Not too far from where land met sea a few friends stood in sandals and shorts. Girls with smiles held boys with smirks. They joked and laughed but were barely louder than the tame shores. Next to them a family sat on a warm blanket. Their toddler giggled and kicked-up sand on his frowning parents. Nearby an elderly couple comfortable in their tie-dye quilt ate out of a picnic basket, newlyweds sat on the sand sharing a chocolate swirl smoothly and all up and down the beach people quietly conversed and shuffled and waited. They waited and looked up at the sky that was empty but for the moon.
There was a spark a whisper quieter than the breeze, a fizzle and suddenly…
It was a bright green explosion that webbed outwards and shattered the night. Another spiraled upwards, yellow… white… red… blue. Their blasts as thunderous as a colossal beating drum, cracking ear-drums, reverberating chests, commanding car alarms to cry out and silencing restless children into wide-eyed amazement. The spectacle of chandelier-light reflected off their glistening eyes and echoed in their ears. Streamers crisscrossed to weave an invisible tapestry of ash and awe. There were small ones, big ones, great ones, quiet ones, loud and deafening ones made night into day. They snapped, they sizzled and they cracked. They stole the crowd into breathlessness and forced their still shadows to dance.
And they painted the black canvas so bright that none dared to turn from it.
He hurried into the dim, cold lounge. His collared-shirt and pantsuit were pressed and his tie was tight around his neck. With reddened eyes he looked at the coffee dispenser and rubbed his wrinkled cheek and greying hair. He placed the paper cup into the machine and the door opened behind him. A smoky aroma entered the room.
He widened his eyes, and was transported to a bright, humid place. His hair was now long and dark, his face, youthful and his shirt, baggy. He had a chocolate smear on his shoulder and grass stains on his threadbare jeans. The backyard where he stood had a pool and was surrounded by kept landscaping. There was a rumble of an air-conditioner and a mumbling, old man around the patio corner.
The old man had knobby knees, and sagging skin, but it was his mustache that defined him. Grand and grey, its waxed tips extended past his lips and shook in the breeze. He worked a long poll with a contraption on the opposite end that trimmed the treetops. Every so often he placed it aside and took a puff of his smoking pipe. He held the dark wood idly in his lips or in his hand between sizing the next branch to prune. The translucent vapor twisted in the wind and swept past the child.
That was the smell. It was his grandfather’s pipe.
The coffee machine chimed and his cup was brewed. He reached for it after his eyes readjusted to the dim lighting, and the sweat from his brow had cooled. Now, a little less rushed, returned to work.
Family and friends visited him for dinner. They had hamburger meats and red-peppered potato salad, greens with goat-cheese and grapefruit-basil dressings, sautéed squash, marinated asparagus, cucumber-watermelon-vodka drink, red wine and rum. The backyard patio where they all ate was strung with tiny-lights in the treetops, mirth from bad jokes and laughter from good stories. All the house’s chairs were outside and filled with relaxed figures. A table brimmed with food and people sat with loaded plates.
When the sun had set, and he had eaten his fill, he sipped from a bottle of red wine and puffed at a cigar. “I don’t know what I’ve done,” he said, and the small crowd quieted, “to have such wonderful food and company to share my birthday with… but I know I’ve done something right.”
Not long later he was replying to warm wishes online. He had received them from work friends, long-time friends, and, one he did not know, or at least did not recall. Nothing from the mystery well-wisher’s profile jogged his memory. He explored further and saw some recently uploaded pictures. A girl who was a friend of the mystery well-wisher caught his eye. She had a carefree smile, spunky-short blond hair, and bright eyes. He was taken away, but also saw she lived far away, enough so they would probably never meet. He continued investigating to relearn the mystery well-wisher was a barista from a local coffee shop.
They exchanged messages, and he visited later that week. They caught up between orders of lattes and micro-brewed beer. The barista soon looked to the door and smiled.
“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” the barista said. “My cousin is visiting from out of town. She’s here now.”
There she was, the girl from the picture. The barista introduced them. He was charming, and she, charmed. They talked for a while, and then a while after that, until the shop had locked its doors.
On parting, he said: “When I woke this morning I didn’t know what today would bring. It’s like ripping the wrapping paper off a present and in that moment the gift could be anything. I have had everything I wanted from this day.”
