Every life is marked by at least one momentous day that defines the course of destiny. For me, a singular day appears vividly, a family beach day in Ocean City, New Jersey almost a half century ago. The time before I was afraid. Far down the shoreline from the beach camp, my four-year-old self meandered along the water’s edge until I met you, a college man in your early twenties, a member of the search party. You had followed my footprints in the sand.
Sea-foam bubbled over my feet, and sand shifted back into the surf. I squatted in the wet sand looking for pretty shells. I heard you speaking. I needed to find pretty shells.
“What are you looking for?”
“Can I look with you?”
The features of your face have likely faded over the years, though I remember a magnificently handsome face with a broad smile and straight, glossy-white teeth. Your dark brown hair fell, tousled like a wave along your brow, but in a very neat way. Athletic and tall, very tall, your figure towered over me. I told you my name was Jenny. You introduced yourself, but the passage of the years has taken your name from my mind.
You grasped my hand, and we hunted for seashells. We walked farther down the beach to the place you called “our destination.” We found many shells, but most appeared cracked, chipped, or just did not have a pastel, pinkish-white color. God had painted the sky with pink cotton candy, the kind I liked to eat on the boardwalk—big, fluffy cotton candy clouds and paper-thin ones spread like jam. Lit on the scalloped edges of the billowy clouds, I glimpsed that lovely shade of pale pink not found in any seashell. My sand-encrusted bucket remained mostly empty as I held your hand and skipped along beside you on that magical beach.
The sun inched towards the horizon.
The tide encroached. Sandpipers scurried away from both the waves and me when I tried to pet them. As the water flooded in, I could feel the undertow yanking under my feet. You said, “Let’s not go in the water. The tide is too strong.” When an unexpected wave came, we played “walk on water.” You’d hoisted me into the air, and I paddled my feet on the surface of the broken wave crests tumbling beneath and shouted, “Quack! Quack! I’m a duck.” Sometimes, the briny ocean spray splashed up, stinging my eyes and throat, but I continued quacking. You laughed, very amused.
Near the base of the dunes, we launched an imaginary kite into the wind. It hovered high above us, its pink and purple streamers waving down at us from the fading brightness of the sky.
“We’re getting closer to our destination, just a little farther.” In the distance, I saw figures staring, some jumping up and down. A shrill scream pierced through the pounding surf and thick, hazy air: “Jennifer!” Mommy bolted a few yards across the deep sand separating us. Kneeling, she gripped me in the tightest bear-hug and asked, “Where have you been?”
“I took a walk to look for seashells. I didn’t find a single pretty one!” My pouty face tilted squarely towards hers, then brightened. “But I made a new friend.”
I crooked my neck to look up at you, so tall, standing there like a living Greek statue, my stately prince.
“I found her all the way by Corson’s Inlet.” Mommy’s face slackened, overpowered by her gaping eyes. Corson’s Inlet was miles from our family beach site.
Other young men, your friends, ran over to see us. They bobbled me around in the air, like one of those amusement rides on the boardwalk. You got some high fives, vigorous handshakes, and pats on the back.
Mommy brought us over to our little camp, where you sat with us for a brief time. We munched on sandwiches. You listened to her brood over her frustration with my disappearance. Then, you wished us well and hugged me. I watched you walk off with your friends.
The pink sky morphed into molten crimson dripping from the clouds, with such brilliant fire, as if multiple suns burned in one. The sun sank, lying dormant somewhere inside of the water, while its embers flickered distantly on the water’s surface. Twilight lingered. How could the ocean just swallow up a fiery thing like that? I supposed it must have sunk into some big cave and would emerge the next day. I could live to see a thousand sunsets and never see any as beautiful as that one. After that sunset, I grew up, becoming progressively fearful of the ocean—and of life.
I never found any pastel seashells. Better yet, I found you—or rather, you found me. I wonder, what would have happened had you not? I was alone, a tiny speck in a hot-pink bathing suit, far away from the search party, no more visible than a little sandpiper doddering around on that vast expanse of Jersey Shoreline. It’s doubtful that I would have been found had you not come along.
Surely, you’ve had children of your own by now. When you hold them safely in your arms, do you ever think of that lost, wandering child at the water’s edge? You walked alongside me for only a day, but on my darkest days, when I stare into my fears, I picture you waiting for me there, by that glassy water, to guide me home.
Jennifer Kelm is a student at Central Connecticut State University
Headline Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock
0 comments on “Letter to a Stranger: To the Man Who Led Me from the Water’s Edge | Jennifer Kelm”