I’m sitting on the Walton County beach, I am sipping a beer with my wife, eating Chili Cheese Fritos directly from the bag. She is hogging the bag.
The spring-break teenage rowdies have finally gone home and the median age of our town population has risen to over age fifty again.
As a teenager, I used to sit on this beach a lot. When I needed to think I would sit alone, long past sunset until I would get so cold I was no longer able to biologically have children.
Sometimes I would sit for hours after the sky went dark and stare at an endless Gulf of Mexico. The sound of wind and water does things to me.
One night, I was on the beach in the dark. I was sixteen, and I was sad because of something that truly doesn’t matter now—though, back then it felt like the end of the world.
I felt overlooked by the universe, unexceptional, and unloved. They were feelings I couldn’t shake.
I was wondering why people act ugly toward each other. I was wondering if anything existed in the distance besides waves and foam.
That’s when I saw two shapes approaching.
Two elderly women were walking the shore, I could hear them laughing. They wore heavy jackets, wool caps, and carried backpacks. They were wiry, and athletic.
One woman was Puerto Rican, with white hair and a dark complexion. The other was from Australia. I will never forget them.
The women said they were traveling the world together on a shoestring budget. They had already visited four continents, walked hundreds of miles on foot, and relied on the kindness of strangers.
They had been sleeping in tents, riding in cabs, living out of backpacks, frequenting motels and hostels, and eating like royalty.
Then, both women sat next to me in the sand. One woman removed a hip flask. She asked if I wanted a sip.
“No thanks,” I said.
Not only was I sixteen, but I was Southern Baptist. And the last thing I’d been brought up to do was take a nip in front of a woman who favored Queen Elizabeth II.
But Aussies and Latinas are not like Americanos. They insisted. I took one sip. It burned my throat. They applauded me.
Afterward, I kept waiting for the Devil to pull up on a motorcycle and drag me off to Hell, kicking and screaming.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, we talked. They told me about their countries, I told them about myself.
And I found myself telling them a lot. My life story, actually—which wasn’t a very lengthy one back then.
While I spoke, the Puerto Rican scooted close to me, the Australian did, too. They placed arms around me, then pulled me tight. And I learned that some foreigners don’t respect personal space like most Americans do.
When I finished talking, we sat in silence for a little while, huddled together, watching a violet sky.
One, an elderly Australian. One from an Isla del Caribe. And one kid so cold his butcheeks were stuck together.
We were from different places on the globe, and we had different values. But that night we were the same. We were human, beneath our stars, and a moon we all share.
“I’m sorry I talked so much,” I told them. “I didn’t mean to carry on.”
“Well, I’m not sorry,” said the Australian. “Because now we’re not strangers anymore.”
The Australian reached into her coat pocket and gave me a small clay figurine that was painted multi colors.
“What’s this?” I said.
“I made it,” she said. “It’s good luck.”
So, I reached into my pocket for something to give in return. All I could find was an aluminum pop-top from a Coke can.
She laughed. “Thank you,” she said. “I’ll keep it forever.” She strung it onto a chain she wore around her neck.
“We should go,” the Puerto Rican woman announced. “We have a long way left to walk to our hotel.”
They each kissed me on the forehead. And soon they were gone. I saw them walk along the shoreline until they disappeared into the night.
From time to time I wonder about them. I wonder where they finally landed. I wonder if they know how good they made a kid feel by giving him the kindness of their attention.
Sometimes, I wonder if they were truly from Australia, and Puerto Rico, or from somewhere much, much further north. I don’t know.
So I might be a stranger to you, whoever you are. We might never meet in person before this life is over, but if you’ve read this far, we’re not strangers anymore. I want you to know that you are loved.
Please don’t tell my mother about the flask.