The Sea — Ryan Napier

 

Self-care is so important. X. and Y. knew this, and acted accordingly. Their selves were well cared for.

They had to be. X. and Y. had very demanding jobs (hers at a start-up, his at a non-profit). Each worked between seventy and seventy-five hours a week, and woke up at least once in the night to check email, text messages, and social media. They had been married for four years, and because of the vagaries of their schedules, they often went days without being awake together in their apartment at the same time.

They were, of course, grateful for their jobs: many of their former college classmates were underemployed or worked low-paying service sector jobs. X. and Y.’s jobs were also low-paying, in terms of money, but they received another, less tangible kind of remuneration–a warm glow that they felt just below their stomachs when they thought about how, by working at a start-up or non-profit rather than a coffee shop or restaurant, they were making a difference. But making a difference was not easy. When they discussed their jobs and schedules, X. and Y. often used words such as “crazy” and “insane,” and said that their heads were going to “explode,” and in their most difficult moments, they worried that these were not figures of speech but real objective descriptions of their restless, caffeinated lives.

Still, X. and Y. were happy.

They attributed this to the practice of self-care. They had watched several TED Talks on the subject, and learned that they were responsible for their own happiness. Well-being was a choice, and X. and Y. had chosen to be happy. They scheduled five-minute blocks of non-directed activity at several points throughout the day. They took deep oxygenating breaths, and ate small pieces of chocolate mindfully. They took time both for themselves and their marriage, including a monthly date night and an annual vacation abroad. These simple steps (and some low-dose SSRIs) ensured that X. and Y. remained happy and well.

The annual vacation was an especially important part of their emotional hygiene regimen. They avoided Europe and its crowded museums and complicated bloody history, and went instead to peaceful, beautiful places–Phuket, Bali, Haifa–to lose themselves in the blue of the water and green of the land. For one week, they forgot the world (and the considerable credit card debt necessary to finance their self-care), and then returned to it as their best selves, strong and refreshed and whole.

***

They needed that strength and refreshment and wholeness this year more than ever.

Like all of us, X. and Y. had spent 2016 being mad online. They had lain in bed, poking at their phones, posting and commenting, trying to prove that all of their Facebook friends who held views that were to the left and to the right of their own views were deluded and dangerous. They had watched and shared various late-night comedians’ takedowns and annihilations and eviscerations. They had declared, over and over, on Facebook and Twitter and Medium and Instagram, that they were With Her. And still, somehow, in spite of all this, the wrong thing had happened. Their candidate–who was, as they often reminded their friends and followers, the most qualified and inspiring candidate in human history–had lost. And worse, she had lost to him, to the living refutation of every moral impulse and aesthetic preference that X. and Y. possessed.

They took deep oxygenating breaths, and ate small pieces of chocolate mindfully. They took time both for themselves and their marriage, including a monthly date night and an annual vacation abroad. These simple steps (and some low-dose SSRIs) ensured that X. and Y. remained happy and well.

They were angry and frightened and tired, but never too angry and frightened and tired. That was the power of self-care. They knew that as bad as the world was, it could never overwhelm them, because there was always Phalaris.

That was where they were going in 2017–Phalaris, a little island, ten miles long and two miles wide, in the middle of the Mediterranean (or perhaps the Aegean–X. and Y. were not sure where one ended and the other began). They had deliberated about it for months, and spent hours looking at pictures of peaceful, beautiful places on their phones. But none had been more peaceful or beautiful than Phalaris, with its blue-domed churches, the pink flowers growing out of clean white walls of its villages, the neat rows of its vineyards, and the strange pure blue of the Mediterranean (or Aegean).

Each day of 2017 brought a new and exhausting outrage, but the thought of Phalaris kept X. and Y. happy and well. When they saw a misspelled presidential tweet or a lack of diverse representation in a television show or film, a part of them reacted with all the indignation that it deserved. But another, deeper part of them remained calm: soon they would be far away, on a small island, where the world could not trouble them.

