Published in the Island Writers’ Network anthology, Hilton Head Island: Ebb and Flow (2017)
My pink-and-green batik print tunic flutters against me in the ocean wind. Wearing anything but solid black or quiet neutrals runs counter to my origins. I paid full price, too, albeit inadvertently -- nothing any self-respecting New Yorker would do. I didn’t even flinch when I signed ‘Mira Sinclair’ on the credit card screen. Eighteen hundred miles justifies whatever I do here. That, along with my still quasi-intact severance pay and landing a job in a Sea Pines design store, has me in an island state of mind.
From my position on the dune ramp, five - no, six - windsurfers skim across the water, an array of red and blue sails billowing above their black wetsuits. It’s January, and although island temperatures have soared into the low seventies, I bet the water is frigid.
I cup one hand above my sunglasses to form a makeshift visor. Curls of water at least two feet high crest, then swoop onto the sand. That unmistakable hooooohfills my ears.
One of the windsurfers topples into the water, and two more follow. The wind carries the laughter of those still gliding above the waves, until something causes them to capsize. In a flash, all six are atop their boards once more. Coming to shore to land, I suspect.
With the sun this bright, it would be pointless to check my iPhone for the time, but the heat on my skin tells me I’ve been out too long. My skin is so pale it never bronzes, instead turning a ruddy shade that feels as angry as it looks.
An extra minute won't matter. I pack my beach duffel, one item at a time, rather than in my usual toss-it-all-in-who-cares style. But when I glance at the ocean again, the windsurfers have vanished. How foolish to have risked sun damage because of two-decade-old memories of good-looking beach bums and far riskier holiday breaks. I turn my back to the water and head up the ramp, toward the trails.
And that’s when I spot them again: A group of lycra-clad men in the parking lot, packing windsurfing equipment onto pickups. All have gray hair, and all but one have paunches. The flat-bellied man is taller and broader than the rest, and has a long ponytail. He turns to me and winks, then hops in his truck and drives away.
Scores of cats lounge in the sun along both sides of the roadway to the Hilton Head Humane Association. I’ve slowed to five miles an hour in case one bolts across the asphalt, but the cats don’t budge at the sound of my car. Like bears in national parks, I suppose, unfazed by humans as long as we don't approach on foot.
As I ease into the closest available parking space, a black pickup zooms into the striped zone in front of a ‘No Parking’ sign. The engine cuts, and the driver jumps out and thwacks his door shut with an authoritative thud. I swear under my breath: People like that think they own the world.
I’m still fussing in my car, when Genghis Khan disappears into the office. He charges back outside, an empty dog lead dangling from his hand. One of the volunteers trots behind him, dropping further back every second. I curse under my breath again -- how oblivious can this guy be?
I refuse to let him spoil my mood, not in a place abounding with cats. Although I’ve completed an adoption application for a tabby named ‘Buddy,’ I might take one or two more home. After all, my son’s away in college, my ex-husband’s in Maine; I can do what I want. So I head up the path toward the office.
A sharp bark makes me turn around. Genghis Khan has hooked up the lead to a large dog that is leaping all over him. Then he laughs, and kneels on the ground to hug his new rescue pup. Belly rubs follow.
Honestly, I could kick myself for making assumptions.
At that moment, the man pivots and looks straight at me. That's when I notice his long gray ponytail.
“I absolutely love adoption days,” says a voice behind me. “Are you Mira?”
“Yes.” I linger until the man returns to his pickup, accompanied by his canine companion. He opens the front door, and the dog leaps inside.
I'm not sure, but I think he just waved goodbye. To me.
Madeline, one of my tennis partners, flips the pages of her program, and thrusts it at me. “I am so totally not into this. How long until intermission?”
The symphony is tuning from an oboe’s A, and the resulting cacophony of woodwinds, strings and brass sends shivers down my spine. “Best sound ever,” I whisper.
The featured pianist tonight is last year’s winner of the International Piano Competition. Sixteen years old, for heaven’s sake, and from a YouTube clip I'd heard, he promises to be more than your basic virtuoso; he promises to be lyrical. To bring tears to my eyes. To strike me in the soul with every chord he plays...
I push my hair from my face. Only a few minutes remain until they start.
Madeline nudges my elbow. “Will they have a bar set up, or just soft drinks?”
“Dunno, don’t care.” I settle into the pew, and start to read the pianist’s bio. “You wanted to dress up, so stop complaining.”
