Don’t go in the ocean. My wife says she’s heard the undertow is strong here in Puerto Rico. She repeats herself. Really. Don’t go in the water. She is holding Avery. He is two and a half years old dressed in a yellow bathing suit with swim diapers on still drying off from the pool. He has oversize adorable cheeks. I kiss those cheeks. I kiss my wife. I shrug. Of course we won’t. We never would. Why would we? We just want to look at it. Andrew is by my side. He is ten, but he shakes his head to confirm we never would.
The door closes, and we are about ten feet away. Let’s go in the ocean, Andrew says. He says it softly just in case my wife can hear. She has exceptional hearing, and you can never be too careful. I am a responsible parent. So, I say. We’ll just put a toe in.
We walk down to the edge of the ocean. It’s hot. Our toes are in. The rest of our bodies want to be in too. I’m going in up to my knees, Andrew says. That seems safe enough. Knee deep is not really deep. He wades out. I wade out too. What kind of parent would I be to let him go alone in the ocean? I have Robyn’s hat on. The wind is blowing, but I have my hand on the hat to keep it from blowing off.
The tide pulls hard. Andrew is moving out to sea. Hey, I say. That’s far enough. Knee deep has turned into chest deep. I am moving toward him, and the terrible sucking motion of the ocean floor is sucking hard against me. I have to get him. I am a responsible parent.
A sudden rogue wave knocks Andrew over and under at the same time it bowls me over. I come up gurgling water. I see Andrew struggling to his feet a few yards away. The hat. The hat is gone. Crap. I feel in the water, and my hands close on it. Ha. Thought you could get me in trouble with the missus, Mother Nature. Not today. I hold the hat up in victory.
Dad? Andrew says. Yes, I say. Where are your glasses? I bend down. The sea has taken my glasses. You never need your glasses more than when you are looking for your glasses. The ocean goes on forever. I look for a while. I am hopelessly optimistic, but I know when I am defeated. I hold the hat with one hand. Get a firm grip on Andrew with the other. We march out of the sea.
Back at the hotel room, I tell Robyn I have good news and bad news. You went in the ocean didn’t you? she asks. Hold on. Here’s the good news. It’s true we went in the ocean. And a large wave nearly drowned us. But I saved your hat. She takes the hat. Great, she says. But then I break the bad news about the lost glasses.
The reason we flew to Puerto Rico was to get on a ship to start a Caribbean cruise. We will go to beautiful islands and pristine waters. Without my glasses, I will have a smeary vision of many stunning vistas. Every landscape I explore will look like the work of impressionistic painters. My wife looks at me with no pity in her eyes. Too bad for you, she says.
And that’s exactly what happens. I blink at far horizons. I squint at shorelines and rolling mountains. Hello Barbados. Hi Virgin Islands. My wife describes you both as quite lovely. Are you seeing this? she asks pointing in the distance through a window on our tour bus at something I’m sure is beautiful. Not so much, I reply. I like to take things in. I like to see things. My blurry impression of paradise makes me a little crazy. We talk about getting glasses on one of the islands, but I’d have to have an eye exam and new prescription glasses made on the spot. We’re doing pretty well, but we simply can’t win enough cash bingo games on board the ship to finance all that. My wife does some hard economic calculus. Too bad for you, squinty. She’s right. It is too bad for me.
Still, I manage to enjoy the cruise while not really seeing it. It’s clear from pictures that were taken during the cruise that I was in the presence of some stunning marvels. I appreciated these only after those pictures were developed, and I was back in Asheville wearing new glasses we bought there with our insurance discount. But I learned something valuable.
Some are meant to see paradise. Others are only able to make out its form and shape. They are the ones who did not listen to their wise wives.
Many years later, the wonders of New York City reveal themselves. We left the South behind last August. Spectacular ocean sunrises in Carolina Beach disappeared in our rear-view mirror. Stunning mountain sunsets in Asheville vanished a decade before that in a different move. I’m thrilled with our view in Manhattan. I try not to get caught up in the tide of humanity. I fight the flow. Stand my ground for a moment. And focus. I can almost see it…
Somewhere in the tall buildings that rise like overbearing giants around me. Amid the intricately wrought bridges that go on for a mile. Among the chaotic visual noise coming from every direction. In puffy white clouds reflecting on tall buildings. During sunsets that paint the Hudson River a spectacular red. In tall silhouettes of dark city buildings at night as the buildings buzz with light and human activity like a hive of bees swarming with life.
…A paradise of a different kind. I focus. I see it clearly.