For Part One click here (Reading time for Part 2 is 6 minutes and 19 seconds)
Conscious of the thin sea mist that was clinging to my body, I licked my lips, tasting a hint of salt. My big browns were taking in an exciting array of individuals walking around the boardwalk. Among the men, I could quickly ascertain who the soldiers were. They were the only men donning hair just shy of a crew cut. They would flock from Fort Bragg to the beach, hoping to meet women. The locals weren’t kind to these men who fought to keep us safe, but my father was a veteran and an active military man. So even though I didn’t like my abusive father, I respected his service to our Country.
Fayetteville, North Carolina was a city the military would regularly frequent, but it was now off-limits to them. Lots of prostitutes would hang out on Hay Street, and various strip joints lined the avenue as well. This area was known for providing a multitude of choices for the lonely. However, recently, news of stabbings in this vicinity prompted the military to restrict the enlisted from galavanting there. I felt sorry for these men serving their Country. Many were so far from home, living in base housing and missing female companionship. I would always have a soft spot in my heart for anyone who proudly served.
Who was I to judge what an individual did to alleviate their depression? Loneliness was like a tumor that could threaten one’s very existence. It was an affliction in which I also suffered. I didn’t dare make friends that might find out about the crazy environment in which I lived with my parents. It would have been far too humiliating. I was forced to live my young life in solitude full of dirty little secrets.
An assortment of smells was filling the air. The tempting aroma of fish and hushpuppies frying made me aware of how hungry I was. Another competing scent was originating from the sun worshipers that did not shower before hitting the boardwalk. Perspiration and coconut tanning lotion was permeating the air with a sensual smell. It was an earthy fragrance I found stimulating. It brought to mind young men with long hair; muscles likely worked on all winter and a swagger that would turn any girl’s head. These young men belonged to a sacred group. They were those known as the heroes of the beach.
Sitting all day on these ten-foot high white chairs watching over those that chose to swim in the ocean were these coveted men — the life-guards of the beachfront. I was afraid of the sea with its ferocious undertow and the occasional shark alert. After a near-drowning experience, I never went into the sea above my knees. I was too afraid. Besides, I had seen how these sea heroes spent most of their time checking out every girl within their visions reach — the oilier and wetter the better but not from swimming. Groupies would surround their thrones with their skimpy bikinis and long beach towels. Their taste was for the bold women with long blonde locks and big breasts, and unfortunately, that was not me. My look was more boyish, even with my long hair. My hips were non-existent, and my chest was small, even with the help of the thick pads in the bikini top I wore.
Suddenly my stare was altered by a loud clapping sound. I could see a couple on the sand outside a restaurant dancing so close that it was as if their bodies were one. Flesh intertwined with flesh as they were moving seductively while all the other dancers ceased to dance. Instead, all eyes were on this couple now. Even the waitresses had stopped serving their tables momentarily. The couple’s bodies were beautiful, and their faces equally pleasing to any discerning eye. It was the magic they created with their exotic and seductive motions that stunned this crowd. It was an unexpected appetizer the restaurant was serving up, and all were partaking in this stimulating visual.
Without even realizing it, I found myself sitting close to this very dance floor and watching the rest of the couple’s performance. When the dance was over, every man in the eatery was staring at this woman. I was guessing that she had successfully aroused them all.
I ordered a coke and a basket of hushpuppies made with garlic and onions and waited for the next song to play, knowing what I was planning to do. I had always wanted to be a dancer when I was little, and I practiced a lot of creative dance for years. I became a proficient dancer by teaching myself watching graceful ballerinas on television. When the music came back on, I would dance by myself. Groups of women dancing together or a lone woman on the dance floor wasn’t an unusual sight. I loved to dance, so that is what I told myself I would do, and I did.
Letting the jazz music feed my body’s rhythm and moving gracefully, I lost myself in the beauty of dance. Everything had a way of disappearing or shifting when I danced. I could feel myself floating gently on my bare feet, and all my worries vanished. Many of my lonesome evenings were spent dancing in the basement to my favorite music.
When the song was over, I sat down, and it was just a few moments before I noticed a young man staring at me. He sent over a drink with my waitress and asked if he could join me. I told her to tell him, yes, but to send the glass back as I didn’t drink. She did as I asked.
The next song had started, and I was hungry, so I began to eat my hushpuppies when I heard the chair at my small round table moving. I looked up and saw this young man up close. He was beautiful, not in the way the dancers were, but his face captured such character. His jawline was defined, strong, and he had an interesting scar that cut his right brow in half. He also had a rather large nose for the size of his face. His bright green eyes were staring at me now as I asked him to help himself to a chair. I heard my laughter as I spoke the words.
He was in the Navy, and his ship was in port in Wilmington, and he was on a twenty-four-hour shore-leave. When I asked him where his family was, he told me they were all gone. He was an only child and his parents had been killed in an accident. For him, it had seemed like a reasonable time for joining up as he had no place to go. His story made me sad, but I sensed a strength in him, the same kind that one obtains from growing up faster than one should ever have to.
We spoke of loneliness and hard times, and I was honest with him about my age. He didn’t mind as I assumed he understood by talking to me that I was already an old soul at the age of sixteen. Before I knew it, the music had stopped, and this sailor and I had spent four hours talking to one another. We had barely taken time to breathe in between our sentences. I saw what this man’s heart held, and it was kindness.
When I told him I needed to get back home, he insisted on walking me back, but I told him no. With him, my feelings and thoughts had come pouring from my mouth, unfiltered, and unchecked. Raw was my honesty with this stranger on this summer night. I shared how attractive I found him to be and how miserable I was but that there was no future for the two of us. I explained how horrible my home life was and that I was ashamed to take anyone there.
Talking about the unreal experience of losing his parents so quickly couldn’t have been easy for him. We both talked about our faith and how we found our strength in God. I felt like we were two souls that were meant to have this time with one another.
He took my hand and asked if he could kiss me, and I told him that it would be nice. He placed a sweet and tender kiss on my forehead and said to me that he would be back someday when I would be older, and he would search for me. Then he rose from the table and smiled at me with those gorgeous green eyes and walked out the open side of the restaurant. I watched him disappear into the misty evening.
On the way home, I was quiet and full of thoughts about my experience this night. I felt blessed to have run into this stranger. God had brought us together because we both needed someone to listen to our stories and share in our sadness and pain. We were able to do that for one another when we each needed it so dreadfully. We also shared hope for the futures we might have. For if we could make such a connection with one another in such a brief evening, anything seemed possible.
I never saw him, my lonely sailor, again, but when I walked on the boardwalk or visited the open restaurants from time to time, I always searched for him amongst the crowd.
By Joni Caggiano 11/26/19