“The first time I walked this beach was in 1939. I’ve been coming back every year since, several times a year.” You pause a little after that statement. “And today is my last walk here.” You stare at the waves, adding quietly, “you know, I could start crying right now.”
Surprised during my reveries, I prop myself up on an elbow. Your little Yorkshire terrier happily runs to me, leaving tiny paw prints all over the dark blue blanket I am lying on. I pet him while I squint my eyes to look at you. Your thinning grey hair, probably carefully combed over the top of your head this morning, is performing a wild dance as the wind blows through it. Your shoulders, warmly packed in a fleece sweater, hinge forward, as if wanting to help you express all the sadness you feel.
“Why is today your last walk on the beach?” I wonder.
“I just sold our house up here. I’m moving back home, permanently. You know, I’ve been so busy getting the house ready for the sale that I never took the time to say goodbye to the beach.”
You turn around, gesturing toward the vastness of the sand and the ocean. I follow your gaze, wondering if you have been talking to the waves during your walk, just like I have. We share a moment of silence. You, me and the waves. Even the seagulls seem to stop their squeaking for a while.
“Where’s home?” I ask after a few minutes.
“In Maryland, close to D.C.,” you say.
“Oh, that’s where I live too,” I reply. “That’s not too far away. Surely you can come back here? You could stay at a hotel. There’s plenty of them. That’s what I am doing now.”
You are silent while you seem to ponder that option.
“What do you do in Maryland?” you finally ask.
“Nothing,” I reply, forcing a smile. “That’s why I’m here. To figure out what I want to do with my life. I followed my husband to the US five years ago and became a stay-at-home-mom, because I didn’t have a work permit. Now I have a green card and I want more.”
“So you have kids?” you ask.
“Yes, two of them. They like the fact that I’m home. It’s easy for everyone. But I don’t enjoy it. On the other hand, I’m not sure if I’m ready to give up my freedom …”
“Do you have a degree?” you ask. You sound genuinely interested. That touches me.
“I do, in economics.”
“Maybe you could teach,” you say. “My daughter teaches English in high school. She likes it.” You seem so proud of your suggestion that I don’t want to tell you I no longer like economics. There’s no way I can enlighten students on the matter given my own lack of interest. I just nod and smile. And quickly bring the conversation back to you.
“You know, you might even be happier staying at a hotel when you come back here,” I say. “You won’t need to deal with the hassle of the upkeep of your house. No more worries when storms pass through the area. You can just come here, walk the beach and enjoy the moment…”
You ponder my words again. A hint of a smile lines your face as you look at the old wooden pier. I wonder if the structure already existed when you took your very first walk on this beach.
“You know,” you say, “maybe I will do that.”
On those words, you turn on your heels.
“Ready to go?” you ask your little dog, who brought so much sand to my blanket that it now looks two tones lighter. The Yorkshire cocks his head, looks at me one last time before running back to you. And off you go, the two of you. No goodbye, just like there was no hello.
Your step looks light, despite your heavy rubber boots. Your shoulders are rolled back. The hair on the top of your head is still frantically moving in all directions. But your head seems to reach higher. Somehow, you look as if you’ve grown over the past minutes. I didn’t know old men could still grow.
As I watch you and your dog walk away from me, I think back upon your teaching suggestion and smile. Of course I will never teach economics. No way. That thought is just plain silly. Me, teaching.
Then again, I think as I stare into the grey, crashing waves, what about teaching languages? Or teaching illiterate people how to read? Maybe in small groups? A few hours a day? That doesn’t sound too bad. I would perhaps enjoy that. I’d probably enjoy it very much. In fact, your teaching idea is not bad at all. The more I think it over, the more brilliant if sounds …
I want to run after you and tell you what you’ve just helped me discover.
But your silhouette had receded. You have become a small dot on the horizon and your little dog has disappeared into the vastness of the sand.
I turn to face the waves again.
“You know,” I whisper to them, “maybe I will do that.”
I get up and smile. As I walk off in the opposite direction you went, I feel my hair move wildly on top of my head. I square my shoulders and straighten my back. My footstep feels light.
Thank you, dear old stranger, for this chance encounter. You will never know how much it meant to me.
I hope you will return to walk on the beach.
Hélène Toye is the author of ‘Go West, A Belgian Attempts American Motherhood’, available on : http://amzn.com/1493592548