look up into the mirror and see the very round face of a middle-aged Japanese man staring back at him. "Ohaiyogozamius" his says to himself, with a sly grin.
There's a monk outside already sweeping the courtyard, and he can hear the scrapping of the rake against the stony service as the leaves are collected, one by one. It's a day off for the monk's in residence but Kyozan has taken it upon himself to continue the morning clean up practice, and as Dogen looks outside he sees the bald headed man, also dressed jeans and a t-shirt, raking up in long strokes leaves lying in the courtyard. Walking down toward the dining room, he hears the low commotion of the breakfast crew and as he turns the corner comes face to face with one of his student, Shinei. She's gets startled and drops the bowl of hot oatmeal she was carrying, immediately rushing to her knees to collect the plastic bowl and mess through profuse apologies: “I'm so sorry Roshi, I...I didn't see you there.”
“No, no, no I'm sorry! It was my fault. Here let me help.” Dogen replies, with his subtle Japanese accent, and gently bends down to help her collect the utensils that were flung across the room from the bowl. He reaches for a roll of paper towels left on the long dining table, and tears off a few pieces, before squatting down and wiping up the squalid grey mess off of the wooden floorboards.
Shinei, looks up and smiles at Dogen:
“Thank you, Roshi. I was going to bring that up to your room. Do you want me to get you another bowl?"
"No, no don't worry...I. will…. get it, he stumbles, forgetting his words for a moment, lost in translation. He stands and walks into the kitchen, where a number of students are doing clean up of the communal breakfast that had taken place shortly earlier. As they see him enter, they halt midway through their various tasks and bow: "Good Morning Roshi" He bows back, and then proceeds to scoop out a steaming heap of oatmeal from a large pot gently sliding it into a shallow bowl with dented edges, and filling it just below the top; perhaps this one was dropped as well, he thinks as he lifts it up to eye level and observes the edges. He carries the bowl carefully to the table feeling the warmth of its base emanate out over his calloused hands. He feels the souls of his feet on the cool, old floorboards and steps over to sit \down on the bench behind the table sliding it out with a squeak and tucking it back under his old Levi's. His hands move up into a prayer position - gassho - and he chants gently under his breath before ending with a bow and whispering in Japanese: “itadekiumasu" A spoonful of steaming oatmeal reaches his lips and he lets out a light blow. Shinei, sits beside him, watching closely, with a cup of tea in her hands. He looks up at her, chewing on a mouthful, his eyes wide open and face beaming with receptivity.
“What do you plan to do on your day off, Roshi?" she inquires.
"Surfing." Roshi responds without hesitation.
Shinei almost falls back off her chair with eyes wide: "Surfing?"
Dogen, nods his head and turns back to the bowl for another bite.
Dumbfounded, Shinei prods, "do you know how to surf Roshi?"
“Do you have a surf board?"
"So how will you go surfing then?"
Dogen pauses. Takes another bite of steaming oatmeal and then swallows: “I will rent a surfboard and then go surfing."
She looks at him more intently to see if he's joking, that maybe his face would crack into an uncharacteristic grin. But he remains dead-pan, scooping up more oatmeal and chewing as if rolling around every morsel of food in his mouth.
"Can you even swim Roshi?"
"Yes, my uncle taught me to swim in Lake Biwa."
"Okay, a lake is one thing, this is the ocean we’re talking about! And the bay area is dangerous Roshi. It's cold water with strong currents. There's even sharks, big ones! Bet there weren't sharks in Lake Biwa. Does this still sound like fun to you?”
"There's a great Japanese saying, Shinei: Fear is only as deep as the mind allows."
"yes I am afraid… for your safety! Why not just go look at the beaches again like last week? Why do you have to risk yourself and go into the water doing something you've never done before?"
"I want to try something new in America. Today I will try surfing." Dogen replies, smiling.
Shinei, shakes her head, and only manages to utter, an "okay..."
“Are you sure you want to do this Roshi?"
Dogen smiles and nods: "Yes."
She thinks for a moment, before continuing: "let me talk to Shoken. He has some friends who surf. at least if you're going out you should go out with someone experienced!"
She puts down her tea and slowly lifts herself up from the dining table bench and wanders toward the kitchen before doing a double take, hoping that a joking smile might have cracked over Dogen's face. He scoops up another mouthful from the bowl, and his expression remains seriously focused. Shinei shakes her head and mutters as she walks off.
Shoken and Dogen pull out from Cool-breakers surf store in Shoken's small blue pick-up truck, with boards in the back and rented wetsuits. Dogen looks out towards the quiet houses and light traffic going by, absorbing as much of urban America as his eyes can feast on. It still feels all too new. The narrow houses lined up in rows are different to the ones back in Kyoto – less uniform and much larger, all pastel and multi-coloured.
"These roads are much wider here than back in Kyoto," Dogen comments as a giant American Hummer rumbles by them on the opposite side of the road. Dogen looks back toward Shoken, and sees across his face a confused look similar to that of Shinei's earlier this morning.
