FictionWinter 2023

The Paddle-Out — Michelle Panik

Kara Turner was in her garage, boring a hole into a block of wood, when her ex called wanting to borrow her surfboard racks.

“The rats chewed mine,” he explained.

Kara had just gotten their kids off to school and was back home, making this little wooden riser that would boost their son’s cello 2 inches off the ground. He needed it for that afternoon’s performance, which had to go well. A successful performance would mean that Aaron would want to keep playing the cello, and he had to keep playing.

Kara said she’d look for the racks later, but Tim said, “I need them now.”

Such a last-minute ask was typical of him, but it was still terrible and she told him so.

But then Tim said, “They’re for a paddle-out,” and Kara’s tone changed. Her frustration with him was nothing compared to the death of a fellow surfer.

She said, “I’ll bring them by in 10 minutes,” and hung up.

There was a time in Kara’s life when she hoisted surfboards onto and carefully lifted them off a car every day. Before that, she waited by the rearview mirror while her brother, who was four years older, did it for her. He had given her surfing and, with it, an escape from the screaming and the dishes screaming past their heads.

Kara had counted her brother and his buddies as friends. They, in turn, relished taking her places—burger joints for late-night food runs, concert mosh pits where they encircled her and the beach. Tim was the kid with the blond curls that were always falling over his eyes. He was serious and slow to talk, while Kara’s mouth sprinted. Like a tide rising into a pool, they filled in each other’s negative spaces. So much, in fact, they had two kids together.

But those surfing days were from a different time; now, Kara was firmly entrenched in parent life. She shellacked the wooden block and left the brush soaking in turpentine. At last week’s lesson, Aaron’s teacher said he’d outgrown his cello; even with its endpin fully extended, the c-string peg was too far below his ear. It was time to upsize—to swap Aaron’s one-fourth-size cello for another that was half the size of a standard. Kara refused; the fingerboard would be bigger, too, and what if Aaron’s hands didn’t easily adjust? He’d already asked to quit cello once, and an awkward new instrument might give him reason to ask again. So, the teacher suggested Kara make this riser to buy Aaron a little more time with his current instrument.

Kara set the riser to dry in the sun and, having no idea where the racks could be or when she’d last used them, turned to her garage shelves. She checked the bin labelled Water—which had snorkel gear, militia-style squirt guns, and arm floaties no one had used in years, but no board racks. Then, because they’d pitched their tent on plenty of beaches, she checked Camping. Still no racks.

Finally, she opened a cardboard box with “Kara’s Footloose Life” scribbled on its side. She’d given it this wry label when packing up her studio apartment, her belly expanding for the first time. She and Tim hadn’t planned on moving in together, but they hadn’t planned on having a baby, either. And yet, when the home test was positive, they said to hell with planning and rented this house for the family they were going to be.

It was in this box that Kara found the racks: two sun-faded, nylon straps, their warp and weft thinning and soft. Onto each were fed cylinders of yellow foam that were gummy with sand and wax. They had transported boards countless times up and down Southern California’s coastline for Kara and Tim, and now they would come out of retirement to escort his board solo.

Kara had done two paddle-outs in her life, both in high school and both for boys. One had succumbed to an undiagnosed heart defect, and the other a car crash. Both deaths were sudden and tragic—two words everyone used, Kara included, even though she couldn’t then grasp what such finality meant. When she did, several years and life bumps later, she hated this tendency people had of summing up hard things with easy words.

◊ ◊ ◊

Tim was waiting outside his apartment when she pulled up.

“A little sandy, but they’ll do the trick,” she said, handing him the straps.

Tim tossed them over his shoulder and opened his hatchback’s door to step up. He affixed the first clip to the roof’s lip and tossed the strap across to Kara. Tim was all business, which Kara appreciated; she could do this favor and get back to her life.

She opened the door and placed her clip but, when she pulled to tighten, both broke loose.

“I’ll hold mine,” Tim said. “Try again.”

She did and the same thing happened. Tim ran his finger along the car’s roof, inspecting its groove.

“Lip’s too small,” he decided. “These won’t work.”

These straps had worked on every other car they’d tried. But cars were different now.

Aloud, Tim wondered, “Did we never put boards on this car?”

Kara shook her head. “You moved all your stuff out with your truck, said you wanted to simplify, and traded it in for this.”

