“It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.”
It’s a good spot to stop on the beach. A little further down from the tourists prepping for sunset selfies and not quite as far as the weird locals drinking beer on the jagged rocks. We’ve walked a lot and there’d been lots of good in the day. Driving through Big Sur, hiking a lush forest to a waterfall, blasting music with the windows rolled down. But now I’m sinking back into the dull ache. My brain is too tired to control my whirling, excruciating thoughts. I haven’t meditated today and now my mind is an ugly beast I can’t reign in. I retreat deeper into the pain, outwardly silent with my arms crossed as we walk on the postcard-perfect beach, a pony-tailed prisoner in Lululemon.
And then it’s time to stop. Time to roll out the blanket and open the wine and watch the sun set over the trash-free blue water. (Carmel’s beaches are far superior to New York’s public coasts. I love the city but it does not do beaches well.) As I sit and drink wine from a paper cup, I feel myself slowly being pulled back to the present moment. The alcohol quiets the screaming thoughts and my breathing starts to sync with the crashing waves.
The setting orange sun silhouettes the surfers dancing with the chilly November waters. I feel a sudden and powerful urge to join them. I want the freezing water to burn my skin and shift the focus of the pain away from my insides. I want the breathless exhilaration. I want to the movement and the distraction and the synchronization with the sea. The surfers dance a duet with the waves, drifting and then ripping through and then back to a harmonious bobbing. I’ve only been surfing once, riding baby waves in Hawaii, but suddenly surfing seems deep in my blood and I long for it.
My sister and I didn’t travel enough together. It’s something I never thought I’d regret and now all I want to do it take her with me and experience the wonders of this earth with her. Wanderlust ran strong in both of us, but we navigated it differently. My adventures were broad but planned-out and risk-minimizing. Hers were accomplished with less money and more discomfort, but also more depth. When I studied abroad in South America, I participated in the group trips and went on a weekend excursion with a few of the girls and toured the vineyards and paid locals to take me para-gliding, and then went dutifully home with the group with just the right amount of risk accomplished. When Laura studied abroad in South America, a few years after I’d left college, she stayed for weeks after her group left, backpacking and hitchhiking and couch surfing all over the region. Her experience was harder and rawer and more real, as was the general deviation in our lives.
Over the summer of 2016, both Laura and I traveled internationally. She went to Mexico and Belize, busing and hitchhiking her way through the country with her boyfriend. They swam naked in waterfalls and stayed with locals. Stricken by the poverty she encountered there, she gave her money to people that she met in rural villages. I went to Eastern Europe with my husband, where we stayed in nice hotels, danced in nightclubs, and swam in luxurious beaches on the coast of Albania. We left generous tips and told ourselves that giving our business was altruistic enough.
When she was traveling through Mexico, my parents and I worried about her. She assured us she was not going to be near any of the places the cartel was. She was free, but she was smart. One day at work I logged onto Facebook, and my heart jumped out of my throat when I saw the trending stories on the sidebar. “Riots in Oaxaca, 8 Killed.” Laura had just been there — was she still there? I frantically scrolled through her Facebook page, looking for some clue as to where she was. She was safe. At a town further away, but feeling pain for her new friends in Oaxaca.
I envied the raw freedom Laura had. I loved the idea of traveling roughly and cheaply and uncertainly. But with our lifestyle and the people we travel with, that doesn’t really happen. And I don’t actually think I’d enjoy the reality of it as much as I like the fantasy. I like planning and security and being able to take a hot shower at night. So Laura and I never ended up taking an adult trip together. And now we never will.
Two glassed of wine in and with the light fading, it feels to me like the right time for the ritual. I don’t have anything specifically planned, but at both my therapist’s and husband’s suggestion I’m going to do a ceremony on the beach for Laura. I brought along a candle and a pen and paper. The candle idea is a bust because 1) I don’t have a lighter and 2) even if I did, there’s a severe drought in California and I don’t want to be the asshole who burned down the most picturesque town in the state.
I put the pen to the paper and began word (ink?) vomiting on the paper. It’s too dark to see what I’m writing but it doesn’t matter — it’s not like anyone is ever going to read this. I write everything that she was — and still is: beautiful, strong, compassionate, hilarious, nurturing, responsible, genuine, and pure. Fucking cool. I ask Lorenzo what he wanted to say to her. He thinks for a minute and says, “I’d like to tell her how inspiring she is, because she lived her life authentically. That’s not something you can find in most people.”
I wade out into the icy Pacific waters with the note in my hand. I pause for a second — would Laura want me to litter? Was this even littering? She would have been able to tell me the exact environmental impact throwing some paper in the ocean would have. God, I’m probably going to kill a dolphin or something.
Praying that no dolphins would be impacted and Laura wouldn’t be pissed off, I begin ripping the note into tiny confetti shreds. Each shred I toss into the ocean, filled with love and gratitude for my beautiful little sister. The cold water numbs my calves and soaks the edges of my rolled-up pants, and the blue-orange of the sky gets interrupted by dots of stars. I toss the paper and laugh at the senselessness and loveliness of it all. I laugh some more and cry a little too, but not the deep bone-piercing cry I’ve gotten accustom to. It could have been the power of the ceremony, or the numbness from the water, or the wine working its way through my system, but I feel lighter than I have in a long time.
I throw my arms around Lorenzo on our sandy blanket, our dog Rowdy bouncing around us. “I feel happy,” I tell him, a smile on my face that he maybe saw in the dark. We sit a while longer, watching more stars appear, and then trudge down the long stretch of beach towards our hotel. “Look out for shooting stars,” Lorenzo says. We gaze up at the fairly unimpressive sky for a bit. Then I turn my focus to what we are having for dinner — a task that takes up an embarrassing amount of my time, grief or no grief. The problem with cutesy towns like Carmel-by-the-Sea is that food is often over-priced and subpar, quality being sacrificed for ambiance. I ponder some potential restaurants I’d researched earlier.
“I saw a shooting star!” Lorenzo exclaims suddenly, clearly not paying attention to my dinner musings. “What the fu-,” I exclaim, outraged, and then look up to see the same meteor still streaking across the sky, a bright arch of light slicing the blackness.
Shooting stars burn bright and vivid and leave us with nothing but their memories.