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[Essay] Busted Belonging

by Krista Puttler



I learned to surf on a gentle, rolling break called Canoes. It’s the one tourists are told they’ll be able to surf once they paddle, paddle, paddle, and then, just, jump up. I was not a tourist, but I was not from Hawaii either. I was fifteen, and I was from nowhere. 


My dad was a chaplain in the US Navy, and by the time the Navy moved us to Hawaii, our sixth move, I had perfected how to act in a new place. If I kept my mouth shut and my eyes open, I could survive being thrown into a river of chicken-baited crocodiles or enjoy being hoisted upon a stranger’s shoulders in the middle of a Billy Joel concert or sit unmoving in a hushed box seat during the wordless chorus finale of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. At least that’s what moving every few years felt like. 


So, on a gray-skyed, balmy October morning, when the summer tourists had left and the winter tourists had yet to arrive, I found myself shivering, standing on the white beach of Waikiki, my secondhand, waterlogged surfboard on my hip. The wind blew offshore; a pack of surfers studded the horizon. My friend crouched next to her board and applied a new coat of surf wax in great looping arcs. 


“Surfing is just like swimming…just make sure you don’t get stuck on the inside…wait your turn in the lineup…don’t drop in on anyone…and don’t ever let go of your board when you wipe out.” 


I blinked. I had no idea what she was talking about. 


“But don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” 

 

I tried to keep up with my friend, but she had been surfing for as long as she could walk. I had not done anything for as long as I could walk, except walk. I pulled one arm through the water, down the side of my board. When I didn’t budge, I tried the other. The water ignored my attempts to move it. Waves sloshed over my shoulders. I could not see; I did not have the right strength in my back to keep my head lifted. Afraid I would capsize, I gripped my ankles around the outside edges of my board. My friend surfed past, arms relaxed at her sides. Her dad followed, serenely crouched, surfing like a bird flies, like he was meant to be there.


Whitewash crashed around me. I gripped the rails; my board jostled, twisted. I had drifted parallel to the waves, and the largest of the set was poised to crash on my back and tip me over. I did not know how to prevent this. The smooth, green face of the wave climbed. The water at the top started to crumble. I closed my eyes; at least I would not see it happen. 


And then my world stopped moving. 


“Here. Try this.” 


I opened my eyes. 


The beach unfurled before me, extended like arms around the water as the waves disappeared into the shoreline. My friend’s dad stood in the water next to me, the waterline at his waist. One of his hands lay flat on my board near my hip, a gentle steadying presence. He fixed the position of my gangly legs. He pointed to where I should place my hands. He pointed to where I should put my feet. 


As a wave passed, he briefly released my board so I could feel its pull. 


“Ready?” 


I nodded. 


I felt the board tug back from the beach, pause, then start to lift. He pushed down on the back of my board to give me time to stand up. I jumped up and placed my feet. I felt the wind on my neck. I felt forward momentum. And then I tipped forward. My board shot out from under my feet; salt water stung my nose. 


“Okay?”


I sputtered. Whitewater at my waist. My board once again tamed by his gentle hand. 


“Again?” 


I shook my head. I knew when I did not belong. 



The first question anyone asks when you move to a new place is: “Where are you from?” Most people think this is a simple question, one that breaks the awkward tension of a first encounter. If the person asking the question has been to the place where you are from, there would be an immediate connection between the two of you, one that you could use to make further, deeper connections. 


I did not know how to answer this question. 


Did the person want to know where I had just moved from? Or did the person want to know where I was born? Sensing my hesitation, the person would usually clarify: “You know, the place you call home?” 


Where did I call home? 


Home was the place you belonged. Could I belong to a place when I knew I was just going to leave it again? 


So, I always replied, “I’m a Navy brat, I’m from all over.” And the person would nod, then go about their day, satisfied. But I wasn’t satisfied. I knew I never really answered the question. 


#


A year after my first surfing lesson, I sit in the Ala Moana boat basin parking lot. I had told my parents I was going to meet my friend, but that was a lie. I wanted to see if I could surf Kewalos by myself. I had to see if I belonged there. 


Kewalos surf is typically bigger than Canoes. It breaks off the edge of a submerged reef. If you want to look like you know what you are doing, you need to skirt the break and paddle out into the boat channel. A fishing boat channel. And sharks love fish. Had I dwelled on that, I would never have gotten out of my car. 


I had surfed this break before but never first thing in the morning. And I had always surfed with a friend. 


I open my door and stand. The sky overhead is black, but there is a tinge of red on the horizon. I have an hour, maybe less, before I must leave for school. I unstrap my board, toss my shirt into the passenger seat, and lock the door. I tie my key to the front string of my surf shorts, then shoulder my board. My flip-flops slap the asphalt. 


I walk past a gleaming Audi and a bleached BMW with hibiscus seat covers and then reach the lava rock seawall. There is a covered pavilion of benches to my left, the surf break to my right. 


