Comfort & Joy
“We need to leave in about fifteen minutes,” Daniel says. “So you’d best hurry up.”
He is looking at me. A shiver runs up my spine. “I’m invited?”
Bobby giggles. “’Course.”
“Get a coat,” Daniel says to both of us. “It’s cold out there.”
I decide to move fast, just in case Daniel wants to change his mind. Feeling like a girl on her first date, I run back to my room and retrieve the big cable knit sweater. It’s certain to be warm enough.
In two minutes, I’m back in the lobby with Bobby.
“Did you brush your teeth?” Daniel asks his son.
We both answer, “Yes,” at the same time.
At the sound of our laughter, Daniel smiles, and I am blown away by the sight of it. It takes ten years off his face and gives me a glimpse of the hell-raiser of the Dublin pubs. “Come on, then.” He slings a backpack over his shoulder and leaves the house. Bobby and I follow along behind him, still laughing. It is the freest I’ve felt in years, and I wonder what it is about this place and these people. Here, with them, I become so easily the younger version of myself, the me I always imagined growing into. I’m more like my mother—free, loving, easygoing. In the dry, dusty town of Bakersfield I’d been a flower slowly dying; in the moisture and mist of this green cathedral, I can feel myself blossoming.
In the truck, we turn up the radio and sing along to Bruce Springsteen. “Baby, I was born to run” are suddenly the most meaningful words I’ve ever sung. By the time the song is finished, we are on an old, winding, two-lane highway. For miles, we are surrounded by trees, then we come to the harvested part of this great forest. Acres of shorn land lie on either side of the road. All that’s left are tiny new plantings and signs that talk of reforestation and regeneration.
“It’s sad,” I say. “As if new trees are no different than old ones.”
Bobby tilts his face to look at me. “What do you mean?”
“You live in one of the few old growth forests left on the planet. Cutting down trees that have lived for two hundred years is a crime.”
“Will they go to jail?” he asks.
“Who?” Daniel says, hitting his turn signal and easing to a stop.
“The loggers who cut down the old trees.”
“Oh. No,” Daniel answers, frowning as he turns onto another road.
“It’s not literally a crime,” I say. “It’s just sad.”
“When I’m big, I’m gonna protect the old trees,” Bobby says, nodding as if it’s a stern, implacable decision.
“What started this conversation?” Daniel asks.
I’m about to answer when we turn a corner and park.
There it is, in front of us: the Pacific Ocean.
The huge, roaring expanse of blue water and gray sky is nothing like my familiar Southern California coastline, with its powdery sand and rolling surf and volleyball nets placed every one hundred yards or so.
Here, the beach is as wild as the forest, as primitive, too. Waves crash onto the shore, sounding like a lion’s roar, even from the distance of our car.
“Wow,” I say, sitting back.
“Dad’s never done beach night before either,” Bobby says. “Mommy and me did it every Tuesday night, after t-ball.”
“I’m glad to be here,” Daniel says. I can’t tell if it’s wistfulness in his voice or regret, or if he’s missing his ex-wife. “How about your Joy? Is she a beach gal?”
Bobby turns to me. “Well?”
“I love the beach,” I answer, looking at Daniel’s profile.
“I knew it,” Bobby says, bouncing in his seat. “She loves the beach.”
I feel lit up inside. I don’t know how else to put it. Daniel grabs his backpack and helps Bobby out of the car. The boy immediately runs on ahead, across the sand.
“Not too close to the water, boyo,” Daniel calls out.
I slip into place beside him.
The beach is beautiful. A full, fiery sun hangs in the teal blue sky. Golden streamers light the waves. I have never seen so much driftwood on a beach before, and it is no ordinary collection of sticks. It is a heaping, jumbled mass of silvery logs, shorn of branches and polished to white perfection. Many of them are more than one hundred feet in length. The trees along the road have been sculpted by the wind. They look like giant bonsai.
“Dad, my kite!” Bobby yells, running back at us.
“Just a second,” Daniel answers, bending down to make a fire. Within moments, the small circle of wood and newspaper is aflame. I sit on a log by the fire, watching Daniel teach his son to fly a kite. By the time Bobby gets it, the afternoon is fading. Neon orange clouds streak across a midnight blue sky.
“Look, Dad! Look, Joy! I’m flyin’ it!”
“That you are. Run faster,” Daniel says, laughing as he sits down beside me. He’s so close I can feel the warmth of him beside me.
“I wish I’d brought my camera,” I say.
Bobby runs toward us, dragging the kite behind him. It flaps against the heavy sand. “Didja see me?”
“I did,” I say. “It’s the best kite flying I’ve ever seen.”
His smile is so bright it lights his dark eyes. He flops to sit on the sand beside us. Gradually, though, his smile fades.
Silence falls, broken only by the crackling of the fire and the whooshing of the waves.
