I had gone to bed early. That is one of my favorite things to do. It is like Christmas, or vacation, to watch the deepening shadows, the last glow of day, hear the slosh of the waves against beach—ancient sand, I like to think, ground up stones from temples to Apollo. Just beyond the promenade outside the old hotel.
I lay on my back, spread eagle, which is my way to relax. On the top sheet, clothed only by the soft Mediterranean air coming through the windows. I must have slept, drifted off, sunk down into the weariness of a day of water and sun and walking across ancient landscapes, greeting the small gray lizards on warm rocks, who took bits of processed cheese from the tip of my finger and were no different than those Alexander the Great considered his equal companions on the earth.
It is all the easier, this dropping off, this going to sleep earlier, after forty.
There was a noise at the door. I thought at first it some play in the latch, the door responding to a shifting draft. Then I heard a clear knock. My first concern was for my nakedness, my second for my loneliness in the world. And the disasters that could break over me. A telegram about one of my two sons—drowned while surfing, a blow against the head.
I opened the door wide enough to speak but also to hide my nakedness. It was the artist from the beach, a young French–English woman I had spoken to and admired. She had passed me carrying a wicker laundry basket with wet wash she intended to spread on the breakwater’s dark rocks, and I had retracted my legs some, so she could maneuver through the space between me and a snoring sanglier of a German, who–judging from his color–could soon be served with a side of rot kohl and, in his mouth, an apple .
Out from under her straw hat, she gave me a cheery thank you, and I said something like, this way—with my legs pulled back—she wouldn’t drop her basket on my head. She said I shouldn’t worry, the clothes were freshly washed. And I had said–all smiles and charm–in that case go right ahead and drop them.
Later she returned, in her long blue dress, and set up her easel where the wild bore had been cooking. And we talked—I from where I sat on my rotting, about-to-rip, candy-striped beach chair, with my notebook; she standing at her French easel, leveling it in the sand, holding her brush in her teeth like a bone.
While she painted her clothes, which were now spread out on the dark rocks of the breakwater, and while the waves sloshed close by, we talked about Greece and the history of its admirers.
We brought up names. Many we weren’t sure of. Winckelmann, Flaubert, Thackeray, Mark Twain, Julia Ward Howe, Evelyn Waugh, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, and Edwin Dickenson. We ruminated on what people hoped to find when they came to Greece, and on how to address a theme–a motif–so that when you worked it, it didn’t become just one more variation on a cliché.
She said she mostly painted headlands and points, and moored fishing boats, sometimes villages and children and goats. She said she thought the ancient essence of Greece could still be glimpsed in the rectangular pupils of its goats. In this painting, with her wash lying over the stones, and the boats in front and the sea behind, she used blues and oranges and emerald greens, all of them set off by bold darks, which gave a convincing depth that, in my opinion, was almost troubling. I read her a poem I had written beside the roasting German about the shadow of sorrow one can feel in the face of immense beauty—by which I meant Greece, its mountains, dark islands, and seas. I told her how I had suffered for a long time from my sense of separation from the world I observed, until I realized I was made of the same carbon matter it was.
Her name was Alex. She was French and English. Her language showed the accents and richness of both cultures. When she said “boat,” her lips came forward, rounded, as if she were blowing out a birthday candle. When she smiled out from under the brim of her straw hat, her dark eyes caused a yearning in me, powerful at first, then fainter when I remembered how many women I had yearned for–and not found. There were a thousand reasons–psychologists knew all of them–why she would never be the woman I wanted to see in her. I think for the first time, in that moment—pivotal for me—I decided to toss aside ideals and take the risk of living in the real world, without any assurances, without expectations, without any guidelines but kindness.
When the light weakened, she packed up her things and got ready to leave. She paused beside me for a moment, holding her basket of now-dry, folded clothes against her hip, with her box of paints and brushes on top. In her free hand, she held the easel folded up and vertical, with her wet canvas still clamped against it. I could tell she was pondering something. She was studying me, not quite ready to speak. The wind played with her black hair, her long blue dress.
“What do you want?” she asked, holding my glance with her dark eyes.
I was speechless. This was a question I had never directly asked myself. It was also unsettling that someone else was asking it.
“Sex and applause,” I said, twisting and weaving. “The first followed by the second.” I said this with one of my smiles, being clever and evasive, but also laughing a little at myself .
“I believe that’s true,” she said.
“Maybe love,” I said, shifting about in the arena of discourse.
“No, I think it’s the former,” she said, and the corners of her mouth rose, as she found humor in it all.
“And laughter,” I said.
“What about sadness,” she asked, still holding the basket on her hip, one brown foot jutting seaward.
“Ah, sadness. That’s the key. I don’t think men know how to grieve. And I’m a man. We’re too busy coping, surviving, searching for meaning. We stagger along stuck full of arrows, and we pretend they aren’t there. We place crosshairs on the forehead of a boy from the next town and squeeze the trigger, full of certainty and righteousness. Plastic floats beneath the surface of Homer’s wine dark sea. Men can only grieve over the someone they love when one or the other of them is dying. Sadness is a dark subterranean river—that is always there.”
She looked alarmed, but then took a deep breath, and shifted the basket, then nodded, and said she we should talk another time. I said good-bye and did not expect to see her again.
Two steps away, she turned around briefly and said, “Good answer.”
I had said farewell as many times as there were years in my life. I watched her go, examined her bottom, the way the off-shore breeze pressed the long blue dress against the curve of her legs, the way she pivoted on the balls of her feet, swinging her heels inward, to gain traction against the sand. At the narrow stone boardwalk, she turned and—I like to think—smiled at me and tossed her head in a kind of wave. But I don’t see that well, and all I can say for sure is that she then turned and entered the hotel and was gone.