Their uncoupling, or whatever it was called, had occurred through a series of ridiculously petty arguments—each of which, in the moment, felt like a must-win. Fighting over TVs, and who should get the stand-up mixer—the one who used it, or the one who ate the fruits of its labor. Things were better now; they no longer fought outright.

Tim stepped down from his car and said, “I don’t have to go.”

Kara knew what he was implying. That she could drive him, but that she wouldn’t want to. And he was right, but not for his assumed reason. Kara wasn’t selfish or stubborn; she was preoccupied with Aaron’s performance.

When she admitted this, Tim said, “The concert isn’t until the afternoon.”

Which was true. And it was also true that she’d finished Aaron’s cello riser and washed and ironed his black performance clothes. Sure, she had insurance claims to process, and laundry and housework; but, when didn’t she?

She said, “I’ll take you.”

They put the racks and then Tim’s board on her SUV. As Kara gunned it onto the freeway, she asked who the paddle-out was for. Tim said a name she didn’t know. It stung to think of him with friends and a life after her, even though there was never any official “after.” Because if you never marry, you never divorce.

The conversation moved on—as conversations do between two people who share so much—and Tim asked about their daughter’s computer programming team.

Calling themselves The Striped Aardvarks, Amy and her friends entered 24-hour coding competitions. The last one locked teams in a mall with an fully staffed food court, a raucous band, and a hummingbird of an emcee, all of which kept the kids awake and typing. Teams had to create a business within a role-playing game, and The Striped Aardvarks’ was an eBike insurance company.

Kara related this to Tim now, who said, “A video game about insurance?”

Kara shrugged and told him the winner was a pizza delivery business.

He guffawed. “Why don’t kids just go to the beach?”

Kara didn’t push back, but she disagreed; as long as you had something, you had something.

◊ ◊ ◊

The beach parking lot was busy but, after a loop, Kara snagged a spot. Tim’s buddies were already there, and the men traded long hugs and gentle words while Kara wavered between feeling entirely out of place and doing doubletakes at people who looked familiar but she hadn’t thought about in forever. There was a guy in a seagrass hat holding an enameled metal coffee cup. There was a guy in a Baja hoodie with an energy drink. There was one who told outrageous stories with his hands, and another who had a beachball belly but could no doubt carve a wave like a ballerina onstage. Nothing like the crowd of moms at school pickup discussing the latest better-than-Botox technique.

With the pulled-taut clouds and Catalina in the distance, the beach was sunny in a wide-open way that Kara’s suburb never could be. Just 20 minutes ago, she’d been banking on this being a quick drop-off—like a music lesson or the school curb. Now, she wanted to linger.

And so, when Tim suggested she grab a coffee at a nearby café—the paddle-out wouldn’t last more than an hour—Kara tossed away some kelp and took a seat on the sand, saying, “I’d rather stay.”

A tiny guy in a wetsuit, booties, and squid lid kicked some sand into a pile and stepped onto it. From this authority of three extra inches, he shouted, “Thanks for coming! I know Skirmish would be happy to see us all on this beach together. Even if he had to make such a terrible kick-out on life for it to happen.”

His voice faltered, and a guy in an argyle beanie clasped his shoulder until he nodded and half-whispered, “Thanks.” Everyone waited while he recovered enough to explain the paddle-out, finishing with, “We have a few extra boards. Big piers that’ll float a walrus. In case anyone doesn’t have one, or has been eating more post-surf burritos than actually surfing, and could use extra floatation.”

His little joke broke the tension, and the crowd chuckled. Turning to Kara, Tim said, “Join us.”

Kara shook her head. She didn’t know Skirmish, and she wasn’t dressed for the occasion.

Tim said Skirmish was an includer and added, “You’re wearing, what, nylon? It’ll dry.”

Maybe eventually; Kara’s spandex leggings and hoodie weren’t exactly oceangoing apparel. Even so, being at this beach she’d surfed countless times, with these people—whom she didn’t know but did—was enough to make her say, “OK.”

Tim got her a massive 12’ 6,” and she carried it on her head like when she was a kid and her arm couldn’t reach around her shortboard. At the shore, Kara pulled her leggings over her knees and joined the men in the water. With a hand on their boards, they walked through the light shore break.

Tim asked Kara when she’d last surfed, and she said, “No idea.”

