Painting on Waves
By Nolan Janssens
The peril that makes many hearts stop is what feeds the drive of others. For these people, the inevitability of death is all they want to control. Tommy Faa was one of these people. Tommy Faa knew how he wanted to die.
Tommy didn’t notice the centipede inching its way up his board shorts nor the wailing of the adhan call to prayer from the village mosque. He was out cold until the crowing of several roosters broke his drunken sleep. With every crow, a brain cell in Tommy’s throbbing brain seemed to burst; something Tommy would neither complain about nor admit. When Tommy finally built up the courage to open his eyes and face the light of day, he awoke to complete darkness. Tommy worried that the Arak, a fermented palm spirit kept in water bottles, had blinded him; something he was warned about, but he took his chances. Tommy banged on the walls around him, looking for a light switch. He had almost found the door handle when the door suddenly opened; the merciless morning light hitting him. When Tommy reopened his bloodshot eyes, a grinning Indonesian man dressed in straggly clothing, stood in front of him holding a cup of Lombok coffee.
“Tommy the Arak man!” The Indonesian man said with a thick accent. Tommy noticed various rusty tools and a broken (most likely still used) bicycle. Looking up, he saw a tin ceiling infested with ants and shrouds of cobwebs. This wasn’t the first time Tommy had woken up in an unfamiliar shed.
“Where am I?” Asked Tommy as he grabbed the strong, black coffee.
“You’re in Kuta.”
At that moment Tommy’s phone rang. Tommy searched his pockets. When he looked up, the Indonesian man laughed and handed Tommy the phone.
“I charge it for you.”
Tommy accepted the call.
“Hey, man… Naw, I’m in Lombok… I dunno how I got here, Ryan. I’m guessing a boat…” Tommy diverted his attention to the Indonesian man. “How long will it take to get to Uluwatu?”
“Four hours… if there’s a fast boat available.”
“I can be there in four hours… Since I’ll miss training, I’ll train here. Competition’s not for another three days… Yea, I’ll be there tomorrow then, Ryan.”
“There’s surfing around here, yeah?”
“Yes, but not today. Big storm coming.”
“Fine by me.”
“I call my cousin, Dee. Dee is the best surfer in Lombok. He give you good price, my friend.”
Dee was born in Kuta, Lombok several years before it became noticed by the western surf community. The beaches and waterfalls around Kuta attracted tourists and when the tourists came out to play, so did Dee. At five-years-old, Dee’s brown eyes had already been seasoned by strife. Dee, among many of the children born in Kuta, was destined to never leave his hometown. He could name every capital city in Europe and knew enough Dutch and English phrases to sell anything to the tourists—for three times the valued price. His little sister praised him for his crafty ways. With her wide, innocent eyes, she followed him around like a baby quail following it’s mother. For years to come, no man would compare to her brother.
As Dee grew older, he wanted nothing more than to continue with school but when his father decided to have two wives, his children from the second wife became his duty. What little money they had before was now sparser than ever. By thirteen, Dee had grown tired of hustling tourists, but he was now the man of the house. He needed to make enough money so that his little sister could stay in school. When the first group of surfers came to town, Dee foresaw Kuta’s potential as a surfing hub.
Several years later, when the surfers started to come by the thousands, Dee was ready. He could ride better than anyone on the island, and whatever money he made, went to his family or hiring other locals as instructors for his surf school. He dreamt of one day becoming a professional surfer and making enough money to move to Australia, but with the little money he had saved, he would never obtain his dream visa. Now, at thirty, it seemed unlikely Dee’s fate would change. Dee told Tommy all of this in broken English on the way the point break pick-up.
“Cut the sob story, mate. We’re going surfing,” Tommy said as Dee sped through the narrow, pothole-laden road. “If you want a tip, don’t yap about how broke you are. Show me how well you can surf. If you don’t suck, maybe I’ll fly you down under myself.”
“Don’t get your hopes up. I’ve been known to break promises.”
“Is that what your wife says?”
“I’m still playing the field.”
“I’m not married.”
“Men our age should be married.”
“If I could have multiple wives like you, maybe I would be.”
