I am sitting on the low concrete wall at the edge of the world, listening to the ocean's measured point of view.
Sometimes it is nice to hear the ocean's point of view. Oceans don't get hung up on semantics or loyalties.
Behind me and above the sea, the sky is streaked midnight blue, although it is only nine or so. If you care about o'clocks. It is good to know what you care about, or don't.
There is a streetlight. There are a few of them, actually. Even at nine o'clock at night, this avenue that empties into the ocean is full of people. Each person is full of his or her own cares. Each care is full of its own wonderings and worries and consequence.
Which is to say this is a very full street indeed.
I watch everything and nothing and everyone and no one in particular. The waves at my back say it's okay, that it's all right to breathe in the salt air. This is not my ocean, by birthright. But it never gives me any flack.
I am nervous around people, and the people here are especially nerve-wracking. They look you in the eye, as a matter of course. They grin. They wave. They shout.
A balding man approaches me, puffing on a wee bit of weed. They also do that here. His itty-bitty weed is darling, really.
"You definitely look like a smoker," he says, offering me some.
"I am a terrible smoker," I say.
"What?" he says, shocked.
"Um. I have asthma," I say. "And I can't hold it right and inhale at the same time. It's multitasking."
He is incredulous. Which means I look like I am in the right place. I look like I belong, enough.
He tells me his name is John. I tell him I am Jenny. When I am nervous I tell people my name is Jenny, because they are less likely to call me "Jan" or "June" or even "Gin." It happens.
"So, Jenny, what brings you here?" He actually says this line, something he has remembered from a movie or thinks he does.
"I was just trying to figure that out," I say.
"What's the story? There's got to be a story," he says.
I am a curiosity, suddenly. Usually I am a curiosity from afar, not up close. I sit up straight. It is okay to take up a little space in the world, once in a while.
I am not sure how to begin. I am not sure how to end. So I start in the middle.
"Well, there's a fella," I say. Something I remember from a movie, or think I do.
"Uh-huh," he says, taking an impossibly long drag from his impossibly tiny, adorable iota of weed. He's waiting for more. Of my story, although he is possibly waiting for more weed as well.
"I live in Massachusetts. But he lives here," I say.
"Go on," he says.
"And?" says John.
"And...we just...we love each other. Like, a lot. Like, crazy madly. Like, soulstruck-edly. And then, because we get stupid and we get scared, we hurt each other. Because he's stuck here and I'm stuck there and the distance is hard. So then we try to love other people. Good people. But after three years, we can't seem to stop loving each other the best and the most. And we always come back to each other. And neither one of us knows what to do with that. And nobody who knows us knows what to do with that either. So."
John studies my face carefully. "I don't know whether to puke or cry, that's so sweet."
"That's okay," I say. "I don't either. I usually do both. But right now I can't eat."
He shakes his head grimly, correctly diagnosing me as a goner.
"You've got it baaad," he says. "He's like this too?"
I nod. "I think he's my person."
John drops the invisible bit that is left of his joint. He shakes his head again, hard, as if he's trying to shake loose the story he's just let into his ears.
"Well, Jenny, good luck with that," he says, not unkindly.
I could tell you the story in chronological order. Or I could tell it to you backwards. Neither way is better; each has its merits and its consequences.
I sit on my bed in Massachusetts, right now, which is, of course, not your right now. Overhead is a white ceiling. Above that, I choose to trust that the attic and the slate roof are still there.
Above the roof, above the street, above the town, above it all: the sky remains impassive. The sky does not care if the stories of the world get lived or told. It sees—it is—the big picture. What use does it have for our details? We're here and we're gone. Just like that.
And yet the world has its share of storytellers, the necessary fools—too many, probably. Each storyteller has a favorite story, although some go to the grave without confessing. Why? Any storyteller worth her weight in salt knows that her favorite story is the one where all the power is stashed. Hard to handle, and too precious to lose. Tell it too many times, it might even change, get away from you.
It would be disingenuous to pretend that I am not one of them. Because I am. It's the only thing I know how to do well. So I will press a little something into your palm, something you can slide under your pillow when no one is watching: Your favorite story is your mirror.
Don't drop it. Don't break it. Keep it safe. It's not about bad luck. You just don't want to miss the chance to see something you haven't seen before.
I have a favorite story. I tell myself this story in circles, like the fire he spins overhead.
They know him in his part of the world by the nickname I gave him, the nickname that suits him like no other nickname has ever suited anybody. It's that good. Really. They know him, now.
But right now, in this other right now: he and I are alone. We are creeping around a small cove at the base of ocean cliffs. The tide is rushing in and it is very dark. He fancies himself master of the tides and their fickle comings and goings. I fancy that we will both be trapped against the cliffs in ten minutes. I am quite certain we are about to drown together, or be battered to death on sea rocks. But I still have a little pride left, so I do not point this out. I will die bravely and idiotically, like the necessary fool I am. We all must play our part.
