The beach is empty this morning, and devoid of tourists. The weather is forty-nine degrees. The water is what we Gulf Coast people would call, “bathwater.” The air is what we thin-blooded Florida writers refer to as, “cold enough to freeze a dog’s pee midstream.”
I am dutifully typing on a laptop, working on another novel. Working on a novel is a lot like driving across Texas. You drive for an eternity until eventually you realize that, hey, you’re still in Texas. And even if you were to turn around and drive the other way, you’re still going to be driving through Texas for a very long time.
Not far from my chair is an older couple. I’d say early seventies, late sixties. They don’t have chairs, their haunches are nestled right in the flour-white sand. They are covered in a thick plaid blanket, sipping from a steaming thermos.
It’s a good day for beach-sitting. The sun is low, making its ascent into a pink morning sky. The Gulf is spearmint green.
The man has a mane of white; she wears the universal floppy straw hat all old ladies wear. Their arms are draped around one another, and they are watching seafoam.
I amble over and introduce myself to start the conversational ball rolling because I need a break from “driving across Texas.”
Our talk gets personal when I ask how long they’ve been married.
“Been married twenty-three years,” the man says. “We were both married previously, our spouses died.”
They both lost their significant others to brain cancer, twenty-some-odd years ago. It was the same rare kind of brain cancer, too. The odds were astounding.
“We were shocked to find that connection,” she says. “We took it as a sign from God, that we were meant to be together. What else could it have meant?”
They got married in a hurry. The day of their wedding was their three-month anniversary. After that, they moved into a trailer located in the hinterlands of Arkansas. But they’re never home. They started traveling.
“We’ve been to all fifty states,” says the man.
“We’ve been to all fifty states twice,” his wife corrects him.
They have taken two cross country trips in his F-150, towing their lives behind their tailgate in a fifth wheel camper.
They’ve done all the things all American tourists are supposed to do. They have cruised U.S. Route 101 from Washington to California. They have seen Acadia National Park at sunup. They have eaten peanut butter sandwiches at scenic overlooks in the Rockies.
They are quick to point out that they are far from well-off. In fact, they aren’t financially stable enough for either of them to consider retirement. But they both work from home, so they have freedom. And why not travel?
“We do it because our spouses didn’t get that opportunity,” says the woman, whose eyes are becoming glazed. “My first husband never did half the things he wanted to do. He never got to, you know, live.”
The old man draws her near as she speaks of her late husband. He interlaces his fingers with hers, then explains:
“We’re grieving partners. First and foremost. We’re here for each other, we talk about the good times, we share memories. You have to do that. ‘Cause you never quit loving someone.”
The woman looks off into the distance at the crashing breakers on the shore, but says nothing.
“Like I always say,” the man goes on, “there are really four people in our marriage: There’s her and me. And then there’s the two people we used to be. We still carry our old selves with us, our old lives. You never quit being the person you were.”
I ask if they have any more trips planned.
They scoot together so that their shoulders and hips are touching. He kisses her gently on the lips.
“We’re on one right now,” she says.
After our conversation peters out, I wander back to my little beach chair. I check my phone for texts, I gaze at the Gulf water, and I wonder about life in general. Namely, I wonder why life can be so unkind to some but so generous to others.
I wonder why pain has to be the central feature of being human. And I wonder how I was so fortunate to meet such an exceptional couple on the beach on a chilly Floridian morning. Maybe it was meant to be. Maybe there are no coincidences.
Then I open my laptop, once again, and begin typing my way “across Texas.”