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Laguna Beach


The Heart of Laguna

By Laura Ford

The Heart girl surfing

Click on photo for a larger image

Painting by Laura Ford 

The waves rolled into shore at Thalia Beach. The tide was rising and the wind was low as the sun made its way up through the marine haze and the molten sky began to fade. 

People were walking their dogs along the beach – Laguna Beach was already awake. A small Sheltie greeted Jake, dropping a tennis ball at his feet as he stood on the shoreline. He picked up the ball and threw it along the beach with a smile and a wave to the dog’s owner. 

The cool water glided into shore, wrapping itself around Jake’s feet as he watched Darren surf. Jake smiled – he felt a little disengaged from his body, as though none of it was quite real. Watching Darren – it was just like watching Gillian all those years ago; the flicks and exclamations, the wildness of the man’s surfing style. Jake smiled as Darren glided along a wave, touching the wall of its luminescent green tube with an outstretched hand before being enveloped by the wave and then resurfacing with a huge grin on his face. Darren paddled into shore and tucked his shortboard under his arm, holding out a hand to Jake. Jake shook his hand and then patted him on the shoulder. 

“Thanks for… ”

“It’s no problem,” Darren replied, holding Jake’s shoulder. “If it hadn’t been for her, I wouldn’t be here – period. I was scared of the ocean as a kid – too weak to swim – I never thought much about surfing until… ”

“You’re a great surfer,” Jake said, his eyes distant. “It was meant to be – you’re continuing it all.”

“Trying to, I’ll be 45 in a couple of weeks,” Darren smiled.

“Has it been that long?”

“Well,” Darren felt awkward, “over 20 years.” He patted Jake on the back, “I’m having a little get together, down at The Cliff on Friday – you should come.”

“The Cliff?” Jake looked down at the sand. “Thanks, I’ll see. It’s Gillian’s birthday Tuesday.”

“Gotcha,” Darren replied nodding. “Anytime you want to come watch, just let me know, I’m down here a lot.”

Jake laughed, “I bet you are.” He knew only too well what was in Darren’s heart, what drove him to the ocean and what would keep him there the rest of his days. 

***

The waves rolled in before her, crested with light. Their green and blue curves reminded Gillian of slides on a children’s playground. She watched the surfers with an intensity beyond her years while swinging a red bucket in her hand as if to an unheard beat. Her keen eyes followed the wave riders as they were propelled by the waves, conquering them with a seeming ease. 

Laguna Beach was full of surfers. It felt like every beach she went to – they were out at sea, taunting her as they played in the waves. As one of the surfers rode into shore, he grinned at her calling out, “Hey, little surfer!” and curled his fingers into the sign for ‘hang loose.’

Right then, Gillian dropped her red bucket – she wanted to look grown up – and looked back at the surfer with her coolest face, attempting to be nonchalant. When he had begun to paddle back out to sea, Gillian wanted to do the same. As the nearest thing to that, she picked up her bucket and washed it down in the remnants of a wave that lapped into shore. 

The bucket was something of a prize to her, discovered on Main Beach with her Mom and Dad on one of their first evenings in Laguna Beach. She had found it buried in the sand near the towels that her parents had set down. 

Another surfer glided toward her now and she watched him intently. Gillian wanted to be like them – sliding down the waves, riding them like a wild stallion, kicking and bucking all the way to the shore just as these surfers did. There was magic in it, and it fixated her.

She turned her head and looked back at the apartment that her parents were renting on Thalia Beach. No one had noticed that she was missing – her mom wasn’t hammering on the glass like a wild thing, sending her father down to scoop her up – not yet. So embarrassing. 

She felt elevated to be down on the beach alone. She was six years old; she wasn’t a baby. Looking down now at her toes in the sand she wiggled them as a wave broke against the shore and carried up the beach toward her. It lapped in around her small feet, momentarily covering the sodden sand in a thin white foam before drawing back out to sea and continuing its eternal rhythm. 

***

Gillian looked up to the ocean once more and grinned. She remembered that first encounter with the surfer. At the age of six, she had decided there and then

 that she was going to be a surfer when she ‘grew up.’ She remembered watching the waves roll in at Thalia Beach and likening their rolling forms to scooping vanilla ice cream from a carton. She’d developed all of these analogies for the waves as a child, sitting and watching them from her parents’ front room, hoping that one day she could be just like the grown-ups who seemed to play all day. 

