Lily sat by the sea and clutched her hands tightly to her chest. It was not enough for the peaceful water to extend, endless into the blue horizon: she had to feel it with all her soul, to stretch out and enfold that grand space until she had become what her heart admired.
The sun, as it often does, burned too brightly. She couldn’t stay for very long before its harshness challenged her admiration – though for a moment, exactly because it was a challenge, her spirit girded up, her fine senses multiplied, and in that moment she became more than she was. Her awareness of beauty, of grandeur, glowed in the hot tribulation provoked by a sun warring with her more delicate nature.
At last, as always must be, she was forced to yield and to seek a place beneath the shady cypresses. Yet the chilling Pacific winds are enough to evaporate whatever remaining warmth lies in one. After only a moment it becomes too cool, and one must return to the effusive sun again.
Lily turned her palms upward and counted invisibly the years of her life. She was twenty-six and unmarried. Her mother was worried at the fact, but her father remained unconcerned. Lily herself often thought of how she didn’t have someone, but the actual fact of being unmarried was unimportant. To her mother, it was a question of having a loose end to take care of; that is, of her daughter’s progressing from a lesser state to a greater one; while for Lily the emphasis lay on him, and the lonesome fact that he was taking his sweet time in finding her.
Whether she blamed him for the delay or herself would have fueled quite an argument. Always the men she met were too shallow, too idiotic, or too stereotypical. She herself was unchanging – relatively speaking – so that certainly the fault must lie with them. And whomever, from all that plethora of manhood in the world she was destined to marry, had so far kept himself absent from the interviews. So it must be him that was at fault.
To Lily’s mother, it was her. She was too picky, too meddlesome, too unreachable. Every time he would come to dinner, she would depart, leaving only her body behind to carry on a conventional dialog with the stranger. And since Lily’s looks were not about to win her a place at stardom, surely some attention must be paid to the guest, or else how could he possibly be interested?
Thus the mother dwelled on the marriage, and the daughter on the man. At the moment neither was present, indicating that they were both dealing in fantasies. If only her mother could see how wrong they were, and if only she would realize that time was running out! The availability of single, desirable men was dwindling with each year, revealing more and more acutely why those who were still single are.
Agghh! Let us brush away these thoughts, Lily said to herself. They destroy the view.
And, in being frank with herself, she continued: I am like those fish, submersed in the unchanging monotony of their life. And even if I dare the chance to leap out to catch a glimpse of sun, I am only bound to fall back into the same old ways again. Then it must be that he is a friend who will make the waters warm for me, tell me tales of the sun, and encourage us to jump together, and often. It will still be the same life and the same boredom – as far as the facts of living go – but it will at least have been ameliorated to something quite pleasant, almost like the flying of those birds I envy for their romps in heaven. This will become my access to the joys my heart has longed for, and the raptures my soul has pined for, but never gained.
She sighed in all the luxury of self – pity as she considered the many oceans of time that lay between her and her future beloved. Given all the possibilities of life, he must be out there, only it required exhausting them one by one, bowing before chance and fortune, praying that perhaps fate might assume a more controlling role.
Her fill of despair suddenly became too tiresome, and she stood up to admire the raw simplicity of the land. The ancient rocks seemed as though yesterday had been a thousand years ago. The blanket of sea spread between her and them rolled and thrashed. Small fish couldn’t help but be caught up in the rigorous froth. Atop one rock was a lone cypress: calm within calm: a photograph amidst a fantastic image, yet it was actually there. The contrast between its thoughtful repose, and the thoughtless violence of the sea, trapped Lily between the essential forces of two opposing worlds. On the one hand, the established order of marriage and all that it implied, and on the other, the pure fantasy of exclusive passion: a love to burn all life’s trivialities to ash, and sweep them aside in a breathless glance. Such a feeling is, in a manner like the sea, heedless of all future and consequence. Let come tomorrow what may.
And then there were the rocks, in their impasse of bearing, forbidding any fluidity within the established rules of life. Reckless passion cannot but fail; forethought, unregarded, cannot but lead one into utter ruin. Why were social laws and mores brought into being but to protect one from the reckless excesses of youth? And though all the waters turned and boiled, yet the essential grayness of the rocks remained unchanged.
