Thoughts on the Cold-Water Season
originally published in The Beachside Resident
Another morning: the cream snakes into the coffee, purls, disperses in pools of white oil. Cormorants gather at the river's edge, necks retracted, mute -- black sentinels of the dawn. Faraway clouds range the horizon like coral mountains.
When the boy wakes up, he is moaning, half inhabiting his dreams. His diaper is full, his eyes puffed, his hair damp with sweat. He makes sweet, sad sounds in the Daddy's arms. The girl is awake, already dressed for the day, quietly attending to her unicorn, her white donkey, her matted yellow bear. On her blanket: plastic cakes, fruits, a teapot, tiny pink spoons.
The dog tugs at the double stroller. The Daddy sighs wistfully at the low moon, fragile and lucent as wet paper on the sky. He recalls Biarritz: the shallow, crystalline rivers flowing through the sand at low tide, the great channel-cut rock behind the Hotel du Palais, the warm baguettes, Egyptian blue water, and those tanned French bodies, so unlike the cool, white-skinned Parisians. The girl sings softly, flutters her hands to some silent symphony.
The Daddy wonders why, on this particular morning, he should be pushing a stroller… momentarily he experiences the emasculation of the stay-at-home father… I should be hunting, he thinks, or chopping firewood. An osprey cuts across the sky. The bird is a comfort to the Daddy, somehow.
November and the beginning of the nor'easters. Onshore winds, frigid water, open lineups, jellyfish plumes. Wetsuits flipped inside out, inspected for spiders. Weeks upon weeks of rideable wind chop. The double stroller reaches the crest in the road and the wind blows back the children's hair. Their laughter plays like piccolo music. The dog jerks at her leash. The salt air quickens the Daddy's heart. He rises on his toes, boyish, hopeful.
The tide is too high, the wind too strong, the waves too small. Florida's classic afflictions. The Daddy squints into the sun, mind-surfing the shorebreak. Purple spots spin in the boy's eyes. He cries out. One last wave peels to shore before the Daddy turns the stroller homeward: the children at peace in his long shadow. Plumerias are crinkling at the edges; a few leaves lie brown and crumpled on the grass, the first burnt vessels of winter. Again the Daddy wonders at his station in the world -- unemployed, tending to infants, mixing formula, wiping bums.
The front yards are littered with political signs: red-and-blue striped, banded with stars. Packaged and decorated like candy. Don John. Ritch Workman. Frank Sullivan. As if by name, font, and color scheme, one should see into the contents of a man. The Daddy has no taste for politics. It is enough to know the Democrats are asses and the Republicans white elephants. The Tea Party use the Gadsden flag and the rattlesnake, but the Daddy envisions them more as turkeys, strutting around in costume, clucking at their feed. Or maybe it is just Thanksgiving approaching.
At naptime, he punches "turkey" into Wikipedia and discovers a quote from Ben Franklin citing the "bad moral character" of the eagle, and extolling the advantages of the turkey as the national bird. The Daddy thinks this imagery might appeal to the Tea Party. He lies down on the couch, begins to float. He pictures himself as the bright-eyed boy in the old VHS movies, bounding on the sectional with his skinny legs, forest-themed wallpaper guarding this magical world, his Buster Brown haircut bobbing up and down. The eighties are invincible to him: roller rinks, Rocky III, hot tubs, teased hair, aviator sunglasses… but the boy is awake now, whimpering in his crib, and the Daddy loses this train of thought.
The Space Shuttle Discovery launches from the earth that afternoon. The children stand immobile as garden gnomes on the grass, their heads tilted northeast. Thunder rolls in long after the boy has already lost interest. The girl remains immobile, her mouth slightly open, watching the cloudstring coil and drift. When the white star disappears, the engines are still booming. Her hands close upon her cheeks; she shivers in ecstasy.
Another night: the baby monitors hum tonelessly. The Daddy stares at his unshaven face in the mirror. Three mornings and three nights the Mommy has been away. The panic begins to creep in, the leading edge of the storm. He sits on the ground, tries to stretch out his legs, but a terrible pressure grips his chest. He cannot think. He stumbles to the bath, fills it with hot water, immerses himself. The loneliness swallows him up.
The world begins anew when the Mommy steps through the door. The Daddy lets her embrace the girl first, then the boy. Her back is stiff from from the overnight flight. The Daddy feels like falling to the ground. Her sing-song voice fills the house. His heart is overfull. He is a simple creature.
Another morning: the wind has broken. The first dry chill of winter electrifies the air. The girl delights at the sight of her breath. The Mommy moves to her own joyful tempo as she loads the children into the car. The Daddy carries his board to the beach. In the cold, rolling water, he leaves his body, communes with the dolphins, reaches out to the spirits and energies that light up the world.
The truck pulls up to the school. The girl's eyes shine when she sees the surfboard and the Daddy's hair still wet. She climbs into the carseat, and as her tender, chilly fingers touch the Daddy on his bare shoulder, all his doubts vanish… torn apart like wisps of cloud.