Darkhorse Dreams

Nonfiction by Leilani Pickett

My dreams are complicated, always twisting my memories and troubling me when I’m awake. They come rumbling like thunderheads from the depths of my subconscious, imbuing me with their gnawing echoes. I try to push them off, act like it’s nothing, but the dream still plays like a fuzzy old film in my head. Its soundtrack twines around my thoughts, the voices of The Mamas and The Papas whispering the words to “California Dreamin’”: All the leaves are brown. A faint heartache radiates from the dream’s residual memory, thin and wispy like a faraway light in the fog. When awake, I fall into spells of sadness, suddenly numb and blue without knowing why. And the sky is grey. I try not to know something is wrong.

California is prophesied as the place where dreams come true, just not dreams like these. I’d be safe and warm, I used to think, If I was in L.A.…. California dreaming is supposed to be about palm trees and earthquake-sculpted coasts and Santa Ana winds blowing warm on your skin, not about broken promises and sad realizations. The song lyrics should paint a picture of cool water wrapping around pebbled point breaks on afternoons that glow with the western sun. I wish I could still believe in the dream of an idyllic escape from the misery of an eastern winter, but after actually going to California I realize that my dream fell flat. I decide that I might prefer the cold. I’ve been for a walk… on a winter’s day… Now, instead of melting in the sun, my dreams keep getting stuck in snowdrifts.

“If you win this heat, we can go to California in June for the Scholastic Surfing Association Nationals!” my mom whispers in my ear as we stand at the edge of the clear Florida

water, waiting for the horn that signals the start of my heat. I clutch my board under my arm, facing its three fins into the afternoon wind that gusts warmly from the south.

“How are we going to fly to California?” I ask. “Where are we going to stay? We can’t afford two months of hotel bills.” I’m just being realistic.

“Don’t worry about that, I’ll come up with some money.” She doesn’t sound so sure. “But doesn’t it sound like fun? I haven’t been to the west coast since I was in my twenties. We could even surf Malibu! Just concentrate on winning this heat so we can go!” She snaps at me with the last line and I turn away, pretending to study the waves. There are only a few seconds left before my heat starts and I feel sick. I do not want to deal with the pressure. The horn finally blares and I run into the water, leaving my mother nervously picking at her nails on the sand.

As I fight through the shore break, a friend coming in from the heat before mine races up. “There’s a pack of sharks by the buoy!” he screams through the wind. “I don’t know if you should go out there!”

I stop, suddenly cold, and glance toward the other five girls in my heat who are still rushing into the water. I only have twenty minutes to catch three good waves—I need to get out there. A fresh wave of panic washes over me as I realize I will have to float over the sharks to stay in position. I don’t like being afraid of the ocean. I look back at the beach, where my mother is screaming, “What are you doing? Stop flirting! Get out there! Paddle!”

I force my fear down and jump on my board, pushing through an oncoming wave to paddle furiously for the buoy. Nine grey sharks lurk underneath it, and when the waves lift me up I can see their dark bodies collected ominously on the seafloor like a pile of bullets. Each time I dip my arm in the water to paddle, I wonder if I will feel their rows of teeth ripping away my skin. I keep my feet up and try not to resemble a seal. The sharks are wise to my tricks, but

apparently uninterested in finding out how I might taste. They keep me company through the entire heat, not even flinching as I dart for waves above them. The sharks must have brought me luck, because my mom gets her wish. I win the heat. We are going to California.

If I didn’t tell her… I could leave today… I first abandoned real life for California dreams when I was fourteen, wrecking my mother’s meager bank account with plane tickets, surfing contest entry fees and beachfront hotel bills. At first it was worth it just for the waves—the repetitive ramps that wedged from the rocky bottom were perfect for practicing my front side snaps, and the crushing beach breaks taught me to stall by stomping on the tail of my board, fitting my body into the tube of the wave. I was exhilarated every time the seals came to visit me at Blacks Beach, their whiskered faces bobbing on the false swells created from passing oil tankers. Every morning, my mom and I would drive down the Pacific Highway as the rising sun burned away the smog like a valiant warrior. We hiked miles through the dry hills, reaching secret spots where the wind blew light and groomed the incoming swells with its delicate fingers. This place seemed perfect for me.

