The Unseen Sea

We wind our way forward as moist air slips by at a steady 25 miles per hour. Cocooned within a shimmering bubble, we glide toward an athletic field carved into the base of a low slung hill. Elsewhere, the journey might be measured in minutes, with a ticking clock marking time’s steady march. Here, our journey meanders.

It drifts.

And lingers.

Ignoring a more traditional pace, time dances up and down the scale of a long ago melody.

Tick-tocks ebb and flow as the clock takes time to rest, look about and stretch arms wide.

Hands extend, searching.

Open to new discoveries.

From tips of reaching fingers dreams uncoil, flowing within a sea unseen.

Probing tributaries search for voids, ready to fill holes long hidden.

Slipping air sings a song of silence.

Gracefully, our bubble flits forward. The outer membrane twinkling under a setting sun.

Senses expand, trailing tendrils within our slipstream.

Gently, our bus rocks, buffeted by an invisible tide.

In our wake, broken dreams tumble head over heels. Haunted thoughts join forces with the sharp edges of waking moments and the sting of terminal regret to ride roiling rivers. Silently, those within our bus consider…

A business-as-usual goodbye, too busy for a final hug.

A phone call, unreturned.

A chance to say, “Don’t go.”

A missed opportunity to say, “I love you.”

Illuminated by a setting sun, clouds of dust give chase. Red with fury, they fill the rearview mirror with shaking fists and muted screams. Exhausted, they tumble like breaking waves. Before returning from whence they came, those clouds join the residue of words unspoken to unleash a show of sparkles.

We drive on. We drive quietly. Nearing our destination the bus rounds a sloping bend. Shadows reach from the side of a well-groomed road to pick at passing scabs.

Splintered thoughts leak from long ago wounds.

‘I miss you, Dad.’

Then, ‘I love you.’

Weightless words pulse like radar through the unseen sea.

Following a day’s hard labor the sun lowers himself into cupped hands of Cuban hills. Squeezing between fingers, specks of light dot the landscape. They grow large. Hanging expectant, they peek between trees, overhead wires, and military grade buildings. Swelling balls of light quiver.

Next to me, in the last row of a little bus rolling around a lazy bend, my daughter shifts position. Upon a tinted window I watch her reflection smile.

On the other side of an approaching hill, dolphins sprint through the warm waters of Guantanamo Bay. They call to loved ones. They call without fear. Weightless messages pulse like radar through the Caribbean sea.

With a lazy moan, our vehicle acknowledges the trials of the hill at hand.  The engine cycles in time to a familiar beat.

Within the bus, daydreams join with the sing-song of a fairytale. It’s a song sung by the long ago me to two year old Gee during daily walks home from daycare.

Just me and Little Gee.

Lips move without sound as I think of taking her tiny hand.

‘I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…’

Within a bus carrying us to the start of a 9.11k road race, two year old Gee turns to take my hand. Little fingers squeeze tight. A sense of warmth climbs my arm as Gee again shifts position. She leans against my shoulder, her presence a comfort.

On the 17th anniversary of a difficult day, Gee whispers words of encouragement. “We got this, Dad.” And 21 years after walks home from daycare, the voice of my two year old daughter warms my ear.

The clock smiles.

Time lingers.

Startled, I turn in search of Little Gee.

Next to me, my 23 year old daughter cocks an eyebrow. “Hey, you OK there? Where’d ya go? La-La Land?”

“Umm… sorry. I was back there.” I jerk a thumb over my shoulder, pointing toward trailing tendrils.

Gee gives me a what-the-hell-are-you-talking-about shrug.

I fill in blanks, “Oh sorry. I was somewhere in the past… (again, I jerk my thumb toward the rear of the bus) around 20 years ago, in Somerville singing a song to two-year-old you.”

Gee nods, prompting me to continue, “You remember how we’d walk home from the Open Center up that little hill? I was always saying how big and huge the hill was when, really, it was tiny. I mean, it wasn’t even a hill! You know that right? The whole time I was just saying that so you’d hold my hand.”

Gee smirks, “Yeah. I remember. And we’d stop to eat honeysuckles at the corner; at the house with the white fence. We’d be standing there plucking ‘em off the bushes and you’d start tapping your feet and then break into one of your goofy songs.” She grows animated, “And you’d sing until I told you – begged you – to stop.”

Gee lowers her voice as if in conspiracy, “You’re not the best singer, ya know.”

Feigning shock, I break into a whispered chorus, “I think I can, I think I can…”

Time dances up and down the scale of a long ago melody.

Gee taps my wrist as if catering to an elderly charge. Passengers seated in the front of the bus turn around in search of a swelling lullaby. And seeing me sing a silly song to my daughter of 23 years they join the clock and smile.

Returning to face forward, fellow passengers sense unspoken words tucked between lyrics. Some passengers join hands. Some rest heads on shoulders.

‘I love you,’ they hear.

Time pools within our bubble.

Gee smirks as a memory drifts about. Like a soapy bubble, its membrane reflects the setting sun. It quivers. Then, under the weight of the swelling moment, it bursts, sprinkling us with snippets of days gone by.

Emboldened, my voice gains strength, “I think I can, I think I can…”

Gee smiles broadly. “OK, Dad, settle down now. Settle down.”

Without warning, the bus swerves to avoid a jaywalking iguana. The vehicle swings from one side of the road to the other. Our driver, Army Specialist Connie, hollers into the rearview mirror, “Sorry ‘bout that! Iguana crossing.”

