In the early morning mist, we walk across the street to the ocean. The sand is cold and wet. My son sheds his socks and shoes and runs toward the water. The piercing cold does not slow him. He stands still for just long enough to let me roll the legs of his pants up above his knees. That’s good, that’s good, he says, wriggling away as I try to roll them at his waistband too.
He runs back and forth along the water’s edge, waving his arms, playing a game with the breaking waves that follows its own internal logic, not immediately discernible to onlookers. We stand a distance away and watch him. The smallness of his body against the vast sea.
We had started in Los Angeles where we visited college campuses. At the first, a young man in a long-sleeved shirt and tie spoke to a group of us gathered around a metal table while just beyond us, students lounged poolside, the blue water glistening in high afternoon sun.
Later, M. navigated the unfamiliar roadways, where impatient drivers darted in and out of lanes like hummingbirds in a field of foxglove. We made stops. For a bookstore, for a tiny farmer’s market. We made a late lunch of strawberries.
In Santa Barbara, we sat on a patch of dry grass while our children waded in the still pools of water trapped between banks of sand.
From there, our route hugged the coast, the Pacific Ocean at turns blue and green and gray at our side as the sky darkened.
I made this trip once before, decades ago, with a man I did not love, but needed very much at the time, for reasons that I am only now beginning to understand. The soft underbelly of self seeks salvation in others, does it not?
At Jade Cove, we walk the long path down toward the water. I remember a sandy beach where we sat on driftwood and let the waves break at our feet. But this time, we don’t get far enough. The path is winding and long and the air is cold. Instead, we stop on a rocky elevation and watch the frothy waves pound against the cliffs. The heart aches at such beauty.
He had theories about love. We all do at nineteen, don’t we? “There are three stages, he would say: discovery, conflict, coalition building.”
“What stage are we in?” I asked one night. We were walking along the beach in the cool damp air. There was a sliver of moon and a scattering of stars.
“Discovery, of course,” he said without pausing.
“Maybe we can pass through conflict,” I said, turning to face him.
He shook his head. “No one passes through conflict. We either make it or we don’t.”
We head out to a series of rock formations and along the way, our son stops to examine the piles of tangled kelp drying on the beach. “Sea monsters,” he says, pokes at them with one foot before he walks on.
He and M. climb the rocks. I sit a distance away and watch. It is difficult not to think, even as I am watching, these are the best days. He is pure feeling. Without artifice, without doubt. He runs on not questioning whether we are following behind him because he has never known us not to be there. And the two of them, so free, as they weave their imagined tales.
“Pretend I am the emperor of this rock and you are the imperial guard.”
He drove me to the airport in his rented car. Walked me to the gate, kissed the top of my head. “See you in the fall,” he said as I backed toward the walkway. I held my fingers to my lips and waved before I turned away.
Two weeks later, I received a thick yellow envelope in the mail with the photos from our trip. Me, standing on a rock formation looking out to sea. Or in front of the old mission in Santa Barbara by the fountain. Or mountains shrouded in mist in early light.
And six weeks after that, he was back in the northeast, the heat of summer just beginning to break. We had written letters and talked on the phone. Fought over one thing or another. The cracks were starting to show. How distant those perfumed days along the coast. Those evenings smeared with stars.
Nothing lasts. Or rather, everything changes. Everything washing over us so quickly we barely have time to recognize it as it flows. Love, desire, sadness, joy.
Even when we hold our arms open wide to receive it. Even when we try to take it in, to say: I am happy now, watching these people I love move across this beach like they are made of pure light.
We blink our eyes, we turn our faces away. And as if in a single moment, it is gone