With the unpleasantness over his most recent spat with his folks still looming over the pitched roof of their 4-bedroom colonial, Riley Holland went for a walk along the water. While the trek on the sand was his usual escape from his parents’ house, that day he took a different route. The rising tide forced him to turn left at the end of the family’s stairs down to the beach instead of the right that he had taken since his formative years, but while the bleak, gray shoreline scenery was much of the same in this new destination, the journey was much different.
Perhaps it was the new direction, but as Riley looked out over his right shoulder into the somber expanse without a demarcation between land, sea, and sky, a feeling of relief washed over him as he finally realized the past actions of his vacillating stance toward his own education and his life were, at least for now, no longer the subject of other people’s obsessions. He couldn’t quite understand it, and definitely couldn’t explain it, but something changed on that stretch of sand. For the first time in his life, he felt he no longer had to explain himself to judging relatives, inquisitive counselors, and disappointed interviewers. For that brief moment, Riley was the only soul in the universe, the ground that he stood on was the only land, and his meandering path along the water was the only one that mattered. Riley stood up straighter, rolled up the sleeves of his L.L. Bean sweater, and confidently walked on.
This experience was quite new for Riley, who had previously gone through life with only a vague idea of what it meant to have purpose. People kept telling him how much he needed it, but that never really mattered to him. Riley was content with drifting through life. But, even though he didn’t quite know exactly what he was supposed to do with this newfound sensibility, he knew that he liked it.
He picked up a pebble, and casually flipped it into the stagnant water, watching its effect echo in concentric circles out into the unknown. He never knew why he tossed the pebble, but it seemed like that right thing to do at the time. Later it would prove to be the only concrete action of his time experiencing his own absolute.
After that, Riley continued his parade along the sand, self-assuredly walking along the shoreline for what seemed like a lifetime. During that quick stroll he thought about his future in a way that would have satisfied even the harshest of his critics.
But amid that lifetime of decision-making, Riley came across a sight that shook whatever feeling he had just discovered.
The woman, standing alone at the edge of the rocks, stared into the ocean as if she knew all the secrets that silence holds. For the brief spell that he saw her, the nameless woman was more than just a solitary figure, and was more than just the most beautiful woman he had ever seen; she was the shattering of the ideal that he had just found. Seeing her standing there, he knew none of what he had just found in himself really mattered. She was a goal that he knew he could never achieve, a beauty that he would never be able to create, a perfection that he could never reach,
When he walked past her, she turned and acknowledged him with a knowing smile that broke through all his doubts and convictions, all his confidences and insecurities, and reached a place that he never knew he had. Riley immediately realized he was not the only soul in the universe, and that the woman he saw would forever occupy a larger part in his world than he himself ever could. His ideal of confidence and purpose was lost forever and would never be found again.
Even as he walked away from her, Riley knew he would never forget this woman; even silently and from afar he could tell that this beautifully solitary creature was not like anyone else. With just one look, a connection was so deftly formed, and a solitude that was so wonderfully broken would be the lasting effects of this woman he would never be able to get out of his head.
Maybe it was his newly found and lost confidence that scared him away, or maybe it was the fear that gaining and losing this woman would take him to a place in himself from which he could never recover, but he did not stop walking. When he finally mustered the courage to decide to turn and look back at her, she was gone. The rising tide had engulfed the rocks that she stood on. All he could see was the ripples from his pebble, and he watched them fade away until the ocean was once again a glassy, flat depression. His memory was the only proof that she was ever there.
Riley would continue to turn left every time he reached the end of his family’s steps and would walk out to the end of the newly rebuilt pier and pray he would be able to catch a second glimpse of the unknown woman. But despite his hopes, he would never have the same experience he had that one fall afternoon. He had lost that person, lost that feeling, and would never be the same as he was during that walk along the shoreline.