Sometimes Roumei didn’t know why artists even bothered. No amount of paint, talent, or diligence could “capture”, as they say, the wet dormancy of a New England salt marsh in November, the high barren cliffs of the Valdes Peninsula, the magnificence of an old beech tree, or the cottony winter fog hovering over the blue ice of Farrar Pond. Ruomei felt thankful for these impossibilities.
She turned off Megan’s Way where an entrance to a passage formed out of the tall roadside bushes, and suddenly she was surrounded. Words couldn’t capture the real thing any better than paint, but still, later she would try to describe to herself what she saw. That she was surrounded by essence of green, of verdure, of leafage, shaped by humans into a spiritual moment of architecture. She thought of her paints – viridian, sap green, perylene green, Hooker’s green, permanent green light, permanent green deep, oxide of chromium, cobalt chromite, cadmium green pale, Windsor Emerald – all these manufactured greens, as though out of their tubes one could create the full effect of this woodland digestive track lined with lush summer’s growth. In all its infinite possibilities, no kind of verdaccio could imitate this.
She walked the sunken center, compacted and worn through the moss underfoot, brushing her fingertips along walls of dense shrubbery and looking up at a canopy of low arching trees through which the sun threaded its warm illumination. It was a tunnel, a long ethereal sanctuary, just wide enough not to feel claustrophobic, just narrow enough to feel intimate, just long enough to tell you it has a purpose. A dao, a way to somewhere, but also a place to be.
Ruomei could view the length of this bower and the opening visible at the end but not see the surprise she knew was just beyond. It was not unlike being in love, she thought, the anticipation not made less rich by the familiarity of what awaits. Walking onward, just as a bit of sky appeared, a few crooked granite blocks set into an abrupt bank led to the sudden opening of a flat expanse of rock impenetrable against the violent surf of the open ocean. Ruomei clambered to where the solid ledge split into boulders and jagged drops and found a place to rest. The wind and the force of the waves hitting the vertical rock threw up a continuous salty spray – it wet her face, her hair, her nostrils. She stared down into the voluminous foam and squinted against the shower with every surge – in, pulling out, a relentless rhythm of crash and retreat. It took core strength just to sit.
But wanting to reach the beach before sunset, she soon rose and retraced her steps to the tunnel, slowing down to pause. She looked up and down its length, to where she had been, to where she was going, where she had been now being where she was going. She wound her way back along Niles Pond to Brace Cove, then found another road towards the ocean again, following the next length of rocky shoreline for several miles, heading to the beach she knew would be nearly empty this time of year.
Once there, Ruomei set her feet in the fine sand and looked out. Here the same ocean, only a few miles up shore, sent long, low, soft waves towards the beach, each one folding over its own crest like a jellyroll, stroking the wide uninterrupted sand back and forth, back and forth.
Ruomei felt like the speck that she was. She was never much of a swimmer. Any boat bigger than a canoe made her seasick. She recalled the time she was drawn out too far from the shore of Monhegan Island in a tiny row boat, with her two kids and nephew, she just recovering from the flu with compromised strength, after they had been frolicking on little Manana Island, spitting distance from Monhegan, the tide having risen meanwhile, and the sky getting darker, and all they had to do was row the short distance across the channel – such a little channel – and with each effort they moved slowly away from their destination and towards the open sea, and suddenly she was terrified. What would have happened but for the lobsterman who spotted their tiny boat and brought them in?
The ocean was scary, vast, unfathomable, dark, and comforting. When she tried to explain to her friend, Danni, why she wanted to live near the ocean, it was an energizing comfort she tried to describe, the reassurance of feeling insignificant but safe, on the edge of the insurmountable, unpredictable power of nature. Mountains nearly had the same effect for her, but there was nothing quite like the raw ocean. Its character was constantly shifting. It was calm or fierce, of changing colors, swollen, leagues deep or thin over the shore, warm or frigid. It never ever stopped moving. She did not totally understand how something so planetary in scale, unpredictable, and mysterious could feed her body calm.
Standing back just far enough from the tide so her shoes would not get wet, Ruomei said to herself, yes, if you are only a minute piece of biology that hardly matters, then you can shed so much else that also does not matter – the trash truck that took off her side view mirror, the small-minded opinion of the near-stranger she met that week, the misunderstanding by others, the missed train. It was good and centering to be reminded of what matters. She turned and started walking towards the north end of the beach.
Danni, on the other hand, had said, “I always like to have multiple routes of escape.”
Ruomei had waited for the connection between escape routes and oceans.
“You know what I don’t like about the ocean?” Danni had continued. “There is usually only one route to get there. There might be many roads on the approach, but then it narrows down to one road or only one path that takes you to the beach or the rocky point or the end of the pier, and that’s the only way in, so it’s the only way out.”
“Mmm. Yeah, that’s true.”
“And when you’ve arrived at that beach or wherever you are by the water, unless you have a boat and you’re very seaworthy or a great swimmer, escaping into the ocean isn’t really feasible. So to escape you only have the single road you came in on, and that always makes me feel uncomfortable.”