There was an extinct volcano at the center of Phalaris, and according to the internet, you could climb to the top and see nothing but water and sky in every direction.

***

As the summer passed and the trip approached, the island occupied more and more space in their minds: the tweets and anger were crowded out by the sky and the sea.

And then it was time. At the beginning of September, X. and Y. flew to Athens, got a taxi to the port, and took the ferry to Phalaris.

The sun had half-set, and the color of the water had deepened: X. and Y. felt that they were sailing on a sea of wine. Schools of silver fish jumped around the ferry, shining in the twilight, and the lights of the other islands twinkled on the horizon. It was peaceful and beautiful, but X. and Y. knew it was only a little of the peace and beauty that waited for them on Phalaris.

They arrived at their hotel after midnight, and lay for a while in bed, but neither X. or Y. could sleep. They had flown across the ocean and sailed across the sea, but they were not tired.

***

They sat on their balcony and watched the sunrise. The sky and the sea were very red.

They put on their bathing suits, applied sunscreen to each other’s bodies, went downstairs and through the lobby and across the road, and found the path to the beach. It led up a little dune, and at the top stood two policemen, who stared out at the sea.

X. and Y. approached, and the two policemen turned and waved them back down the dune. X. and Y. explained that they were trying to get to the beach. The policemen told them in choked English that the beach was closed. Y. stood on his tiptoes and saw over the edge of the dune: the beach was empty, except for a few people in orange vests. X. asked the policemen why the beach was closed and when it would be open, but the policemen had exhausted their English: they repeated that the beach was closed, and shook their heads and waved their hands toward the hotel, to which X. and Y., after some deliberation, returned.

X. went to the desk, but the woman there could also not explain why the beach was closed. So X. and Y. retreated to a corner of the lobby, sat in large soft chairs, and looked at their phones. They had wanted to avoid the news on their trip, but now they had no choice: they searched for “Phalaris.” Their eyes scanned the stories that appeared, the tens of variations on the same terrible theme, the rearrangements of the same few words–raft, sunk, coast, bodies.

Neither of them said anything for some time. Finally, Y. looked up from his phone. It was a terrible situation, he said. X. nodded. It was a terrible situation.

Both of them knew that this was a stupid and obvious thing to say, but neither could think of any more profound or appropriate reaction, and they knew that some kind of reaction was required.

They looked at their phones again, and became very conscious of the smell of sunscreen rising from their bodies.

On their previous trips, X. and Y. had had glimpses of extreme poverty, and they had responded with the appropriate sympathy and optimism (because, in spite of the recent negative political developments, they knew that the world was generally getting better every day, that the level of global poverty had never been lower, and so on). But this was different. Neither X. or Y. had ever been so close to something so terrible, and they had no word for what they were now experiencing. They felt it on their skin–a thin layer of cold sweat congealing under their sunscreen.

The feeling resembled guilt, but it was not guilt. X. and Y. knew they were not to blame. They paid attention to the problems of the world. They had shared posts and news stories on many important causes, including the plight of migrants and refugees.

They knew this, but they still felt the cold on their skin. Even if it wasn’t their fault, how could they enjoy themselves so close to something so terrible?

But on the other hand, what other choice did they have? They had flown across the ocean, and sailed across the sea. They had paid to be here, in this peaceful and beautiful place. A terrible thing had happened, but they couldn’t just sit in the lobby all day, marinating in a feeling that they could not even name. Terrible things happened every day–that was why they had come to Phalaris in the first place, to keep themselves from being overwhelmed by those terrible things.

They knew what they had to do. Difficult as it was, they had to persist. Self-care is so important.

***

X. and Y. had carefully arranged their days on Phalaris–the beach today, the market tomorrow, the volcano on Friday, and so on. But given the circumstances, they reevaluated their plan, and decided to swap the beach for the winery. X. and Y. were nothing if not flexible.

