Something glinted among the corals. I raised my head to see if anyone might be searching for something. The others were kicking along placidly, their snorkels angled from their heads like tiny smokestacks. I took a breath and dove to get a closer look.
My eyes widened as it came more clearly into view, resting on a branching arm of pale yellow coral, its ends swaying faintly in the slight current. I looked left and right, almost guiltily, before lifting it gently and tucking it into my bikini at the left hip.
Back at the surface I held my breath, waiting for one of the women to cry out at the realization of her loss. But even after we all climbed back onto the tour boat, and plastic cups of rum punch were handed out, everyone just looked sunburned and bored.
I cleared my throat. “Did one of you lose something while you were snorkeling?”
A dozen wet faces looked at me, then at each other, and shrugged. A middle-aged man in a Hunter S. Thompson sun hat eyed me shrewdly. “Why, what did you find?”
I hesitated, then shrugged. “I thought I saw something. But maybe it was just a tin can.” I turned around to look for my towel, and soon the boat operator resumed his patter about Caribbean sea life.
A part of me was relieved no one came forward. The weight of the well-made piece was thrilling against my skin. But it was also a problem. I couldn’t simply pocket a find so valuable, and if the owner wasn’t on this boat she could be anywhere. Dozens of hotels spewed tourists into the coral gardens off the Turks and Caicos Islands every day.
In my hotel’s cheerful white lobby I asked the concierge, a dapper Cuban émigré, if anyone had lost a piece of jewelry. “No, Señorita Lauren,” he replied, his inflection skating between formal and suave as always. I tried a few more hotels, but the only hit I got was for an engagement ring thrown into the surf after a man got so blind drunk, he accidentally proposed to a passing cocktail waitress instead of to his girlfriend.
Back in my room I wrapped the object in a blue bandana and stuffed it into a pair of socks in my suitcase. Grabbing an oversized striped towel, I headed for the powder-white sand a few steps from my door to enjoy what was left of my last day of leisurely limbo. It was June, the sultry beginning of hurricane season, long after the last Spring Breakers had left. A friend had mentioned the off-season deal, and I’d jumped on it like a lifeboat.
A lifeboat I couldn’t afford, which would take me straight back to the doomed ship in less than thirty-six hours.
The beach was practically deserted. When I finally managed to flag down a passing attendant, I ordered two piña coladas—one for each hand, as they say—and watched great bulbous updraft clouds turn muted shades of pink and lavender as I downed the tropical drinks.
I ran a hand down a tanned leg to the anklet I’d been wearing for years, woven from threads I’d bought from Bedouin girls in the colors of the Sinai: dark blue like the sea, turquoise like the sandy-bottomed lagoons, white like the wavelets crashing against the reefs, and gold-brown like the desert mountains—a talisman of how beautiful life could be. It was ragged and faded now, which seemed appropriate. Conal had been with me on that trip, my best friend from my years of travel. I felt a pang of missing him. He’d be in New York soon for a journalism conference. But I felt ashamed for him to see me like this.
I stood too quickly and stumbled a few steps before striding into the warm, inviting sea. The sky languidly faded to moonless starry cobalt as I swam past the gentle breakers and into the swells, bobbing with the rhythm of the ocean. I looked through the greying clouds to see if I could spot any planets—a comforting ritual that was nearly impossible in New York City. Mars and Jupiter were high and bright, and I smiled at a memory of Celeste’s dad showing Ava and me the tiny pinprick moons of the giant planet through his backyard telescope. A moment of pure, simple joy and discovery.
As the waters darkened, I reluctantly swam back to shore.
In my room I unwrapped the find from the reef and took a closer look. The bracelet was delicately designed, its silvery metal twisted into entwining vines with a diamond set in the space between each twist. The stones refracted even the dull lights of the hotel room into glittering brilliance. I draped it over my wrist to see how it looked against my skin, and the ends came together as if joined by strong magnets. It fit perfectly. The edge of my mouth lifted. Jewelry was something I generally considered an expensive hassle. But this was a work of art.
New York’s subways are a forlorn place, I thought as I rode the interminable A train from JFK to my cramped apartment in Washington Heights, north of Harlem. It wasn’t just that they were such a rat-hole compared to the palatial Metro of Moscow, the charming trams of Istanbul, or the clean, efficient lines of Paris. The people also seemed depressed, with broken dreams and resignation written on their faces.
