You stood at the shore sobbing, a young man maybe twenty, your shoulders shaking as you bent at the waist. I saw you from the water, my son on my back in the cool blue. You were the only one on the beach in jeans, a buttoned-down shirt, wrinkled and worn as if it’d been left in the sun. Your hair was long, one length, and hid your face. You wore tennis shoes the color of limes.
Moments before, my youngest son worried about sharks, a shape brushed against his shin, but he heard you and stopped climbing toward my shoulders. Your wails rose above the seagulls in verses that diminished in threes and then started again. The pattern and pitch sounded like a joke at first, a person playing pretend at pain.
My son took my head in his hands and turned my face toward you. To him, I am the one who comforts those who cry and he worried I would not see you. But I was watching, tracking the half circles of those who stepped around you. Two children built a sandcastle; one stopped to look, the shovel suspended in surprise. A woman lifted her chin as if to catch your scent, but she didn’t slow. A father threw a football to his son and shook his head. The pass was perfect: a spiral, an arc.
Your cries rose and you fell to your knees and I thought, Oh, God, and then: Where is he from? Not the Midwest where we tuck in despair and carry it into corner bars. Not Florida, either, or at least not Cocoa Beach, with its forced smile and string bikinis, ice-cream jeeps, and low-flying planes that pull promises of All You Can Eat Crab for $9.99. Perhaps California or Canada. Not Texas or Tennessee, buckles in the Bible Belt, where even though boys are raised on Old Testament stories they rarely hear of men who tore their clothes and stuffed their suffering into sackcloth for all to see.
I thought, Someone should do something, but I didn’t mean me and then I thought, How embarrassing, and, yes, I meant you. And then: He must be drunk. We stood in the water watching and the space kept widening between you and those who were better at pretending. I thought of my own sons, three boys. The sea behind me hummed with time, carried years in tides. I sent my son to his father, walked out of the waves, and knelt by your side on the shore.
I asked you how I could help and I called you “baby” before I could stop myself. It’s what I call my boys and the words fell and you didn’t look up, but in between sobs, you said to the sand, “I am bereft. I am bereft. I am bereft.” The word was weighted in your mouth— bereft, bereft, bereft —and I breathed in its accuracy, the hush of its second syllable. I did not ask what you had lost. I did not tuck the hair behind your ear. But I thought how bereft is often transitive, leaning into an explanation, demanding a direct object. Bereft of what? Of love? Of comfort? Of reason?
But your bereft was an adjective, one that describes, but doesn’t ask why. I am bereft. It begins and ends at the moment, the emotion. It does not circle what was or what might have been. It does not seek out reasons: lovers who leave, mothers who die, friends who overdose. It does not search for understanding. It hums with certainty, a present tense as alive and as indifferent as the sea.
I told you it would be all right, and your breathing slowed. I said it over and over again, like a prayer or a promise, and your sobs eased until they skimmed the surface of where they’d been.
You did not ask me how I could be so certain and I did not tell you I was thinking of my own sons and all of the unknowns that could bring me to my knees on this shore. And I did not tell you how I thought of those I have lost and how I knew that I had lied to you: pain never becomes fully past tense. It is a tide that rises and recedes with the seasons.
“I am bereft,” you said again, spent.
I nodded. “Yes, of course you are.”
Finally, you turned and we looked at each for the first time.