Wonderful Tonight

Wonderful Tonight

“I think that people are the greatest fun…”
—Bryan MacLean, Alone Again Or

I love people. Really, I do. But sometimes I don’t like them very much.

It was the last night of family vacation. We weren’t actually going home in the morning—Philip and I were heading to a neighboring island the next day for a little birthday weekend add-on. But it was the end of something: the culmination of a week of pure pleasure in a lovely house by the sea with our Ivester-variety dearest ones, and I was a little sad. The tall windows were dark; the swimming pool was a sheet of glass between the main house and the pavilioned wing in which Philip’s and my room was located; the outdoor hibachi grill, in almost constant use for a family of 13, had been cleaned for the last time and the colorful beach towels had all disappeared from the iron courtyard railings. Everyone else had already gone to bed—but I needed a bit more, an extra measure of savoring, as I always do after my very happiest times. Philip knew this, sensed it instinctively, I think, as I never seem to handle endings very well without some practical acknowledgement of my joy—even a few moments’ quiet conversation.

We sat out under the pavilion together, he and I, watching the great silver barque of a moon travel a swath of starry sky and listening to the incessant whisper and retreat of the waves on the shore below. Our house was on something of a point, near the mouth of an inlet on one hand, with a great stretch of beach on the other, so that whether the tide was in or out it always had something of the quality of a fortress. The tide was out tonight, but the beach was deserted.

“What was your favorite thing?” I asked Philip sleepily. “Tell me your best moment.”

He was silent for a moment before obliging. Then he returned the favor of the question he knew I’d been wanting him to ask me all along.

“What about you? What was your favorite thing?”

I thought about the precious week that had flown: the happy astonishment of all being together again; the glorious indolence and the thoughtful conversations and the sudden hilarity. I thought about the way the first few days of vacation always seem endless—and how suddenly you reach a point about the middle of the third day when things gather momentum, like a roller coaster cresting the big dive, and then in a blink it’s all over. I thought about watching the sun rise, and about the cache of sand dollars Philip had brought back to me from a shelling foray, and about sailing on the ocean.

I leaned back into the down cushions of my chair and dangled my leg over the side. It was an important question, and not one to be settled lightly.

“I think,” I said at length, “my favorite thing was—,”

But just at that moment, a car careened with a screech into the quiet little beach access below and what sounded like a small army of people erupted. The raucous noise of voices fell like a blow upon the gentle silence of the night, and the music of the waves and the wind in the palms was engulfed by music of another sort entirely. Thuddings and wailings crashed into my moonlit enchantment and I was properly horrified.

I sat straight up in my chair, a ramrod of indignation.

“It’s—it’s—so ugly!” I spluttered. “How could anyone—,”

I glanced over at Philip for some validation of my ire. But he was grinning, and his shoulders shook lightly with silent laughter.

“Aw, they’re just having fun,” he drawled. “It’s probably their last night, too.”

Besides, you don’t exactly own the beach, he might have added. (It’s probably a good thing that he didn’t.) But I was irked, ruffled. I listened to the retreating noise of music and voices as the party ambled off down the shore with a decidedly uncharitable smirk. It was as if two celestial bodies had swirled a little too near in their orbits, missing a collision, but unsettling the atmosphere nonetheless.

“They’d probably think your Astrud Gilberto was noise,” Philip chuckled.

A few nights later we were sitting in the lobby of my favorite hotel on earth (situated in the heart of my favorite island on earth), savoring yet another last. Tomorrow, vacation would be over in very deed. But tonight, I was all here, fully present to the beloved surroundings, the familiar noises and scents (sun-warmed wood, mostly, and furniture polish), the friendly faces that make the place so dear to us. Our favorite pianist was at the helm, cranking out jazz standards and Ray Charles favorites with rollicking abandon, and Mark, the bartender, was playfully shaking martinis to the rhythm of the music. Outside, one of those showy summer thunderstorms was blustering itself out, battering the old, wavy-paned windows with spurts of rain, making the sense of warmth and belonging within all the more keen. We sat in a quiet corner with our book, reading aloud between slices of pizza, just being happy.