She had started surfing later than the local kids. She was born in Maine – not California – and her parents didn’t want her risking life and limb on something frivolous. But the call of the ocean was too strong. It was magnetic and, like any vocation, it had claimed her being and had become a part of her very soul. She was sure that if you could unlock a heart with a special key, you would see the ocean on a sunny day reflecting out of hers – the light dancing upon the water, the glow and fluidity of the waves shining out from her. 

Gillian shifted her thoughts to the judges lined up on the beach and took a look at them where they were behind her: five men, one sporting a large moustache, another in a red Hawaiian shirt, their eyes hidden behind aviators. It was like a uniform, Gillian smirked and turned her concentration back to the waves in front of her as she stood on the shore, breathing in the salty air. She would be next to paddle out. She exhaled deeply. 

It was her and two other boys in her group, she watched them joking with each other farther along the beach. One was 18 – the taller one – the other was 21 and she was 16, the youngest. 

Brook Street Classic, she whispered to herself, kicking at the sand with her left foot. She was a goofy foot – some said Brook Street was a break made for goofy footers like her and she took this into consideration. She had surfed the break a few times and had been tumbled by it many more, wiping out in spectacular fashion. She’d foolishly attempted the waves at Brook Street on a big surf day a few years back when she barely knew what she was doing – and now she had two veneers to prove it – her secondhand fiberglass tank of a surfboard had smacked her in the mouth like a roundhouse kick. 

She pushed this memory away as she felt her heart begin to race – right as her name was called. 

“Gillian Breithardt,” she heard a man’s voice call across the beach – it was the judge with the Hawaiian shirt. 

She nodded and, without looking at the judges, moved forward into the ocean, watching the break as the waves slammed into shore. She counted the seconds – now! She began to run with her board tucked under her arm; in a flowing movement she was on the board and paddling with all her might toward the dark mass of a wave that was heading straight toward her. She ducked her head down and allowed the wave to thunder over her, continuing forward, her arms pumping, pushing the water away. 

Be like the arrow, she thought to herself. She had read this Cheyenne saying somewhere and it resonated with her; it was now a part of her surfing mantra. 

Now she sat and waited – it was just her and the waves. She had waited all summer for this, for the Brook Street Classic to be declared open. The conditions were perfect. All she had to do was not let the waves take advantage of her. 

That moment of calm before the wave rolled towards her – it felt like an hour and, as she began to paddle, all of her worries, all of her fears were compressed as though onto the head of a pin, and before her the sea and the sky opened up into a grand vision, like the evocative paintings of Constable. She was floating on air as the wave took her like an anaconda attempting to shake her from its back.  She moved with speed and an absence of formality – everything was intuitive. Soon, she found herself careering beneath the wave in a breathtaking tube, her fingers brushing against the wall of water as if tickling it. 

As she paddled into shore, she kept in check the inner smile that lit her up inside and her face remained poker straight. Until, that is, she was paddling back out toward the waves and into her next adventure. 

She surfed twice more, keeping her aggression and radical energy focused upon the waves, she wasn’t a graceful surfer; she surfed short board and she wanted to conquer the waves and finish with an exclamation. She was in it to win it. 

***

“Look at this, Rita,” Gillian’s father Richard said as he stabbed at the LA Times with his index finger, his face like a schoolboy. “Gillian’s in the LA Times! They’ve written a piece about her. They’re even following her progress in Hawaii this month!”

Gillian’s mother paced across the living room to the kitchen where Richard sat at the breakfast bar. She held out her hand for the paper excitedly and Richard handed it over. She read the article and began to laugh. 

“Our daughter!” She beamed. 

“That’s our girl!” Richard exclaimed, looking out to the ocean from the living room window beyond. 

“Well, we can’t take any credit,” Rita smiled, “except for a move to the beach.”

“It was all she needed.” 

They both re-read the article, emphasizing and repeating certain sentences out loud:

“Skill beyond her years,” “A determination in her eyes” – they enjoyed reading the praise for their daughter. Gillian had never wanted to stay in and play with dolls. Everything had been about getting out of the house, being independent and chasing the sun down until dusk. 

