The first time Judith saw him, it was early fall. The beach was flat mostly with only a gentle slope rising up to meet the dunes. She was barefoot. The water was still warm. Not for long, as the Gulf Stream had already begun its yearly abandonment. She walked past a few fishermen, out-of-towners she guessed because they wore shoes. They cast their lines in a foot of water. She had to be careful not to become entangled as she went.
One fisherman wore a tee shirt with a slogan that read, “Gone Off the Deep End.” He spit brown juice into a can. Fishermen as a rule kept to themselves, didn’t say hello, didn’t want to be bothered, she was learning. It was just them and the sea and the fish. Judith could respect that need to be alone with nature. That’s why she moved to the Outer Banks—to get away. No more worrying about men and finding the right one and if she would ever marry and have a family. She had finally decided she was going to learn to live by herself and make a good life. Which is why it struck her as odd the first time she saw him—the guy in the orange windbreaker. Were her vows that flimsy? She caught herself wondering what if …
He was staring into the water as if he had lost his soul twin. Maybe he was trying to resolve something. If he noticed her—her wispy hair that required regular lowlights or people said, “God, you’re blonde!” and the way she slouched trying to blend into sand—he made no acknowledgement except a lifting of the head, a swift registering and then back to the tide pool. Still, he seemed friendlier than the fishermen.
Here he is, she thought, sneaking a peak as she walked past. His hair was curly and dark like waves and his glasses reflected water. Keep walking.
The next time she saw him, it was after work. She was trying to accomplish her daily goal of back and forth from the Sunny Dunes Hotel, when she looked down the beach and there he was. She could see the orange dot of jacket, the black tuft of hair, the tint of glasses. She trudged to a certain point. It was a public beach, a wide beach. Why stop–just because that guy is standing there staring at kelp, seaweed, and the tan tops of his feet? Before dating Edward last year, she had confidence in her ability not to attract someone. Now every male seemed dangerous, especially the older, wavy haired ones that liked water. What if this guy came over and talked to her? What if he seemed nice? She refused to enter into any agreements or expectations. She walked past him and made it to the hotel. On the way back, she took Beach Road.
The next day he was in the same place staring and she sped up. She walked past in a flurry of her own narrow footsteps. A few yards up, she slowed and began to notice the rectangular pads of her long narrow footprints with the five jagged points. She scooped up a handful of the damp sand. If he could study pools, she could study granules. Dark and round, or white, quartz-like and jagged, she let the wet clump loll on her palm.
Sand here was rougher than at Virginia Beach where her parents vacationed in an oceanfront house with four bathrooms. They still lived in Richmond but liked that their daughter was “a pioneer” to the Outer Banks. They were already talking about a Thanksgiving visit, wanting to see her one-bathroom place, with the rutted driveway. “Let me get back to you about that,” Judith had said when it was mentioned over the phone.
The other thing she left in Richmond was Edward. She used to think it was possible he was “husband material.” When she kissed him, the insides of her wrists became warm and her mouth naturally opened. Edward led a club called Rapid Riders all over the U.S. and Canada in search of the perfect ride, so he was not around all that much. He did keep in touch by calling sporadically from West Virginia, Colorado, and British Columbia. She might have spent more time with him if only she had not hurt her back last spring when she accompanied him on a Colorado River trip. Now she had to walk a lot to keep her back from hurting, and she was not supposed to sit for long periods of time. Her chiropractor back in Richmond said so.
One of the last times she saw Edward she made dinner and brought it over to his leaky, brick bungalow. They were sitting at his round wooden table, about to taste her homemade turkey tetrazzini—she’d brought it in a casserole dish—when his cordless phone rang. He took the call from his ex-wife in the other room and Judith just got up and left without saying goodbye or anything.
When she tried to break up with him the next night over the phone, he made it difficult. “No, we can’t be just friends,” he insisted.
“I’ve always wanted a brother. Maybe you could be like my brother.” She said, the back of her knees propped up on a pillow and a heating pad beneath her back.
