He stood at the curbside, one small duffle and two new surfboards bubble-wrapped in their own bags. The planes looked huge behind the terminal—shiny, smooth, and glowing under the floodlights as the fog drifted in from El Segundo. It still didn’t seem like he was going anywhere. An hour earlier, he’d been with a couple of friends, joking about how crazy it was to go surfing in the middle of a war. Now here he was, slightly buzzing, watching the Lakers game at a bar in the international terminal. He ordered another beer and then another, paying for each round with a fresh twenty so he could collect small bills before he board-ed the plane.
Across the expanse of the terminal, he saw the departure board flashing destinations in the middle of the hall. There were three flights that night bound for San Salvador. Three flights a day to a war zone. It must be like that every day, he thought, every war. While you sat watching TV, flights were booked full of people and crying babies headed to a war in droves.
A sip of Heineken and the Miss World Pageant, live from Las Vegas, came on. It always started like this, he thought; it always started like nothing was going to start at all.
He was going surfing because he wanted to, he told himself, because it mattered. Because the waves in El Salvador are some of the best in the world and he wanted to get out of his life in L.A., get away from his lousy delivery job and his long drives to the beach, away from the crowds in the surf and the news and the radio and from everything he knew. He wanted to get away from the daily trips to the hospital where he’d watched his younger brother fade away, tired and yellow. He wanted to get away from the feeling of helplessness and the months of fickle hope. Away from his parents’ grief, the weight of sadness and scattered ashes.
He had been surfing since he was a kid. It was what he did best and what was familiar. And now he needed to be alone with great waves and the right boards, pushing himself. When he thought about it like that, it seemed the best thing to do. But now, sitting alone with the Heineken warming in his palm and a ticket to a war zone, it also seemed foolish and unimportant and he was afraid.
A flash popped out of the corner of his eye. Four Japanese men were posing for pictures in front of the departure board, smiling and clean.
Two weeks earlier he had knocked on the door of the boss’s hot, carpeted office during an afternoon coffee break and asked for two weeks off. The boss looked up.
“You already had a vacation this year.”
“Not vacation,” he explained, thinking of the two new boards he’d had made for the occasion. A 6’0” three-fin for most days, and a 6’4” for when the surf gets big. “Just time off. No pay.”
“No pay?” The boss raised his eyebrows and looked at him for a moment. He wasn’t sure if the boss knew about his brother, but he didn’t want to explain. “Sure, okay. Put it on the calendar,” the boss said and went back to the papers on his desk.
It was that easy. He bought his ticket that same afternoon at the TACA office on Wilshire and Normandie. “Caca,” they had called it after the first trip.
He had been to El Salvador five years ago, before his brother got sick. It had been great then, a month of adventure—the two of them surfing all morning, trading waves with no one else around. Afternoons swinging in hammocks reading tattered paperbacks, muscles sore, skin sunburned, hair dry and salty. The war was little more than a ghost story at their campfire, a distant sound in the night. They were used to feeling safe, especially together.
He got up from the bar and wobbled down an escalator that had stopped running. In the restroom, he swayed and pissed in a toilet stall, and as he stood there it occurred to him that everyone else in the bathroom had black hair. It crept over him then, that feeling of sliding into Latin America, and the nervousness came as his memories of other trips drew closer. The dirt-floored bars and mosquitoes, the taxis with holes in the mufflers, the sweat and heat. And guns. Machine guns hung over shoulders, and the sounds of them in the night. That’s what he remembered now.
He took out his wallet and put it into his old, worn money belt and strapped it on low under his Levi’s. It felt familiar. He squeezed out a few more beer dribbles while thinking of black hair. He caught a glimpse of his blond hair in the mirror and he knew then he was going away.
On the departure board, the announcements began to read longer as the last of the European flights left, and when they read “Mexico, Guatemala, Salvador, and other Central American locations,” he knew that meant Nicaragua.
11:03. The Qantas flight left for Sydney, and from then on all the announcements were made in Spanish first. There was still too much time to kill, and he walked slowly down the corridors of the terminal, bored. Everywhere there were babies and cardboard-box suitcases tied with string; there were big, black mustaches, boom-box radios, and cowboy hats, and he was sinking into it all, getting there before he had even left. Snakeskin boots and huge belt buckles, infants in pinafore smocks, and women in dresses with slips showing. He was drunk.
Shit, he thought, and closed his eyes.
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