Dee’s laughter rumbled from his stomach. His laughter turned into a prideful smile as he said, “Not every Muslim has many wives. I only have one wife, and I will always have one wife.”
“But if you fell in love with someone else, you wouldn’t have to worry.”
“I would worry about my son and daughter. I make promise to not be like my father.”
“Now that’s a promise I wish I could keep,” Tommy said more to himself than to Dee.
The potholes disappeared as they arrived in a village with more chickens and stray dogs than people. Dee parked the Mitsubishi van in front of his surf shop. The second Tommy jumped out of the vehicle, two little kids tried to sell him their self-made yarn bracelets.
“I give you good price, my friend.” The two children repeated the phrase several times before Dee stepped out from the vehicle and intervened.
“These are my children, Intan and Arif,” Dee said. Arif had the same dark, brown eyes as his father, but as a four-year-old, his skin was not yet beaten by the weather. Intan was only a year older than her brother but possessed a protective quality that was almost motherly. Her green eyes filled with a sullen sweetness, and her facial features were finer than those of Arif.
“Are you going to become little shredders?” Tommy asked.
The children gave Tommy a blank stare.
“Surfers,” Tommy said.
“I’m already a surfer,” Arif said.
“How about you?” Tommy asked Intan.
Intan wouldn’t look up at Tommy.
“She has to take care of the house. She has to learn from her mother,” Dee exclaimed.
“Saya ingin menjadi seperti Maria” I want to be like Maria, Intan said.
“Adikku bukan seorang ibu. Kamu tidak akan menjadi seperti dia.” My sister is not a mother. You will not be like her, Dee said.
Intan stormed off with Arif quickly following.
“So, what was that about?” Tommy asked.
“Let’s surf,” Dee said.
Tommy and Dee grabbed their surfboards from the roof of the Mitsubishi and walked between two restaurants. A small opening led to the tiny harbor. The port contained two rundown motorboats and three Jukungs. The Jukung’s wooden canoe-like hulls had double outriggers attached by four spider-like wooden legs—the traditional build—but with four-stroke engines connected to the back. Dee waved at someone in a Jukung a hundred meters way. As the Jukung approached, Tommy noticed an Indonesian woman piloting it. Her gray, wet t-shirt clung to her breasts. She had the type of body, which even when modestly dressed, looked free and nude. Her green Hijab was wrapped around her face and accentuated her eyes that held more emotional grit than Iranian women in a National Geographic photograph. Tommy wouldn’t have known he was lovestruck because Tommy has never experienced love.
“Kenapa kamu di sini?” Why are you here? Asked Dee.
“Because your friends have little balls,” the woman said with an understandable Indonesian accent that delighted Tommy.
“They won’t use the boat in this weather. No balls.”
“This is my type of woman,” Tommy whispered to Dee.
“This is my sister.”
For once, Tommy didn’t know how to respond. Tommy couldn’t stop staring at Maria. The morning sunlight had found it’s way between the clouds, casting a golden ring around Maria’s green eyes.
“Are you Tommy Faa, the surfer?” Maria asked as she lifted Tommy’s surfboard into the boat.
“An Australian couple showed me a video of you. You almost killed yourself on the Garret McNamara, and rode it again the day you got out of the hospital.”
“Okay, we go before the storm is worse,” Dee said.
“You speak much better English than your brother,” Tommy said.
“That’s because she has no family to make food for. She only needs to think about herself.”
From Maria’s insouciance, Tommy could see that the siblings have had this conversation many times before.
“I only think about myself too. We’d make a horrible team,” Tommy said.
Maria smiled with her back turned to Tommy and gunned the engine while Tommy and Dee were still standing. Dee caught his balance, but Tommy fell flat on his ass, laughing.
“We’ll be at the point break in ten minutes,” Maria said.
Nobody said a word the whole way there. Dee concentrated on waxing his surfboard, even though it was freshly waxed. Maria didn’t see the need in conversation; she was happy knowing that Tommy Faa was memorizing the teasing way her t-shirt traced her backside.