“Nope.” He drove over and spent the night, placing another pillow under the small of her back. The next morning, he kissed her lower spine before he left. “Get better,” he said.
All she had to do was see him and she got sucked back into the vortex of dying her hair again. She maxed out her credit card for 15 streaks. For all she knew, it could be ten years from now, and she would still be trying to look good for him. He did nothing to his short kinky mess, besides shower and shake it dry. It frizzed on top from wearing a rubber skullcap on the rapids, and he had bald spot, but that didn’t stop him from meeting people.
He dated other kayakers and then he was free again. Judith couldn’t keep up with when she was supposed to call, not like when she was in college and the guys called her. She was looking for a new way to connect, one that did not involve prefacing conversations with “Is this a bad time?”
It was good practice, stopping just when it looked as if she might meet someone new on the beach. The guy in the orange jacket seemed to be walking about the same time everyday that Judith did.
Work was going well in her job as sales-assistant. Personal ad sales were up and there was a need for someone thoughtful and articulate to write the classifieds. Judith didn’t know what to make of her boss Cheree though. Cheree’s presence in the office seemed about as dependable as the wind. When Judith tried to talk to her about protecting clients from revealing too much, Cheree batted Judith’s shoulder and said, “Come take an aerobic-boxing class with me.”
“Can’t. My back.”
“It’s still hurting?” her boss said.
Another time, Cheree returned from one of her whirlwind trips down to Florida, up to Maine, over to Chicago and then back to the Outer Banks, promoting the new Web site and advertising what a great way it was to meet people, and she wanted to see the ads Judith was writing.
“No one’s going to respond to that.” She pointed to one that Judith had been extra careful about hiding the client’s identity. Judith needed her walks to get away from her boss’s voice saying, “People should reveal more to meet someone, not less.”
The guy with the orange jacket was still walking about the same time every day. Judith never knew when they might crash. It became a test. She had to stay close to the shoreline to avoid eye contact. She thought she might have to introduce herself he walked by so many times, but then the weather changed. The water darkened. The sand formed trenches. Judith climbed hills and trudged through ditches. If she weren’t careful she stepped into cold pools that suctioned around her feet. It got harder and harder to plod to the Sandy Dunes Hotel and back. She bought a windbreaker, a blue one because her gray sweatshirt no longer kept out the damp air. She wore suede Reebok walkers with fleece socks. She stopped seeing the guy with the orange jacket. It got too cold even for him, she supposed.
She liked noticing the changes. The abrupt cutaways in the sand, the white caps and the churning water, the new birds she had not seen before. They were black with elegant long necks, a tuft of white under their bills. They could bend their necks backwards, like a cat, to clean their feathers. They sat in the dark blue water just off shore and dove searching for fish. Judith bought a Peterson’s field guide and found a picture. The Common Loon, the guide said, passes through on its way down the coast. The loons would leave and it would just be Judith and the steadfast gulls the size of schnauzers throughout winter.
One day Cheree was in town and said, “Let’s have lunch.” They went to a diner on a pier.
“I want you to take on more responsibility,” Cheree said. “More hours. You don’t mind, do you?”
It was getting darker earlier and it didn’t feel safe walking alone on the beach at night. “I don’t mind,” Judith said.
One of her new responsibilities was training other phone sales reps. She guided them through how to place orders and coached them on how to write ads. She found herself saying, “Stay away from candlelit dinners and moonlit walks. Never use the word ‘need.’ The main thing is to make meeting sound fun, but not get too personal.”
One day Cheree was out of town and Judith’s day was slow. Sales seemed to halt after the holidays. People were in no hurry to gear up for Valentine’s Day, still a month a way. Judith’s parents were in Honolulu and had not called for a whole week. She had seen them for three days over Christmas, so that must have been enough for a while.