Gee smiles at the warning and now familiar Southern accent.

Knowing heads nod in understanding.

Tucked between my feet, a filled-to-the-brim paper cup responds to the swerving vehicle. Coffee sloshes from side to side before tumbling over container’s edge onto the vehicle’s rubber floor.

With a nod to the deck, Gee offers a faux-frown, “Ah, you gonna get that or what?”

I raise eyebrows as high as possible before blinking slowly, iguana-like, “I’ll take ‘or what’ for $100 please.”

Gee tosses hands in air, “Dad, you never cover your coffee. Never! And you know it spills. I mean, it spills every time. Look!” Working to contain a smile she points to the floor. “Look at the mess you made!”

Leaning forward, I monitor uncoiling tributaries. Spreading feet wide, I offer curious coffee safe passage to cracks crisscrossing rubber floor mats.

Gee stares at me, expectantly. She shrugs shoulders to earlobes, mouthing the word, ‘Well?’

And not wishing to ignore my daughter, I pluck a moment from the past, “Let us see what Squirt does flying solo.”

Recognizing wise words from Finding Nemo, Gee snorts. And resigned to my let-it-flow response, she picks up sneakered feet, first the left then the right, allowing coffee to pass. Together we watch the tributary search for a void. And finding a hidden crevice, the stream slips from sight to warm an empty space.

“Bye,” I whisper.

“Bye,” echoes Gee.

Silence follows, though her stay is interrupted by the rattle of an overhead window.  Above our heads, a little window vibrates. The window sits atop a wide pane of blue tinted glass, one of many spanning the sides of the bus. Unlike the tinted windows, the smaller horizontal windows slide open. The sliding pane above our seat is opened no more than a quarter inch. It’s just enough to tease us with a whiff of island air. Cupped within the container of Guantanamo Bay, the outside air is thick, palpable.

Squeezing through the slender opening, probing air searches for a space to fill.

Unseen currents brush my arm. And though the island’s air is warm, goosebumps stand at attention. My nose wrinkles in response to an invisible finger.

Next to me Gee remains quiet, her head resting against tinted glass. Her nostrils flare. Moments later, her reflection’s nostrils flare as well.

Within our gliding bubble, currents twirl about the heads of passengers.

Carried upon the draft, unspoken words flit from shoulder to shoulder.

Thoughts drift and swirl before bumping into invisible neighbors. And finding one another, they hold tight. Unspoken words pool. They gather strength.

Whispers call from the invisible slipstream.

Though I can’t hear such words, I feel them.

‘I love you too.’

‘I am with you. Here. Right now.’

Behind the van, trailing tendrils quiver.

Bubbles collide and crash. And bursting overhead they season an otherworldly atmosphere with something unheard.

With something felt.

A sea salted with unspoken words.

And sensing something in the air, I rub a tickled nose.

The probing breeze smells of smoke; perhaps from burning sugarcane or the burning garbage of a nearby Cuban village.

I can’t tell.

It doesn’t matter.

The smell is beautiful.

It fills the container.

Daydreams swirl upon an incoming tide.

“Sugarcane,” I murmur.

Next to me, Gee nods absentmindedly.

On the other side of tinted glass, dewy air clings to the side of our bus. White, with darkened windows and five rows of seats, the bus seems to have missed its calling as a wedding-party van. With the addition of a surround-sound stereo, a disco ball, colored lights and a keg tucked in the back you’d have a solid party package. Just drive onto the Navy supply barge and set sail to a world of weddings.

The vehicle’s motor purrs, ‘I’m no wedding bus.’

As if agreeing with the bus’s declaration, Gee’s reflection nods.

She’s right. This is no wedding bus. This bus is charged with transporting five pairs of Victim Family Members (or VFMs as we are known) about a military base at a steady 25 miles per hour. During tonight’s bus ride, two pair of VFMs join five members of the military. Gee and I represent one of those pairs.

Appearing more like a slice of suburbia than a prison camp, the base remains peaceful, quiet.

Silent, like a falling knife.

The atmosphere swells.

The tide washes through me.

Next to me, Gee rubs her wrist. She turns to face me, “You feel that? In the air I mean. Kinda like the feeling you get before it rains.”

I share a nod, knowing full well it’s not going to rain.

Not in this place.

Despite the palpable atmosphere, the earth is dry.

Dusty.

Branches appear brittle.

Leaves, a burnt brown.

In this place raindrops are few and far between.

Falling into my seat I look through sheets of tinted glass toward far off clouds. I consider the beads of moisture gathering above our heads.

In a world far away, speck-sized beads drift before bumping into hovering neighbors. They hold tight to newfound friends, their collective bravery increasing which each new connection.

And rushing into each other’s arms, little beads bond. They grow larger. Together, they form droplets. Hanging expectant, they peek between cracks in clouds. Swelling balls of moisture quiver.

“May I join you?” specks ask newly discovered neighbors.

The answer, of course, is yes, as moisture knows not how to say no.

Within thickening clouds, future raindrops form. They huddle together. And building confidence, they buck each other up. Milling about, they break into song, each generation stumbling upon the same lullaby chorus.

“Find a neighbor! Join together!”

“Find a neighbor! Join together!”

“Find a neighbor! Join together!”

Time dances up and down the scale of a long ago melody.

Droplets cling tight.

They gain mass.

They gain strength.

And once drops of moisture become sufficiently large, gravity extends a gentle hand, guiding them through a cloud pregnant with anticipation. Crowding each other, they inch toward the border.