He will go first. Of course. Our cameras wait eagerly on their tripods.
"Ready?" he yells.
"Yup," I holler over the wind.
"Don't press the buttons until I really get going, okay?"
He has told me this three times. He knows I am a slow learner, with some things.
"Okay," I yell back obediently. I am not always good. But I am trying to be good. He is not always good, either, but this time, it's my turn to man up.
I will do my best to explain. He jams an ordinary kitchen whisk with a clump of steel wool. The whisk is attached to a long chain. He sets the steel wool on fire expertly, then begins spinning the whisk, hard and fast.
The steel wool ignites and bursts into happy flames. All steel wool acts like this. It has no idea of its own beauty until it's been spun to ash. It dies happy, is what I am telling you.
A fiery wheel appears; he disappears.
I am saying it is something you should see in a lifetime, if you don't have other plans.
He is very good at this fire spinning. I know this, from pictures online. I know this, because I know what the man can do with his hands. But it is quite another thing to see him spin in person. With each revolution, sparks rain down on the waves and the sand and my glasses and my freckles and this ridiculous heart I can't swap with anyone to save my life.
You can't capture this kind of light with a quick click. It's the fastest slow game in town, spinning steel into fire. The tortoise wins it: long exposures reveal stunning light patterns you would never catch in a blink.
Our cameras take their good old time, as we've asked them to. He is still spinning when the shutters quietly close. For a second, I think I am seeing my own heart on the camera screens, arcing and sparking and demanding attention.
The last sparks fly and he drops the whisk. I can feel his outrageously dimpled grin on my cheeks in the dark from thirty feet away. He is a perfectionist who will complain about his performance, but we both know he is good.
I applaud, which is really the only thing you can do when your soul is spinning in your throat.
"You ready to try?" he calls out. His voice carries far, his laugh even farther.
"Definitely," I gulp, my soul still lodged in my gullet.
I make my way gingerly to him in the wet sandy dark, praying Poseidon will spare us for five more minutes.
"Hold it like this," he says. "In front of you, arm straight. You want your hand to stay in the same place."
He has slipped into his teaching voice, as I knew he would. I hear his father. I see his father in his face, more and more.
He explains the process verrrrrry sloooowwwwly. He knows I am terrible at multitasking and setting things on fire and even remembering to breathe, so all of this amuses him.
Spinning steel wool would not be an apt career choice. I struggle to start. Light the steel wool, then keep it lit while I slide the lighter in my pocket before I begin spinning? This feat perplexes me. I marvel at what comes easy to him and not to me. I wonder if there is anything that comes easy to me and not to him. Words, he will say later when I ask him this. Always words. You and the words.
It is a peculiar thing for a writer to fall in love with someone who falls asleep when he tries to read a book. But we cry at the same movies.
We were talking about spinning.
He runs to the cameras.
"Ready?" he shouts.
"Yes," I yell. "I am ready."
I am not ready, of course. I never am, except when I am, and he is not. But there is that pride again, just a thumbful left in the bottom of a brandy glass. I will die, and I will be ready, right now. I will do both things because of this pride.
I'll get wet, of course, too. A wave will catch me by the pant leg, tug hard, and tell me told you so, look at you now, got you. People do this too, in case you didn't already know.
But the waves have forgotten that I know how they work. They have forgotten that I am one of them. I know all of their tricks.
So I spin badly and brokenly and beautifully. The lighter never does make it into my pocket. I clutch it and the chain of the whisk in my sweaty fist. I imagine I am a lesser deity of some sort—perhaps a goddess of lighter fluid, or the patron saint of a country where fireworks are legal. I whirl with all my might.
He cheers. "Keep going! Keep going! Keep it in front of you!"
"I AM TRYING TO," I holler back, trying not to decapitate myself or set my head on fire.
Click. Click. The shutters close. I can feel him squinting at the results. Right now, he is all about the work, all about the art. As is his way.
"You did it! It looks good!"
"I was terrible," I call to him.
"Should we do it again?"
"Yes," I say. The answer, in our case, is usually yes, but I never take the word for granted.
I am bawling in my kitchen, in yet another right now. My nine-year-old brings me her pink stuffed bear, a roll of toilet paper, a miniature tea set, my favorite childhood doll (she even remembers her name: Diana, a real goddess), and my journal and my pen. She sits on my lap and hugs me and asks if we have the ingredients to make a margarita. For me, not her. I sob harder and squeeze her and apologize for being the most indelicate, grotesque, sprawling mess of a mother that humankind has ever witnessed.
"Oh my," she says. "It's fine, Mommy. Sometimes, you have to let it out."
"You're not scared? I remember seeing my mom cry like this, and it scared me."
She smiles patiently. "Everybody has to cry."
My phone buzzes in my lap. We both look down. It's him, because of course it is him.
