Gifts From A Stranger: A Story

26 09 2016

The day was perfect — sunny, just breezy enough to take the edge off of Indian summer — and I was enjoying my solitude. Usually my Tuesday and Thursday walks consist of either listening to or recording a digital voice message for my friend but, on this particular day there is silence. For some reason I get the feeling I may have been put on a bit of a time-out by her for comments I made the week earlier, but I can’t be sure — mainly because I haven’t asked. So typical for me to take a stand on the things that matter least and to avoid the conversations that carry the most weight.

I walked from the main beach parking lot of Rio del Mar to the end of the campsites, gave a high-five to the bronze sculpture of a hand embedded in the rock wall, then walked back to the main parking lot. Usually I walk a mile past to the far end of the beach, then back to the car again, but today I was exhausted from having my two and a half-year old nephew for the entire day while my sister-in-law had surgery and my brother was by her side. I wanted to rest. I drove to the far end of the beach looking forward to eating my lunch with my toes in the sand.

I pulled out my beach chair and walked out toward the water to a flat spot with a round of Douglas Fir that was perfect as a side table and set down my cardboard box from the Staff of Life salad bar. I plopped down in my chair and removed my shoes. My whole body sighed with relief. The cool sand beneath the surface felt like clean sheets to my toes. Deep breaths. I’ve been struggling with my weight and health for three years now and it seems that life keeps throwing curve balls at me to derail my health seeking process. These walks are meant to save me and it frustrates me on the days that I don’t quite feel up to finishing the four miles. But I’m learning that, while exercise is important, pushing limits is not without consequences.

I dug into my salad and looked out over the waves hoping to spot a dolphin or otter, as I often do. These quiet moments are when my brain does the filing — thoughts and ideas drift in and out with the waves — I need this time to sort things out, to sort me out, to figure out next steps in this life that keeps moving too fast.

From behind me a man’s voice startled me. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

I froze for a moment, hoping like hell he wasn’t talking to me, then I turned around. He was standing right behind me, having just gotten out of the ocean. His eyes were deep-set and a little wild in a way that frightened me into instant judgment.

“It really is,” I said, then turned back toward the ocean again hoping my large sun hat and sunglasses might be cue enough that I was trying to hide from the world.

The man came around to my side and sat down. He was roughly my age, and had a nice body — no mid-life paunch hanging over his swim trunks.

“Do you like coming here,” he asked.

I took a deep breath. Fuck, I thought, I’m going to have to leave. He’s not going to leave me alone. I came here for quiet. I want solitude. I didn’t ask for this.

“Yes,” I said, not wanting to be rude, but keeping my answers short. Then I felt rude, so I added, “I like to look out at the waves. To me, when I see a dolphin swim by, or an otter playing in the surf I feel like most people would if they passed Madonna on the street in L.A.”

“I have a pair of binoculars,” he said excitedly, “would you like to borrow them?”

“No. No thanks,” I said, afraid that the binoculars might link us. That if I took them I would then have to use them, that he might want to see me enjoying his generosity and that, at some point, I’d have to give them back, meaning I’d have to talk to him again.

“Oh, OK, he said. “I love to come here and look for shells. Once I start looking, my expectations are always exceeded by tenfold within the first three minutes.” He then began crawling around on his hands and knees in the sand, as if to prove his claim.

I began to wonder if this guy was a short bus kid as a child or, being that this was Santa Cruz County, if his mind had been fried by drug use.

He found two pieces of shell then brought them over.

“Look at these,” he said. In his hands were two long broken pieces of what looked to be scallop shell. “I love to make things out of shells. Check this out,” he said and laid out the two pieces, one crossed over another on my make-shift table. “Wouldn’t this make a nice earring?”

“Oh,” I said, “sure, that’s an interesting way or arranging them.”

He extended his hand to me. “I’m Jake,” he said.

I met his hand with mine. “Julianne.”

