Of Mountains and Men
Five minutes before the wave hit Frank, he made up his mind about smoking.
Eight months earlier, he had felt a lump under his left arm: a circular node that was filled with the delicate womb of a volatile, dangerous life. He was putting on his undershirt, shrugging it on like all his cares in the world, the navy pinstripes going down a whiter despair than he felt in his face. He heard Susan cry for his presence, a shrill music that he usually liked to dance to. Now it was discordant and shaky, like the tremor in his pulse as he shuffled his deck of thoughts. He stuffed himself in his clothes like a sausage and then went about his business,—hurrying to forget the reason behind his anything-but-that chant.
Where he expected his life to flash before his mind, there was only a blank, pristine canvas. He had nothing to think of. Nothing except the sheer panic that comes before confronting the darkness of a deeper hole, deeper than the one lived in before.
That day he went to the doctor: Already pacing, ready to enact a battle plan with every ship in his harbor, ready to kill himself to kill it. Slowly truth’s poison leaked into his ears. His doctor spat into his eyes of what was to come: the recovery times, the times with no recovery, the despair of health, the chances—countless, unnumbered chances—the disintegration of soul and cell. His battlefield had transformed into a casino lounge, his chemo his dice.
Each day after this, each door he tried was met with skepticism, and the wave that loomed over him became larger as he clung to his sinking ship. It was waiting for him at the end of each path he could take.
The time had come to tell the family. The typical sentiments were expected, not delivered: Susan held onto his hand, squeezing it like lemons wedges in spiked iced tea.
“Are you alright?” Susan had kept asking.
Was he alright? No, he thought, smiling wide for a photograph, full arms around his loved ones. It was a party for the living, to show off their feelings like their Portuguese waterhounds: the show dogs of grief. He was “blessed” to be dying with his family around him. His every breath an inspiration for a wail and a kleenex order, and their hands wave for affection and assurance. They demanded he prostrate; his cancer was the only thing that held him at night.
One morning, he woke up, and thought: What am I doing here?
Later that week, he packed his bags, and went on the fishing trip he wanted to go to since he was ten years old.
Forty years later, dreams come true, he thought as he bobbed on his little dingy off the coast of Key Largo. The sun was beating down on the back of his neck. It tanned the crinkled folds into something finer than it was, becoming aged leather like the sort sported on rhinoceroses. It was deceptively soft, easy to penetrate. Frank could reveal his underbelly if his armor was less like his spirit animal. With only his hat shielding him from the searchlight in the sky, he only had the murky deep to befriend. Darkness does not ask itself questions.
He picked up a pack of cigarettes a week ago when he first departed on this trip. It was still in its plastic, its precious tobacco buds waiting to be plucked, and he hadn’t come up with enough nerve yet to do something about it. He had never smoked a cigarette and with a cancer toppling him into his new friend, the darkness, he couldn’t think of a single reason to not. It was a useless act of rebellion to the sky, a middle finger to a reason that walked away a while ago.
Why not, he thought, taking the pack out of his pocket, the plastic already crinkling in the palms. The wave had started to grow at this point, mountaining in the distance.
He searched his pockets for a match, and then leaned into himself. He felt the droplets on his back, but thought little of the sea spray.
The match lit, and he thought, Here goes nothing, the fire hitting the tobacco, the same time the water hit flesh, the same time heartbeats hit neurons, the same time thoughts hit the coconut pavement. Nature undoing a man unraveled and absorbing him in the same breath.
Splash, his body went.
It went to his friend, the darkness.
The pack of cigarettes floated in the pool of Frank’s leftovers, and the unused film of his polaroids and the not-yet-spent traveler’s checks littered the red, vibrant coral reef.
Life swam by.