***

“Taco Tuesdays is one of those things you just can’t put into words,” Gillian said, between a mouthful of fish taco down at The Cliff in Laguna. 

“You just did,” Jake laughed, pushing his hair out of his face and slurping the last of his coke from a tall glass. 

Live music was playing, it was “Hotel California” by the Eagles and everyone was in taco bliss as the sun set golden over the waves. 

“Here’s to Hawaii!” Jake cheered, holding up a taco as half its contents spilled onto the plate in front of him. “Daymn,” he laughed. 

“Hawaii!” Gillian said back through a muffled mouth of taco. 

“Who would have thought it: starting out at Thalia, then the Brook Street Classic and then a national amateur title and now – Hawaii! What’s next Breithardt? Australia?” Jake wanted to make the question sound nonchalant, but really, he wanted to know because he would miss her. He was in love and – well, he couldn’t surf – which just added to his anxiety. Gillian’s surfing career had taken off since she won in her group at Brook Street and three years ago she had turned pro. He hadn’t got to see much of her the past few months while she travelled through Europe, surfing in Portugal and Spain. 

Gillian looked up at him and smiled – she knew what was going on. It had been six years now and she knew that face well. They’d met at The Cliff after her Brook Street victory and had become friends. At 19, things had become more serious. She touched his hand across the table, 

“I don’t know Jake, I thought I might hang around here for a while.” 

Jake looked down and smiled, “It’s your birthday in two weeks.” 

“Good memory!” 

“It’s what you hired me for,” Jake joked – he was always quirky. 

“It is,” Gillian said with mock sincerity. “I’ll be 22, and I expect champagne and flowers and … ”

“Did I miss something? Last time you tried champagne, which I believe was in Hawaii when you won your tournament, you told me you didn’t know what all the fuss was about and that you were happier with a coke down at the Cliff.”

“Well, you’re right about that!” she exclaimed with a smile. 

“I’m always right,” he said with a mischievous grin, leaping to his feet and pulling her from her chair. 

“Jake!” she cried, as the plastic chair hit the wooden deck. But no one heard or cared, they were all too busy whooping it up as the band played the opening chords to ZZ Top and their Sharp Dressed Man. 

They danced until the band wound down which was only after their third encore – and by this time everyone was pretty merry on tequila. 

As they walked back to Gillian’s apartment on Oak Street, they swayed together under the twinkling night sky. There were no cars, no people – just the distant sound of the ocean reaching the shore. 

“I love this sleepy town,” Gillian said, grabbing Jake and kissing him. 

Jake looked back at her. She was a bit drunk, but he was going to say it anyway. “I love you Gillian.” 

“Do you?” she smiled and kissed his cheek.

“Of course I do,” he said, kissing her back. 

“Then come with me to South Africa.” 

“South Africa? What?” Jake stepped back and Gillian took a step forward, trying to close the gap. 

“Yeah, there’s…” 

“Wait, you’re going to South Africa? When?” Jake furrowed his eyebrows. 

Gillian gulped, she realized she had messed up, it had all come out wrong, “Next week, it’s – I have to, the whole US team has to be there.” 

“What?” Jake looked stunned. “You didn’t even tell me, you just said you were going to stick around for a while.” 

“I was going to tell you, I was just enjoying everything – I mean, being with you. I didn’t want to ruin it.”

Jake pulled back a bit. “Enjoying everything? What am I to you? You couldn’t just tell me you were going? You didn’t think I could handle it?” 

She tried to reach out and grab him back, but he was already walking away. “No, that’s not – it’s not what I meant. I know you’re behind me on this – I don’t know why I said that,” she called at him. “Please – c’mon Jake!” 

He didn’t look back. He just kept walking, fast, until he was out of sight. The last she saw was the back of his burgundy hoodie as he made his way around the corner. 

***

“Turn that off. The line’s bad, I can hardly hear her,” Rita gestured to the TV where a clip of Reagan was being broadcast on the news. Richard grabbed the TV remote and flicked the television off, then positioned himself next to Rita in hopes of hearing his daughter’s voice too. 

“It’s crazy here, the waves are insane!” He could hear Gillian’s voice crackling down the line. “Have you heard from Jake, has he called?” 

“No, not yet, but I’m sure he’ll come around – you know he’s sensitive,” Rita said as she looked anxiously at Richard. 