They went back to their room, changed their clothes, and took a bus to the north end of the island, where they paid a few euros and spent the afternoon exploring the Nausicaa Estates and Vineyards. They walked hand in hand between rows of fat golden grapes. The sun shone in a cloudless sky, and a little breeze blew from the east, carrying faint scents of pine and the sea. In a wood-lined cellar, X. and Y. tasted perillos, the famous white wine of Phalaris. The sommelier told them that it had a lush bouquet and hints of citrus. X. and Y. nodded and held the wine in their mouths.

Difficult as it was, they had to persist. Self-care is so important.

It was evening when they left the winery, and as the bus drove back across the island, X. and Y. watched the sun sink below the cliffs and into the sea. X. said that it was very beautiful. Y agreed, but he heard the sadness in her voice, and understood it.

They had been trying not to think about what had happened on the sea, and so of course they had thought of nothing but what had happened on the sea. They knew that the things around them were peaceful and beautiful, and that these things were exactly what they needed to be around, but they did not themselves feel the peace or the beauty. The sun had not quite reached their faces–they had sniffed the glass and held the wine in their mouth, but they had not smelled the lushness of its bouquet or tasted the hints of citrus. The cold sweat was still on their skin, between them and Phalaris.

***

The next morning, X. and Y. received a call from the front desk. The woman told them that the beach had reopened, and apologized for yesterday’s disturbance.

X. and Y. lay in bed and discussed the situation. It was too soon, they decided. Going to the beach would only make their problem worse. So they stuck to the plan, and went to the market.

Shopping was a small but important part of X. and Y.’s self-care regimen. They were not materialistic: they tried to own few things, but they did make sure that the few things they did own were well-made and tasteful and evoked a specific story or memory. This was especially true of the things that they bought while traveling, which served as little capsules of the peace and beauty of the places to which they had traveled.

They walked across town and wandered through the narrow streets of the market, running their eyes over the things laid out on tables and bedsheets and towels. A few of the sellers were African men, who squatted next to their goods–Blurays in plastic sleeves, sunglasses, handbags. The men mumbled that they had a special price, just for you, to each passing tourist. Their eyes stared out, but did not seem to register anything–as if the indifferent faces streaming by one after another had, like a word too often repeated, lost all meaning for these men. X. and Y. did not stop to look at the Blurays and sunglasses and handbags, but nonetheless found themselves wondering about these men–what had brought them here? Had they too crossed the dangerous sea to come to Phalaris? This was, of course, exactly what they were not supposed to be thinking about, and X. and Y. felt a momentary shock of anger that the terrible thing would not, even for a moment, leave them alone.

They turned down a side street, looking for places where there were no tourists or Blurays or handbags. The smaller stores were better anyway: X. and Y. preferred to buy things from people who could be reasonably described as “artisans.” They found a small leather shop, and after talking with the proprietor and confirming that his family had been working leather in Phalaris for three generations, they bought two pairs of sandals and a belt. A few blocks away, X. found a peasant blouse stitched with little blue flowers, and Y. haggled with an old woman over a turquoise pitcher.

It seemed to be working. X. and Y. always felt a special joy when they brought new objects into their lives.

They carried their purchases back to their room, and told each other that they needed to try on the clothes again to make sure that they still liked them, although both knew that what they really wanted was to experience the joy of their new things again. So X. put on her blouse and sandals, and Y. wore his belt and held the pitcher, and they stood together in front of the full-length mirror on the bathroom door, and looked at what they had bought. They thought of where they would put them in their apartment, and what the things would evoke for them and their guests, and it was then that their joy no longer outran the other feeling. What they had known all along rose to the surface of their minds: the first memory that these objects would evoke was not the leather-maker’s little shop or the old woman’s stall, but the people in the orange vests and the eyes of the African men and the sea. They could almost see the cold sweat running off of their skin and onto the sandals, the blouse, the pitcher.

***

Their hotel room faced east, and as they lay in bed, X. and Y. were sure they could hear the sound of the waves.