Madeline gleams with gold and pearls, and whether they’re real or not is irrelevant. Jewelry is everywhere tonight, not the usual Hilton Head scene at all. The walls and ceilings glint from the reflection of halogens on a sea of gold and silver. Even I have some bling on -- not for full price, of course.
Applause erupts as the conductor, in a black tuxedo only slightly darker than his hair, marches into the hall. He nods at the audience, then picks up a mic to introduce the baby-faced piano prodigy, also donned in a tux. As the conductor mounts the podium and poises his baton over the music, the prodigy assumes his position behind a Steinway grand, and adjusts the piano bench. A few tugs on his cuffs, and he's all set.
The conductor’s eyes scan the musicians arrayed before him. Up goes his baton…and down.Immediately, the concerto’s ‘announcement’ fills the hall: The opening E-flat major chord of the full orchestra, to which the prodigy responds immediately with a credenza of sixteenth and thirty-second notes that cascade and trill, up and down the keyboard until the next grand symphonic chord.
Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, first time I’ve ever heard it live.
When the main theme of the allegro begins, I lean forward to catch every note, every pause, every crescendo and decrescendo. My eyes well up, my heart quickens.
We are in the third row from the front, on the right side of the stage. Directly behind the two rows of double basses. One of the bass players has a long gray ponytail. Heat rushes into my face. Because of the music, I tell myself.
Every morning for the past two weeks, I’ve gone to the beach. I’ve moved all appointments to the afternoon and evening, I’ve missed six days of tennis. The island’s southernmost beaches, where I first saw my windsurfer -- he’s become ‘mine’ since the symphony -- have been bereft of rigs ever since. I’ve hung out at Coligny, North Forest, even Folly Field, all to no avail. I’m beginning to feel like a wannabe groupie, sans binoculars, how embarrassing is that for a woman in her mid-forties? Each time, I tell myself: This is the last morning I'll waste, especially when they want to increase my hours at the store.
Seriously, it's today or bust. I bike to the Sea Pines Beach Club, lock up the bike in a rack, and hoist my bag over my shoulder. Gray clouds hint at rain, and, as I head toward the water, regret overcomes the last vestiges of curiosity about my windsurfing, dog-rescuing, bass-playing non-acquaintance.
I lean against a railing of the dune ramp. After a minute of peering toward the ocean, several black dots appear on the horizon. Windsurfing sails, I'm sure of it. They grow larger and larger by the moment. My heartbeat fills my eardrums as every wave brings them closer toward the beach where I'm standing. As the sails drop to the water a few dozen yards out, the windsurfers crouch on their boards. They’re ashore now, disconnecting the rigs.
I think I spot a gray ponytailed man among those tugging equipment across the sand. I hope I’m wrong; otherwise, what would I say or do if he approached me? My mouth goes dry. When one of the windsurfers calls to the others, I force my legs to move as if wearing cement boots. Right foot, left foot, up and over the ramp toward the Beach Club.
At last I’m at the café, and plop onto a corner seat. Plenty of time to get my act together, and check my texts as if that's all I came here to do.
“Can I get you something?” The voice is male, the accent slightly European.
I look up, expecting to see a name-tagged server, likely a seasonal guy from the Southern Hemisphere.
But it’s him. His shadow swallows the sun. I hadn't realized he was so tall.
“Saw you at the shelter, saw you at the symphony. And on the beach.” He grins. “You following me, or maybe the other way around?”
I’m generally more articulate beyond saying “uhhhh.”
He tugs over a seat and sits opposite me. His hair is loose and wet. “Grayson Hayward.”
I reach for my bag. “I have a towel.”
He crinkles his eyes, and his smile widens, revealing perfect teeth. “I’d rather have your name.”
Before I can answer, the server appears, donning a tag: Kelvin. “Nice to see you again today, Ms. Sinclair. Island tea, or something else?”
Grayson answers for me. “Whatever Ms. Sinclair wants, make it two.”
His eyes, slightly less crinkled now, are almost totally black, as if there are no irises. Like looking into infinity…
The server clears his throat. “Do you need a minute to decide, ma’am?”
“Island tea, thanks, Kelvin.” After he scurries off, I draw a quick breath. The lines on Grayson’s face give him at least ten years on me, but anyone would kill for that muscle definition.