My daughter nods and slips away. She is innately elegant, unlike her mother.
He is calling, calling to see my face, something people do these days. There is a thing called FaceTime, which is another thing you might want to try in your life, if you haven't made other plans.
I answer, because of course I answer.
I am mad. I am angry. I am crying and I may never stop. And he will see all of it on this wretched thing called FaceTime, which shows him every angle of my puffy face and every fleshy mauled chunk of my totally absurd heart.
"Why are you calling?" I howl like an orphaned rhesus monkey.
"Because I just knew," he says calmly.
"How can you just know?" I sob. How dare he just know?
I stare at his beautiful stubborn impossible growly perfect stubbly completely hopelessly familiar face on my tiny iPhone screen. Three inches by seven inches of plastic, metal and glass: I am still a goner, as John and his tiny weed had surmised.
"I just know," he says. "I always know. I could feel you from here."
"Well," I say. "This is me. Right now."
"I know," he says gently. "I wanted to see if you were okay."
I am not at all okay, not even close to okay, and neither is he. But I am a storyteller, so I do what I do. He spins steel; I spin yarns.
"Hannah wanted to make me a margarita," I tell him. "I think that makes me either the best or the worst mother in the world."
He laughs. I laugh. The room lurches, then rights itself. Everything is simultaneously terrible and wonderful and wrong and absolutely as it should be, except it shouldn't.
The next night, at dinner, I say, "Love sucks." We are not allowed to say sucks.
"Well, at least you're not dead," says She Who Is Twelve.
"Death would be better," I say. "I'm serious. Don't ever fall in love. It's the worst thing ever."
Staring at my silverware she says, "They shouldn't let people with heartbreak use knives."
After three years of this on and off and up and down and hither and thither, everyone wonders but no one asks. This is collective wisdom at work. What can you say, at this point?
Occasionally, particularly brave friends or family will venture a comment on the state of the union or my emotional state, but only briefly.
"If you get back together, the bad thing is your writing will become sappy again," one friend emails. "I'm a fan of your misery poetry. I would say protect yourself, but it's not your style. You just throw yourself in." I can hear him sighing through my computer screen.
"Don't watch any Meg Ryan movies," cautions another friend online. "But look at this picture. It has the old-timey vibe that you love with the nighttime murdery thing that you love not so much."
Another right now: We are naked and lying flat on our backs in the middle of the desert, near the land of the oddly wonderful Dr. Seuss Joshua Trees.
We are not actually lying on the desert floor. We are lying on posh poolside cushions, surrounded by four little cottages. For some inexplicable reason, we are the only ones on the property, for the entire weekend.
So we are naked, for kicks, and for other predictable reasons. I am sure that the nearest neighbor can see us with a telescope.
"Oh myyyyyyy," he says. My worries can drive him mad, but they also make him laugh.
We laugh a lot together, when we are not doing stupid things like crying or not talking. It is a thing we do.
Bats swoop down every few minutes to swipe licks of water from the pool. Above us, the sky is as big and wide as a promise. I have never seen stars like this. He has, maybe. He's seen almost everything, or sometimes thinks he has. He's wandered far. But we are both dazzled. We are dazzled by the bats, the stars, our warm skin, and each other.
"There," he says, pointing one dark, knobby finger to the sky. "See that light, moving in a straight line?"
I do see it. I "It's not a plane?"
"Nope. See how it's not flickering? And how steady the trajectory is? That's a satellite."
"No way." I have never seen a satellite, although several have probably seen me clothed, and this one is likely seeing me naked.
I watch his finger as it slowly, slowly traces the track of the satellite overhead. He traces the arc so I can follow it. I reach up to touch his hand, to follow his fingers into the sky.
If this is not love, I think, I will never know what it is.
Later, he falls asleep before I do, as he always does. He always falls asleep worrying that I will not fall asleep.
When I finally close my eyes, I see the satellite still. We think it is moving slowly in the sky, but in truth, it goes by so fast, so very fast.
This right now: He has been out spinning on his side of the world, putting stars to shame. His hands, mind, and heart are spinning. I don't want to intrude tonight. I don't want to be in the way. I have just returned home from a week in his sun-struck world, a week in his electric presence. I know where he stands, and I don't. We spoke just this morning.
But I am thinking about the satellite.
Tell me again, I text him. A reflected light source is steady, but a real light source flickers?
Yes, he texts back, right away. Reflected light can't flicker, it's not energy.
I'm home, he adds.
He is. He is home, even if he does not know it. He is home, even though there is still no trajectory I can trace for him with my finger. He is a man who trusts maps, orbits, physics, and fire. He appreciates their certainty.
This story is the best gift I have to give him, but there's nothing certain about it.
We are spinning. Long exposure, but how long? That's the problem. We can't guess.
And so we wait. We spin and wait for the click of the shutter, to let us know it's time to make our way home.