"So, Roshi, remind me, why did you want to go surfing again? Shoken finally asks.
Dogen looks away from Shoken and starts observing the street side houses again, before replying: "During my time in America I want to try many American things. So today I want to try surfing. Surfing I've read, comes from America. Is this true?
“Well yeah, I think so," Shoken replies tentatively before glancing in disbelief at Dogen and then back at the road.
"Sorry Roshi, I...I just can't quite get my head around what you want to do today. It just doesn't seem very, well, you?
"Not at all Shoken. I cannot be anyone but me."
“Hmmm, okay well…I know a friend of mine – Toby; he lives down by Lina Mar beach in his van. We went to high school together. He's homeless now; just lives in his van and surfs most of the time. If he's there, I'll see if he can give you a few lessons, and watch over you, you know, so you don't drown!"
“Fantastic!” Dogen replies with audible excitement.
“Yeah…Toby's been through some hard times. He's left the world he grew up in behind and just spends his days surfing now. I sometimes come down here to bring him food from the centre"
They pull off the highway and down a back road past some hilly shrubs, before driving into a vacated parking lot.
Toby resurfaces from the break and looks toward the shoreline; he sees a pick up truck pull up and then two figures step out. One of them appears to be a stout Asian man, the other, a lanky bald Caucasian, who he recognises. He paddles into the next wave and body surfs toward the shallows before standing and walking towards the shore.
"Bruce!" he shouts, before stepping onto the dry sand and sticking his board down into the ground making it stand vertical. "How you been bud? It's been forever," Toby shakes the water from his long dark hair and clutches Bruce outstretched hand. Bruce’s palm is warm from the sunny drive. Bruce smile with his eyes his nose still large and noble. Toby turns toward the short Asian man standing beside him and introduces Dogen. This is my teacher, Roshi Dogen, he's come over from Japan and is staying with us up at the Zen centre up. Dogen puts his hands together in gassho and bows.
“Very nice to be meeting you Mr Toby. Today I want to learn how to surf." Dogen announces with a childlike enthusiasm.
"You do, hey? Right on, Roshi" replies Toby, you know I used to go to that Zen centre for a while.”
"Why not anymore?" Dogen inquires
"Ah, oh, well, you know, I just was never much good at sitting still for too long. I still meditate a little on my own," Toby feels caught off guard.
"yeah sure...something like that."
They're all silent for a moment, and Dogen looks out toward the ocean. Seeing this Toby pipes in. "Did you get a wet suit, Roshi? It might be summer, but the water is still cold as, man."
"Yes, it's in the truck with the board" Bruce answers for Dogen and walks over to fetch them both.
"Where may I change," Dogen asks and Toby is reminded that this isn't just one of his casual buddies but a Zen master whom probably isn't allowed to expose his body.
"Oh yeah, right this way Roshi," and Toby leads Dogen behind a yellow VW van parked 20 or so feet away from them.
“Just behind my Van" Toby replies and points to a yellow VW parked 20 feet down from them. Just behind there. Dogen reaches for the wet suit and towel and marches toward the van with long broad steps that carry is slight but built body.
Toby walks back to Bruce, who looks like he's in shock:
"Oh my god, dude, you brought your Zen teacher surfing?!" Toby exclaims.
"It was he who wanted to go," Bruce retorts, "Shinei and I tried to talk him out of it, but he just wouldn't let in. He's on a mission today, like he just wanted to do it so bad, I couldn't say no anymore, you know. But just like, make sure he doesn't drown okay...? He's like kinda important to our community you, know? I don't even know if he can swim that well...and.."
"Okay, okay, chill bud. It'll be fine, the man obviously knows what he wants, and I'll take care of him. Current's pretty mild out there, and it's not rough the waves are only 4-5 foot faces tops - he'll be fine."
They stop talking as they see Dogen marching back, clad in a thick black wetsuit that wraps around his small broad frame. A look of deep intent across his face.
"Hell yeah you are," and then Toby seconds guesses before looking at Bruce, wondering whether "hell" was the right term to use in front of a Zen master. Bruce shrugs it off and then nods to Toby as if to say just get it over with.
“Alright Roshi, you a good swimmer?"
“Yes, quite good," Dogen admits
“Ok great , that's a start. And you've never surfed before?"
"Well, before we get in the water, we gotta just practice getting up on the board in the sand. Dogen lies his board down on the sand and Toby removes his board from its upright position and lies it down parallel to Dogen's.
"Ok lie down on your stomach on top of the board like this," Toby demonstrates with his body.
"You paddle like this," Toby waves his arms in alternate directions to one another mimicking a freestyle stroke.
"And when a wave approaches you turn your board toward the shore and paddle really, really fast and when you feel the wave is underneath you, you jump up onto the board, like this." Toby lifts himself into a standing posture, and Dogen leaps up after Toby mirroring his actions.
"yeah right on! That's awesome, man...I mean Roshi." Dogen beams with the encouragement.
“Ok let's give that another shot. So lie down. Good. Now paddle, paddle, paddle, pretend the wave is behind you, and then hop up!”