I trudged up four flights of grimy stairs, jammed the key in the door, and walked past my roommate Sara, who was washing a mountain of dishes in the closet-like kitchen.
“Hey,” I said shortly, the vibe of New York already washing away the modicum of relaxation I’d felt hours earlier.
“Hey, habibti!” Sara beamed over her shoulder, using an Arabic endearment. “How was the trip?”
She scoffed good-naturedly. “I don’t know which beach you ended up on. But remind me not to go there.”
I grunted a short laugh and continued on. In my tiny room with its ancient wood floors and Craigslist bed, desk, and office chair, I pulled the bracelet out of my backpack. I’d spent most of my last morning on the island calling every hotel on Grace Bay and trying to find the owner, with no luck. For the hundredth time I wondered who could have lost it. An image of an heiress on a yacht came to mind, her arms dripping with diamonds, a casual gesture flinging one of her baubles overboard unheeded. I put the bracelet on and admired it. I supposed it was mine now.
I didn’t really need to unpack. For a year I’d been living out of a suitcase, as if I might be called to bigger and better things at any moment. I opened my laptop to see if any agents had gotten back to me (nope) and to scan the news in the Middle East (more of the same). My glance shifted to the room’s only decoration, a collection of quotations taped to the wall.
One read: “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” —Theodore Roosevelt.
“Easy for you to say,” I muttered. “You were president of the United States.”
My eyes moved to the bookshelf, where half a dozen copies of my first book, Balkan Bruise, were lined up on the bottom shelf. Not long ago it had been a point of intense pride and shining hope. I’d scraped by for a few years after college with odd jobs and writing gigs—like George Orwell and Frank McCourt before me, I liked to think—traveling and following what I thought was my passion, always on the cusp of hitting zero and having to limp back home. When I sold the rights to Balkan Bruise for $40,000, it felt like a sign I was on the right path. It was such a thrill to see it in a major bookstore for the first time, lined up next to bestsellers and classics.
But sales had never really taken off, and then the next season’s books rolled in, and it was like my book dropped off the face of the earth. I knew this could happen if you weren’t lucky enough to break out and become a bestseller. But it was jarring to watch six years of life and work fade away like it had barely happened.
I shook it off and used the advance money to explore the Middle East for two years and pour every ounce of talent and heart I had into my second book, The Silver Olive Tree. I envisioned this more ambitious and elegant project catapulting me into middle age with a life of travel, royalties, and doing what I loved full-time.
But my publisher barely read it. Citing the first book’s poor sales, they cut me loose. My agent, blessed with a duo of bestsellers that required more attention than newborn twins, dumped me as well. Somehow I convinced myself it was only a minor setback and moved to New York to find a new agent and publisher. I waited tables and tutored private school kids in between going to conferences, workshops, and author events.
But nothing had worked. A few leads had raised high hopes, and more than one agent said it was great but not right for them. The literary equivalent of ‘It’s not you, it’s me.’ By now a year had passed. Maybe it was time to cut my losses.
I leaned back and closed the laptop in frustration. It was a common New York story anyway, bordering on cliché. Everyone chasing dreams of fame and glory, or at least a living and a little bit of esteem within a given community. Most would flame out or fade away sooner or later. Sara, whose parents were from Lebanon, wanted to be an actress. With her black ringlets, pale olive skin, and expressive blue eyes, I thought it would be a waste if her face was never on a movie poster. But when she finally got an audition, they’d tell her she didn’t look white enough to play a white girl and didn’t look Arab enough to play an Arab. For now she worked at a box office on Broadway.
But it wasn’t fame or money I was after, not really. It was purpose. And now I felt like I had none.
I sighed. I was also starving and not in the mood for beans and rice or an egg sandwich or any of the other cheap staples we lived on. I mused out loud, without thinking, “I wish we had a tiramisu in the fridge like the one I had at that little café in northwestern Italy. It was so humble, a mess of ingredients in a thick glass bowl. It looked terrible, actually. But then I bit into the first spoonful, and it was like… I can’t even describe it. Like eating love.”
There was no response from the kitchen, but I heard the faucet turn off.
“The mascarpone was probably made in the hills behind the village. I’m sure the waiter’s grandmother sifted the cocoa by hand.” I sighed deeply. “There’s just nothing like that around here.”
