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Image by Justin Aikin
Caught in the febrile spell of a pathogen, the writer reminisces about the wonderful day spent with Willow on the beach

When luck provides, I find myself imbued with the gifts of nature found at the meeting of realms, in the sultriest of seasons, on an island named Fire. The ocean breeze filters past beach pines enchanting the narrow strip of sand with negative ions and positive energy. The salt air sings the song of the sea, serenading Persephone in bloom. The sky is bright, and the vibe cool in the late July heat. Here, the planet feels at peace.


Free of cars and chaos there exist only dunes, trees and wood planked boardwalks crisscrossing through a collection of charming cottages harboring souls searching to ameliorate themselves from mainland conformity. This is a place of mending and magic, a special spot of terra firma, founded on tolerance and built by love.


I am only a guest in this mystical place, a visitor partaking of its ambrosial delights for as long as possible, which is never long enough, but I’ll take what I can get. The offerings here are exquisite but ephemeral and I am not fool enough to think otherwise. I have come to accept the fleeting nature of physical experience, but the essence of a moment endures, preserved in the unexplained periphery. Nothing lasts forever, they say – but I wonder. I am not young or naïve, yet my heart allows its self-capture when here, always hoping to be swept away in the evanescence.


With every visit comes a gift, often in unpredictable form. But on this day the reward is expected and anticipated with delight. Today I am to spend the afternoon with someone wonderful. Willow.


As I approach my destination, three houses from the beach on the right, heading oceanward, my heart is already full. The temperature is perfect, my skin mostly bare and I carry a pace of easy intention. When I arrive, my date is there waiting. She lies quietly splayed in her spot of shade, keeping cool as she simmers with hope under the afternoon blaze, waiting patiently for her day in the sun. She’s perched on the second-floor deck; blonde paws hanging over, facing the boardwalk so as not to miss a moment. Any opportunity for an escort to the bliss beyond the garden gate will not escape her, for she was born for this. Embedded beneath her golden coat are the instincts that animate her spirit of freedom and dedication to a cause. Deep within is the DNA that makes her the perfect partner for the afternoon ahead - to run, dig, swim and retrieve!


She knows only how to live her truth; married to the moment, loyal to her motives, impresario to impulse and completely committed to her human. And for the next stretch of afternoon sun, that’s me! She springs from her prone position, tail waving enthusiastically, smiling in all the ways she knows how. Her head rears up as visceral glottal groans announce her glee. She is too elegant and well-mannered to bark but her behavior speaks volumes. A few paw stomps accompany excited exhales, punctuating her approval, imprimatur of what my arrival portends - the beach awaits!


Willow is an extraordinary beast of purebred beauty and winsome charm. She is slightly on the small side of standard with a soft yellow coat kept just right, strong legs, sturdy back and handsome head. Her paws seem somehow oversized and consort with her amiable nature and irresistibly adorable furry face to present a puppy-like effect even at middle age. She can win you over with a single head tilt. She possesses a generous amount of aesthetic appeal, but it is her personality that is most compelling. There are no traces of anger or aggression in her quiddity and no living soul she would hesitate to make friends with. Her unwillingness to approach the moment at hand with anything but optimism and wonder is admirable if not enviable. She is the essence of innocence with only the purest of intentions: to love and be loved.


She scurries down the ramp that allows her access to meet me. Her leash is slung over the wooden handrail at the bottom, deposited there by her daddies, for me to fetch. They embarked a short time ago, off on their own island adventure together. The joy and gratitude I feel when she is left in my care cannot ever be adequately expressed. I remove the partition that separates us, a very lightly fortified section of framed chicken wire. This is merely a representation of a command to respect a boundary. She could easily push past this barrier, if need be, yet she obeys it without fail – evidence of her mild and dutiful nature.


Unrestrained, we embrace like best friends reunited after an extended separation. It’s only been days since we’ve seen each other last, but who knows how dogs understand time. Nothing matters now but the present anyway. She sniffs, snorts, kisses and dances enraptured circles of celebration. I do the same. We’re not that different, really. It occurs to me I might never be greeted by anyone else in this lifetime with such pure abandonment, a notion that is perhaps as melancholic as it is marvelous. But taking Willow’s lead, I stay in the positive. I scoop up the leash and together we head toward the gate.


There is something remarkable about this creature that grounds my soul and sets my spirit free. We have an uncommon bond. We are at peace in each other’s presence. I make no audible demands on her nor she on me. We quietly interpret one another. There is no explanation of our easy union, only the awareness of a synchronous harmony spun by the magic of this place on a mystical thread, weaving us together by invisible force, indefinable yet absolutely understood. I am not her owner or her master. When we are together, we belong to no one and all we have is each other. Whether for an hour or a day, we exist fiercely in the moment without regard for our frolic’s inevitable end. When we are together, time falls away and the whole world seems on our side. I do not remember our relationship growing into its current state over a period of time. It simply burst into being, forged from a single outing on an afternoon just like this one, years ago, as if it had been there all along waiting patiently for us to discover it.