“Just focus on your surfing, Gillian. You need to keep safe, we’ll let you know when he calls – because he will,” her dad said affirmatively. Rita smiled at him and nodded. 

“Any idea when you’ll be back?” Rita asked now, her eyes hopeful. 

“In about two months, we’re going to be travelling a little bit more mom … What?” Gillian was interrupted by a female voice behind her, “I’ve got to go, Mom, we’re having pizza and it just arrived.” 

“Love you Gill!” Richard called. 

“I love you too, Dad!” She called back and then the line was empty – she had gone.

***

 The morning air was already warm and the sea air smelled of salt and kelp as Gillian surfed the waves at Thalia. She cruised the waves, just like the surfers she had watched as a child. She had turned that vision into her reality. As she surfed, she could see the shape of a man on the beach – he was watching her. She knew it was Jake – and now she knew that for sure as she glided into shore on a gentle wave. She felt her stomach flip. They had spoken once on the phone since she had returned from South Africa, and it hadn’t exactly been warm. 

She walked up to him now, her board under her arm, wiping the saltwater from her face. 

“Hi,” she began gently. 

“Hi,” he said, not giving anything away. 

“How is everything going?” 

“Good, it’s… I’m fine.” 

“Would you like to,” she paused, her heart racing. “Would you – 

“It’s Tuesday, isn’t it? I thought I’d ask you, but you beat me to it.” 

She laughed, breaking the tension. 

“Pick me up at 6?” she said, hopeful. 

“You know the drill,” Jake smiled and then waved a goodbye as he walked down the beach. He’d walked all the way from Fisherman’s Cove where he lived on the beach. 

When she was sure that he wouldn’t see her, she jumped in the air and did a dance. 

***

Gillian held Jake’s hand as he spun her around and the band sang, “You spin me right round baby, right round!”

She grinned; it was the first day she had felt truly herself since they had that fight. She was so happy about her date that she had made a stop at Laguna Surf and bought a new board. She had been putting it off for a little while, but seeing Jake on the beach had made her feel like it was time for a fresh start. 

They danced and drank until they couldn’t stand, then gulped down iced water at a table overlooking the ocean. 

“Come on, let’s get out of here,” Jake said, downing the last of his water. 

“Don’t you want to stay to the end?” Gillian asked. She was surprised because Jake never left until the bitter end – he was all about the music. 

“I want to take a walk. C’mon, let’s go to Ruby Street Park.”

“Ruby?” she said screwing up her face, then she caught herself. “Ah, OK.”

It was a bit of a walk farther up the hill, but it didn’t take them long and they talked the whole way. Jake laughed when she told him the story of how she had won a car in South Africa and then brazenly sold it the next day – right in front of the judges – to one of the spectators who had been watching the tournament. 

As they reached the little park at Ruby Street, they wandered through it to the wooden platform and sat on the well-worn bench overlooking the ocean. 

They sat in silence for a while, watching the half-moon illuminate the water below as it smacked up against a rock intermittently and crickets chirped in the giant Aloe beside them. 

Jake put his arm around Gillian and she turned to look at him. 

“I’ve missed you so much,” she said, trying to hold back her emotions. 

“I don’t ever want to feel like that ever again in my life,” he said, looking away from her. 

“I’m sorry, I should have told you about South Africa, I know it was stupid and …  ” 

“No, the way I felt when I wasn’t with you – when we weren’t close – I don’t ever want to feel like that again.” 

She looked at him now and shook her head: “But we’re always close Jake, even when we’re not.” 

“I don’t – 

“Listen,” she said, and placed her head onto his chest. She could hear the rhythmic beating of his heart in her ear and she breathed out with a sigh. “It’s you.” 

He smiled and placed his head on her chest now. “I hear you,” he said with a smile. 

“Are we weird?” Jake said, raising an eyebrow. “Guys don’t usually listen to girl’s hearts … because they have boobs.” 

“Never was there a truer statement,” she said, creasing up with laughter and they both laughed. They watched the waves rolling into shore and a hummingbird moth fluttered at high speed on a honeysuckle nearby. 

“Do you think we’ll come back here, when we are ghosts, back to Laguna?” Gillian asked now, as she took in the scene around her. 