I don’t say what I mean. It’s not that I react poorly in a moment of emotion, or blatantly lie, but I do indulge in impulsive exaggerations. I am confident, but also compelled, without cognition, to stretch the facts.
Looking into someone’s story can let you read your own more clearly. This story starts when I dropped off my car at the dealership for maintenance and took the courtesy shuttle home. That was how I met the shuttle driver, Stan.
He was an old man and drove slowly. We had time to talk about the everyday, and he shared his opinion on everything. He was not concerned about the impact of his words. There was no good or bad, simply how it was. Along the way he received a call from a lady who wanted to rendezvous with the shuttle at 5PM. He simply could not accommodate since his last pick-up was thirty minutes earlier. Her pleads were in vain. He would not bend. He would not stretch the facts to make it better. And he would not apologize for it. He was face value.
What did I see in myself while I listened?
I do not mind the heat of the spotlight, but I do suffer from the anxiety of wanting to be seen in the best light. I critically compare myself to others, and should not. Instead I should focus on what is right for me. If I accept myself as I am, it would be easier to say what I mean, always, and to act at face value.
Thank you, Stan.
Of what are you proud?
I am proud of my values.
What are your values?
They are what define me.
How do they define you… by how you act?
I treat others as I would like to be. I treat myself with the same respect. I act the same when watched as when alone. I act with purpose.
…By what you say?
I can say my word is my bond. I can say my life has meaning.
…By what you know?
I know I do not have all the answers. I do not dread the knowledge I don’t know, and I will not shy away from finding it. I know one of the most rewarding feelings is to earn an answer, to earn your own accomplishment. I know the greatest mysteries in life are within us.
…By what you have learned?
I have learned the greatest lessons cannot be taught. I have learned it is ok to have your heart broken. I have learned how to love and to how be loved in return. I have learned mistakes are made, how to never fall victim to regret, how to forgive oneself and how to accept actions as your own. I have learned how to live free from pain, fear, and guilt.
So these are your values.
Yes, you are the mirror, after all.
The droplet fell down his cheek. He didn’t realize the tear was his, or that he had shed it, until it fell to the windowpane in a flattened splash. His head rested against the cold glass and he looked at the wet spot. He wondered where it came from… he knew from his eye, but where did it come from?
He felt no sorrow, no regret. All he felt was the winter morning’s chill, and the receiver pressed against his ear. He listened to feminine sniffles on the other end.
When it happened he was far away. The weather then was warmer, the sky, bluer and the sun, brighter. He conversed with a friend on a boat a mile off the coast. Condominiums were dwarfed in the distance and cast tiny shadows on the crowded beach. They whipped their fishing lines into the slow current and sipped at bottles of something unhealthy. There was nothing between them besides their chuckles, the whistling wind and a few seagulls crying for bait.
“I’ve been wrestling with a thought,” he said, hardening the light tone of their chatter. “Have you ever faced a change that challenged you? Not a challenge like practicing for a competition, but challenged you, your beliefs… how you look at things?”
His friend reeled in his line a bit and replied. “Are you asking about change, or how you face it?”
He stared at the water’s jaded blue-green surface. “I don’t know. I know it’s silly, but I feel I am staring into a cave. It is dark, and I believe it’s dangerous. Where it goes I do not know. I don’t know what will happen when I enter, but I feel I must, although I’m scared.”
His friend faced him. “What are you afraid of if you enter the cave?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. Of being hurt by something lurking there… of being scarred by the attack… of being lost alone in the dark… of being lead somewhere I do not what to be.”
His friend swallowed a swig of drink. “Are you saying change is bad? Challenging who you are is wrong? You are constantly changing whether you are conscious of it. The difference here is you are fearful of becoming something you do not wish to be. You are not talking about change. You are talking about acceptance.”
They looked to each other and raised their bottles. A droplet of condensation glided off his chilled glass and fell onto the deck.
A sharp sob brought him back. He was no longer on a boat with a friend, warmed by the day and the talk. He was returned to the frigid phone call. He looked to the windowpane and the pool of tears.
He took a deep breath and asked: “When is the wake?”
