At the beach, there’s garbage everywhere, washed up by the hurricane: metal cans, plastic milk jugs, rotten wood. A dead turtle, the largest I’ve ever seen, lies at the water’s edge. I step around it, feeling a ripple of revulsion. I know death is natural, like breathing, like the tides, but I’m uncomfortable around it anyway, as if it were somehow . . . wrong.
Norma, always more at home in nature than I, doesn’t seem to mind. Last year, in medical school, she received the traditional initiation: after months of cutting up her cadaver, she balked only at the hands. They seemed to her the most intimate part of the man; touching them, she was somehow touching what he had touched; laying back the skin with her scalpel, she was laying back memories as well.
Hand in hand, we walk along, past fishermen, a few families; most of the houses are boarded up for Winter; no one is in the water on this sunny but chilly day. I’ve never figured out why I’m drawn to the ocean this time of year; invariably, as I stare across the gray waters, my heart fills with an unnamed longing. I grow somber, melancholy. I brood about Important Things. I scan the horizon, as if the answers to my unanswered questions were out there, coming toward me on the next wave — so that if I stood long enough, and squinted hard enough, with my collar turned up and the wind in my face, I’d learn something new, but it seldom happens that way.
Nor do I find answers when I gaze into Norma’s eyes, scanning the horizon where her world meets mine. I want to make sure there are no dark clouds, no mistakes I made a minute ago or an hour ago that have churned up a storm, but looking for safety I never find any.
Answers, safety — surely, the sea is laughing, as we walk along the murmuring shore; surely, there is mockery in the rising wind. We’ve come here to remind ourselves of what life seems intent on making us forget — those truths that run through the hands like sand. We’ve come to retrace the changing shoreline of our love, and rebuild what the busy days will wash away again. We’ve come, for a few days, to cut a deal with eternity: to talk without looking at the clock; to cheat boredom and jealousy and worry with the intensity of being together; to go beyond where the waves break in our hearts, to where it’s calm instead of fearful, and bring that feeling back with us — if the sea, murmuring and mocking, will let us.
We call these days a vacation, but that’s misleading — as if this time was less important, or less demanding, than time spent at our desks. We might as well say the busyness of our daily lives is a vacation from facing ourselves; how much easier it is, after all, to keep oiling the moving parts than to question where we’re going — indeed, if we’re going anywhere at all. How seductive is the illusion of higher purpose. Norma, intent on becoming a doctor to help people learn how to heal themselves, often neglects her own health. I, blessed with work that engages me so fully I don’t even think of myself as having a “job,” know that without a task in front of me, a goal beckoning, I’m lost. I pace the rooms of my mind. I notice things that, when I’m busy, I overlook: the mismatched pieces of my personality; the sags and wrinkles and broken springs; the self-portraits on the wall that still don’t look quite right. Maybe if I rearranged them. . . .
How much more tempting it is to get back to my desk than to endure myself! How beguilingly my ego croons to me not to waste time on the unanswerable questions when there’s so much unanswered mail.
There is, too, our home in the country with its no-nonsense demands: wood for the Winter; heat tape that must be wrapped around the pipes. Norma calls to remind me to bring home coffee, toilet paper. Surely, I don’t wish to forget anything — the mail, the wood, my morning run, lunch with a friend. . . . Of course, the list is endless, for we aren’t responsible only to ourselves. There’s the need to clean up the air and the water and the cities; to eliminate poverty; to end war. Coffee and toilet paper. Life doesn’t let up. But we do, little by little, pretending our inner lives are a weight our bodies have been burdened with, that love is something we make for a few minutes at the end of the day.
Is it any wonder we pursue the goal of world peace as if it were something to achieve, through peace talks or peace marches? Even lovers, eyeing each other across the kitchen table, confuse real change with simply talking about it — then back away from each other, defeated. We circle our feelings, as if they were snakes in a pit. How can Reagan, who so denies his own deep grief, contemplate the grief of the Russian people, so devastated in the past by war? How can the Russians, ruled by a government that regiments their lives like an unforgiving father, contemplate the American version of freedom with anything but incredulity and a little fear? Who is brave enough to turn from the enemy to face the more formidable enemy within? Forget Reagan and the Russians. Can you face one other person without fear or blame — without the subtle implication that the trouble in the room started with them?
I regard, with an upraised eye, the rooms of the heart I share with Norma. How chaotic they can seem; how squalid and dark, with their heavy furniture we’ve brought from our pasts. There’s the wish to redo things, replace all the hand-me-downs with something contemporary and bright, bring in the ferns. Yet isn’t it precisely our different styles, the patterns we never dreamed would work together — and in hurt and angry moments, insist never will — that give us a chance to learn something only we can teach each other? Whom else is it so easy to blame, and so hard to forgive?
Not long before our trip, I sat beside her, dark and unhappy. Between us was an unforgiving desert neither of us knew how to cross. I was jealous — although that doesn’t seem like the right word, since my rival was no one in particular but other men in general. My real rival was an unreasoning fear: of other people’s attractiveness, of sex, of circumstance. And that wasn’t it either, I knew. These were just the long shadows of the big fear behind all my fears, the fear that mocks me as unlovable, and apologizes for my existence, and whispers cunningly that the woman beside me is the only one I can trust, and that I can’t trust her . . . that she is my salvation, and my ruin . . . the one to love, and the one to fear.
I’d been stranded in this barren place enough times to know that merely talking about it wouldn’t help. Insights about how the past informs and eclipses the present are useful — until they become enshrined as psychological Truth, and are called forth, like a benediction, over every troublesome scene, having ironically become yet another excuse not to feel. But I did talk — and talk, and talk. An excuse not to feel was precisely what I was after, because behind the fear was the grief which I feared most of all — more than sixty-hour work weeks, more than forgetting the toilet paper. So I talked and Norma listened and Norma talked and I listened and the conversation moved through the night and the next night and the night after that like a new highway twisting and turning across the map of our lives, a road nobody asked for but here it was, tearing up our moments of silence and repose the way a bulldozer snaps trees.
After a week of this, we gave up, and went to a movie. Perhaps “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” the story of a friendship between two prisoners, speaks no more eloquently than many other films about the search for love, but to me it was unbearably poignant. When we left the theatre, I wept — for Luis’ and Valentin’s broken lives, and for the grief in all of us, which our busyness and talk of love just aim to conceal. Each wave of grief carried into shore yet more wreckage from the past week, and soon I was crying for the old shipwreck of my childhood — a far different experience than talking about it, as great as the difference between water and these five letters that spell it.
I was thus reminded that the price I pay for avoiding grief is to make grief a stranger, feared and powerful. But when I let myself cry, when all my sorrows gather and I mourn openly, then grief is . . . grief, uncomplicated by fear or the need for sympathy. Ironically, I feel strongest in these moments — not invincible, but not threatened, either. I stop blaming Norma, or anyone else, for my pain. This is peace as I know it. Perhaps this is where world peace begins.
By the time we get to the beach, our personal storm has spent itself, as has the hurricane. The small resort town seems more muted than usual — roof shingles torn off and scattered, broken signs hanging from one hinge — and so are we. But it’s good to be reminded of the power of the sea, and to breathe the air that follows a storm. We linger over small things; without schedules and familiar surroundings, we’re able to see each other differently; grief and joy don’t seem like an ocean apart.
How wonderful, writes Pablo Neruda, that a man and a woman, “after many travels, and with much deliberation, accomplish a great novelty — they share one bed. . . .
“What dues we pay on this planet, for loving one another in peace.”