After dinner, and after our pianist friend had retired to the dining room for the night, we sauntered out onto the veranda, still dripping from its late dousing, as were the great moss-hung oaks and the murmuring palms all around. All the world was dripping, in fact, fresh from its bath, and overhead, a giddy breeze was tearing the clouds from the face of the stars. There was a coolness and a newness to everything, as if July had suddenly given place to September. In the west, beyond the river, a radiant mantle of saffron kissed the earth beneath a heavy bank of thunderclouds. It was so beautiful—so mine—I could hardly bear it.

From down on the wharf, we could catch the strains of a band: electric bass, drums, guitar, vocals unnaturally warbly at this distance. But rather than marring the sacred quiet of the night, as I might have imagined in a less-exalted mood, it only enhanced it, lending a human poignancy to the scene that was almost as lovely as the cold beauty of that moon beginning to appear and that oriental breath of wind on my face, spiced with blossom and salt. This night be will over, the music seemed to urge. This summer will be over and this season in your lives will be over one day, too.

I grabbed Philip’s hand. His smile answered the question in mine, and together we hastened towards the wharf under the sodden trees. The music grew louder as we approached, along with the sound of voices—staunch souls who had braved the weather for the treat of some good, old-fashioned rock and roll. We settled at a high table near the periphery, and Philip ordered us a couple of ales. The crowd was small, mostly locals, we assumed, and the band was a familiar one from summers past. There was even a guy in the audience who could sing just like Johnny Cash (he had promised to work on “Jackson” for us once upon a time back in May) and who would join the band for a cover with very little urging. I looked around with supreme content—and with what I’m sure must have been a supremely goofy smile on my face. It was just all so right.

Now the band was playing “Fire on the Mountain” and people were dancing and clogging about—families and couples and grandmothers with young grandsons—and the whole thing filled me with such unaccountable joy I felt dizzy.

I leaned close to Philip and whispered, “I think people are just beautiful.”

“You do?” He grinned at me in the half-light.

“I do,” I avowed. “And it’s not the ale—I haven’t even tasted it yet.”

How could I put into words what I was feeling, what had suddenly possessed me with such fierce gladness? I hardly understood it myself. Now our Johnny Cash friend was singing “Folsom Prison Blues” and I had tears in my eyes, of all things; now someone requested Drivin’ and Cryin’, and I found myself singing along with a bunch of strangers to a song I had never heard before. (Yes, really.) And as the evening wore on, the thought gradually materialized that it was the wonder of the happiness human beings are capable of that had my heart in such a thrall. Happiness that had such humble requirements; happiness of such simple stuff as the wooden planks of an old wharf with the tide lapping about the pilings, and a serendipitous break in the weather, and a cover artist that could actually hit that mean low E in Folsom Prison. It filled me with wonder that one group of people could make music for another group of people and thus open a room of joy in a generally rushed and impersonal world—a place where people who didn’t even know each other could sample a shared good. It was like a great draught from a communal cup; like celestial bodies swirling near in their individual orbits, mingling some of the light and color and song of their atmospheres in passing. I felt suddenly proud—proud that these strangers and fellow humans were capable of such honest fun.

As the night dwindled down, I began to fear that each number would be the last. At length, a couple at a nearby table shouted out, “Clapton!” during a pause between sets, and something told me that this would be the finale. The climax of a tiny human drama played out on a dot on the map at a weathered wharf under the stars. Sure enough, at the very opening bars of “Wonderful Tonight,” every single person rose to their feet, taking some other loved person by the hand. The wharf became a dance floor as couples swayed to and fro in one another’s arms, a silent celebration of life’s sweetest mystery. I smiled radiantly up at Philip through my happy tears. Perhaps, after all, this enormous-hearted husband of mine is wearing off on me.

When the band was done, we all ambled off the wharf together. I kept stealing shy smiles at our fellow patrons (I’m sure they thought I was a bit odd) and waved goodbye to Johnny Cash. These people weren’t strangers any more—not to me. We had been through something tremendous together—at least, that’s how I saw it. We had tasted happiness as a body, and that can never be an unremarkable thing.

“God bless them,” I prayed silently, with a great flush of blinding love that nearly took my breath. “God bless them all.”

And then I thought of the hapless souls on the beach a few nights previous, with their boom box and noisy voices, as utterly unconscious of my ire as these people on the wharf were of my sudden and unlooked-for love.

I twisted my mouth in a wry smile.

“Oh, God,” I whispered, “bless them—bless them, too.”