Seeing the undiscovered continent below, raindrops grow nervous.

“Ready?” the bravest howls.

In response, newborn raindrops chant.

“Find a neighbor! Join together!”

“Find a neighbor! Join together!”

“Find a neighbor! Join together!”

The bravest continues, “Once we were individual beads. Then, we joined together to become drops. Soon we will be as one! Soon, we will be storm. Fellow raindrops – future storm – it is time to leap across the border … to paradise! It is time to transform.”

Ready drops cluster at cloud’s edge. Thunderous chants fill the sky.

“Find a neighbor! Join together!”

“Find a neighbor! Join together!”

“Find a neighbor! Join together!”

“Paradise,” whispers the bravest.

As Gee tilts her head in search of far off thunder the bravest drop leaps.

Newborn droplets follow, hurling themselves into the unknown.

It is a leap of faith, as no droplet has ever returned to tell of paradise.

Like broken dreams, they tumble head over heels, their past torn asunder.

“Thunder?” whispers Gee.

Hurtling through the upper atmosphere raindrops are transformed.

Each one part of a blooming storm.

They howl as paradise draws near.

“We are raindrops! We are storm!”

“We are raindrops! We are storm!”

“We are raindrops! We are storm!”

Exhilarated, they press toward the uncertainty of a shared existence.

Tumbling, they know not of the shimmering warmth of the atmosphere below.

Drops stretch to lengths unimagined, their extended surfaces heated by a friction-filled fall.

Colliding and stretching, they splinter and shatter.

And sensing misting raindrops, currents of viscous air rush skyward on an intercept course. Eager hands stretch wide.

The clock smiles.

The extended fingers of warm Caribbean air leap from baking soil to catch disassembling raindrops far above the earth. And just like that, millions of raindrops disappear, evaporating within the grip of warm air. Vanishing into mist, they call to earth with a collective hiss.

Currents swell as moisture is transformed once more, now part of island air.

In the instant before they join the island’s syrupy atmosphere, droplets experience a new sensation; smell. They smell smoke; perhaps from burning sugarcane or the burning garbage of a nearby Cuban village.

They can’t tell.

It doesn’t matter.

They know it’s beautiful.

The promise of transformation.

The scent of paradise.

And below a disappearing storm, the unseen sea swells.

Of all the raindrops, one raindrop makes it to earth. It is the bravest raindrop. She alone hears a collective hiss above her and witness’s friends disassemble.  Her friends are gone, dissolved into billions of tiny pieces. Now part of a world seasoned with the dreams of raindrops.

From far away, she hears whispers from the invisible slipstream.

‘We are with you.’

She feels the message between words.

‘We are storm.’

On the other side of tinted glass, the bravest raindrop reaches the last stage of her journey. Striking our bus, she clings to smooth glass. She quivers, reflecting light from a slipping sun. Jutting my chin past the little drop I respond to Gee, “It’s not a storm we feel. It’s this place. It’s like the air’s different here.”

All about, air grows dense, thickened with recently added ingredients.

Gee scans passengers sitting in the rows before us before responding, “But it’s not just this place, is it? It’s us.”

Discretely, she points forward, “It’s like we’re all ready to – I don’t know – join together or something.” Gee shrugs before continuing, “Think about it; Jocelyn and I became instant friends. Bonded just like that (expertly, Gee snaps her fingers). After one day I was like, ‘I can tell you anything’. Like we didn’t know how to say no to each other, right?”

I nod as Gee slows her tempo, “It’s not like back home, where everyone’s guarded and quiet about stuff. Here, everyone’s more open. I don’t know; more willing to share. And connect.”

Keeping time with the bus’s lullaby, my head rocks. I tap a finger against tinted glass. As I do, the bravest raindrop slips, tumbling to earth below.

‘Paradise,’ she whispers.

Leaning into Gee I hush my voice, “You’re right. And I’m guess’n it’s ‘cause we all know the cost of not saying what you feel. Of keeping it inside. Of keeping quiet.”

A sense of déjà vu washes over me.

In our wake, broken dreams tumble head over heels. Haunted thoughts join forces with the sharp edges of waking moments and the sting of terminal regret to ride roiling rivers.

Gee scans the rows ahead as I continue, “Everyone here is missing someone. We all have a hole to fill (I tap my chest). A void.”

Gee scratches her chin as I grope for an explanation, “You? You miss your grandfather. Me? I miss my dad. And sitt’n up there? (I jut my chin forward) Jocelyn’s missing her dad somethin’ fierce. That’s one giant hole she’s gotta fill. She was just heading off to college when her dad was killed.”

I look away before returning attention to Gee, “Her dad musta been so proud. The way she talks about him. She just beams.”

I purse lips before pointing to the front of the bus. “It’s the same with the soldiers; the NCOs – like Connie (I look toward our driver) – she’s on tour for nine months, right? And you know she’s missing her kids. She’s crazy in love with them. You feel it when she tells us about them.”

“And the workers here on the base? They’re all from Jamaica. And I’m sure they’re missing someone back home.”

Gee turns to look away. She does so in time to witness a bus stop filled with waiting workers. They pass by at a steady 25 miles per hour. I continue, speaking as much to myself as to my daughter, “Who else has a hole to fill? General Martins, Ed, and everyone on the prosecution team; they’re all missing families back home. Every time they come here – to fight for us – they leave someone behind. And defense? They’re here for weeks at a time; they’re missing loved ones too. Just like David and Jim said.”