Ruomei never thought of it that way, and she was able to see the point. It does not change her feelings about the ocean, and she tries to imagine what would occur that would frighten her while walking on the beach, but she understands the need to have escape routes. Massive crowds make her nervous. She has her limit in dense forests. Little toddlers hanging onto both her legs make her think of the word “panic”. People who set up standing expectations, saying, “I haven’t heard from you in a long time” when they could just as easily say, “we haven’t talked in a long time” make her want to turn around. Claustrophobia needs escape routes. Pain needs escape routes. Perhaps pain is claustrophobia, or claustrophobia is pain. Either way, one needs options for getting out.
Joey, crying, called his younger brother Lucas and said he was thinking of killing himself. He remembers when they were in high school, only eighteen months apart. Joey had asked him if he would make the scheduling calls to Joey’s teammates, and Lucas did (in spite of the unmentioned fact that Lucas, too, had trouble with the phone even through adulthood) because he wanted so much to protect his brother who stuttered. When Lucas is drunk, telling this story makes him weep. But back when Joey was twenty-something, looking for an escape, and seeking out his brother again for help, Lucas told him just to keep it as an option, knowing he can always kill himself, but maybe not right now. Thus Lucas saved his brother. Lucas knew and understood, because he, too, at times had thought about killing himself. In fact, later, he told his brother not to feel badly for him if he ever did it, because he would be feeling better once he did it.
Uncle Jimmy was aged and ill when he paid the tailor to make him a white suit and then escaped his pain with a rope around his neck.
Grandfather Mu Ling felt he only had two choices: humiliation by the Communists in front of his community, his family, and himself, which was unbearable and wrong, or dignity in death. He declared he would rather die than continue to be forced to his knees for hours and denounced. His wife and children kept watch around the clock for days, until they thought he was feeling better and they collapsed into sleep. In the morning they found Grandfather hanging in the bathroom.
Niko thought he would escape, so he got into the car parked in the garage. Engineering solutions was a talent he had – maple sap lines, automobiles, post and beam. He ran a hose from the exhaust pipe into the driver’s spot and closed the windows. Nodding, Niko looked to the left, out the car window, out through the garage window, at the cemetery. The view made him pause, reconsider, and have a second thought, “hmmm, maybe not just yet.” Maybe he did not want to escape.
Young Aiden was found in his room from an overdose. It’s not clear that he wanted to escape just then, but he had been escaping for years. He kept a bicycle two blocks from his house so he could quietly walk out and hop onto his wheels, if only to feel the rush of cool night air plus freedom and motion and a friend. Ruomei conjured up the memory of him joyously leaping across benches in the free spirited twilight of summer, alongside his friends, who walked, so ordinary, on the sidewalks. Ruomei had trouble moving from that image to another she had tried and then resisted imagining, young Aiden alone and found by his sister.
Every day Cecily tried to escape two things: feeling afraid, and the thing she was afraid of. She would say, especially around five o’clock, “If I didn’t drink I wouldn’t stop crying.” It puzzled and impressed Ruomei that the thing Cecily feared so deeply she carried around inside of her all the time. It was the same with her friend Johnson, whose words began the same way: “If I didn’t drink I might become a monster.” Ruomei understood confusing what is outside and inside oneself. She had had many nightmares as a kid and they were all inside of her.
Ruomei’s mother frequently let it be known that she had an escape option, making it seem simple, and stated so often it became less like an announcement and more like a reminder. “If things ever get too bad, I’m just going to commit suicide.” This was said to no one in particular, more to the space around her. Ruomei and her brothers just happened to be standing in it. Long before that, when Ruomei’s mother was young and recently married, she got so mad she escaped into the Commander Hotel and checked in. A few months after the birth of her third child and her husband just returned from abroad, she escaped into a bottle of sleeping pills. Then one Thursday at the age of eighty-eight, on the same date that her husband had died seventeen years earlier, she took a handful of Zolpidem Tartrate with some wine, rubber-banded a small plastic bag around her head, and escaped one last time.
Years ago Ruomei owned a mug that read: PEACE. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart. When the mug broke she photocopied the shards and tacked the quote on her wall. Peace was easier said than found. So she understood the need for escape routes. She understood the urge to escape from people who needed escape routes.
Ruomei took off her shoes and socks, tossed them up to dry sand and broke into a trot, teasing the tidal line. The beach was not very long; she turned like a lap swimmer. The sand, both firm and impressionable when saturated, met every beat of her foot. Her skin soaked up the moisture of the sea air. Stopping in the middle of the beach she turned to step into the shallow surf. It was cold. She listened to the crescendo and breaking of each wave, feeling the strong draw of the water against her heals and over her instep. Every muscle in her feet worked to resist the pull. She drew the horizon line with her eyes, noticing the tinge of orange in the sky, remembering being told that the orange was an indicator of pollution, and how hard it was to take in that new knowledge. She drew in the calm with her breath — long slow exhalations; longer, deep inhalations.
© 2013 Lillian Hsu