“I love meeting new people. I just feel like everyone is always looking at their phones these days. People just don’t talk to each other anymore,” he said.

Suddenly he was speaking my language.

“True,” I said. “I don’t want to assume your age, but they say we are the last generation to know a childhood without the Internet.”

“I’m 47,” he said.

“Oh,” I exclaimed, “we’re almost the same age! I’m 46.”

“So, what do you do, Julianne?”

The question I always dread. What do I do? I’ve never been one to have a clear path, a one word career, a short answer. This is precisely how I lose people’s interest at parties. What do I do? I go for walks. I work on my house. I dream. I shuttle my daughter to and from school, to and from dance, to and from orchestra. I do the shopping. I clean up dog pee. I skate by with my fledgling business while we get my work space remodeled. I sit on the beach and eat my lunch and judge strangers who stop to say hello. And in the quiet moments I sit and ask myself, what are you doing with your life?

“I’m a poet,” I said. “When I come to a place like this, where there’s wide open space and quiet, that’s when the ideas come. That’s when I feel most creative. Of course, then reality sets in and I have to go pick my daughter up from school, but for a few hours a week, I seek this out.”

His eyes lit up. “Really? A poet? Wow. That’s amazing. I wrote a children’s book once. It rhymes, kind of. I’ve never published it, but maybe I will one day. Do you write a lot,” he asked.

“It’s coming back to me,” I said. And I wasn’t lying. It’s been a year or two since I’ve had anything published, and that poem was years old before that, but my heart always returns to poetry. I am happiest when I am writing, and, for me, getting a piece published feels like winning the lottery — only because it is like winning the lottery. When I was a poetry editor I used to accept around 1% of the submissions I received. The pieces I’ve written lately aren’t amazing, but at least I’ve turned the key and cranked the engine on my creative brain.

“What do you do, Jake,” I asked.

“I’m a carpenter. I build stuff, do custom deck work, that sort of thing.”

“That’s cool,” I said. “We just remodeled our house. I love watching the building process. I always wished I had the knowledge to do that sort of thing — or the knowledge of how to do it well, anyway.”

“It’s not rocket science,” he said. “I mean, I get by, but I just can’t get my head around charging more for my time than I think it’s worth, otherwise I feel criminal. I once charged $40 an hour for a tough job, but mostly I charge $35.”

“Wow,” I said, “I don’t even know how to respond to that. Most contractors seem to be billing labor at $75-$100/hr. It kills me to pay that. My partner and I have to do a lot of work ourselves just to be able to afford all the stuff that needs to be done to our house. We live on a teacher’s salary so that I can be devoted to our children. It’s not easy.”

There was a pause in conversation then Jake stood up and said, “You know what? Maybe I’m keeping you from a poem idea or something. Let me leave you to your wide open space.” He gestured grandly with his hands.

“I’ll be right back here,” he said, and pointed to a chair, complete with armrests, that he had constructed out of driftwood. “I have a lot of shells and stuff, so if you feel like talking some more, or if you want to look at my shells, just come over.”

“Thank you,” I said, then returned my gaze to the waves. This man, who I had judged so harshly minutes ago, just showed me mindful consideration. I was suddenly left with some questions. What is it about our society that trains us to view an honest person, not wanting to rip people off, as an idiot for not “getting ahead”? What does that mean? Why should people charge more just because they can — creating a society where people like us, a one income family living on a teacher’s salary in the Bay Area, have to choose between updating their water and tank system or putting a new roof on the house because the laborers just laying poly pipe on the hillside are billed at $25 more an hour than what I command for my ghost writing and legal document editing services. Where does the accumulation of “more” end? And at what cost?¬† This man was not an idiot, he was remaining true to his values and his values were not in the least bit money driven or materialistic.

I remember when Danae and I first decided to move in together, we were considering neighborhoods in San Francisco where we might like to live. Danae kept returning to lesbian, blue-collar (at that time) Bernal Heights as her top choice. “I don’t know why,” she said, “but I just feel more comfortable in a blue collar environment.” I didn’t get it. How could a woman who grew up affluent in Los Altos, who had master’s degrees from Stanford and Santa Clara Universities, not want what she grew up with?

