$base = "http://www.postroadmag.com/$issue/"; Post Road Magazine #18

The Possibility of Ocean

Michael Copperman

I am on vacation in Mexico. I never did the requisite spring break trip, never chose the resorts with their hundred-hundred lounge chairs laid in a line, pasty bodies of mid-westerners baking to lobster-red while cabana boys serve too-sweet margaritas and call out "sir" or "miss." Part of that is my Hawaiian family, all those months I stayed with my grandparents in the "boonies" on the leeward side of Oahu–on white-sand beaches, yes, but in ghetto paradise, in Waianaie, where native Hawaiians squat beachfront in taurpalin-roofed shacks, and haoles are sometimes found face-down in the surf, having ventured too far out Kaena point, or into the hills where locals grow "pakalolo" in commercial quantity. On Oahu, I learned to hate all the co-opted culture of the islands—the coconut-shell-covered hula and fire dancers, the luau sans spam-musubi, and my uncles, calling, "hey, boy, come eat," offering me the eyeball of the steamed fish, then howling at my disgust. Still, all aversions must come to an end, and while I still want no part of the life of the resort or touristtown, it has been years since I've been to Hawaii, my grandparents having long passed, and the family grocery business there, and indeed the whole local family, divided by the battle to claim the spoils. I missed the tropics, the sunlight, and Mexico has its remote beaches, its cheap tickets. It was time. And so I'm staying in a colonial-stucco house with vaulted ceilings and a wide, columned porch that descends to a pool that opens to beach. The waves break fifty yards off the pool's edge with a constant crash of surf. Palm trees are visible from the window where I sit, and the sun is hot, the sky unmarred by clouds. Paradise.

Except I am here with my family.

I love them dearly, broke-down circus though we are: my folks, my brother and his wife, their two children under two. These are good people, a family not fractured by the weight of tragedy or past indiscretion. They are, of course, human, and have their own faults; everyone comes with baggage. My brother and sister-in-law sometimes play out the pushpull of their marriage in public fashion, asking you to take sides. My folks judge their parenting style, and sometimes can't keep their mouths shut. My father, a doctor and health nut, won't touch liquor; alcoholism took his mom when he was twenty-two, and the rest of us lushes have to respect his real reasons when he insists it's his medical training telling us to teetotal too. It's not the baggage I mind, or the occasional piercing scream of the oldest boy, who has lungs and will howl. Rather, I'm baffled as to how I've become the black sheep of the family, the twenty-seven-year-old bachelor who's made nothing of himself. I even shy from spending time with my nephews. Some of that is time constraint: my brother and his wife lead busy lives, running their restaurant and catering business, shuttling between her grandparent's house, her mother's house, her stepfather's house, and her father's house—not to mention her three sisters' places. They have obligations to each, dinners and lunches and brunches to consume. That's not to excuse me for how little I see them: I don't make time in my own busy schedule, don't break from my daily routine. When they do invite me to their place, it will be on an hour's notice, and I let other engagements take precedence. No conscious intention there—but perhaps a reflexive turning from what I don't have. My ex-girlfriend, the one I might have married, has a husband and house in Portland, a living room full of furniture we bought the summer we set out to make a start together, and instead I ended everything. That was the same year my brother started the restaurant and bought the house, got married and had his kid six months later. His house became a home; I moved from Portland into an apartment so bachelor-austere it seemed the perfect metaphor for my life.

The way I am didn't spring from nowhere; I suppose we imitate what we see. I came to understand life as a solitary struggle, for that was what my father made for himself: the bike ride commute through the dawn, the affectionate distance from staff and patients who adore him but can recognize in him nothing of their own character. He touches no junk food, drinks no beer or liquor, remains devoted to my mother. Instead of taking drugs to combat the anxiety that keeps him up nights, he works out until his body yields to fatigue, and when that fails, he meditates, achieves a calm he claims is more restful than sleep. Sufficiency is located in discipline, your capability of becoming so excellent an instrument of good that what you want selfishly or in weakness you choose to forego. And so I have developed an ascetic, self-flagellating bent—even in indulgence and excess, the only person I harm is myself.

Which brings me back to the sound of surf out the window, the buzz of the fan pushing air about the warm room. The sound of screaming as my brother's youngest child wakes from a nap, knows not where he is, and opens his lungs.

An hour ago, my brother and I went up a ladder, cut down thirty coconuts, and had a contest trying to split one with a machete in a single stroke. I had some pride: he'd nearly done it, when I finally chopped one in two. We kept the milk and fruit; he wanted the fruit for a coconutsquash soup. I poured the milk in a blender. Then I juiced a dozen limes and a mandarin orange, chopped some fresh pineapple, added Hornitos and ice and made the best coconut-lime margaritas ever. My sister-in-law and brother and mother all agreed. Then, before I could pour myself one, my father, who had been hovering and hovering with pursed brow, finally interceded. He cleared his throat loudly and said: "You know, for people who suffer from depression, more than one drink in a day can seriously exacerbate their problem."

