A cold wind blew roughly across the beach. Pebbles and rocks that were nestled between stones rattled in October’s breath. Foamy waves broke the chilly air. Like a painting, the horizon lay in the distance, untouchable. The color of the water was a deep and murky blue, an ominous shadow. Vincent picked up a stone in his hand and threw it at the water as hard as he could. The stone landed far off without making a sound or a ripple. “I’m unimportant to even the sea,” Vincent thought.
That morning had left Vincent feeling nickel-and-dime. He had taken off work to spend the day with his little sister, Amaya. She went to a public elementary school in Bayside Flats, an upper class neighborhood by the lake. Vincent and Amaya lived in Fulton, an area adjacent to the Flats. Fulton was not filled with intricate christmas lawn decorations and shiny playgrounds like the Flats, but was instead home to poverty and abandoned store fronts. And home to Vincent. A single railroad track divided the neighborhoods, and crossing the border was like entering a different city.
Vincent walked into Amaya’s second grade class for Take Your Father To School Day that morning. The majority of the school was made up of Bayside Flats kids, with Fulton filling the gaps. Vincent and Amaya entered the quaint classroom filled with worldly maps and crayons of every shade. Vincent held Amaya’s hand protectively, proudly, and lovingly, as the pairs of dads and daughters sat down together.
Of course Vincent was not Amaya’s father. He was younger than most of the men in the group, being a brother and not a dad. Vincent felt like eyes were on him and his sister. People began to introduce themselves.
“I am Frida, and this is my Dad! We like to play catch and read the newspaper together.”
“Good morning. I’m Ted, Frida’s father. I am a lawyer; it’s hard work, but rewarding,” he smiled, “and Frida’s right… I love a good game of ball!”
A couple awkward laughs were tossed out, some weird silences, too. A girl named Jane didn’t know her dad’s first name, and Ari, a boy without front teeth, introduced his father as a train conductor. Once asked to speak on that, Ari’s dad clarified that he just rides to work on the Y, the town's commuter train. He was actually an astrophysicist.
As the talking stick made its way down the circle, each person successfully one-upped the last. Vincent’s face began to flush as he realized he would have to explain his own job. “I work for the yellow school bus company. I’m basically like a bus driver who doesn’t drive a bus. And before that, I was employed at Arby’s.”
Vincent’s heart started to flutter quicker and quicker as successful doctor after successful lawyer smooth talked their way to the next impressively accomplished speaker. The town had quite extreme economic class variance, Vincent realized. Just a mile away from these millionaires were families living under neighbor’s sagging porches with starving cats and dogs. Vincent’s face beat with embarrassment and shame. He hated the fact that he couldn’t give Amaya what others gave to their families.
The rest of the day went by minute by minute. Vincent couldn’t clear his mind of worry. “Why have all these dads accomplished so much? They’re successful, good role models for their kids. How is Amaya supposed to look up to me? Other men have navigated through parenthood and their professional lives at the same time, while I don’t have enough money for even gas. I haven’t touched the world at all, not compared to them. I’m just a boy.”
As soon as the day ended, Vincent dropped Amaya at aftercare and went home. He left his cell phone on his bed and plunked sunflower seeds into his pocket. Then, still sad and unsettled, left his apartment like a gust of wind. That’s how Vincent ended up with the cold air on his face, throwing stones into the water.
The beach was a small, unused section of Dune Isle called Kite Side. There was no sand, only rocks, and no swimming, only riptides. Vincent loved the sea spray whipping his eyes. They stung like tears. Maybe they were tears.
Vincent walked to the water’s edge. All over the ground lay cracked shells. Strings of them, bound by seaweed, were coiled into hollow spaces, hidden between rocks, and huddled under leaves. With the back of his head towards the sky and his shimmering eyes towards the gravel, Vincent began to walk. He stopped to pick up sea glass, unbroken scallops, or anything with an unusual hue. A silver shell caught his eye.
Vincent bent down to examine what he found, spitting sunflower seeds out among the rocks. At first, not realizing what it was, a confused look passed over his face. Then disbelief. Last, a twinkle in his eye. It was a ring. Memories of the night he lost his own class ring at the beach, years ago, surfaced. “This could have been mine,” he thought.
Losing that ring had really affected Vincent. The ring he lost had graduated with him, swam in the lake with him, slept next to him, and woken up still by his side. It drove down highways with him, felt his tears, kept him company through each long, waking hour. Every memory pressed into the bronze band, every morning and night, every tear and every summer. It had seemed insignificant all those years, sitting on his finger, but the minute it was gone he realized its beauty.
“What a mystery,” he thought to himself. “Why are humans blind to their own fortune, only to understand it once gone?”
A lot of life was a mystery for Vincent, in fact. Inside his own head was a confusing maze of conflicting messages, sunrises and sunsets, messy scattered desks and evenly plowed fields. Why did it feel like his bones ached to be happy, yet could never grasp on to it?
Vincent studied everyone. Yet the closer he looked, the more distant he felt. Not much made sense to him, but it never had. Even his own mind, feeling solid in its foundation, flew out of Vincent’s control sometimes. That was one of the things he disliked about himself. If asked to make a list of self-reflective positive traits, he’d give only his appearance. Somehow, he got his dad’s white blonde hair and his Italian mother’s stunningly tan skin, a rusty glow that made him look like a desert flower, while his hair was soft, buzzed, and luminescent. He thought he looked like a sunset.
It was actually sunset, he suddenly realized, entering reality. Time passed quickly at the beach. Once, years ago, Vincent had fallen asleep on the sand. Minutes went by, then hours, until the whole night had fallen. It wasn’t until the morning that Vincent realized he’d let himself slip into sleep. He begun to feel his skin warm up, and the sun gently pressed down onto the beach like a heart beat. Seagulls swooped across the cotton candy sunrise. The beach was stunning at six am.
“What a beautiful thought,” Vincent realized. Memories were divine and meaningful by themselves. There was no physical manifestation of them in the world, no keychain, seashell, or ring. But they were as concrete as the rocks under his feet. They were enough to complete a person, to make them valid and important and accomplished. Vincent felt the sunflower seeds in his mouth grow roots as his mind revved and whirred. Soon a tree would sprout, bringing purpose and prosperity. Right now, though, the lake was enough. A sister who loved him (and knew his name) was more important, more amazing, and more fulfilling than a simple degree with some teacher’s signature scrawled across the bottom. Everyone’s just a minuscule seed scattered in life’s great meadow.