I draw a long breath, “And the prisoners? They gotta be miss’n someone, right? I mean, they deserve it but when you think about it they’re missing everyone. Everyone they ever knew. Gone. And though I don’t feel sorry for them, I have a sense of what they feel. I feel it here.” Again, I tap my chest, the sound echoing throughout the bus.

I shake my head slowly, “I’m OK though, because I have you and DJ and mom. And so many others. All my friends and family. But those bastards? They have no one. They will never hold another human being’s hand. They will never hug a friend or a loved one. Never again.”

Gee sighs, “At least now they’ll be able to draw them or paint them; their loved ones, I mean. And they can make them smile. Or laugh or hold their hands. On paper at least.” Gee leans forward, “That’s why we did what we did.”

Probing tributaries search for voids, ready to fill holes long hidden.

Slipping air sings a song of silence.

Gee and I face each other. She nods, as if confirming the appropriateness of what transpired this morning. She takes my right hand in hers. And giving me a gentle squeeze she looks through tinted glass, “We did it to fill a hole.”

“With something wonderful.”

From tips of reaching fingers dreams uncoil to flow within a world unseen.

I survey the bus before clearing my throat. “I think what’s different here is everyone seems to have figured out what’s important. And I don’t know about you, but I feel like that’s been carved right into me. And though the scar from that carving may be invisible to everyone else, I see it every day.”

I force a smile, “I guess that’s why I don’t like to look in mirrors.”

I drag my left index finger from eye to chin, “It’s right here; right across my face. And here; across my chest, like a hardened wound. Under those scars I got a hole to fill. And every day I tell myself, ‘You can either fill that hole with something wonderful or you can fill it with something like anger. Or hate.’ And Miss Gee, anger and hate just don’t do the job do they?”

I smile at my daughter, “You and me? We choose something wonderful.”

Releasing my hand, Gee taps her chest, “With something wonderful.”

The bus grows quiet as unspoken words fill spaces between invisible currents.

Gee nods before looking away.

We return to silence.

The bus meanders forward, our journey steady at 25 miles per hour.

As we pass a second bus stop packed with Jamaican workers my daughter offers a modest wave.

And seeing a shadow through tinted glass, a man in the crowd smiles at a passing bus. He returns the wave and thinks of his daughter, wondering what she might be doing this evening in Jamaica.

‘I love you,’ he whispers.

Unspoken words pulse like radar through an invisible sea.

I watch my daughter’s reflection smile.

Bumping Gee’s shoulder I raise eyebrows toward the slender window perched above our seat, “Hey, mind if I open it up all the way?”

Gee gives me an approving shrug.

Reaching over Gee, I struggle to wriggle the window open. I bang on it. Passengers turn, smiling at my failing efforts. I return the smiles with a shrug. And unable to move the little sheet of glass into a fully open position I give up. Plopping into my seat I offer Gee a dramatic frown. “Man, he’s a stubborn little turd.”

Gee smiles at my woeful effort, “Um, well first of all, I think the window’s a ‘she’ not a ‘he’. And she’s not stubborn. She’s strong. You know the difference between a stubborn she and a strong she, right?”

My eyes bug dramatically. “Strong. Got it. Excuse me, Ms. Gee.”

Gee drops her voice, “I mean it, Dad. ‘Strong’ is the word in this place. Check it out.”

Looking about the bus, Gee continues, “As you would probably say, ‘you can’t swing a dead cat’ without hitting a strong chick here. Just look around. Am I right or what?”

Smiling, I join Gee in a survey of our vehicle. Before us sit three MPs, two of whom are female. Presently, they keep tabs on us from their position at the front of the bus. During the 9.11k road race this evening, they’ll make sure we’re safe as we run across a prison camp. Behind the guards, I see Jocelyn, my surrogate daughter for the week. She and Gee fell in love during their first round of conversations; Gee sharing the murky memories of a grandfather remembered in Polaroid-like snippets and Jocelyn standing tall to tell of the void left in the wake of her father’s death upon flight 77.

In the row between the MPs and Jocelyn sits our Sherpa for the week, a retired Naval Reserve Captain and attorney. Katherine monitors the well-being of VFMs. She balances our needs with the needs of the court. She protects us from the jagged edges of hidden crevices. And though years younger than me, she once again fills the role of caring mother.

Here, for one week, I am awash in memories of what it’s like to have a mother.

As I finish my survey Gee raises eyebrows with a ‘see what I mean’ confirmation.

She turns to face the world outside. She cranes her neck, looking upward. Perhaps in search of dreaming raindrops.

And closing eyes, I feel the presence of three additional VFMs, each opting not to join us on the bus this evening.

I shiver as invisible currents pass through me.

From across the base I feel the strength of Betty, a retired soldier, responsible for carving a career path through a thicket of 1970s prejudice so female MPs such as those at the front of our bus might serve as equals. She and her husband lost scores of friends in the Pentagon.

With currents lapping at my flank, I sense Suzy, a nurse and pianist with four decades of community leadership and faith-based healing experience to her credit; a woman caring more for others than for herself. She lost her beloved brother.

And Emma. I feel Emma’s reluctant smile as it breaks over the bow of my imagination. A university professor and PhD of anthropology, she is my opposite in every way imaginable. She ponders the loss of her spouse. She sits alone or, sometimes, with her scholarly brother. And while perhaps if the world were fair it might not be unexpected that violence might wash upon the shores of my life, the sands of Emma’s world are unsullied; peaceful. Upon her shores, violence is an incomprehensible interloper. With palms spread wide she seeks to understand the meaning of this foreigner forced upon her.