I squint. Past the rocks, past the submerged reef, past the breaking, frothing waves, sit two surfers out in the lineup. A wave rises, crests, and one surfer paddles. He takes the wave, stands, goes to the left. Another wave crests; the remaining surfer allows it to pass, then takes the next. I am the only girl. 

 

I look over the seawall. It is low tide. There is a two-foot drop onto jagged, seaweed-covered rocks. I slip off my flip-flops--they are the four-dollar rubber ones from Longs, but they are the only footwear I have--and look for a place to stash them. On the bench closest to the wall is a neatly rolled mat. And under the bench where I usually put my flip-flops sits a brown paper package and a bundle of clothes. I should have left my flip-flops in the car. Whoever has left their things under the bench might mistake my shoes for their own and take them. I look back over the water; the sun is just over the horizon. I don’t have much time. But perhaps Hawaii is the only place where it’s acceptable to attend chemistry class barefoot. I risk it: I step out of my flip-flops and leave them at the base of the wall. 


I hitch my board to my right hip, lean back, and step over the wall and onto the rocks. I slowly make my way down the wet stones. A wave pulses toward the wall. I wait a moment for the water to calm, then set my board on its surface. The next wave lifts it enough to free the skeg from the submerged rocks. I gently slide onto the top of my board and paddle out, pulled by the receding wave. 


I paddle right, toward the channel. Every few strokes I look out toward the break. Both surfers are back in the lineup. I exhale and paddle harder. I’m not thinking about sharks. I’m thinking about all the things my friend told me on that first day of surfing. Don’t get stuck on the inside. Don’t drop in on anyone. Don’t let go of your board. I don’t want to give anyone a reason to think I don’t know how to do this. 


I skim up and over a smooth hump of water. I’m just outside the first breaking waves of the next set. I paddle to the very edge of where the wave could be deemed rideable, and stop. I sit up and dangle my legs. I nod to the two surfers but do not move any closer to them. I do not know the mechanics of this lineup. I do not even know if I will be allowed to surf. They stare; then one turns his back. But the other nods imperceptibly, or at least I think he does, because I need a sign of acknowledgment; I need the small lowering of his face to mean something. But this movement, I realize, could be the result of a passing wave. 


I am in a familiar but precarious place. I will have to prove myself to be allowed into the lineup. Meaning I will have to wait until the two surfers have taken the best waves of the set, and then I will have to gloriously surf a respectable wave before they return. And I have to do it quickly so I don’t inadvertently steal one of their waves. And I must not drop in on them. And God help me if I wipe out on a wimpy wave. I’d rather be attacked by a shark. At least then I would have a real excuse to leave and never come back. 


A wave pushes beneath my legs. One of the surfers turns his board toward shore and paddles. The wave crests, and for a moment, he disappears. Then his bleached copper hair bounces above the top of the wave. He goes left. 


Of course. Did I think this was going to be easy? 


The next surfer moves over to the middle of the break, waits two more swells, and then he, too, turns his nose and paddles. The wave crests, and his head pops over the rumbling water; he also goes left. 


Left. 


Kewalos is rideable in both directions, right and left. The surf and the tide dictate which direction is the longer, and therefore, the preferable ride. Today, it seems, the preferred way is left. 


I surf with my left foot out front, making it difficult for me to go left. My preferred direction is to the right. If I go right, I can see the wave--how it crests and how it breaks—directly in front of me. If I go left, the wave is to my back. If I go left, I have to surf by feel. 


I swallow and move into the vacant lineup. I look back toward the seawall. Both surfers ride their waves all the way into shore and do not return. Is this because they are late for work or school, too, or is it because they want to sit on the seawall and get a better look at what I’m about to do? Or maybe they left because they knew my ride was going to be embarrassing, that it wasn’t going to be worth watching? 


I look down the stretch of shoreline, toward the east. The sun is fully over Diamond Head. 


It doesn’t matter. 


I had sat too long in my car, took too long to paddle out, sat too long outside the break. I need to go in. I will be late for school. 


My board rises and falls three times; then there is a lull, then comes a shorter rise, the beginning of the next set. I turn my nose toward the seawall and look back over my shoulder toward the open ocean. A wave is coming. I paddle in front of it, feel its gentle nudge, push down on the rails, and jump up, left foot front, right foot back. I hesitate, wanting to go right, knowing that right will be comfortable. But the other two surfers rode left. 


I go left. 


The wave crests. My hair blows back over my shoulders. I panic. I feel like I am falling into the open space in front of the wave and have nothing to look at but sky. There is nothing to orient my place in the world. I hear the wall of water behind me. I take a deep breath, crouch lower, and look forward over the nose of my board. And that’s when I see it, the beautiful whites and oranges and purple tufts of coral out in front. If I had gone right and done what was comfortable instead of what was required for this moment in this place, I would have missed it, the blooming colors just beneath the sparkling surface of the water. 