“Have you got something on your mind, boyo?” Daniel asks.
Bobby kicks at the sand before he finally looks up. “How will we have beach night in Boston?”
“Ah. So that’s what you’re thinking about. Moving.”
Bobby glances quickly at me. I nod encouragingly. He takes a deep breath and says: “I want to stay here, Dad.”
“I know you do, Bobby.”
“You were the one who picked it.”
“Aye. Things were different then.”
At that, the reminder of how their lives have changed, they fall silent. After a long pause, Bobby says, “Tell Joy how you found this place.”
Daniel’s sigh threads the night, falls toward me. I’m pretty certain it’s a story he doesn’t want to tell. He leans forward, rests his elbows on his thighs. Shadows and firelight mark his face. “We were livin’ in Boston, in a house not two doors down from Nana and Papa. Your mom managed the makeup counter at Macy’s and I spent my days—and too many nights—on the thirtieth floor of the Beekman Building. I used to dream of towering trees and lakes that were full of fish. Mostly I dreamed of us being together all the time, instead of all going our separate ways. One day I read about this summer house for sale in Washington State. It was a bed and breakfast that had gone bankrupt.”
“And we bought it. Just like that,” Bobby says, “Without seeing it even.”
“Aye,” Daniel says, and this time I’m sure it’s wistfulness I hear in his voice. “We had our dreams, didn’t we?”
In the silence that follows, I know they’re thinking about how far apart they are. All I can see is how close they’ve become. It will only take the merest move by either one of them to find the middle ground.
I twist around to face Daniel. We are so close now. I can see the tiny grains of sand and bits of ash that cling to his skin and hair. His green eyes look at me with an unnerving intensity. Behind me, I know Bobby is watching us. “I can see why you fell in love with this place. It’s magical.”
“That’s what Mommy always said.” I can hear the sadness in Bobby’s voice. “Why?” he asks suddenly. “Why do we have to move?”
Daniel looks down at his hands, as if he’ll find the answer in his flesh and bone. “I want the best for you, Bobby.”
“This is the best.”
Daniel looks at his son. “How am I supposed to run this place all by myself? I don’t know anything about fishin’ or such.”
This is a question I can answer. “There are dozens of books that can teach you. I’ve read a lot of them. If you take me to the local library, I’ll help you find them.”
“Mommy tole me you were smart,” Bobby says accusingly.
Daniel smiles at that. “I like to think so.”
“Then learn,” Bobby says.
“I’ll tell you what,” Daniel says finally. “I’ll think about staying if you’ll think about leaving.”
They look at each other, father and son, and in the fading sunlight and firelight, I am struck by how alike they are.
“Okay,” Bobby says solemnly.
“Okay,” Daniel agrees. “Now, how about some hot dogs and marshmallows before the sun leaves us for good?”
For the next hour, as the sun slowly drops from the sky and the stars creep into the night, we roast hot dogs and make smores and walk along the darkened waterline. I am too full from my late lunch to eat anything, but a lack of appetite doesn’t keep me from enjoying the fire. A battery-operated radio, perched on a log behind the fire, cranks out one pretty song after another. Often, we sing along. Daniel’s voice is pure and true and sometimes renders me voiceless. We are packed up and ready to leave when a beautiful rendition of “The Way You Look Tonight” starts.
By the way Daniel sings along, the harshness of his voice, I know the song means something to him.
“You used to sing this song,” Bobby says.
“Dance with Joy.”
I catch my breath, surprised.
“I don’t think so,” Daniel says, careful not to look at me.
“Pleeease,” Bobby says, looking at us. “For me?”
I am in the darkness just beyond the dying fire’s glow. Daniel is across from me. His face is all shadows and orange light. I can’t see his eyes, but I know he’s not smiling.
“She’s right there, Daddy,” Bobby says, pointing at me. I know it’s not dark enough here to cloak me. I start to say, “No, that’s okay,” but my words grind to a halt.
Daniel is moving toward me, his hand outstretched.
I take his hand and move into the circle of his arms. The warmth of his touch makes me sigh; it is a sound I try to take back. In this darkness, it is too loud, too breathy.
We move together awkwardly; I wonder if it has been as long for him as it has for me. “I was never much of a dancer,” I say by way of explanation. This is an understatement. Thom flat out refused to dance.
I can feel Daniel’s gaze on me. “I can’t see your feet, but I’ll wager I’m steppin’ on ’em,” he says with a nervous laugh.
I feel young in his arms, and safe. We find a rhythm easily, and move together as if we’ve danced for years.
Overhead and to our right, a star tumbles through the sky in a streak of white. “Make a wish,” he whispers.
My answer is you, but that’s ridiculous. I don’t think I could stand it if he laughed at me now, so I say, “I want to start over.”
The music ends and Daniel releases me. It’s all I can do not to reach for him. I know I will think about this moment, his touch, all night.