I read this piece at the Octopus Literary Salon at an event that paired published authors with emerging writers. I wrote it in response to my partner’s piece, which touched on smoking, the wind, being young and making mistakes. I didn’t know right away how to respond, so I looked out the window and listened. My writing space: a back table at the Bandon Library.
The seas are rough today. A nearby foghorn sounds out a short mournful note every couple of minutes or so. I could time it, but I don’t. Instead, I listen for it, then lose myself in thought, and there it is again. It reminds me of how they tell me to squeeze the squishy stress ball in my hand every five to ten seconds when I’m donating blood. Squeeze, slowly release, squeeze again, until they tell me I’m done and the bags and little tubes are full of blood that will be packed and sent somewhere. Someone who needs it will get the blood that slowly drained away as I squeeze, hold, release. But now, it’s quiet…sound…and quiet, as the waves break along the rocky shore.
The winds are strong today. Stepping out of my hotel room, my home for the next few days, the wind whips my newly shorn hair so it stands up in tufts, the unruly ringlets near my face emboldened by their layered freedom to be curly, to form into corkscrews at will. The hair wants what it wants, and mine wants to enjoy this revolution of curliness. There is nothing to do but let it blow in this wind and tamp it down later when I can. Outside, there is only the wind and the sound of the foghorn, warning any sailors approaching the rocky shore to look out. The foggy marine layer has mostly burned off, but still the sound persists. They have been warned.
I have a photo, taken many decades ago, of two teenage boys trying to light a cigarette in the wind at a beach not unlike the one near me right now. One boy cups his hands around the match while the other one bends in toward it as his hair is blown back by the wind. Did it light? Did they have to find another place, more sheltered, to protect the flame before they ran out of wooden matches? Was this as futile as it looks in the black and white photo of two boys who are now closer to seventy than they ever imagined possible? We all smoked back then, boys and girls, trying to look grown up and possibly sophisticated. Pinching a cigarette in the V between index and middle finger, we waved our hands in the air, gesturing casually, leaving a small trail of smoke in the wake. We had ashtrays in our dorm rooms and apartments; we had ashtrays before we had the other accouterments of living as adults on our own. Ashtrays, but no coasters, for instance. No matching sets of towels, chairs or dishes, or more than about six forks. Lacking these things was of no concern. We lived in a bubble, at a time ripe for careless behavior, smoking and drinking too much. Getting high. Exploring the limits of what we could get away with—to see if we could survive—and moving on to try the next thing. We would live forever.
The sound of the foghorn, I realize, is one of my favorite sounds. When I was a little girl, I used to hear the sound of a distant train in the night and it made me feel safe and secure. Someone on that train was awake and making sure that no one would get in harm’s way, surely, and the people on the train would arrive at their destination in the morning or the next day and all would be well. Airplanes flying through a rainstorm, same thing. The sound of those planes meant: all things were under control, despite the storm, and that each plane would carry its passengers above the clouds and the rain, to land safely in a faraway city beyond my imagination. Maybe the passengers were asleep and unaware of the rain, unlike the little girl clutching her blankets who at first worried, and then didn’t, relieved at the sound of the plane as it flew overhead and onward, remaining unfazed by the elements above her— but below them—in the night sky.
Also at the beach that day…the writer and one of those teenage guys