Lily felt this about her mother’s ideas of marriage. Such a final thing left to mere decision making! “Is there enough money to support you?” “Will he raise the children well?” “Is so-and-so connected to good influences?” Never mind the tender heart that must endure the constant comings and goings of the same face and the same attitudes. To Lily’s mind, if the hearts were not in every way connected, none of these external considerations mattered at all. A poorly built ship, despite the best of weather, cannot float.
Yet then there was time. It was moving fast. Already two decades of single living seen and gone. Could either mother or daughter endure another two?
The sun had turned another quarter through the sky. Four hours of considering when the change would come. But who knew? Better to meet as many people as possible, as soon as possible, than to sit here on a dune and contemplate the impossible!
Lily drew her hands up to her cheeks. They were dry and exceedingly hot. The sun had made her knees pink, and her eyelids warm. It was very much past the time when she should move on.
Downtown Carmel has a charm which survives all the rampant outrages of materiality. Thus, for every irreverent factory meant to pass money from the hands of the tourists into that of some far-away company, there were at least two more that expressed the genuine spirit of the town: people seeking to bring art to public attention, restaurants specializing in old family recipes, bookstores carrying books that most people hadn’t heard of. All of this thriving spirit surfaced through the morass of bright colors and expensive clothing that could be witnessed everywhere else.
Amidst this struggle walked Lily. Her head was down, contemplating the stone pebbles that lay on the sidewalk. To the left she could hear a violinist playing for bills, and to the right, cars of every model and color, arrayed in regular parade order – moving slowly, so as not to miss the beauty of the town. In this way Lily became both observer and observed. The tourists and the locals in the cars admired her bent head, and her soft, straight hair that played carelessly in the wind. She in turn regarded them in the corners of her eyes, observing their sleek, smooth blackness, and the occasional red streak of a Ferrari. The cars acted almost as a kind of transportation mechanism, carrying luxuriant overtones of wealth and prosperity from one end of the town to the other. It was all nothing more than cars, people and shops, but somehow it felt like so much more, as if unnumbered possibilities were waiting just below the surface for only the right person to bring them into the light.
Such was the buoyant health of the town, bubbling and effervescent, that it swept its visitors from end to front and back again. Lily welcomed the insistent good cheer as a respite from her own brooding, and allowed herself to be carried along on its currents.
At one point, the energies flow together in front of a small coffee-shop, at the base of a T-intersection. In one direction the road heads back to Route 1, the old Pacific Highway, connecting the southern part of Monterey Bay with its northern counterpart, Santa Cruz. (Whatever might be lacking in the way of adventuresome spirit in Carmel, by the way, was certain to be found in Santa Cruz, but that is a different story altogether…). In the other direction the road curves around to the coast, and heads back down into Big Sur and Pacific Heights. That way lies beauty…
Lily ordered a cappuccino and sat to watch the crowds pass. How many people! A seething mass of color and cloth, and provocative bits of flesh showing here and there – a veritable feast for the viewing. Yet which among them was he? The tall, lonesome stranger stooping down to rescue a flower from a tangle of leaves? Too tragic. The stylish gentleman, hands in his pockets, moving steadily along to his next engagement? Too predictable. Or maybe the one across the street, dark hair and green eyes, stealing a glance every now and then whenever she turned away? Maybe just too shy.