He arrived late to brunch. He was young, and well dressed. On the patio an orange awning shielded him from the sun. A table for four was set near a cobblestone wall. On the other side were the choppy bay, sailboat canvases and boat-goers slapped by stiff winds.
He approached the table. Two of the three sitting there, an older woman and man dressed in their Sunday best, stood to greet him. The older woman, his mother, wrapped her arms around his fitted shirt and smiled as though they hadn’t seen each other in a lifetime. He nodded as if they had seen each other last week. The older man, her beau, had a silver mane, yet his broad shoulders betrayed his age. They exchanged a brief glance and shook hands.
The last member at the table was a much older man. He did not welcome him, nor did it seem he knew he was there. Instead, he stared at the boats swaying in the coarse waters and tilted his head at a distant memory. A light touch on his shoulder brought him back.
“Abuelo,” the young man said.
“My man!” He exclaimed in a thick Spanish accent, forcing a show of excitement. His words were slurred through a half-eaten mouthful of eggs and ham.
His form was an unhealthy slender, and his face had lost most of its pigmentation. His mustache was frayed, his hands shook, and splotches trailed up his forehead and under his thinned hair. Still, his cracked lips curved into a grand smile, and they talked about their old chess matches, fishing trips never taken and whether they would have café con leche with dessert.
The meal ended too soon, and the young man helped his grandfather to the car. He hugged his mother, nodded at her beau, and looked hard at the elderly man sitting in the passenger seat.
“The meal is over?” asked the grandfather. He was surprised he was no longer at the table. The young man nodded.
“It was a great meal,” the grandfather said. His grandson agreed.
“The greatest thing about it was… the greatest thing,” the grandfather said, amused, not speaking to anyone at all.
The grandson hugged him, and gently closed the door. Soon, the engine tenderly roared, waves shook through the tinted windows, and the car faded into the distance of the long avenue and out of sight.
He woke alone at sunrise. The hot rays that popped through the window had snapped his eyes open and dragged him from his dream. He wet his salty lips, vaguely remembering the foggy images now slipping from his memory… he was in a crowd… it was hot… and there was the smell of butter.
He could not remember more. He stretched and felt that the pillow next to him was still warm. Her nightgown was left on the floor. She had left a little earlier.
He flung the blanket away. The balcony just beyond the bed let in the sun. The view was glared, but he made out the shoreline and the white crests of crashing waves. She must be out there on the sand, watching the daybreak.
Fragments of his dream returned… she was there too… in the crowd… but was upset… she was crying.
He was suddenly enveloped in sweat. It could have been from his dream’s remnants or the beating sun. He leapt out of bed and quickly dressed. He was soon tapping the elevator button. The door opened. It was full. He would not wait for the next one… he crammed into the box.
The elevator was hotter than his bedroom. There was a dull ding, and the door opened. He exploded out of it, but his body felt hotter still. The hallway, lobby and street were a blur. When his feet hit the sand, he was on fire.
It did not take him long to find her. She wore a yellow bikini, was asleep near the water, and a bottle of tanning butter was beside her. He approach slowly. He struck the sweat from his brow. He fell to his knees at the sight of a trembling kernel on her bare-belly. He squinted as it sizzled…
He then burst from out of his shell.
“A dancer,” she said.
The park leaves hadn’t turned color yet. The afternoon was chilly and the young couple held each other tightly on a wooden bench. They did not rest against the back, their shoulders were taut and their glances were fixed ahead.
A man in a suit holding a newspaper passed. A leashed Yorkshire terrier pulled a woman along. A couple pushed a stroller and coaxed a dawdling child. A tuxedoed man held hands with a woman in a white dress. A few lying about on a grassy hill applauded. A man in dark glasses swayed to a broken rhythm from his portable electric piano and shrieked the words of a smash hit from the seventies.
“And you? What are you to be?” the man with the thick accent asked.
“Her musician,” he said.
A horse towed an empty carriage and its hooves clopped into the pavement. A pair of runners jogged by and a pack of cyclist charged in the opposite direction. Nearby were the hum of automobiles, and streetlights flashing from green to yellow to red and footsteps against the sidewalk.
The couple relaxed when they saw the man with the thick accent, who sat behind an easel, stop sketching.
