Nantucket Essays

Middle-Aged Valentine

•   by Robert P. Barsanti   •  

By now, most of the snow has melted.  Frozen, dirty, icy clumps and ridges remain hidden deep in the brown thicket of dead vines and holly bushes out back, but the rest of the snow disappeared in a warm rain.  Even snow forts built with the combined energy of snow plows and small boys have melted into a dark mud of gravel and popsicle sticks.

We are back to the same.  The snow clouds swing either north or east; otherwise the dry Canadian air ceilings us with pale blue skies during the daylight and twinkle-less stars in the night.  Nothing grows now.  The grass remains gray and pale, the beach grass blows brown, and every stick and branch claws blackly at the afternoon wind.  The day begins in frost and ends in mud then begins again in a gray dawn.

The neighbors remain in Needham and Naugatuck.  This week, perhaps, they have flown down to St. Maarten or Aruba.  Or they might be up at the condo in Sugarloaf.  They aren’t here.  The windows remain dark and reflective, the chimney smokeless, and the smoke alarms stare in the night.

She remains.  The “How I Met Your Mother” marathon continues through the evening as you eat roast chicken on the coffee table. Swimsuits and halter tops wait for August in the dresser; February is for sweatpants, polar fleece, and smart wool socks.  There is little to say and less to ask for, other than the chips.  There will be no vacation this year, other than the stack of novels piling up on the kitchen counter.  Aruba and Cancun slip further away with each rumble of the furnace.  The bills race the refund check, and they  keep winning.  This life isn’t champagne wishes and caviar dreams.  Still, she remains.

Valentine’s Day is a fraud.   On-island, it serves as one more holiday when you could buy the sun-faded sweatshirt in the front window or last spring’s ear rings that somehow survived the summer shoppers and the Christmas strollers to still dangle into February.  No other holiday preys upon the lonely and the desperate like this one; it was made for Charlie Brown.

The two of you have moved beyond Valentines.  After a year or two, the two of you have settled in comfortably on the sofa. You have taken each other for pocket change, the last donut, and for granted.  You sleep sound in the lee of her shore.  She uses the toilet while you shower; the mysteries of love have been solved and stuck inside an old Sudoku book.

Yet it remains.  Love is constant, boring, and comfortable.  It no longer surprises with giggles and kisses.  It no longer hangs just out of reach or runs away in the first light of sun.  You now know its imitators and its charlatans; the true issue sits at the kitchen table.  Love no longer has wings, or blooms, or heart piercing pain.  Love is now mundane, like sand, wind, and cloud.  It drinks cooling hazelnut coffee as it does the crossword.

One night in early February, you take a trash bag out to the bin and spend a moment underneath the stars.  Above, Orion, the Milky Way, and Cassiopeia continue to slowly dance through the millennia.   A cool wind blows from the Canada and the Berkshires. Far off, as always, the surf rolls up the cold beach, then back out to sea.  No cars pass, no planes fly overhead, no dogs bark.  The only light comes from your house.  NCIS flickers over the lawn.  She sits in the corner of the sofa.

It could have been otherwise.  She should have left when things got messy.  She should have taken that job in Portland.  She should have stayed with the other guy.

He was in Connecticut now.  He had the kids and the house and the tickets to the Bruins.  He set his thermostat at 72 and had HBO.  They had been an item, then they weren’t, and things went another way.

Dreams come true, then they get shabby and smeared with salt and dust.  To stand outside in the light of dead stars is to know what could have happened if things hadn’t broken just right.  To stand in the dark is to see how far you have come and how long you have lasted.  To stand in the dark is to think about how it hadn’t gone another way.

At the beginning, everything depended on a phone call.  Then it depended on some coffee and a dinner, then on a movie, then on the right look at the right time.  Once, everything depended on finding silver earrings, and delphiniums, and milk chocolate buttercrunch.

And, more than once, everything depended on forgiveness.  It all teetered on the edge of the cliff, with waves battering at the base and the wind pushing the eaves up.  Everything hung in mid-fall and then, with angry cry and a nod, it settled back down to where we are now.  Together. On the island.

Day after day, year after year, you make an island for yourselves.  It isn’t the warmest or the cleanest.  It no longer has any surprises, but has resilience.  The storms blow by.  Weeds have grown, buildings have burned, and boring is the only plant that grows.  Nonetheless, it’s your island.

So many things had to break just right in order for life to become boring.  Only the winners get to have dull February evenings.  You had to survive worlds of mortification, pain, and loss to get rewarded with evenings on the couch and popcorn in the bowl.  It’s hard to be taken for granted.

To be taken for granted is to be taken for time.  To be taken for granted is to become the tide, the wind, the ground.  To be taken for granted is to be held so tightly that you become as invisible as oxygen and as powerless as gravity.

In February, we celebrate the mundane glories that our lives have piled up for us.  We settle a little closer on the sofa to scratch her back and rub her shoulders.  We touch and we wait and we listen and, perhaps, we go downtown for buttercrunch and roses.

In the clear air of February, the sun sets in a blanket of gold.  The light stretches out over the Atlantic and casts the pale sand and beach grass in gold.  Overhead, the clouds turn purple in the fading light.  Alone at the beach or in the kitchen or just in the rear view mirror of the truck, the island shimmers and glistens.  Just as it does everyday.OldNoWhfinSnow