One man's struggle to feel whole again.
|Jim Tyler sat in his favorite chair reading the latest issue of The Atlantic and savoring the mild bite of a Heineken. The cold beer and the light rain had combined to relax him after a tough day of classes. It was near semester’s end. His students had been antsy all week, anticipating freedom. It made for a difficult time of the year for student and teacher alike.
"Need another one, sweetheart?" Monica asked cheerfully from the kitchen.
"Not yet, baby," Jim replied. "Just sitting here, enjoying the rain."
Jim closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, smelling the sweet scent of the cool May shower, reminding him of watering the lawn at his grandfather's house. It had been decades since he had helped his grandfather string the long hose across the yard to the rose garden along the back fence.
The smell of a fresh shower always triggered that memory and of the hose used to do the job. Stretched out taught in the cool grass, it had looked like a giant transparent green drinking straw that allowed him to watch the pockets of air rush past on their way to the thorny bushes. Jim had duplicated the multi-colored rows of flowers in his own back yard. But he had failed in his quest to duplicate the hose.
"Care if I join you?" asked his young wife, startling him from his reminiscence. She passed beside him and reached down playfully to muss his thinning hair. "I've finished painting for the day."
Jim dropped his magazine and gently forced her onto his lap. He held her close and nuzzled against her throat. She giggled and pinched his chest, squeezing just hard enough to force him to release her, but not so hard as to deny him a certain measure of enjoyment.
Squirming away, she stood up and straightened her baby blue cashmere sweater. She made a playful attempt at a retreat toward the couch but he grabbed her again, pulling her willing body to his lap. He kissed her deeply and dug his fingers into her thick auburn hair.
"Don't get too excited, Jimbo," she said, breaking away to catch her breath. "I've got to go pick up the kids. It's nearly time, you know."
"Oh, all right," he said, feigning his displeasure. He kissed her again, deeply serious. "Hurry back, though. I may have a surprise for you a little later."
"I'll do my best," she said, "And I hope it's a big surprise, but I know better." She winked at him before grabbing the keys from the table beside him. Reaching the screen door, she picked up her yellow umbrella and turned to give him a sly smile, wrinkling her nose and mimicking a kiss.
Jim chuckled as he watched her slip through the doorway before returning his attention to the magazine. He smelled the rain again and smiled, happy with his life. He picked up the sweating bottle and took another sip, closing his eyes.
As he heard the engine turn over in the driveway, he became uneasy. No reason, the car sounded fine and the rain was starting to let up. His stomach tensed. He flipped the magazine on the couch and went to the screen door.
The tan station wagon backing away from the cover of the old pine tree a few yards away.
“Monica, hang on a minute. I’ll go with you,” he called out gesturing.
His wife smiled and returned his wave through the raindrops. She had the radio cranked.
“Wait!” he said more urgently. But it was too late. She maneuvered the car along the lane to Shore Road. He signed with resignation as the tail lights flickered, then disappeared in the mist. His pleas had been drowned out by the radio…
“Wait! Wait! Wait! Wait!”
Jim Tyler writhed in agony on the cool sand, awakened by the crashing surf behind him. Slowly opening his eyes, he rolled to stare blankly at the sea, trying to comprehend where he was and why. The rough morning surf pounded against the shore, booming like a battery of faraway cannon. The rising tide lapped to within a dozen feet of where he lay.
Lonely gulls cried out overhead, passing in and out of the bright morning sun. He lay still and stared at them for a long time, wishing he could run low along the beach with arms outstretched and somehow join them in their effortless flight. To escape forever the living nightmare which had become his life.
Hanging effortlessly on the invisible currents of ocean air, the gulls screeched forlornly at the waters below. Their tone shrill to his ears, they seemed to be crying "Wait, wait, wait, wait." He watched them silently, cursing their conversation. He breathed in the salty air, trying to shake the sick feeling from his stomach and the bird's ringing taunts from his ears. After all this time he was still sick, sick with the sadness of his lost love. His family. The life that he had known...
He stretched slowly, sitting to study the rhythmic rolling of the sea. Whitecaps surged gently toward him, forced by the unseen power of the moon which was now just a small, white speck on the cloudless blue horizon. Soon, the encroaching tide began to lick at his worn topsiders. He rose wearily, the dull pain in his back fighting his effort to stand, and began to walk slowly up the beach.
The roar of the surf filed his ears, but it could not fill his mind. He walked along the beach, moving slowly but wishing he could run away from the nightmare of his loss.
He had learned to love his wife slowly and with great conviction. And, he knew now, at great cost. He had met the young woman with the long auburn hair and striking blue eyes while a struggling fiction writer and part-time teacher at a small college in New Hampshire.
He had run into her, literally, at the Memorial Day book fair in Kingston. After a paperback or two had been collected from the damp morning grass and the usual apologies exchanged, Jim had spied a small cafe across the green and a offered a conciliatory coffee. She accepted, smiling shyly.
Coffee turned into lunch as the conversation warmed between them. Amid bites of sandwich and awkward glances, Jim had learned that the prestigious Vermont college where she was completing graduate work was a few hour's drive west.
She enjoyed the literary focus of her academic life, fiction in particular. He had chuckled when she revealed the hope that she would someday be a writer. She seemed hurt until he explained his own passion for the sport. She also enjoyed painting, but back then it had been mostly houses for extra cash when she needed it.
Over two wonderful semesters the fire had turned to flame. Time passed slowly when apart and raced when they were together. They celebrated the following Memorial Day in Ogunquit. The modest bed and breakfast was a fading memory, but the sunrise wedding on the beach was unforgettable.
