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Reasons For Fading

by Jason The Skunk

Happiness is not something that is meant to last. That sounds so cynical, but I don't think that it really is at all. Happiness is something meant to bloom for a short while, then wilt or fade, leaving its sweet perfume in the air as a reminder of its existence.

Why does happiness fade?

It's like a sunset. It lingers in the sky for a while, tinging the land pink with its hues, burning shades into the heavens, shades so rich it seems that they must last forever. It always seemed sad to me that sunsets had to vanish into nightöthat beauty must grace the world only for an instant. But what if the sunset stayed? Would it still be beautiful? Or would it become common and ordinary? Would we take it for granted, or worse: yearn for the cool grays of winter or the rich pool-deep blue of the summer skies, filled with cotton clouds?

No, happiness is meant to trickle away like a melting icicle. And yet, god! How we long to go with it.

I remember when joy touched my life with its fragile butterfly wings. I was only thirty then, still halfway believing my mother's chides. "Such an ugly girl, Samantha," she would scold, "and far too smart for your own good. Just see if any boy wants you for a bride."

My insistence that I never longed for a husband my mother never seemed to understand. "Nonsense! Every girl wants a husband. Do you wish to be alone in your old age? People will talk."

The expression always made me smile. People will talk. I fancied my mother's ideal world to be a world of silence, a world where people listened to my mother, and said little of their own.

My mother was long dead, but she fairly oozed her disappointment from the grave. And she was right. People did talk. I caught snatches of whispered conversations around corners, never failed to miss the embarrassed stares when I walked into a room, and knew that it was not by mischance that I was seldom invited to parties.

Even my closest friends regarded it their solemn duty to "hook me up" with their socially inept acquaintances who found themselves as troubled by relationships as I was. This possibility of combinations never made sense to me. A person who is clumsy and awkward when dealing with others needs someone like themselves least of all. They need a person who can step into any conversation and liven it up, a person who can turn any rainy day into a grand sort of festivity. They need someone to help them grow out of their weakness, not someone to share it.

When I met these sad, unfortunate individuals who were as troubled as I was, I was plagued with visions of the years stretching out into decades, and neither of us with anything kind or helpful to say.

And yet, disillusioned as I was with the whole thought of relationships, I still feared the future. I was, in fact, terrified by it, by the thought of that horrible loneliness that torments the elderly, that wraps its empty fingers inside their clothes and up into their minds, driving them out into the park with greasy brown paper bags of bread crumbs, seeking company from the pigeons.

Perhaps, even, I would be one of those wretched old women that they find dead in their living room, reeking of decomposition and surrounded by a multitude of starving, crying cats.

Gradually, this fear set into depression. And people talked.

And I wondered, why does happiness fade?

Then came Donald. I met him in the sunset one evening as I walked along the beach, tasting the salt on the cool winds that blew towards the shore. I saw him from a good distance off, a dark silhouette against a orange-hued horizon, hands in his pockets, watching the waves. As I drew closer, I knew I had seen him here before, but never spoken to him. It's not easy to speak to strangers who stand on the beach with their hands in their pockets, staring at the waves. He wore a sun-bleached blue shirt, and the patch on the short sleeve said he worked for the shipyard. His forearms looked strong, streaked with sand and dirt. He didn't seem to notice me as I walked up, but continued to stare out at the sea, letting the wind ruffle his hair.

The waves pulled in the tide step by step.

Suddenly there was a glimmer halfway to the horizon, a streak of laughing flesh and silvery flipper. Soon another followed, then three more. Porpoises, I realized. Surfacing for air, playing with the twilight winds before heading back down into that dark green abyss in which they slept. I counted them, one, two, three, four, as they jumped.

They plunged back into the ocean and left ripples in the orange that melted off of the sun and spread out over the surface of the water.

The man turned and noticed me, but I could barely see his face through the light of the sunset. Even in darkness he seemed beautiful to me.

"They come here every night," he said. His voice sounded light and untroubled. "Have you ever seen them before?"

"No," I said. "I mean, yes. I mean, I've seen porpoises before, but never here, at this time."

"I watch them every night," he continued, creases of his smile visible around the sunset. "I have a feeling that I would miss them terribly if I didn't come."

I smiled and brushed my hair from my eyes. Then suddenly, I was afraid, standing here on the beach at night with a strange man. I waved wordlessly and walked away, self-conscious, half hoping that he would call after me.

He didn't call after me, though, and I lay awake all night and thought about him. And next day, I was waiting for him.

