With the windows open in his room, he’ll sometimes lie on the bed, hands laced behind his head, and listen to the tree in the front yard. The tree that is falling apart one strong gust of wind and one limb at a time. He’ll listen to the sway, the rusting leaves, eyes closed, searching the dark for the ocean. At first it is only the sound—the soft detonations of the waves out beyond the breaks. One by one, the images surface: the waters edging onto shore, white lines of foam, the endless gray sky and the sun just a hazy, edgeless light. The times in which he stood, barefoot and shivering, confronting the ocean will come back to him: that weekend, Christmas 2008, at Padre Island with his kid nieces and nephews, just an eager twenty-something who was still figuring it out; who wasn’t any kind of father or role model but still possessed the imagination to see himself as one, someday; who was not yet unemployed, groping for an identity, a second chance, when it was much too late for second chances; who was not yet an ill person, reduced to a need to consume a rainbow of pills each morning, to control the ravages of an autoimmune disease—pills that his friends in health care would later admit in low, hushed tones, in feeble, shaky-lipped stutters, may be dangerous over the long term, may encourage lymphoma or worse. Christmas 2008, wading in the shallows with his pants rolled up around the ankles, wandering some nameless part of the beach stretched taut, cold, and gray like some dead animal’s flesh, he was just another young man who was happy and sensed a future for himself. He was something of a gentle giant then, happy to indulge when the kids asked to sit on his shoulders. They’d tell him to wade out into the waters like some mindless beast while they sat perched on his shoulders, legs dangling, and he would. He’d walk until the waters sloshed chest-level and the sprays freckled all of their faces, until they screamed with voices equal parts terror and glee, and then he’d come back. He would always come back.
Sometimes he thinks about going and never coming back. The days are too hard. They are too quiet. They are empty, like a house abandoned—no one lives inside his days anymore. The only laughter comes from far away in some twitchy, ecstatic television wonderland, a light emanating from the stars on late-night talk shows. He’ll lie in bed crippled by sadness, dead inside his life, and listen to the trees outside, listen for the big ocean sound. It will be seven or eight in the evening—dinner time for most families. His house will be dark and quiet, the light weary and blue, but outside it’ll be beautiful. Golden, radiant light. One final hurrah before the sun slides behind the trees and the houses across the street. He’ll lie thinking about the people who have drifted into his life, like so many leaves falling, only to be swept away by choice and circumstance. He’ll think about lives and loves that could have been but never were. And when the ache in his heart is too much, a swell threatening to overtake, the knot of air in his chest too large, he’ll wish he could turn off, somehow stop thinking this way.
Behind his house and the sagging wooden fence and the tangled trees, behind in the open field where the dirt is some pathetic sun-baked, beaten thing, kids will be playing a Little League game. Inevitably, the ping of the aluminum bat will soar in through the windows and the sound, the tender nostalgia it evokes, will warm his heart. By then he’ll already be on his way. Hands laced on his chest, the rise and fall of his breathing, the work of his heart and lungs surging under his fingers. Trying to ward off dreams and stay in the moment, wrapped in the sounds of a typical afternoon in the suburbs, as forty or fifty or sixty milligrams of lora zee whiten into his bloodstream, just listening to that far-off game of Little League, those kids. Another ping of the bat, and the voices from the bleachers will rise like the waves out on Padre Island will be rising, rising and receding, so many hundreds of miles away. He’ll think about himself as a kid. That ten year-old who so loved the sound of the wind-chime dangling from an overhead hook in the back yard. Who loved the ocean and played stupid games of his own with arbitrary, made up rules. Who laughed often, had friends, loved, and was loved. And he’ll wonder what happened to that kid, the intervening years, where and why it had to all go wrong.