Copyright is held by the author. This is an excerpt from a memoir-in-progress.
AS AN international aid worker, I didn’t want to appear to be a prima donna. Sipping soda water from the shade of Hotel du Lac’s outdoor pagoda, I perched on a bar stool and people-watched beside Gerry, my he-man. Lac Togo was our favourite weekend hub for windsurfing. The dark grey lagoon was really a shallow swamp bottomed with slimy weeds. We had left our surfboards on the beach to schmooze and rehydrate with our expatriot buddies. From my seat at the marble counter, windsurfers gliding across the water framed by the bar’s white stucco arches were a picture of tropical leisure.
The tall hunky Dutch businessman, nicknamed Hercules, ambled to the bar, took the seat next to me, and ordered a beer. I tried not to stare but secretly admired his broad, defined shoulders, his ripped six-pack, beefy thighs, and nice bikini. My skin tingled imagining a conversation with him.
“Are you taking your cat out today?” I asked. He looked at me with impossible dreamy blue eyes set in a tanned blond frame.
“Yuh…” He sucked his beer.
“Good wind today, eh, Martin,” Gerry pitched over my head to Hercules.
“Yuh… is good for Cat, but strong for windsurfer.” He nodded toward the lake.
“Great place to learn windsurfing!” Gerry said. “It’s so shallow, when you fall you just stand up.” Hercules’ mouth curled as he looked at Gerry.
“Time for work,” he said. He elbowed me as he left the bar for his beloved catamaran on the beach. The quiet way he primped and shined his cat’s pontoons with his gold watch glinting in the sun served the legend that his dedication to sailing his vessel was matched only by his commitment to his wife. As the sun climbed and the heat intensified, the elegant café tables on the patio were vacated in favour of the bar and blessed shade under beachside palm trees.
“I’ve gotta learn how to turn like that,” I said to Gerry, indicating the elegant tacking on the lake. “Beats having to fall in just to change direction.”
“If you stand real close to the mast,” Gerry said, gesturing with his fingers and moving closer to me, “it’s easier to flip the sail around. I’ll bet you a whiskey you do it today.” Gerry’s love of fake-betting amused me. I smiled at him and raised my eyebrows. Neither of us drank whiskey.
“How about you buy me a beer and massage my windsurfing muscles instead,” I said.
Claudine, a pint-sized French triathlete, sped across the lake on a sporty rudderless windsurfer. She tacked as if pirouetting, and leaned steep into the wind from her vivid blue-violet sail. Then she spray skidded into shore and set her board among the other windsurfers, kayaks, catamarans, and pirogues. After unclipping her windsurfing harness belt and tossing it onto her board, she strutted over to the bar. Her long jet-black hair dripped and swung past her olive shoulders.
“I wish I could fly like you on the board,” I said.
“Behn, c’est rien! Tu peux le faire!” Her lively black eyes sparkled as she straddled a white wooden barstool. “This lac is big puddle. But you have baby board, Joyce, is good for debutante. You can go to next level, smaller board, bigger sail, and don’t forget the harness belt! We women have puny arms. We need helper, is not weakness. You go faster and is more fun!”
I looked at her, admiring her courage and brawn. She was shorter than my five-foot-three and she had a fierce dedication to sports.
“You borrow my board and belt to try, why not?”
It looked so graceful, easy, simple. I was more fit in Togo that ever before with our daily swimming and sweating. I tossed back the last of my soda, and with it, my fear of water. “Yeah…” I shot Claudine a glance and nodded.
A svelte Peace Corps girl with ample breasts in a skimpy bikini led her board onto the lake, and in one smooth motion, stepped up and sailed out with the daintiest touch.
“I’m off,” Gerry said, vacating the bar. He dashed to the beach, jumped onto his board, and sailed away before I could drag mine into the water. Steadying it, my feet squished into the muddy lake bottom and I slipped on swollen reeds. I’d have loved to sail together like Claudine did with her boyfriend, but Gerry was stronger and more skilled and I didn’t want to hold him back.
I climbed onto my board, squared my feet and tethered the boom’s cord. Claudine dashed up, thrust her belt at me and disappeared. I grinned, buckling the stiff padded band around my waist. Then I hauled the mast and hovered in a moment of stillness. I held my breath, awaiting that familiar impulse of movement. A breeze hooked the sail and pulled me away from shore.
Torquing the boom to turn, I slipped and fell backwards, submerging in the oily weeds. My bikini top pulled half off with the splash. It was easy to hold my breath sitting on the lake bottom, and I stayed an extra moment to adjust my top. My eyes were squeezed shut, but I was curious about what lurked underwater. When I peeked, there was a murky world of undulating bloated weeds. Green grasses waved in a dreamlike jade world with speckles reflecting scant sunlight penetrating the surface. Strangely, nothing stung my eyes in this pickle juice. When I stood up straight, the water was at waist level, and I cleared my face of brine, though the scent remained. I rebalanced on my board and as I cruised further away from shore, the wind blustered and I picked up speed. In moments, I slalomed and jumped the waves like black diamond moguls until my arms quivered and ached and I had to catch my breath. Then I remembered the belt.
