A few years ago I googled “off the beaten path hippie surfer beach towns” and wrote down every city that showed up in the search results. That is how I ended up in Byron Bay, Australia.
Byron Bay is one of those towns that make you feel like you stepped back into the 1960’s. A place on the coast, where in the movies, families go to spend their entire summer vacation. VW vans parked along the beach. Long haired boys and girls carrying surfboards toward the water. Cute little shops downtown selling ice cream cones and kabobs. Byron Bay is one of the most beautiful and chill places I have ever been.
But this week has been sort of eerie here in Byron. There is an electric energy in the air as the town is buzzing with people in town for an annual surf competition. There was a pretty bad shark attack yesterday, and today, two backpackers went into the water and were never seen again. Helicopters have been patrolling up and down the coastline searching for the boys, while also looking out for sharks. On top of it all, Cyclone Irma is moving closer to the coast, bringing wind and choppy water. What a place to be.
A GUY NAMED MATT
So here I am in Byron. Playing pool with a guy named Matt and his roommate. I met them yesterday at a local brewery. The beach was closed due to the shark attack, so obviously a brewery was the next best thing. I walked in alone and they immediately invited me to join them at their table. We have been hanging out ever since.
Matt is the quieter of the two, but incredibly sweet. Wherever we go, people seem to know him. I imagine him to be one of those guys that you start dating and when he introduces you to one of his guy friends, they put their hand on his shoulder and make some joke to you about, “You better watch out for this guy!” while they wink and smile at you and pat him on the back. Him just standing there shaking his head and smiling. You know, a genuinely good guy that people like to be around.
I am drawn to Matt. He has a mysterious way about him. He doesn’t talk about himself much. His roommate will tell a story about him, and Matt will just nod and say something like, “Oh yea, I used to be the top chef at the best restaurant in town.” or “Oh yea, that happened when I lived in a tent in the bush for 2 years.” Things that make you say, ‘What did you just say?!’ He definitely isn’t the type to boast about himself. Humble but extremely interesting.
It is Sunday night. Matt has to work tomorrow so he offers to drive me home. We decide to stop by the beach before he drops me off. The moon is full which makes the sky bright. We walk for a bit and then sit down to talk. I feel completely at peace next to him. The conversation is relaxed but deep. Nothing is forced and even silence is comfortable. Conversation is just too easy. We decide we will spend the afternoon at the beach tomorrow.
FEARLESS BUT STILL MINDFUL OF THE SHARKS
During the week we sort of develop a routine. Matt gets off work, picks me up, and we head to the beach. Once we get to the beach, we sit down and each roll a cigarette. I can never roll mine right, so he ends up having to roll both. We talk for a bit and then get in the water. I quickly learn that Matt is fearless. Especially when it comes to the ocean. He absolutely loves being in the water. Each day, I watch him run right up to the water and dive in. Just like a little kid. I absolutely love this about him. It is incredibly refreshing to watch.
Me on the other hand. I tip toe in and think about all of the sharks in that area. But for some reason when I am with Matt, I feel fearless too. He reminds me how it feels to really live. I usually stay waist high where I can still see my toes, and he goes in deeper. Even though there are so many people in town, we end up having the beach to ourselves almost every day. While he body surfs, I walk around and stare into the water. Just enjoying each moment. I am mesmerized by the way the crystal clear water reflects the light so beautifully. How I can see fish swimming all around me. After awhile, we meet back up by our stuff. Then we sit and talk until the sun starts to go down.
Over the week, our conversations get deeper and more personal. I feel as if we can talk about anything or nothing at all. I tell him a story about my heart being recently broken right before this trip. He tells me about the last girl he loved. They were together for quite a long time. Then, one day, he woke up to find out that she had been walking home the night before and was hit by a car. Unfortunately, she didn’t make it.
I can feel the heaviness in his heart as he tells me this story. My own heart is exploding with love for him as I listen. This Thursday is the anniversary of the date that she died. Wow. I don’t know why, but for some reason, I really feel like we met this week because he needed someone next to him. I won’t get into it, but I really needed someone too. We definitely met for a reason.
Thursday comes and I know this is a tough day in Matt’s life. We get to the beach as usual. As we are walking up the pathway, we are talking about my blog. I haven’t had anything to write about in quite some time. He looks at me and winks. “I’ll give you something to write about.” I laugh and say okay, just try to make it exciting.
As soon as I can see the water, I feel the wind and see that the waves are pumping. You can definitely tell that the cyclone is coming in. He mentions to me that this is a nude beach, there is just no one here right now. Oh, interesting. Well don’t expect me to take my clothes off. He smiles.
We sit down first as usual. As he rolls our cigarettes he says, you know, a year ago on this very day, I came to this beach and went out into the water. My plan was to go out and drown myself. I just couldn’t handle the pain anymore. But someone saw me and pulled me out against my will. I wanted to die. But I guess it wasn’t my time.