I was sitting on the beach when he arrived. I was wearing jeans and a blouse, but was barefoot. The sun was still up so I could see his face more clearly. It was burned and creased by sun and wind, but the lines around his eyes and mouth revealed that he smiled frequently. His hair was medium length, light brown, tucked around his overly large ears. His eyes were greenish grey, like the ocean in a storm.

"Hello," he greeted me, seemingly unsurprised to see me.

"Hi," I said, and stared at my toes.

"You came," he said. "I didn't think you would."

"I didn't know I was invited," I said.

"You knew I'd be here. I told you I would."

I wasn't quite sure how to take this, and said nothing.

"I hoped you'd come," he said, "even though I only saw you for a moment last night."

"This is crazy," I suddenly blurted. "We don't even know each other."

"I'm Donald. What's your name?"

"Sam," I said.

"Now we know each other."

"It's still crazy." I stared out at the ocean.

He didn't say anything.

"I brought sandwiches," I added, suddenly remembering. "Tuna fish."

He looked at me.

"Dolphin safe," I said, grinning. I held out a triangle of bread and fish wrapped in plastic. He smiled and took it from me. I felt suddenly relieved. For some reason, I had been terribly afraid he wouldn't take the sandwich. It's amazing how romantic it can be to sit on a beach with sand itching in your pants, handing a sandwich to a stranger while you wait for the sunset.

He ate the sandwich, and we watched the porpoises breathe. One, two, three, four, as faithful as the tides.

Every night after that, we met and waited for the sunset, and I learned more and more about him. He worked in the shipyard, helping to load and unload cargo, directing ships from place to place, monitoring the radio, and generally doing whatever was needed to help out. He had gone to college, studied to be an attorney, and decided it wasn't for him and moved back to the beaches.

So the two of us met, not by bumping into each other or one asking the other out, not by fate or design. There was no love at first sight. We just happened, like two waves that by chance roll into the same strip of beach, on the same tide, and then get caught in the longshore current.

And one night, after the four porpoises danced their laughing dance against the backdrop of a dying day, we went home together.

I followed him to his house, and we sat and sipped orange pekoe tea and traded stories, he about the strange ships and people that pulled into the town's small port, and I about the more fascinating aspects of marine biology. He never failed to entrance me with a tale, and when I prattled on with details of the migratory habits of certain fish and the territorial nature of octopuses, he listened with rapt attention.

And then I went home. Nothing happened, really. No kisses, no frantic tumbling over the couch, no torrid midnight love affair. I went home and slept, and dreamed of porpoises.

The following evening, though, he met me with a brush of lips and held me in his arms, and then it seemed the sea washed over me and carried me out in its tides, and the movement of the two of us together in the sand was like the gentle rocking of the waves. Our daughter was conceived as we held each other tightly and watched the porpoises dance above the waves. One, two, three, four, I counted, and at four, new life was created. We both watched the porpoises, even while caught in the feverish grips of climax, the sand clinging to our sweat.

Soon after that, I married the stranger who stood by the sea with his hands in his pockets, and we measured out our lives with each sunset, like a carefully tempoed heartbeat. He moved into my house because it was closer to the beach, bringing collections of shells, classical music, and a huge radio which he used to talk to ships off the coast long into the night.

"How is the sea?" he would ask. "Over."

"Fine, just fine," the radio would say. "How is the shore? Over."

"All is well," he would answer. "All is well. Over."

He told me that no one talked like that any more. No one ever said all is well. He found it comforting to hear those words, however, and he told me so. I agreed with him. It is easier to sleep hearing someone tell you that all is well. All is well. Be calm, be content, be at peace. All is well.

After a time, Donald's work at the shipyard and my studies were not enough to support us. Soon there would be a baby who would need food and care, more than we could now provide. So he took to taking ships out to sea at night, guiding them along the coast, helping them fish or patrol or whatever. And on those nights, I would sit by the radio and call him and ask, "How is the sea? Over."

"All is well," he would say. "How is the shore? Over."

"All is well," I would answer. "Over."

Then we would talk for as long as he could spare the time, or until his radio signal faded into static.

For all his trips out to sea, though, he never missed watching the sunset, nor the arc of silver skin beneath clouds stained pink by a bleeding sun. As my pregnancy bore down on me, illness and irrationality setting in, I was unable to leave the house with as much ease, and he began to go off to the beach without me. I began to fear that he loved it more than he loved me.

It was when he was off watching the ocean that my contractions came. Panic, blinding fear, and anger all set in at once. The pain was far worse then I thought it would be, and I was far too frightened to attempt to go to the hospital.

