Morning is the best time of day. And by morning, I mean those fragile hours between the middle of the night and daybreak when the world begins to stir. Danger is still out there lurking in the darkness, huddled together with desperate lovers and junkies scheming for another fix. This hour of day, everybody’s hooked on something. Nobody comes through the night unscathed. If you’re awake at this hour, chances are something’s on your mind. Maybe you write about it, or maybe you act on it, but there’s something eating at you. I guess that’s what makes the dawn so interesting. Impending daylight reveals the raw humanness of people. Nobody’s hair looks good at 4 AM. I like that. Always did.
Two mornings ago, I stumbled upon my younger self in the back ally by the dumpster. She looked tired and hallow, as if she’d been running on empty for days. I wanted to share with her all I had learned in the intervening years, but I knew she wouldn’t listen. Who cares what old people think, anyway? Instead, I asked if she wanted to have breakfast with me, if the two of us couldn’t sit down with a hot cup of coffee and talk about whatever was bothering her. She looked nervous and I thought for a moment she was going to take off into the night. But, before I knew it, the two of us were sitting at my kitchen table with our hands wrapped around steaming mugs of coffee with cream. All these years later, I still drink it that way.
The room felt heavy with awkward. I stood up to adjust the blinds, hoping to prolong the safety of night. Reaching down to scratch the cat who lay curled up by the sill, I searched for words of encouragement. What might I have most wanted to hear? Certainly not anything about trying to get sober or giving AA a shot, that’s for sure. What could I say? “You will survive this.”? “You will one day buy a condo and adopt a cat and sit down with yourself for coffee”? “The ramblings of an idiot,” that’s what I would have thought. So I simply resumed my seat, took hold of my mug again, and hoped real hard that words would come.
“How about eggs?” Yep. That was it. No brilliant insight. No buoyant words of hope. Just, “How about eggs?” Those were my first words. “I’m sure you probably don’t feel like eating, but maybe some scrambled eggs? I could make rye toast. I think there’s even jam in the fridge.” I watched as my younger self stared back at me. Or maybe into space, I couldn’t be sure. She lifted her mug with effort, took a sip of coffee, and then set it back down on the table. “OK if I smoke?” she asked. “Sure,” I said. “I still do, too.” And, with that, I retrieved an ashtray from beside the sink and set it down between us. You would have thought I had poured her a near-full tumbler of vodka. The relief on her face was that obvious.
I reached for my own cigarettes, lit one, and thought to start again. “These past few days have been warmer than usual. Are you still collecting seashells?” One would have thought I had just asked the best possible question. She smiled, retrieved her bag from the back of the chair, and pulled out a still-sandy conch shell. Proudly setting it down on the table, she studied it for a short second before asking, “Isn’t it beautiful?” She was obviously more delighted with her own discovery than curious about my opinion, but, for the sake of making conversation, I answered her anyway. “Yes. It is. Amazing. Really. When you think about it, the sea is the giver of such wonderful gifts, isn’t it?”
“A generous one at that,” she agreed. “The tide has saved my life, you know. More than once. Whenever my heart starts racing and I feel like I can’t breathe, it’s the only thing that helps. It’s like I have no choice but to go down to the sea and focus on the waves. They go out. They come in. They go out. They come in. Eventually I begin to take up their rhythm. I exhale. I breathe in. My heart slows. My mind clears. Out. In. Over and again. Until finally I feel ok. At least ok enough to go home or maybe look for shells. I found this one this morning.”
Taking up the shell with her now warm hands, she continued. “Listen. When you hold the shell to your ear like this, you can still hear the waves. Go ahead. Try it. They’re in there. In the shell. Like an emergency kit to go. I can bring the waves with me! Here. Listen.”
She extends her arms eagerly, wanting me to take the shell. Sand spills out across the table. I don’t care. I gratefully accept the shell into my own hands and hold it to my ear. The emptiness feels like an almost forgotten secret. She is right. I always was. The sea is in there. I listen. Something catches in my throat. I breathe. Out. In. I remember. “Yes,” I say. “I can hear the waves. This is a beautiful shell.”
“I’m glad you like it. I thought you would. Not everyone understands. People think I’m crazy. Who walks the beach looking for shells in the winter? At dawn, no less? But you understand, don’t you?”
Yes, I have always been a little crazy. Never really minded all that much. Crazy makes living a little more colorful and certainly more fun. I smile knowingly and place the shell back on the table. “I have always treasured shells,” I say, simultaneously nodding toward a collection dating to both before and after her present. So many shells. Silent. Dusty. Souvenirs of another time. “You know, you really shouldn’t worry so much about what other people think.”
“I know. But it’s hard not to. I mean, how can I not? Other people, they never aren’t able to breathe. Other people don’t get rescued from death by the sea. Other people just don’t think like I do. I’ve got to be crazy. Never been anything but, though, so I live with it. Sometimes I write.”
“You should try to do more of that,” I say. “Don’t ever stop. Stopping can get you all jammed up. The words can’t get out and, before you know it, you’re alone with a bottle praying to God for your thoughts to stop.”
Her eyes widened. “You know about that?” she asked. Her voice barely audible. She looked thinner than I remembered. Almost gray with exhaustion and despair. Too familiar. “I know,” was all I could say.
Oh, did I know. I think I survived for whole years without breathing. I should have never stopped looking for shells. Should have kept letting the words find their way out of my head somehow. Should have stayed focused on keeping myself alive. I drank instead. Killing another piece of myself with every bottle. I’m one of the lucky ones, though. I’m ok. She will be, too. But I don’t want to tell her that. It is good that she is afraid. If it wasn’t for the terror, I’d probably still be drinking. Either that or dead. But I couldn’t say that either.
“Is rye toast ok? Sometimes you have wheat. Would you rather have wheat?”
Momentarily startled by my return to the topic of breakfast, she pauses, only to then slip farther away. “I should really be going,” she says. “I don’t belong here.”
“Please stay,” I plead. “When was the last time you had something to eat? At least let me make you some toast. There’s real butter in the fridge. And strawberry jam, too, if you want. You always liked strawberry jam. Mom used to make her own. Remember?”
I think I see her remembering the sweet taste of Mom’s jam, but she’s already decided. “No. I should go. You know I shouldn’t be here. I belong in your memories. Down by the sea.”
I don’t know when exactly she left. One minute she was there and the next she was gone. I stood by the front window for long minutes watching the sun rise above the distant reeds.
The world is coming awake now. It is time for breakfast and another day. I don’t feel particularly hungry. Not even for toast. I pour more coffee into my mug and sit down at the table. There are crystals scattered there between the placemats. It’s sand. I’m sure of it. Or maybe just carelessly shaken salt. Lighting a cigarette, I wonder if I’m going to be ok. I settle, again, on the conclusion that I already am. I should really get in the shower. At least wash my hair. Yes. I best get moving. I think I want to walk this morning. The sun is up. The tide’s going out. I am finally able to breathe.