In this place, one does not have to be on the bus to be with us.

Unseen smoke stretches from far away.

Droplets rush toward paradise, dissipating and thickening a palpable atmosphere.

Unspoken words drift from shoulder to shoulder.

Emotions bathe us in an unseen sea.

Opening eyes, I spy Gee, rocking in time to a lullaby as we cross a seven mile by seven mile container filled to the brim with something unseen.

With something felt.

With something enveloping us.

Gee’s eyebrows bend as she wonders where the tide has taken me. And not wishing my daughter to fret, I take her hand and say without words, ‘I’m right here with you.’

She gives my fingers a gentle squeeze before withdrawing. Gracefully, she stands from her seat. She reaches to slide open the stubborn (or more accurately, strong) window. Rather than repeat the brute force effort of her father, Gee wriggles the window before gliding it to an open position. Returning to her seat she points to a modest bicep. “Finesse and muscle, Dad. Finesse and muscle.”

“Thank you, Rosie the Riveter.”

Gee smiles broadly.

Returning her smile, I respond with silence.

‘Dad, your first grandchild is a fire-breathing ass kicker.’

Pulsing through an unseen sea, unspoken words find their mark.

And far, far away, my father smiles.

Sensing opportunity, the tangy atmosphere of Guantanamo Bay rushes through a wide open window. Invisibly, the current spills down upon my face and neck, bathing me in comfort. Pressure upon my skin eases. Within moments, our shimmering bubble is filled with warm island air. Passengers seated before us turn in response to the probing breeze. One by one, companions smile.

Fellow passengers become unmoored.

Like snorkelers, we bob upon the surface of rushing currents.

Caught within the tide, Gee’s gaze floats through tinted glass.

Turning from my daughter, I watch as newfound friends drift, buoyed by an unseen tide.

Among the comfort of floating friends, long hidden wounds breathe.

Scars soften.

Emotional detritus wafts about.

It fills our lungs.

The hair upon my arms stands at attention.

From far away, I hear words within my ear, ‘I’m right here. With you.’

Turning to the whisper, I find Gee staring past tinted glass. She blinks slowly, her reflection washing flotsam from big brown eyes. Outside, startled iguanas dart for safety as an emotional tidal wave contained within a shimmering bubble slips by at a steady 25 mile per hour.

Carried by the tide, my daughter’s dreams take flight. They drift lazily, the swell lapping against my skin.

Leaning over to bump her shoulder I sing a song of silence. ‘I love you, Gee.’

She continues staring.

Adrift.

Without turning from the spectacle of scampering iguanas, my daughter reaches over to find my hand.

‘I love you too.’

Her words are not heard.

Here, in this place they’re felt.

All about, passengers on our bus become animated, intoxicated by air swelling lungs. They whisper to neighbors. Some stroke bare arms with extended fingers. Others hold hands. All speak with unspoken words.

Some cater to lifelong companions, patiently assuaging old wounds.

Some cater to newly formed friendships, gently tending budding seeds.

From his second row seat, Tyler, turns from his wife, Jocelyn, to face the rear of the bus. He searches for a budding seed. When spying one, he calls to the last row. “You ready to bang out some four minute miles, Big Guy?” Tyler raises his voice, “I don’t know ‘bout you but I’m ready to bust out!” He thumps a swollen chest. “I’m think’n we just go out and win this thing. You and me!”

Next to Tyler, Gee’s self-anointed sister turns to face us. Sensing Jocelyn’s gaze, Gee turns from tinted glass to face forward. Jocelyn rolls eyes at her husband’s confident words. Staring at my daughter, she mouths the words, ‘Not gonna happen.’

Gee smirks.

I tap Gee’s hand before responding, “Forget four minute miles. And forget about winning. My goal is to finish. I’m think’n along the lines of basic survival.”

I turn to my daughter. “Gee here may be able to bang out a win. But me? Not gonna happen.” I holler toward the MPs, “I mean, think ‘bout who were’ up against. We are about to race a hundred plus military types; ass kickers like the folks at the front of this bus.”

Without looking from the road, our driver cocks an arm to show off a well-earned bicep.

Leaning into Gee I whisper, “See that? Rosie the frigg’n Riveter’s driving this bus.”

Gee claps in response to the drivers’ display of strength.

My daughter hollers, “We got this, Connie!”

Through the rearview mirror, the driver and my daughter exchange knowing nods.

Sensing we may be outmatched, Tyler lowers his voice, “Um, yea, well, I guess the competition is pretty solid.” He points toward the window, “And, ya know, now that I think about it, maybe I’ll be walking up some of those hills out there.”

I feign horror.

“Wait. What? Did you say hills?” I throw my hands up, “So now we gotta run hills?”

From the front of the bus Katherine jumps into the conversation, “You knew that, silly! It’s the same road we take every morning to court … straight through town. You’re gonna run past the turn we take on the way to court. But instead of go’n right we’ll go straight. Most of the hills are after the turn to court.” She looks up toward the bus’s ceiling, silently counting hills. “Five hills there. Five hills back.” She raises eyebrows high, “10 total. And besides it’s not nearly as bad as the hill you and Gee ran your first day here – windmill hill.”

I waive her off. “OK Fine. I’m in. You give us hills. We’ll run hills.”

Katherine nods, satisfied. “You run hills. You and Gee and tough guy Tyler here. I’m not running anything. I’m walking. Got it? I. Am. Walking.”