Suddenly it hit me. Maybe, eighteen years later, I was finally learning that this is something we have in common. A year away from the Silicon Valley and it feels as though I am still shedding my valley skin. I’ve had conversations with people who hang drywall that have given their families a more lucrative lifestyle than I am able to give mine. I realize that these are different times in the Bay Area, but more and more I become convinced that if my children can earn $75-$100 hour doing skilled labor, why should they go to college and potentially rack up tens of thousands of dollars in student loans to get advanced degrees that might be obsolete before they even set their fingers on a diploma? The white-collar working world has changed drastically since my last layoff. Longer hours are no longer appreciated, they are expected. Work is paramount to the personal, and the casualties are piling up. Stress, disconnect between spouses, disconnect between parents and children, out of control drive and consumerism. Why the hell did I sit down on the beach and look at this man as crazy?

Suddenly Jake was back at my side thrusting some shells in my hand.

“Look at this one. Look how beautiful it is.” He turned over a vermetidae coil to reveal its shiny orange interior. “And this one,” he said, “look at the pattern on this.” It was a piece of what was once a very large scallop — the underside with a pretty opalesence. He handed me limpits and sea snails. “Maybe you could give some of these to your daughter,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said.

“I want you to enjoy them,” he said.

And I believed him. These pieces he was handing to me have always been the sorts of things I walk past because my gaze would normally not even register them. I go for the whole shell, the dinner plate sized concretion, the fossils. Go big or go home. Jake takes the pieces and makes them whole in the form of something plucked from his heart and imagination.

Jake went back to his driftwood La-Z-Boy. I turned these gifts over and over in my hand, then stood up, folded my chair, gathered my other belongings, then walked over to him. I wanted to give him something and I realized there was only one thing that he wanted: connection.

“Oh,” he said as I approached, “you probably have to go pick up your daughter.” Once again, I was stunned that he had not only listened, but was mindful enough to connect the timing.

“Yeah,” I said, then looked over his collection that was spread out on a round of redwood. I knew that what I was seeing was not nearly what he was seeing whle looking at all the fragments. He saw these scraps of dead sea life as a brooch, a necklace, earrings. I realized that this is the same as how I see my house versus how others see it. I see it for all its possibility — over there is where the creekside cottage will be, and there is my amazing garden that has yet to be planted. These are the trees where the ziplines will be, and down there (you can’t quite see it through the trees right now) is where the guest cabins will go. This driveway and that driveway will be paved, and that area beside the garage will be expanded when we put in the retaining wall… — while others might just see my house as a sad, risky little money pit.

“Jake, your collection is beautiful,” I said. “And I really enjoyed talking to you.” I meant it. I thought about giving him my card, about suggesting he could maybe do some deck work for us, but then I decided to just leave things as they were for now. “Maybe I’ll see you again,” I said.

“You will,” he said, making steady eye contact, “you will.”

I waved, the turned my back on him as I walked toward my car.

“Julianne,” he called out, not wanting to sever the connection, “where can I read some of your poetry?”

Suddenly my skin felt thick and tight around my body.

“Oh, there isn’t really a whole lot on line,” I called back.

“You may feel nervous about sharing, and if I didn’t understand what I was reading, you could walk me through it! I could learn. And I would never judge you, I would praise you!”

I smiled and nodded uncomfortably. “Ok,” I said. I wasn’t the least bit nervous about sharing my work — my abilities are vetted by the fact that I’ve been published so many times. I was sure he wouldn’t get most of my work. I was more nervous about opening up my world and the thought of explaining my work to this man felt tedious. Suddenly I woke up to my inner dialogue. Oh my God, I was still judging him.

A thought came to me: bit by bit, each day as layer.

Julianne, what do you do?

I shed layers.






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