I took a deep breath, set the drink in the fridge, and went to the computer. I might have raised the glass, drained it to the bottom, and licked my lips. I might have argued the point into the ground, because I've seen the research about drinking and depression (the chicken, the egg, the temperament of the chicken?), know the fine points, and even when I don't, I can win most arguments. Yet I knew that my father had good intentions, meant to save me from everything he fears; I know he can't lighten up to save his sinless life. That's his greatest sin, of course. But since mine is unleashing my caustic tongue, and I know it, I can sit here and choose something better. In a minute I'll stand, stretch, take my young nephew from my father's shoulder where he's quieting him. I'll rock him a little, get him settled. And then I'll go to the fridge, and take my margarita, sip it, and croon something to the child, and that will be that. Some things you've got to accept. Family is one of them. And out the window, there's a perfect blue sky in December.


A morning walk with my father. It's not yet full light, and the surf was rough during the night—I woke in darkness to hear the waves thundering to shore. Now the beach is littered with broken strands of seaweed and kelp, conch shells half in sand like the ears of buried giants, and even the spar and mainsail of a sailboat are here, torn free and washed high on the debris-strewn slope. We walk for a while in silence, speak of the cloud-cover, the possibility of rain. Then I turn the conversation to the book I gave him as an early Christmas gift, Ehud Havazalet's Bearing the Body. He began the book last night, his brow furrowed in concentration, as he regards everything he's in the process of judging. I've seen the look directed my way a hundred-hundred times. Of course, there is always a bit of devil in me: the book chronicles generations of a Jewish-American family—the overbearing, inexpressive father, so like his, the protagonist a doctor who has never felt his father's love and has coped in myriad selfdestructive ways. My father's life, in short. I imagined he might take something from it, might appreciate the small reconciliations, the possibility of change.

My father latches onto his area of expertise. Why, he wants to know, does this doctor abandon a shift at the ER like this? What doctor would abdicate his responsibility in such a fashion? And worse, why is this doctor, this fellow Mirsky, an alcoholic? Why does he drink all these scotches at eight in the morning on this plane—doesn't this fellow, this teacher of mine, Havazalet, know that the pathology of addiction means all this fellow will do is protect his drinking the rest of the book? The book will be about nothing. "I don't buy it," he says, throwing his arms to the sky.

You didn't buy it, I think. I did.

That Mr. Mirsky's brother died five days before his drinking spree is of no consequence; that he's caught there, on a plane, with his father, to whom he hasn't spoken since his mother's death ten years before is also unimportant. This man was weak, and requires medical treatment, meetings, rehabilitation. Never mind the circumstances—here is a clean, clinical situation, a matter of chemical dependence.

I want to object. To say that years ago, when my girlfriend of four years left me to a three-bedroom house, I did worse than Mr. Mirsky, took a fifth of Black Seal Rum to the bottom of the bottle. I want to say that this is how people act in the world, Pops—welcome to life.

But this is my father, and so I try to hold back and then despite myself go for the jugular: "Well, this was a one-time thing. Not drinks every morning. Not like—your mother."

He turned his face toward the ocean, the wind whipping the surface to white peaks. "Well," he said, "she didn't actually drink every day. Just sometimes. And never in the morning."

I let this sit. The surf bubbles at my feet. I took the "every morning" from a line he dropped while judging my brother and me on some earlier vacation, as we pondered mimosas with brunch, something about his mother always needing a drink. Apparently an exaggeration, my picture of my grandmother, drawn from a half-line here and a story there, fades before me: no kind, sad-eyed woman tipping whiskey into morning coffee. My father always said alcohol had taken her. Yet if she didn't drink every day—

"So, she wasn't an alcoholic?"

He turns at the intensity in my voice, pauses with wary eyes. "Well. Not—I was never sure."

"You were never sure," I repeat. "But then—it was liver cancer that got her."

He clears his throat. "I never said that. I said cancer. Lung cancer. She'd been—she'd been a smoker. Before she quit."

"Lung cancer?"

He nods. I blink. "So how was it alcohol had anything to do with it?" "Well, she quit smoking when she was, I don't know, maybe forty. But she kept drinking. When I was back after the diagnosis, staying with her, there were still liquor bottles above the sink. Sometimes, empty cocktail glasses on the counter in the morning. And five percent of all deaths from lung cancer can be correlated to alcohol." I stare at him, at his earnest, familiar face, his index finger at the center of his mustache, the same mustache he's had since I was born, salted now with white. He's serious. Has he always been so—simple?