Satisfied with the arc of the conversation, Tyler turns to face forward. He tilts his head to whisper into his wife’s ear. As Jocelyn listens, she looks over her shoulder to find Gee. Eyes sparkle as final beams of sunlight find their mark.

Unnoticed by Tyler, Gee and her new found sister share a smile.

Unspoken words drift upon an unseen tide.

As if on cue, Gee and Jocelyn begin to laugh.

And as Gee and Jocelyn laugh for no reason, the leader of the Military Police team assigned to protect five pair of VFMs during a week-long stay drives in silence. From under a cap pulled low, Connie casts eyes into the rearview mirror. Positioned just so, the mirror allows Connie to monitor precious cargo. Tonight’s cargo consists of two fellow MPs, our group guide Katherine, a grief counselor, and four of the 10 9/11 VFMs attending court this week.

Squinting slightly, Connie spies me at the back of the bus. She focuses attention on my reflection. Rather than look away I smile and hold up 10 fingers for 10 hills. She returns my smile. Her smile loiters, drifting with the current as she turns to face the road ahead. As our vehicle darts under extended limbs, Connie’s reflection flickers like a silent movie.

The bus rocks to and fro. Adding to the scent of burning sugarcane, our vessel smells a bit of perspiration. And of McDonalds French fries spilled earlier in the day by our assigned grief counselor. Presently, the counselor sits alongside Katherine. Periodically, they share whispers, gauging the mental well-being of their charges.

Without words I share a self-diagnosis, ‘I’m fucked up.’

The counselor turns. In response to my gentle nod he serves up a smile before returning attention to Katherine. Tilting heads, they share a whisper.

I monitor Katherine as she turns attention to her phone. Satisfied with the content of her phone she flips through pages within a blue folder resting across her lap. This evening Katherine wears a World Trade Center tee shirt and blue shorts in preparation for her planned walk of an apparently hilly 9.11k course. She rechecks her phone, scrolling quickly through notes or messages. Satisfied, she turns from her first row seat to scan her cargo. With laughter receding, passengers sit in silence. Katherine bites her lip. Her scan passes over the counselor, three MPs, Tyler and Jocelyn and Gee. She settles her gaze on me.

And finding me watching her, she can not help but smile.

Katherine and I share a history of unspoken words. Beginning with a 2011 interview in an FBI field office, the two of us have shared secrets for seven years.

I return volley with a smile of my own. The smile uncoils, reaching. Katherine recognizes the unrecognizable place from which such a smile originates. Holding my gaze, she wipes eyes with the back of her hand, first the right then the left.

Today is tough on Katherine. 17 years ago she lost comrades at the Pentagon. And through her ongoing work with VFMs she knows hundreds for whom this day gouged crevices flushed with pain. She holds her feelings within the cupped hands of a hidden container. As the bus rocks those feelings slosh over container’s edge.

Today is tough on Katherine for reasons other than those tucked within her container. Presently, Katherine’s grandson remains in the NICU of a hospital far away. Despite the needs of her grandchild and her daughter, Katherine soldiers forward on behalf of someone like me. Of someone like Gee.

Without words, the invisible version of Katherine cocks an arm, displaying a sinewy bicep.

Thinking of Katherine’s grandson’s fight for life I wipe my eyes, first the right, then the left.

‘I love you, little guy.’

Pulsing through an unseen sea, unspoken words find their mark in a hospital far away.

Approaching the athletic center, Connie slows the bus and steadies the steering wheel with both hands. She looks into the mirror, “Y’all ready for this?” She’s chipper; eager to tackle the 9.11k run.

Next to me, Gee nods. Her knees bounce with nervous energy.

Tyler turns toward us, “Here we go!”

Raising hands above my head, I howl, “We are ass-kicking fire-breathing savages!”

Tyler points my way, “That’s what I’m talk’n ‘bout!”

Katherine turns forward as our little bus comes to a halt. Hidden from view, she beams, fueled by the satisfaction of her charges.

We exit the vehicle with care. Dirty sand and crushed gravel crunch underfoot. Ahead of us, hundreds of fellow runners mill about an AstroTurf-covered field. Without soldiers in uniform, the many military vehicles, or the massive satellite array topping Cuban hills you’d assume we were approaching a high school football field in suburban American.

Tyler rushes toward a table packed with Gatorade coolers. He yells over his shoulder, “I got to hydrate!” Jocelyn follows. Not participating in the race, she’s here to support her companion. Two bubbles bonded, they float away.

Our bus mates disperse, scattering through the crowd. I turn to Gee, “Let’s find a place to stretch, OK?” She nods and begins the hunt for available real estate. As we search for an open spot it becomes apparent we are surrounded by hundreds of physically fit men and women.

I slow my pace. “Um, Gee; you seeing what I’m seeing?”

I stop in my tracks, forcing Gee to stop as well. Standing still, I turn in a slow circle, spreading arms wide, “Jesus Christ, Gee. Look around.” I jut my chin to various members of the crowd. “Holy crap. Everyone here is buff. Hardcore.” I start pointing at random members of the crowd, “I mean, look at that guy. And her. And her. And that dude over there, behind the huge guy; the one with arms as thick as my thighs!”

Gee looks around, nodding approval. She tilts her head toward a gaggle of females standing 10 feet to our right. “Check out that chick.”

Following Gee’s gaze my eyes fall upon the back of a female soldier. The claws of a massive tattoo cling to broad shoulders. She stretches sinewy limbs. As she does muscles shimmer under a thin coat of sweat. The tattoo adjusts its grip.