The short walk to the beach is full of play. Willow follows her nose; hurrying ahead a few excited steps before quickly returning to my side with nuzzle nudges and sweet-hearted growls, ensuring I haven’t backed out of the bargain. The leash stays in my hand, unattached. I pet and praise her. My steady advance eases her mind. After a few repetitions of this pattern, we arrive at the boardwalk’s end. We inhale the charged air, exhilarated. Fidelity to feeling has paid off.


All that separates us from the expanse of enchantment below is a long set of stairs. Momentarily mesmerized by brilliance I take in the environment with giddy fascination, swiftly seduced by sand and sea. Offshore a pod of dolphins decorates the waterscape, amusing themselves, so secure with their place in the world. I wonder what it feels like to be them. I wonder what happens in the deep unknown.


Patiently standing at attention, Willow looks at me longingly to fulfill the next part of our unspoken contract. The ball. A retriever by breed, she lives to answer the call that ignites her dharma, and who am I to deny her that? I provide the object of interest that’s been bundled up with the leash in my hand, a fact she’s been wise to all along. All part of the fun. Standing at the precipice, I raise my arm quickly overhead, all the cue Willow needs to bound down the stairs, releasing herself into the wild.


Witnessing Willow in action, awakened to her purpose, I am gifted a lesson in being. Clarified of personal distortion and distanced from the clatter of a noisy mind, a pathway to bliss is unveiled – The Transparent to the Transcendental. Entangled by distractions, humans have trouble accessing this portal to purity. But watching a dog at play can illuminate the way. Chase, catch, chew, roll, dig - repeat. Willow, unfurling every fiber of her being, enthralled with her ball on the beach, melding with the moment on a molecular level is a master class in fulfillment. It is the presence of being rather than the pursuit of achieving that enlightens.


I’m down the stairs and halfway to the water now, hot sand soothing bare feet, salt air infusing every cell. Willow meets me, proud and triumphant, presenting her ball unabashedly. She teases my hand but does not relinquish her prize, instead prancing blithely into the lapping Atlantic that is the great alembic. She splays herself in the same way I found her on the deck, belly down, facing inland, keeping an eye on things. The wax and wane of ocean water cools her undercarriage, occasionally cresting over her body from behind, caressing her in canine aqua massage. I meet her in the wash zone. A piece of driftwood wanders in on a wave. Willow flirts with it briefly, then returns her affections to the ball. It captures my curiosity momentarily. Where has it been? Where will it go next? What will be its end? Everything has a story…


I’m now lying flat in the sand with my equal, half wet and entirely happy, enamored of her beauty and entertained by her antics. The leash and my swimsuit were abandoned on the beach at first chance, rendered unnecessary. This is one of the few places I know of where both dogs and people can run naked and off-leash.


Together we roll and flop further into the mercurial motion of the water world. We are drawn into the surf like some misplaced marine species anxious to return to the mother realm. We are beguiled by the ocean’s influence. It’s as if we’ve been biding time, serving some silly solid-ground obligation, waiting for the chance to absorb back into the sea where we belong. We feel at home in the earth’s end zone. Possessed by predisposition. After a bit of ball banter in the shallows it’s time to go deeper. Willow concedes the ball into my care. She knows where the next throw will take us – into the blue.


Now we’re racing, away from land, toward the depths of our desire, the boundlessness and buoyancy of open water disguised as a ball. I dive under, working my way through walls of water, enduring the onslaught, engaging strategy and physical force to get beyond the breakers. Willow follows. Managing the waves can be intimidating to many, especially if you’re a dog, but she overcomes the challenge with rare finesse, even for a water breed. She is keenly aware of the oceans power and possesses exceptional aptitude for deciphering its language. She is highly in tune, approaching the situation with measured amounts of courage and calculation. Deploying a combination of bravery and brainpower, she maneuvers through the crashing surf, examining the elements, looking for opportunities and seizing moments, advancing herself toward her goals - the ball, me, and the immunity of the sea. Out here we are untethered, beyond burden, exonerated, exhilarated and exalted. Out here, together, we are free.


Now, free of the break, we swim as the world dissolves. We sway with the swells, aboard nature’s thrill ride, surrendered to the sea, seduced by its majesty. The ball is securely muzzled. Willow will ensure its safe return. We stroke, pant and paddle, soon falling into a sort of aqua marine ballet that blossomed organically the first time we took to the water together without premeditation or preparation. We swim elegant circles around each other, paying homage to a cosmic choreography previously slumbering in our systems. We will stay in our wonderful water dance for as long as possible (I’m convinced I would tire and need to swim to shore before she), and it is here, locked in our primordial pas de deux that I peer past sea-soaked fur, into the eyes of innocence and see the face of God.