But after a few moments, it came back to her: pregnant with Amy, but only five months, so her wetsuit still fit. She and Tim had gone out at Windswept—reliable waves without much oompf, but it was the only spot breaking that day. Out in that patch of the Pacific, they had talked about how much longer she could, or should, surf—both for her comfort and the baby’s safety. Months and months, Kara had confidently decided. Which, to someone in her mid-20s, was a long time.

But a few days later, Kara got the flu, which precipitated weeks of green congestion and a cough that turned heads in the grocery store. After that, she pulled her deltoid moving a crib into their house. Then an algae bloom drifted down from Ventura, and not a single soul went anywhere near that fetid water.

Plus, there were birthing classes and a baby shower and work. Everyone told her to rest before the little bundle came. Which resulted in her skimming magazines in a hammock.

And then there was Amy, born abruptly—spindly but healthy—at 35 weeks. She was a C-section, which had Kara healing from surgery while also learning to care for a newborn. Soon after that—surprise!—she was pregnant again. Kara never got a last surf before everything changed.

And now here she was, one-plus decade and two kids later, back on a board in the water. She hadn’t surfed in forever and yet, for so long, it had figured so largely in her life.

Amy had computers, but Aaron quit activity after activity. He didn’t like sports. He didn’t like art. Chess hadn’t worked out, and Scouts turned out to be Church with merit badges. He could surf if he wanted, but he didn’t.

At the moment, music. For whatever reason, it was sticking. Mostly.

The last concert was going well until Bach’s “Minuet in C Major.” Halfway through, Aaron screwed up his bowing pattern, and then he just sat, bow gripped in his fist, while the other kids finished.

Afterward, he asked to quit. Kara shut him down; it had only been five months, which wasn’t long enough to know if you liked something. If he was going to stop, he at least had to do it at a reasonable spot, like after finishing the first music book. So, Kara told Aaron that he would keep playing. And Aaron, whether from respect for his mom or sheer naivete as to the ways things usually end—a car crash, a medical emergency, a duffle bag only meant for one “cooling off” night—had complied.

Kara was stroking through the water, her body slowly remembering the flex in her forearms and the chill on her stomach, when a small wave crested. She duck-dived, and she should’ve been able to pop up after the wave passed. But her pier of a board didn’t give up its buoyancy easily, and she was thrown off.

A second wave shoved her under and down to the ocean’s floor, where the left side of her body bounced off the rocky floor. Thoroughly stunned, she surfaced gasping for air; she’d never been tossed by such a mediocre wave.

She got back on her board to keep going, but Tim said, “Your foot.”

Kara lifted it for a look. There was a gash so deep the skin looked like a piece of scored pork belly. From it, red streamed down. Sure, blood ran faster on wet skin; but, still.

“Shit,” she said.

And Tim said, “We gotta go in.”

They paddled back slowly until the water was knee-deep. Tim hopped off his board, Kara climbed onto his back, and they headed to the lifeguard tower.

She’d gotten this piggyback a zillion times, at crowded concerts and through flooded parking lots after freak California rainstorms. Once, when they were late for first period because the waves had been epic and the wind nonexistent, she’d donned both their backpacks and he’d carried her on his back, galloping across campus. Tim set her down outside her English class, ankles sandy and hair sticky with salt. He kissed her and said, “Pretty sure the rest of the day won’t be as good as that,” and she said, “Nope,” and he ran off to his chem lab. They were so nonchalant, back then, about the easy ways with which things went.

Kara adjusted her grip on Tim’s shoulders. Under her weight, he was pulling in air and releasing it with long, strained breaths. Her foot was dripping with blood, but what she felt—far more than pain—was sadness.

At the tower, Tim helped Kara into a folding chair. The lifeguard pulled on latex gloves, and she set her foot on an overturned bucket. The red streams that had been traversing her foot turned and began dripping directly off her heel, forming a puddle.

The lifeguard picked up Kara’s foot, said, “This is bad,” and set it back down. “Urgent care for sure. You don’t want me stitching that up.”

“Yes,” Kara nodded in earnest. “I do.”

What Kara didn’t want was the hassle of a medical visit; she had only agreed to squeeze a beach run into her day, not a hospital trip, too.

She was about to put on a good face and hobble away when the lifeguard said, “I can call an ambulance.”

But that was a waste of money.

Tim said, “I’ll take her,” and the lifeguard said, “Sounds good,” and Kara flopped back in the chair, defeated.

Tim wouldn’t get to finish the paddle-out, and when Kara mentioned this, he said, “Doesn’t bring Skirmish back.”

