One morning, while still in St. Petersburg, I take a walk by the bay, the sunlight on it, shimmering. Everything you read about sun on the water seems true in this moment. There is hardly a way to talk about water glistening in the sun except to say that the particular glistening on this particular morning transports me: I am five years old on the beach in Lavalette, New Jersey, the soft sand beneath my feet. I stand still, let the waves break against my legs. As they recede, I sink deeper into the sand until I am buried up past my ankles. I pull free. Shake the mud from my feet. Let the cycle repeat.
I walk past the museums out onto the Pier. Pelicans watch me from their perches and the gulls circle overhead. There is a sign warning against feeding the birds. “Wild birds can be aggressive,” it says.
A charity race will be starting soon. I see runners and cyclists gathering. They are wearing purple shirts, their numbers pinned to them. A few tents have been set up along the route. Paper cups of water lined up on tables.
There is something familiar about this place although I have not been here before. Is it that I have seen these images in postcards? These vistas so beautiful they look staged? The palm trees swaying, the orange orb of sun inching up from the horizon line, or later, falling back down to the water. These strange haunting trees, long tendrils hanging from their branches, like a thousand ghostly arms that have grown too weary from all their reaching.
Why do I find this place so moving? When I approach the concrete steps leading down to the beach, why do I feel myself wanting to cry?
My reading for the trip: two books of poems, a novel I have started twice, but not yet completed.
This, from Matthew Zapruder’s poem, Come On All You Ghosts:
Come with me
and I will show you
The little cough I heard in my mind
was one I remembered
my father made just as he died,
we weren’t sure
if it was his last breath
or just some air left in his lungs,
not that it matters.
Please don’t feel the least bit sorry
for me or yourself,
everyone you have ever seen
has a dead father,
some are just walking around alive
but it’s temporary,
so bring your sorrow
for everyone out into the street,
in the sun. If a nation
can fall asleep
it can wake up not
exactly angry but a little dizzy
with pleasant hunger.
A glass of juice.
A melancholy. Then remember
we all have something important
to do today in the sun.
Come on all you ghosts,
all you young holding hands
or alone, all you older
people and people of middle
we need you, winter is not
through with us.
The sea seems more
than a little angry,
and over it blows
a very cold breeze
that is also the color grey.
In this room with its black desk
sometimes I hear
the crystal factory whirring
under a sky
the color of black
and dead light bulbs.
Are those your hands
on the switches
ghosts? All day I have been
feeling blind, dizzy and enclosed,
as if I were being carried
in the hand of a great being
who insisted he was still
but I could feel the motion.
At dinner, in the restaurant, we sit at a long narrow table, all lined up like a modern day Last Supper. And we talk about betrayal. We talk about faith and about the forsaken.
We have the oddly intimate conversations that are possible among those who see each other once or twice a year in short, intense bursts. We are bound to each other by weariness, by hopefulness, by the time spent at the hotel bars between meetings, between phone calls home and the flurry of emails to the office. Don’t we reinvent ourselves for each other, year after year? Isn’t that reinvention itself a kind of blessing?
When I arrive home, our friends are here. They are making us dinner. I can’t think of anything more wonderful than this and I tell them so. “It’s something we would be doing at home anyway, but isn’t it more fun when we are all together?” And it is.
Our boys are so loud in their exuberance that we can hardly hear our conversation. They run in to show us the pictures they have drawn, the strange objects they are constructing with bits of paper. We give them ice cream, praise their handiwork, encourage them back to their play.
Over coffee, I put out the last of the macarons and the tiny coconut meringues we brought back from France. We talk about going back to Paris next year. And I want to see the coast, I say. I want to be by the water.
After they leave, I take my son up to bed. While I read to him, he struggles to keep his eyes open – such a long, full day for such a small boy. He is asleep before I turn out the light.
Downstairs, as I sit at my desk sending the last few emails of the day, I hear M. in the kitchen with the dishes, the water running, cabinet doors opening and closing. I have not been away that long, but it has felt like an eternity. I think about the hours spent in the airport, on the plane. The time spent waiting to get from one place to another – the check-in desks, the security lines, the taxis, the shuttle buses.
At some future point, when I find myself in some waiting state, willing minutes to pass so that the next thing about to happen, can happen, I want to remember this moment – my children sleeping in their beds, M. and I at our chores, the night enfolding us in its familiar embrace.