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Fresh Start in a Familiar Place
“Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wild world/ it’s hard to get by just upon a smile,” cooed Cat Stevens on the radio. I was driving down Interstate 40, heading towards Beaufort, North Carolina. The window was down, a cool breeze played across my face, and the crisp air filled my lungs. It had been dark for hours, but a full moon was shining, illuminating the road. As I hummed along to the song, it occurred to me that I needed to stop soon for gas. I had reached highway 70, which meant I was getting close. Close meant one gas station in the middle of town- I wasn’t ready to go there yet.
I pulled off the highway to a gas station. Once inside, I went straight to the refrigerators and grabbed the biggest Diet Coke I could find. Diet Coke was my one and only vice, it was the saving grace that got me through the day. “Adolla fauty six,” said the cashier. I handed him the cash, rubbing my sore neck with the other hand. “Long drive?” he asked.
“You have no idea,” I grimaced.
“You go on and pick out a candy bar, darlin’. It’s on me. M’name’s Billy.”
“Really? Thank you! My name’s Emma. Emma Claire,” I said, flashing him one of my prize winning smiles.
“You ain’t from around here, are you?”
“Nah,” I lied. “Well thanks so much Billy, I have to get going.” I made it a point to add the ‘g’ at the end of the word. As I walked back to my Lexus I mused to myself, “Who was Cat Stevens trying to kid?”
Back in my car and back on the road, I breathed in the salty air. I had forgotten the smell of the ocean and the fish, the smell of home. I had been away for so long. It was beautiful, glorious: a smell I couldn’t figure how I could’ve forgotten. Memories came flooding back, years and years worth. My eyes became wet. It was a comforting smell, but now it held a note of sadness.
I pulled into the drive, the gravel crunching under my tires. “Shh!” I thought to my car. But then I remembered that no one was home, there was no one who would be disturbed by the noise I had made. I was the sole person to hear the noise, and that made me feel utterly alone. Technically, I had only been alone since I shut my phone off when passing through Oklahoma. Its incessant ringing was more than I could handle. But now I wished that anyone: an ex boyfriend, a wrong number, or even my agent, would call.
As I looked up from the steering wheel, I noticed how beaten up the house had become since I had last seen it, years ago. The white siding was flecked with brown, the paint having been worn down by the pounding sand and water. The porch seemed to hang crooked, the windows were dirty, and what little grass there was had grown to an embarrassing height.
I found myself at the front door, turning my key in the lock. With a shove, the door gave and I was admitted into the house. It smelled musty, like no one had been there or cleaned in a while. “Well, I guess no one actually has,” I thought to myself. I flicked the switch by the door. Nothing happened. “S***.” My remark cut through the silence, seemed to echo in the emptiness of the house. I stumbled over the decorative table in the foyer. I groaned in pain. Finally I reached another light switch, of course, just as my eyes had finally adjusted to the darkness of the house. I found my way up the stairs and turned on the shower, letting it long enough to be sure that the hot water heater would have come back to life.
I woke up a few hours later, at dawn, in a bed that was strange to me, but still familiar. “Caw! Caw!” came the sound of sea gulls. My brain was in a state of confusion, everything seemed fuzzy. Slowly I recalled the events of the last few days: the phone call, the fight with my agent, the long days of driving, and my arrival at an empty house.
I wandered through the rooms in the morning light, memories haunting every room. I made a mental list of every task that needed to be done around the house, thinking about hiring someone for each job. Eventually, that became too much for my tired brain to manage, and I stepped outside into the light. The sight of the beach hit me like one of the waves crashing on its shore. Haunted by memories from my past that I had yet to face, my body possessed, I found myself walking towards the surf. I willed the water to take me, to relieve me from the memories and the guilt that were eating me alive.
The first wave hit me, cold as ice. The water was freezing in October! What was I thinking? But I kept walking. Walking and wading, wading and walking, in a trance. I came out of my stupor when I realized I was standing at mid-waist in the coldest water I had ever felt, bawling like a child who has lost their favorite toy. Temporarily, my brain was relieved from its ghosts, numbness taking their place, and I had the good sense to walk back to shore. I curled up on the shore, feeling frozen and sad.
A youthful looking man ran by me, looking through me, past me. When he realized what he had seen: a sopping wet woman shivering in the sand, he backed up. “Hey! Lady, you okay?”
“Yeah, sure. I just thought I’d try out the water.”
“What? Are ya crazy? Its freezing! Look, let me getcha some help. Stay put.”
“No, I’m fine. My house is just up there.” I pointed. Just then, something in his face clicked, as if he had had a realization of some sort.
He didn’t hesitate, not for a second. He picked me up from the nest I had made for myself in the sand, ignoring my shivering arms trying to push him away and the shuddered protests I made, and carried me back to my house. I wasn’t happy about his forward move, but I didn’t have it in me to fight against him.
He must have had an incredible sense of direction, or had seen the house before, because he carried me directly to the bathroom without second guessing his path. He leaned down, turned on the tap, and shoved me under the hot stream of the shower. “Get warmed up,” he said, “I’ll be back in a few minutes.” I heard his hurried footsteps as they thumped down the creaky stairs.