She said it might give him peace, but he shrugged. “You couldn’t recall the last time you surfed. And I don’t know the last time I saw my friend.”

Tim loaded his board onto her SUV and then—with his buddies still in the water, telling stories that would stay in the currents—suburbia gradually replaced the coast. Kara asked Tim to tell her about Skirmish.

“He was the asshole who’d take your wave if it looked good enough. He was the friend who’d invite you over for Christmas tamales so you wouldn’t be alone. He was a mess. And now, with a brain aneurysm, he’s gone.”

Tim was clearly hurting. Kara wanted to say something. But, then she realized it included both “sudden” and “tragic” and kept her mouth shut.

◊ ◊ ◊

At urgent care, Kara told Tim to drop her off. He refused; she wouldn’t leave him at the beach, and he wouldn’t leave her here.

But, it turned out, Tim did have to leave Kara. Because urgent care had a three-hour wait, and school let out in two. Tim would pick up Aaron’s cello, their kids, and take them all to the farmers market for the concert.

Waiting inside urgent care, Kara hoped Aaron wouldn’t ask Tim about quitting today. Because Tim might go for it. He didn’t much care if Aaron stuck with the instrument, saying, “It’s not like he’s going to play in the philharmonic.”

The last time they’d fought over Aaron’s lessons, Kara called Tim apathetic and cheap. Tim accused Kara of driving their kids too hard. Let them find their own paths, he’d said. But what would’ve been Kara’s path if her brother hadn’t encouraged surfing?

Kara’s and Tim’s debate dissolved into personal attacks—a real shame. And although neither could express their motives, they were the same: to do something because you enjoyed it and because when it’s over, you’d have 50 people paddling through the shorebreak for you.

A nurse finally called Kara’s name, and she rose from the chair, her whole body stiff-sore. In a room, Kara explained what happened as the doctor numbed and cleaned out the wound. When he placed the first stitch, Kara felt tugging but no pain. He made a few more and then, in a low voice, asked, “Think you’ll ever surf again?”

He was affecting melodrama, but Kara took the question seriously; he didn’t know she’d gone 10 years without surfing. Or that her life has been more or less complete without it. That morning, surfing wasn’t supposed to be part of her day. And then, it was. Or, it almost was—it had only lasted a few moments, and then it was taken away, and this felt like the right ending.

Not wanting to make any prediction over the chance of surfing again, Kara just turned away. The doctor must’ve taken it as a reaction to some discomfort in her foot, because he said, “Almost done,” and continued his work, closing up just one of the ways she’d been split open.

The cut required 14 stitches, which was a lot—but, not really. When he was done, he sent her off with prescriptions to ward off pain and infection, and the advice to elevate and rest. But Kara didn’t have time for that.

She Ubered to the farmers market, and her driver had the decency not to ask about her bandaged foot. As they drove in silence, Kara wondered if Tim had gotten to the concert with enough time for Aaron to warm up.

And then, with a spasmed start, she realized she hadn’t told Tim to grab the riser. Aaron would be playing with his instrument too low. Or, maybe he wouldn’t be playing at all—maybe he’d be sitting there sulking, his bow white-knuckled.

Kara cursed, and the driver looked at her in the rearview mirror.

“Anesthesia’s wearing off,” she said, and he nodded.

There was nothing Kara could do about the riser now. Not that 3 inches of wood would make or break Aaron’s affinity for an instrument, his desire to do something or not.

In the parking lot, Kara stepped out with her weight on her right foot. She was scanning the aisles, where vendors sold protein powders and flowers, pomelos and potted sage. Deciding the way to find her crew was simply to start, she walked down one aisle and then, hearing a moody rendition of “Man in the Mirror” working its melodic way around the shrill squawks of a crow, she backtracked and headed to the market’s other end. Stringed instruments were clearly filling this air, and Kara traced them more precisely to a spot past a man selling honey. And then, with the performers in sight, she took off at a hobble, foot-heel, foot-heel, to her kids and her one-time love.


Michelle Panik’s short stories have appeared in The Dodge and Terrain. She’s also a prose reader for Chestnut Review and a book reviewer at MER. She earned her B.A. in Writing and Art History from UC San Diego, and her M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from the University of Maryland. In an effort to hang out with her kids more, she traded her adjunct teaching job to substitute teach in their school district. She lives with these amazing kids, along with her husband, on the edge of California, in Carlsbad.

The author: Debra Marquart