The sound of clinking glasses emanated from the kitchen. “How about a glass of Trader Joe’s finest Riesling instead?”
I set the laptop aside and picked myself up. “Sounds like a plan.”
I was a few steps from the kitchen when I heard a gasp.
“You’re going to share, right?”
I looked in at her. “Share what?”
She raised an eyebrow. “The dessert in our fridge. The one you were just describing.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, unsure what she was playing at.
She opened the refrigerator door wider, and I looked in. On the middle shelf sat an exact replica of the tiramisu I had enjoyed so thoroughly in the Cinque Terre, down to the heavy glass bowl. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
“Where did that come from?” I sputtered.
“You tell me,” she said and pulled the bowl out of the fridge. “Grab a couple of spoons.”
I did as I was told, feeling like a computer that had divided by zero.
She took a bite directly from the bowl. “Oh my God.” Her eyes fluttered. “You were right. This may be the best thing I’ve ever had in my mouth. Seriously, where did you get it?”
I was too tired for whatever this game was. I took a bite and was immediately transported to that carefree time at the beginning of my travels when the world seemed so rich and open, with broad and welcoming horizons, and I could be anything I wanted, just like they told me in grade school. I took another bite.
“Fine, don’t tell me,” Sara said, “I don’t really care.” She scooped half of it onto a plate, kissed the air in thanks, and scarpered to her room before I could say another word.
I took the rest to my room and felt more and more confused as I ate. It was truly perfect. How on earth could Sara have not only made such a transcendent dish when she could barely make toast without burning it, but also predict that I would have that random thought at exactly that moment? And if she could, why would she pretend she hadn’t? And if she hadn’t…?
Exhausted and irritable from the day’s travel, I didn’t feel like trying to wrestle the truth out of her, and the heavy dessert was making me even drowsier. I popped in my earplugs and fell asleep to the sound of my beating heart.
* * *
“Happy Birthday, Mom. Sorry I’m a little late…”
It was the next morning after a big breakfast of three eggs on a bagel to make up for having dessert for dinner the night before. I didn’t plan on telling her about my flagrantly escapist trip to the islands. It was an open question how I’d pay off that credit card bill, and I knew it was ridiculous. I didn’t need to hear it from her.
“Don’t worry about it. I would have forgot about it myself if Roxana hadn’t fixed me an apricot pie.”
Roxana never cooked, so it was quite a gesture. “How’d she do?”
Mom paused a moment too long. “Bless her heart…” she began, and I smirked. “It was really sweet.”
“Yeah, it’s the thought that counts.”
“No, I mean she put in four times as much sugar as she was supposed to.”
I laughed. “Well, it’s better than the time she overloaded the biscuits with baking soda.”
“Oh Lord, I almost forgot about that. I don’t think there’s anything sadder in the world than a whole pan of hot buttered biscuits in the trash.”
I sighed. I’d left Kansas with such big dreams. Right now, biscuits and apricot pie sounded better than anything I had going on.
“Anyway, what’s eating you? You sound kind of mopey.”
I raised my eyebrows at the phone. Mopey? You couldn’t say something dignified, like ‘depressed’ or ‘mired in existential despair’?
“I don’t know. I guess it’s been a year since I came to New York, and I’m not sure…”
“You don’t think you’ll ever get that book published?”
She sounded like she’d been expecting it, which felt like a subtle knife in the ribs. “I don’t know. I’m not sure what to do. Nothing seems to be working.”
“Well, that’s how it goes. I wanted to be an actress until I met your father.”
I closed my eyes slowly. Mom’s acting dreams had withered after she got pregnant at age nineteen—with me. I had killed her dreams and now mine were dying, too.
I opened my carved wooden jewelry box, a gift from a host family in Sarajevo, that held a few nostalgic treasures: a dog tag given to me by a Russian soldier I had kissed on a train; an amulet of carved bone from a Buddhist monastery in Siberia; a seashell from a valley in the Sahara proving it had been under the sea millions of years ago; and now the bracelet. I pulled out the latest addition and tilted it back and forth to catch the light.
“Anyway, there’s a party tonight. Some ritzy college reunion thing. Maybe I’ll meet someone there who can help me find a real job.”
I could almost hear Mom brighten at the thought.
