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I listened to the writer’s heart. Its steadiness heralded his good health. In his lungs, the familiar rush of the tides, air coming and going without protest.


“Everything sounds good,” I said.


“Splendid.” He rubbed his hands together. That hand rub older men did, like they were eternally trying to get warm. I never met my grandfather, but I knew that he, too, did this.


I continued the well visit, asking about his diet, his exercise regimen. How much alcohol did he drink, and how many cigarettes did he smoke? So personal, these questions. I found myself picturing him in his study with a glass of wine. His white hair a bit untidier on his writing days. A stack of papers sat on a drafting desk in the corner, crowned with an ashtray that doubled as a paperweight.


Actually, he was a novelist. His books dealt with dark secrets in the underbelly of the New York Stock Exchange, the corruption and defilement of what he believed was still a respectable business. His wife said it was too technical. She fell asleep reading the manuscripts.


I asked him about how the books did. He admitted that his last two publications were “edible garbage.” He was learning to write as he wrote. His genre was fiction, but he hated to read it. He was, in his own words, a walking contradiction.


In an attempt to redeem himself, he had shifted the location of his new book to a more exotic locale. Antigua was a place most of the world had never seen. He spent half the year there, sailing with his wife and volunteering with schoolchildren. He set sail in a week.


“I love kids,” he said. He looked far away, as if that would take him there. “You?”


“Children experience the highs and lows of life,” I said, recalling how much I’d enjoyed my pediatrics rotation. “When you see a child smiling, that child is embodying pure, unbridled joy.” I was invigorated by emotions I hadn’t seen or felt in a long time.


As we get older, our emotions become blunted, I began to tell the writer. Nothing is really that good, and nothing is really that bad. The waves calm, settling on a level of stillness that could be perceived as serene.  But ships get stranded in those conditions. We become complacent in our emotional potentials. The doldrums.


As I spoke, I started to feel stupid. I was explaining life to someone triple my age.


When I was finished, the writer tilted his head. “Actually, I disagree with you on that,” he said. “Immanuel Kant says we have a moral obligation to be optimistic.”


And then he told me about Irma, the time she had spun wild on Antigua’s sister island Barbuda. She lashed out, snapping palm trees and telephone poles like winter twigs. White sand was swept up in sheets like snow. Thousands of homeless locals were ferried to Antigua, where a cricket stadium served as temporary housing. The last time a hurricane struck, he was there with his wife, putting on puppet shows for the children. They spent their nights on tarp.


“We all slept terribly. Sometimes, I would startle awake, so delirious that for a moment, I didn’t know who I was or where I was. There was just fog around me.  And bodies everywhere. I didn’t know if they were alive or dead. They looked like driftwood. Then I would find my wallet, see my own picture, and, like a flood, I’d remember everything. But Jesus, that feeling, for a few seconds...“ He ran a palm over his face. “I could’ve been anybody.”


I felt the limits of my intelligence. I saw the borders of my experience. The only thing I knew was that I wanted what he had. The silence that followed the writer’s story was interrupted by a knock on the exam room door.


“There you are.” The attending slid into the room. “I was about to send out a search party.”


I barely recognized him. It had been years at sea.

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