Sunsets and the human spirit

Note:  I wrote this for my wife on a special anniversary. She liked this piece and asked me to please put it on my blog:

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We are standing on the dock at Mallory Square in Key West, Florida. It’s late afternoon, and we’ve come to watch Key West’s premier free attraction – the sunset. Over the years, we’ve visited Key West many times, but this time we are in town to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. It’s late January, and a rare cold front has descended upon the Florida Keys. With temperatures dipping into the high 30s (almost an emergency situation in that locale), we are forced to leave the shorts and flip flops in our suitcase and don long pants, sweatshirts, and even gloves for our trek up to Mallory Square.

“This isn’t the Key West trip I was planning on,” I growl as we trudge past the phalanx of gift shops, bars and restaurants that flank Duval Street. “We should have stayed home and come down another time.”

My wife ignores me, more concerned with the business at hand. “I don’t think it’s going to be a good sunset,” she says, “I’m really disappointed.” I look west, up the street, and see that the sky is overcast.

“Maybe we should just bag it then,” I say.  I notice a café across the street where the patrons are sitting at outdoor tables under heat lamps. They’re eating, drinking, and having fun, and they are obviously much warmer than we are.

“No,” she says, “it may clear off. We still have half an hour until sunset.”

The wind kicks up as we pass the old Customs House, and by the time we make our way through the throng of tourists and street performers to the seawall, my face is frozen and I feel more like we’re on a hike in the Maine woods than on a short vacation in the United States’ southernmost city.

In spite of the cold, the dock is crowded, and people of all ages are milling about trying to stay warm, some with drinks in one hand and digital cameras in the other.  Two teenagers sit on the dock making out, oblivious to the crowd gathering behind them. A middle aged couple to our right speaks in French, and although I have little understanding of the language, their conversation appears to have something to do with the sunset, or lack thereof. We talk to another couple who are down for the week from New Jersey, and the conversation alternates between dismay over the cold snap, and whether or not the sun will break through the cloud bank long enough to allow us all a picture.

“We saw the green flash once,” a lady says to me. She refers to the almost mythical flash of green light that supposedly occurs at the point in time just before the sun dips below the horizon. “But that was up in Naples,” she says, “I’ve never seen it down here.”

My wife seems concerned as sunset approaches, but determined to get a picture if the clouds cooperate. “I think it may be breaking away,” she finally says. I focus on the western sky and notice that a hole appears to be forming in the clouds.

“Yes, you’re right,” says the lady who saw the green flash in Naples. “I think it’s going to break through after all.”

Me, I’m still not certain. The two teenagers stop what they’ve been doing and point digital cameras at arm’s length toward the western sky. The French couple speaks in a low but excited tone in the language I don’t understand. Everyone watches the sky for the big break. Then it comes.

The clouds part swiftly and the first unfiltered rays of the late day sun streak across the water. Muted gasps of delight erupt among the mixed crowd of sunset revelers on the Mallory Square dock. A few seconds after that, the sun breaks through and it hangs suspended for a moment, like a rich orange globe sizzling in the South Florida winter sky. Cameras click as everyone takes advantage of the moment. A young couple asks my wife to take a picture of them with the sunset in the background. When she’s through they ask if we want our picture taken too, and they take a picture of us there. After they take the shot and we’ve thanked them, and they have gone away, my wife reviews their work in the tiny camera view finder.

“Perfect,” she says to me. I squint at the tiny image and see the two of us, huddled together in our sweatshirts, trying to stay warm, with the setting sun hanging just above my left shoulder. I think of how the both of us are now preserved in perfect jpeg format for time eternal. For a moment I forget the cold and I think of the past 30 years that we’d spent together. I think of how many sunset pictures we have at home in our photo albums. I recall pictures she’d waited patiently to take on the Pacific Coast Highway, and in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. I remember of the incredible shot she’d taken on Florida’s Anna Maria Island when an old biplane passed in front of the setting sun and she’d captured it perfectly.

“Don’t you think we have enough sunset pictures,” I ask.

“No,” she says. “Not enough.”

“Then you’ll never get tired of taking them?”

She laughs at me, “of course not, they’re all different.”

Then she says, “come on, let’s go somewhere and warm up.”

We walk back toward the old Customs House and stop for a moment on the corner to listen to a street singer. He strums a guitar with frozen fingers and sings a Jimmy Buffett song off key.  He looks colder than I am, so I put two dollars in his tip jar and we head out for Captain Tony’s.

Later that night, on our way back downtown, I spot the French couple. They are drinking white wine at the café with the heat lamps. They don’t recognize me, but I know who they are. I think about Mallory Square and how we’d gathered to watch an event that has occurred every night for the past few billion years. I see us all there, the French couple, the New Jersey couple, the make out kids and the green flash lady. All of us pulled in for that moment. Together we’d experienced the end of a day that will never occur again. It’s unique.

She sits on the edge of the bed and asks me what I want to do tomorrow — our last day in Key West. I tell her I don’t care as long as we go to Mallory Square for sunset.

3 thoughts on “Sunsets and the human spirit

  1. Disappointment, cold discomfort, hanging in there with the hope of the light breaking through.Then the joy of experiencing the return of what was known, what was experienced before. The comfort of it. The reaffirmation of the light. Kind of what a marriage is all about. Indeed what life is all about.

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