The seagull hovers in the air beside me, striving against the wind, unable to move an inch, as if held back by an invisible string. The wind relents, the string breaks, and off it goes, without so much as a backward glance at me. Abandoned, I sprawl on the soft chilly tawny slope of sand. Expands before me the vast green sea, beautiful, peaceful, and majestic, replete with breaking waves, decorated with an occasional freighter, overlooked by towering skyscrapers and flanked by an unceasing stretch of sand. As the seagull flies past the meandering bipeds, the disarrayed beach beds and the ephemeral sand castles, it fails to see what I see.
I see an elderly couple, with drooping skin, flabby flesh, bent backs and grey hair, standing close together, peaceful and content, serenely looking out into the horizon, an occasional hand caressing the salty water kissing their knees. I see them comfortable in each other’s company, exuding an intimacy spawned from years of cohabitation, from wrecked dreams and fulfilled ambitions, from bitter altercations and ardent reconciliations, an intimacy in no want of any external validation. I see their younger counterparts, passionately wrapped together like a vine around a tree trunk, oblivious to the incessant whooshing of the water and unheeding of the intermittent stares of random strangers, lost in each other, flooded with the excitement of feelings unknown, and the hopes of a future unexplored.
I see a father leading his little one into the water, who gears up for the approaching waves like a matador waiting for a charging bull, but gets overrun by a stampede of elephants instead. I see a sister scurrying around and swirling like a top in the frothy water, enthusiastically coaxing her little brother to join her, who nonchalantly keeps busy building a sand castle. In the distance I see frisbees flying and footballs whirling. Someone buries himself up to neck in sand, and frantically swears revenge, scared and helpless in his sandy prison, on his sister, when she mischievously throws some bread crumbs near him, inviting the circling seagulls. A girl puts on mascara with surgical precision, pouts her lips in ritualistic devotion, gingerly takes out her cell phone, and proceeds to click multiple shots from every which angle, her back to the dazzling yet ignored reflections on the turbulent waters. A man dives in with his sunglasses on, and presently, is frantically engaged in a futile search for the missing pairs. A lifeguard on a jet-ski blows on his shrill whistle, vehemently requesting swimmers to stay out of undercurrents, as a helicopter flies over, displaying a banner for a new year celebration party. A jogger runs by, in naked feet, sans the protruding ear phones, choosing to listen to nature instead. A couple walks along, deep in conversation, one hand intertwined with their partner’s, flippers in the other, backpacks on shoulders and eyes on the footprints they leave behind. I see people swimming, people maniacally flapping about their hands pretending to be swimming, people maniacally flapping about their hands trying to swim but failing, people maniacally flapping about their hands trying to sprinkle their water-repellent homie, and people manically flapping about their hands in water because why not, it’s fun!
And I see the sand, a stage on which this drama is being enacted, golden and grainy, witness to a thousand souls’ joys and sorrows. And through it, I become a part of those forgotten stories, those fuzzy memories, those potent emotions. Peering through time I see him, on a cold wintery afternoon, heart-broken, crushed and dejected, a pale ghost of his prior self, losing himself in the grandeur of his surroundings and deriving solace from the touch of the soft sand on his feet, from the damp smell and the belittling vastness of the ocean, and from the soothing caressing of the frothy water. And I see him, another him, years hence, his collar unbuttoned, his shirt untucked, his oxfords in his hand, his tie loosened, trudging along wearing his socks, a triumphant but tired victor in a day-long war for his dream job, come here to breathe a sigh of relief. I see her, apathetic and turbulent, coming here with her friends just because she had nothing better to do, and leaving with a new hope, a new idea, for a story the rumble of the sea inspired. I see them. I become them. I pick something up, and I leave something behind. I see the sand soaking up my turbulent emotions. I see in it my past few days, and the days unexplored, and a glimpse of the tribulations of the year before and the hopes of the fore.
I see her, our waitress in Havana 1957, wearing a traditional white Cuban frock, adorned with red belts and ribbons, with a red hibiscus flower sitting between her pitch black hair and left ear, the play of colors representing both perfection and sexuality. She compliments that with a gold necklace and a silver wrist watch, and a broken accent, seductive but distant. And I see Shannon, our Native American guide in the Antelope Canyon, short and portly, covered from head to toe in wool, guiding us through the womb-like formations in the crimson rocks, drawing attention to the play of light and shadow on the walls, and the consequent aura on the haloed travelers, bantering about the unintentional use of Hindi swear words on unsuspecting grandpas, thanks to a prank by her mischievous Indian friend, and leaving me with the sweet memory of a matronly embrace.