I sense the pulsing pressure of the wave near my left shoulder; it is starting to close. I push the board down a little farther on the face, trying to outpace the foam, but I am too late. I am covered. I lean into the wall of water and flip my board. My knee scrapes the bottom, but I don’t let go. I keep my eyes open, stinging in the salt; the kaleidoscope of colors swirls around me. 


I surface, look back at the break, and see I have just enough time to clamber back on my board and point the nose toward the parking lot. I again feel the push of the wave. My board rises, then falls, progresses towards the seawall. 


The whitewash falls away and my skeg scrapes the bottom. 


I can’t find a place to stand that’s not a sharp-looking rock. I stand anyway, narrowly avoiding spiny sea urchins. I grab my board to my left hip, sway in the wash, and spy a raised, smooth rock. I step onto it, and then another. I follow the path of many surfers before me, stepping onto each smoothed stone until I reach the wall and, with my right arm, climb over it again. 


I touch the front of my board shorts; my key is still there. 


I look over at the parking lot, half expecting the surfers to be laughing as they return their professional-shaped boards to their racks, half expecting them to pause in their practiced movements and clap. Or maybe just nod. Any recognition for my attempt today. But the two cars are gone. 


I find my flip-flops along the wall and slip them on. I take one step, and then another, and then, pop, the rubber strap between my toes snaps. I lift my foot and the bottom of the shoe dangles like a swollen, useless tongue. 


“Hey, akamai.” 


I look up. 


A man with skin worn as leather stands under the pavilion by the seawall. There is a whiff of urine. He does not have all his teeth. I carry my board in my left hand. Nothing protects me; nothing is between me and him. 


“Akamai,” he says again. 


Since moving here, I’ve been called the New Girl. The New Kid. Newbie. And Haole. I was also called Haole when we lived on Guam. Loosely translated, haole means white person, foreigner, person who doesn’t belong. But akamai? I don’t know what it means. Is it a taunt, a threat? 


“Try come.” 


He gestures to the bench. 


I do not move. 


He nods. Then reaches behind him. 


My heart pounds, and I close my eyes. 


A scratching, like Velcro separating, sounds above the crashing waves. I open my eyes. 


He holds a paper clip between his thumb and forefinger. Then he uses his other hand to push the outer edge up into a ninety-degree angle. He places the paper clip into his palm, the pointy end sticking up. 


“For one busted slip-pah.”  


I crinkle the skin between my eyebrows. 


He bends down, takes off one of his flip-flops, and turns it over. I blink at the flash of metal, then step closer. The looped portion of a paper clip is pressed into the base of the shoe where the end of the rubber strap pops through. He makes an okay sign with his other hand, then holds out the modified paper clip again. 


I cannot swallow. He is not going to hurt me; he is trying to help. 


Shame crashes down my bare skin. I am falling through the wave again but standing on solid ground. 


He raises his palm slightly, gently. 


“Please. Take,” he says. 


The metal blinks. 


I nod, set my board down on the seawall, and take the clip. 


He smiles. 


I put the broken rubber strap through the hole of my flip-flop, shove the paper clip end through the base, and recreate what I think looks like his tiny metal strut. I drop the flip-flop, wiggle my foot in, and take a step. It holds. 


It works, this little piece of metal. I look up to thank him. 


But he is gone. 


Akamai means smart. Or in some instances, smarty-pants. 


#


During the three years I lived in Hawaii, Kewalos was the place I returned most. Often, I surfed with a friend, sometimes I surfed alone. Some days I surfed it better; some days I did not see the reef. One day I saw a shadow in the rising face of a wave. A shadow my mind told me only a shark could make. I did not go into the water that day. 


After high school graduation, I left Hawaii, but my family remained for another five years. I tried to return as often as I could during Christmas and summer breaks. My friends in college assumed I was going home, but I was just returning to where my family lived. I surfed Canoes with tourists. I surfed Kewalos with friends and strangers. 


But I never saw that man again. 


I am too old and too wary to surf Kewalos anymore. 


But every time I see a paper clip, I think of trying to belong and broken rubber slip-pahs and the man who I assumed would hurt me. I remember closing my eyes for protection within my assumptions. I remember that cold shower of shame. 


But I also remember that little flash of light. 


I remember his act of kindness. 


And when I find myself thinking I do not belong, when I wish that I had someplace to call home, I remember that home is not just a place. Home is belonging. And acts of kindness show us where that is. 



Krista Puttler served in the U.S. Navy as a general surgeon and has been fortunate to call many places home, including the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii, Japan, and a stateroom on an aircraft carrier. Her writing has been featured in As You Were: The Military Review, Collateral, Intima, HeartWood Literary Magazine, and Door Is A Jar. She has work forth-coming from Cagibi and a chapter from her yet unpublished memoir, Surgery in Progress, will appear in the May 2024 issue of Wrath-Bearing Tree. Krista lives in Norfolk, VA, with her husband and three daughters.






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