“Done,” the man said, and handed them their drawing.
The champagne bubbled over the crystal brim and down its surface to the marble countertop.
There was laughter and chatter in the spacious room. She poured the first glass and handed it to a man who treated her like a best friend, yet they never shared a memory. They had talked about nightlife adventures, college experiences and career horror stories. She poured the next pair of glasses for a couple who treated her like a daughter, yet they never celebrated a birthday or holiday together. They had talked about an upcoming trip to a far away place, embarrassing childhood stories about their son and how lovely the new linen looked in the bedroom upstairs. She then poured a set of glasses for a group who treated her like a colleague, yet they never worked together. Their conversations were a montage of mirth, with awkward moments, stories ending with punch lines and a man who was a little too fresh for her taste.
She poured the last two, kept one and handed the other to him.
He was unusually quiet now, and looked across the room: at boxes still left unpacked, furniture yet to be arranged and bare walls that needed painting. He then took a fork and tapped the crystal; its ring silenced the clamor. He raised his glass and the room obeyed.
“My entire life can fit into half this room. I was terrified when I packed my first box to move into this empty house. But now, seeing you all here, I am not afraid. You are the closest to me: best friends, my parents, and my colleagues. Yet it has taken how small I can feel from such a big change to realize how important you are to me. Thank you for teaching me this, and thank you for making this house so warm.”
The home remained silent as they took a sip, and a little longer after that. It wasn’t broken until she gave him a kiss.
The afternoon sky was dark, and poured rain onto the city. Men in ridged suits and women in sharp dresses zipped to overhangs and awnings. Briefcases and newspapers were their only fleeting reprieve.
A man paid his taxi driver and prepared for the dash across the street. He eyed the gauntlet he was to take: puddles ebbed into lakes, gutter-runoff streamed into rivers and roaring cars splashed waves.
He burst into a lobby. Hair now unkempt, jacket now drenched, and socks now sopping; he exhaled and peered at the window and into his blurred reflection.
In that moment he was caught. He was no longer standing inside an illuminated hall, but was miles away. He seemed paralyzed, except for his thumb which fingered his wedding band.
“Penny for your thoughts?” asked a security guard who sat behind a nearby desk.
The wet man was pulled back. He smiled at the guard and pulled a dime from his pocket and placed it on the countertop. “Some thoughts are treats you keep for yourself. Please, keep the change.”
“You’ve saved my life more times than I can remember.”
The slender man sat in a chair and took a puff from his cigar. The only light on the rooftop terrace came from the lampposts on the quiet street below, and from the moon and the stars.
The short man discarded some ash from his cigar. “There aren’t that many occupational hazards in an office building.”
“You know what I mean–not danger, but myself.”
The short man laughed. “In your case there isn’t much of a difference.”
The slender man sighed.
“You know what your problem is,” the short man said, “you think too much. You are too much of an idealist. You can never keep your feet on the ground.”
“That’s what people tell me. I could be talking to someone but my mind would be on the other side of the universe. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“True, but a ship, no matter how fast it’s going, still needs a rudder.”
“Fair enough,” said the slender man. “I just feel that no one sees value in how I express myself. I don’t get it. Or maybe I don’t want to get it. It’s as if the world is a cruel place and I’ll have to learn to accept it.”
“That’s a little dramatic, don’t you think?”
The slender man took a deep puff and looked up. “Perhaps. Do you think we’ll make it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Humanity. Do you think we’ll make it?”
The short man closed his eyes and shook his head. “I can only answer yes to that.”
“I’m just thinking about the state of the world—the natural disasters, the wars, the depleting resources, the corruption, the economic struggle… the conflict. I stop to think, will we ever reach the stars?”
“We have to,” the short man said softly.
“And what are we doing to get us there? Working in business attire in an office space? I feel I should have dedicated my mind to science, to help create a renewable source of energy, or the cure for cancer. But instead I only dream about it.”
“There you go, thinking too much again. The greatest thing we can do is contribute to the development of society. For five thousand years, we have been building this civilization with our minds, and we need to enrich it to ensure we are here for another five thousand years. You say our world is cruel from conflict? Why don’t you do something about it?”
The slender man stared at the stars for a long time. “There you go, saving my life again.”