When we ran out of money and started surviving on our hotel’s continental breakfast, even my mother realized we would never afford our trip home if we continued to stay in hotels. We were broke because summer was usually the season that we didn’t travel, staying home instead to teach surfing to the tourists that mobbed our tiny strip of Carolina beach. This year, I had finally made it through the local preliminary rounds of surfing competitions, and I was eligible to compete on a national level in several contests held in California during the summer. My mom decided that we would buy one-way tickets and figure out the rest later; I worried that we would run out of money before she decided it was time to go home. This was the way she

liked to travel, balancing between living in abject poverty and having total freedom. Unfortunately, the scale had already begun to tip the wrong way.

We finally checked out of the hotel when she found a lumpy couch for me to sleep on in Orange County through a friend of a friend who needed the money. My mother had determined I should stay in California to compete. She believed that if I succeeded, then she could follow in my path laced with exotic places. This conspiracy between us numbed some of the overwhelming guilt that was building up inside me every time I found our kitchen cabinets empty. I convinced myself it was okay, that I would make up for it when I started winning. I was supposed to do a lot of things. So was she.

The lumpy couch belonged to a cynic in her late 20s, the age when the reality of your life hits you hard. We would wake up early just to drink coffee and wait for the ocean’s morning sickness to diminish. From her balcony we watched the clouds clear and the wind turn offshore before driving somewhere south for our morning session. Nicole was cynical because she was once a rising star in the competitive surfing world, but was now freshly dropped from the sky by her sponsors. She used to compete on the professional circuit–she was a talented and powerful surfer–but there was an integral problem: she didn’t fit the surfer-girl stereotype. She was insanely assertive, always stocky but now slightly overweight, and she wore boardshorts instead of bikinis. She had a boyfriend, but some men seemed threatened by her. Most professional female surfers also model for their sponsors, and surf companies still conform to society’s unrealistic view of the female body. If you don’t model, you don’t sell their product or become popular with their audience. You become disposable, even if you are winning. Apparently, sustaining an image and making a profit is the real California dream.

Eventually, everybody noticed. After she moved to the west coast to compete full time, the recession hit. Her main sponsor let her go; she couldn’t afford her entry fees; she had to stop competing; she had to get a job. Now, she’s a cynical waitress, trying to build a second career as a surf photographer because she said she can do better behind the camera. She listens to Hot Water Music and Jets to Brazil because they sympathize with her overwhelming anger at the world for being so fucked. She almost made it, now she’s drowning. She sees it happing to me. She tries to warn me, but I choose not to believe her. I think I fit.

The first time I make the finals in a national competition, I see reporters talking to another girl from my heat. She is the perfect puzzle piece in this industry: pretty, competitive, and talented. She has a powerful international sponsor behind her who loves the fact that she is blonde with a bright smile and a knack for consistent winning streaks. Why are they talking to her? Everyone thought she would win, but did she really beat me? The results weren’t out yet, but I was the only one catching waves on the outside while she fought for the inside reform with the others. The Lighthouse is usually a tricky wave, but it becomes perfect during a northeast swell thrown from a hurricane. Whitewater was stacked to the horizon during our dawn heat, and I was the only one that ventured outside the protection offered by the twin jetties to catch the titanic lefts peeling on the outer sandbar. I took a chance, and she didn’t.

So, why aren’t they talking to me?

It is because I don’t fit. No one expects me to win, and when I do, it’s just an anomaly. The reporters finally talk to me after the awards ceremony when they realize the results. They hurriedly photograph me in the fading light as I stand alone on the rock jetty, the dark ocean raging behind me. I still feel like an afterthought. The article they write is not about me; instead it features my perfect puzzle piece friend.

Towards the end, the article does mention me, but the authors misspell my name and leave out the first i. I shatter like glass the first time I read it, but eventually I force myself to decide that it doesn’t matter. My mother, on the other hand, is furious. She was hoping my sponsor would notice the results and send us some money. When our electricity gets cut off later that month, I feel extremely guilty. I start to think that the article actually does matter, and I worry that I just destroyed my only chance at success.

