The wind is whipping the ocean surface into churning whitecaps, tossing the tall ship high and catching her bow low. The acidic sting of vomit still burns my throat, and my stomach refuses to settle. My eyes glaze over as another wave of nausea strikes. I’ve nothing left to wretch, but wretch I do. With knuckles paler than the foamy spray that splashes aboard to wet them, I can no longer feel my fingers.
Though the sun shines brightly, it is frigid in the shadow of the sail, this cold, disheartening reality lying in such stark contrast to the free-spirited verse of many a poetic constructor, I amongst their naive flock.
Subconscious thoughts of regret begin to surface, but my heart spurs their blasphemous advance. My brain is throbbing, screaming at this tumultuous upheaval of balance and order, insisting its end. I will not listen, for such a voice is death, the sort which seems seductively short and subtle, but is in reality long and drawn out, miserable and lonely.
“You don’t belong here,” it states. “No human was meant to traverse such a treacherous thing.”
Breath alone escapes my lips.
“You see that woman over there, the one crying, screaming out, begging for mercy? At least she can publicly admit what you refuse to see: This is not the place of inspiration you so longingly wish it to be, but instead exists solely as a fabrication, a falsely-conceived metaphorical blanket in which to wrap your pathetic search for purpose. That knot in your gut is more than seasickness; it is the undeniable knowledge that I am right.”
I hear only the wind against the sail.
“Your silence betrays you. Where are your grand stanzas now, wordsmith?”
Mustering the strength to stand up, I haphazardly walk across the deck to the opposite rail. I stumble the way there, my body barely holding it together. I vomit again into the sea, my sacrifice to the endless blue. Spitting the terrible taste from my mouth, I raise my eyes to the horizon, to the small chunk of land which looms ahead.
It screams now, desperate. “All this hell but for a few lines of verse, you damned fool!”
More than verse.
My eyes lift higher, to the lighthouse atop the cliff. Set against a cloudless sky, a mighty pillar suspended between heaven and earth, it calls my heart, sings with a voice louder than any that has ever haunted my mind.
I am aware of the pain, yet I don’t care. I heave overboard again, forcing my eyes from the ivory tower, but never my soul. Even but for such a momentary flicker of beauty, all of the journeys through hell and back are made joyous, and my heartbeat given purpose.
The voice is mute, the pain fading, the memory forever.
The gelato shop door stands unassumingly small and plain against the chaotic, loud world outside, a tiny portal that beckons quietly. I pass through to find her waiting behind the counter, smiling, magic wands disguised as small spoons at the ready.
I request a taste of Vanilla Bean, and one of the magic spoons dips into the peppered, milky white dream. The cold flavor melts upon my tongue, but it is not Vanilla Bean at all. It is the ether canvas upon which to paint life-long loves, the cool evenings of forever summers, spent sitting at the large table by Nana’s side, her smile and cup of tea perfectly warm.
Dark Chocolate comes the next spoon, but it too is not. It is the bittersweet memory of young adulthood, of growing older and losing the past that was, while your face still bathes warm in the glowing embrace of what is yet to come. I long for that past, and so I tumble into it.
Fig & Marscapone—perfectly sweet. I am so small, the tree seemingly so large. Climbing the branches, tucked away in a fortress of fruit and foliage, I hide, an adventurous, mischievous moment all to myself. I pluck a fig leaf from its stem, fascinated by the size and shape.
It takes what seems like but an eye’s blink for the Hot Masala Milk Chocolate to melt away the sweetness of a childhood crush and give way instead to the fiery passion of a first kiss.
Guinness, those college days in the company of close friends. We laugh impossibly long laughs, tomorrow never a thought nor a care.
But tomorrow came and went, and with it I find myself standing here, before the windowed counter, looking at chilled bins overflowing with times and tears, people and places, memory strong in them all.
One final spoon is offered, but I refuse. Pistachio. “I don’t eat it,” I insist. “Do you trust me?” she asks, knowing. I take it. Hesitation. Papa splits the shells with his fingers. His hands are worn, knobby, still strong. The sound as the nut’s hard casing beaks. The green on his fingers. Mom is beside him, the small tray between them. The sand is warm, our bare feet buried in it. The cassette player pours Andrea Bocelli’s flawless voice into the summer air. I smile at Nana next to me, hiding from the sun under her wide-brimmed hat, scarf pulled tight about her neck. I cannot see her eyes behind the dark sunglasses, but I know that they are filled with love as she smiles back. Time is stopped, perfect. Forever perfect.
The spoon slides slowly from my tongue as tears wet my cheeks. I turn to the gelato maker and ask, overwhelmed, voice quivering, “How? How did you do it?”
Her expression of joy and delight never changes, hasn’t yet once. “I made it with passion, filled it with love. And then I gave it all back to the world to enjoy. That’s the secret . . . to making gelato, to living life.”
I take two tubs and her advice, promising to return again.
She stands before me, simply beautiful, unknowingly perfect. Rather than the sum total of some arbitrary list, it is her whole that captures my attention. Like some ancient and hidden treasure, she exists in great and stark contrast to the world that surrounds her: quiet against its loud, soft against its harsh, real in the face of its false fronts. Her backdrop, for all her wonder, is nothing less than death—brutal, unflinching, all-out war. Guns fire and bombs drop, unleashing a bloody, fiery mess. Her order persists in defiance of such chaos, begs the question: How?
How, amongst all this horror, does such beauty exist? Is it struck, founded, forged in the heat of eternal battle, or does it hide from that ever-hungry beast, alive in spite of its never-ending chase? I cannot say, only cherish. She is tucked away in my memory, a seed for something grand to be poured out of my mind at some as yet unknown and later date. For now, I am merely frozen in this simple moment, soaking in its wrenching briefness, an untouchable, finite eternity.
