There was a bottle in the water. I noticed it first as a light movement out of the corner of my eye. I had been staring off across the water as I was apt to do, with my hands resting lightly on the pier railing and my right knee leaning into the perpendicular pole. At first I had tried to ignore it, but it hung as a question in my periphery, interrupting my reverie. Angry, I re-focused my gaze and looked straight at the movement. It was a bottle, moving up and down with the ebb and flow of the tide. I was intrigued. I needed to rescue it.
Five minutes later, the man who had frantically reached out his arm while holding fast to a supporting pole on the pier was vigorously rubbing my soaking wet back, cursing quietly while asking me loudly if I was okay. I cradled the bottle and fought the urge to shake myself like a wet dog, which would no doubt incense him further. Had he saved me? The water was cold, but I probably could have made it on my own. I don’t know if he was a hindrance or a saint to risk his moment of peace that I had shattered when I dropped unceremoniously into the sea.
“This is an opportunity,” I stated simply, not knowing if I meant the bottle or the new connection between the two of us.
“Bottles need wine,” he replied. “Empty bottles mean nothing but endings.”
“It felt like a message somehow,” I said, looking at him for the first time. His hair needed work, but his jaw was solid and his eyes were the right shade of green.
“You want empty bottles in the ocean?” he asked in a way that was more of a statement. “There are thousands, no probably millions of them. Thrown there by rotters and those that don’t give a damn. I’ve heard there’s actually a mass a mile long, somewhere we avoid, where bottles mingle in a great convention with the rest of life’s detritus.”
“Here,” he continued, thrusting out a pen. “Write your own message. I’m sure I have something you can write it on somewhere.” He rustled through his jacket and his pants pockets and then offered me an empty gum wrapper. As he unfolded his body to stand, I was forced to put my hand up to shade the glare from the sun that shone around him. He was tall. I was not.
For the second time in the space of minutes, he held out his hand to me, though this time I hesitated before taking it. Awkwardness began to seep in. I still had the green glass bottle gripped in my left hand, and the pen and wrapper in my right. When I clasped the offered hand, the pen was crushed between our palms, painfully. He had the grace not to wince.
Now standing, I pulled my hand out of his grip, letting the pen drop between us.
“If only I’d done that first,” I said, shaking the pain from my palm. Water sluiced from my sleeve as I shook, splattering on him and others unlucky enough to be walking by me.
“If only,” he agreed, half-smiling. He bent down to get the pen, which was probably already ruined by the damp circle around me.
Suddenly, I felt cold, and stupid. Chasing after garbage wasn’t my usual daily routine.
The truth was, I had started to look for signs. Somehow, somewhere along the way, I’d become someone who didn’t quite feel like me. “We all erect constructs of ourselves,” I could hear my mom, an English teacher her whole life, infatuated with Shakespeare but carrying on a clandestine love affair with Joyce, saying to me with lips pursed and eyebrows arched, as if wondering how this apple had fallen so far from her tree.
I hadn’t even realized what I was building all of those times I’d walked the path and chosen the left or the right. If choices are opportunities, and opportunities open doors, then decisions turn those doors into walls through which you can never walk again. I’d strayed from my path without even knowing it.
Hence, the signs. With the realization that control of my life had taken me to the wrong place came the decision that letting somebody else take over would get me back where I belonged. Crazy Charlotte, right? But yet, why not? Isn’t the whole basis of religion that you live your life with the belief that somebody up there is judging your every move, so you should make sure you match your moves—and your thoughts because he’s that powerful—to those that would be approved by that higher power? How is that any different than letting signs tell you how to act (though I’ll keep my thoughts for my own, thank you very much)?
Subtlety has to be the name of the game, though. Like the parting of the Red Sea, miracles would be signs for all; but I was looking for personal signs. A message in a bottle seemed just about perfect. And at that moment, I hadn’t been looking for it at all.
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