I’m sitting on the balcony of our eighth-floor hotel room on a quiet Monday evening. The Atlantic stretches out below me like God’s welcome mat. A soft breeze kisses my face and leaves behind a salty film I desperately hope will never completely wash off.
I’ve abandoned my laptop for old fashioned paper and pen. On the small table in front of me is a rare indulgence of Hemmingway’s beverage of choice, and in my left hand is an even rarer indulgence of a long-forgotten vice: a very nice cigar. Bob Marley is singing “No Woman, No Cry” to me through the earphones on my head, and I lean back in my faded jeans and rest my bare feet against the wall.
This is what the ocean does to me.
It makes me smile, makes me relax. Makes me temporarily suspend my fears and regrets. It replaces the storms of my life with sunshine and the filthy mud with clean sand. And all those nagging cares that wash over me are silenced by the peaceful sound of waves meeting shore.
Here, I am a better me.
But this is not why I come here every year. Not why for one week out of fifty-two I say goodbye to my mountains to seek a distant shore.
If you really want to know why I make this pilgrimage, all you need to do is look at the old man in the bench eight stories below me. Sitting right there on the boardwalk, staring out to sea.
I flirted with the idea of taking a picture of him, if only so you could see what I’m seeing right now. But I can’t. It seems like an invasion of his privacy, a sacrilege to his holy moment. So instead I snap a picture of what he’s been looking at for the last six hours.
Yes, that’s right. Six hours.
We first passed him on our way out to the beach, loaded down with shovels and pails and chairs and towels. Seventies and tired, with a worn cane propped against his right leg. He stared out to the horizon with a soft smile on his lips. It looked to me that he was both there and somewhere far away.
When we passed him on our way back in for lunch, I nodded. He smiled. I nodded on our way back out afterward and got a wave.
Then, as we were calling it a day, I passed and said, “Pretty weather, huh?”
“Sure is,” he answered.
Sometimes having kids gives you opportunities you would otherwise miss. When my son began crying over a missing toy that he was sure would be swallowed by the sea overnight, I went back down to the beach to retrieve it for him. Another wave, another smile. On my way back, I decided to stop.
“Not much beats this view,” I said.
“Come here every day,” he replied. “It’s the only place where the scenery never changes but always gets better anyway.”
I liked that enough to stick around and hear more.
“You and your family from around here?” he asked.
“No, we’re on the other side of Richmond,” I said.
He nodded. “Nice country up there.”
“Beautiful country,” I told him. “But not like this.”
“My wife and I moved here from Iowa,” he said. “Came here, oh, twenty years ago. We retired and realized we’d never seen the ocean. Our kids were grown and gone, so we figured it was the right time.”
His wife wasn’t with him, and I wasn’t about to ask where she was. I knew. I knew by the way he had sat on only one side of the bench rather than the middle. Knew by the fact that he rested his cane against his right leg even though he was right handed. It was the product of repetition. Someone else had shared that seat with him for twenty years.
“Know why I come here?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“Because the ocean swallows our tears. That’s what she always told me. ‘Harry,’ she’d say, ‘I think all that is all the tears we shed. God just bottles them up and pours them out so we can have a place to visit where we can leave our struggles.’”
“I like that,” I said.
I left him to his pouring, and then I went up to my room and onto the balcony to do the same. Because that’s what the ocean is to Harry and I. A place to pour out our tears and leave our struggles. A place to find the better us.