"Dad," I say, "what percentage of deaths from lung cancer are due to smoking in this country?"

He looks at some place overhead, looking for a fact on the right page in the right book, though his memory is no longer the photographic one that made him first in his medical school class. "I'm not sure," he says. "I mean, likely more than ninety-six or ninety-seven percent."

I let that stand; there was a time I knew a lot of things for sure. This isn't one of them. I can't hear the surf for the rush and pound of my blood. All those hundred-hundred comments, lectures, judgments at every social gathering, family gathering, wedding, party, dinner—at every place I've ever been to with him where somebody had a beer or uncorked a bottle of wine. All over a connection whose logic is so tenuous that no objective person would grant it. He wouldn't grant it, my father, Mr. Reasonable in a base, unreasoning world.

"Hey Dad," I say. "I think I'm going to run back. See you at the house." His knees, I know, are too bad to run; I want no chance that he'll follow. I sprint away, zig-zagging the surf, kicking streams of water in arcs like wings. I didn't look back, leave him behind, as I have to.

When I was a child, I believed adults moved through an easy world, knew right from wrong with a conviction conferred on them in some secret rite of passage. I thought my father, the man who made something of himself from a hard, hungry past, knew best of all. But there's no forcing my father to recognize his error, and so again I'll hold my tongue— without satisfaction. There's no comfort in seeing so far into his damage, his need. I'd rather not face how little I know now that I've become the one who knows better.


In the afternoon, I walk alone: the beach, myself, the roar of sea. I muse on the ocean like an addle-brained poet: the waves cutting the sand, eroding what's there. The waves in unending line, diminishing horizon, unknowable depths. The waves in white-capped rise, frothy bust, broken back to water, destined for some other shore. Not that the ocean fascinates only poets or occupies only the worst work of good writers (poor Hemingway and his old man): there is of course Melville's Moby Dick, his opening chapter where he tells us that every man and woman of Manhattan gazes seaward in the subconscious, the whole city an incline toward beach and the promise of ocean. Ishmael takes to the sea when he feels he might put his revolver to his head; and don't we all long for the voyage somewhere else. The dream of escape, miracle of water at so many shores at once.

Of course, there's the easiness of ocean as metaphor, the overuse of it. An entire ocean: the beauty and size of it. The bigger-than-you-andme-and-all-our-troubles of it. Ocean without end.

And there's the transparency of waves, how for a moment you can almost see through them. That's the mutability of it: the almost there and then it's gone, the peaking froth and crashing fall. The sea's still rough, and there's all the jagged coral broken free, seaweed ripped to single strands, the torn canvas of a sail: the wreck and pound of it, the reckless force, all our capsized vessels. And, too, there's the prettying wash, the salt-slick shells and seaglass worn smooth: the dulling of it. The gentling.

No doubt we bring to the sea what we will, revise ourselves in the play of wave and sky. Better that boundless horizon than us alone—and perhaps we're reminded rightly of our size, our proper place in the world. That's why in fiction it's always flickering stars and distant lights, always wave after wave rolling shoreward: the world exceeds our own image, and so we know our limits. Only from limitation can we can see ourselves.

And when our hearts have shifted as they will, when there's only what's real— sand, sunlight, sea—it's easy to remember what we live for. The joy and hope of it. Of being here.


The last day in Mexico, and I'm running once more. The bad weather and rough surf have passed, and the few clouds burn with sunset, each palm frond silhouetted to sky. I've already run a few laps on the mile of beach, and my calves are tired with the sand. I'm coming toward the house now, and I see my father and brother standing in the bubbling surf, my brother cradling his oldest to his shoulder. The water is above their thighs, churns and churns, but the boy trusts his father, windmills his arms at the coming waves. He knows his father has him tight, as I knew when I was a child held above the colder water of the Oregon coast, my father saying, "I've got you." He never let me fall; it took adolescence to pry his grip free, adulthood to make me question the strength of his hands. He held on while he could.

They see me coming, and my nephew calls "Uncle Mike!" and my brother beckons with his free hand. I'm not ready to stop, not finished with the miles I'd intended, and so I start past them. I can keep on as I have; they don't need me.

"Come on, Uncle Mike!" my nephew demands.

They don't need me, but perhaps I need them. And so I sprint bellowing into the ocean, and spin my nephew to the sky, lift him high in two sure hands, him shrieking and shrieking with laughter. We turn in a dozen circles, dizzied, dazzled by our whirling flight, before I slow, steady myself in the surf, and restore him to his father's arms.

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