James focused on the waves washing over his feet and whisking the sand from around them, the world slipping out from under him. There wasn’t much to enjoy about the water in Oregon, frigid on the even the hottest days, but he reveled in this. Wave after wave, sinking him in tiny increments, his feet settling further into the sand. Even as the holiday crowd with their Frisbees and Pomeranians and tablet cameras encroached in every direction, he found solitude in the soft swirl of the sand and water. And he was pretty sure the little girl next to him was doing the exact same thing.
He’d caught her gazing a minute ago, but she’d snapped her eyes back to the ocean when he turned her way. When he pretended to look away, she was staring again. They repeated this process three times before James smiled. The little girl smiled back.
He guessed she was about six, knowing he could be wrong by two years either way. Kids only had three ages to him – toddlers, awkwards, and teenagers, plenty enough categories to serve his general purposes. Normally he wouldn’t have smiled, knowing he’d gain nothing from engaging with a child except a quick reinforcement of his inability to do so. He didn’t mean to smile this time, either, but it came on suddenly when he saw how she seemed to be standing on stubs of ankles, her feet washed out to sea. James spoke, hoping the words wouldn’t be lost under the sound of the surf: “I love the feeling of the sand disappearing underneath us.”
She immediately glanced behind her and James remembered they were on a crowded beach. From three yards away, no one would notice how each of their feet was buried in the sand. All they’d see was some creep trying to chat up a little girl. He looked where she’d looked and guessed which one was her mom, then pulled his feet out of the sand and walked over. He stood beside her as if they were just two people staring out to sea. “I was telling her how I like the feeling of the sand being pulled out from under our feet,” he said to her. The mom looked about 30, though he could have been off a few years with her, too. She was pretty, but with a stoniness that made James think he shouldn’t be chatting her up, either. “Because it looks like she’s doing the same thing.”
The mom didn’t turn to him. “I’ll take word for it.” She had an accent, maybe eastern-european. James wasn’t sure what she was taking his word for — that that was the line he’d said to her daughter, or the feeling he’d described. Without taking her eyes off the girl in the sand, she added, “Too cold for me.”
“I get that. I can’t go deeper than my knees.” James watched the girl waving her mother to join her at the edge of the surf. “But I sort of enjoy the numbness that comes with standing in it.”
She raised her eyebrows and turned to look at him. “You enjoy?” She pretended to shiver. “It takes me hours to heat up again.” Looking straight at her, James saw the hardness of her face disappear when she smiled. “I know the feeling about the sand, though. I feel at warm beaches.” She turned back toward her daughter. “This is funny place. Like a picture of a beach, not like being at a beach.”
The phrase caught him by surprise. She was right. The little girl stomped over to grab her mom’s hand but mom raised both arms high into the air, shaking her head as she did. The girl scrunched her nose at James and walked back to the water.
“I like the soup, though. The white one that’s not called soup.”
She nodded. “Chowder. Like I said, I like warm.”
Something about the way she said it made it seem like it ended in a period, like she was inviting him to walk away. It would be the courteous thing to do, leave them alone to enjoy the beach, but he stayed, staring out at all the sea and sky. He was pleased when she spoke again. “Here would be awful if you don’t like blue.”
James turned to her. She glanced at him and smiled. “I’m glad I do.”
He knew himself well enough to know that he fell for women more quickly than he should, and knew he was doing it again. He held out his hand. “My name’s James.”
She shook his hand. “Ilona.” He asked her to say it again. She spelled it. James felt foolish when he realized he hadn’t let go of her hand.
“Ill-on-ah,” he said slowly, savoring it. “It’s a lovely name.”
She laughed a tiny laugh. “Where I’m from, it’s common as James.” He asked where that was. “Russia.” Ilona motioned toward the girl. “Neda is from Israel, like her parents.”
“She’s not yours?”
“Not that way. I work for parents. They travel, and work.” She slipped into a daydreamy tone. “So Neda and I travel, too. She’s seen so much of world, but never plays. Not with kids. Just with nanny.”
“Her nanny seems like good company.” It was a lame line that he wished he could reel back in.
“So is she.” Neda was waving her over again. “Smart. Sweet.”
“She wants you to come in.”
Ilona shook her head. “She will keep trying.”
When Neda came again to drag Ilona away, James hoped she wouldn’t succeed. “You know what else I like, Neda?” The girl frowned when she heard him using her name. “I’m sorry, I’m James. Ilona told me your name.” Neda looked up at her nanny to confirm. Ilona winked. “Have you noticed all of the black sand mixed in with the light sand? Well when a wave goes out, I like to look at the patterns in the sand. Sometimes it’s just simple black lines, but sometimes they’re beautiful.” James hoped he hadn’t said something he shouldn’t have. Was Neda going to be dragging her nanny down the whole beach looking for lines now? He glanced at Ilona, who was looking at him fiercely. James whispered, “Sorry if I just made work for you.”
Ilona seemed to become aware of her expression and wiped it away with her hand. “You like those lines?”
“I love them. Every wave makes them different. Always different.” He smiled at her. “Maybe I’m easily amused.”
Ilona took her phone from her pocket and began swiping, passing several pictures of the vast blue horizon. “I have something for you.” She stepped closer to him, their arms touching as she held up the phone so he could see. “I took pictures yesterday.” He squinted to see a photo of several complex swirls of contrasting sand, like the brushstrokes of a brilliant madman. She swiped to show another, and another, and seven more before she nudged his shoulder with hers. It didn’t feel accidental. “You can see, I love them too.”
The beach full of tourists with their coolers and kites and oversize umbrellas all disappeared as they stared at each other for what seemed to James to be a long time. Long enough that it should have been awkward, but it wasn’t it. He told himself to look away, then ignored this advice. Their gaze was finally broken by Neda’s repeated calls for Ilona to join her. “She’s never going to stop,” Ilona said, then motioned toward the water as she pushed off her shoes. “Show me this numb you love.”
Neda was jumping with delight as they moved toward her, either glad for the company or gloating about her victory. It usually wasn’t smart of James to say exactly what he was thinking, but the words came out of his mouth as the thought came into his head. “I’m going to hate walking away from you.”
She stopped so she could look him in the eye. “Then don’t.”
Ilona shuddered as a wave crept up and swirled around their feet. James just smiled, reveling in the feeling of his world slipping out from under him.
© 2016 WPReagan. This is one story in the 2016 series, Everyday Stories: 30 Tales in 30 Days Inspired by 30 Stranger’s Photographs.