By SC Hicks
Surfers rise and fall with the swells, waiting for the biggest curls. The waves ignored break on the beach like kept promises.
From the shore, I watch for who will make the right choice. An old man and his dog stand next to me, and in passing he mentions coming here daily. “I don’t get out as much as I used to while we were together,” he says. “The thought of her motivates me every afternoon, like it did when she was alive.”
I can’t really empathize, but I think I understand. My grandfather’s stories were eventually all he had, so I oblige this stranger and listen. He tells me how he liked to fish from shore almost every afternoon in sight of his wife while she read romance novels in the car. They were her favorites. She chose them by the covers: a pretty woman with flaming red hair wearing a delicate white dress running from a grand Victorian house or a medieval castle into the arms of a handsome man.
I tell him I have come from the desert-like heat of the valley between the mountains and coastal hills, and that the littoral world is still my favorite, with its shimmering quartz grains and flocks of sanderlings dodging sinuous wave ribbons on the beach. It turns out we both love watching the tide change; the way the bay retreats and unwraps itself from pilings, boats, and buoys.
The outgoing falls swiftly this time of year, like a river with no canyon, without echoes.
Nearby, I point to a little girl holding her mother’s hand above a tiny inlet on the lee side of the road. They are watching a raft of sea otters, and I tell him how it reminds me of safe summers and unassailable dreams, of similar times on family vacations when wilting clumps of eelgrass were like miniature islands for willets and marbled godwits gorging on the vulnerability of creatures in the world of shallows.
He understands, he says, when I tell him there is both beauty and unfairness in life and death, like predators scouting the shrunken channel for mistakes. But his face saddens at the mention of the one-eyed watchman at the end of the breakwater; that hales sailors heading home through amoebic clouds, those blankets on the bay that begin and end days.
In a vulnerable breath, he says his wife died on a foggy day.
I empathize with how he is feeling, so I distract him with talk of clear days, and how when the sky embraces the ground you can see a pair of peregrine falcons soaring above the remnants of the ancient volcano, one of the Nine Sisters that shadows us.
Soon afterward he starts to head home, but before turning away he stops to say my telling was like a song; the reasons why he and his wife moved here more than forty years ago. Those words fuel the warmth deep inside me and make the cold breeze irrelevant.
Two strangers converge where surfers test themselves and breakers pound the shore without intent; we infuse a sense of renewal in ourselves and discover it is only our humanity that makes the ocean something that can be angry, tearful, or joyful