“Still waiting on your first name,” Grayson says.
“I’m Mira. And yes, of course, I'm following you.” I laugh, as if I'm joking.
“How long are you here?” he asks. The standard question on this resort island.
“Permanently.” I don’t wear a wedding ring, not anymore, but I glance pointedly at the golden bamboo ring swirled around my left fourth finger. After all, I’m not that available and I’m not that easy.
“I’m on Daufuskie,” he answers. “Year round.”
“Why there?” I ask, as if it’s any of my business that he lives on a tiny island, accessible only via boat.
“Don’t like too many people around, unless they’re on the water or playing music with me. Or listening, the way you did the other night.”
“I have a thing for the Emperor Concerto.” I’m reluctant to reveal more to a professional musician.
“The Emperor Concerto might have a thing for you, too, Mira.”
I groan. “Omigod, try that on somebody else.” My tone rises, and so do I.
Grayson stands also. “Please don't go.” He extends his right hand. “Please?”
I wait, then accept his hand. His grip is warm, but not overly dominant like one of those crusher-grips. I have to admit, my hand feels right in his. Too right.
“Suppose I meant it, which I did?” he asks. “Would that matter?” He’s still holding my hand.
Here come our drinks; I'd almost forgotten about them. I give Kelvin, the server, a half-smile, and free my hand. Then sit and motion to Grayson to do the same. I'm not about to skunk Kelvin -- never mind Grayson, no matter how annoyed I am.
“Thanks for not running off on me.” Grayson takes both our drinks from the tray, and hands me one. With his thumb, he wipes the frost from his glass. When it reappears, he repeats the attempt. Then he tries to adjust the drink menu, encased in plastic, in the center of the table, but it flops over. When he reaches to pick it up, his elbow sends his spoon clattering onto the floor.
I swallow a grin: This guy is the farthest thing from smooth.
“You play anything? Music, I mean?” he asks, after draining half his glass.
“I can feel it.” When I was a conservatory student, those powered by ambition and discipline locked themselves away in practice rooms, day and night. Me, on the other hand --
“Feeling it is all that matters.” Another swig, then he adds, “Must be pretty obvious that I generally don't sit down with women I don't know.”
“Hope that’s not another line,” I say.
Grayson studies my face before speaking again. “Bosco,” he says finally. “He’s part chocolate lab, part Newfoundland, at least that’s what they told me at the shelter.”
“I adopted two gray tabbies that day. Denali and Puck.”
“Great names.” Grayson flags down the server. “I’ll take the check.”
“Wait a second.” Reaching over, I touch his forearm, feeling veins under the tattoos. “Divorced, former New Yorker. A son in college. Excessively rude and defensive, love animals, hate lies.”
“Twice widowed, originally from Copenhagen, don’t expect life to treat me right. No kids, no addictions except music. And I don’t lie.” He covers my hand with his again. “Nice to meet you.”
Warmth seeps into my belly. I'm a glutton when it comes to cheddar cheese and tomato omelets, the best breakfast on the planet. Last night was Grayson’s turn to come over, which means my condo smells great.
Over the past six months, Grayson has demonstrated that he is a true master of culinary arts, and I’ve demonstrated how easy it is for me to gain ten pounds. At five foot three, I can't afford to put on that much, but so far, Grayson hasn’t commented. Even though he's inspected every last inch of me, from head to toe.
I've done the same to him, of course, and have found no flaws, save a few scars that make him even sexier than I'd ever imagined after those first heady weeks in April. Then, as now, we haven't spent more than a few hours apart from each other: He gets his music and rig time; I get my tennis and writing time. Work has grown more hectic, following my promotion to assistant manager; symphony season is in full swing for Grayson. None of that interferes with what we have, though.
Someday we’ll get sick of each other, maybe even break up, but this moment -- really, all these moments and hours and days, and especially nights? I swear, Grayson and I have breathed new meaning into Einstein’s theory of relativity.
“Wind’s starting to pick up.” Grayson scrubs the skillet while he talks. “They say this’ll be the big one.”
Bosco, curled into a semicircle, licks his paws. Grayson never goes anywhere without him, except to the symphony.
“Storms always miss the island, I’m not worried.” I rub Bosco’s head, then join Grayson at the sink to wipe down the dishes.
“Got to head home and tie everything down, just in case.”
Both of us spin around at the clamor of toenails against the floor.