Maria stayed in the Jukung in case something happened to Tommy or Dee. As Maria watched Tommy surf, he showed her everything about himself. The ocean was his canvas, and he painted the stories of his life on each wave. The waves became messier and more sporadic as the winds picked up, but the more difficult it became to catch a wave, the more free Tommy appeared. He paddled with unyielding aggression, but as soon as he stood on that board, he was free from pain. He seemed to blend water and air into one element as he flew from the waves. When he dropped from the sky and landed back onto the wave, he never fell. Whether he landed backward, forward, or sideways, he quickly maneuvered the board in whichever way he chose. He had full control over his board until the storm picked up, and that’s when Maria saw Tommy’s self-destructive nature.
Dee was technically impeccable. This point-break helped raise him, and he knew the waves better than he knew his father. Dee didn’t have the eclectically creative bag of tricks like Tommy did, but he knew which waves were better to ride. Their tenacity and power were on par, but unlike Tommy, Dee liked to stay in control.
“There’s no way to tell how waves will crash now,” Dee said.
“No balls, as Maria would say!” Tommy said.
“The tide is lower. We will crash into coral.”
“Saltwater cleans the cuts, my man.”
“I’m done, Tommy. Please come.”
Tommy didn’t listen. As Dee struggled to paddle back to the boat, Tommy paddled out to where he hoped the next set would come. Maria was busy bailing out water from the boat. The wind-formed waves kept crashing in.
“Dee!” Maria said, pointing at the wave forming behind Tommy. Dee looked back and saw Tommy surf a wave four times his height; the biggest wave of the day, but not even close to the biggest wave of his life. The wave, at first, broke left as Tommy expected. Anyone could see that Tommy was struggling to keep his balance in the high winds. Tommy expected to lose a bit of control, but what he did not expect was that the wave would suddenly break all at once. The wave picked Tommy up and then threw him down onto the coral with its several tons of might. Before Dee could say anything, Maria grabbed his board and jumped into the water. By the time Maria reached Tommy, he had been dragged onto the rocks below the cliff. The whitewash usually subsides at the rocks, but with the winds, the waves slammed Tommy against the rock behind him. Tommy was smiling as Maria approached.
“Shit’s gnarly,” Tommy said.
“Can you move?” Asked Maria.
“Everything but my right arm.”
“Use my board to get to the boat. I’ll swim.” Maria noticed that Tommy’s board had split in two.
Dee brought the Jukung as close as he could to Maria and Tommy without hitting the rocks or being too close to the waves. It took Maria and Tommy fifteen minutes to swim one hundred meters to the boat; the winds kept pushing them back toward the rocks. As soon as Tommy reached the Jukung, Dee hefted Tommy’s bloody body from the water.
“It’s not a very safe surf school you’re running here,” Tommy said to Dee.
“Fuck you,” Dee said.
Dee and Maria brought Tommy to the clinic where the Doctor applied twenty stitches down the right side of his back and five stitches on his forearm. Fortunately, his arm wasn’t broken but severely sprained. The doctor advised Tommy to keep his arm in the sling for three weeks followed by two weeks of rest. Tommy thought they did an impeccable job (not that he has high medical standards) until he asked if he had a concussion; something the doctor should have checked for at first. The doctor used the tips of his fingers to press lightly onto the back of Tommy’s skull in a massage-like manner.
“Does that hurt?” Asked the doctor.
“Uh, nope.” Said Tommy.
The doctor repeated the finger pressing three more times on various parts of Tommy’s skull. Tommy shouldn’t have been so amused by the doctor’s inept concussion examination; he may have noticed the discomfort.
“Does that hurt?”
“Nope, not there either.”
“Great, your brain isn’t bleeding.”
“But do I have a concussion?”
What ever happened to seeing if my pupils react to light, Tommy thought. After Maria had made sure the receptionists didn’t overcharge Tommy, and that they hadn’t taken down all his credit card information, Dee and Maria brought him to an ATM. Tommy took out four hundred American, approximately five million Indonesian rupiahs. He paid Dee for the rented surfboard, boat gas, and his time. He split the remaining four in half million rupiah among Dee, Maria, and himself.
“What’s this for?” Asked Dee.