* * *
I let my hair dry in large curlers, put on a little black dress I’d bought at a thrift store when I was in college, brushed on eyeliner, and finished with lip gloss and turquoise drop earrings. The dress was a size too big, and its shade of black didn’t quite match the lightly scuffed ballet flats I borrowed from Sara. The diamond bracelet looked absurdly out of place with that ensemble, but I doubted I’d have a better excuse to wear it for a while.
The party was at a private residence on Central Park West. The doorman pointed me to a gilded elevator, which opened into a spacious apartment on the fourteenth floor with a wall of windows overlooking the green trees of Central Park. The couches were cream-colored, the rugs lush with patterns of cream and beige. Abstract wire sculptures adorned large niches in the walls. The displays of wealth were so unimaginative I felt grateful not to live in the mind of the owner.
Bracing myself, I walked toward a group of alums. They all had that polished New York look with three-figure haircuts and dry-clean-only clothes. As they chatted with aspartame smiles, asking each other, “And what do you do?”, my mind drifted to another kind of gathering, a house party on a rooftop somewhere in the Mediterranean where the guests couldn’t possibly care less about anyone’s status or job title.
“Lauren!” I heard from the direction of the elevator. I turned and saw Anna, my freshman year roommate, saunter into the room. Effervescent, blonde, and originally from Manhattan, she was totally at ease at these types of gatherings. Currently she was working seventy-hour weeks at a consulting firm—whatever that was.
“Hi Anna,” I said, relieved to see a familiar face.
“How’s it going, world traveler?” she asked playfully.
My eye twitched involuntarily. “Where’s the wine?”
She hesitated, then smiled knowingly. “It looks like people are heading in that direction.” We followed them to the dining room, where bottles of Chardonnay were lined up like soldiers next to bottles of Zinfandel. Behind them lay an impressive spread of appetizers.
“Great,” I said, grabbing a bottle of Zin. “The only two kinds of wine I don’t like. I wish they had just one bottle of Cabernet.”
Anna blinked at me, her expression wavering between confusion and concern. “That’s a Cab, isn’t it?”
I looked at the bottle I was holding and blinked a few times.
“Lucky you,” Anna said. “I wish they had a Sauv Blanc, but oh well.” She poured herself a cup of the Chardonnay.
I was still peering at the bottle in my hand. “This was a Zinfandel when I picked it up, wasn’t it? The bottles were all the same.”
Anna looked at me for a moment, then dropped her voice. “You seem tense, honey. And I think you’ve lost weight. Are you OK?”
I sighed and gave her a run-down of what was going on in my life as I opened the lone Cabernet and filled a clear plastic cup.
Anna pursed her lips in a sympathetic frown, then perked up again. “Well, you can always write,” she said cheerfully. “As a hobby, I mean.”
I nodded at the helpful advice, downed the wine quickly, and poured another cup, then another.
I wasn’t exactly sure how I ended up back in my apartment sitting on the floor next to my bed. A few hours, I realized with some alarm, were missing. That hadn’t happened since college.
I stood up shakily, sat on the edge of the bed, and rested my forehead in my hand.
“God I wish I had a cup of coffee,” I muttered.
The scent of hot coffee filled the room and I slowly raised my eyes. A steaming white ceramic mug was sitting on the desk next to my laptop. I hadn’t noticed it when I came in. Had Sara left it for me? She was becoming a regular mind reader these days.
Suddenly a wave of nausea rolled over me, and I lunged for the wastebasket at the foot of the bed and heaved into it. The trash can had mesh sides, and my wine-stained offering began oozing out of it and onto the cracked hardwood floor.
Grimacing, I slurred, “Ugh, I wish I didn’t have to clean that tomorrow.”
The vomit vanished. I barely had time to register this before I hurled again.
I wiped my mouth. “I wish that pile of puke would go away, too.” It did, and I raised my eyebrows wanly. I’d never hallucinated while drinking. It was vaguely worrying, but I wasn’t in the right state of mind to worry very much.
Flopping onto the bed, I pulled off my clothes and lay my head on my cheap, squashed-flat pillow. “I wish my pillow was thicker,” I muttered, and felt it rise beneath my head like baking bread as I drifted off.
Thus begins an adventure that will take Lauren to Croatia, Switzerland, Beirut, the Sinai, and the depths and heights of the human spirit. I look forward to sharing it when it is completed.
Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.
~ George Bernard Shaw