We drive to the beach in the late afternoon. The skies are overcast, but we are cheerful. In the car, one minute I am chattering and the next, I am dreaming of fields of lavender in bloom. When I awake, we are nearly there.
At the water’s edge, the air is cool and damp and there is a light gray mist hanging over us. The boys dig wide, deep holes in the sand, bury themselves. I sit watching, wrapped in a towel.
In the distance the lighthouse pulses. Near me, a man lies on his back on a towel, while his daughter stands by in her bikini, staring out to the sea. She is young, the age of my own daughter perhaps, her body on the brink of womanhood. How we are all so beautiful in this soft, gray light.
Sailboats drift by. Gray sails, white ones.
Now matter how long we have stayed, no matter how dark the sky or how late the hour. No matter that rain has begun to fall. No matter that we are light-headed with hunger, I am always reluctant to leave. To shake out our sandals, our towels. To fold our chairs. To trudge through the soft sand and on to the concrete of the street, the gravel cruel to our tender flesh. The recognition, in those moments, that the best of the day is behind us.
M. leaves once again for his parents’ house, but the house has now been sold. He will arrange the last details, ensure that everything is in order. They are moving, once again. Leaving their apartment for an assisted living facility. They will each have a room on a shared hall.
“I don’t know how it will be,” he says of his trip. “It will be difficult in ways I cannot anticipate.”
“Yes,” I say, and it is all that I know to be true.
My friend misses someone far away and in the morning, he writes to me about longing. “I feel underneath it,” he says. I say, “Yes, underneath - that is exactly what it feels like, isn’t it?”
At night, after the boy is in bed, I slip out onto the back patio and watch the day’s last light as it fades. The sound of fireworks from the stadium. I cannot see the highway from here, but I can hear the traffic rush by. It is too warm for the jacket I am wearing but too cool for me to take it off. I feel hot and dizzy: a sickness that I cannot quite explain.
I am scanning the sky for signs. I am watching for signal flares.
The house next door is for sale now and the cars pass slowly on the street, their windows rolled down. When I return from my morning’s errands, there is a group of people standing around in the backyard. They smoke cigarettes and they talk loudly. They are staring into my own yard, and I linger near my front steps for a moment, watching. There are three men and a woman. The men point up at the roof. At the second floor windows. At the chimney. They make their comments, write things down. They level their judgements and shake their heads, as if a woman had not lived and died there.
I close the front door behind me, will them to leave, but I can still hear them talking about roofing and shingles.
“Once that goes,” I hear one say, “you can kiss the whole goddamn mess goodbye.”
Someone responds: “That’s the price you pay.”
My friend writes: Today I wake up filled - overcome - with longing. Says: I want everything. I want it all.
Once I am sure the group next door is gone, I drag out the shovel and the rake from the basement. I dig holes.
I have bought some new plants - pink gaura and bee balm and sweet woodruff. I will move the hydrangea and the false indigo.
I have two flats of annuals - white begonias - to border the bed closest to the house, but first I have to redefine its boundary.
The boy comes outside to sit in the shade and watches me while I dig a narrow trench on my knees. It is hot, the air is so still. I use a hand trowel and inch along toward the driveway. My shoulders and elbows ache. The earth is tightly packed and the digging is hard on my hands. I go deep. There are old roots and branches too and I have to keep stopping to tug at them, then to wipe off the dirt that flies up at my face from all the tugging.
I am thinking of my friend. Of his longing. Of all the things that tether him here, so far from what he desires. Of the choices we all make, keep making. To go. To stay. To wait for signs.
How whatever grand plans we have for ourselves, it is these choices, that we make and re-make each day that define the path our lives will take. No matter who we think we are. No matter what we think we know or want or love.
M. spends the night in a hotel in the town he grew up in. “I woke up and I didn’t know where I was,” he says. “I feel like I am here for a conference,” he says. “Like I’m here to give a presentation on aging and mortality.”
I get messages from him throughout the day. I am picking up my parents for breakfast. I am standing in line at the store. I am packing boxes because there are boxes that still need to be packed. He sounds weary and sad. He is hundreds of miles away.
I go back to digging. There is a small hole in my glove and I can feel the dirt seeping in. I taste dirt on my lip. I can feel it streaked with sweat across my face. I am tired and hot, but there is still so much more to be done.
I come inside. My son is lying on the floor, the pieces of a puzzle spread out in front of him. He says hi without looking up. At the sink, I wash my hands and arms and face. The skin on my shoulders feels hot and tight and I realize I have been in the sun too long. There will be a price to pay for that, too.