“Here, I cannot speak with a girl like this,” he says. His dark brown eyes squint into the Moroccan sun, searching the horizon for the next surge of water from the Atlantic. I don’t understand what he means. I lean forward to look at him closer and the nose of my board settles into the water. He turns and looks at me, his dark brown shoulders glistening with droplets of salt water.
“If I want to speak with a Muslim girl, it is secret. No one can know. Here is one. Turn,” he leans toward me and pushes at my leg, eyes still on the ocean. I look out, see the swell, and obediently turn and lie on my faded blue and white surfboard, chin hitting wax, resting my eyes on the golden Moroccan sand with Mounir’s board and his back to my left. Still sitting, his muscles ripple as he balances.
“That’s stupid,” I say over my shoulder. “How can you talk to them in private if you don’t know them?” The sun is hot. He chuckles and tickles my foot.
“I couldn’t be Muslim,” I say as I feel the wave build behind me. He laughs again and takes hold of the back of my board, one hand resting on my calf, he pats it twice. The earthen scent of Argan Oil from his skin drifts towards me on the breeze.
“No, you are too strong. Paddle,” he reminds me.
I sweep my hands into the water and under my board, pushing. I hear the wave crashing to the right of me. I feel Mounir push me forward.
“Stand up!” he demands under his Arabic accent. The wave carries me from him, surging me toward the beach. I can feel the board bouncing on the tumult. My hands push up against the board, my muscles tense, legs bend. I stand and shift my weight, easing the board into the side of the wave, gliding it down the stretch of water. I push against the water, up and down, pumping the board parallel with the wave until it breaks. I glide with the foam, jump off, feel the grit of the sand under the soles of my feet. I turn toward the horizon, raising an arm up to shield the sun. His silhouette gives a thumbs up as the ocean glistens behind him. I push out into the waves again, pulling against the surge. He smiles as I paddle to him, and shakes his head when I gracefully sit up on my board.
“You could never be Muslim, Lisa, but it is possible for you to be Moroccan.”
Cinnamon Rainbows is the surf shop in North Hampton, NH. I walk in and a bell jingles my arrival. The surf off the coast of New Hampshire is flat today. There is no one in the store except for a young couple looking at bathing suits. I wander back up the stairs of the little wooden building to the rows of surfboards. I touch each one, wishing I was on the other side of the ocean, wishing Mounir was with me to tell me what one I needed, wishing he would tease with me about my pale skin, that I’m almost as white as the boards here. I hear him in my head as I stand on the opposite side of our ocean. ‘You are white, Lisa,’ he said. ‘You need to change colors. Stay with me in Taghazout. You will change the colors of your skin, I will teach you how to surf like me, and you will be happy.’
I’m adrift in my own sea of ambivalence. I second guess myself. Always. I wonder if somewhere, I have made the wrong turn, took the road less traveled, when I should have taken the one that was waiting to be discovered. I’m a rebel. I’m a woman without a destination. I’m a lost soul in the pages of a travel magazine, wedged between the centerfold images of palm trees and snow-covered mountains, nestled in between the italicized words of Italiano, Francais, Deutch. Tiptoeing on the graceful lines of العربية. Because I have that dreaded travel bug, yet it is not the one most describe. My travels do not set me on a bus full of Americans; impatiently waiting their turn to scoff at the locals and ask if “anyone speaks English” because they refuse to travel by the tides of the cultures. They want to see what they were told to see. Eiffel tower, Coliseum, Great Wall of China, Rainforests. They refuse to eat local dishes, and believe that anyone that cannot understand their language is below them, stupid. But I know better.
The surf boards are piled in the surf shack on the rocky New England coastline. It is colder than normal for an October day. It is the end of the popular surf season. The plastic is dull from a summer of use; the colors beneath the wax are not as bright in the shadows of a New England fall.
“Can I help you?” the employee had followed me. His hair is long and blonde, tossed back from his forehead in sunglasses. I smile back but decline his offer, leaving him and the shack on the side of the road until next summer, when my skin will again change colors and I may be able to control the riptides of my heart.
My life is full of happiness - sitting on the edges of the earth, watching the waves kiss the shore, promising new beginnings. But my heart beats to the rhythm of a congregation of cultures, each their own color upon my soul. They say ignorance is bliss. I'm beginning to agree. For I strike a chisel on my heart each time my eyes pass over a new horizon. With every language that floods my senses and every hand that embraces mine I grow, I change, I fall, but I come alive again.
I am returning to my second home a year after I first stepped foot into the Medieval city’s piazzas. My time living and studying in the small town of Ascoli Piceno, Italy apparently was not enough. I did not expect to be back here, not so soon. But I had the opportunity, and my heart booked the tickets without telling my mind it was a poor decision. Now, I am rolling a suitcase down the sidewalk towards my old apartment – past the shoe store, past the old men sitting on the benches next to the church, their brown and grey hats and suits blending with the Tufa stone of its walls. Now I am hearing the sounds of Italian as my heels click over the stone and it echoes through the narrow strada, the streets that I had grown to love so much.
Now I am on the old swing, tied up on a tired tree that lets its leaves touch the surface of the electric blue water. My toes barely skim the surface, gliding back and forth over the Italian river and letting the dam that had held back my memory of a language break upon my tongue. I pull at the rusted chains that let me fly and soar up and watch as my feet seem to touch the surrounding mountains, and then dive back down to the water. The breeze is warm. It is like I have never left. Italian floods my mouth again. I am remembering, my world. And suddenly I have visions of grey hair falling soft upon my face in Piazza Popolo with my grandchildren chasing pigeons, rattling off Italian that echoes on the stones laid by the Romans and under the eyes of Ascoliana. I see a small little house with stone flower boxes; vines clinging to the brick. I am airing out my rugs and hanging my laundry on a line. I have forgotten what a dryer is. I eat better. I am old but I am thin. I am healthy. I am more Italian than American.
My heart beats to a different rhythm here. My soul shines in the shadows of the mountains and reflections of the Aegean Sea. I have chosen to tear myself apart again by returning.
He calls me as I’m sitting in the airport waiting for my flight home. There is sorrow in his voice.
“Stai in italia. Viviamo insieme.” Stay Italy. We can live together.
“Non posso.” I can’t.
I can’t. I can’t.
I am a drifting soul. I have to choose. I have to choose and I know I’ll always be getting on that plane with its nose pointed toward Boston. I know Europe will slip back into my memories as something that is too perfect to be real. Something that is almost unreachable. Because - I am American. Sono Americana. Per sempre. For always, forever. I know my tears will dry by the time I see Boston outside my airplane window, and I’ll run into the arms of a veteran Marine, and I’ll call my mother and my brother and I’ll smile because I’ll be home. But I will hesitate at least once, and wish I could turn, wish I could fly back for just one more day, just one more week. I’ll look over my shoulder and wonder.
But when I am older and my grey hair surrounds my face, and the skin around my eyes wrinkles from the years of New England sun, I know that I will still sit on the end of my world as the ocean tags the shore. My heart will strain under my chest and I’ll wonder if I have taken the right path, wonder if my dreams were truly impossible, and wonder if I would be happier if I was standing on the other side of the ocean. Home. My heart beats to the rhythm of each letter. I dig my feet deeper into the New England soil.