I gripped the belt clip but fumbled until the sail flapped, the board wobbled and I came to a standstill. I grabbed the latch with determination, fastened the boom, and then leaned back, holding firm. The belted sail caught the wind and amplified its power. I rocketed forwards, skipping, skidding and bouncing over white caps, gasping and whooping in exhilaration. Racing across the lake under a blazing sun with wind tossing my hair was a slice of sweet freedom. I was captain of my ship, sailing the high seas.
A blast of cross wind tackled the sail and flipped me backwards into the lagoon. I scrambled and kicked to resurface, rising near the board and spat out lake slime. It was windy and frisky waves pushed, pawed, and doused me. Treading and sucking air, I inhaled water as I paddled over, coughing and burping, and held on tight. I heaved myself onto the board, clambered to my feet and caught the rope, puffing air. The sail was heavy with water and tensed against the squalls as I tried to resurrect it with rubbery arms. I braced my feet and coaxed the mast upright, hand over hand. Idling in that mysterious moment with the sail in neutral, the gale charged the other way, flattened it forwards and flicked me like a bug. I twirled off the wishbone boom and plunged into the water with a messy sploosh.
The lake swallowed me with a terminal gurgle. With breath locked in my throat, I uncurled from somersaulting, suspended underwater as bubbles rose to the surface. The lake looked bottomless and black and my chest tightened. Above me, glowing light illuminating the rippling swath of backlit sail fabric flagged my way. I felt small and scared in this soundless, dark, subaquatic world. The grip around my chest squeezed with a pressure that felt like I would burst from breath-holding. A school of small fish spun away. I aimed upwards and swam hard until I poked out under the sail, gasping. After several moments, my wheezing settled and pounding heart calmed. I hobbled onto the board, panting, and shook out burning crampy arms.
Wind whipped and gusted, waves slapped the board and it listed sideways. The sun’s stark glare and reflections flashing off the lake blurred my vision with tears. I looked around, surprised at being so far from shore that people on the beach were indiscernable. Gerry was nowhere to be seen.
I coached myself to remount and get back to windsurfing. Staggering to my feet with resolve to control the sail, I told myself it was easy, I’d done it umpteen times before. I yanked on the mast with trembling arms. The wind smacked, I lost balance, and fell in again. And then again, and again. A pit pulled in my stomach as I slumped, breathless, my heart thudding, realizing I was getting nowhere.
“You fucking sail, what do you think you’re doing!” I yelled and cussed and told the sail off. I air-punched and stomped on the board. I swore some more and paced back and forth. Then, I sat down and cried. Dangling my legs in the water, I clung to the boom’s cord, waiting for the next idea or burst of energy. It was deserted out here with only the sound of lapping waves for company. A dark smudge of trees on the distant shore seemed squashed between the glittering silver lake and endless radiant blue sky. The tropical sun sizzled and sawed overhead as the waves lulled me and I gently drifted. My mind slowed and emptied, and I felt like lying down and going to sleep.
In the distance, a vessel appeared at starboard on the lake’s heat shimmer. As it approached, I saw double pontoons and a huge multicoloured sail. Catamaran. I swore it was Hercules, riding his baby, coming to save me. Then I noticed a crew of two and the rope slid from my hands, releasing the mast. My heart leapt as they sidled over and I didn’t care about looking like a soggy water rat.
“I’ll bring your board back if you want a ride to the beach!” Gerry called, pulling off his shirt to reveal that familiar strong tanned fuzzy chest.
“Okay!” He jumped in and swam over. Hercules manoeuvred the Cat against my board. He lunged, offering a sinewy arm and I almost curtsied. I stepped across the pond to safety. He grunted and pointed to the passenger seat. I started to make conversation, but it didn’t work and it was a quiet ride back.
Standing on the shore, my muscles twitched and I felt numb.
“You were tired,” Gerry said, wrapping me with a towel. “The undercurrent pulled you out toward the middle of the lake. We should fit your board with an emergency inflatable paddle!” He grinned and eyed me.
I thanked Hercules with a handshake and smile. “I really appreciate you coming to get me and taking Gerry to return my board.”
“Yuh…” He smiled and grunted, elbowing me. Gerry frowned.
Claudine ran up.
“Joyce, you were fantastique!” She clutched me. “You see, the belt works! And you got a ride on Hercule’s holy Cat!” She winked.
I leaned on Gerry as he rubbed my back.
“You know, that was me who asked him to help out,” he said. I straightened up and stared at him.
“Really? Oh… thank you!” I babbled, dumbfounded at the double chivalry. Princess successfully rescued, tick.