This story breaks my heart. Well Matt, I am so happy you are still alive.
THE WAVES ARE PUMPING
I look out to the water. The waves are rolling in fast and hard. There is an advisory not to swim and the beaches are actually technically closed. But regardless of the missing backpackers, the shark attack, the strong current, etc. Matt still wanted to come to the beach and go swimming. Sounds about right.
I walk to the water. Usually I get in, but something about today feels different. It doesn’t seem safe out there. I tell this to Matt but he brushes me off and says he will be fine. Like I said, he is fearless. He grabs his bright yellow boogie board, runs right up to the water, and dives in. I imagine the smile on his face. The happy little boy that he turns into the second he hits the water.
I look to my right and see a naked man has arrived a few hundred feet down the shore. I guess this really is a nude beach. I look back towards the water to watch Matt. The waves are coming in hard. There is no break, just one right after the other. Matt has already made it out pretty far. So far that I can barely make out the shape of him, just see his yellow board.
A huge wave comes in and I see him duck his head to dive through it. I wait for him to come up but he never does. I look around for him but the waves are coming in too fast. I can’t see between them at all. I strain my eyes to try to see further. I don’t see Matt anywhere. He is a strong swimmer so I am not all that worried. Okay, maybe a little. But I relax, close my eyes, and feel the sun shining down on my face.
WHERE IS MATT
About ten minutes go by and I still don’t see Matt. I start to get slightly worried. I scan my eyes up and down the water. Looking for a person anywhere or any sight of his yellow board. Nothing. Hmmm. I walk down the beach in case the current has pulled him down further.
Another ten minutes go by and I definitely start to panic. Where could he be? Please God, let Matt be alive. Should I go in the water and look for him myself? The waves are too strong. I will definitely not make it. My phone is up the beach by our stuff. But by the time I call for help and they get here, it would be too late anyways. But I really should tell someone, anyone, that my friend is missing. Right? Ugh, I don’t know what to do. I just stand there and continue to search with my eyes. Holding onto hope.
Why is this happening? Please just let me get a glimpse of him. How ironic would it be if the Universe took him on the anniversary of his girlfriend’s death? On the anniversary of him trying to kill himself? I don’t know what to do. I look up and down the beach. Start to walk faster along the water. I haven’t seen Matt for about thirty minutes. At this point, I am even looking along the sand for a body to wash up. Fuck.
WE SHOULD BE SCARED OF THE WATER, NOT SHARKS
I picture him in my head. Him and his cute smile. Don’t cry Jill, stay strong. Think through this. It has been forty minutes now since I lost sight of him. There is no way he is still alive. I can’t believe this is happening. Not to Matt. I will go and get our stuff and call the police and ask them to notify the coast guard. I will call his roommate and tell him what happened. Sit there and wait while they search for his body. I feel so alone.
I start to run back to our stuff to call for help. Just then, up the beach I see his yellow board wash up on the sand. No. My heart drops. Please no. I am shaking. I can’t breathe. I start to run towards his board. All of the sudden I see a body lying there face down in the sand. The waves rolling in over it. Matt. He is moving. He is coughing. I am in shock. My knees are weak. I go over to him and he is white and shaking. I help him stand up. We slowly walk back to our stuff and sit down. Just stare into the ocean for a minute in silence.
FIGHTING TO SURVIVE
I ask if he is okay. “Jill, I didn’t think I was going to survive. Every time I came up for air, another wave would crash over me, throwing me back under.” He had literally been fighting for his life for the last forty minutes. “There was a point where I said to myself, ‘This is it.’ And I was about to let go and just give up. Then somehow I was pushed up to shore.”
I think about what he told me just a few hours before. How on this day last year, he went into the water purposely trying to kill himself. How he had wanted to die. And how ironic it was that today he found himself in that very situation, this time fighting to stay alive. How far he has come.
LIFE CAN BE REALLY FREAKING HARD
We walk to the car in silence. Me in my head. I think about all of the things that Matt taught me that week. He showed me what it means to be fearless. He reminded me what it feels like to really connect with someone else’s soul. But I think most importantly, he reminded me that sometimes life can be really freaking hard. Sometimes so hard that you don’t want to go on.
But also how life can, and most often does, get better. Sometimes so slowly that you don’t even realize anything has changed. Then, before you know it, you find yourself in a situation where you are fighting to survive. Hope is no longer gone. You realize the tears you are crying are now made up of some happy instead of only sad. It is in these moments that you realize for the first time that even though you may not know how you got here, you are actually thankful to be alive.
We get in the car and head back home. “Well at least now you have something to blog about.” Yea, too soon, Matt. Way too soon.