By David Newkirk
It is 2021. The waves have whispered for twenty-nine years since I met them, and longer still since they last talked to Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
An article pops up in my newsfeed. It says that the pandemic has claimed the Hotel Laguna in Laguna Beach. It is closing after ninety-odd years. I’m briefly sad. I think of change, the impermanence of the world, and of Buddhist monks and sand mandalas scattered by the wind.
A month later, I read that new owners have bought the hotel. I close the article. I can’t be late for the staff meeting.
The waves do not care whether the hotel is open or closed. The waves will whisper until the bloated sun scorches the earth in billions of years. They will call to generations upon generations, just as they did to Bogart and Bacall, just as they once did to me. They will beckon the listener to leave their world, and simply be. There will never be silence. Even when there are no ears to hear, they will call. They call to silence the self. To feel what’s true and not the day-to-day distractions that buzz around us like gnats. The waves will always call.
I am too busy to listen for them.
It is 1992. As a socially awkward, gangly twenty-seven-year-old, I’ve found a relationship. The L word hasn’t crossed our lips over several months of dating, but maybe that’s how this is supposed to work.
My boss asks me to visit a client in Irvine. When I call to schedule the visit, the client asks where I’ll be staying. “You really should stay in Laguna Beach,” he says. “You’re right on the ocean, about fifteen minutes away from us. You’ll hear the waves at night. It’s like a whisper. Irvine? Irvine is just another city.”
When I tell my girlfriend Leah, she is ecstatic. Laguna Beach is like a lost home for her. “What hotel are you in?” she asks.
“The Fairfield Inn, I think,” I answer. “They’re the cheaper version of a Marriott.”
“Cancel that,” she says. “You want to be at Hotel Laguna. You probably won’t even see the ocean from where you’re at now, let alone hear it. And whenever you can, take the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s amazing. I’m jealous, I wish I was going.”
Much later, I would think about the absence of the words “with you.” Neither of us said them.
I fly out early on a Sunday. I could call my contact for a drink, but I don’t. Instead, I chase the ocean and palm trees, following the PCH. Southern California is in the passenger seat, a new companion introducing itself to my Midwest-saturated worldview.
Hotel Laguna is underwhelming at first—three stories of white stucco, an octagonal cupola, red and white awnings facing the narrow sidewalk between the building and the PCH, and a few overwhelmed trees. There is an immediate Spanish feel, curved arches, tiled floors, and a vaulted ceiling. An open, spacious receptacle for the Pacific breeze that blows through the open windows, carrying the slight smell of the ocean and the sound of gulls. Somewhere, a wind chime adds gentle metallic tones.
“Your first time here?” asks the desk clerk.
“Yes, here on business,” I answer.
“Great! We’ll put you next to the Bogart Suite. It was his favorite room, back in the day. He and Lauren Bacall hung out here when it wasn’t, you know, proper. This was their hideaway, a place where they had different lives. Lives away from what the world made them.”
My room overlooks the beach. I imagine Humphrey Bogart drunkenly careening down the hall, Bacall laughing as she held his hand. I think about bringing Leah here. I head for the beach and wade out, waist deep in the Pacific as the setting sun softly caresses the waves, touching them with ever-changing caresses of color.
That night, the waves whisper to me for the first time.
It is 2016. Leah and I have been married for twenty years. We are more like roommates, though, than husband and wife. Roommates who fight, constantly. Over never having had children. Over money. The color that the walls should be. Over her relatives and mine. Over things that, years later, I will be unable to remember.
On the wall, there is a picture from our honeymoon. We are smiling, the hotel to our left. Behind us, gulls are frozen in mid-dive, eternally headed towards the gentle green and violet waves as they lap against the beach, never reaching them.
The marriage is over, I decide. I wonder what my boss will think about that.
Outside, cars flow by with a rhythmic whoosh that ebbs and flows as the traffic waxes and wanes. It reminds me of something. I don’t remember what until years later because I was listening to the static, not the signal.
It is 2022. I am retired. By now, I have been single, married, and divorced, a veritable bingo of marital statuses. I have been pushed and pulled by the world around me for three decades. I am over that. Now, neither job nor relationships define me.
All too often, I realize, I have not listened for the waves. I know that they are still whispering. They have never stopped. They are never quite intelligible, always just beyond hearing. Nonetheless, I know that they are telling stories. They whisper of a where without a when, a when without a who, a who without a why. A placeless place. Perhaps, I think, I should take a trip to Laguna Beach. I could even stay in the Bogart suite.
But I know that I do not need the hotel to hear the waves. They have been there all along. I let other things drown them out.
Tonight, half a continent away, I will listen for them.