They spent the rest of the summer traveling New England, looking for small patches of quiet countryside. They stopped here and there, staying a few days, enjoying long walks. She read and sketched what she pleased, and he drank in the sights and sounds, the people and conversations, diligently recording the interesting details in the small leather bound notebook he always kept in his pocket.
"Where should we live?" she had asked one day as they wound along a scenic coastal roadway. It was late August, but the nights had begun to come more quickly, forcing away summer with cool breezes from the north. “This summer has been wonderful and I wouldn’t trade it, but I think it’s time to settle in for the winter.”
"Where would you like to spend your life, my dear?" he had replied melodramatically, wrestling his worn Mercedes around a sharp turn as he pondered her words. The quaint scenery and easy, nomadic days surrounding their lives had lost some of its attraction. He wasn't bored, but he was on the way.
"I don't know, sweetheart,” she responded, wondering herself. “But I think I'd like a change. I love New England but it just gets so cold in the winter any more. I would like to spend some time, quite a while actually, somewhere warmer. Wouldn't you?"
"I think so. I love it here too, but I'm not getting any younger, you know. It would be great not to have to shovel for a bit. And I'd like to see some of the world before I retire."
"Yes, I've noticed that you're getting a little pokey and crotchety lately, old man!" she teased, jabbing her finger in his ribs and laughing. He jerked away and the Mercedes drifted.
"You know what I mean Monica. The winters feel colder every year and not far off. More and more, I'm starting to miss the nice weather when winter sets in. Besides, I've saved every freelancing nickel to someday move somewhere I'd really like to live, a place where I could really write some good, serious stuff instead of fluff. Not that I mind the fluff, it's easy and it does pay the bills. But I’m sure we could pick a way to make it work, don’t you think?"
"Well, I can't pick until I have some selections. We haven’t spent that much this summer, so we have plenty of cash. And always credit, of course. Why don't we just pack up and take off for a semester? Let's go check out some of those warm places down South you've been saving for all these years."
Despite the concerns of friends, they had sealed his small home for the winter, packed the Mercedes with enough to be comfortable, and had driven away from the safety and familiarity of New Hampshire. They wandered southward along the coast for the next few months, shunning the interstate except when necessary to spend time in a few places they only thought they loved. Each locale had soon become tiresome – too rushed, too slow, too urban, or too boring.
They caught a break when what had started as a highway detour ended in the blessing of driving through Kirkland, a tiny gulf coast town on the Florida panhandle, between Pensacola and Mobile. Tired of the snarled summer traffic, Monica had found the back roads route leading through Kirkland while searching the crumpled map for an alternate route to Mobile. The narrow, treed county road had proved a refreshing respite, flashing glimpses of the sparkling ocean along the way.
A quick lunch stop had turned into hours of exploration. Walks up and down the small main drag that paralleled the beach, quizzing of the locals. Like most towns with a decent stretch of sand, with rare exception every house and business seemed to be constructed to offer some view of the gulf, a complex mix of clear blue that transformed into a vast expanse of deep blue stretching further into the horizon than either of them could conceive.
While its life blood was obviously summer tourism, the area had remained strikingly rural. Away from its long stretch of white shore and myriad of architectural styles, Kirkland was comprised of deep, thick stretches of trees, open meadows, and miles of the most beautifully white sandy beaches bordering the bright blue surf.
By mid-afternoon, they had fallen in love with the place and a few of its two thousand residents enough to decide to give it a serious go. They negotiated a good rate and rented an efficiency with a sliver of ocean view and began to search for jobs. Within three weeks, they had both hit pay dirt.
Monica found a job at a small antique shop, courtesy of an early need of a student to return to college, while Jim snared a teaching and student advising position at the local community college. To pass the time and bring in a little extra money, he wrote features for the local weekly and did small editing and writing jobs on Craigslist. And he scribbled in his notebook, observations on the nuances of life in a coastal town.
Life for the next several months had been good. The apartment had proven adequate through what passed for winter. After selling the house in New England, they had bought a large, "fixer upper" farmhouse on three acres overlooking the sea.
Their years together had been full of happiness and discovery. When Monica had not been convincing tourists of bargains or painting simple yet beautiful scenes of life in Kirkland, she had given birth to two perfect children. In Jim Tyler's mind, Jennifer and Michael, aged eight and six, had been a dream come true. Born with Jim's sandy blond hair and Monica's blue eyes, they possessed their mother's good looks and their father's sense of fun. They seemed wise beyond their years.
They were smart. When not playing with reckless abandon along the beach or in the large front yard, the two spent their time reading books or creating many things of construction paper and cheap glue, each destined to hang proudly on the refrigerator.
Their favorite pastime had been the hours spent curled up on the large covered porch with their mother, listening sleepily under the yellow bug lamps as she read them a story. Monica had been very good at that, and even better at teaching her children that their achievements were worthy and acceptable. Her love had been unconditional. She had taught them and their father what it was to be truly happy.
Part of Monica's master plan for the children was that they be well-rounded both physically and intellectually. She got them involved in many activities, and it was often a challenge to juggle schedules. They often found time to be together at the local roller rink by the beach.
Monica and the children spent hours at the old rink by the beach, falling, starting, and falling again but always learning about the sport and each other. Jim had tagged along whenever his teaching and writing schedules had allowed. He had learned to skate backward almost as well as the other three, but he most enjoyed sitting with Monica at one of a trio of red picnic tables which constituted the snack bar, contentedly watching his children play. The old building and its gritty, sand-covered floor had become a haven of happiness for the family. Until last May, when it had turned into the catalyst of Jim's worst nightmare...