Jake shook his head, “I would hope so,” he raised his eyebrows earnestly. 

“Me, too,” Gillian said, nodding her head affirmatively. “I’d like to come back here with you; and watch the moon just like this and walk the beach in the sunshine. I’d like to smell the kelp and watch the Garibaldis swimming as I’m sitting on my surfboard waiting for the next wave.” 

“Then you will.”

She turned to him now, “I’d like to see you, watching me surf from Thalia Beach – just like you did today, because it made my day.” 

  ***

Jake stood up on the grassy hill that overlooks the ocean at Brook Street. There were thousands of people swarming the beaches and cliffs. Barbecue smoke wafted through the air and car radios blared. Jake waved a hand in front of him as the thick smoke from a barbecue floated under his nose, its acrid mix of charcoal and burning meat filling his nostrils. He turned around, annoyed – he wanted to concentrate on the ocean but the sounds of boom boxes, car radios and voices screeching filled his ears instead. He could barely hear the ocean, hear the beat that Gillian had described to him. It’s like a heartbeat, she had said – the rhythm of the ocean.

Jake moved farther along the cliff to get away from the people and get a clearer view of where Gillian would be surfing. As he wound his way through the crowd a tall kid in a yellow shirt elbowed him hard.

“Hey! Watch it!” Jake exclaimed, but the kid just stared at him with dead eyes, swaying slightly. The jerk’s on something, Jake muttered to himself as he kept walking. 

Finally, he found a place on the cliff with a little space and pulled his sweater from his waist before sitting on it. He checked his Casio, it was 2:20; she’d be up soon. 

A hummingbird zoomed past him and onto a fireweed and when he turned his gaze from its iridescent red feathers, there she was. He liked to tease her, calling her ‘Venus’ –  she surfed in a white bikini riding the waves to the shore. 

Watching her now, he felt prouder than he could ever say. She took on the waves like they were nothing, riding them as though she had their every unpredictable move written down already. 

He smiled as he watched her cascading down a wave and winding around it at speed – he couldn’t wait to tell her when she came to shore; he had been learning to surf while she was in South Africa. He had started with some lessons with the lifeguards at Doheny Beach. A low rolling wave, she would say – rolling her eyes – he just knew it. He would walk to Thalia tomorrow and surprise her on the beach, except this time he would have a board and he’d – well, he’d try to catch a wave. He was getting better now; he could catch them if it wasn’t big surf. 

He smiled to himself as he watched her communing with the waves. It didn’t come to him naturally like the way it did for her – he was more of a mechanical type of guy. He helped his father to run their car showroom and enjoyed helping him fix up the cars. But there was something about catching his first wave – that weightless feeling of being propelled by something completely out of his control – that had pestered him ever since. 

***

Gillian and Jake watched the sun set as the band began to play at The Cliff. The sun melded into a pyramid before flattening out in a blaze of red across the ocean.

“It’s like the ocean extinguished it,” Gillian said, turning to Jake and sipping on her coke. 

“Gillian,” Jake began, and her eyes met his with curiosity. He felt himself gulp, “nothing.” He chickened out. 

“What?” 

“Oh, nothing, I was just – I thought maybe you’d like to go to the Dirty Bird this evening, you know, a change from here.” 

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” she smiled. “Isn’t that what you always say?”

He laughed, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” 

“I’m always right,” she said, laughing, and pulled away from the table to go join the band across from them. 

“U2,” she yelled. “Unforgettable Fire!” 

Jake chased her, grabbing her waist as the drummer began to beat the drums and the guitarist hit the opening chords.

They jumped up and down and moved like nobody was watching. Jake watched Gillian as she threw her arms in the air and shook her hips. He took her hand in his and span her around and as she finished her rotation, he pulled her close to him and kissed her. 

“I love this place!” she shouted over the music.

He smiled at her; he couldn’t wait to show up at Thalia beach tomorrow – she wouldn’t suspect a thing. 

***

“There’s an article in Stu News,” Richard said as he scrolled the internet. “A local man is writing about his experience with transplant surgery – apparently he has been asked to be part of a study.” 

“Oh,” Rita replied as she buttered a sandwich for her lunch. “I think I heard one of the kids in my eighth grade class talking about something to do with that – her father apparently is being interviewed by doctors from San Francisco.”