Lily cataloged and processed every possible and impossible, probable and all-too-daring encounter. Where no hope existed, she registered it calmly and firmly, accepting this as the fate of life. But then there was he with the deep-set eyes, jewels in a face unknown… He was walking now down his side of the street, and turning to cross at the light. Now he was crossing. Now he was moving slowly towards her domain…
All of these things she reflected on afterwards. As usual, such events arrived in the memory at a terrifying blur, and only after long days are they clarified and separated. It is almost like a pasteurizing of memory, a converting of the pure milk of experience into something more agreeable to the palate. So it was with the mystery stranger who never reappeared. In that moment of unreasoning hope she had leapt across the distance of space that separated them, and seen far into his mystery eyes that seemed to signal to her from some dark and mysterious place. But as he crossed to the other side, and became momentarily obscured by a corner of the building (her vantage point was recessed in a courtyard, inset within a much larger building), the moment turned into minutes, and then many, and then many, many more. She had intended to spend the rest of the afternoon immersed in thought, but now she was oppressed by the obdurate length of that interminable moment. If only what we call a “moment” were to coincide with the briefest divisions of time, nothing painful would ever last for very long. But a true moment is independent of duration, albeit time plays a necessary role.
However, lest it be imagined that the unknown stranger really meant so much, consider instead that he represented, in that one exaggerated moment, every undiscovered lover who might have been. He thus took on the mythical stature of the same nameless figure who had shared with her her dream-filled afternoons. And so he had an image now, even if arbitrary: he was aloof, regardless of the world’s trivial details, and set apart from our society of madness and lack of feeling. Where had he gone to, this one whose name I may never know? Lily waited out the moment until the sun, ripening into a dusky vermilion, prodded her home with its magic stare.
Imagine those heavy feet that dragged: those of a human being who had realized the ugly fate of having to long for another human being. It was not enough to be single, alone and free. The machinations of Fate work ever to keep us from peace.
Lily did not weep, although it was in her heart to do so. Somehow it seemed that the god upon whom our pity calls was not with her that evening, and hence no reason to invoke him. Thus she remained quiet and stunned – pained to the quick by the realization that what she had been longing for so dearly in her life had just passed, corporeally, before her very own eyes.
Lily ended the day in her bedroom, looking out over a row of palm trees that brushed the sky. Like the stars above, her hope grew with the evening, until the whole of her thoughts was illuminated with the brightness of future days.
The moths outside Lily’s window, too, were rapt in devotion. Their object, however, was simply the light of an electric bulb, buzzing at sub-audible levels in the otherwise quiet stillness of the evening. God had created them to direct their flight towards the very herald of the night, the moon himself, but now, due to the contrivances of men, this passionate moth found himself having arrived at a place very distant from his goal.
And he will never leave, for he has become entranced in this electric, dazing glare, longing only to immolate himself in a final act of incontestable fidelity. Such noble desires wasted on a simple, eighty-watt bulb! His God-given impulses had become directed towards a petty thing, yet he himself was content to remain there. How strange.
Our own unquenchable thirst for completion is perhaps an indication that although we seek our beloved in this world, perhaps the true “other” is found elsewhere. That we have been created with a deep-seated longing is undeniable – even the most thoughtless and empty-hearted among us seek something to occupy their days. The proof is that we all are athirst: implying a remedy, and that we all are in search of: implying a goal.
Lily’s heart carried on the meditation, though her mind was occupied with more trivial things (who she’d seen in town, the graduate school she wanted to go to, the paintings she wanted to buy…). But as the night came she permitted herself to relax into the thoughts that come most easily: those lead us into sleep. Now and then the images played together and turned, until they unified at last into an indistinguishable blaze of color – and finally blackness.
Asleep, perhaps our souls, like Lily’s, carry on this great question of why we live and what we live for. Perhaps we feel the effort in our muscles when we wake, or the lingering of the question – but we shrug it off and begin the day anyway. Yet does it all start and end so easily? Do days and nights simply alternate like footsteps, heading us constantly toward some inevitable, final moment? Aren’t we bound to ask ourselves whether the goals we’ve set to achieve are really worth our while, and whether they can actually fulfill us at all?
Perhaps one human being can fulfill another. I have yet to see. The stimulating pain of not having someone, or something, to fill the space is real enough. Perhaps this signifies that the intended beloved is real enough as well.
And then the sun comes. Lily wakes and another day begins. Maybe he is a green-eyed stranger – that one to fill her soul – or an unseen deity, never to be seen or comprehended. Let the tormented ask that question; let them waste their time in idle thought. After all, it’s the part of the living to live, rather than debate what living is all about.