She decided to revisit the Pier Diner for lunch. She was finishing her last bite of fried trout sandwich, when she saw him, not recognizing him at first. He looked stiff in a navy suit with a high-collared gray shirt and maroon tie. He was wearing his reflective glasses though, and she recognized the wavy hair. He stood waiting to be seated, and that’s when she did an odd thing—she went over and talked to him.
“Hi,” she said. “Don’t I usually see you walking on the beach?”
“Yes … you’re?” His shirt collar was stiff.
“Judith. I haven’t been walking much lately. I get home so late from work and it’s so dark and cold out.”
He stretched his neck a little from the collar.
“Do you work around here?” she asked.
“Milepost 13 in an accounting office.” He focused on the wall festooned with a stuffed marlin.
“Well, that’s close to me. I work at Milepost 11, the Coastal News. I help with Internet ad sales.”
“Do you like it?” he asked.
“Most of the time … but I miss walking.”
“Yeah, walking takes a lot of time.” He looked at her, and the insides of her wrists warmed.
Then the waitress-hostess came over, handing him a laminated menu. “Table?”
He glanced at Judith, who had slung her briefcase over her shoulder. He held up one finger.
“Nice seeing you,” she said.
The next time was at a party. Cheree had asked Judith to attend on her behalf.
“You’re me,” she said. “Be sure to make lots of contacts.”
He was wearing a cable knit sweater. He leaned forward listening to people that Judith recognized from work, designers. At the newspaper office, ad salespeople were confined to dusty cubicles, but the designers sat in one huge sunny room with windows that overlooked the beach.
He stood with them on an open deck around a large kerosene heater. They shucked roasted oysters with small flat knives. Judith watched from the yard and the keg. When she glanced up, she caught him looking. “That’s her,” she imagined him saying.
Judith had a beer and filled her quota of handing out 30 cards, giving 20 of them to a 40 year old who said she could use all the help she could get, and so could her friends. Judith was back at the keg, when a designer came over.
“You know Gordon?” The designer indicated with her elbow who she was talking about as she refilled her cup. Him.
“I see him walking on the beach sometimes.”
“Nice guy,” the designer said. “He’s a friend of ours.” Judith supposed “ours” meant the designer and her date, a tall, tan person who shucked and threw shells like he was netting baskets.
“How do you know Gordon?” Judith asked.
“We take Tae Kwon Do together.”
“Is it hard?”
“It’s challenging, but I like kicking ass.” The designer added, “Hey, maybe we should all get together sometime.”
“I’d like that. I’d like to see a demonstration.” Judith pumped the keg and refilled both their cups.
Weeks passed, but she never saw Gordon and the designer never mentioned getting together again. Judith did not look for him on her walks. Instead, she thought of why she had liked Edward. It was easy to see why she got swept up. In Richmond, he had taken her to minor league baseball games, they drank tankers, and yelled at the ump. He made dinner for her, clams casino out of a can. He played songs on his guitar inserting Judith for Michelle. “Judith, ma belle,” he sang. He gave back massages. He mentioned wanting to fall in love again some day. Sometimes Judith would call at night and he would be crying. She would ask, “What’s wrong?” and he’d answer, “You know.”
A month after she moved to Kill Devil Hills, his voice was on her phone saying, “I’d like to see you.”
“Bring the kayak,” Judith said, and she cleaned and cleaned.
A few days later, he called and said, “Sorry, but something has come up.”
The next time Judith walked on the beach, it was a windy day in March. Judith was back to wearing just a sweatshirt with her jeans. She had reached the Sunny Dunes Hotel when she ran into Gordon.
He walked up to her, hands in his pockets, chin tucked. “I wondered where you have been.”
“Busy. In February, people want romance, and in March, they just want to hook up.”
“How about I take you to dinner? Would you like to go to dinner sometime?”
“I guess that would be nice,” she said, but it was still cold out. The water on her pants leg was chilly.
“How about tomorrow?”
It was last minute, but she didn’t have plans. She told him where to find her house, “the 8th milepost.”