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph. She’s no ‘chick’. She’s frigg’n Superwoman. I mean, this is great. Just great. Not only do we gotta run up hills but now we gotta race against Superwoman!”

I scan the crowd. “Gee. look at these chicks. They’re all superwomen!” My right arm arcs, “Each and every one of them’s a walnut cracker.”

I shake my head. “Last time I raced here, I got mauled.” Taking a long breath, I resign myself to survival. “Oh well. Here we go again.”

Gee stretches, pulling her foot up to her rear-end. “First of all; the whole walnut cracker thing is gross.” I try to explain the hours of hard work it takes to be able to crack walnuts with one’s ass but she cuts me off, “Gross, Dad. Stop. OK?” I nod as she continues, “Second, I’m tell’n ya. We got this. We’ve been running five plus miles for years. So we’re good. And third, I’ll stay with you the whole time even…”

I jump in, animated. “Negative! Absolutely not, Gee.”

She tries to protest but now it’s my turn to cut her off, “Gee, please promise me this; you will not slow down under any circumstances to stay with me.”

My wagging finger fills the space between us. “Do not – I repeat – do not let me slow you down. Understood?”

She frowns.

Stepping closer, I place a hand on my daughter’s shoulder. “I’m serious. With your pace, you can blow these folks – even the walnut crackers – outa the water. But not if you’re running alongside a 56 years old 210 pound blockhead.”

“But Dad, I want to run with you.” She raises eyebrows. “Really.”

Around us, racers complete final stretches. Walnut crackers shift and twist.

I take my daughter’s hand. “Gee, I mean it. You remember what I told you my dad said?”

She gives me an I-have-no-idea-what-you’re-talking-about shrug as I continue, “When I got into grad school – before you were born – he said now it’s on me to move our family to the next station. He said ‘each generation has to build on the generation before it’. Each generation has to inch the family forward. And today, you’re the one to move us forward. You. And to do so you can’t be waiting on me.”

Withdrawing her hand, Gee crosses arms over her chest. Eyes narrow. Lips pucker into a tiny ball. And sensing strength of conviction (as opposed to stubbornness) I offer a compromise. “How ‘bout this; we’ll start together. Side by side. I’ll start with a decent pace. I’ll run hard, but not crazy. And when we hit the hills I’ll see how I feel. If I’m good I’ll keep up with you. But if not, you  run ahead.”

Gee nods slowly as I sketch out an agreement. “So, we’ll start steady together and then if I slow down on the hills or if you wanna kick it after hill one you run ahead.”

“I mean think about it, Gee. For years your grandfather raced all over New Jersey and New York, competing in races like this. I remember when I was little – way younger than you – he’d go away on a Saturday or Sunday morning and come back with a little trophy or a medal.” I smile at the uncoiling memory. “Bronze, silver, gold. It didn’t matter. He’d be so proud. Like a little kid. And then he’d place it on top of his dresser and it’d stay there for a couple of days before he tucked it away in the back of his closet.”

Smiling at the image of her grandfather’s child-like pride, Gee smiles. “OK, fine. We’ll start together. And I’ll kick when I’m feel’n it. But only if I’m feel’n it.”

We seal the deal with a hug.

“I love you, Gee.”

“Love you too, Dad.”

Walking forward, we find a vacant spot along the end of metal grandstands. Placing my foot upon the edge of the third row I stretch. And though we seek to merge into the crowd as nameless participants, we are recognized by many. Members of the defense team, the prosecution team, and military police approach. We are greeted as friends.

Drifting neighbors float about.

We shake many hands.

A thick man, shorter and wider than me, approaches. He’s twenty or so years my junior. He sports grey hair, cut high and tight. Dressed in black running shorts and a tight LSU tee shirt, he steps forward. Though the race has yet to start, he’s already sweating. The air is thick, gooey. It clings to him. He clears his throat. “Excuse me sir.” He looks from me to Gee and back to me. “And ma’am. Y’all are VFMs, correct?”

“Yes, that’s right. We lost my father, Richard Morgan, during the response to the World Trade Center attack. He survived the collapse of the first tower, but not the second.” Gee stretches while monitoring our unfolding discussion.

The soldier fidgets as he introduces himself. He speaks softly, as if sharing a secret, “Well sir, (nodding his head to Gee) and ma’am, I just wanted y’all to know I joined the Marines right after 9/11. Signed papers 17 years ago this month. And ah, I was boots on ground in Afghanistan early on and …” Eyes water as he struggles to share words long hidden. He stops speaking. He stands before us, awkward. Gee looks from him to me and back to him. I extend my right hand. But he misses the effort as he looks away, his gaze darting across AstroTurf. His Adam’s apple moves up and down.

He rocks gently, as if in time to a long-ago lullaby.

Tick-tocks ebb and flow as the clock takes time to rest, look about and stretch arms wide.

Shuffling forward I grab his wrist. And startled, he looks up. His arm stiffens, then accommodates as I pull him into a handshake. Following his lead, I clear my throat. “Thank you, sir.” His brow buckles as I continue, “I mean it. I’m sure you’re fighting for lots of reasons but you’re also fighting for my dad.” I nod to Gee. “And her granddad. And for all his friends killed on that morning. Over 50 of ‘em. So thank you. Thank you for fighting on behalf of people like us.”

He moves his head slowly, nodding. He tugs gently, seeking release from my hand. But I don’t let go. His eyes swell. Gee watches the moment pour into an unexplored crevice as we stand in silence; two strangers holding hands. Overhead spotlights come to life, illuminating the field. Perspiration marching across his forehead glistens under falling light. He sighs.