“Mmm,” Richard replied, engrossed in the article, his glasses illuminated by the computer screen. 

“It would be amazing wouldn’t it – after all these years – if we… ” 

“I’d better get going,” Rita said, ending the conversation. Richard could see that her eyes had become glassy, and he knew better than to continue the conversation. “I don’t want them to think I’m ready to retire, they’ve asked me three times now!” she said, forcing a smile. 

“I think you’re a smidgeon past retirement,” Richard said, attempting to be funny and change the energy that lay heavy between them. 

As Rita closed the front door, Richard found himself reading the article again. It fascinated him. 

***

“We thought that you should be here,” Rita said as she led Jake into the living room which overlooked Thalia Beach. Gillian’s father sat on a large green couch opposite a man. At first, the stranger’s back was all that Jake could see. He took a glance at him as Rita ushered him toward an armchair. What if he’s ridiculously ugly and horrible – I’m not sure I could handle it, Jake caught his mind wandering. That’s so bizarre, why would I even think that? What’s wrong with me? It’s because she was so, everything – that’s why you’re thinking it, he can’t deserve it. 

Jake sat down awkwardly as Rita sat beside Richard and nodded to the man in the armchair. Jake was surprised at how old Gillian’s parents looked. Still, he shouldn’t be – they must be in their seventies by now – he was startled by the passage of time – God, it has really been that long. 

“This is Darren,” Richard said, gesturing to the man in the armchair opposite him. 

“Hi,” Jake said, smiling. It was a genuine smile, but he couldn’t pretend that this situation wasn’t throwing him. “So, you – ”

“Darren received Gillian’s heart after the accident,” Rita said, her voice level, until she said the word ‘accident.’ Richard placed a sun-weathered hand upon hers. 

Jake shifted in his armchair. He had seen the guy who was responsible for all the devastation. He had been less than a foot from him, looked into his intoxicated eyes. He had even told him to ‘watch it’ after the guy had knocked into him. Jake felt that he should have just called the cops, made the guy go home, driven him home, anything. He had gone over this in his mind so many times after the accident. Gillian had simply been walking from her place to the convenience store to get some soda. The intoxicated kid’s car had gone up onto the sidewalk and Gillian was right there. She was knocked down and hit her head. She never woke up. 

Jake felt a tear roll down his cheek – he couldn’t help it. He wiped it away fast. He felt like it wasn’t his place to cry. For them it was even worse – they had lost their daughter. 

Jake now noticed that, in front of Darren, Gillian’s parents had placed photos of her, magazine articles, newspaper clippings. She stood in her white bikini atop her short board, on the front of a surf magazine. She was posthumously honored in the surfing Hall of Fame. 

“We’ve been talking with Darren – he got here a little early,” Richard said now, and Jake nodded, “ – and it comes as no surprise to him that Gillian was a surfer.” 

“No.” Darren shook his head, smiling, he had friendly green eyes and Jake found himself warming to the guy. “I, well – ” he opened his palms, trying to express what he wanted,  “there’s so much to say.” 

“I bet,” Jake nodded. “It’s OK – please.” 

“When… I received my donor heart – Gillian’s heart – I was just so happy that I had a chance again. I was 21 and I couldn’t run, couldn’t do any of the things I wanted to. I’d always had this genetic issue with my heart – it was weak and there was a hole. I felt like a horse that wanted to run but was shackled. My spirit said one thing and my body another. I honestly thought that I wouldn’t make it to 22.” 

Jake moved his hand over his mouth, it was hard to imagine someone so young contemplating such a fate. 

“After the operation – when I began to recover – I began to have these vivid dreams of the ocean at night,” Darren gestured to the ocean through the window.

“It’s where she was happiest,” Rita interjected, squeezing Richards hand. 

Darren nodded in agreement. “I would dream every night of the ocean, and it felt good, it felt free. It got to the point where my mom was asking me if I was ok, if I was depressed, because I kept wanting to go to sleep early. But that was because I wanted the dreams to come and set me free. I was still recovering and I had to be careful. But as time progressed, I got better, my body got stronger – and then the visions of the ocean started to come during the daytime as well. I’d be in the supermarket, or walking on a particular street and then suddenly, I’d get this weird feeling – I’d feel like I needed to be in the ocean.” He shook his head. “I thought I was losing it.” 