In the article, they call me a dark horse. My mother thinks they are referring to my freshly-dyed black hair. We argue. Again. She points out that all the other girls have blonde hair bleached by the sun. Apparently I don’t fit the surfer-girl image anymore.

Even though it was one of the biggest amateur competitions on the east coast, the results don’t even blip on my California dream sponsor’s radar. My team manager ignores my mother’s naïve emails with an air that tells me I’m not even close to the type of girl that the company wants on their team. I wonder if my sponsor really cares about talent over image or profit. I realize that know the answer already. Either way, I decide that don’t want to fit into their puzzle anymore.

One day at home the frustration hits me hard and I rip the stickers off the nose of my board, crying as I leave the edge ragged. My mother bursts into the room when she hears the plastic tear, unable to contain her anger at my rebellion. “You are going to lose your sponsor if you do that!”

“Mom, they stopped sending me clothes months ago. They’re already gone.” She turns and runs out of the room. It’s the first time I have ever seen her cry. The end of an era looms with thunderheads on the horizon.

After my last trip to California, I stop professionally competing altogether. My sponsors are gone; Nicole’s warnings finally reach me like a faraway radio wave, its signal long since lost. I become cynical and disillusioned. I finish school and move away from the beach to become a waitress. This is what being a dark horse is all about.

What do you do when your best isn’t good enough, when time dilation fails to occur, when you must relive the moment forever and agonize about everything you should have done differently?

You should have had a stronger voice for yourself. You shouldn’t have become so cynical and disillusioned. You shouldn’t have given up simply because you knew you would never succeed. You should have gone to California to find yourself, not lose yourself. These dreams should be about beginnings, not ends. You should have. You didn’t.

But in a way, you did. Just not in the way it was supposed to go. You thought this path should lead to boat trips in Tahiti, not to crying in worn-out rooms of soggy hotels because you came all this way to lose immediately. You learn that the song is really about brown leaves and grey skies on a winter day. This is the real California dream with the glitter scrubbed off.

Eventually, my mother kept going without me. I realize now that she has even taken over my dream to fuel her addiction to surfing—an obsessive craving that my success was supposed to satiate with journeys to foreign shores. We have switched roles. Now, she abandons responsibility, traveling to a contest in California while I stay home, anxious and weighty with scholarly obligations. She chases my old ghost on the craggy beaches, running to escape what she knows is her inevitable life. I stay home to make sure my life doesn’t become the inevitable. Lately, she has begun to excuse my failed attempts, telling people I was too fragile to succeed in that industry anyway. I feel the sting of her insult hiding behind compassion, but I also realize

that I wasn’t supposed to fit. I was a dark horse. Maybe she will fit better with my dream in her head.

Sometimes, in moments of naivety and weakness, my mother convinces me to do small, local contests again in our hometown. Usually, we compete against each other, surfing in the same heat because there are so few women. When I win, it feels suspiciously like a dream.

As we meet at the awards tent, she smiles big and kisses my cheek as she hands me the trophy. It takes me by surprise, and I realize that it has been years since she showed me any affection. “I’m glad you can handle these insignificant local contests better than the big important ones,” she whispers. “You were always just too delicate for Nationals.” My vision goes telescopic and I am reminded that it’s only a matter of time before I start losing again; before I don’t fit anymore.

I try to shake it off, act like it’s nothing. But it’s not. I dream those complicated California dreams again, and they feel sodden with regret. They still resonate with the sad harmonies of The Mamas and the Papas: the leaves are still brown, the sky is always gray. I have never felt like I fit, and the dreams only shake my confidence. I’ve been for a walk…on a winter’s day… Slowly, I replace my quiver of competitive surfboards with ones of exotic shape and experimental fin combinations. I keep them pristinely devoid of stickers. I stop caring so much about practicing my front side snaps. I let my hair grow dark and long, like a horse’s mane. Finally, I do not care who is watching.


About the Author:

Leilani Pickett is a senior at UNCW and an intern at the Burgwin-Wright House & Gardens in Wilmington, NC. She enjoys traveling, surfing, and music.

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