***

The next day, X. and Y. had planned to climb the volcano. They had been thinking about this exact moment for the past ten months–the view from the top, the sea all around–but they had never expected to dread it, as they now did. They considered changing their schedule again, and cancelling their climb–but where else could they go? The beach? The harbor? Phalaris was, after all, an island.

They recognized the difficulty of their position, but they did not despair. They had not watched those TED Talks for nothing: they knew that happiness was achievable. If they were not yet happy, that only meant they needed to work at it, and X. and Y. knew how to work. So they woke up early, put on their boots, and took the first bus to the foot of the volcano.

The hiking trail twisted around the volcano, through the soft gray soil. X. and Y. walked quickly, passing the big groups of tourists and the old couples with their hiking poles. It felt good to move, to push themselves. They started to feel a sort of lightness in their chests, and began to hope that enough time had passed and the terrible thing had worn off.

Wild goats played on the slopes, leaping from rock to rock, and X. and Y.’s hearts leapt along with them.

The trail got steeper, and then stopped abruptly at a shallow crater full of brown rocks. The volcano had been extinct for a few thousand years, but that, of course, was not why people climbed it.

X. and Y. turned. He put his arm around her, and together, panting, they looked out from the highest point in Phalaris.

They felt, in that moment, the rarest feeling in life: their expectations were entirely satisfied. The sea was everywhere, in every direction, and its beauty overwhelmed them. They had never seen a blue like this–it was dark and deep, but also seemed somehow to shine and glow. X. and Y. held each other, and stared out at the water, and felt something begin to uncoil inside them–a year of anger and fear unwinding itself from around their souls and disappearing into the air.

They noticed the spot at the same time. They held their breath, and hoped that they were wrong. But what else could it be? A dark spot on the blue, a little rectangle, bouncing on the waves, toward the island.

They felt, in that moment, the rarest feeling in life: their expectations were entirely satisfied. The sea was everywhere, in every direction, and its beauty overwhelmed them.

X. and Y. looked to their left and right. Other tourists were standing on the crater, but none of them seemed to notice.

They stared at the rectangle again, and remembered the eyes of the men in the market. They debated whether they should call someone–the police, the coast guard–and then realized that they did not know how to call the Greek police or coast guard.

As they watched, the rectangle began to change–to become thinner, and wider, then to separate into two. X. and Y. looked into the sky, and understood that they had been watching the shadow of a cloud.

They had worked up a sweat on their climb, and now they felt it freeze and sink into their pores.

***

I wanted, at some point in this story, to write a beautiful description of the sea. Most writers have described the sea–Melville, Woolf, Tom Clancy–so I assumed it would be easy. I hoped to use the word “ebb,” which has always seemed to me interesting and significant.

The difficulty, I now realize, of a beautiful thing is not the beautiful thing itself but everything around it. To see anything beautiful, you have to squint.

***

The next morning was bright and warm. This did not affect X. and Y. They had decided to spend the day inside–to take a little vacation from their vacation, an emergency self-care session. Their room looked over the beach, and they had pulled the curtains shut.

They lay in bed, looking at their phones, catching up on the news. All the normal outrages had occurred: the president had tweeted an easily disprovable lie, and movies and television shows had continued to depict race and gender in problematic ways. X. and Y. felt all the usual fear and anger welling up within them.

But what mattered more was what they did not feel. Hours passed, and neither thought about the sea, or felt that terrible cold thing sitting on their skin. They did not realise that they were not thinking about the sea or feeling the terrible cold thing, but that was the point. They were back in a world they understood, and they were not unhappy.

 


Ryan Napier has degrees from Stetson University and Yale Divinity School. His stories have appeared in Entropy, Queen Mob’s Tea Houseminor literature[s], and others, and a chapbook is forthcoming from Bull City Press in 2018. He lives in Massachusetts. Twitter: @ryanlnapier

Image: ©EL, 2017.