We are satiated in our swirl, the sea floor far beneath us, blue sky above and water all around. Our activity requires effort but is not work. Only when the pull of our mortality interlopes our fun do we consider a return to dry land. We are still subject to the circumspect nature of our physical existence. But if our bodies would allow, I suspect we might stay in the ocean’s embrace indefinitely. If only the world could stand still in the moments of our choosing.


We push the limits. Perhaps thirty minutes have passed, hard to say. Our spirits remain light, but our limbs are growing heavy. Willow's eyes still radiate bliss. She snorts softly as her mouth mauls the ball, the only other companion on our journey, that’s paying the price for its passage. I flank her and we swim in synchronized harmony. I occasionally caress her submerged belly with affection. Everything feels different in the ocean. I send out an appeal; just a few more minutes, just a bit longer in this liquid wilderness, please. Eventually I acquiesce. I nudge Willow’s shoulder with mine, then dive under, breaking through the surface shoreward to swim in. With loyal determination she follows, happily resolute.


She manages the return nearly as expertly as her entrance into the waves. But now, facing the beach and without the benefit of visual assessment of the swells behind her, the ride in is a bit more precarious, so I stay close. We soak up the final moments of our ocean expedition, thrilled, enhanced by the experience. We are close to shore now, back in the breakers, bobbing like buoys. I provide Willow a healthy boost from under her chest, a final burst of momentum to propel her above the swell that will deliver us back to dry land. Sometimes we take a pounding but today our timing is spot on.


We splash onto the beach like penguins at play, shake ourselves out and celebrate our success. We embrace the sand with mixed emotions, satisfied by a safe return but already pining for more… out there. Chewing her ball, Willow plops down on the beach to rest, making no overtures toward home. We will remain among the elements, entrenched in our Eden, chasing, digging, swimming and dancing as long as possible, until the world ended if we could. Paradise found. But the world keeps spinning, bringing our day to an end. The sun sets the sky on fire with its descent. I’m sure I’ve never seen such intense color before. I get a glimpse into Van Gogh’s mind as the heavens are ablaze with saturated strokes of surrealism that echo off the water in bewildering ways. Every second is a priceless original one and only.


I gather the leash and begin the slow march toward the wooden stairs. Willow lingers on the beach pretending not to notice, hope still prevailing over practicality. Begrudgingly I climb, knowing she’ll stay behind in case I change my mind, as if I might suddenly realize this whole “going home” thing is a terrible idea, a colossal mistake, an absurd miscalculation that should immediately be reconsidered. But I persist. I stand alone at the boardwalk’s edge, waiting. Willow holds firm on the beach with her ball. She looks at me with an expression of incredulity, a confounded face of wistfulness, nearly impossible to resist. Why would you? How could you? Don’t you realize…? She says with longing eyes and tilted head. I know she’s right, but I succumb to less poetic demands. I need not beckon her with my voice. I simply remain where I am until she lovingly relents, slowly sauntering up the stairs to my side. We return to the house, naked and free, sun kissed, salted and simmering in the delights of the day. At the depths of our souls, we know it will never get better than this. Ever.


It’s winter now. The Island seems impossibly far away. Willow’s magic lingers in my mind. Memories of our summer together wash over me like the waves of months ago. How I miss their mending. There’s a pandemic raging now. The city is under siege, dying in so many ways. I’m infected, alone, quarantined. Everything I love, all the good and healing forces I’ve relied on are out of grasp. I’m gasping for breath, full of uncertainty and fear, daydreaming of the dog days long swept out to sea. I am driftwood. Lost in a storm, not knowing where I might land. Perhaps It’s my time to sail away, to become reabsorbed, recycled into the circulatory system of the planet. Maybe I’ll come back as the sea creature I sometimes felt I should have been anyway. Perhaps I’ll soon swim with my pod. Or maybe I’ll survive to play more summers away with Willow, off the shore of our enchanted Island. I cannot see the future. But when I close my eyes tonight under the all-consuming, febrile spell of my pathogen’s grip, I will see the furry face of God and drift off with a smile.

Image by Lauren Mancke

Born and raised in Lincoln Nebraska, the product of a college professor and music school teacher, Mr. DeGrazia received a loving, liberal and creative start. Art, music and dance were abundant but it was a career in gymnastics that payed his way through college. After graduating from the University of New Mexico with a bachelor’s degree he had no idea what he wanted to do next. So, he went into show business. Spanning a decade from Los Angeles to New York City, his theater credits began with Michael Jackson and ended with the Chippendales, performing in several shows in between, most notably Miss Saigon. For the last 25 years, from bartending to Broadway, he’s thrived on the thrill of New York. His current profession is massage therapy. His passion is creative writing. The islands of Manhattan and Fire Island serve to inspire fascination with the great questions of life. Pondering much, Sandor has come to believe it is within life’s mysteries where magic dwells.

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