And hearing his unspoken words, I step forward to pull him into a hug. The gesture takes him by surprise.

Like leaping raindrops, we tumble over the border.

Into the unknown.

And not knowing what else to do, he returns the gesture.

He squeezes me tight. Perhaps his first hug in a long time.

Miles above Cuban soil, specks of water come together. And building confidence, they buck each other up. They linger before breaking into song. Each generation stumbling upon the same fairytale chorus. In the form of far off thunder, the words echo across an athletic field below.

“Find a neighbor! Join together!”

“Find a neighbor! Join together!”

“Find a neighbor! Join together!”

Hovering above AstroTurf, unspoken words drift about.

The soldier nods awkwardly before I place my hand upon his shoulder. “Thank you for fighting for our family.” I look from the soldier to Gee and back to the soldier, “It’s men and women like you that are keeping my family and all the tree-huggers back home from a world of hurt. So, thank you.”

He smirks at my comment before sharing a knowing nod. “Thank you, sir and ma’am” He blinks slowly, his eyes coated by the residue of an unseen tide. “It means an awful lot to have y’all here run’n with us on this day. Thank you.”

He turns on his heel and walks away. And slipping into the crowd he wipes eyes with the back of his hand. First the right, then the left.

Gee’s eyes follow the soldier until he is captured in the crowd’s swirling current.

And as Gee stares at the back of a vanishing soldier, I am approached by a member of the Military Police. Though he’s out of uniform, presently dressed in a tee-shirt and basketball shorts emblazoned with a Memphis logo, I recognize him from our daily courtroom security routine. We shake hands as he identifies himself. As he turns to shake Gee’s hand, he’s awkward, almost bashful. And looking from Gee to me, he bites his lip. “Um, sir, I wanted to ask y’all this morning but didn’t get the chance ‘cause Katherine moved y’all so quickly into court… and, ah, anyway what I wanted to ask was if you were the writer of that book; the one about 9/11 stuff and the trial here.”

Gee stops her stretching. She stares.

I nod. “If you mean, A Piece of Me, yea, I wrote that.”

The young man wrings his hands. “I, ah, I read part of it – some pages that were copied– I hope you don’t mind we made a copy – but I didn’t get hold of the whole book. We looked online but couldn’t get it and, so, I never finished it. And now after meet’n y’all I want to. I mean, there was some pretty serious stuff in there and I want finish it; ta read the whole thing.” He stands stiff, extending his chest, “So if you wouldn’t mind, can y’all tell me where I can buy me a copy?”

Before answering I curse myself for not bringing copies of the book to GTMO.

I scratch my chin, “Unfortunately, it’s not really for sale. At least not anymore.”

The soldier tilts his head as I continue, “I mean, it was for sale at the 9/11 Museum but that was a while ago and was just a couple hundred books … to help the memorial raise money.” I look away, wondering what to do. “I gave away just about all the other copies to friends and family and, uh, to folks in need of a helping hand.”

He purses lips, “Oh, I see…”

I fish for a solution.

“Wait. Hold on…” I pinch my forehead. “I still have copies of the earliest versions in my basement. The thing is they’re from one of the first runs so they have a bunch of typos in ‘em. I mean, if you’re ok with typos I can send you one.”

He holds his hands up. Palms are hardened, calloused. “Oh no, sir. I couldn’t ask y’all to do that. I mean, if they’re for family and…”

I cut him off, “Yeah, well I guess I couldn’t ask you to put your life on the line and defend me and (looking to Gee) my daughter and all the whiners back home but you do it anyway, right?”

“Well, that’s different, sir…”

“Yeah, you’re right it’s different. You risk your life. And I don’t.” Stepping closer, I hush my words, “So the least I can do for you soldier, is send you a book. Right?” He fidgets as I continue, “I mean, come on. Will you please let me do that for you?”

“Sir, I’d be honored. I mean really honored. So, yes please. I’ll take a copy.” He smiles, “Typos and all.”

“The honor will be mine.”

We shake hands, squeezing tight. He turns to shake Gee’s hand and when their eyes meet he blushes bright red.

As he walks away I bump Gee’s shoulder, “I think Private First Class is crushing on you, Miss Gee.”

“Dad, please.” Raising eyebrows, I dole out an exaggerated nod. Gee rolls eyes before looking at the crowd around us. She leans toward me, “Dad it’s crazy here. It’s like…” she gropes for the right words before coming to a halt… “nothing I’ve ever felt.”

I add to her thought, “It’s like how things could be, right? Like what it’d be like if everyone was just a little more open. If everyone knew we all have a hole to fill.”

I look up into overhead spotlights. Sharp beams of light stab at my eyes.

Looking away, I hold arms wide, “This place is a seven mile by seven mile container. And it’s filled with an unseen sea; a sea of emotions. You feel it washing over us; washing through us. You feel unspoken words. You feel your neighbor’s longing.”

Within a thickening crowd, Gee takes my hand.

Along the upper edge of a seven mile by seven mile container, thunderous chants fill the sky.

“Find a neighbor! Join together!”

“Find a neighbor! Join together!”

“Find a neighbor! Join together!”

Sensing unheard words, Gee cranes her neck. She squints under the glare of tumbling light. And as invisible currents carry me and Miss Gee to a place far away, a second raindrop hurtles toward earth.

“Paradise,” she whispers.

Then silence.

Like a falling knife.

 

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