by Jane E. Hoppe

I wonder where the wonder went, thought Deanna, as she stared at the fat, snow-white seagull. They grow their gulls huge here, she noted absently. Other than that observation, this gull looked like every other gull she’d ever seen. Ho hum. Today’s boredom seemed different somehow than the flat fact she’d learned long ago, that you can take only so many seagull and crashing-wave snapshots. Am I just getting old? Have I been on one too many beach vacations?

She plopped down on the cleanest spot she could find on the weatherworn wooden bench. Not yet crowded, the wharf would be a good place to let her mind meander through the mysteries of her current malaise. The early morning sun was warm, the air calm. Back on the sand, a beachcomber lazily lingered, bent over potential treasures. In the quiet, a few artists had set up their easels and canvases for the perspectives they wanted to paint. Even the normally rambunctious, roaring Pacific just lollygagged beneath the wharf.

Was this vacation just déjà vu? No, she decided. Deep inside this boredom was buried a warning buzzer. The big fat gull cocked its head quizzically in her direction. Seeing no food forthcoming from Deanna’s fingers, it flew off to a more promising perch. Deanna didn’t want to fly home without finding answers, or at least identifying the warning buzzer. Giving up on this quest too easily would condemn her to the life of that gull, flitting from piling to piling in search of scraps.

A few hours of reflection before her flight home would serve her well. Julian was in town shooting his last few exposures of bright pastel stucco buildings, so she’d have some time alone to think. Bright pastel . . . until this trip, she would have considered that an oxymoron. But she could see them from the wharf—rows of villas gaily painted in rich colors and whimsically decorated. One was raspberry stucco with aqua curlicues above royal blue awnings; the next was aqua stucco accented with cobalt tiles; a peach-colored house had fanciful fuchsia fishes sculpted above a delft blue doorway. There was a spontaneity, a childlike playfulness, an uninhibited joy about them. Their freshness was enhanced by nearby clumps of elegant pure-white calla lilies glistening with morning dew.

That’s what I was hoping this marriage to Julian would be like, Deanna mused, realizing her mind had just stumbled into the very danger zone she needed to explore. It disturbed her that the sparkle of their honeymoon a mere five months ago had been greatly tarnished on this trip. As this week had progressed, she’d become more and more frightened that the rest of their marriage would be this boring. There. She’d identified the warning buzzer. It wasn’t what they had done during this vacation week that was troubling, but how she and Julian had related. The problem wasn’t one too many seagulls. It was too few engaging conversations. Too few of the electrifying soul-connections they used to make. Not enough sense of adventure. And too few evidences of the partnership she’d hoped for.

Ah, unfulfilled expectations . . . that old, disagreeable friend of hers. The disappointments of her first marriage reared their ugly heads, like the persistent, grumbling demons that they were. No wonder her current discomfort felt familiar. It had been 14 long, lonely years since her divorce. But the loneliness of singleness had not been as painful as the loneliness of marriage. The new marriage had promised the loving companionship she’d missed. In courtship, Julian had been completely different from her first husband. Now here was that pesky marriage loneliness again.

Although she wished Julian would change, she’d been down that dead-end street before. Changing Julian was not the answer. Changing herself, or her thinking, or something, was. But what—and how? She left the bench and strolled to the end of the pier. Elbow on a piling, chin in her hand, Deanna lost herself in the spectacle before her. A few enterprising gulls dropped clams on the rocks to break them open for food. Families of seals basked lazily on shiny, black rocks. Occasionally, one raised its whiskered nose and slid into the ocean to dive for food. Where the seals were finding fish, gulls circled overhead.

Deanna’s mind drifted to a water cooler conversation she’d had with her coworker Jeanne, whose very soul always seemed so well-fed that she didn’t spend much time wishing her marriage were different. When she’d asked Jeanne about her level of marital contentment, she’d explained that remembering Jesus’ unconditional love for her had given her the freedom to accept her husband as he was—in the areas where he met her needs, as well as in the areas where he disappointed her. “If Jesus’ other name is Love, His middle name is Freedom,” Jeanne had said, beaming. Deanna remembered wondering if Jeanne had been beaming with the sheer relief of the concept or the pleasure of her clever wordplay. Well, thought Deanna, don’t I completely accept Julian? Once again, she sank into her mental list of his shortcomings.

Her reverie was interrupted by a family drama nearby. “Honey, you have to unload your pockets.” Deanna looked toward the young sunburnt dad explaining gently to his reluctant curly-haired toddler, whose chubby knees were still sandy from the beach, that he didn’t want to see her struggle so hard to walk. Deanna saw stubbornness in the little cherub’s jaw, then sadness in her eyes, as she obediently drew one treasure after another from her pink corduroy overalls. Finally, her bulging pockets fell flat. Then she sheepishly dug into rolled-up pant cuffs and pulled out some stones and pine cones and a red and white fishing bobber that her little fingers could barely grasp. Deanna had to smile. No wonder the child had been waddling precariously!

As the little one reached for her father’s hand and skipped beside him back down the pier, Deanna was curious to know what this child had found pretty enough to pick up. She wandered over to the treasures remaining on the wharf after a few had plunked through the cracks into the water below. Seven lavender and rose scallops, one chestnut cowry, a purple olive shell, a smooth pebble of polished cobalt glass, a gull feather, a small grayish sand dollar, a pearly angel wing, two iridescent midnight-blue mussels . . . the little girl definitely had an eye for pretty things. She must have gone to the same beachcombing school Deanna had gone to. But wait. Something was different. These were just broken pieces.

Deanna knew the names of these shells only because she had seen them whole and read their names in books. In all her years of beachcombing, she wouldn’t even waste the energy to bend down to pick up a seashell if it wasn’t whole. In the little girl’s treasure pile, however, not a single shell was whole. Likely those innocent blue eyes had never seen a complete clam or live scallop or even the Shell gasoline logo. For that matter, Deanna had never seen the perfect marriage she grumbled about not having. If childlike wisdom sees beauty in imperfection . . . if she changed to become more like a child in this way . . . Maybe to bring the wonder back to her marriage, she could leave a few expectations on that pier herself.

“Hey there. I’m glad I found you. It’s almost time to fly home.” Julian kissed her gently, then smiled. He looked different. Beautiful.
“Just a second.” She bent down and picked up a small scallop shard and the gull feather to tape in her prayer journal. With those reminders in one hand and Julian’s warm hand in her other, she smiled—and even skipped a little as they walked together toward shore.

© 2007 Jane E. Hoppe