The first time I meet Daniel*, he’s wearing a pair of board shorts and not much else.
I am 21, about to go into my senior year of college, and I have just flown north from New York to visit my folks at their seaside summer place before heading back to the city for school. He, on the other hand, is a few years older, a carpenter who at this moment happens to be touching up the trim on the stairs between my bedroom and the kitchen.
I am also horribly, HORRIBLY ill.
After spending a week unsuccessfully fighting off whatever demon spawn summer cold/flu monstrosity I had contracted, the previous day had been spent on an airplane with my head feeling like it was about to explode. As soon as my dad picked me up, he had driven me straight to the doctor, where I spent an ungodly amount of time waiting before they finally gave me an antibiotic to blast the thing out of my system. I subsequently went to bed ridiculously early and slept like the proverbial dead for roughly 16 hours; feeling marginally better upon waking, I had managed to haul myself out of bed, shower, and get dressed. It is after this that I run into Daniel.
Even though I am slightly less zombie-like than I was the day before, though, this isn’t exactly the ideal time to stumble across an attractive (and shirtless) 20-something at the foot of ones’ stairs. I mumble, “Uh… hi”—or something equally inane—as I and my foggy brain head upstairs to forage for some breakfast. Apparently I make some sort of impression, though, because a few days later, our doorbell rings in the early evening. It’s Daniel, and after we exchanged a few pleasantries, he asks me if I’d like to go to dinner with him the following evening. Sure, I say; why not? He seems like a nice enough lad, and my mum thinks the whole thing is adorable.
The date gets off to a rocky start; to say that he’s a little late picking me up would be putting it mildly. I’m not exactly pressed for time, though, and given how unexpected the whole thing is in the first place, I’m fine simply rolling with it. Dinner passes somewhat uneventfully, as does the drink we follow it up with. Daniel has smoked several cigarettes over the course of the evening due to nerves; I hope I’m not THAT intimidating, but at the same time, I realize that he is significantly more reserved than I am, and that he went quite far out of his comfort zone just to ask me out in the first place.
It’s when we decide what to do after the drink that something a little bit magical happens: I point out that the beach is brilliant at night, and that the footpath that leads to it is right across the street. So we veer off the main road, dodging the traffic, and head to the sand.
Maybe it’s the dark, but he seems to have less trouble talking out here than in the inside glow of the restaurant. In the light, he blushes, smiles awkwardly, and looks downward—in that order—as an automatic response sequence when he gets nervous. Out here, though, by the moonlit ocean, he’s more relaxed. Though he sometimes trails off and often punctuates his speech with the phrase “I don’t really know what I’m saying,” I tell him that it’s okay, that sometimes it’s best to just let your mouth run with it. He laughs, and we take our shoes off and let the icy cold water wash over our toes.
Then he surprises me by saying, “Let’s build a sand castle.”
It’s a surprise because he’s a rather sedate fellow who doesn’t seem given to frivolity. Perhaps my sense of the whimsical has emerged more than I intended it to tonight, and he’s latched onto it; perhaps he’s taken his cue from a story I told about being traumatized by the ocean as a two-year-old, an incident that led to years of refusing to do anything at the beach other than build sand castles; or perhaps it’s something entirely different. Whatever the inspiration, I think it’s a fantastic idea. “So, then, if we’re building a castle, what should the main compound be, round or square?” I ask.
He draws a rough plan in the sand. “I think maybe a square base, building up into a pyramid,” he says.
“And turrets,” I add. “We’ve got to have some turrets. Watchtowers and such.”
And so we build out pyramid-shaped compound and add some creatively skewed battlements, occasionally zipping down closer to the water for damp sand. One of my towers falls to pieces. “I suck at this game,” I laugh.
“Nah, you’re doing fine,” he smiles as he skillfully crafts an observatory at the top of his own tower. “You know, I never thought I’d be building a sand castle. I haven’t done that in ages.”
“Well, now you can say that you built one tonight!”
A brief moment of silence; then I wonder where the door should be. He says jokingly, “No door.”
“Find your own way in?”
But then he relents, knowing that a fortress isn’t much fun if there’s no way in or out, so we decide to position the door so it faces the sea. “We should build an archway,” he suggests. “The trick,” he says as we build up each side, “is to meet exactly in the middle, so that it’ll stay up.” It collapses once or twice, but eventually, we make it work.
“Oh, we are good,” I say.
After a failed attempt to build a snowman on the apex of the pyramid, we settle on building a wall around the fortress that joins with either side of the archway and dig an avenue leading out from the entrance. Then we stand back to admire our handiwork. “Now that,” I say, gesturing at the fortress emphatically, “is a work of art.”
“Sure is,” he says, and grins.
I turn a cartwheel, just because.
We spend some time exploring further up the beach, leaping several fences and trampling through the brush to find out what lies on the other side of the sand dunes before heading back the way we came. As the lights of civilization grow near, he suddenly smiles as he comes to a realization: “I haven’t had a cigarette in a long time,” he says.
That means his nerves have calmed down.
I smile back. “Well… good.”
Ultimately nothing comes of it—we are simply too different, and that path I have carved out for myself makes it highly unlikely that I will ever find myself relocating so far north. Still, it is one of those summer memories, perfect in its imperfection, that I keep stored away in the back of my mind for those days when I feel the world has lost some of its magic. The thought of a sand castle without a door built by the light of the moon is enough to bring a little of that magic back.
Everyone should have a memory like that.
*Name has been changed.
Image source-“Polzeath sandcastle 1” by Captain Mish on Flickr