The moment breaks as she calls once more for my attention. I turn away from the World War II documentary playing on the television, take the receipt she hands me. She bids me good day and I return the courtesy. As I walk through the door into the world outside, I cannot help but wonder if it is all that different from the imaginary one I’ve just left.
The cold future shot through my shivering synapses, repulsed by the very thoughts they conjured. But still, the darkness remained, in spite of the dazzling lights they forced upon me. With horror and eternal sadness, I saw it.
All the world around me, so shiny, bright, shimmering and new, hustled and bustled and ran their own right way, leaving me there, quietly, with the last book on earth. No one else stood by its side, held it in its final moments, as the last drop of ink faded from its tattered pages of dust. I was alone in my cerebral contemplation, my meditation of memory, holding so tightly onto that tactile smell of physical knowledge. I wept. And all I could pray was that the ideas once contained within would somehow survive intact, that nothing would be lost. But lost, something was. Perhaps someday, someone will put the pieces together and remember far beyond the years of their time to that point where something was real. Maybe they will understand, as I do now, what was lost, discarded, left to rot or, worse, be burned. And they, too, shall weep, having never known a book’s perfect embrace.
When the sight had returned to my eyes, I put forth what would become my decree:
We are beings of flesh, that feel and have texture about us. And so the ink suits us; it is natural and an extension of who we are. And so, I will always desire the tangible, the physical, the great time-wastes of that which was done wholly by hand. As for the mechanical ones, leave them to their digital worlds of efficiency and false-perfection, all contained on and confined to the point of a pin. Give me that which takes up space, breathes, lives, marks its presence in the universe, for those are my artistic brethren, the truest children of our creation. Can these cybernetic fools hold dearly in their arms these prized silicon conceptions? Or must they settle for mere postcards of a far-off visage, where they can only imagine the fruits of their fevered inceptions?
Certainly, I can admire some aspects of their journey into the electronic realm, but my heart cannot go with them. Digital has its time and place. But the roots are here in the physical and the inked, and to tear them out is to abandon something wonderful.
Medicine can improve a man’s body, but it will never replace his soul. Neither should technology carve out the heart of what the book rightfully is. And it is more bound in paper than they’ll ever understand.
Katharine and I meandered our way down the length of the pier, taking in the sights and sounds that engulfed us. The waves gently slapped against the pillars beneath us as the wooden boards creaked and groaned under our feet. The smell of salt air was invigorating, fresh and foreign to our city-bound lungs. The gulls cawed overhead, annoyed at the influx of humans upon their scavenger territory. We too watched the people, though with no disdain. I took in their faces, each one unique and with its own story. All these people looked so unordinary and interesting to me, each one standing out and catching my eye. I comment to Katharine that they look like characters, each worthy of their own written tome.
At a certain point, near the end of the pier, I stand waiting for Katharine to return. I continue watching all the faces that pass by me, appreciating each one. But there is one that particularly stands out to me. It’s a man most likely in his mid-fifties, grey hair and beard, walking with a cane. He stops and stands across the width of the pier from me, looks at me with his steely eyes. I notice that around and in his eyes he strikes me as remarkably similar to Anthony Hopkins, with the rest of his face being almost pure Ernest Hemingway. But it is not these celebrity likenesses that draw me to him.
It’s the fact that I’ve met this man before.
He was the captain from my poem “Rest Your Soul,” come back from his watery grave to pay a visit. He spoke no words to me; merely returned my gaze with his weathered eyes. I’ve no idea how he leapt from the depths of my imagination onto that pier, but there he was, flesh and blood before me. For what purpose, I cannot purport to know, but I can only fathom that he wished to let me know that he does, indeed, live on forever, both at sea bottom and in the words I’ve written.
Eventually he vanished into the crowd of endless possible faces, his mission accomplished. I cannot speak for his half of the encounter, but I can say that I treasure mine.
I walk into this place that has lain at the outskirts of my life for the better part of twenty-plus years, its inner workings unknown to me for this entire stretch of time. Somehow, as I pass through its door, I know that there is something to be discovered here amongst the racks of the vintage and the aging. Its interior space is a vomitorium for eras of fashion long since gone, and its eclectic nature is both bizarre and comforting in the same moment. It is an escape from the world outside, so completely against the grain of blind forward locomotion in its daydreamy stare over the shoulder of time.
She weaves her way amongst the cogwheel floor racks, her pendulum hips swinging between the gear teeth sleeves. Her Alien 3 / Sigourney Weaver haircut betrays the classic, lithe beauty that would otherwise lie beneath a bobbing bowl of dark hair. But it works for her, and does not diminish any of her features. As she walks across the store, I take her in: The gentle forward slope of her figure, the soft hourglass frame that her light blue top and jeans hug. She smiles with a cheerfulness that comes from working in this bubble, away from the world. Her eyes shine softly as she dresses the window-display mannequins, extending outside hints of the joy that lies within her retail home.
Music plays on the speakers overhead as she works. City and Colour’s “Comin’ Home” fills the store and my ears, this picture-perfect soundtrack the score for her hypnotic movements, for this small window through which our paths have crossed.
But the time comes to leave, and I bid farewell, to both this small universe within a universe and the woman who gives it heart. The door shuts and I look back through the glass as she helps the next customer. I have visited this world, but I am not part of it. And though it still calls to me, I know that I am merely a passerby, looking through a window into a world in which I do not belong.