How Life is Contagious (or "Staying Up Late With An Albino")

The Red Sea is angry today beneath the hazy blaze of late-afternoon. A stiff northwest wind sweeps the water into monstrous swells, molten platinum hills rolling, surging toward shore, all troughs and crests and glare and contrast. They impale themselves on the shoreline rocks and their guts soar twinkling.

There's a fisherman on a concrete pier, barefoot, long sleeves unbuttoned and flapping in the wind so you can't tell where his arms end and his fishing pole begins. He watches a wave bury itself at the base of the concrete below him and the water erupts at the golden sky. Salty spray reaches a high apex and freezes for an instant, suspended. Then the furious wind hurls it everywhere. The fisherman ducks but the spindrift soaks him anyway, and I'm reminded of how people cower when it rains and they have no umbrella, like if they get low enough to the ground the rain won't see them and it'll find someone else to fall on.

I'm driving slowly past over speed bumps, pulling away, but I glance backward. The fisherman is alone in the sun and the wind by the sea. He's laughing as another blanket of blowing ocean drapes him.

Further up the coast the landward seawater is calmer. You can see where the reef draws a line through the ocean a couple hundred yards offshore, breaking the roiling sea. There's no spray soaking the beachcombers here. But it's kind of funny -- none of them are wet but none of them are laughing either.

Not an albino or an Arab. Syracuse, Sicily; April 2013
I'm at a diwaniyyah a couple weeks ago. Wealthy old media barons gather inside an opulent oval room ringed with cushions and couches. I greet the host and the guests and then I sit and watch them all hobnob and sip bitter, sap-colored Arabic tea, tossing the tails of their shemaghs over their shoulders like they don't care, but carefully adjusting the headdress's crease enough to betray that they do.

I watch but my brain ignores my eyes. The numbness of routine, the drone of the ordinary mutes the scene around me. I have seen the beards and the thobes and the prayer beads in cell phone shops and mini markets and Corolla drivers seats. Now the men circulate through the oval room like an ocean current, moving, flowing, easing down, rising again. I see the motion but I'm blind to the life. Warm handshakes, fake smiles, authentic embraces, hypocritical piousness, heartfelt reference to God. It's all colliding. Animation and energy. I'm thinking about how it's 9:00 p.m. and this event hasn't even started yet and I'm tired and I want to go home.

An old albino Arab sits beside me. His white skullcap and shemagh nearly match his pale face, white-blonde eyebrows like little clouds above aging milky eyes. From the corner of my eye I watch his hands grip his cane. His fingers shake. He clutches the smooth wooden shaft tighter, seemingly in an effort to quell the trembling, but the cane just quivers. I glance at him. His jaw is quaking, as if age itself was giving him a shake down. As the keynote speaker rises to address us, I notice the albino man straighten in concentration, old, trembling, listening. He is somehow fiercely and contagiously alive. And suddenly I am too.

The reef is breached. The color and sound and texture of the voices and beards and glasses and robes roll into my eyes and ears in great, kinetic swells, stirring me with movement and life. I see it and I sense it and I'm awake again, outside myself again, alive again, beyond the reef and into the seething water beyond that's full of both tempest and grace. And the old albino shudders beside me, all white polyester and aged skin, dying and living simultaneously, reminding me that we're all doing the same, and that it's beautiful.