“Were there any particular places you felt this more than others?” Jake asked, curious. 

Darren thought about it for a moment, “Yes… I remember one day I was driving to work – at Sound Spectrum – the music store here in Laguna Beach.”

“I know it well, still buy records there.” Jake smiled, remembering Gillian’s face when she’d find a new record she loved. 

“Right, well, there was this one day where, instead of going to work at the store I drove down to Thalia, parked my car and just walked down to the beach and jumped in the ocean. I felt like I needed the water on my body,” Darren began to laugh and the tension lifted as everyone laughed, imagining this grown man, leaping into the sea like a kid. “It was crazy! But I did it – and then of course, I started noticing surfers. Well, once I’d bought a surfboard, you couldn’t keep me off it. I’ve competed at Thalia, Long Beach, Brook Street. I love it.” 

“Which foot do you surf with?” Jake asked, interested. 

“I’m right-handed, but I surf goofy.” 

Jake slapped his knee. “Gillian was a goofy foot!” 

“It doesn’t surprise me,” Darren smiled. “I hated the ocean, couldn’t stand it, scared the life out of me. But not anymore, thanks to her.” Darren looked earnestly at Richard and Rita. “She changed my entire life, in more ways than I could ever comprehend.” 

Jake nodded – it was incredible to hear. “Did, you… was there anywhere else you felt drawn to?” 

Darren thought about it again and shrugged. “Y’know, I’m not sure, but I started going to Ruby Street Park now and then, just to eat my lunch some days when I worked at the record store. That was new. I still do it now even, sometimes – something about the place. But it’s probably nothing.” 

Jake smiled, he kept it to himself. It was between him and Gillian. He had moved away from town not long after the accident. He couldn’t stand the memories around every corner. Now he was back in Laguna Beach. Maybe there was something here for him again. It always seemed to him as a kid that people came to Laguna for something. To heal, to discover themselves, to live out a dream – something – and right now, he felt like he was living in a dream, staring at a man who was kept alive by Gillian’s heart. 

“What do the doctors say?” Jake asked now, curious. 

“They call it cellular memory; but it’s more than that, I’m telling you. They’ve been putting together people like me with the families of donors – if they’re willing, of course – and what they’ve been finding is astounding. People’s memories, their love, their fears – it seems to be carrying through in some donor organs and influencing the lives of their recipients.” 

Rita smiled at Darren as a tear rolled down her cheek, “Do you mind if I…” 

Darren knew exactly what she meant and stood up, walking toward her. She stood and they hugged, Rita placed her ear against Darren’s chest and listened to his heart beat. 

It’s you. Gillian’s words echoed in Jake’s mind. 

***

 Jake paddled out into the ocean far away from the other surfers, far away from the noise of the beach, until he could only hear his own breathing and feel his heart thundering in his chest. It was the first time he had been back on a board since Gillian. 

The sky was overcast and the sunset was hidden from view as dark cumulonimbus clouds clustered above. At the horizon a burning yellow light rose upwards, halted by the layer of cloud. Jake paused and sat upright on his board. He was alone. The ocean lapped calmly now and Garibaldis swam beneath his board. 

A pod of dolphins swam by, their dorsal fins bobbing in and out of view, and he felt one cold raindrop hit his cheek, he touched it with his fingers. It was California on the 29th of July –  Gillian’s birthday: it wouldn’t rain. The sun pierced the cloud and a beam of light cascaded downwards hitting the water beyond.

Jake looked back towards the beach in the distance. It had been many years since he had been back to Thalia Beach, and now here he was once more. He let out a sigh. He remembered one of their last conversations at Ruby Street Park. 

Gillian had said, “Everything has an element except humans. Dolphins have the ocean; they are one with it. They know how the water feels around their bodies – really feels; they’re symbiotic with the waves. Birds have the air – they feel it like it’s solid as rock. They carve their way through it and float upon it –  they use it to migrate thousands of miles without any dumb engine. Some creatures live in the trees and some in the earth, but what do we have? We can’t feel anything.” 

And then Jake had stopped her. He had looked her in the eyes and then Gillian had said, “We can feel love.” 

Jake said it out loud – We can feel love.

 

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In Memoriam - Stu Saffer and Barbara Diamond.

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