“You’ll need that money to come with me. You’re going to surf at the Rip Curl invitational. I’ll make sure of it.” Tommy then looked Maria. “As for you… I would like your company.”
Maria burst out laughing. “My company?” From the few hours Maria knew Tommy, she knew that he had never used the words your companyin his life.
“I want you to come with me, Maria.”
Maria smiled and said, “I’ll book the fast boat for tomorrow morning.”
“I can’t leave my family,” Dee said after a moment of staring at the money as though it were a sacred map he couldn’t read.
“You will be back in four days. I’ll give your family the money they need for the week,” Tommy said.
“Why do you do this for me?”
“I told you I would.”
“I thought you break promises.”
“I didn’t promise you shit.”
Arif and Intan were in a state of jubilation; their father would be in a surf competition, and he would be with Maria. Maria had told Arif and Intan many stories about their inseparable relationship as children. However, religion and culture can tear the threads that bind us quicker than it brings us together. Maria was only Muslim enough to survive in Kuta, and Dee knew that. Arif and Intan were still too young to become what they have been taught in the mosques, but no child is too young to understand Maria’s stories about the love between siblings.
Dee’s wife, Sania, could not be convinced by words. Fortunately, Tommy’s cash told Sania all she wanted to hear. Tommy saved his manager for last. After several moments of derisive, vulgar language (even for an Australian) Ryan calmed down and said he would speak with Tommy’s sponsors. Turns out, that some of the sponsors knew about Dee’s surf school and thought that sponsoring him for the competition would have a high marketability in Indonesia. After two days of training, it was time for Dee to enter the Rip Curl Invitational.
Maria and Tommy sat on Padang Padang beach watching the surfers and drinking a Bintang Pilsner. It was Maria’s first time drinking in public. For once, she didn’t have to worry about being further alienated by her community. Tommy was the first man that looked at Maria with nothing other than admiration, not only for her physique but for her mind and rebellious spirit. They didn’t need to hold hands; they held one another in each other’s eyes. They were looking into the future; something neither has ever cared about until now.
“Did Dee tell you the story about my father and his second wife?” Maria asked.
“I assume he tells all the tourists,” Tommy said.
“I wanted to blame my father for leaving. Instead, I blamed our religion.”
“I have a sister from a different mother and two half brother’s I’ve never met. And my father’s an Atheist.”
“So it’s men we should blame?” Maria intoned facetiously.
“I never had a chance to hear my dad’s side of the story, but that’s a safe bet.”
“Do you want children?”
Maria smiled, happy with the answer, and Tommy knew it. At that moment, they heard the announcement for Dee. The wave forming behind Dee was four to five meters high. The largest wave Dee had ever surfed. Maria’s heart was racing, and Tommy’s head was thumping.
For the first several seconds of Dee’s ride, he rode without style; it was as though he was still finding his balance. The velocity of the wave felt new to him, but as soon the power transferred over to Dee, he playfully cut back and forth. He used the new found speed to his advantage and popped into the air, executing two flawless one hundred and eighty-degree spins. Dee immediately cut back towards the barrel. The wave broke faster than anticipated; Dee disappeared into the tunnel of water for what seemed like an eternity to Maria. The wave was nearing the end of its life. It appeared that the several tons of water would crash onto Dee. As soon as the barrel collapsed, Dee spat out from the whitewash with everyone on the beach cheering. Everyone except for Tommy. Maria looked back and saw Tommy holding his head in pain.
“Tommy, what’s up?” Maria asked.
Tommy couldn’t answer. With every exhale, he groaned with an animalistic distress. The lacerated sounds seemed unnatural coming from Tommy.
Without looking at Maria, Tommy stood up and grabbed a surfboard that lay next to a teenager with blond dreadlocks passed out on the ground. Tommy continued to walk towards the ocean with tears of torment swelling his eyes. He stood where the water washed up onto his feet, holding the surfboard in his good arm. He heard the announcement for Dee’s nearly perfect score. For what may have been a fraction of a second, Tommy felt a lifetime of peace. He stared at the little beach break wave forming in front of him. It was the same type of wave Tommy would have learned to ride on as a child. As the wave collapsed so did Tommy. It was the only thing he ever planned. Painting on Waves