Dogen jumps at Toby's command with bent knees an intense look of determination.
“Ok, sweet, don't think you're gonna have any problems out there. Are you ready?"
"Hai" Dogen responds in Japanese.
They both pick up their sandy boards and move to the water's edge. Dogen steps toward the receding water and feels the cold sand beneath his feet. Toby leaps into the shallow water on top his board. Dogen still adjusting to the temperature saunters in behind Toby. After getting to waist-height water the foam from a wave breaks across him and he let's out a yelp before murmuring and then dunking his head underneath. He resurfaces with a panicked look on his face, making Toby laugh aloud,
"Yeah! Colder than you think, right? Don't worry, you got this Roshi, just keep on keeping on, we're almost reached the big ones!"
They continue swimming out. When Dogen feels his feet can no longer touch the sea bottom he begins to doggy paddle with his board beside him being guided by one hand. Toby swims over to him to offer support and helps lift Dogen up onto his board.
"Alright, Roshi here comes your first set, when I say go, start paddling just like I showed you on the beach. The first wave rolls under them incomplete. The second begins curling up behind them.
"Okay this ones yours, start paddling. Go! Paddle harder, go go go go!
Dogen starts thrashing his arms like mad, he can hear Toby's voice yelling in the background, but as the wave carries him forward and lifts up behind him, he's separated from Toby and out on his own. His face wrinkles into that same look of warrior determination as he paddles fast and hard, the paddling now becoming a little more in sync, he jumps up, but he's a little too late and the wave begins breaking on top of him, causing him to lose his balance and tumble off the board. He feels himself sucked up and barrelled over, seeing only white wash as his body is plunged into the tumbling currents. Hearing only silence underneath the surface he feels himself suspended and lifeless, and finally notices some serenity once the wave has passed and slowly paddles up to the surface, emerging with a gasp.
Gasp! He sucks the air back in and hears yelling in the distance.
“Roshi! Roshi,” Toby comes racing over in his board. "Oh man, what a wipe out, you ok?"
Dogen regains his senses and lets out an echoing yell. "Haiiiiiiiiiiii"
"Alright I'll take that as a yes." Toby says laughing and raising thumb to give a thumbs up to his frantic friend Bruce, who's racing down the beach yelling inaudibly, to see if Dogen's okay. Bruce halts and bends over letting out an in sigh when he sees Toby's "okay" sign.
"alright, Roshi, did you want to give it another go or do you need to go into shore for a bit?
"no, no resting," Dogen splutters, "let's go again"
Toby nods and smiles and paddles back out to the break line: "follow me" he yells behind to Dogen, who follows up the rear. The current is picking up now with the wind blowing in from the East, and they're carried out a little more quickly. Toby grows slightly concerned for his partner in tow, hoping this wasn't the wrong choice to bring him out this deep.
But before he can change his mind the waves begin breaking in front, white wash pushing into their boards.
"Keep paddling through Dogen, nice and strong, let's just get past this second wave and we'll be good for a short break before the next ones."
They paddle through some more white wash and finally reach a gap of stillness. Ok not this one, another wave rolls underneath them.
"Here comes your's now, Ok Roshi, go go go, start paddling."
Dogen swings his arms this time more confident and rides his board forward on his belly as the wave sneaks up behind and curls with a breaking crest. This time Dogen doesn't wait too long before popping himself up into a squatted standing posture and wobbly riding down the wave, as Toby who's also caught the wave follows in alongside.
"Yes, Dogen, you've got it, you've got it," Toby's voice ascends. Dogen stabilizes himself and rides the now breaking wave forward toward the shoreline, even daring to shift his weight back and forth making the board carve slightly.
“WOOOOOOO!” Toby yells from in front as he jumps off his board in sheer excitement.
Bruce mimics the same sentiment from the beach as he jumps up and down ecstatic at his teacher's achievement. Toby slinks up next to a shocked Dogen who's now fallen off his board and bobbing in the remaining wake of victory.
"Oh my god, dude!" Toby exclaims, forgetting all formalities." How did you just do that, dude, this is like your first time, ever and you just rode that wave, like an absolute pro. Oh my god!" High five, he raises his hand in a high fives direction toward Dogen and Dogen not knowing how to respond, slowly places his hand in Toby's. His eyes are wide and bloodshot, his lips blue and his yellowed teeth form a grin of disbelief.
"I did it" he whispers, to which Toby responds, "you so did, Roshi, you so did!"
Dogen turns towards Bruce who's come in so close you can now see his excited face on the shoreline and the with full realization now hitting him repeats to Bruce, "I did it, Shoken, I did it!"
"I saw Roshi, that was awesome!"
"Ok Roshi how about we take a short break, it's pretty cold out here and the wind is beginning to pick up. Even with these wet suits on, it's still smart to be out here too long without a break."
Dogen looks back to Toby with child like eyes, as if to say "one more" but his Zen-like discernment gets the better of him and agrees, nodding and kicking and paddling with fatigued limbs, behind Toby for a few meters before his feet reach the sandy bottom and carry him to shore.