I. Sylvia Beach Hotel
Fifteen years ago, this was your surprise for his 30th birthday. You’d hoped to book the Edgar Allan Poe room, but had ended up in F. Scott Fitzgerald, decorative gin bottles on desks and shelves. Late May, lonely and ill, you still had no context for your symptoms. You thought being vegan meant giving things up, but you are only beginning. The surgeries half a year away, the months of recovery unimaginable. The way you will cry into your cupped palm in the corner of your bedroom to collect all the despair away quietly.
While he slept, you ventured into the wind and walked along the grey beach. Three years earlier, you’d come for New Year’s with a woman you expected to spend the rest of your life with. The two of you tucked into the attic library, reading Jeanette Winterson, and watching the seascape darken. The hotel cat had kept you company on the couch by the window, your tea cups steaming between the globe and boxes of puzzles.
II. The jellyfish
They litter the beach like dense bubbles. Some of them still throbbing. You step lightly on one once, and hop away unscathed. On this stretch of beach, there are three lighthouses, and great dark birds that swoop up and back from the jetty. Crab get ripped to fractions. Like paper, you think. Like love letters.
The first time you came here, you stayed in a communal room. You’d turn twenty-five that week. The night before, you’d ushered in Y2K at a queer dance club in Portland. You were strong and healthy, and expected to go on that way. You thought the two of you had time. More time to understand whatever this was. Love or loneliness or a repeated collision. Something hopeful and broken. Something you mistrusted.
You’d huddled on the beach as the wind battered and battered and battered the waves.
Most of the photos in the room are of Charley. Steinbeck’s emissary to the world. It’s not until my second day walking between the lighthouses, that I realize my memories are wooden boats, appearing unbidden from the edge of the world, from the single line where the sky tumbles into the sea. How else to explain the gondola in Venice, the olive bread, the push push push through the water?
The beach in Hawaii where we held a jacket over our bodies as though a single person took shelter there.
The cliffs in Ireland where I loved her with a rare burst of fearlessness. Where I could imagine the two of us as old women. Our bicycles and our garden. Our kayaks and canoe ready to load into the truck for whatever river needed exploring.
I came back here to let sail that old terror that I would become someone I was ashamed of. Someone small and afraid to love.
In eighteen years, the hotel cats are different, and I am different, and these boats revisit to help me see the progress. My youth, and my health, and my heart. What I expected to be true. My certainty as a young woman watching from that window, at this shoreline where I stand this morning in my middle age. These boats of memory return to allow me to see things differently and again. To see differently and again.
I kneel in the sand as a small black dog approaches. “Hi, baby,” I say, and hold out my hand. She sniffs for a moment, before letting me pet her head.
“That’s unexpected!” shouts the man behind me. “That’s unexpected! You must be a good person. She doesn’t like ANYBODY.” He points at me again. “YOU MUST BE A GOOD PERSON.”