When Donald got back I was sitting huddled up in a corner, weeping in pain and fear and anger. My water had broken, and I think I struck at him when he neared me, but if so, he just took my blows and gently carried me to the car.

We named our daughter Marina. She was more than I could have hoped. She somehow filled my future. Where before I feared emptiness, loneliness, now I saw her. She would go on after Donald and I were gone.

We went to the beaches now, all three of us, Rina cradled in one arm, my other arm around Donald's waist. He was so good to me.

Life only improved. Donald's returns home brought flowers and kisses and sweet whispers in my ears, and when I was at his side, all the rest of life's treasures seemed pale in comparison, even the sunsets which brought us together.

Then one night, Donald went out on a ship to patrol the harbor. I put Rina in her crib and sat by the radio, sipping orange pekoe tea, waiting for him to call. The hours slipped by, and there was no sound from him. I began to transmit, not knowing the name of the boat he was on, asking about him on various channels by name.

Finally I got an answer, when an aged but strong voice crackled over the radio. "This is the Channing. Who is this? Over."

"This is the shore," I replied. "How is the sea? Over."

"Oh," he said, a note of humor crinkling the edges of his voice upon hearing my simple response. "The sea's bad. Real bad. A ship's gone down. Several men lost. How is the shore? Over."

I suddenly wondered what to reply. I knew, knew without doubt that Donald was one of those men lost in the sea, swallowed up beneath the waves he worshiped. How could I say that all is well. Shock numbed my mind; I could barely think. Then I realized that my own problems meant little to the people in the boats on the ocean, that no matter what, someone was experiencing loss somewhere, and if each one of those losses meant that all could not be well, then nothing would ever be well again.

"How is the shore?" the voice repeated. "Hello? Over."

My voice cracked, fear gripping my chest. I pushed the button on the transmitter in and said, "All is well. All is well. Over."

All is well. And just by saying it, suddenly it was. Even when the woman who piloted Feech, the rescue boat, came by and explained that of the men lost, all had been recovered except one, that the one not found was my husband, that a fallen chain and net had dragged him to the bottom of the oceanöeven then, when my body shook with sobs and I cried until there were no tears left, cried until I had drained the ocean from my eyes and could look down onto his body, even then, his voice was whispering from within me, "All is well. All is well."

But it was not until the following evening that I was at all comforted. I took Rina, wrapping her tightly in a blanket, and with some horrible sort of sad purpose, as if to torture myself further, I walked down to the beach where Donald and I first met. Farther up the sands, past where the tides could reach, his footprints were still in the sand from the day before. It seemed impossible that he could be gone when the gouges from his toes were still here in the earth.

I sat down with Rina, and she cried a bit, so I gave her a bottle. I would have cried, watching this sunset without Donald for the first time in years, but grief rises less easily each time it is summoned. Perhaps one day it wouldn't come at all. Rina quieted down as dusk set in, as the sun dipped down toward the water and met its own bright reflection.

"Donald?" I thought out loud. "How is the sea? Over."

As if in response, the porpoises leapt out of the water: One, two, three, four. Five. A fifth one had inexplicably joined the group, and this one, as it danced into the air, did a sort of joyful twist all about, sleek muscle expressing exuberance at mere existence. It splashed into the water and resurfaced, bobbing there for a moment, just a dark silhouette. And for a moment, it seemed to resemble a tall man standing out in the water, standing with his hands in his pockets, staring at the sunset. Then it splashed below the waves and it was gone.

I haven't missed one of those sunsets yet. They give me an answer to my question.

Why does happiness fade? It fades so that it may be remembered.

It's been many months now since Donald is gone, and I get on all right. The baby and my work keep me busy enough.

Now I go and check on Rina. She is three years old now, and afraid of the dark. Sleeping soundly, angelically, peacefully, thank goodness. Sometimes she doesn't want to go watch the sunsets, but I always bring her. It's something she'll have to remember. Now she rests. I tuck the blankets tighter around her, and am grateful for her.

I turn to the window, sit down next to the radio, and turn it on, casting for signals. Soon I find one. "Hello?" I say into the transmitter. "This is the shore. How is the sea? Over?"

"What?" the voice on the radio sounds irritated. "This is the Angelique. Who is this? What are you doing on this frequency?"

I don't really hear the voice on the radio, the voice that probably can't be bothered with nonsense like sunsets and ridiculous leaping porpoises. I push down the transmitter button, cutting off the voice.

I stare out of the window toward the darkened water, and believe that the stranger who stands by the sea with his hands in his pockets can hear me. "All is well. All is well."


Reasons For Fading copyright 1998 by Jason The Skunk.

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