The next night was cold and clear. Gordon took her to Murphy’s By the Sea for Irish stew and music. The first beer, he glanced up from his mug as if checking to see if she was still there. On his second, he leaned back and tilted his head, studying her.
“I really like this place,” he yelled. “Don’t you?” He tapped the table in time with the fiddle.
Judith was the one who suggested they leave during the second set.
“Hey,” he said, as they paused outside the restaurant. His smile was sloppy.
Three beers must work faster than they used to because she asked, “You want to go for a walk on the beach?”
“’kay.” He swayed a little as he reached into his pocket for keys.
“Let me drive.”
“’kay,” he said.
Judith took them to the nearest access road and got out first. “You coming?” She slammed the door and led the way past the empty lot. They climbed through trenches until they found a flat stretch of beach. Judith got too close and water flew up to her feet.
“I’m cold,” Gordon said, behind her.
“You want to turn back?”
He nodded, shivering, and zipped up his jacket. “Race ya.”
He wove too much, so she made it to the car first. Inside the red Corolla was clean and practical. She put the key in the ignition, turned a dial, and blasted the heat. She focused on the shard of moon through the windshield. Once he was in, he stopped huffing, and she turned to find him studying her. His thigh was only an inch from hers.
“You look good in my car.” His voice slurred on “good.”
After a minute, she said, “We shouldn’t keep running the heat. It’ll run down your battery. How about I drive us to my place?”
“Good,” he slurred. “I like you driving.”
On the way back, the inside of his car seemed to become sharper with every knob, needle, and ridge clearly outlined. She pulled in front of her small beach house with its driveway that lacked gravel. He lived only two streets down in brand new condos with sparkling asphalt.
“Are you going to invite me in?” he said.
“Maybe next time.” And she did something really confusing. She leaned over and kissed him. The insides of her wrist warmed and her mouth naturally opened.
“Wow,” he said. “Did you feel that?” He tucked his chin and looked up at her.
“I better go,” she said. “Here are your keys.” She put them in the ignition, and jerked the door open. She’d made it half way up her drive, when she looked back. He had not moved from the passenger side.
She walked back. He rolled down his window.
“Are you okay to drive?”
“Can I have another kiss?” he said. “You’re good.” He bowed his head. On top, she noticed, was a bald spot.
He got out, and they leaned against the clean car. This time he reached for her. His warm fingers caressed both cheeks. She felt her bottom rise to her top and her hands wanted to hold onto to his back.
“I have to go.” She pulled away.
“Is it all right if I call you sometime?” he said.
“You’re good,” she said over her shoulder and kept walking. She was laughing.
When the phone rang the next night, she thought it might be him, but it wasn’t like she had been sitting around waiting. In fact, she had been dancing around her den to the top ten music countdown on VH-1.
“I have something to tell you,” he said.
“What?’ she said, a little out of breath.
“I’m separated.” The phone became a very cold object. It was just a phone after all. Judith held it away from her.
“My wife and I are talking about divorce.”
“How long have you been separated?”
“Whose idea was it?” She caught herself. “You know what . . . You don’t need to answer that. I want you to know I had a nice time last night. I hope everything will work out for you.”
“Can I call you some time?”
“No. Best not. I’ll probably see you on the beach sometime, though. It is a public beach.” She replaced the receiver.
She turned off the television and went directly to bed.
The next day—after crying and flinging herself around in the sheets last night, trying not to picture Edward and all the kayakers he must have slept with—she took a long walk past the hotel. She stopped and took her time studying the tide pools. She wrote in a small spiral notebook her observations. Some green today. Sea lettuce or kelp? Look up the difference. One white shell with a hole in it. She slipped her notepad and pen back into her pocket. She was going to start telling her clients to reveal more for other people’s protection.
As for her, she lifted the shell, felts its damp, smooth ridges and looked through the hole to the ocean. A warm breeze picked up, a promise of a return to something. She stashed the shell in her pocket, a gift to remember herself by.