Deep lines echoed out from the corners of his eyes.
They reflected the sea only a moment’s walk from where we sat; a reminder that this was a place where smiles formed daily. He sat sipping his steaming coffee while a massive dog lumbered nearby, making a nest about his knees. Wearing shorts, a polo, and solid leather flip-flops, he could have passed for a tourist. From the way the staff had greeted him and his dog, I could see both he and his companion were a staple around the place.
I was finishing up an article while the rest of my family lounged upon the North Carolina beachfront. Typing furiously about the ill preparedness of Target bathing suits to meet ferocious ocean waves and why men dig holes, I had only noticed him because of the gentleness of his voice and the way the women at the counter fawned over his dog. He took a table facing my direction and I could feel his eyes on me as he sat down.
My face grew warmer as I thought about my appearance. I had ran into the coffee shop straight off the beach. My legs were still dotted with bits of sand and salt. Over what I was realizing now to be a very poorly chosen bikini, I wore a short skirt and a t-shirt with armholes cut out so the sun (and now probing eyes of the locals) had access to the entirety of my sides. My hair hung in ocean dreaded bits down my back. No make-up was to be found on my face upon which freckles had sprung up to claim ownership.
As his stare became more intense, I looked up. Normally when you do this, someone will avert their gaze. This is typical stranger to stranger staring protocol. I’m staring at you, you look up and catch me, I look away quickly.
He didn’t look away.
And there I was, caught in the ocean flecked eyes of this man. Before I could glance in another direction or awkwardly spill something on myself, he spoke.
“You look like you’re working hard.”
My hand reached up to straighten my hair, remembered there was no help for it, and returned to my keyboard.
“I’m finishing up an article. Five things I’ve learned while on vacation,” I managed to stutter out.
“We’ve taught you a few things, huh?” He was twinkling at me. No. Twinkling is what I do. He was stealing my line. Damn it. I could feel the awkwardness growing in me.
I tried to take back my mojo. “Why men dig holes. This fascinates me. I keep seeing it up and down the beach. There are never women doing it but everywhere I look men and boys are piling up sand. They aren’t creating an architectural masterpiece with what they dig up. They’re just digging — the deepest and widest hole they can.” My hands moved about as I described this phenomena.
He is laugh was full and low. It rippled between us and his dog looked up, leaning his head against the man’s leg. Running a hand over the dog’s ears he leaned to whisper, “You love to dig holes too, don’t you, Brutis? It’s in our nature.”
And so began a lengthy discussion. The anthropology behind why men dig holes. His work as a diver, collecting everything from shark’s teeth to artifacts. His endless questions about me as a writer. It was quick and witty. It was light and deep. I forgot about being awkward. At some point, he moved over to my table and Brutis the dog moved with him sniffing my black plastic flip flops with interest and covering the candy apple red polish on my toes with one of his paws.
I would have sat there for hours. I could have gotten lost on that island in those easy eyes. But I was there for my parents and my brother, so I closed my computer.
“My family is waiting for me. I need to go.”
He stood with me and brushed his thumb across my cheek. The relative intimacy of a stranger’s touch should have startled me but instead I leaned into it. His fingertip was rough as it grazed the softness of my face.
“Sand. Hold still. You have a bit in your eyelashes too.” I closed my eyes and tiny pieces of it flaked down onto my bare shoulders.
Opening them, I realized how closely I was standing to him. I could breathe him in and feel him doing the same to me. Heart beat and rhythm and the sound of air escaping my lungs to be shared by the human standing in front of me. Sea and salt and sunscreen filling my senses, all the while a dog named Brutis stretched himself across my toes.
“It was lovely to meet you,” The words sounded formal and cold after the warmth of his hand on my skin. I could hear myself placing distance between us and wanted to say something other but wasn’t sure what there was to add. I didn’t know if or even how to cross the lines between us.
Taking my hand in his, he shook it firmly and said, “You too. The pleasure was truly all mine.” As my hand slipped from his grasp and I turned to walk out the door, I felt a pang of bittersweet. He didn’t call out for me to come back. I didn’t turn around for one more look. Our paths never crossed again in the course of my stay. I think it was enough for him to be a moment.
Almost love stories are still love stories.