As my body gradually thawed and my thoughts became clearer, I wondered who the man was and how he seemed to know his way around my mother’s old house. The thought occurred to me to feel wary of this man and his presence in my house, but I was too exhausted to think much of it. It was a small town, and it had never been known to hold any danger for anyone. In fact, it was known as one of the most gracious towns on the coast of North Carolina. With this reassuring thought, I let my worries seep from my mind, washed away by the warm water.
When my body felt like a normal temperature again, I changed into dry clothes and went to look for the strange man. I found him downstairs in the kitchen, standing next to the coffee maker. I hung back in the doorway, watching him go through the motions of making coffee. He moved quickly and decidedly. He was fairly young, maybe in his early thirties, and he was attractive in a rugged bachelor sort of way.
He turned and looked at me. I gave him a nervous smile. “You should probably sit down,” he ordered, though it sounded more like a question than a demand, as he pulled out a chair for me at the kitchen table.
“Uh, thanks,” I murmured as I sank into the chair. He set down a steaming cup of coffee in front of me. I took a sip of the brown liquid, it was warm and strong. “So…” I began, unsure of where to start and which questions I wanted to ask first.
“I’m James,” he interrupted.
“Emma Claire,” I announced, realizing that he was going to be the one to lead the conversation.
“So you just decided to go for a swim?” he asked sarcastically, but without judgment.
“Well, my body did. I got lost in my thoughts and my body just sort of took over…” I tried to explain, stopping as he furrowed his brow, clear that my point wasn’t getting across.
“You’re her daughter, aren’t you? You’re the model?”
“Excuse me?” I asked, confused by the random question. Then it hit me. “Wait, did you know my mom?”
“Yeah, she was an interesting woman. I took care of her towards the end. Her mind and her temperament were really going, but I couldn’t stand that she was alone here. You wouldn’t know who I am though. I didn’t get a chance to meet you at the funeral.”
I blushed, out of anger at the preposterousness of this man and out of embarrassment. “I couldn’t get away, couldn’t make it home. I wanted to come. I should have come. I should have come home the minute I heard she was sick.”
I continued to ramble until he gently added: “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to make you feel bad. I just wanted you to know who I was.”
“Its okay,” I replied quietly. Something about the expression of kindness and sympathy that his face held made me think it was okay to tell him what I was thinking, to explain why I hadn’t seen my mom in years or why she was being taken care of by a perfect stranger instead of her only daughter. I continued, “My mom and I just had such a rough relationship. She never got over Dad’s death. We didn’t have the money to move out of this house, and it seemed like he was everywhere. Then the depression sunk in, and the alcoholism followed. It went from bad to worse. She was always pushing me to get out of here, to get away from her and start over. I guess I never really got to make things right, you know?”
“Yeah, I understand,” he nodded. The sincerity of his nod compelled me to continue my story.
“My agent and I were fighting all the time. He said my career couldn’t afford a trip home at the time, not even for my dying mother. So I stayed in LA another few months, getting sicker and sicker of my job, the phony people, and my lack of real friends until I just got fed up. I know it’s too late to see my mom now and make things right, but I thought I could finally face the bad memories I have of this place if I stopped running away from it. So here I am, here for a fresh start in a familiar place.”
“So what are you going to do?” he asked, seeming genuinely interested to hear my answer.
“I’m going to stay here for a while. I need to leave LA behind, and come to terms with everything that happened here. I want to be able to have a drink without being terrified that I’ll end up like my mom. I want to work in a job where I do more than “get by with a smile” like she always taught me to. I want to be able to trust people, especially men. My mom didn’t exactly bring the nicest men into the house when I was a kid. I want to do all the things my childhood prevented me from doing, and I think this is the place to do it.”
“I think that’s really admirable.” He said, looking straight into my eyes to reinforce his compliment. I smiled at him and thought about the kind stranger I had just met. He was a kind stranger who knew me without having met me before, and cared enough to listen to my story.
“Thank you. I’m really glad I met you,” I said. And I meant it.
“Well, I should get going,” said James. “If you need help fixing anything up or just need someone to talk to, my name and number are written down on the pad on the fridge. I hope I’ll be seeing you around.” He gave me one last smile and then slid out the door.
I watched him walk down to the beach. He stood in front of the water for a while, as if he was thinking about our encounter, and then he began to jog down the beach. I watched him jog away, and I watched the surf crash against the shore, thinking about how compelling it was and the strong emotions it made me feel. They were emotions that had disappeared entirely from my life for such a long time, having been replaced by numbness, only to resurface at the call of the sea and my memories.
I was also thinking about our meeting. I thought about what had been said and the honesty that had come so easily between us. I thought about my goals for the house and for my new life, and about the man I had met and instantly connected with. A man who could maybe be the one to help me achieve my goals. Whether or not it would just be the goals for the house, or the goals for rebuilding my life, I wasn’t sure. Either way, I knew he could help me in some way. I walked over to the refrigerator, and picked up the phone, intending to leave a message for him.
“Hey, you’ve reached James. I can’t come to the phone right now, so leave me a message and I’ll get back to ya… beep.”
“Hey James, its Emma Claire. So, about that offer you made to play Mr. Fixup….” And then I smiled.