he frosted waves rolled and crested in sublime monotony, breaking on the shore like mammoth sheets of slate. Huddled together for warmth, we stood mute against its power, gazing out at the horizon – just a couple of pilgrims in dire need of progress.
“There’s no way to accurately describe it,” she intoned, in a voice stripped of affectation.
“Many writers have tried,” I said. “Some have gotten close, but in the end, it’s just words.”
A few slow-moving figures dotted the beach, bundled and dazed, wandering up and down the hardened sand.
“It’s the Lord’s waiting room,” she whispered. “That’s what it is.”
“It does kind of feel like that, doesn’t it? The waves ticking like a giant clock on the wall, the handful of grave faces crossing paths, oblivious of one another, or at best, vaguely curious as to what sort of suffering they might all be hiding underneath their heavy overcoats. It is the Lord’s waiting room alright…the only thing missing are the lousy magazines.”
“What sort of suffering are you hiding beneath your overcoat?” she asked, burying her face in my chest. “Be honest, it can’t all be about your job or the fact that you’re getting older. Everyone gets older…most people do anyway.”
The question stopped me dead in my tracks; coming from her it felt loaded, charged with expectancy, as if it were a test or gauge by which to measure her own troubles. Lifting my eyes, the overcast sky appeared like a low-slung canopy above our heads, pale and impregnable. We were earth-bound, she and I; not even the seagulls could breach this dull cotton.
“I dunno, every so often I get these thoughts late at night,” I began in a deliberate tone. “In the moment they seem profound, but when I wake up they’re…well, they’re just gone, you know? And nothing stays more gone than a lost thought, let me tell you. Still, there is something that came to me once that I still remember. It was nearing dawn, and I was sitting in my chair listening to a bit of jazz, when all at once it struck me that life was made up of three concentric circles. It may sound facile, but let me explain. The first circle is ‘Self’ – the distinct perception and capacity you’re born with. The second is comprised of your family, friends, for all intents and purposes, everyone you know. For lack of a better term let’s call it ‘The Familiar.’ Now the third, well, the third is the most important circle of them all – it’s ‘The Unknown X.’ That one is inhabited by those that are wholly unconnected to you, they hold no agenda, no bias, no jealousies. It’s a space of boundless opportunity, where your value is recognized and assimilated – woven into its metaphysical fabric, thereby expanding it further. It’s where it all happens – the engine that drives humanity forward – and in order to become a real person, an elevated human being, the trick is to find your way beyond those first two circles into the third where your contributions can help to guide the masses, along with every other great artist, philosopher, and scientist.”
“The bright, shiny cogs in the machinery?”
“Exactly. Of course, there’s always the ever-present danger that this realm might become infected with evil thoughts and ideas, sending us all backward – away from enlightenment. Hitler, Trump, Steve Bannon, Torquemada…no doubt, all of them found their way to the ‘Unknown X’. The Dark Ages, see, that was a prolonged siege of poisonous ideas, hatched by despicable men. It never lasts though, not forever. Like any other infection, it has to run its course.”
“So, as I sat there absorbing this epiphany, I further realized that my entire existence had been spent vacillating between the first two circles – ‘Self’ and ‘The Familiar.’ When I was a kid, I believed I had something unique to offer, but my insecurities would never allow me to escape my own head. I‘d just stick my nose in some book and isolate myself. Then when I hit my 20s, I broke out. It was the act of doing, you understand? Writing my stories, engaging in relationships, partaking of the immediate world around me. But, at some point I began to shut down again. It’s the people you interact within the space of ‘The Familiar’ – that’s the problem. They don’t want you to transition to an elevated state; if you did they’d lose their ability to control you. Their whole purpose is to drag you down, belittle you – block you from your dreams. They’re invested in your failure. As a result, my writing got weaker, along with my spirit, and I just gave up. I lost my way and slipped back into my own mind. I guess that’s the ‘suffering underneath my overcoat’…that’s my tragedy. I wanted to do something real with my life, make an impact, you know?”
“But you have! You have made an impact, in my life anyway. Who cares about the masses? Even if you never break out into that third circle, isn’t it as important to reach just one person you care about…I mean, really reach them? You know, maybe that’s what it takes to get there – to that next level. Before you can impact the masses, you first need to be able to truly connect with one single individual. What do you think?”
“That I need a smoke,” I said, fishing the pack out of my pocket.
“You know what I think? I don’t think you ever have…made that connection, I mean. That’s your tragedy. You’ve been so busy worrying about making some big splash in the world, that you missed out on what matters the most. Like you once told me when we first met, remember? The only thing that means anything is the ability to share one pristine, fleeting instant, with someone special. String enough of those together, and you’ve got a beautiful life.”
“Maybe you’re right,” I said, struggling to light my cigarette in the stiff Atlantic breeze.
“I am…indubitably.” She smiled. “You’ve reached me, you’ve made that connection. Now you’re ready for the masses.”
“It’s cold as hell out here,” I said. “If we don’t get moving we’re going to freeze to death. C’mon let’s go for a walk.”
All the shops lining the boardwalk were shuttered for the winter, not a single goddamned place to get warm or maybe have a drink. Dispirited, I dragged my feet down the dull, slanted planks, wishing I’d taken along a pint with me. Our surroundings were bleak and unforgiving, to say the least; the twisted metal rides, like giant sentinels, erupted from the frozen earth, peering down at us in baleful reproach. “
As we continued on, I studied her in awe. The way she held herself, with such quiet grace – so unaffected by the cold – heated the viscous blood creeping through my veins. In the cloudy haze, she looked like a real live angel walking the earth…an angel with a bent halo and a busted wing.
“Are you hungry?” I asked. “We could go to Nathan’s for a hot dog or something.”
“No, thank you. Let’s keep going, I don’t want to waste any of the little time we have left together eating.”
“The day has to end at some point. Besides, I’m like the ocean, I’m not going anywhere. I mean, if you ever do need me for anything…”
“Stop, just…stop. Let’s just enjoy the moment…this pristine, fleeting instant.” Then you can go your way…and I’ll go mine.”
She was right. There was no use pretending that we could ever be friends, it was a cruel and needless lie. I would be well out of it soon, better to keep it that way. There’s just never enough time…when things are over. It’s always a rush job at the end.
“I think I’m going to take my leave now,” she said after a few minutes of aimless roving.
Just never enough time.
“I know,” I mumbled. “Listen, before we go, I want you to understand something, really take it in, okay? If I thought we could make it, I mean, if there was even a chance, you know things would be different. You’re my boyhood fantasy sparked to life, for Christ’s sake. And that face of yours…Jesus, your face makes me wanna join the human race. If I was younger, or my current situation was more stable…”
“You’re going to be fine,” she soothed, wrapping her arms around me. “One day, you’ll realize what a beautiful man you are, I know it. You just need to stop worrying so much about life and start living it. Take the pressure off, everything isn’t as complicated as you make it out to be in your head. Write your book, my love, make me one of the characters, I’d like that very much…promise me you will?”
Tilting her head back, I cradled it in the crook of my arm, and then in one liquid motion, our lips met in a slow, tender embrace. Raising my free hand to her cheek, I laid it flat against the softness of her jawline; mouths widening, we allowed our tongues a final farewell – our teeth an intimate tap. Gorgeous agony welled deep in my core. I didn’t want any of it to end – the thought seemed insane – but all at once, I needed to say the words and mean them. So, I was the first to break away.
“I love you…sweet, wondrous child. I love you, to my marrow, I do.”
She brushed a loose hair from my forehead and stared up at me with an elegiac smile. “Darling, don’t you know by now? You’ve loved me from the moment you laid eyes on me.”