“Bosco, don’t chase the cats.” Grayson’s tone is mild, and the dog races out of the kitchen anyway. Two blurs of tabby fur fly into the bedroom.
“Don’t go.” I drop the dishes in the sink and pull him toward me. Grayson’s lips are soft on mine. “The ocean’s really rough.”
He pulls a sweatshirt over his head and leans over for another kiss. “Don’t worry, Mira, I’ll be back this afternoon. No rehearsal tonight, remember?”
I continue at the sink, hearing the gravel crunch under the tires of his truck. Bosco runs back into the kitchen and howls. One of my kitties must have tried to teach him a lesson.
It’s dinnertime and Grayson hasn’t returned my calls. The governor has issued an order to evacuate the island. I don’t want to go, not without Grayson. The dog is huddled under the bed, and I find the cats underneath a pile of sweaters in the closet.
My neighbor, a volunteer firefighter with Grayson’s former unit, knocks on my door for the third time today. “Mira, you have to leave.”
“Tide’s rising and I'm not leaving without him.”
“He’ll be okay,” he says, patting my shoulder. “Probably just out of battery power.”
“I don’t know that, and you don’t know that either.” My voice rises.
Would Grayson please return one my calls? Even emergency workers and first responders are evacuating. Everyone, except, from what I hear, a few crazies. Grayson must be among them.
A garbage can careens down the street.
“Get your animals together, time to stop being noble. Grayson’s a big boy.” My neighbor spots the dog lead. “Get the cats, get the dog, let’s get you out of here. Unless you want to scare the bejesus out of them.”
I find Bosco in the closet -- the same one the cats are in -- flattened against the floor. If I force these guys to stay through the storm, with the rain pounding down and wind ripping around the house, they could be traumatized for life. Hooking the lead on Bosco’s collar, I tug him out of the closet. My neighbor shoves the cats, along with the sweaters they’re hiding under, into the carriers, and helps me get them into my car. The dog cowers on the back floor.
As I pull away from the house, I wonder what it will look like when I return. For the millionth time, I tap the speed dial. Grayson’s phone rings ten times, then goes to voice mail.
Five endless days pass before the authorities let us return to the island. Still no word from Grayson, and now his phone goes straight to voice mail, so I know his batteries are dead.
I startle at the familiar chime of my cell phone.
“Mira?” It’s Ivan, one of Grayson’s windsurfing buddies. “They found something.”
“Where’s Grayson?” I answer. “I’ve been going out of my mind.”
Silence fills my ears.
“His rig. They found it. Mast’s broken, sail’s ripped up, but the board’s in one piece.”
“Where - is - Grayson?” I’m shouting and I don’t care.
“That’s all there is.” More silence. “I’ll contact you if they find anything else.”
“What about his house? Did they check it? And his truck?” My pitch is three octaves higher than usual and my voice is shaking. “Have they checked the hospitals? Have they posted signs? Maybe someone found him injured and decided to take him in. Who’s in charge, anyway?”
“Everything’s gone, Mira. The house, his vehicle, totally destroyed by the storm. They say a bunch of tornados touched down --“
“Where is Grayson? He could be in a coma somewhere, or have amnesia --”
“No one knows, Mira, sorry. I’ll call if I hear anything further.”
The Following April
The New Year has come and gone. The next piano competition, also come and gone. A new bass player occupies Grayson’s place in the symphony.
As the sun sets on another April evening, Bosco and I head out to the beach. He sits in the sand facing the ocean. The authorities continue to say that no one died in South Carolina from the hurricane last fall, and I believe them. I've shared that with Bosco, whose tail wags in agreement each time I remind him. I’m willing to guarantee he understands English.
I shake out my beach towel in the wind and let it fall to the sand in a rumpled heap. I plop down next to Bosco, more off the towel than on, and kick away my flip flops. Burying my toes in the sand, I face the ocean, too. Then I throw my arms around Bosco, and touch my forehead right behind his ear, where his fur is softer than down. If I close my eyes tight enough, I can smell Grayson in the salt wind.
A boat horn moans across Calibogue Sound. A low F, Grayson always said. He had perfect pitch. Regardless, I used to say it was as deep and unflinching as the water deep below.
The boat sounds a low ‘F’ again, but this time, it’s followed by a staccato blast of whistles.
Grayson's coming back soon. I can feel it.
Copyright Terri L. Weiss. All rights reserved.