When I drew the door back toward me, the one in my room, in the dark of that evening of the soft wind and the waves, I saw Alex standing before me, barefoot as at the beach, with a long white dress and holding a bottle in front of her and, in her other hand, two long-stemmed wine glasses.
“Do you like Retsina?” she asked. “With goat’s cheese and raw garlic and Greek bread?”
“I like Retsina,” I said, still poking my head around the corner.
“I don’t have any goat’s cheese or garlic,” she said.
“I don’t have anything on,” I said.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” she said, and came through the door.
We sat on the bed, drinking the Retsina. Me clothed only by the wind and lit only by the deep Aegean night. We talked about the things we liked in the world: cities, books, films, and friends. Then we talked about things that threatened us most. I spoke about abandonment and betrayal. She talked about severed relationships, remoteness in the midst of closeness, the conflicting expectations of lovers, the absence of gentleness, walls of defensiveness. Last of all, about violence and anger.
When the bottle was empty, and I think we were both feeling the Retsina, she asked me if I knew what she was wearing, and I said a long white, probably cotton, shift. She said I was mistaken, that I was affected by the wine. She asked for my hand, and I wondered how that could determine the color of her dress. She held my hand higher than, say, the level of her knees, higher than her waist, and placed it against a soft curve of bare skin.
“How did you manage that?” I asked.
“I just decided to do it.”
She held my hand against her.
“I mean take it off without me knowing.”
“Timed to the slosh of a wave.”
“I can feel your heart,” I said. It was not something clever. I could feel her heart, and its beat was slow and steady.
“Is this a moment that joins or separates?” I asked.
“Joins,” she said.
“Then separating?” I said.
“First the joining,” she said. “First the basket full of wet wash, then my painting of the clothes, then your poem, then a declaration on grieving men, then your nakedness, now my beating heart.”
“I’m not a superman,” I said.
“I’m not a pin cushion,” she said, “—or a jukebox.”
“How about lips?” I asked.
“And lips,” she said, and she raised my hand still farther, until the tips of my fingers were touching her French and English mouth—which I could tell was smiling.
Let me say first of all: Welcome to this house!
There’s something inviting about the wind-grayed shingles, wild roses, small pane windows, and porches. You see the sand, how it stretches out in ripples beneath the dune grass toward the blue sea. This is not a place just anyone can come to. We are privileged. I am happy to welcome you back.
I first came here as a boy. That’s a long time ago. My mother cooked apples, not apple pie, the way you might be thinking right now because of the smells in the air. She baked apples, whole, with walnuts and brown sugar in the place where the core used to be. My father smoked his curved briar pipe and sat in a white wicker rocking chair on this porch, over these same Delft blue two-inch boards. He’d have a thought, then rock forward, hold the position up against this same pine table, dip his pen in black ink and write poems that made people’s eyes water when he read them aloud. He wrote poems for friends who had died or given birth or launched boats they’d built. Once, his younger brother–my uncle Flori–built a Seabright skiff. These were Jersey beaches, and that was before the time of big highways and plastic boats. My uncle Flori built the boat, because it was a skiff with a flat bottom and could sit upright on the mud at low tide. He used yellow, pumpkin pine for planking, that mounted up, one lapstreak at a time, gleaming in the gloom of the chicken-feathered barn where he worked.
Then my father stood up. Everyone had gathered in the marsh grass beside the salt creek and the sloping ways. Really, just two two-by-ten fir planks soaped for the launch. He took out his curved pipe, held up his piece of paper and made us see the South Seas, Arctic displays of lights and crystals, and white birds and God inventing boats, and made my Aunt Bessie Kingman cry and my eyes water, and got me thinking of Indian girls lost in swamps, Hiawatha or something similar, about true love and forests, though my father’s poem never ever mention any of that.
And then Uncle Flori put Seamstress, his beloved English sheep dog, in the skiff for weight, took the sledge and tapped out a small wedge, and the skiff and Seamstress slid down and bobbed in the clear high tide of the creek, and bucked a little when Seamstress abandoned ship and swam ashore. My father said, “Congratulations, Flori, you’ve given birth!” And everyone thought that was funny.
And just when they were laughing and had their mouths open and their faces lit up with life and fun, I noticed the face of a girl I hadn’t seen before. The edge of her big straw hat was bent up in front and let the sun down on those teeth and lips and the crinkles around her eyes. And she’d been watering them, just the way I had, so we were really closer to each other than we might have been otherwise. Later, we went walking along the side of the creek, all of us, to the river, to watch Uncle Flori row. There was a spray of roses on the stern seat and a bunch of sunflowers tied to the bow, and Aunt Laura sat in the bow with her skirt pulled up so as not to touch the water, showing her legs, in her white stockings, while Aunt Bessie Kingman sat beside the roses in back and trailed her maiden hand in the water.
And then we went back up the creek, through the marsh grass, crossing the muskrat trails, and talking, and I ended up walking beside Julie, a little back from the others, the girl who had had sun on her teeth, and she seemed wonderful to me, and two months later we were married, and a year after that you Jonah, were born, then you Greg. You Roger were next, then you Mark, and finally you Jim. Always one year apart.
I know you’ve heard this all before, but on a day like this when we gather to remember your mother, here at this old house with the gray shingles and the roses and the beach stretching away, I just wanted to tell the story again. How I met her, what it was like, and why this is a special place, so all of you–your wives and children–won’t forget. As Proust, or somebody said: Reality is a state approached only through memory. Something like that. I don’t remember, and you’re not supposed to at my age.
Anyway, I think it smells like the apples are ready, and I say why don’t we go in and eat them, the walnuts, the brown sugar, all cooked togetherh, like this family, at the old table, in the middle of this house, on the blue boards. And think how very lucky we are. Especially me.