The morning sun shone and rain seemed less likely. Maple tree boughs blew, greenish-blue waters emerged in the distance. Tall, glass-faced towers flanked our right, beyond the tracks.
The New Yacht Club held a small marina of sailboats, whose bells clanged in the lake breeze. We sat at a bench behind the bike trail. A blond child followed her father, became distracted, and opened her fist for the breeze to take the grass from her hands. The leaves fell to the quay’s edge. The girl looked down, displeased. She turned and plucked two more handfuls of grass, suede sneakers clapping the macadam path. She stuck her little fists through the chain-link fence and opened them again, and this time the wind carried the leaves into the deep.
“Kids are so weird with what they’re into,” said Genna.
“That’s because everything is new to them.” This little girl had lived a few hundred days, each one was so long to her, and short to me, getting shorter for both of us.
Genna read. I stared at the towers that stood on the mainland that curled south into the lake. The breeze blew against my forehead and I was happy to not have to do anything I did not want to do. “Come on,” I said.
“Let me finish this chapter.”
Locally, Niagara Falls is known as an armpit because of the tourists: Amish, Muslim, Chinese, Korean, African, French-Canadian, American, between fourteen and twenty million each year. Even though the falls aren’t the largest or highest or the greatest annual flow, they may be the world’s best known. Others, like the Khone on the Mekong, have more water but a less impressive drop; what’s sixty feet to a hundred and sixty? Niagara is only exceeded by Iguazu and Victoria. It is Lake Erie emptying into Lake Ontario. The mist rises and cools. Above, clouds expand and contract like nebulae. People distract from the scene, as crowds generally do, but to turn one’s attention to them can be almost as interesting.
Everyone said, “The falls are great, but you’re there for twenty minutes and that’s it.” A longer stay would make it more worth the twenty dollars we paid in parking and prove that we appreciated it more. We watched the water swirl and fall and mist but we had things to do. Away from the crowded view I was so tired and relaxed that I lay on the grass between the road and the parking lot, and the thunder of the crashing water was like a breeze. Genna was next to me, and I was thinking about my life on the completion of my twenty-seventh year, from middle school and the people I used to know, to the experiences I had traveling, to my more recent friendships. The wind slowly blew the leaves on the maple tree we lay beneath; white cumulus clouds lingered above, a black stormcloud held off in the distance.
This morning I woke in the soft glamor of ivied windows. Our sheets were white and the ceiling groaned with footfall from the floor above. The dogs’ collars rattled through the French doors. A shaft of blue sky glowed gold through the open door to the patio. I was fifteen again, traveling with my father to Vancouver for my birthday, walking, shopping for music, enjoying and wishing we could keep it going this way forever, the impending doom of school and routine far enough away that this morning suspension of light and softness was enough.
Cruising along the lake I was in a video game, through the wide, empty boulevards, setting out west, west, following signs and going a little too far west on the open highway, cruising through the morning sun like I was headed north through the grassy plateau for a thousand miles to Nunavuk, and this was just the beginning.
As I drove the perimeter of the lake, rain pounded the car. I slowed, heeding the red glow of taillights ahead. The Great Lake spanned, the outline of the towers thirty miles beyond hazy under the clearing sky. The rain came again. Genna slept, I listened to Bizet. Twenty minutes later, we cruised into the city under clear skies. A hip-hop mix played on the radio.
We entered the low diner with the open kitchen and bar of stools opposing empty shelves sectioned off by a short wall with posters of Greece. I asked the Vietnamese man, whose hair was slicked back, who Mickey told me was named Lee, if we could sit outside. He was five foot two and he surveyed his kitchen proudly, hands akimbo. His wallet left an imprint in his back pocket, its corners had bore through the soft denim. A woman I took to be his wife, about a head taller than him, stood over the griddle.
“I think someone there,” he said. “You can sit with him if you want. You ready to order?”
“I’ll take the Eggs Benedict.”
“And I’ll take a coffee with two eggs, bacon and brown toast.”
He brought me our coffees while Genna was in the bathroom. I checked outside and saw the greasy back of a man’s head at the table I’d wanted. Lee looked at me, smiling.
“I think we’ll sit in here.”
Genna walked right past me.
We sipped our coffees gingerly.
The Asian man took the orders; his wife did the cooking. A man next to us asked for a bowl of soup, hot.
“It’s hot already,” said Lee, hands on his hips.
“I want it hotter.”
Lee stood thinking, his forehead furrowed as he faced his kitchen. “I microwave it?”
“Yeah, microwave it.”
Lee nodded, clearly glad to have resolved this issue without losing a customer. After he placed the hot barley soup in front of the brown-skinned man, he walked outside and came back in, asking us, “You want to sit outside?”
“Yeah!” I stood with my coffee. “We came from very far away to visit your restaurant. UFO is world famous.”
“Oh, thank you,” said Lee.
We sat in the shade, the breeze soft and quiet. A woman behind us was saying, “…she had lung cancer and bought an around-the-world ticket, kept smoking and didn’t get any treatment. What do you think of that?”
Her heavy blond friend said after thinking for a moment, “It’s selfish.”
Lying on the beach where the water is too cold to swim, seagulls screech, a chopper dopplers, wavelets break. A couple calls their dachshund, “Chilly!” Or Chili? Chile?
What kind of life did I want as a child, a young man? Was it the same as what I want now?—my footfall on the flagstones of a Tuscan village, views to the Mediterranean, Matterhorn rising above a green valley, the throaty whisper of love before an expensive dinner…Are these images culled from desire or do they surface from imagination mixed with memory?
I want to go further east before I return west, to ride a motorcycle along the autobahn, to take a canoe down the Mekong, to dance through the streets of Perth on the way to the Indian Ocean; I want to do all of that before I return to be a cook on a fishing boat out of New Orleans, a lumberjack in the great North Woods, a writer who’s built his own cabin in the forest. Life right now is a fragment of what I’ve wanted, and if it remained this way forever I would be happy. But nothing is.
Was it this? Or was this only part of it—a moment I can use my memory to generalize as what my life is, to broaden and expand into definition. Memory is good for this. When I look back on life, I have lived a good third of it.
Hard lines are in fashion now, so soft moves will be better next season.
Who says that you can’t do things younger people are used to doing when you’re a few years older.
People live in nice communities on the water and are happy. Will I be like that?
“Can we go soon?”
I held my hand out to her. She lay on it. Time passed.
“I want to go to a cafe.”
I pulled myself up and opened my eyes. The sky was still blue, my forearms warm. She stood.
“What did you want your life to be when you were a girl?”
“I wanted to own a fashion label in Paris and get married in Del Mar. I wanted lavishness.”
I shook my head and folded the blanket. An oval circle of granite glittered. I picked it up. “This is a piece of granite formed during the last ice age. It is over a hundred million years old.”
“Take it. I know you like rocks.”
“It’s a stone. Stones have energy. In the Roman era, travelers anointed stones that were supposed to be good luck. They felt the good energy and wanted to take it with them.”
She affected a stoner voice, “Good energy, man.”
I put on a Jamaican accent, “You got to keep da stone wit de good energy. You no wan de stone wit de bad energy.” I put the granite in a side pocket of my bag, where water bottles go, and we crossed the boardwalk to sit on a bench where I dusted off the sand on my feet with my socks and put on my shoes.