I see myself in Universal Studios, wearing a cloak with the Gryffindor insignia, brandishing the Elder wand, drinking butterbeer, unleashing the inner child from an adult exterior without being judged for it. I edge through a hole in the wall, and see myself in Diagon Alley, gleefully hopping from Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes to Madam Malkin’s. Doe-eying the fire-breathing dragon on top of Gringott’s. Humming to the Harry Potter theme. And looking in wonder at the Hogwarts castle. And the platform at King’s Cross numbered nine-and-three-quarters.
I see Kennedy Space Center swarming with alligators. I see the replicas in the Rocket Garden. The full-sized Atlantis space shuttle in its mid-flight glory, opened up like a dissected frog. The take-off countdown rehearsals. And the Apollo displays. And I see San Antonio Riverwalk, zigzagging through the city, adorned with Christmas lighting and intimately brushing past the river and the city.
I see us hiking up Tent Rocks in sub-zero temperature and negotiating ice-covered slippery stairs, precarious ledges, and claustrophobic depressions, to get intimate with the pointy rock pillars born of the union of sedimentary and igneous rocks and shaped through weathering and erosion, huddling like a group of fat clowns in pointy hats and striped pajamas. I see the plunging reddish-white cliffs ahead, and the green solitary shrubs dispersed like freckles in the desert below, and the shadow of the cloud above crawling over them like spilled water on the floor. Then I see us leisurely ambling down to the Horseshoe Bend, and standing atop serrated rocky slabs, askew, possibly remnants of some earthquake past, cinnamon layers covering the earth like the scales of a fish. And I see it, the imposing bump of a land, resolute and adamant, refusing to give any quarters to the corrosive Colorado, forcing it to go around instead. I see in the belly of the valley so formed dark-green clear water, stagnant yet foreboding, nursing the thin border of vegetation separating the river from the surrounding precipice.
I find myself standing in the open, under a cloud-covered sunless sky, peering at the countless mounds of white sand in White Sands Monument, bathing in a gratuitous shower of white snowflakes. I am driving on the sand, sliding down the dunes and searching for white camouflaged animals. And presently I find myself in the dark, humid, warm interiors of Natural Bridge Caverns, walking amongst stalactites and stalagmites, standing there for ages like the great sages of our scriptures, some solitary, some sociable, some littered with bat-excretion, all immobile.
And then we are on the long lonely Texan roads, passing through ephemeral fog, blinding downpour and unexpected ice. I see never-ending horizon-kissing stretches of wavy concrete road, flanked by pale shrubs with needlelike leaves, like sentries along a royal procession, and windy deceptive mountain paths, with bottomless abysses and white snow-topped crimson peaks for company. I see us dodging unexpected mounds of snow, putrid dog carcasses and fickle brawny deer. I see us peering far into the horizon, sometimes to get drunk in the beauty of it, at others just out of boredom of a long drive, oblivious to the texture of the imposing hulk of a mountain in front or the buzz of the continuous stream of mechanical menaces flowing alongside. I see us trying to sneak in a quick clumsy nap in the back-seat; and fail at it. I see the constant jerks and occasional veering out of the lane and a tired, under-slept and overworked driver at the wheels. I see the rush to the nearest gas station for relieving ourselves. And to stock up on things we would be relieving ourselves of at the next stop. I see the spontaneous stop by the shoulder of the interstate highway in the dead of night to discover obscure constellations in the sky. I see the intermittent bickering and bantering. The decision to defer watching Star Wars till the end of the trip to save two precious hours, and the eons spent in restaurant-hunting and waiting right after. The haste to put on more layers of clothing before setting foot in the infernal subzero atmosphere and their frenetic removal while posing for a picture. The repeating songs and the groans and hustle for a different DJ. The enthusiastic sprint to ride shotgun and the dejected plea to be allowed to move to the back-seat to get some shut-eye after a few hours.
I am standing there, on the beaches of Miami, at the end of the year, thinking of memories lost and experiences gained, of the turmoils of the past and the opportunities of the future, of new acquaintances and old relations, of unfinished businesses and completed projects, of stories untold and promises unmade, of bittersweet changes and soothing constants, when the tide comes and washes the sand off my feet.
It had been a while since I had written anything. I recently saw Master of None, and the fig tree sequence in the finale tugged at my heart-strings. Sitting there on the Miami beach, when I was thinking about how to document my year-end road trip, I decided to experiment with a similar sequence, with the sand replacing the fig tree, instead of doing a regular serial travelogue. The setting of the beach automatically drew some other elements into the story. Somehow, without my conscious attempt, the tone of the piece became a pale imitation of the tone of the closing lines of A Tale of Two Cities, where Sydney Carton contemplates the future he could never be directly a part of. I am not sure if this whole thing worked, but writing this was absolute fun!