A golden evening on Paradise Island. Captain dropped us off, Artist and I, on the back beach by the lonely palm tree. We snuck across the parking lot and the field to the ocean side.
“Let’s try to make it to the lighthouse,” I said. “It could be fun to watch the sunset from the top—don’t you think?”
I had a small length of string in my pocket. I wanted to tie it around the third finger on the left hand of Artist. I wanted to do it at the top of the lighthouse.
“It’s pretty far away,” she said. “I don’t really want to walk that far.”
“Come on,” I said. “It’s not that far. Let’s try, huh?”
With a resigned sigh, Artist strode down the beach with me, while holding my hand. Often she didn’t want to do the same things as I; often she argued on behalf of practicality. I would take off in grand romantic flight, and she would, with her well-aimed pessimism, snipe me back to the ground, like a bird with a clipped wing. But, sometimes, I could convince her to fly with me, and together we could climb to rare heights.
We were alone on the beach, two figures striding along as the sun sank in the west, the sand golden beneath our feet. Although I was much taller, we walked at the same pace, a fact we laughed about on our first few dates. She had long beautiful legs. Our first week together, all we did was walk: up and down the streets of our little city, from the north end by the river, past the restaurants and boutiques, to the lonely bench at the south—where I first leaned in to kiss her. She met my mouth halfway. I was as frightened then as I was now—frightened that maybe I was making a mistake and would end up stuck in something I didn’t want to be in, locked in by my own cowardice and fear of being alone.
The scars on her arm reminded me of the last girl I dated, who went mad one night in my kitchen, and fainted when I broke it off. It was a sloppy and difficult ending, as they always are. Not long afterward, I met the artist at a party. She didn’t say a word. Her silence captivated my attention and imagination. I told her corny jokes and teased out a smile from her dark little face. Was it enough?
On the beach we reached an impasse. A wall of boulders blocked further progress; we would have to climb over or swim around to reach the lighthouse, which now seemed impossibly distant. “I suppose you don’t want to climb over and keep going?” I asked.
“Why do you want to get to that lighthouse so bad? It’s just a lighthouse,” she replied.
“I thought it might be nice.”
“No. Come on—let’s walk back. Maybe we can try again another day. Look, the sun is already starting to set. I don’t want to walk back in the dark.”
I agreed reluctantly, and we turned around. My stomach sank, my mind raced. She doesn’t want to do this one little thing, I thought. What if we encounter greater obstacles in our imagined future together? Everything was crashing around me. I wasn’t certain about anything anymore. Every action we were taking meant something else, represented the perfection that existed (perhaps only) in my mind. What if my life wasn’t perfect? The terror of making the wrong decision. What if it was never meant to be? Paralyzed.
“Hey.” Her voice knocked on the door of my mind. “What’s up? You’re being awfully quiet.”
“Nothing,” I lied. “Just thinking about the future.”
“Talk to me,” she said.
“About whatever you want.”
“Well, sometimes I wonder if I’m making the right choices in my life.”
“You?” She squinted. “You’re doing great. You went to school. You have plans for the future. It’s me who should be worried.”
“Yeah, but what if those plans don’t work out? What if I’m meant to be doing something else?”
“Meant? Meant by who? You get to decide what you want your life to be. No one is going to tell you that you’re doing it wrong. It’s about whatever makes you happy.”
“Easier said than done.”
“I know. Look, I don’t know why you’re the one who is worrying. I’ve got nothing going on right now—except this. I dropped out of school to come here, and I don’t know if I’m going to have enough money when we get home to go back. I’ve got my mental health to worry about. That’s not just going to go away on its own. And my teeth are probably going to fall out of my head when I’m 35 because I smoke and don’t take good care of them.”
“Then quit smoking.”
“It’s not that easy, you know? It’s an addiction. I’ve done pretty good on this trip with the e-cig, but that craving is still there.”
Here I may have whinged slightly, something retrospectively preposterous about the difficulty of life for a middle-class, white American male. “I should have studied business. At least that way we’d have some money.”
“Yeah, but would we be here on this beach right now?”
“I guess not. It is a nice beach.”
“Yeah, it is.”
We paused to watch the surf roll in from the Atlantic. The water was clear and baby-blue; shadows of the wave-ripples danced along the white sand bottom. When a wave reared up to crash on the shore, the bottom half of it turned yellow with churned-up sand, and the top stayed aqua. What few clouds there were turned gold in the dying evening light. We turned and walked back toward the thick green jungle of palms.
On the path back, we encountered a little building that looked like it had been a small church. Artist had discovered it the other day when all four of us came ashore; there were a pair of hippies in it chanting in Hindi and playing a small acoustic organ. They were from the Shivananda yoga center next door. We sat on the steps and looked out over the sea.
My hand reached into my pocket; I felt the little piece of string I took from the schooner. Artist was talking, but I was thinking hard, trying to reach a decision which would affect the rest of our lives. I thought about the two of us: my wild hyperactive energy, pulled along by whim and fancy, romance and adventure. How different I was from her, with her steady, plodding practicality, her introspection, her quietness. What could we do together? Would it be greater than if we were to go our separate ways? I didn’t have to do this, I knew. She had no idea. I could put the string back in my pocket, try to go it alone as Saint was doing. Ultimately, he was responsible for himself—all the good and bad that accompanies it. But I knew myself as a creature who needed companionship, who needed to give and receive love to be fulfilled and happy. Here was this woman sitting beside me, right here, right now, in this immediate moment of happening. All thought about future moments and what they could be depended on this one, and the actions and choices we make in it. The past cannot help us now.
“Artist, I have a question to ask you.”
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Will you make me the happiest man alive…”
“Why are you on the ground.”
“And marry me?”
“Oh, my god! Well … yes! Of course!”
We kissed, we embraced, we cried, we laughed, excited and nervous and overjoyed at life, and the actions which make it happen.
John Wolfe is a licensed captain who still gets seasick in rough weather, but goes sailing anyway. He holds a BFA in creative writing from UNCW. When he’s not writing, he can be found on the water, playing music or drinking beer. “Going Aloft” is Wolfe’s nonfiction serialized piece, to be published in encore every other week in 2016.